Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Modeling Student Talk

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net

“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.
A: Airport.
B: Airport. OK, switch! A-san, “Have you ever received a visitor at your company? Who?”
A: No.
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


Comment from Claire
March 30, 2011 at 1:32 pm

Thank you for the reminder to model our expectations. I tell my students I am not trained to read their minds. How can I expect them to read mine?

Comment from Dorothy
March 30, 2011 at 9:59 pm

Thanks for the comment, Claire, and that’s a good point. They can’t always know what it is we want!

For us teachers, too, we’ve taught the same class with the same grammar point again and again; but this is the first (and hopefully the last) time they will ever do this particular lesson with this particular teacher. So of course they have less of an idea of the purpose of it all.

Students are often presented with questions; it’s quite reasonable for them to assume that the point of the exercise is to answer the questions with true information. That’s how questions usually work in “real life.” And yet, often the real point of the exercise is to get them to use certain vocabulary or grammar more freely than in, say, a gap-fill exercise. It’s not ‘cheating’ to let students in on the purpose of the exercise! I think that greatly increases the chances that they will accomplish the goal.

Comment from Nick Jaworski
March 31, 2011 at 6:50 am

Modeling is always important, but I think the key issue here is something else. The true mistake comes here “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” This is what makes learning English so terribly dull and demotivating for many students. The teacher isn’t actually talking to them and they aren’t actually talking to each other. The only reason they’re talking is to “practice grammar and vocab.” You don’t really care about what the students have to say. The students often see through this farce both from on the part of the teacher and on the part of the textbook.

Where are the learners? Language is about communication, sharing, identity, expression. None of these things are part of this exercise. My students speak because they genuinely have something to say and myself and other students genuinely want to listen. Language spoken simply as practice is dead language, it’s not real. Language spoken to truly communicate is something else entirely and when you can change your classroom from one full of dead language to one full of lively communication, then that’s where successful learning really begins.

Comment from Dorothy
March 31, 2011 at 8:49 am

Hmmm, Nick, I think you missed my point there… the rest of the sentence says “…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.”

These were businesspeople, highly motivated to learn English because they needed it every day on their job. Answering “yes” or “no” to textbook questions wouldn’t get them where they needed to be. A fuller discussion would. To tell me that I “don’t care” about my students or their progress is simply not true; nor is it what I said.

I think discussions are fuller than answering questions. Again, I said this: “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.” THAT is communication.

Nowhere do I think I said that language should be spoken “simply as practice.” The model I gave my students wasn’t this.

I am sorry my model wasn’t clear for you, but at least it was clear to the students, who (as I said) had a very lively and engaged discussion on this seemingly simple topic. It’s always hard to show a classroom through a few words in a column. I suspect that we actually do not disagree on the major point.

Comment from Corrie Barkdull
April 1, 2011 at 11:31 pm

Thanks for this post Dorothy. I found it very helpful in my high beginning class here in China. Every Monday we talk about our weekends and I was finding that the students would just give a sentence and not react to what their partner said. So, from your idea, I modeled follow up questions for them and they talked a lot more this week! For “What did you do this weekend?” My answer was- “I went on a date this weekend” and then together we asked fun and funny follow-up questions. They loved it!

Comment from Dorothy
April 6, 2011 at 2:02 pm

I’m glad it worked for you, Corrie! Another thing you can do with weekends is tell students they’re free to imagine “the weekend that never was.” It’s a good activity for practicing “Spot the Lie” (the listener has to guess which event(s) never happened–that keeps the listener listening attentively!), and lets them have some fun if their real weekends are somewhat routine.

Comment from oriel ortega
April 10, 2011 at 9:00 pm

Hi professor Zemach.
My name is Oriel Ortega and I am taking a master degree in TESOL in Panama. I always read what you write in (Azar.com).Last year you wrote about using games to teach English “Should learning English be fun”. I sent you a message (Azar.com) for more information about the topic and you did. What you wrote was a powerful tool for my presentation and of course I gave you credit. Now I need your help again. Right now I am writing a paper about approaches. To write my paper I have to select an approach and a country. I have selected grammar base and the communicative approach and the United States. Professor Azar has a paper written about it on her webpage. I use it as reference. However, An important part of the paper is to present a video in which the approach is used. Have you filmed one of your classes or do you know a webpage where I can find this kind of videos? If so, could you help me?

Thanks a lot

Comment from Dorothy Zemach
April 22, 2011 at 6:57 pm

Hi Oriel,

Sorry, I haven’t videotaped any of my classes… one problem in the US is getting permission from each student in the class, which makes this sort of thing harder to find.

Are you in the US? It would probably be easiest to choose the country that you are in, and ask a teacher that you know for permission to video the class.

Good luck with your search!


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