What makes a lesson GREAT? Part #3

This is the third installment in a short series of posts inspired by a question posed by Mike Harrison – you can give him your own answer on the IATEFL Facebook page. To recap, I thought the following things were likely to make a lesson GREAT:

Group dynamic
Relevance to learners’ lives
Emergent language

If you like, you can catch up on what I had to say about group dynamics and relevance, or you can jump into the middle of things right here!

E for Emergent language

A simple gloss of what emergent language might be “language that comes up in the course of a lesson”. The trouble is, in an ideal world, LOTS of language comes up in a lesson, and it would be asking a bit much of a teacher or their learners to pay close attention to all of it!

Approaches to teaching which advocate the exploitation of emergent language require a teacher to select from this large data set those items which will contribute to learning – the question is, how to choose?

Being or becoming?

Looking in my dictionary, I find the following definition for emergent:

emergent |ɪˈməːdʒ(ə)nt|
1 in the process of coming into being or becoming prominent : the emergent democracies of eastern Europe.
• Philosophy (of a property) arising as an effect of complex causes and not analyzable simply as the sum of their effects.
• Botany of or denoting a plant that is taller than the surrounding vegetation, esp. a tall tree in a forest.
• Botany of or denoting a water plant with leaves and flowers that appear above the water surface.
2 arising and existing only as a phenomenon of independent parts working together, and not predictable on the basis of their properties : one such emergent property is the ability, already described, of an established ecosystem to repel an invading species.
noun Philosophy
an emergent property.
• Botany an emergent tree or other plant.
ORIGIN late Middle English (in the sense [occurring unexpectedly] ): from Latin emergent- ‘arising from,’ from the verb emergere (see emerge ).

The beginning of the first definition – “in the process of coming into being” reminds me of the notion of interlanguage and how this relates to point of need. Interlanguage, simply put, is the current state of a learner’s ability to perform in a language. The higher their interlanguage level, the closer they are to mastery. It is important to note that interlanguage is a dynamic state, not a stable one – it is subject to change, ideally, positive change!

The second part of this definition – “becoming prominent” – gives us the key for selecting language appropriate for study. Emergent language might be said to be language which is in the process of becoming prominent – sounds good: but what does it mean?

Language use as trench warfare

When learners use language, they are likely to use a mix of language that they already have under control and language that they don’t yet control. They may have heard some new language and seek to use it at what appears an opportune moment, they may serendipitously strike on a close approximation of a legitimate form or item through hypothesis and trial and error: one way or the other, there is something about this language that marks it out from the rest of the learners’ talk or writing.

This “marking out” is its proximity to the bleeding edge of the learners’ interlanguage. The less stable a position the language item has in the learner’s interlanguage, the more prominent it is: this language is what we might mean when we talk about emergent language.

So emergent language is not a synonym for “any language that comes up in a lesson”; rather, it is that language which raises above the profile of the learner’s general language use. It is language sticking its head above the trenches – it is language use above and beyond the call of duty.

What teachers and snipers may have in common

Snipers are gun specialists who are trained, above all, to wait and observe. They may observe an open space, such as a field or town square, for hours, or days, waiting for their target to come into view. Once the target appears, the sniper doesn’t try to pick them off immediately – they track the target in their sights until the optimal moment presents itself, and then they arrest activity around the target for a split second with a clinical, and minimal intervention.

Naturally, after this split second, all hell breaks loose.

In a very limited sense, teachers perhaps might benefit from acting a little like language snipers.

During class activities, a teacher might most usefully withdraw and observe the classroom activity from a relatively unobtrusive position, paying close attention to the lesson unfolding. However, instead of keeping an eye out for a particular learner, the teacher would be keeping an eye (or and ear) out for emergent language – that language which the teacher recognises as being something more than routine for the learner or for the class.

If we are viewing emergent language as that subset of language used in a lesson which is distinct from the rest in its newness for learners, its riskiness, or its unfamiliarity, then the teacher’s job is to capture it in the crosshairs of their teacher’s mind and take it down.

Pulling the (language) trigger

Sounds simple, but knowing what language to select is not easy, and this is one of the concerns voiced about teaching approaches which advocate focus on emergent language. A sniper usually has a fair idea of who they are looking for in the crowd, based on prior intelligence; how can teachers gain similar advantage to facilitate their work as language snipers?

The following questions might be useful to have in mind when listening to learners or viewing their written work:

  • Have I heard this language item from this learner and this class before?
  • Is this something highly relevant to the conversation that the other students asked the user to clarify?
  • Was the item preceded by a pause for thought, or was it hesitantly delivered?
  • Was the utterence obviously a circumlocation to get around some lack of lexis/grammar?

Mayday! Mayday! Noun Phrase down!!!

So what can be done with such language when it gets targeted successfully?  How can we as teachers capitalise on this?  While I was writing this post, Oli Beddall did some excellent work on his blog on exactly this topic, so instead of reinventing the wheel, I heartily recommend you conclude this installment by heading over to his blog to read on!


  1. Pingback: What makes a lesson GREAT? Part #5 « Teacher Training Unplugged
  2. Pingback: What makes a lesson GREAT? pt. 3 | efl-resource.comefl-resource.com

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