Here’s a vocabulary game that I did with the kids in Jabalia a couple of weeks ago. I chose six different lexical sets that they would find in their coursebook (food and drink, things you’d find in a living room, clothes, fruit and vegetables, animals and things you’d find in a classroom) and wrote down five words for each set on separate slips of paper. The girls’ team and the boys’ team took it in turns to send one person up to the front. This person chose one of the lexical sets and then had a minute to try to guess the five words that I’d written down. Those sitting at the back could help out, but I only accepted answers once the person at the front had said them. If he or she guessed correctly I held up the appropriate word to show them. The team that guessed the most words at the end of all the rounds was the winner.
One of the things I like about this activity is how it challenges the learners to do a kind of ‘brain scan’, of their mental lexicons. It asks them to root around in their minds until they find what they are looking for, and in the process of doing this they are likely to be making a lot of useful connections between words. They may also end up saying a word that that they’ve never had to say before, which, of course, is a good thing to happen in a language class. Like most things in teaching though, getting the level of challenge right is key. If it’s too easy they find the words very quickly and they aren’t really pushed to think; if it’s too difficult it just becomes frustrating.
When I’m working in face-to-face settings I tend to do this kind of activity in pairs or groups. Each group has a different lexical set, and they agree on a definitive list of five words which fit their category, and write them down. The other groups then have to guess their words. The advantage here is that the ‘brain scan’ also happens at this planning and writing stage. I have another reason for doing it this way though: since my initial teacher training course I’ve had a long-term belief (some might say an obsession!) that pairwork and groupwork are the best ways to do activities, as they maximize student talking time. What about student thinking time though? Is this also maximised through pair and group work?
When teaching online it’s hard, if not impossible, to use pair and group work effectively because I can’t get round the groups to monitor and help out. In fact I probably wouldn’t even be able to put them into groups in the first place, and would be dependent on the person in charge at the other end to do this. So the default way of working for me when teaching online has become interacting individually with one learner at the front. It often happens to me when teaching that when I’m forced to work in a particular way I start to see the benefits of doing things like that. Now I’m wondering whether there might actually be some advantages in doing activities with one learner at the front, in face-to-face settings too.
For a start, in contexts like the one in the video, I don’t get the feeling that learners are used to working in pairs and groups very much, so incorporating it may require time spent on learner training. If learners aren’t used to a way of working, they’re less likely to see it’s learning potential, and consequently less likely to benefit from it.
One person speaking at the front requires entering into more of performance mode, as the rest of the class are listening to what is being said, and, in this case, a webcam image of the learner is projected onto the big screen for everyone to see. For some learners being in the limelight like this can be a useful challenge, and can be the push they need to operate at a higher level. Interacting directly with the teacher is also more of a challenge than interacting with peers, and there are more opportunities to expose the learners to useful ‘outer language’ (‘Good choice!’, ‘Which one do you want?’ ‘That’s right’ etc. in the video above). There are also arguably more opportunities for support and correction, and it’s likely that the correction will be trusted more, and therefore more effective, when it comes from the teacher.
I’m also wondering about what’s going through the minds of those who are sitting at the back. Even though they’re not all actively taking part, perhaps they are still learning. Are they shadowing what the person at the front is doing, thinking of their own words for the activity, and doing internally what the person at the front is doing externally? Could it be that they might even be learning more than the person who is speaking?
Richard Gallen (2012) kept a diary of his experiences learning Spanish as a foreign language in a language class. One of his conclusions was that he found it difficult to take on board feedback and correction from the teacher, that was given directly to him on his own utterances. On the other hand, feedback that was given to others in the class on their utterances was much more easily noticed, and he could learn more from it. Without the added pressure of having to communicate himself, and losing face if he ‘got it wrong’, he was able to reflect on the language much more. Another diary study (Schumann and Schumann 1977) found, surprisingly, that eavesdropping was generally a more useful learning activity than active participation in conversations.
Of course we don’t know what’s really going through the minds of those sitting at the back. It could be that they’re not eavesdropping, or even listening at all, and are actually daydreaming about what they are going to have for lunch, or what they’re going to do once they get out of this boring class! I guess the trick is that, if we are going to do activities that involve interacting with one learner at the front, we need to make them interesting so that others will want to listen and think too. One way of doing this, as I’ve tried to do in the activity in the video, is to turn the activity into some sort of competition.
So, how about your classes? Do you want your learners to be interacting in pairs and groups most of the time, or do you think they can also benefit a lot from listening to others performing tasks at the front? Is student thinking time as important as student talking time? If so, what’s the best way of maximising it in your classes?
Gallen, R. (2012) Spontaneous Teacher Talk; English Teaching Professional; March 2012
Schumann, F .M., & Schumann, I.H. (1977). Diary of a language learner:An introspective study of second language learning. In H.D. Brown,C.A. Yorio, & R.H. Crymes (Eds.), On TESOL ’77: Teaching and learning English as a second language: Trends in research and practice (pp. 241-249). Washington, D.C. TESOL.