Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Modeling Student Talk
“How can I get students to talk more?” is a question I frequently get, especially in parts of the world known for quieter classrooms. Now, I don’t always want students to talk more. Sometimes, I want them to listen, or to summarize briefly, or to respond in writing. However, I do want them to make the most of their talking time; in essence, to talk better.
These days, many textbooks are set up to give students “communicative tasks,” where they speak English to exchange information. Often, there is some sort of deed to be done—A has the information that B needs, and B has the information that A needs, and they speak to exchange their information and fill in their charts or solve the puzzle or whatever end goal there is.
Those can be enjoyable tasks, but the downside of overdoing them is that students get used to seeing every speaking task as a sort of info gap: That is, there is information that must be exchanged, and so once it is exchanged, the task is over. It’s a fine method for completing one’s “Find Someone Who” worksheet, but it fails miserably for a discussion. Discussion questions look like they’re asking for information (that is, students’ opinions on a topic, or answers to some questions), but so much more goes on in a good discussion. Participants might make or respond to jokes, show off, show understanding or sympathy, address new topics, search for new vocabulary, let off steam, learn and teach information about the topic, express frustration, and so on.
I remember one lesson in particular with a small group of trainees at Sumitomo Electric Industries (SEI) whom I’d had in class for about six months. They had a good command of vocabulary and grammar, they were lively and engaged, and of course they were happy to be in English class instead of back at their desks.
We had a unit in the textbook on receiving visitors, leading up to office and factory tours; quite relevant for these trainees, since they used English primarily for receiving overseas visitors and then showing them around. There was vocabulary to be learned and dialogues to practice and functions to employ, but first there were (as there often are in textbooks) some warm-up questions. In my mind, they’d spend about 15 minutes on these warm-up questions (though I was prepared to go longer), during which they’d bring up the necessary vocabulary that they knew, as well as signal to me what they didn’t know. Also, I’d get a feel for their past experiences and needs.
There were two questions, more or less like this:
1) Have you ever received a visitor at your company? Who?
2) Where did you meet him or her?
As it turned out that day, I had four trainees in class, so I put them in pairs. And in each pair, the “discussion” went like this:
A: Ah … B-san, “Have you ever received a visitor at your company? Who?”
B: Ah … yes. Sato-san.
A: OK. “Where did you meet him or her?”
B: At … Kansai Kuukou.
B: Airport. OK, switch! A-san, “Have you ever received a visitor at your company? Who?”
B: “Where did you…” Ah, so ka. “No.” (both laugh)
They looked at me expectantly. Time for the listening! Epic fail, as the gamers would say. I sighed. The students were perplexed. They asked if they’d done something wrong. “It wasn’t what I was expecting,” I said.
A nodded in understanding. “ ‘No, I haven’t,’ right?”
No, I said, it wasn’t the grammar, it was the information. True confusion now. “But … I only met Sato,” said B, a bit apologetically. And I laughed. Naturally, they wanted to know what was so funny. Well, we had time, so I thought, why not talk about it?
“What is the purpose of these questions?” I asked.
They had the look of students expecting some sort of trick. “To know what visitors we met?” asked A. No! Here was our problem. I explained that I actually didn’t care how many people they’d met, or who, or where. The purpose of the questions was to bring up vocabulary and functions and grammar necessary to talk about receiving visitors, and to talk about issues concerning visitors, particularly international visitors, and to practice meeting visitors in English over and over again until they could do it comfortably on their own.
Then, I modeled what I had been hoping for. I went over and sat with the students and role-played the discussion myself, taking the part of both students, like this:
A: Hi, B-san. Receiving visitors. I don’t have much experience with that topic.
B: Really? I do.
A: Oh? Have you ever received any visitors?
B: Yes, only one time. But I think I’ll meet more in the future, because it’s part of my job now.
A: Who did you meet?
B: Mr. Sato from the Head Office.
A: Did you already know him?
B: A little. I hadn’t met him before, but I speak to him on the phone almost every week.
A: How did you know who he was, then? Did you make a sign with his name?
B: No, I knew his picture from (checks with imaginary teacher for vocabulary help, and gets it) the Intranet.
A: Did he look like his picture?
B: Actually, not really. His hair was longer. But you know, he was carrying a blue SEI shopping bag. So I knew it was him.
And so on. The students looked amazed. Truly. They’d had no idea, no idea at all, that this was what I might want; just as I’d had no idea that they didn’t know. They weren’t being uncooperative; they didn’t lack vocabulary or grammar or energy; they weren’t bored. They just didn’t know what my expectations were, or even what the purpose of the exercise was. Once they knew what to do, they put the books down and had a good 20-minute discussion on the topic, and ended energized for the rest of the lesson.
I’m a huge modeler now, and I don’t wait for things to go wrong first. Whether I want brief, focused answers or a meandering discussion, I never want to turn students loose on a task if they don’t know what its purpose is or how to do it.
This article was previously published in the Think Tank section of ELTNEWS.com: The Website for English Teachers in Japan