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Going backwards to (hopefully) go forwards

October 13, 2013

If you regularly read my blog posts you’ll have probably noticed that I’m very much in favour of reactive teaching. By this I mean that teachers should be more open to issues as they arise in the classroom, and they should exploit these issues as learning opportunities. This idea conflicts with the dominant view in ELT that lesson content should be planned meticulously in advance, with the language content dictated by the teacher and the students made to complete controlled activities to demonstrate that they have “learnt” what was “taught”.

However, I’m now finding myself in an uncomfortable and, some might say, a compromising position. Here’s the thing.

I’m currently teaching two groups using what could be described as project-based learning. In addition to doing ESOL qualifications, our students need to complete non-language-based units in what are known in Scotland as Core Skills (Working With Others, Problem-Solving and ICT). The idea is that they work on projects and, in so doing, they generate enough evidence of these core skills to pass the units.

This sounds fine in principle, and it offers lots of scope for the kind of reactive teaching that I’ve been banging on about for the past few months. With the main focus on the content of the project, language can be fed in as and when the students need it, and it will always be clearly contextualized. The core skills also require the students to do a lot of reflection, which raises awareness to their strengths and weaknesses and (I think) helps to increase motivation.

However, this whole approach is very unfamiliar to the students and, I have to confess, to me as well. I’ve never taught these units before, and I’m not sure if the projects are generating the right kind of evidence. Furthermore, as these are not ESOL units, there is no mention of language input.

Part of me feels this should be liberating; I’m not bound by a syllabus written in advance by a stranger. I don’t have to use a coursebook that is no more appropriate for my students than it is for a class of Peruvian teenagers. Instead, I can focus on what my students need, and give it to them at the point of need.


However, it’s not quite working out that way. Or maybe it is. Well, sometimes it works out like that. There are times where I give the students a task and, while monitoring them doing it, I identify key lexis that they need or grammar items that need clarified. If it’s just one group that needs it, I feed it to that group and clarify it with the whole class later. If it’s a common problem across the class, I interrupt the task, do a brief clarification stage, and let them get back to it. That sounds pretty good when I write it down actually. But the problem is I’m not doing enough of this. Sometimes I just forget – I’m drawn into the project and the need to get the evidence together, and opportunities for language learning go unexploited. But the other thing I’ve started doing worries me even more. I’ve started planning language focus stages in advance. I look at the tasks that my students will be doing in the next lesson as part of their project work and. Based on what I know about them (which isn’t very much since I’ve only been teaching them since the end of August), I identify language that will probably be difficult for them. Then I use the project to create the context, pull out and clarify the language I had previously identified, provide some controlled practice work that I’ve usually taken from some resource book or other, re-personalise the language with a task that takes them back to the project, and then let them use the language as they work on their projects for the rest of the lesson.

Many of you will think that this is a perfectly reasonable approach, but I’m not comfortable with it. My discomfort comes from the fact that I am dictating what the language input should be, rather than allowing language to emerge from the students. The language focus relies on me anticipating a language item that they will need or, worse still, using the context as an opportunity to teach a grammar point irrespective of whether the students already know it. The other week, when students needed to conduct risk assessments for study trips to local places of interest, I found myself planning a lesson on how to use the first conditional.

So, I seem to be at odds with myself in that what I feel I should be doing is not what I am actually doing. This is raising a number of questions for me:

Is the whole notion of emergent language and teaching unplugged fundamentally flawed? It’s very difficult to effectively clarify language on the hoof, without having thought about it in advance. It’s even more difficult to provide learners with focused practice if you don’t have some kind of text, worksheet, listening task or something prepared prior to the lesson starting. Maybe I need to modify my views a little. I shouldn’t expect all language to be generated by the students, and as long as I keep the learning context and my awareness of their language needs at the front of my mind while planning, it’s perfectly acceptable to identify language aims and plan them in advance. Isn’t it?

On the other hand, should I be overtly teaching language at all? There is no language requirement for passing these units, other than the students need to be able to communicate their ideas sufficiently well to meet the performance criteria. This course is content-based, and maybe any language learning should be implicit rather than explicit. This is certainly a reasonable argument, and my students are capable of making their own language discoveries simply by being placed in contexts where they need to use English. However, some are more capable than others of turning these discoveries into acquired language. I still feel there’s a role for me in terms of helping students identify meanings, patterns and rules.

