“I tried talking about our future but she just kept bringing up my past. It was a tense conversation.”
Most of the Hands up Project’s work is with younger learners in Gaza but I also have a group of teenage boys who live in a village near Ramallah with whom I do a weekly session. In the beginning I found it difficult to organise online classes that really addressed this group’s needs, but, in consultation with their teacher Atiyyeh, a way of working has emerged which seems to be much more useful. Basically what happens is that Atiyyeh gives them a topic that they are all going to talk about individually with me. So far we’ve done clothes, hobbies and homes. They then spend some time preparing what they are going to say and when we meet in our online session each person has a few minutes to chat with me about the topic. Here’s a recent example.
You’ll notice that in the space of less than four minutes there is quite a range of tenses and structures that are used (present perfect, present continuous, present simple, and the future with ‘will’ and ‘going to’) These grammatical forms are of high importance – certainly in terms of what learners like Ahmed will be tested on in his English exams. They may have been studied in the coursebook in a contrived way and probably in isolation, but here they are naturally linked to each other within a context that is personalised and generated by the learner. This factor may help to make them more meaningful and ultimately more memorable.
Of course we couldn’t say that Ahmed has gained complete control of all of these forms, but it’s probably completely unrealistic to expect that from any single grammar focussed activity anyway. At least having a conversation with a more advanced speaker seems to be providing a scaffold in which he is pushed to process them a little more. I like what is happening in this short excerpt for instance, where Ahmed is pushed to go from ‘My dad he’s build the a home up our home‘ to ‘He is building for me a home for me’.
Ahmed…In the village we have another home in the village is away from the home we are living in. He’s to my brother and my dad he’s build the a home up our home (His teacher provides him with ‘second floor’ ) a second floor
Ahmed: For me
Nick: Your dad, did you say he has built it or he’s building it? He has built it?
Ahmed: He’s a builder.
Nick: No but did you say he has built it or he is building it?
Ahmed: He is building for me a home for me
Nick: He’s building it now? When will it be finished?
Ahmed: Next year on the summer
Interestingly, it was my genuine failure to understand what he meant which lead me to use the closed question, ‘Did you say he has built it or he’s building it?’ and this seemed to be a useful push for him to activate a more accurate form.
Another thing I like about this way of working are the opportunities for repetition and self regulation that it provides. Learners first think about and plan what they are going to say on their own, they then go on to talk about it with a partner, and finally they are pushed to do the same thing with a teacher in front of the class. It is at the final stage that the level of challenge is at its highest, and this may be useful in order for learning to happen. Of course it is also here where the level of tension is at its highest. Some learners, like Ahmed, rise to this very well but others may find it too much. However, in situations like this one, where the other students are clearly listening carefully to what is going on, perhaps they too are being challenged to process the tenses that are included in a deeper way than they would be if they were simply having a conversation with a partner.
I started this post with an old and rather corny joke, but I’m serious about the idea that tense conversations; that is conversations where a range of different grammatical structures emerge naturally through interaction, may be a useful way to combine the sometimes conflicting aims of communicative and grammatical syllabi. What I’m less sure about is whether we can depend on these types of conversation to come up naturally, even if we’re careful about picking the right topics, or whether with Ahmed I just struck lucky. What do you think?