Posts Tagged ‘things that don’t work’

When I started teaching Business English, my biggest nagging worry was that I had never heard the language I was supposed to teach. It’s been written in a lot in publications about corpora that close analysis of real language in use has shown that quite a few of our intuitions about language use are incorrect and so some staple teaching practices and grammar rules need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Now, what really strikes me is that this is related to General English – that is, the language we’re exposed to on everyday basis. What about intuitions about workplace communication? How could I even have any intuitions if I’d never participated in a business meeting in English or made a telephone call in English to a supplier? And what about workplace communication in a specific sphere (I was mainly teaching in IT companies)? How much did my coursebook, my only source of information (apart from the students), represent that?

Another problem I was facing was that, time after time, my students failed to incorporate the functional language I was teaching into their speech. Having partially solved that problem now, I believe that it at least to some extent originated in my teaching, but I’m not sure it was one hundred percent down do my teaching. For example, one thing that has always frustrated me is teaching functional expressions for handling interruptions (e.g. Can I come in here for a moment?) What was happening was that, as soon as my students moved on to a genuinely communicative tasks, they stopped using the target language because it struck them as unnatural. However, I’m not really sure whether this problem lies in my teaching or whether the students actually just do what’s only natural to do. For instance, I chanced upon an article which suggests that the expressions for interruption presented in textbooks aren’t actually used that much in real life – maybe for exact same reasons my students tend to avoid them in communicative activities?

textbook vs realdata

from ‘Using textbook and real-life data to teach turn taking in business meetings’ by Jo Angouri

But then, this is data about face-to-face meetings and my students mainly participate in skype meetings – surely in that case they’d need more explicit strategies for interrupting? Again, how do I find out, having never heard a single meeting by skype?..

This year I’ve been lucky enough to have access to recordings of some IT meetings and I’ve been squeezing them for at least some insight into real language use in this sphere. I’ve learnt a lot and incorporated a lot of insights into my teaching, but there have also been a number of problems, not the least one being that it’s much easier to analyze a meeting if you’ve got a complete transcript, but transcribing is a terribly long process and I was finding it difficult to find time for that between teaching and other commitments. Other obvious issues are that I have the enthusiasm to analyze this data but not the skills and that my ‘corpus’ of 10,000 words in transcripts and a few dozen emails is not enough to do statistical analysis anyway.

Three weeks ago it finally occured to me that there’s actually a huge pool of IT communication freely available on the internet – that is, IT forums, for instance Of course it won’t examplify a large proportion of business related functions, such as turn taking, but nevertheless it’s a great resource that represents a lot of aspects of workplace communication in IT. It’s conversational in style, so it can probably give insight into spoken as well as written communication. A forum is also a great source of topics to discuss in class. Moreover, most of my students know and use that particular forum and so far they’ve been reacting extremely positively to the idea of looking at language through that lens.

This is another idea that I can’t believe I’d been missing for so long. I’ve been using  to retrieve concordance lines from stackoverflow and for the past three weeks I’ve been totally hooked on playing with this tool.

In the following post I’ll write about some interesting examples of language I’ve discovered in the past three weeks and describe the associated activities that I’ve used with my students.

I’d also love to hear about other people’s experience tailouring their business English course to their students’ needs. I’m sure I’m missing quite a few more ‘elephants in the room’ and that this journey is only beginning.


There is a clutter of ‘English for IT’ ideas, activities and nagging questions in my head and by now I feel that the only way to ‘untangle the tangle’ is to write some of it down.

So this is a placeholder post where I’ll later put together links to other IT-related posts and lesson plans, but for now – here is just ‘the story so far’.

I’ve been teaching Business English in-company for around three years now and most of that experience has been in IT companies. Back in September 2011 I was given my first IT group by the language school I was working in. The school supplied me with a 120-hour ‘Business English’ syllabus that I wasn’t supposed to adapt and off I went  to teach my first group.

Teaching in this setting has been quite a journey with its ups and downs (one particularly memorable ‘down’ came in the very first month, when I asked a group which consisted of three software developers and three software testers to share their views on how responsibilities should be devided between developers and testers, and an almighty row ensued.)

