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!


  • Language sniper, reporting for duty sir! Several unconfirmed kills under my belt.

    Great definition of emergent language. Really enjoyed this post.

  • Hi Anthony,

    Interesting insights. I think you have a beating-around-the-bush kind of style. I really need a little more clarification on emergent language. if an error keeps coming up in the lesson and I pounce on it and follow it up would the feedback I give to the learners qualify as an instance of exploiting emergent language.

    • Thank you for commenting, Youssef – and apologies if I was unclear about anything. Emergent language, loosely speaking, is anything that your learners try to say (or write) which is either well-formed and more advanced than is typical of them, or not well-formed but more advanced than is typical for them. In other words, if a learner says something that impresses you, well-formed or not, it is worth focusing on as emergent language. Think of a plant just breaking the surface of the earth – it may look perfect, or it may be a bit wrinkly and bent from the effort of getting to the light, but either way, it will benefit from some of your attention and care. With the plant, you may water it and maybe give it a pole to grow against; with your learners’ language, you may collect it, and either look at it in class as post task feedback or create a whole lesson around the issue.

      The key, I think, is that this needn’t be an error; it could be a piece of language that the learners are trying out, and may have got right but need some coaching to “get it under their belt”.

      Does that answer your question?

  • Fantastic! Caring for the students’ needs and interests and that the content of our lessons should be relevant for their lives was exactly what I thought ;);)

  • Great post!
    As a language sniper, the teacher is sometime limited by the scope of the language emerging in the classroom. One student is late to the class, this can only trigger a short conversation. However, if it happens to be the mothers’ day, the emerging language can be much larger in terms of scope. what to do then? Given that fact that the teacher has to fill the whole class session.

    • Thank you, Shahram, I appreciate the feedback. Naturally, some lessons may appear richer in “targets” than others for us language snipers, but I don’t see that as a problem as such. It isn’t necessary to rely solely on what emerges in a lesson for its content (although this is perfectly possible with practice) – we can have plans up our sleeves but still be on the lookout for opportunities that arise as the lesson goes on.

      So for teachers just beginning with this kind of work, perhaps it’s a good idea to start with the “mother’s Day”-type rich opportunities, and build up to where you can find sufficient stimulus for a lesson and hit the bullseye when a student arrives late 😉

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