Focus on patterns, not just exceptions

November 2, 2011

My advanced level students seemed surprised yesterday when I corrected their mispronunciation of the words figure and feature by referring to the pronunciation of bigger and teacher. Of course, negative transfer from the L1 means that Spanish speakers tend to pronounce words as they are written and thus pronounce the u in the final syllable of the two words mentioned above. Yet, the final syllable of words in English spelled er, re, or, our, ure, ar, tend to be pronounced in the same way – /ə(r)/.

It surprises me that this particular pronunciation pattern hadn’t been pointed out to my students’ before, as they worked their ways up to an advanced level.

Surely part of our jobs as language teachers is to work with, and exploit patterns and regularities (as well as the exceptions!) in English.

Another example of this kind of thing, with beginner level students, might be showing how regular English question patterns are – e.g. Can you..? / Do you..? Did you..? Are you..? and working with this pattern, rather than over-analyzing conjugations and subject and auxiliary inversion.

It would nice to hear other patterns that you think English teachers should exploit!

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In The Spirit of Dogme: 4, 3, 2 Presentations and Other Gems

October 19, 2011

Recently I’ve enjoyed reading various blogs / blog posts on putting Dogme or materials light teaching into practice in the ELT classroom. See the excellent An Experiment with Dogme, ELT Reflections, and Language Moments, for example.

As Thornbury writes in his A to Z blog, Dogme is all about “teaching that focuses on emergent language.” What this means is, rather than walking into the classroom with a pile handouts and predetermined set of activities “to do”, or language areas “to cover”, we work with the language the naturally results from classroom talk.

Spurred on by the excellent blogs and posts that I mention above, here are 3 staples of my classroom teaching over the years that seem to fit in with the spirit of a Dogme approach to ELT.

N.B. I do not claim to have invented these activities, they all come from, or are adapted from, published teaching resources.

4, 3, 2 Presentations
Basically, students prepare a 3 minute talk on a topic of their choice. In the first round they give their talks in four minutes to each other. Students then change partners and give their talks in three minutes to their new partner. In the final round, students switch partners again and repeat their presentation, but this time in just two minutes. The idea of all this being, of course, that it boosts fluency and automaticity as students get the chance to repeat their talks.

Variations / adaptations are infinite – students can be given specific lexis / chunks to use in their talks, and can be asked to tick of lexis / chunks as they hear them. A really fun one that was suggested to me the other day by my colleague Mike Rowley for higher levels, is to have specific pieces of languages to be used but also to have the listener interrupt and try to stop the speaker getting his or her message out.

15 Minutes of Today
This is nice for intermediate + learners and above. Each student thinks of a specific 15 minute period of their day and then writes down 20 things that they did during those 15 minutes. The teacher helps out here pushing students to break activities such as making a cup of coffee or checking email down into its individual actions (“I filled the kettle”, “I took a spoon form the drawer”, for example). Once students have their list of 20 activities, they read six of them randomly to their partner. Based on those six, the partner has to guess another six actions / processes from their partner’s list (e.g. “Did you boil some water?”). In a business English context, this work really well as generates a need for quite specific lexis for processes and work tasks.

Collaborative Emails Error Correction Task
This small group writing task works really well with classes of 8 to 16 business English students and in classrooms where there is a large board. You start by asking groups to think of a work problem that they can all identify with (for example, server problems, or low staffing levels) and then ask to state specifically what the problem is and who they would address this problem to. The teacher then divides the board into sections according to how many groups there are. Groups are then given time to plan and write their emails on their section of the board. Once they are done, the other groups are invited to come make any changes that they feel appropriate to the other group’s emails. This correction stage typically provokes a lot of discussion and generates a lot of language work.

Teaching Resources
Here are some resources that have helped me teach “materials light” over the years: Mario Rinvolucri’s Grammar Games and More Grammar Games is a must for so many imaginative classroom activities; Friederike Klippel’s Keep Talking has a load of good ideas; as does, of course, Thornbury’s How to Teach Speaking. And last but not least, the Humanising Language Teaching online magazine, which, while not the most user friendly website, is well worth exploring.


Yappr and English Through Football

March 11, 2009

I just came across Yappr and English Through Football

Yappr is, according to their front page, a place where learners can “practice and learn English the fun way with entertaining videos”. I’m going to recommend to my class in a minute. It looks really good as far as it goes. Watch the video, read the text…

English Through Football, meanwhile, is great for language learners who love the beautiful game. Basically, each week there’s a podcast where football action from the Champions League, La Liga, EPL etc. are discussed and an accompanying activity sheet.