Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Teaching Language in Context

In our last blog I talked about my belief in getting students to do most of the work. I believe that by actively engaging them in the material and giving them interesting tasks to complete, they will be more motivated and this will have a positive effect on their learning.



Since then, I have taught on three teacher training courses for European primary and secondary school teachers and have been made aware of how mainstream teaching in many European countries is still largely teacher-led with an emphasis on learning grammatical structures and teaching to the end-of-year test. Many teachers commented that while they had really enjoyed the different activities and they had also changed their perspective with regards their own teaching, implementing a more learner-centred teaching methodology would be difficult within their school due to student/parent expectations and also the constraints of external methods of assessment. They generally felt that parents, students and those in charge at their various schools would put grammar at the top of things to be taught and studied.

I would like to outline 3 activities that went down particularly well among the teachers I worked with. They all essentially have ‘introducing and practising grammar’ at their heart but I have tried to introduce a relevant context into the mix.

1. The Queen, David Cameron or both?
-  Choose 2 people who you think your students would be interested in and would therefore know something about. My group were interested in British culture.
-  Write 5 sentences about each person and jumble them up. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page is a good source of biographical information.
Below are the sentences I used:
            This person has 4 children (B)
            This person became the youngest leader in the UK for 200 years (DC)
            This person's partner is English (DC)
            This person went to a private school (DC)
            This person parachuted from a plane in the opening ceremony for the London             Olympics (QE)
            This person used to ride a bicycle to work (DC)
            This person is the leader of 53 countries (QE)
            This person is a member of the Church of England (B, although you could argue that
            The Queen is the leader)                                           
-  Students work in pairs to decide which sentence goes with which person.
After checking the answers / discussing surprises, the teacher could focus on any grammatical structures used in the sentences. I tend to focus on present and past tenses and therefore ask students to circle all examples of the present simple and underline all examples of the past simple.
-  Students could then, in groups, choose 2 different people and write 10 jumbled sentences for other groups to guess who they ‘belong’ to.

What do I like about this activity? There is a real information gap – students learn something about people they are (hopefully!) interested in. The activity covers all 4 skills (writing, speaking, listening, reading) and also provides a focus on grammar in context. Students then get the opportunity to use the language in a new, relevant context. This activity is also very student-focussed – the students do the vast majority of the work.


2. True or false?
This activity is a very simple expansion on the traditional ‘3 true sentences, 2 false ones’ activity. The stages are as follows:
-  Dictate (at normal speed) 5 sentences about yourself to the students. You may need to repeat the sentences 3 or 4 times but it is important that you do speak at normal speed. Below are the sentences I used for a ‘grammar-focussed’ lesson
·         I have lived in 7 different countries
·         I have never learnt to drive
·         I have hitch-hiked around Europe
·         I have done a bungee jump for charity
·         I have eaten grasshoppers – they were very crunchy
-  Once you have dictated all the sentences, get the students to compare what they have written in pairs.
-  During whole class feedback, write down the parts of the sentences which students have understood correctly. Mark a gap where what they understood is incorrect but don’t provide the correct answer at this stage.  An example sentence may be: I have ________ _____ 7 different countries or I have _______ in ___ different countries
-  Repeat the sentences for students to get the missing words. If they can’t, the teacher can guide them to the correct answer (what’s the preposition after….? What tense is it? What’s the past participle? etc.)
-  Once the students have 5 correct sentences, you could do some work on pronunciation (which words are stressed in the sentence? Where are the weak forms?)
-  In pairs, students now try to decide which statements are true and which are false about you. They could ask you questions in order to try and find out the answer (although you don’t necessarily have to tell the truth!!). If you don’t want to use personal information in class, you could always use that of a famous person or, alternatively, have 5 sentences about 5 different people in the class. For me, sentences 1, 2 & 5 above are true!
-  After feedback, ask the students to focus on the grammatical structure, underlining examples and checking that they are familiar with both form (has/have + past participle) and, more importantly, function (life experiences).
-  Students then write similar true/false sentences about themselves to discuss in pairs.
And the positive things about this activity? Once again, a variety of skills are covered (writing, listening, speaking, reading & pronunciation). The activity can be modified to focus on different aspects of grammar in a (personalised) context. It is also motivating and interesting for the students – they don’t feel as if they have been in a ‘grammar lesson’ and they also love finding things out about their teacher/each other!

3. Using texts – two-way translation
I use this activity to encourage students to look at different language areas that I want to focus on. The activity focuses on a range of skills and ensures that grammar is noticed and recycled in context. Once again, the focus of the activity is on the student and the teacher’s role is simply to support and facilitate.
-  Choose a text (from your coursebook) that students are familiar with and have previously worked on. This ensures that there are no questions or misunderstandings about content.
-  Choose 2 five-line ‘blocks’ from the text. Ask half the class to work with one of the ‘blocks’ and the other half to work with the other.
-  Students should translate their text into their mother tongue.
-  Students then swap their texts and translate back into English.
-  After this, they compare with the original and ‘notice’ the differences.


To summarise, the activities above all put the context before the grammatical structure. Students are introduced to language without perhaps initially realising that the focus on the activity is language and, through the context, should get a better understanding of how the language is learnt. They also work together and help each other to become independent learners.

Putting the context first means that the language simply becomes a ‘vehicle’ for learning (about) something else, which I feel is how it should be. Also, with the students doing the vast majority of the work in these activities, the teacher is free to listen, monitor and support, which is also how it should be.


What do you think about this approach to language? Would it work within your context?

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