For me, the most pressing question is why am I resorting to teaching methods that I don’t agree with? I can’t write posts criticising detailed lesson planning and pre-determined aims, and then go and write detailed lesson plans with pre-determined aims.


The oddest thing about it is that in the past, when I have been working with a more structured syllabus on a course with clear language outcomes, it has been much easier for me to be reactive, to respond rather than dictate, to identify what students already have and what they need. You would think that a course that hinges on the teacher’s ability to do these things would be ideal for my style of teaching.

On reflection, I’m starting to realise that it’s probably a question of security. I mentioned earlier that this course format is unfamiliar to both me and the students. The students are not used to collaborative learning and long periods where they are just expected to get on with stuff. They’re even less used to being assessed on qualitative criteria such as how well they work in groups, or how well they are able to reflect on their own performance. For most of them, their previous English learning experience has required them to sit quietly and take notes while the teacher talks to them, then sit quietly and do practice activities on a worksheet, and then (maybe) do a very controlled speaking activity.

Almost everything I am asking them to do on this course is unfamiliar and strange. I’m subjecting them to a kind of classroom-based culture shock.

It’s unfamiliar and strange for me as well. I’m still getting my head round the unit criteria, I’m struggling to work out how to generate the right evidence within the contexts of the projects I am setting, and the whole question of when/how/whether to input language is making me even less comfortable. The fact is that this is not what I was trained to do. Like most of you, I was trained to teach individual language items in entertaining ways. Effective teaching was viewed in terms of the 60-minute lesson, not the month-long project. I’m trained to group and regroup students several times in one lesson, not make them work in the same group for weeks on end. I’m used to language clarification stages where I ask carefully-prepared concept checking questions. I’m trained to write detailed lesson plans with clear aims and stages, with precise, to-the-minute timing down one column. I’m also trained to stick rigidly to these plans.

At the end of the day, when you are placed in an unfamiliar or uncomfortable situation, you are instinctively drawn towards anything that is familiar (think of expats in Irish pubs, or British tourists eating beans on toast instead of paella). The need for familiarity overrides other emotions, including what we actually enjoy. While living abroad I regularly read the local newspaper from my home town (which my parents used to send me), even though it’s full of irrelevant trivialities. Now I am back home I never read it.

Anyway, a result of this desire for the familiar is that my students respond really well to anything that resembles classroom teaching as they know it. In the same way, I am trying to maintain a sense of control over the situation I have put myself in, and one way of doing this is to regress in my teaching practice and go back to methods or techniques I am most familiar with, even though this goes against my better judgement.

This course is taking us all out of our comfort zones, the students and me. The result of this is that we are all insecure, and in need of something to hang onto. Maybe, as we all become more familiar with the course format and requirements, this need to hang onto previously familiar activity will diminish. In the meantime though I need to find ways to balance my own ideologies, my insecurities, my students’ insecurities and the constructs and requirements of the course.

Any ideas?

  1. Mary Gorman permalink

    Hi Steve

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post. It seems to me that you may have wandered onto the heart of the issue towards the end. Do you and the learners want to gradually make this shift out of your comfort zones, or dive in head first at the deep end with the inevitable growing pains and teething problems? How many students do you have in a class? Although I agree that reactive input is far more likely to resonate, facilitate uptake, and result in acquisition when learners are able to map form onto meaning in the meaning-focused project work you describe, I have always doubted my ability to provide enough reactive input for enough learners when I typically have 20 students in a class. Isn’t pre-selecting and pre-planning a focus on language just a strategy, some might say a justified one, to provide input to the masses? A more individualized and reactive focus on form might be feasible if I only had 6-8 students, perhaps ……..?



    • Hi Mary,
      That’s a very interesting point about the impact of class size in all of this. I’m working with two groups, with 18 and 20 students in them, which many people would regard as large classes. Obviously, the bigger the class the more diverse the language needs within the group. This in itself makes it harder to react appropriately, and it also creates practical issues related to monitoring etc.
      To be fair to the students, they seem to be responding very well to the course, despite its unfamiliar nature, though you can feel a sense of relief if I give them a gap-fill activity to do. I think I’m finding it harder than them, though. I need time to get used to what the units require. Once I have more confidence in my ability to get students through the units, I won’t feel the need to regress into my pre-masters comfort zone.
      Thanks for your comment,

  2. Ken MacDougall permalink

    I entertained myself by doing this

    How a risk assessment scenario might look in a coursebook

    Steve: Guys, can you help me with this risk assessment for visiting the Art Galleries?

