TEFL – The book doesn’t have a brain! Student production from “poor” materials.

by | Aug 26, 2016

As a TEFL teacher manager/DoS I was obviously tasked with observing teachers and giving feedback. TEFL teaching is not rocket science, and the theories and practices are well documented. Still, there’s a lot for a new teacher to take into the classroom. This article is about one simple approach to student production that I took with new teachers and it had an affect way beyond the simplicity of its application.

I’m not going to go into Krashen et al, as we’ve all presumably studied the prevailing theories and just want them to be put into practice.

A local teacher gave a great quote in a meeting with her foreign colleagues once: a native speaker was complaining about the course book page not being useful. “The book doesn’t have a brain, that’s why we need a teacher in the room!” Fantastic! (If a little harsh!)

When observing teachers who had sometimes even more than a year’s experience, one problem I came across with surprising and somewhat depressing frequency was the lack of focus on meaningful student production.

In a TEFL class of kids with a course book to follow, especially at a younger age, teachers often struggle with ‘meaningful interaction’ when faced with a flashcards or a cloze or other activity that appears to have little communication built in. “The materials aren’t very good”.

Simple interactions.

A fairly new teacher was showing 4 year-old children a flashcard and held up the cards for the children to pronounce the noun. The procedure was:

  • Teacher holds first flashcard: “What’s this?”.
  • Students answer chorally “water”
  • Teacher holds second flashcard and waits:
  • Students answer chorally “milk”
  • Teacher holds third flashcard and waits:
  • Students answer chorally “orange juice”

The problem is easy to see. There’s no two-way communication, and therefore no meaningful interaction regards language acquisition. The kids were getting bored and restless. Further, there’s no monitoring of individual production quality.

You’d be surprised how many teachers do this. They appear to get blocked by the relatively simple material of a picture/word card.

The modified activity after feedback:

  • Teacher holds first flashcard: “What’s this?”
  • Students answer chorally “It’s water”
  • Teacher to student: “Mike. What’s this?”
  • Mike: “It’s water.”

Repeat 1v1 and note any pronunciation issues with TA.

  • Teacher holds second flashcard: “What’s this?”
  • Students answer chorally “It’s milk”
  • Teacher to student: “YoYo. What’s this?”
  • YoYo: “It’s water.”

Repeat 1v1 and note any pronunciation issues with TA.

  • Teacher holds third flashcard: “What’s this?”
  • Students answer chorally “orange juice”
  • Teacher to student: “King. What’s this?”
  • King: “It’s orange juice.”

Repeat 1v1 and note any pronunciation issues with TA.

Of course, if it’s not the first time, and most students can pronounce the words from the picture (use of the word-side as soon as possible is another topic), there’s maybe no need to 1v1 for each word, and this can be extended with a quick model with the TA to pass the card to a stronger student and get them to ask and answer the question to each other.

This is meaningful interaction for a 4 year old that exposes the students to a simple two-way question and answer communication, either T-Ss/Ss-T, T-S/S-T or S-S.

Once modelled and seen in action, the teacher enjoyed her classes more and quickly became focused on the kids producing English rather than the rote model she herself learnt. She found that the kids could absorb new vocabulary and structures easier.

She practised with more enthusiasm the simple “ formulaic introductions” that she’d been doing at the beginning of each class that she’d ‘inherited’, now seeing it as genuine communicative learning, and extended it to get students to say I’m happy/sad/angry/tired/hungry – with appropriate emotions and much happier and engaged students!

Introducing this simple concept of language as communication at an early stage in her career, without the need to refer to volumes of academic theory, made a huge difference and still does to this day.

More advanced interactions:

What about limited production in the book material?

An example I typically saw was Q&A cloze e.g. after teaching adjectives of mood and reading a text. The book had a cloze that included sentences like:

Fred was _ _ _ _ _ _ after seeing the movie.

Jane was _ _ _ _ _ _ _ going to meet her favourite movie star.

Toby didn’t like the movie about a princess, he was _ _ _ _ _

etc.

or

1) Fred thought the movie was frightening. He was…                a) excited

2) Jane’s saw the movie star and was very …                                 b) bored

3) Toby fell asleep in the movie because he was …                     c) afraid

etc.

I too often saw and heard this:

  • Teacher: “Who has the answer to A) ?” Yes Mike, ‘afraid‘. Good job!

or

  • Teacher: “Fred was… (pause for a student to venture “afraid”) …yes YoYo, good job!”

or

  • Teacher: “Number 1?”                                
  • Students: “c!”

When I covered a class taught by a teacher where the students answered with single words or, even worse, letters, I knew immediately that observation and training was necessary.

I often asked my students “What will you tell your mum you learned today in English? “I learnt to say A!” or simply “afraid!” or maybe “Toby fell asleep in the movie because he was bored”. (It became a matter of humour if a new student joined and gave such answers – getting the students to police themselves is great!)

When I asked questions of the teachers about student production in the feedback sessions, I was often told there was no meaningful interaction; yet the book has it all there!

When checking the answers the teacher can read the entire sentence out and use “blank” for the missing word, or try ‘wrong’ alternatives, depending on the level of the students or the aims.

  • Fred was “blank” after seeing the movie. What’s missing?
  • Fred was hungry after seeing the movie. Was Fred hungry?

At a very minimum, get the student(s) to give the whole sentence as a reply, filing in the missing word. At least the student(s) will have spoken a whole sentence in the context of the text and topic they had just read.

The answers could then be given as a pair-work job for students to:

  • a) Ask questions from the answers as a review, if question structures have already been covered.
  • b) Speak the full sentences to each other alternately

I almost always got my students to speak to each other, even at a lower level, using the cloze/answers on the page. They’ve just studied it, heard it, and can then use it. It’s either a dialogue cloze, or sentences giving lexical chunks involving the target vocabulary and/or grammar. Noticing and understanding come in time, even if not that lesson, as they are exposed in future activities to the same structures etc.

Takeaway:

It may sound obvious if you are an experienced and qualified teacher who has been doing this for years. For a new teacher, or a poorly trained or motivated teacher (these two are often not exclusive), then ensuring they understand the idea of student production of meaningful language and how it can be done with almost any material is a foundation in teaching that can only make them better teachers and their students better users of the language.

Curriculum producers spend a lot of time and energy producing materials and, if we’re lucky, some guidance on activities. However, the material is just a tool. The curriculum should have a unit/lesson objective and they provide (hopefully) a wealth of material with which a teacher can use their skills and training to achieve those objectives.

As a teacher trainer, your job is observe teachers who have either poor training, disconnect between theory and practice, or other reasons why they are not able to get the best out of the materials.

This simple focus on student production with simple but meaningful input at every opportunity when giving feedback or training can make a huge difference to the teacher’s understanding not just of student production, but the benefits of working with the material in a more positive and motivating way for them and their students. Win-win!

“The book doesn’t have a brain, that’s why we need a teacher in the room!” Priceless!

David.

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