My first degree was in maths and IT and I’d actually worked as a software developer in a quite large IT company for some time while studying at university. This experience, however limited and remote, was an undeniable asset when it came to thinking up warmers and mini discussion topics that would be perceived as relevant by my students, but  it also made it quite difficult for me to do justice to the syllabus. Having my (limited) personal experience to compare with the coursebook topics and contexts, I sometimes totally failed to see how some of the topics we were supposed to cover would be of any relevance to my students. The company I was teaching in was a service provider which basically had been developing one product for the past ten years. How often would my average student, who mostly communicated with other members of their distributed team and with support specialists, describe graphs (sales peaked in the early 1980s and they hit a trough in 2008/9)? Negotiate a contract? Present an innovative gadget to a potential investor?

This of course became a self-fulfilling prophesy, as I often couldn’t convincingly introduce those topics to my groups.

But then some topics that I did ‘believe’ in, such as meetings, sometimes resulted in unsatisfactory lessons too, with the groups failing to retain any functional language and sabotaging the roleplays I was trying to use (picture a group of bearded men giggling self-consciously while solving a business problem).


On the whole this has been a journey of, on the one hand, learning more about my students’ actual needs and tweaking and tailoring the course after all, but on the other, learning not to overcomplicate the issue, to draw more on my students as a resource,  to assume less and trust the material more but ask the right questions to help my students connect what they’ve learnt to their own experience.

Six months ago I quit the language school and joined a software company as a full-time teacher.  So far this has been not only an absolutely fascinating experience but also a huge challenge. I keep hitting on/learning about ideas that, once I know about them, seem embarrassingly obvious. The one that struck me the most was advice given by Evan Frendo in his presentation on Investigating discourse practices within a company: ask your students, “What differences are there between
your [presentations] at work and in the English training?” 
I couldn’t believe I’d actually taught several courses in company, worrying that the coursebook didn’t address my students’ needs and scouring the internet for recordings of real IT meetings (in vain), and never actually asked them to list specific differences between the genres presented in the coursebook and their workplace communication. Probably I was too busy feeling guilty for not knowing about those differences already and fearing to lose face and thus missed the most obvious and natural thing to do.

This is why, I’m afraid, this series of posts comes with a huge ‘captain obvious’ sign: I want to write up ideas that weren’t obvious to me when I was starting out – which does not mean that they are not self-evident or common practice. bear

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my tortuous path in learning German. It seems to be a showcase of  non-mainstream techniques and absolutely none of it was ‘traditional communicative classroom’ learning. I owe a large proportion of non-standard techniques and little tweaks that I use in my teaching to that experience. However, I also probably owe it a bunch of teaching insecurities and a lot of my own bias against some (possibly, effective) techniques. I was going through some of my German notes recently, and what I noticed there prompted me to write this post.

Period 1. ‘Grammar-translation’. I studied German for 3 years in secondary school (grades 5, 6 and 7). I don’t remember much about the lessons but I do remember we did some grammar exercises, some coursebook reading and some dictations. I remember lexical notebooks with lists of words with translations (the reason I remember that particular notebook is that there was a ‘cartoon’: if your flipped through the pages fast enough you could see a figure ski down a slope). The only lesson I remember was our teacher inviting a native speaker to give us a dictation. The whole group was in a state of shock: we couldn’t understand a single word. He read the 3-sentence text once or twice (totally incomprehensibly), and then our teacher read it again and it was crystal-clear. The second thing I remember was a poetry reading contest. I spend several days memorizing a 3-stance poem (it went ‘Der Sommer ist die schönste Zeit.. and then something else).

The outcome? During summer vacation after the seventh grade I made friends with a boy who was Russian but looked distinctively foreign. He told me that he knew English and that, whenever someone was criticizing him on the bus, he’d reply in English and pretend not to understand. This aroused my curiosity about foreign languages and I started reviewing what I myself could say. With English (which I had been studying since 2nd grade), it turned out I knew something like 100 words, could use only present simple, and also I was unsure how vocabulary was to be spellt (e.g. ‘cup’ or ‘cap’?) With German, the only thing I could say was ‘Ich heiße Olga’ (My name is Olga). So much for 3 years of studying.

