Month: August 2011

Making the most of Discourse

Making the most of texts: each one a world to discover

Making the most of the text

Before I begin this post I’d just like to say that I am aware of the constraints authors are under when writing coursebooks, and I don’t want to write yet another attack on the poor old coursebook. In fact, this summer I have been using the revised English File Intermediate coursebook on my intensive summer course, and it has proved to be very successful, with motivating work and topics, and, on the whole, well thought out activities, not to mention the online resources, which are excellent and freely available to all. (see the link above). Having said that, however, yes, you knew there was going to be a “but” somewhere, it was brought home to me once more, only too clearly this week that so often texts and discourse are not really exploited in meaningful ways, or at least as much as they could be.

Exploiting the text

I had decided to begin our morning’s work with the song “Our House” orginally by Madness (The video above is nice because it has the lyrics), and had chosen to use the worksheet provided in the Teacher’s book for this song. OK, so far so good, it was an excellent way to lead into a revision of house descriptions which we had been working on earlier in the week and would, I thought, wake us all up as it was 40° C at 8.30 in the morning and we had no air conditioning!

So, for those who don’t know the worksheet it goes like this:

1) Look at the lyrics with a nicely designed gap filler (with helpful prompts) that learners can use as a prediction activity:

Father wears his ………………. best ( a day of the week) etc. There is also a glossary to help with this stage.

2) listen and check

3) Answer general questions about the song such as :

Is the memory of the house positive or negative?

4) match adjectives to the house such as untidy, traditional etc. (as a T/F exercise)

Well, we did this with no trouble at all, and were actually rather bored by it as this type of activity did not make us think particularly hard, nor did it process the very rich language that can be found in this text. If I had limited the work to simply this then the learners would have missed out on an opportunity to look at the text itself in greater detail, and to see “discourse in action” and maybe even, well, why not?.. use it themselves. My students will also have to do an exam (B2 level) in September which includes a grammar/vocabulary component, that is based on a knowledge of discourse, because you simply cannot fill in the gaps in a text if you do not understand how the text works, so it would seem to me, following in the footsteps of all the linguistic researchers such as John Sinclair, or Mike McCarthy and Ron Carter (to name just one or two), that we need to go “Beyond the sentence” in the words of Scott Thornbury, and even “Beyond the worksheet” because if we do not there is a real danger that learners may simply do the exercise, only have a partial understanding of the text at best and not explore anything about the way language is being used here.

A Voyage of Discovery

So, having done the initial work, we then set out on a voyage of discovery to really look at the language and we discovered whole worlds of meaning to dig out of this text:

Cultural Aspects

Expressions such as “his Sunday best” to begin with say so much about cultural habits that it was interesting to discuss together. Why should we only wear our best clothes on Sundays? Is this the same in other countries? What class/type of people would do this?

Discussions about language like this are both interesting sociologically and also make these expressions memorable for learners, because, as we all know, the more you elaborate and think about an expression the more memorable that expression becomes for you.

Collocations and Phrasal Verbs

This text also gave us a whole series of great collocations like “to see someone off with a kiss” which can be extended to other collocations like “to see someone off with a smile/wave/wink etc.

Another one which was relevant for my learners was the phrasal verb “to hang around” and how it is connected to waiting in a physical space. It is a false friend for German speakers because the similar expression in German is like “to hang out with someone” in English, in the sense of spending time relaxing with friends. This was interesting for my students and useful as we had come across various other phrasal verbs with “hang” when discussion telephone skills, such as “hang on” or “hang up” and there was also, of course, the “hangover” which my university students are only too familiar with as they stagger blearily into the classroom in the morning. (Well a beer or two helps with the heat, doesn’t it?)


The final part of this song becomes nostalgic with the use of “would” to describe past memories you look back on nostalgically. This was the perfect place, in fact, to introduce this, since it came up in the text naturally, because we had been working on the form “used to” earlier in the week, and also on 2nd conditionals, so to see “would” being used in this way was an interesting, neat way of drawing the learners attention to it, without having to do elaborate presentations.

These are just a few examples of the treasures we discovered on our journey through the text, but having discovered them, we then wanted to “play with them”, The next ctivity then was experimentation.

Time to play

I took 5 lines or expressions from the text and wrote about myself:

Sharon’s tired and needs a rest.

Haggis (my cat who everybody knows very well) is playing up at the front door. etc.

I think asked the learners to do the same thing and then read their own versions to each other.

By this time they had thoroughy elaborated much of the language and used it in a meaningful way with each other, talking about their own houses with examples such as:

My house in the middle of the country in front of a mountain.

My dog is playing up at the garden gate.

The final touch was to listen to the song again, and this time I had the feeling that we were all really listening to this song and that it was definitely expressing something to us.

The language had come alive and was reaching out from the text to say something to us, but if we had not taken the time to go through the text thoroughly and to analyse it we would have missed out on so much. (Oh, and for those who think this is “not serious” because it is a song, at least two of the items we looked at appeared, strangely enough in an FCE gap filler practice test we did a day later (purely by chance).

I sometimes see colleagues cutting up, preparing and giving so many activities to their students that there is a risk of the learners being buried in paper, whilst not having the time to process any of the language supposedly being studied. So once again this made me think of the value of slowing down, and taking the time to appreciate the text you are using and above all of giving the learners the time to explore new worlds in the texts they read and experiment with language until they can make it their own….

