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A look at writing lesson structures

It can be difficult to adjust your mindset from systems to skills in the language classroom. “Traditional” General English and its course books revolve around grammar and vocabulary over skills teaching. Not only this, but the CELTA and other pre-service training programmes provide the opportunity for trainees to run through systems lessons exclusively, meaning that skills teaching is an almost completely un-encountered mystery until a teacher gets extra training, or decides to take on a higher-level qualification. Therefore, when you’re presented with a skills-only class, like an elective or an exam class, it can be difficult to know what to do differently. What I’ve found in my experience, is that this results in teachers doing the dreaded AAA (activity, activity, activity…) lesson structure!

What I’ve done here is outline a few different structures for a writing skills class. This could be IELTS, general English or ESP. The four structures are product, process, process genre (kind of a mixture of the first two) and then a task-based learning lesson structure. Obviously, the first three are specifically for writing classes, but TBL can be used for any skills class. I’ve also put a couple of benefits / drawbacks at the end of each structure. In the next couple of days, I’ll be posting a lesson plan for a product writing, and I’ll follow suit with the others over the coming month. As always, feel free to comment on or query anything.

Here’s the link to the word document:

Writing Lesson Structures

 

Simon

 

 

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Lesson Structures for teachers

I created this recently, for new teachers at my school. Hopefully this will serve to help newer teachers familiarise themselves with skills teaching, and for more experienced teachers to get a bit of revision!

Note – where the post says “à”, it’s where there was a directional arrow –> to show step by step progression through a class, but it didn’t paste well from the original Word document.

 

Possible Lesson Structures

Systems (Vocabulary, Grammar, Discourse, Pronunciation) Classes

  • PPP

Warmer à “Presentation” (language focus – part elicited, part given)à Practice (controlled) à Production (Freer)

  • I only use this for Elem / Low Pre-Int, because the target language isn’t being drawn out of context – just being presented.

 

  • ESA

Warmer à Engage (effectively, this is where the warmer leads to a slightly extended discussion around a topic, which can then be formalised through text or presentation, so that students gradually start to focus on specific target language) à Study (language focus and controlled practice) à Activate (produce)

  • This is similar to PPP, but with an elongated opening couple of sections. It could also be similar to language from a text, as you could introduce text in the engage stage.
  • You might not have studied this if you did a CELTA – it’s part of the syllabus for the trinity TESOL.

 

  • TTT

Warmer à Test existing knowledge (this could be through a task rather than a formalised “test”) àTeach (language focus, so covering meaning, pronunciation and form) à Test (again, this could be a test or just a productive activity)

  • Obviously, the danger is the students all perform fantastically on the first test stage, rendering the rest of the lesson a bit pointless, so be careful with pitching!
  • The idea is that students perform better in the final stage than in the first stage, due to the language focus. Often, you can add a “meta-cognitive” stage at the end of your lesson. All this means is that you ask them to acknowledge what they’ve learnt, and evaluate their own performance in terms of improvement within the lesson.

 

  • Language From a Text (Inductive)

Warmer à Text / “Language Vehicle” (so there is a reading or listening in some format, with gist / detail comprehension tasks, and the final task is for students to identify and underline specific examples of language in prep for your language focus stage) àLanguage Focus (board the examples they find and do MFP from them) à Practice (controlled) à Produce (freer)

  • This is often the course book approach – don’t make the mistake of seeing a listening / reading and thinking “this is a listening / reading lesson” – if the goal is systematic (vocab, grammar, discourse, pron) then the lesson is a systems lesson. This means not spending too long with the text / language vehicle stage
  • I think that this is by far the most effective way to teach systems, because students view and identify language in context throughout

Skills (Reading, Speaking, Listening, Writing) lessons

For skills lessons, the final part of the lesson (the goal) is for the students to be performing the skill in a more effective way than they were at the start of the lesson, whereas a systems lesson simply helps the students to put new language in to context. So, a skills lesson should end with extended reading, speaking, listening or writing (followed by a feedback stage at the end). With receptive skills (reading / listening), there isn’t a need for a controlled practice stage, and this is often (although not always) the case with productive skills (writing / speaking).

  • Task-Based Approach

Similar to a TTT lesson, but focussing on skills instead of systems.

Warmer / Activate Schemata à Task (practising the skill) à Feedback and language input (either pre-prepared, or from the errors you have noticed) à Task (practising the skill in a similar context – students do it better this time because of the language input)

How does this work with receptive skills?

With skills lessons, you’re trying to help students improve the actual mechanics of the skill. With speaking / writing, this is pretty clear, but with reading / listening, it can be more difficult to understand how students can develop. Here are some ways:

  • Skimming for gist / scanning for detail (reading)
  • Taking notes (listening)
  • Inferring meaning from context (reading / listening)
  • Summarising (reading / listening)
  • Answering specific exam tasks – eg. True / False / Not Given (reading / listening)

This means that the “input” section of a task-based lesson needs to provide students with techniques to help them improve these skills. Generally, this is done by leading the students through the actual process of the skill step by step – in a controlled way. It may be that they are simply getting the mechanics wrong. For example, a lot of students will be scan-reading by reading normally, but quickly, rather than looking up or down / side to side on the page. We can improve this! Here are a couple of lessons that work well.