Lessons learnt. As a teacher, this experience made me painfully aware of just how inefficient some teaching methods can be. In particular, it made me very wary of teaching anything that’s not perceived as relevant by the students. It also made me very wary of doing anything that didn’t comply with my teaching beliefs, which came from my subsequent successful English-learning experience and went along ‘language should be used for communication and students should be encouraged to think in English’. As a result, in my first years of teaching very often I just couldn’t bring myself to doing a sequence from the coursebook, in part because some of that content was seemingly irrelevant to my students, and in part because in my opinion some of those exercises didn’t make methodological sense. It wasn’t arrogance of any sort – more like I mistrusted the materials so much that I felt my students would sense that and I just wouldn’t be able to pull it off.

Period 2. Grammar-translation + motivation + a bit of audio input. The second time I attempted to learn German was when I made a German friend at a student school. I knew I’d meet him again in 6 months so I decided to learn some German while we chatted online in English (ironically, I suspect that it was these 6 months of chats that really boosted my English from B2 to around C1-C2). What I did was read a bit (this proved very effective for learning the initial stock of around 300 words in no time), take around 10 hours of lessons with a private tutor (grammar-translation type of lessons again – and despite the 3 years at school we had to start from scratch), attempt to work with some grammar books and memorize vocabulary. I also listened to an audiocourse for German learners based around funny sketches (called Wie so nicht?) and ‘spoke’ to myself in German quite a lot.

The outcome. When I went to the second student school to Germany after six months of studies, I didn’t feel that I’d progressed enough to communicate. I did try to speak once (not with the friend who inspired the learning, though) and apparently I could say something but my grammar was atrocious.

Period 3. Input flood + some grammar awareness. I gave German up for a few years and when I took it up again, I listened to a few ‘stage 1’ graded readers, loved them and then just found a Harry Potter audiobook that I knew almost by heart in English and tried to listen to it over and over again. Initially, when I played a random file I could only roughly guess which scene it was. I kept listening to it on my way to and from work, 2 or 3 hours a day and bit by bit I understood more and more. It was a like one big puzzle: I suddenly understood what this or that expression must mean and then understood it later on, which would give me enough context to guess what something else meant. By the end I was more or less able to understand every sentence, and I started listening to other unabridged audiobooks created for German children. The only productive practice I had during that period was predicting the next sentence in the audiobook and doing an acclaimed audio course by Michelle Thomas (I absolutely loved that course. It’s mainly based on oral translation exercises). I also tried to learn some vocabulary, in particular word genders, using Super Memo (spaced repetition) software, but it wasn’t that successful.

The outcome? A few months of listening to audiobooks boosted my passive vocabulary (although it was incredibly difficult to recall words when I wanted to say something and I was never sure how to conjugate verbs or gender the nouns where). This also brought my Listening (and Reading) skills to around B1 (I coped easily with graded audiobooks at that level). Moreover, in contrast with my previous attempts to learn the language, the skills seemed to stay with me and I still could understand German speech after another long break in studies.

Lessons learnt: One of the biggest challenges of teaching in a monolingual environment is that very often students don’t come in contact with any English between classes. Moreover, when they come to private language schools they expect the class itself to be mainly based around speaking activities, so they do not encounter long texts or listening passages in class either.  I spent months reading ELT literature trying to find proof that extensive input was a pre-requisite for successful language learning. Most researchers just write something along these lines: ‘It’s widely accepted that learners need a rich and meaningful exposure to language in use’ but ‘widely accepted’ isn’t convincing enough to persuade my super-busy Business English learners to find time for reading and watching videos in English. The consideration that does work for them is that that the parts of the brain involved in grammatical processing are not the same parts of the brain where ‘grammar rules’ are stored and, as it turns out, acquisition of grammar requires extensive input, as grammar processing is in part developed by a ‘pattern recognition’ mechanism which feeds on input and requires noticing language in input. This is an argument they buy – and once they do, I suggest a few specific strategies for them, which are outlined in this post.

With my secondary school students, I just established an ‘extensive reading programme’: I bought some 30 graded readers and around 15 unabridged books and I ask them to pick a book at least three times a year, read it and give it a rating and/or write a short review.

Lessons not learnt: I absolutely loved Michel Tomas’s course, and it showed me that oral translation exercises of incremental difficulty are both useful and enjoyable. I felt that three aspects of the course were extremely significant: first, I was formulating full sentences, not just conjugated the verb to fill a gap. Second, I translated orally. Third, I got immediate feedback. Fourth, I was able to control the pace and replay/redo some lessons if I felt I hadn’t mastered the topic. However, for some reason (mainly because I’m not sure how to implement that working in a group) I haven’t incorporated translation or the other principles into my teaching. Initially I was very enthusiastic about creating an adaptive learning environment for my students, but I never figured out how to approach this.