Who knows where we’ll be going next week:

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Via Scoop.itInspiration for tired EFL Teachers

This is a great new ebook library called ebook fling. You can lend your ebooks from Kindle or Nook to others and you can borrow as well. It works on a credit system so that if you lend a book you get a credit and you can borrow one etc. Otherwise you can buy credits. Check it out especially for those interested in setting up online class libraries etc.
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Let’s extend reading beyond the Classroom walls with Google Reader, Evernote and Scoop.its

Lose yourself in a good book
Lose yourself in a good book

One subject that I keep returning to is extended reading.

In the recent eltchat on the subject one thing we all agreed on was that reading extensively means reading a lot, and that this is extremely useful for the language acquisition process. We, of course, are not alone in this and there is a wealth of research into the phenomenon, ranging from Krashen to Richard R. Day from the University of Hawai and Julian Bamford from Bunkyo University. As a result of this I am in the middle of a project with my university students here in Bolzano, and it is something that I have been mulling over for a while. This is to use Google Reader as a basis for students to receive articles from blogs or journals of their interest. The project was structured simply like this:

1) set up a Google Reader account for yourself;

2) find three blogs, journals etc. That you are interested in or that are related to your area of study;

3) over a period of one month read the articles that are published in your reader and choose three that you find particularly interesting for whatever reason.

At the end of the month the students will give a presentation of their findings. So, last week we duly looked at Google Reader and how to set up an account, and add feeds to it. I was quite surprised in fact to see that nobody had ever even heard of Google Reader. I don’t know if this is because of waning interets in subscribing to journals, or simply that they use other methods… I still haven’t had an answer to that one.

The first pitfall came this morning when various students from this group told me that they had tried to add links to sites but had not been able to do so, and they automatically assumed “It doesn’t work.” Actually, when I looked into this I realised that they hadn’t really understood the principal of subscribing to a blog or journal and were just trying to link sites they had come across. Since I don’t really want to be prescriptive about the way they collect the material they are reading (I’m trying to be as learner centred as possible here) I decided to add anoter site to the project which is Evernote. Evernote will simply bookmark anything they find of interest and they can add a comment or summary directly and organise the items they collect into various categories that they tag. I was thinking of using as well, but I hav decided that as, at the moment you still need an invitation to use, I can let them use Google Reader and Evernote to collect material and then, at the end of the project, we can make a topic together in class, with the artices of most interest that will then be online for others to read and access.

Well, that was week one, so I decided that we needed to do some work on what Google Reader was. I told the class the story of how, once upon a time, in the olden days, people used to subscribe to a newspaper, by means of the post or by going to their local newsagent’s and paying once every six months or so, and how the newpaper was then, physically delivered to their front door. Ok, ok, I know that’s overdoing it a bit but the message did getbthrough. We then looked at the Internet Explorer and I showed them that the Rss feed icon on the top on the right is orange, if there is a feed from a site (and grey if there is not). After that they got the message wuite quickly and were happy to use Evernote as well, so tomorrow (the end of the second week) they will have a discussion of where they are up to, what they have read, and set goals for next week. We’ll see what happens. What I have noticed, however, in a purely anecdotal way, of course, is that the language competence of the whole class, as well as their confidence, is improving by leaps and bounds, which is partly due to the fact that they are engaged both in classroom work and projectwork, but may well also be because they are motivated to read.

Well, I’ll let you know what happens, anyway.

Getting back to Basics

Language blooms in the right conditions
I’m afraid I missed eltchat last week because I was away from home and had limited Internet access, which, although I hate to say it, was possibly no bad thing… Just for a while, at least, because I was quite pleasantly surprised to see that actually, although I love my virtual, online world, I can get on perfectly well in the real world too. I was in Slovenia, soaking up the sea, wellness culture and the gorgeous green landscape of Istria, a three hour drive from my home in Verona. What is also great, about coming here is that I was surrounded by a new language too.

Soaking up a new language

My extremely limited recollections of Russian helped me up to a point but so much of Slovenian is new, so I listened to it on the TV ( or read it as subtitles to TV series in other languages, which is a very good way of discovering new vocabulary, new language “chunks” or “patterns” ) I suppose it’s a type of Rosetta Stone approach to language acquisition, using trchnology ( of course) to do so. I can then listen to the radio in the car, or in various bars etc. where the new language I’ve seen on TV is reinforced,, plus you get the pronunciation patterns too. I find listening to the news very useful, as there are often stories that I already know something about, so you can very easily listen for gist even as a beginner.

The third really useful thing is reading, reading whatever turns up, whether it a menu, products at the supermarket, or even the adverts on billboards along the street. So many products are the same brands these days that it is easy to inderstand exactly what they are advertising, and notices here tend to be in Slovenian and Italian as well, so that helps. Oh, and of course, then you can pr actise the language with the people here, even if it’s only to say Good Morning etc. This can give you a great sense of achievement.None of this is particularly earth shattering. These are all things I know very well, but every time I go to a country with a language I do not know well, it hits me forcibly again just how important these things are. Things that are perhaps not so fashionable but things that good language learners automatically tend to do. So, in a nutshell, the key elements are:

1) A sense of curiosity

2) translation

3) ability to make use of whatever you can find

4) the ability to see patterns

5) the ability to transfer elements of one language to another

6) a love of communicating

7) a love of playing with new sounds, rolling them round on your tongue

8) not being afraid of looking a fool

9) a willingness to let it all roll over you, around you so that you can soak it up

Of course, perhaps the most important one of all is motivation. You have to want to absorb these new things. If you have other priorities well, it probably

Soaking up the atmosphere in Istria

just won’t happen, but me, I’m fascianted by language and its patterns and forms so, excuse me if I go back outside to soak up some more new language. Hvala 🙂