Zooming in and Zooming out

A while back I saw a pretty impressive video on youtube and since then the images from it keep filling my head. It begins with a camera shot from space showing earth as a distant object and then gradually moves closer and closer, zooming in on the world, the continent of Europe, the UK, London and then, eventually streets, houses and finally people become visible. Once it’s zoomed in as far as it can go, it slowly zooms back out again until the world is once more just a distant blob.

earth from space

It struck me later that the analogy of the camera zooming in and zooming out, can be usefully related to the processes involved in the learning of a foreign language. We need moments where we see the language as a whole, without worrying too much about language form. But we also need to stop sometimes and examine the pieces which make up the whole. We need to both zoom in, and to zoom out on language.

If our lens is always thinking globally and looking at the bigger picture, the intricate detail of how the language works; the new vocabulary, the verb endings, the article system, the features of pronunciation, and the spellings, may pass us by. Similarly if we’re always looking in close up mode, we’ll fail to see the wood for the trees, and we’ll miss out on the role of language as a tool for communication; as a medium for understanding the people we connect to.

In my online sessions with children in Gaza (using a video-conferencing tool which is conveniently called Zoom ! ) I tend to do more zooming out because my feeling is that they have plenty of zooming in activities in their regular English classes. But particularly with older kids I also think it’s important that I do things which help them focus on detail sometimes.

The two videos below are from the same session with quite a large group in a library in Gaza city. The first one is very much a zooming in type of activity. The children first try to guess what is in my fridge and we write down the words and go through them. Then some of them come up to the front and talk about what might be in their own fridges at home.

In this second video I’m telling the same class a story. English is being used extensively and more naturally. I’m using some of the vocabulary that had come up in the ‘fridge activity’ but there’s no pressure for anyone to use the words that I use or even to understand them, since the teacher in the room, at least in the beginning, is translating what I’m saying into Arabic.

I think that trying to keep an appropriate balance between zooming in and zooming out is something that is always in the back of my mind as a teacher. It’s not easy to get it right, and I’m not sure that I ever really do! How much of each process is needed will depend of course on the needs and interests of each group that we work with, and on our own particular teaching style. So what about in your classes? Are you more inclined to zoom in, or zoom out ?

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9 thoughts on “Zooming in and Zooming out

  1. Well, zooming in and zooming out are all done at our classes but differently and in different ranges , and it depends on the teachers’ awareness of what they should do . But what is more practiced in our classes is zooming in since teachers all the time tend to cover the student’s book and clarify and explain new structures and vocabulary .So rarely can teachers zoom out the language just because they don’t have time to do so . Hence they keep using zooming in activities all the time in their regular English classes.In my point of view students need to be exposed to language more extensively and naturally every now and then by zooming out activities just to make it easy for students to use language fluently .

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  2. Congratulations on being the first person to comment Sereen! 🙂 Yes I think the context you describe in Gaza of teachers prioritising zooming in activities is a common one all over the world. I often hear teachers say that there isn’t time and space with the constraints of the curriculum to do activities which are freer, more communicative and which expose learners to more natural and authentic models of language. My experience of working with students there now for over a year tells me that some learners do develop these skills however, and do still manage to develop excellent fluency and communication skills. In your opinion is this happening because of the emphasis on controlled activities in their classes, because these learners are highly motivated, or because they are getting exposure to natural English outside of class – through the internet for example? Of course it could well be that it due to a combination of factors.

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  3. “Zooming in and zooming out”,I like these concepts and how they relate to us as teachers.As a teacher,I used to zoom in and out in my classes.Frankly,I zoom in alot rather than zoom out because I have to deal with the curriculum”structures and vocabulary” before the end of the year,this leads me to zoom in more and more.
    But zooming out is very necessary because we want kids to practise the language naturally and easily to stay longer.I think this could be through English club activities or during practise singing or acting plays.
    According to my experience with”Stories Alive”,it helps my students zooming out simply.

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    1. Thanks Sahar. It’s interesting that you say that zooming out helps the the language to stay longer. So maybe there is a role for these type of activities even for the huge memory challenge that is preparing for an exam?

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  4. I think it depends on what we teach and to whom. For example, if I’m to teach a structure to young learners, I would choose to zoom out. Why? Because I don’t think young learners are interested in details. Take teaching the structure “How many….?” and “How much…?”, students would learn it by heart through games and role play, for example. They can learn the structure automatically without the need to know grammatical facts. I believe that zooming in, sometimes, may confuse students rather than helping them. Something else, zooming out doesn’t mean that students won’t be ready for the exam. If they learn the structure spontaneously, they will be able to answer any related question, re-arrange, dialogues, matching, punctuation…etc.
    However, I may end up zooming in and zooming out if my students are supposed to acquire vocabulary.

    By the way, I’ve never heard about soup with ketchup!

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  5. Ha Ha Amal! 🙂 Well it is English soup so anything is possible!
    That’s a good point about differences between different ages. You’re right I think that younger children are happy to look at the bigger picture without focussing too much on the nitty gritty.
    But yes, vocabulary learning is one area that maybe does require some quite controlled, focused work. People like Paul Nation have been suggesting this for a while.

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  6. I watched the first video and quickly went through the second one and I found them quite interesting. As a teacher of ESL based in Gaza, I believe that our students need to be zoomed-in, and such activities are particularly effective and motivating to the students as they get them exposed to real-life interactions. I love the idea of initiating to connect the students directly with Mr Bilbrough, who is an experienced practitioner in training. I would kindly thank you Mr Bilbrough for your efforts in assisting both teachers and students to meet their goals, as I strongly recommend that this kind of activities be implemented more often in our classes.
    Best,

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