Period 4. Community language learning + the keyword technique In the summer of 2012 I attended a fascinating workshop on the Keyword technique, which is a vocabulary learning technique based on visual associations. The trainer , who’d developed his own variation of the technique, made a claim that was quite difficult to believe, saying that using the technique it was possible to memorize around 100 words an hour and, with the right approach to revision, retain most of that vocabulary for a long time. By that time I’d started teaching English so I decided to revive my German  in order to experiment with the technique and maybe teach it to my students.

To do that I found a native speaker to talk with over skype. Because my primary goal was to test the vocabulary learning technique, what I was trying to achieve was have a (longish) list of vocabulary to learn after each lesson. What we decided to do was to talk and, as soon as I needed an expression, I’d ask for it and Sevi would write up a German equivalent in a Google document. If I wasn’t sure how to use the expression, I’d try it out in my own examples/ask Sevi to give me some more examples. Then I’d learn that vocabulary.

Here’s what this typically looked like:

+Ich mache alles auf den letzten Drücker.= at the last minute
+Ich brauche diesen Zeitdruck
+der Zeitdruck= pressure of time
+Das ist kein Thema. that’s ok
+etwas verschieben put off
+auf einen späteren Zeitpunkt verlegen
+Wegen des Regens, …
+es is Sehr lange her way back
+die Handlung plot
+Es ist lange her, dass der Film gedreht wurde.
+Der Film wurde in XXX gedreht.
+das dauert 5 bis 10 Minuten je nachdem, ob ich …
+befassen sich mit (deal with)
+Fachbereich – факультет
+ich studiere in Fachbereich A
+im Allgemeinen in general
Here’s the rest of the file: Deutsch with Sevi

The outcome. The outcome was exhilarating. Before the first lesson I was terrified because that was the second time ever I’d try to speak to a person and I didn’t really think I’d be able to say anything. Within five or six 60-minute lesson I started to feel quite confident talking. It was pretty easy to memorize the expressions using the technique (I never sped up to 100 words/hour, more like 65 expressions/90 minutes, but then those were full expressions and not separate words). There were three interesting things I noticed. First, in the second and third lessons almost every single sentence I was trying to say contained a bit learnt in the first lesson. Secondly, sometimes there were expressions that I couldn’t remember but as soon as Sevi told me I realized that I knew them. Initially I told her not to add those to the file. Soon though it became apparent that I’d need for such an expression to come up five or more time to stop forgetting it, whereas the ones that I’d memorized and revised I was able to retrieve. So deciding not to learn & revise a word because you ‘kind of know’ it is really counterproductive. The same went for correction: she would correct the same mistake over and over again, and the way for me to progress was to write an expression down and learn it.

Also, in my search for vocabulary to learn, I tried to look for some interesting vocabulary in films / the first Harry Potter book. I brought those to lessons and we would discuss how to use those expressions. In general, I’d say that that was much less efficient and that language was definitely much less memorable and more confusing than language that came out of our conversations.

Lessons learnt. Around that time I was teaching a Business course in-company and attendance hit a record low, with only one student attending for 3 or 4 classes. That particular students had severe problems with accuracy (which was below the level of the group and I hadn’t been able to address that previously very well when there were other people attending). So I seized the opportunity to do a lot of mistake correction with  him and capture his output in a Microsoft Word document, along with ideas how to upgrade his language, in a similar way to how Sevi was capturing mine. This resulted in a mini-miracle: the student started to speak much more confidently and more accurately in a matter of several classes and he was extremely happy and enthusiastic about getting this kind of feedback. So when another three course participants finally started attending I had no other choice but to keep doing the same thing with the group.

Since then I’ve started capturing learner output with all my adult groups, and I’d say this is one most important tweak I’ve done to my teaching as a result of my own language learning experience. I was a bit wary of doing that because typing something on a laptop while students are talking would look a bit odd, but as soon as it’s clear for them what I’m doing they start to expect me to type the feedback an not slack off :). Here’s what typical output looks like:
It’s used at the end of the lesson as a bit of review and at the start of the next lesson as a mini test – a routine that the students respond very well to. What impressed me the most was that, while my adult students consistently refuse to do any homework from coursebooks, most of them do find the time to revise this personalized feedback and do cope with the mini tests/reuse this language in speech.

