Friday, 9 December 2011

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What's the Time?

It’s funny how something that seems like a fairly inconsequential idea at the time can end up becoming something that you integrate into your teaching and you can’t believe you didn’t think of it before. For example...

Being of an unplugged persuasion, I never pre-teach vocabulary. Rather, I let the students tell me which words, phrases, expression, chunks, sentences and so on they’d like to check. I’m not exactly sure why anyone thinks they are aware of exactly what language the student doesn’t know before they've even had a chance to check a text.

Anyway, here’s a phrase I’ve used countless time when showing a video to my students:

“Watch the video and make a note of any language that you’d like to check after.”

Seems pretty innocuous doesn’t it? However, built into that sentence is an inherent contradiction that is very unfair on the student. What if I put it like this?

“Watch the video and write down all the things you don’t understand.”

When I put it like that it seems pretty ridiculous, doesn’t it? Exactly how are the students supposed to write down things they don’t know? And if you’re showing a video or playing some audio, it’s easily avoided. Just make sure the students can seem the countdown as it plays, and ask them to make a note of the times they’d like to go back to in order to check on a doubt.

“It’s such a tiny, simple thing on the surface, but it really lets you do so much. Just as you can use a reader response code to unlock the student’s internal dialogue with a written text – and to pinpoint difficulties in understanding – so you can use a code with the numbers to access the student’s reactions to an audio text – and to go back and revisit the points of difficulty ...a small advantage (that) can yield tremendous results.”


  1. What a great, simple idea! I confess I have asked students to do this. It could be more reasonable if subtitles were on.

    I do have one other point you mentioned I'd like to address: "I’m not exactly sure why anyone thinks they are aware of exactly what language the student doesn’t know before they've even had a chance to check a text."

    Actually, I think you must admit that through experience with students at various levels, you do get to know which words and phrases are most likely going to be troublesome in a text or video you give to students. If I give an intermediate group of students an article from our newspaper, I can fairly easily highlight those lexical items and use them as part of the lesson, with reasonable accuracy in terms of who didn't know.

    I don't disagree with allowing students to choose what they want to learn from a text, but it is also common to predict which they'll be with good accuracy.

  2. Thanks Tyson. Thanks for picking me up on the point about pre-selecting potentially difficult or new vocabulary. The problem with making little asides like this is that someone will, quite rightly, come along, drive a juggernaut through the gap in your argument and demand clarification. That'll teach me!

    Generally I agree with you. I'd like to think I have the ability to spot them too. In fact, if the students haven't mentioned something that really stands out to me, I'll often ask them just to check. The key to me those is that it is done after the students have been through all of their own queries first.

    My comment was more of a dig at coursebooks, where they normally have activities such as the classic here are 6 words from the text and the students have to match them to their definitions. I find that tedious and unnecessary.

    It's the teacher centredness of pre-teaching vocabulary that bugs me, I think. Just let them get on with reading and then we can check after, when they've already had the opportunity to see the vocabulary in context.

    Thanks again.

  3. Hi both!
    Joining in with an aside to the aside! I think if the "pre-teaching" phase is checking understanding of key language, letting the students get their tongues around it so they'll have more chance of picking up on it when they hear it, then we're helping the students process the listening text. I don't see this stage as vocab teaching as such, but rather as giving help and support with listening.
    I'm with you James, that any vocab study comes out of the text afterwards and is usually more meaningful if it's something the students have highlighted as being something they want to learn.

  4. Thanks Ceri. I thinks this needs to be seen in a wider context. In general I try to downplay the vocabulary aspect of the activities I do, because nearly all of my students are intermediate or above. I don't think new vocabulary is their priority. They need it, sure, but I think they are much better off at practicing the language they already have.

    With that in mind, I try to create activities which stimulate genuine interaction and reaction as their primary objectives. I do spend time looking at vocabulary, but that comes after some other meatier work, and is very much focused on what the students will find useful in a following output task, whether that be writing or speaking.

    I guess my question is this: Can we not give the students a chance to listen to it first before we check the understanding of key vocabulary? Is there any reason why I shouldn't let them first tell me what they are struggling with or curious about? Couldn't I then follow this up by asking them some tailored questions to check to see if they've understood the concepts that the vocabulary is there to explain?

    These are genuine questions, because in my head this is a logical sequence, but you may be able to point out something that I'm missing. I'd be fascinated if you can!

  5. I'm not convinced students are the best at determining what lexical items are worth learning, frankly. Having said this, I don't see much wrong with seeing what students pick out themselves first. When they miss things you think are important, asking guiding questions afterwards can be revealing, as you say.

    Another point I'd make though is that I believe vocabulary to be one of the most important gaps in students ability to communicate in upper levels actually. When it comes to communicating in certain contexts (academic, workplace, etc), being stuck with intermediate or below vocabulary keeps them sounding like children.

  6. So when is this aside officially a tangent? ;-)

    On your first point, I think it's all about sequencing. Students can definitely miss things, or make incorrect assumptions, often because English has an annoying tendency to reuse words and give them a completely different meaning in a new context or within a phrase. I just want to give them the chance to react first, and then follow it up myself. I think it sends a message to the students that you are prepared to listen to them and that you're open to their needs before you meet you own. The net result might be the same, but I prefer this way of reaching it.

    And on your second point, I go back to to my opinion about how English reuses vocabulary. I have no academic research behind me, although I've got a feeling it's out there somewhere, but when I look at the vocabulary that comes up in my business classes, very little of it is completely new and only belongs in that particular business oriented situation. Often I find that I teach the intonation of reasonably familiar phrases as much as I teach new vocabulary in order to achieve communication.

    Of course, context is a lot to do with this, but in three different countries, with several different nationalities and countless student objectives, I've rarely seen a student that needed an increased vocabulary more urgently than they needed a greater opportunity to practice what they already have.

    By the way, these are great questions and are exactly why I love blogging. Thanks!

  7. My EAP students write paragraphs, reports and ultimately essays with very little available vocabulary. It could be that they have the vocabulary back in the depths of their brains, but since it isn't used as frequently as 'great' or 'grow up', for example, it never comes out in their writing. But yes, context indeed. And yes, blogging rules cuz it's great and has grown up my issue talking lots. ;)



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