    Dave: Sure. I did one last week for the zoo outing.

    Sue: Yeah, I remember. It wasn’t too hard.

    Steve: Thanks. Ok, some of the students might arrive late.

    Sue: Put up a notice. If they arrive late, they can come to the office and we’ll help them meet the whole group.

    Steve: Great. Thanks, Sue. What if somebody slips?

    Dave: The Galleries will have a first aider. Phone ahead and get the details. If somebody slips, you’ll have the number ready.


    Recent risk assessment conversation in my workroom. Obviously not verbatim but pretty close to what was said.

    Alan: (Walking in bewildered) Where do I get the risk assessment forms?

    Beate: I think Lorraine has them

    Jan: No, they’re on the ‘S’ drive.

    Kevin: Just copy this one I did last year.

    Alan: Thanks. What colour are they supposed to be? Do I have to file a hardcopy or just put it on the ‘S’ drive?

    All: I dunno. Do both.

    Alan: You know the problem with risk assessments? The risks that are going to bite you in the ass are the ones you couldn’t assess. Karl Rove was right. It’s the unknown unknowns ….


    • I’m pleased you were able to entertain yourself in this way, Ken. Of course you are demonstrating the problem I have with preparing a language focus in advance. What you plan to focus on may not turn out to be what the students need to focus on at all. And you can’t really know what they will need to focus on until the task is under way. It’s the unknown unknowns…

  3. Hi Steve, you raise some very important points re reactive teaching, but it seems to me that some of the dilemma as to how to provide focused input can be resolved by providing students with texts that they can ‘mine’ for language that will be useful for their projects, and which they can consult both before, during,and after their project preparation and presentation. Some of this text-work (a good part of it, perhaps) could be done out of class (assuming sufficient motivation on the part of the students) in the form of research, the results of which they bring back to the class and share with their colleagues. Does that make any sense?

    • Hi Scott,
      Thanks very much for your comment. It makes perfect sense, yes, and there is plenty of scope for this to happen in the courses I’m working on. There are a number of different project types to complete, but they all involve doing some kind of research so the students certainly have to work with texts. This is something I should be exploiting more. As well as sharing what they learn in terms of content, I could be including more “mining” tasks that encourage students to identify new language that they want to explore. This ensures that the language is generated by the learners and it also encourages them to engage with the texts not just as readers, but as language learners. This in itself promotes critical reflection and should feed back into developing their core skills.
      Thanks for this advice – I’ll see how I get on and will no doubt revisit this topic to report on my progress.

  4. Dichotomies are either true or they’re not…

    About a few months ago, I would have said that I could only teach in the way that I believed in. All other ways would turn to Skittles in my hands.

    These days, I think I would say that we teach the ways we teach. I have a preference for reactive teaching…when it works. I like to think that it is my default approach. But I move from it when the circumstances demand (or, if I am being honest, if the circumstances permit something much easier…I have gone into classes armed with a pre-planned bit of work that I know students will lap up and which I can run through with my eyes shut).

    I wouldn’t sweat the language input too much and would focus more on supporting the learners in their attempts to actually do things. The language will take care of itself, I suspect. And as long as you are on hand to answer questions or to identify things that are very clearly wrong (i.e. those things that are utterly incomprehensible or more likely to prompt an undesirable response from somebody else), then it’s really about helping people DO things using their new language. The chances are that this act of using the tool of language to achieve new ends will result in whatever structural changes are needed in the brain to bring about lasting improvements to language use.

    These days I am sold on the lexical approach to language learning. My advice to students tends to be along the lines of “Find [arbitrary number] of interesting/potentially useful to you chunks per day and set about memorising them.” It’s all very mechanical, but the creative endeavour comes through engineering situations within which the chunks can appear (and, at a later stage, re-appear). So, I get to chat, watch short films, read interesting articles/extracts etc and then the students get the simple mechanical tasks that they often associate with language learning. The teacher part of me offers advice on how to memorise things and thinks of innovative (?!?!) ways of recycling the new language. This side also sticks his oar in when the language use goes awry. All in all, a simple approach for all concerned.

    • Yes, the lexical approach you describe certainly seems to fit with the type of course I’ve described here. There are lots of opportunities for the students to pick out the language that’s useful to them. I suppose the problem I’m having is that I thought I was pretty good at teaching lexically, but now I’m in a position to really do it I’m finding that it doesn’t come to me very naturally at all. I’ll keep working at it, though.

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