Lessons learnt only partially. Learning that much vocabulary relevant for me in a matter of weeks was only made possible because I constantly code-switched (switched to English to explain what expression I was looking for). I do allow my students to code-switch occasionally, making sure that that language makes it to the file with feedback, but for my students lessons have never turned into what my German lessons were for me: actively using communication to identify as many gaps in my knowledge as possible and immediately getting feedback on how to fill those gaps.

Lessons not learnt. Recently I was looking through the notes of my first ever lesson with Sevi and this was the first time I analyzed what language came up in her feedback. There are several clear groups of expressions.

Apart from ‘topic-specific’ lexis (we were talking about my job teaching teens) there was

  • language to talk about feelings/evaluating experiences (it was ok/worst of all was that../it was terrible/ it was challenging )
  • along the same lines, some sentence adverbs: (unfortunately/ luckily/mostly / also / at least)
  • a lot of meta-language to clarify the use of some expressions and manage the lesson (informal/this isn’t used like that/irregular comparative forms/I’ll delete that/cross that out)
  • a lot of expressions to compensate for lack of vocabulary (this is something like…/the opposite of…/I can’t think of a good English equivalent-word/there’s no equivalent in English)

In my own courses, out of these four groups only meta-language (‘classroom language’) features early on in the syllabus. Compensatory strategies feature too (students play ‘taboo’ and other guessing games), but the range of expressions usually taught is somewhat more restricted.

Summary. My experience learning German was so long and non-uniform that it’s really difficult to draw any conclusions. Regarding methodology, I can see that a lot of what I do in class is still at odds with my learning experience – the fact that pushes me to dig further into methodology books looking for some definitive answers. Where I find that I was proved right by research I immediately let my students know (in particular, I spend the entire first 90-minute lesson nowadays discussing the mechanics of how languages are acquired and the value of revision and input – TED talks made by successful language learners are of immense help here; I also spend 90 minutes practicing the keyword technique in class). In general I’d say that quite a lot of my own intuitions are borne out by research – e.g. a while ago I found this fascinating presentation by Magnus Coney called ‘How we learn’ in which he surveys some 20+ articles and quite a lot of what he found resonated with me: Still, after writing so much on ‘lessons not learnt’ here I’ll probably soon be experimenting again..

This is the first post in series of two posts in which I review my current understanding of how grammar is mastered. In this post I’ll overview some research on grammar acquisition and in the second one I’ll give a concrete example of how some of these ideas prompted me to tweak the way I teach a particular grammar topic (the patterns used with ‘I wish’). To summarize these changes, I have

  • stepped away from the ‘pure’ PPP lesson shape with its initial ‘presentation’ stage
  • modified some of the practice activities in order to change the way the structure is retrieved from memory

What do we mean when we say ‘mastering grammar’?