  1. Reading – inferring meaning from context

Task – Students read a text with some questions focussing directly on the meaning of individual words. Teacher goes through the process of getting answers as per normal and then asks students for their techniques on getting the meaning of these words.

Input – Teacher gets a couple of examples up on the board in context, and gets students to point out linguistic / meaning clues from the context – focussing on tense to help with time concepts, adjectives/  verbs or collocations, and then gives students the chance to do a couple more in isolation, in pairs.

Task – A further reading text with meaning-based questions. I’ve often done this and put made-up words in the text for a bit of fun. Students are now focussing on the mechanics of the task, and should perform better. Ask them at the end! (When students reflect on their learning and perceive their improvement within a class, this is called meta-cognition – it’s very motivating).

  1. Listening – “Dictogloss” (note-taking skills)

Warmer / Activate Schemata à Gist – students listen to a short audio / read text, simply for gist. Notes à Students listen again and take notes, with the objective of a future complete textual reconstruction. They can compare in pairs, and the teacher can do a second repeat. Input à Once the text has been constructed, teacher focusses on note-taking. You could look at structure, organisation, or simply the words that they are noting down (grammar is not necessary, as it can be filled in retrospectively, and students may be unaware of abbreviations, for example) Listening 2 à Students do another dictation / reconstruction, using the skills that have been focussed on.

Productive Skills

With speaking, a task-based approach works very well, but there are a few variations.

  1. A transactional speaking class

This is a class where students are focussing on specific purposes for speaking, in which there are social conventions, “scripts” (things that the English listener would expect to hear) and a definite goal (the successful transaction).

Situations: In a bank, in a train station, in a restaurant etc…

Areas to focus on: Slang terms they might here, making formal / semi-formal requests, situation-based vocab – these would all form part of the input section. This is almost vocab / grammar input in to a skills class, so there is room for a traditional “systems-style” language focus / controlled practice if necessary

  1. An interactional speaking class

In this kind of class, students are looking at the skill of speaking, as a tool for general interaction. So here, the skills are slightly different. You could look at some of the following:

  • Interruption (how to signal that you would like to interrupt)
  • Agreeing / disagreeing / suggesting etc. (language points)
  • Redundancy (how to use redundant language to improve fluency – “I mean…” “like”, “y’know” etc.
  • Circumlocution (how to explain something when you’ve forgotten a word)
  • Expressing interest (how not to appear bored)

Etc…

 

 

Writing

With writing, there are two good lesson structures that work, especially with academic writing.

  1. Product writing – this is a writing lesson where students focus on a linguistic convention that will aid their writing, so this will include a controlled practice
  2. Process writing – this is where students are focussing on the actual process of writing (brainstorming, drafting, editing etc)

You can have a look at simple stage explanations for these here: http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/product-process-writing-a-comparison

What else?

Thinking specifically about reacting and responding to student errors, something to consider is Dogme.

Dogme gets a lot of criticism from people as laziness, but if done and prepared in the right way, students react really well to it, as it is a class that looks at errors made on the spot. Dogme is generally thought of as unplanned teaching, but this isn’t actually the case. It is going in to class with a clear lesson structure, as per normal, but with no language point as yet. The language point will become apparent at the beginning of the class. Here’s how:

  • The start of the lesson is either a general chat, or students pick a topic from a list for discussion
  • As the students are discussing (this works in pairs, with rotations), the teacher monitors and lists errors
  • Errors are boarded, and the teacher does an on-the-spot language focus
  • Controlled practice is either done live (teacher starts writing examples and the students start working on them as soon as they can see a first, completed one), or students repeat task 2 while teacher pops downstairs to copy some language-specific resources
  • Students repeat similar speaking task, focussing on linguistic accuracy. Again, teacher monitors and boards errors.

Another way to incorporate language focus is outlined by Ken Lackman here: https://www.etprofessional.com/cat_a_framework_for_dogme_83068.aspx

Dogme with receptive skills lessons / lessons that use a text

Again, the discussion part of the lesson at the beginning is necessary – this is how Dogme lessons traditionally start. Here though, the teacher starts stage 2 with a live listening (teacher tells a story on topic, with no preparation, and goes through gist, detail and language focus based on what they’ve said), or uses an app such as Zite to download and print a text based on the topic the students have been discussing, which students then do gist / detail tasks on, and then mine for vocab / grammar.

Obviously, these kinds of lessons require confidence and a lot of on-the-spot thinking on behalf of the teacher. They should also be used sparingly – I tend to go for 1 or 2 a week. However, with practice, they can become extremely effective strings to a teacher’s bow.

