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Language Feed and Language Focus

December 1, 2013

One of the topics we need to cover in the ESOL Projects component of our full-time ESOL programme is Politics and the Electoral System. At first glance this may appear profoundly boring, but it so happens that this year it is one of the most interesting and widely discussed topics in Scotland.

In case you haven’t heard, there will be a referendum in Scotland next September, which asks the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Anyone over 16 and resident in Scotland can vote, which means that most of my students, the majority of whom are settled in the west of Scotland, will be eligible to voice their opinion on this massive issue.

For every topic we cover, I set the students a project to work on. This could be a group project, or it could equally involve the students working independently to produce something. My upper-intermediate class and I decided that a good project for this topic would be to organise a debate on the independence question.

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One of the flyers my students produced.

Once this project was agreed on and formalised, the next three weeks involved my students doing some amazing work. They assigned themselves roles, produced posters, arranged the venue, organised hospitality and parking for guest speakers, got the ICT department to provide microphones and PA equipment, contacted local political activists to go on the panel, and invited students from the ESOL, media and communications departments to attend the debate. They watched other televised debates to get ideas, then planned a structure that included opportunities for the audience to ask questions. One of the students presented and chaired the whole thing, while the others managed the audience participation, recorded the debate on video and took photos, which will be used by the college’s marketing department for publicity.

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Over 100 staff and students attended the debate

In terms of demonstrating their ability to organise an event like this, there is no question that this was a very successful project. It also allowed the students to learn a lot about issues concerning the independence debate, which will serve them well when it comes to voting in the referendum. Not only that, but the project allowed them to complete real-world tasks in English, and also to develop new skills.

But when it comes to value in terms of English learning, I can’t help having some nagging doubts.

Some of my doubts are based around the role I played in the project. The students were doing all the organising, so what was left for me to do? As the project developed, I found myself becoming a kind of troubleshooter, helping out if the students seemed to be struggling with something. We were all focused on planning and organising the debate, and this took priority over everything else.

But what about language? What role did language play and what opportunities were there for language learning? Did I exploit those opportunities?

Well, language played a massive role obviously, as the entire project was conducted in English. The students had to complete tasks that they had never completed in English before, so you would think that they needed a lot of input. But the thing about task-based or project-based learning is that students can complete tasks without going beyond their existing linguistic knowledge base. By definition, upper-intermediate learners have sufficient competence to communicate reasonably effectively in a range of contexts. Therefore, apart from a few key lexical items, it was possible for them to successfully complete the entire project without learning any new English at all. To a large extent, I think that this is what happened.

You could argue that the value lay in the fact that this project was a fantastic opportunity for the students to use English in a real, meaningful, authentic context. This was certainly a motivating factor, and the success of the project should lead to further motivation. But exploiting learning opportunities involves pushing the students beyond where they would naturally push themselves. OK, the motivational element meant that they pushed themselves quite far anyway, but I feel I could have pushed them further.

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ESOL student Joelle Malamba, 2nd from left, chairs the debate

In my last post I sort of suggested that my current approach to language teaching – set projects and tasks, get the students to identify what language they need, provide that language as required – is superior to anything I’ve done before. In theory, I think that it is. The problem is that I don’t think I’m very good at it in practice.

I can identify language that students need and then use it to plan a lesson. I can do that no problem, and so can most teachers who were trained in a similar way to me. I can also facilitate content-based lessons, as demonstrated above. But what I want to be able to do more effectively is to integrate the language focus into the content focus. I’m finding it difficult to do this effectively without disrupting the flow of the project work.

Maybe the language focus stages should require the learners to take themselves out of the tasks. Rather than only feeding language as required, maybe it’s perfectly legitimate to stop the project work for a bit and do some very explicit language clarification and practice, even if it does seem like interrupting.

Maybe I need to combine both approaches  – Language Feed (within the context of the project) and Language Focus (separate from the project). Feeding language has the benefit of immediacy; the students are fed the language they need, so the language will always be what they need. However, the immediacy of it means that I haven’t had time to consider the most appropriate or effective ways of clarifying this language. Nor do I have a practice activity up my sleeve. What can then happen is I provide the students with the language, they use it for the purpose they need it for in the moment, and then they instantly forget it. This suggests that there is still a place for a more overt language focus. I can still use the context of the project as a starting point, but then I can be more explicit about clarifying the language, and can perhaps broaden it out beyond the limited use that a student has for it in the moment.

In tomorrow’s lesson with the upper-intermediate group we are going to spend time reviewing and evaluating the project. This could also be an opportunity for me to focus on language that the students used, and to extend this further with additional language that they can use next time they perform similar tasks.

I’d better start preparing some tasks.

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From → ESOL in Scotland

5 Comments
  1. One thing you said in your post which struck a chord was “maybe it’s perfectly legitimate to stop the project work for a bit and do some very explicit language clarification and practice, even if it does seem like interrupting.”

    To be honest, I think it is ‘perfectly legitimate’.

    I think that this is a good way of ensuring maximum language growth during a project, especially if you can keep the interruptions to short, direct 15-20 minute input sessions and then let them get on with the work. Perhaps a short session about concessionary language (I see what you mean but…, That’s a good point but…) which is essential for every stage of a project like the one you described.

    It is difficult to know when to interrupt etc., but if the project is running over a number of days/lessons, you could set aside the first 20 mins of each day to address things that you had noticed the previous day.

    Providing explicit language focus without seeming like you’re trying to tell the students how to do something can be tricky though so I understand your hesitation.

    Anyway, sounds like a successful project to me.
    Well done.
    Aidan.

    • Hi Aidan,
      Thanks for this. Yes, it’s knowing when to interrupt the flow and then how to input the language that I’m still getting to grips with. As you suggest, devoting the same period of time at the beginning of a lesson, or just after break, might be the way to go. That way they would come to expect it and may start to anticipate these stages with questions of their own.
      Thanks for the advice,

      Steve

  2. I can totally relate to the difficulty of reconciling what we think we should be doing as a teacher to what’s going on in the class. Did your learners keep journals throughout the task? Since you can’t be with all of them at every moment, that might be a way to discover and help them work with aspects of language or communication that they struggle with. On the other hand, maybe what they most needed is what you already provided – a person to answer their questions, help them with problems, and guide their work – and an opportunity to use language they’ve never needed to practice before in situations they’ve never encountered before. Getting their feedback will be essential in determining what learning goals were achieved and what needs were met. Anyway, it sounds like an awesome project with a lot of learning opportunities. Thank you for sharing!

    • Journals were an important part of the task. The project leads towards the students gaining a nationally accredited unit, and one thing that they have to do is to review and evaluate the project. They kept a logbook to track what they were doing at different stages, and also made diary entries to describe how they were feeling about things. Bother of these have been really useful for me in gauging the amount of learning that went on. It does seem that they have gained a lot from the whole experience.
      I also gave them a chance to reflect in class on language that they had learnt, as well as what linguistic challenges they faced at different points in the project. This is giving me some great guidance on where to go next. You’re absolutely right that getting feedback is really important in maximising learning.
      Steve

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