  • Probably everyone who’s involved in language teaching knows the term ‘interlanguage‘. The idea is that a learner has an ‘interim’ version of the target language that’s being developed to approximate the target. I got deeper insight into the concept of inter-language having read about two types of memory/processing operating in our brain:
    general principles
    Grammatical processing belongs to the so-called implicit knowledge and operates automatically, mostly without recourse to attention, unless the person stops before formulating the utterance and rehearses it in their short-memory. This means that the students do not have access to ‘grammar rules’ while they’re speaking spontaneously. Instead, they use so-called ‘routines’ for grammatical processing, and these routines might not correspond to the rules they know.
  • It has been said that we learn the language in the same way as any other skill: awareness raising -> massed practice -> automatization and that thus Skill learning theory justifies the PPP lesson shape (Dornyei, 2009). However, I personally have found the PPP lesson shape somewhat problematic. The way I see it, the devil lies in the detail – in other words, what happens during the first two stages of PPP might fall through if they do not in fact correspond to the stages outlined by the skill learning theory.
  • The first P (‘presentation’). I’ve been experimenting with my own language learning (learning German) and intuitively I’d say that if the lesson starts with straightforward ‘presentation’ and goes on to controlled practice in which s/s practice applying the rule (whether given explicitly or induced by the s/s from input), this encourages them to start constructing a new routine, completely unrelated to the one that is currently stored in their interlanguage. ‘Eliciting’ the rule does not save the situation here, because when we elicit the rule, the students retrieve explicit knowledge of the rule, and the ‘meta-thinking’ involved does not kick in the routines the students use subconsciously. Also, even in the realm of explicit knowledge some confusion is still possible. One of my students once told me that questions in present simple are formed with ‘do/does’, only to go on and write a few questions for a partner with no auxiliary whatsoever. When I asked the guy why he was not applying the rule, he told me that he was using a different structure. Over time I got convinced that rules should be presented after production has taken place so that the students are
    1. encouraged to connect the new explicit knowledge to the knowledge they’ve already got
    2. have a chance to ‘review’ and modify the routines they are currently using (of course, ‘reviewing’ an automatic routine sounds oxymoronic 🙂 but what I mean is that the s/s will learn to monitor the right routine and ‘weaken’ connections in the brain through self-correction. See also the article by Nick Ellis in Sanz, C. and Leuw, R. ed (2011).
    I like the term ‘noticing the gap’ that Scott Thornbury uses in his books and in fact nowadays, when I’m planning my lessons, I think of the first stage not so much as a ‘presentation’ stage as a ‘noticing the gap and learning to deal with it/getting the crutches’ stage.
  • I tend to think now that it’s ok to give the students ‘rules’ (downright deductively) so long as they enable the students to understand the essence of a grammar point (e.g. through highlighting the way the choice of a structure is determined by discourse, as in the case of the passive voice, or by highlighting the contrast between  structures, e.g. ‘past simple = tied to the past, present = relevant; present perfect = relevant + there’s an element of ‘before’). The main point of the rule is to allow the students to review the language they produced at a previous stage, genuinely see a problem with it and improve it (simply noticing that it contradicts the rule given by the teacher won’t do the trick, of course, but seeing that the wrong choice of structure impacts on the message, if T highlights the contrast of structures, will). However, so far I haven’t come across any theoretical grounding of what type of rules would be most helpful and why.
  • In order for the s/s to notice the gap, some record of their use of TL is needed. I generally prefer to set a discussion question that would require the use of TL. However, such tasks are not so easy to formulate. Alternatively, there are writing activities, such as grammaring, two-way translation and dictogloss. In my opinion, grammaring can be used for any pairs or sets of structures that get confused (e.g. will/going to, the passive vs active voice, past vs present perfect), although, as the choice of form often depends on the discourse/co-text, it’s probably better to give s/s highly contextualized sentences to reconstruct. For instance, students could process a text for meaning and then get a copy of the text with several sentences tippexed out and replaced with the lexical items from these sentences.
  • As for the second P (practice), there are two sides of the coin to think about and these seem to be difficult to reconcile. On the one hand, there seems to be evidence provided by attention theory that practice has to be focused and intensive (as, trying to practice two different routines at the same time, a student wastes a considerable proportion of attention resources). On the other hand, the teacher has to be extremely careful in ensuring that the controlled practice activity really does model the way the skill is operated in the brain. I’m in no way a psycholinguist, but as far as I understand it in real production there has to be some kind of retrieval of the automatic routine and choice going on. If a students is involved, say, in a ‘have you ever’ drill (however communicative), the structure is likely to be stored in their short-term memory and thus the skill is not being practiced. I find it difficult to reconcile this with the fact that practice has to be focused in order to make full use of the s/s’ attention resources (hence ‘distracting’ the student to kick the structure out of their short-term memory is a bad idea). Hence, I think that all controlled practice has to involve a contrast of structures, so that the students are required to make constant choices.
  • In their article called Implicit and Explicit Corrective Feedback and the Acquisition of L2 Grammar in Rod Ellis et all (2009) Rod Ellis, Shawn Loewen and Rosemary Erlam present evidence that when practicing a grammar point, efficient feedback targeting the grammar point
    1. is provided on the spot
    2. identifies the mistake for the student (e.g. the teacher repeats the mistake with questioning intonation)
    3. encourages the student to make the conscious effort to retrieve the correct form
    (e.g. [T: ‘go? you need the past‘] when the student is telling a story in the past and tends not to use the past tense).