Demand High

Based on general best practices with regards to classroom management, and taking a lot of its ideas from The Silent Way, Demand High is basically a list of techniques you can use within the classroom to make sure that the level of challenge is kept high for all students. This is particularly useful when dealing with classes with a mix of level (so, most classes!) This includes:

  • Delaying acknowledgement of correct answers
  • Silent teaching
  • Demanding more from all student interactions (this is particularly useful for higher level students – if they offer an answer, was the answer delivered with perfect grammar? Can they repeat an answer another student gave? Can they say it again with better pron / using a synonym / using the past instead of the present?)
  • Student teaching (delegate ICQs / parts of the language focus to students)
  • One to one teaching within a group
  • And many more!

You can learn more about Demand High on the website here: https://demandhighelt.wordpress.com/

And read my own research paper on Demand High teaching here:
https://demandhighelt.wordpress.com/2013/04/03/demand-high-a-delta-experimental-practice-simon-richardson/
As always, feel free to contact me if you have any questions / comments! 🙂

 

Simon

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Learning in Chunks – just a question of lexis?

It is not exactly revolutionary of me to mention the word “chunk” within the subject of ELT. It has been long established that vocabulary needs to be presented less as individual discrete items, but horizontally, so as to include and acknowledge collocation. Words are indeed the key to communicative language, but prepositions, adjective / noun or noun / verb combinations, and high-frequency connections are the glue that holds it together. Without these things, it is impossible to achieve any real level of productive fluency. None of this is in debate.

There is a particular part of this that is starting to interest me, though. It isn’t the fact that we ought to draw attention to collocation, or words “in chunks” though. It’s the implications of “chunking” for a learner. Chunking isn’t, in fact, just a method of expansion, for as it encourages learners to observe vocabulary in groups rather than individually, it also facilitates the breaking down of full, multiple-clause sentences, in to manageable, bite-sized chunks (Michael Lewis, The Lexical Approach). Again, not a new observation. But is the idea of “bite-sized” usable in other skills?

At this point, I’m going to switch to reading tasks, specifically, academic reading. As an IELTS teacher, I watch a lot of struggle. Students are faced with daunting amounts of text, answers hidden amongst technical terms and “distractors”, and a time limit that would have most native speakers struggling. Often, the sheer volume of text is enough to guarantee demotivation, and, ultimately, failure. I’ve looked at techniques, of course. We’ve scanned, skimmed and inferred until blue in the face, but often it just isn’t enough. Perhaps they aren’t up to it yet. Or perhaps they encounter problems because the task, not the text, isn’t “bite-sized”.

Let’s look at a typical task in an IELTS reading exam. True / False / Not Given questions typically present themselves in order in the text, and require the student to scan and skim in a linear fashion, albeit not necessarily having a clue about the percentage of the whole text covered by the task (unless there is a clear, “scannable” keyword). In general, students are presented with about seven questions, and 800 words of text. They then proceed to read question 1, scan the text, find the answer, write the answer, and repeat for question 2 et cetera. Of course, if they can’t find an answer, they don’t really have a point of reference from which to continue moving forward through the text. In other words, it is difficult to establish linear movement, and can result in time-costly rereading and doubling back. In an incredibly time sensitive exam (1 hour, 3 texts, 2400 words, 40 questions), this is not exactly ideal.

Now, let’s say that a student approaches this in a slightly different way. Upon receiving the task, they break the questions, and then the text, in to bite-sized chunks. They draw a line under question four, and look at questions 1-4 as a separate task. They are not only breaking the task down, but they are also immediately acknowledging that they are likely to be looking at less of the text; the first four-sevenths, roughly. Granted, this is still not exact enough to be comforting. The next stage then, is to isolate the text in a more precise way. The student scans for a keyword match in question 1. They aren’t looking necessarily to find the exact answer at this stage, merely to highlight the area of text in which the answer lies. They draw a line indicating where the text relating to questions 1-4 starts. The next part is to do the same again, but instead of doing this for question 2, they do it for question four. Once they have drawn this second line, they have created a text box, in which four answers lie. The text box is considerably smaller, and therefore less daunting, than the original text, and task, as a whole. They then go through the standard question-answering techniques as they are usually taught. This process is then repeated with questions 5-7, again focusing on isolating “answer-heavy” text, and eliminating time-wasting and a general feeling of being overwhelmed by volume.

While early in my research in to the benefits of this, results so far have been good. Not only have 100% of my students responded positively to this concept, which I believe is more than half the battle (for I am a disciple of the affective filter), but success rates in linear tasks have also gone up considerably in over 80% of these students. I am keen to acknowledge that reading methods and techniques are very much individually subjective, and, as a result, it is difficult to say that there is a “right” way. However, if learners feel that they can approach a task with more confidence than before, I am positive that this will directly contribute to an improvement in results alone, as so many learners are beaten before they step on to the pitch, to use a famous sporting analogy.

I’d love to hear from teachers and students who would like to give this a go. My contact details are on this site. Get in touch, and help me answer the following question: “Can we use the idea of chunking as a reading test technique in general English and exam settings?” And, even more interestingly: “Is there a practical use for a technique like this outside of the environment of comprehension-based tasks – could chunking improve reading ability as a whole?”

 

Simon Richardson