Beat the teacher

Browsing through a friends bookshelves the other day, I came across a book which until then, I’d somehow pretty much forgotten about. ‘Lessons from the Learner’ by Sheelagh Dellar (Longman 1990) is a real classic, and had a huge influence on what I did and, more importantly, what the learners did in my classes when I first starting teaching. A central objective of the book is (p1) ‘ to create more situations in which the learners can contribute, initiate, control, and create what happens in the classroom’ When I’d trained to be a teacher a few years earlier, I’d learnt lots of great activities to do with learners which involved using coursebooks, or handing out worksheets, but the idea that learners could create their own materials, and that this process could become part of their learning was quite new for me. For instance, instead of providing learners with a ready made worksheet in the classic getting to know you type activity ‘Find someone who…’,  I could enable them to create their own survey by asking them to choose the questions or even the topics that they wanted to ask questions about.

This is all very well for higher level learners, in face to face settings, but is it also possible and useful for beginners, working remotely, to create their own materials? I think it definitely is. Previously on this blog I’ve discussed a vocabulary activity that I do a lot where I have five words written on pieces of paper (all belonging to the same lexical set) and the learners have a minute to guess what the words are. Recently I’ve started adding an extra stage to this where the learners make the papers themselves, and ask me to guess their words. In the video below you can see a beginners class in Zaatari doing this extra stage, and picking 5 things which they can find in the room they are in. Of course, in this version, the learners don’t have to say out loud so many words in English, but they do have to do quite a lot of noticing. They have to go through all the things in the environment around them, think about which ones they can name in English and decide on which things are suitably challenging for me to guess. This leads to lots of decisions about the words and ultimately lots of processing of language. They also get to hear their teacher providing lots of accurate examples of words, and the obvious satisfaction of  seeing their teacher fail miserably in the task 🙂

Of course we might also want the learners to do things where they’re challenged to produce more language. Another activity I do a lot when working online is a kind of memory challenge where I ask the learners to look at a picture for a minute and then ask them some questions about it (How many X are there? Where is the X? What colour is the X? Is there a X in the picture etc) In the video below with the same class in Zaatari, the activity is reversed and the children are asking me questions to test my memory about a picture. This means that they get the practice in asking questions, rather than the teacher. It also means that I get the chance to be a bit more successful in an activity 🙂

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