That said, it transpires from SLA literature that productive practice is actually not the only, or even the main process through which the correct automatic routines are formed. It seems that a large part is played by noticing the structure in comprehensible input. This means that unless the students are encouraged to read and listen widely, and also re-read and re-listen, directing their attention to the form,  they might get stuck with ‘incorrect’ routines despite practicing grammar in class.  

implicit knowledge_d4

81Fm895eoDL._SL1360_ 7454711386_16f2d6eb28_o 9780194421973

Sanz, C. and Leuw, R. (editors) (2011). Implicit and Explicit Language Learning: Conditions, Processes, and Knowledge in SLA and Bilingualism. Georgetown University Press

Rod Ellis et al. (2009). Implicit and Explicit Knowledge in Second Language Learning, Testing and Teaching. Multilingual Matters

Dornyei, Z. (2009) The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition. OUP

You can partially view all these books through the ‘click to look inside’ feature.

Also, I’m currently watching a fascinating series of lectures on Cognitive Science – here are the lectures on the explicit and the implicit:

This was written back in September – I’ve been meaning to finish it, but never got down to writing up anything, so here goes.
The first week of post-Delta Module 2 teaching has gone by! I don’t think I’ve taught a single lesson that I would’ve done the same before the course.

  • I make sure I formulate a very specific aim for the lesson – a learning outcome – and keep it in my head while planning and teaching the lesson; I use it as the main basis for post-lesson reflection – you can’t reflect how well the lesson went if there’s nothing specific you wanted to achieve!
  • I don’t expect anything to magically happen anymore. For example, if I want the s/s to speak faster during a task repeated with less time given, I specifically ask them to try and speak faster and not leave out any information. If I want an A2 class of teens to ask me questions in English, I make a massive effort to teach them these questions, display them on walls in all classrooms we are sent to (3 so far) and stop the class to help reformulate & board whenever someone shouts out a question in Russian that they could’ve easily adapted from one of the questions on the wall.
  • As a result of trying to ensure things do happen, I’ve become extra slow. Trying to not let things go – stop and deal with them. No idea how bad it has become, how I could speed up and what the s/s think (yet).
  • I’ve become more frank with s/s (and also in general, for better or worse).
    Both in class – talking about stuff and making personal comments – and after the lesson, daring to bring up what happened in class and why things went the way they did.

I wanted to write a summary of new things I did/tried that week – but ended up writing up only the following procedure (I’ll write a separate blog post about two more interesting things that happened that week).

What Why
For a listening task, I asked the students to

  • (1) write questions for the listening passage (this I had done before); boarded some of their questions and asked the group to concentrate on the ones on the board.
  • (2) After the first listen + pair check, I asked the group which questions were answered (exactly a half of the questions on the board), ticked them, removed the rest from the board and then asked them to nominate a few more questions that were answered in the passage. S/s nominated another 4 or 5 qs.
  • (3) While s/s listened again, I noted down the times when sections relevant to each question started in the recording.
  • (4) While s/s were checking in pairs, I listened in to hear where there are multiple versions. During feedback I accepted all answers, pushing s/s for alternatives and boarding them, and then replayed the relevant sections for everyone to check.
Overall impression of the technique: it made the listening task more meaningful for s/s than just answering questions from the coursebook. Also it was more life-like: s/s approached the passage with questions in mind, and these were not ordered in the order they’d come up in the passage.The questions nominated after the 1st listen covered the passage in sufficient detail to thoroughly check understanding.Accepting all answers and replaying the relevant sections ensured that the weaker s/s heard the answers in the end. The weaker students are also helped by the boarded answers (stage (4) turns into a discrimination exercise).

Also, one of the sub-aims for this lesson was to revise question formation, focused on in the previous lessons.

I’ve tried this procedure a few times since then. A variation that might break s/s’ shyness could be to ask s/s to test their partners’ comprehension and then pool their questions (in this way it could also be used for a reading passage).

Benefits: This procedure could be used for authentic videos/articles – makes the teacher’s life much easier!

One pitfall I’ve run into: If the level of the audio text is not quite right, students might end up hearing some things they consider to be ‘obvious’ and thus not worth asking, and fail to come up with any new questions in (2). I guess in this case the teacher should provide the questions. The procedure worked well with a pre-intermediate group listening to an audio from a pre-intermediate coursebook, but broke down somewhat with a group of (self-critical) teens watching an authentic video.

A general reservation: this procedure is definitely more time-consuming than ‘going with the book.’