Going for the jugular in the language classroom

Got blood?

Got Blood used under a Creative Commons licence from Drury Drama (Lee Radlin)

Before I get started, let me put a few things on the record.

I want the teachers I train to be bloody in tooth and claw when it comes to dealing with language.

I want the teachers I train to sink their teeth into what their learners say or write and suck on the marrow of it with relish.

I want the teachers I train to go for the jugular.

Now we have that straight, let me take you into a classroom…

A trainee teacher is competently managing a grammar focus lesson on using present continuous for describing future arrangements with a CEF A2 group.

There has been a contextualised exploration of the rules of form and use, and some controlled practice to work on manipulating the negative form of this structure has been set. The learners are then asked to report back some of their sentences.

They say:

*I go not dancing tonight.
*I not looking TV.
*I not get up late.

All of these utterances, for one reason or another, are illegitimate.

The teacher listens attentively, unobtrusively recasts the learner output into legitimate form, perhaps asks a follow up question about the content of the students’ report, and then says something encouraging like “great” or “good job“.

A part of me dies inside.

Another part of me starts to rage in anguish.

The rest of me locks these other two parts deep in the basement and maintains a neutral demeanour – I am observing, after all, and exploding with rage like some kind of werewolf would not be the done thing.

Why am I so upset by what I see?

Vampire weekend

Vampire Weekend used under a Creative Commons licence from Outcast104

The teacher clearly is aware that the learners’ output is deficient. They are also clearly aware of how it should be (hence the recasting). They are also apparently aware of the need for feedback, as they are recasting at all instead of simply letting it slide.

In other words, they clearly have a sense of needing to do something; the only problem is, they choose to do something ineffective. And I think they could and should know better.

If I am teaching a lesson with a particular language focus, whether it be lexical, grammatical, phonological or discursal, much of my attention and effort will be directed towards establishing the conditions under which the learners in my class can become more aware of the rules of form and use for the particular target language, and providing explicit, purposeful opportunities for learners to attempt use of this target language in controlled but meaningful activity.

When errors occur (as they enevitably will), I see it as my role – my reason for being there in the room – not only to notice these errors, but also to do something productive about them.

Learners can use language without me; but for clear, useful, supported feedback on that use, they need me, or someone like me.

Without this feedback, I as a teacher may as well not be there.

From day one of my initial teacher training courses, I talk about and work on the centrality of listening and feedback – in fact, it is so important to me that my last post was all about it.

My trainees watch us trainers working with their own students, see us practising what we preach, and have opportunities to rehearse doing this themselves in input as well as to attempt it throughout the course in their teaching practice.

Yet when it comes to their teaching a particular area of language to learners, it is relatively rare that this type of close attendance to form happens as the lesson goes on.

Typically, my trainees do a very good job in developing context, allowing a need for new language to arise, focusing learners on this and establishing the rules of its form and use. In these early awareness-raising or presentation stages, I have seen exceptionally good work: clear, learner-centred, communicatively oriented, efficient, effective.

Yet sometime during the practice stages, I can see the same teachers apparently missing opportunities to drive the learning home, to bite down hard on the language being produced – language that is almost, but not quite, there yet in terms of accuracy or assurance of delivery.

Reality bites…

I know that the teacher has heard the issue, and I know that they have the tools in their teaching toolkit to do the job – move to the board, write up the learner example, ask the learners to compare the example to the rules of form or use from earlier in the lesson, establish where the deviation lies, request a re-attempt, endorse the improvement, and move on.

Whether this is immediate or collectively done at a short remove of time is less important to me than that it happens at all.

I know they have the tools, but more often than not they do not do the job. I cannot help but think of the recent (but not new) discussion reignited by Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill on the need for more demand in teaching.

They are like language-teaching vampires afraid to taste first blood – hesitant to sink their teeth in and let the learning flow.

Perhaps you think I am mad.

Man bits carrot
I know: a carrot doesn’t have a jugular… but I’m a vegan language vampire…

Look at what your trainees are already doing!“, you might say. “They are already doing great work establishing meaningful opportunities to experiment with language. Have patience: their taste for learning-blood will come“.

Or perhaps you might be thinking: “you lunatic! Comparing teaching to some vampiric, carnivorous activity! And the idea that direct feedback on performance actually has any role in language acquisition – you’re not only a vampire, you’re a pedagogic dinosaur!

Perhaps you think this, and perhaps you are right. And I am sorry.

I admire and respect the work that my trainees do, especially when I consider that for most, a mere 2-3 weeks previously they had never done anything like this before.

The fact that in this time they are capable of finding ways of focusing successfully on particular language is a minor miracle, especially when I consider that they had also selected this language area as a point of need for their learners, based on their own observations, and had designed their lesson, context, presentation and practice, all from scratch without using a coursebook as a template or crutch.

In fact, I would put any one of them against any ten other teachers who qualify in the same time period anywhere in the world and be confident that they could teach them all under the table.

Yes, I am that proud of them.

And yet…

I still howl with anguish in moments like this when they stop short of what I believe they are capable of.

I can’t help it.

I want the teachers I train to be bloody in tooth and claw when it comes to dealing with language.

I want the teachers I train to sink their teeth into what their learners say or write and suck on the marrow of it with relish.

I want the teachers I train to go for the jugular.


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