Language Lessons – the main approaches

In more traditional methodologies, when teaching language, particularly grammar, a teacher might present students with several unrelated examples of this language and then go on to ‘explain’ or tell students about it. In modern EFL, we want to contextualise the language. In other words, we want to show students the language in exactly the kind of situation they will encounter it in real life. We want them to see the language in its ‘natural habitat’ – in context. There are a few different ways we can do this. Each is described in detail below. For a diagrammatic overview of each of the lesson types discussed here, see Language Presentation Stages.

We will be looking at the following lesson shapes:

a) Language through a text

b) Language through a situation

c) Test – Teach – Test

 

a) Language Through a Text

One way we can allow students to see the language in context is for the context to be a text. This can be a written text or a spoken text – students can either read or listen to something which naturally contains good examples of the target language.

Have a look at the following short text. What particular language structure/s do you think it could be used to contextualise?

Hi Sam,

We’re here! We arrived about 10am yesterday morning. It was really easy to get from the airport to the centre of the city, so I don’t think you’ll have any problems. There’s a bus that leaves every twenty minutes. It cost about 8 euros.

Our hostel is in the centre, which is great. Yesterday we walked all over the place. We visited a large square, or Placa in Spanish, then we went to see Gaudi’s cathedral – which was amazing – ! Later we had some typical Spanish food – batatas bravas and fish and then we watched the sunset at the beach.

You are going to love it here – see you on Friday!

Ana

 

Answer – the text contains lots of examples of the past simple positive (it was easy, it cost, we walked, we visited, went, had etc.), so it could effectively be used to present this tense.

So – let’s imagine we are going to use this text to teach the past simple positive. Below are the stages we can go through when presenting language via a text.

 

1. Lead-in

As in almost every lesson, we first want to get students interested and engaged, and thinking and speaking in English. In many cases, students may have been operating in their first language up until the minute they enter the classroom. We need to lead them into the lesson and the language.

We also need to motivate students. If the first thing we say in the lesson is, ‘Today we’re going to learn about the past simple”, we may immediately turn off many of the learners who perhaps have negative preconceptions about learning grammar. So firstly, we want to interest students in the topic of the text (not in the topic of the grammar).

In this instance, an example of how to do this might be to put students into pairs to discuss the question, ‘Where in the world do you want to visit for a holiday?’

Since we have ensured that we have put the language into a suitable context, we don’t want the language, but that context, to be the first thing we get students to focus on – in this case holidays.

 

2. Reading tasks

In the previous stage, we got students interested in the topic, which should help generate a desire to read it. The text is the context for the language and we need to create motivation / a reason to engage with it – to read it (or to listen to it if it is an audio text). We want them to have a general understanding of the content of the text, before we start focusing on the particular language used in it. For that reason, we set an initial task that is general in nature. This is sometimes called a gist question.

In this example, we could ask students to read quickly (less than one minute) and answer the following questions

Where is he?

Does he like it?

We set the questions (task before text) and students read to find the answer within the given timeframe. We then ask them to quickly check their answer with a partner, before checking the answer as a class. When we have done this, we can either set further reading tasks first, or we can move directly onto tasks which pull the language out of the context so students can start examining the meaning, form and pronunciation of that language.

3. Clarification of MPF / Presentation

Up until now, the students have spent time looking at the context but have not zoomed in on the main aim of the lesson – the language used in it. We now want to pull the target language from the context and help students understand it. We can do this by setting another reading task where the answers are all examples of the TL, or by asking students to go back to the text and underline all the examples they can find.

Now we have the students looking at several specific examples of the language and we need to deal with the big 3 (MPF). Of these three, we always want to deal with meaning first. This is because there is little point helping students with the pronunciation or form of some language if they don’t actually know what it is for. Then they might be working on how to say something with no clue what it means!

The context (in this case the text about a holiday), should have gone some way to helping communicate the meaning of the language (past simple) already. As we read the text, we can begin to get an idea of what the language in it is doing – what its purpose is grammatically. But we need to be sure students understand, and to do this, we can employ CCQs – questions that help clarify meaning and show us as teachers if we need to help students further, or if they have got it. In this case, we want to check they understand the meaning of the past simple.

When we have adequately checked the meaning, we need to help with pronunciation (how to say it), by drilling, and highlighting pronunciation features, and the form (how to make it).

 

4. Controlled / Restricted practice

Now that students have a much better idea how this language works and how to say it, we need to give them the opportunity (through practice) to focus on using it repeatedly and more accurately. (This stage will follow the task cycle.)

 

5. Freer Practice

Practice – using the language – now continues, moving more towards improving fluency and students having the freedom to make choices about the language they use. (This stage will follow the task cycle.)

For a summary / visual representation of these stages, see Language Presentation Stages.

 

b) Language through a situation

This method of presenting language is very similar to the previous, but this time the context in which the students first encounter the target language is a situation rather than a text. See if you can identify the similarities in staging as we look at this lesson type. We will again imagine that the target language is the past simple.

1. Lead-in

Again – at the beginning of the lesson we want to get students involved and engaged, so we design a task that achieves this. In this case the lead-in could be exactly the same as in the previous lesson. We ask students to talk about a place they’d like to visit and why. They discuss, and we then do quick open class feedback.

2. Set the context

Now we need to link to the lead-in and begin building up a situation. This is often done with the use of pictures. We could for example have a visual of someone with a backpack, a plane, an airport bus, a hostel, various Barcelona scenes etc. We could ask students to discuss where they think the person is and why. We then get quick open class feedback.

3. Clarification of MPF / Presentation

Now we need to establish that all of this is related to the past, so we could write a date from a few days previous about the plane. From there we could try and elicit, ‘He flew to Spain’ by pointing at the plane and the date. We can then similarly try and elicit other example sentences such as, ‘He took a bus from the airport’, ‘They went sightseeing’ etc. In other words, with our help, students create the situation in which the language is used.

As in any language lesson, at this stage we need to clarify MPF. Can you remember which one we should always deal with first and how we can do that?

The answer is meaning, and we can help clarify it by using concept checking questions and perhaps a timeline.

Once we are sure students understand the meaning of the language and why we use it, we can work on pronunciation through highlighting and drilling, and on form.

4. Controlled / Restricted practice

Now it’s time to get student using the language, at this stage focusing on accuracy. (This stage will follow the task cycle.)

 

5. Freer practice

Students move towards completing communication activities focusing on fluency with the target language. (This stage will follow the task cycle.)

 

 

c) Test-Teach-Test

Now we come to a slightly different approach. In the previous two language lessons, the language was put into context and then clarified – we helped students with MPF in the earlier stages of the lesson and then they practised it. Test-Teach-Test turns this on its head a little bit.

We will keep to a lesson where the target language is the past simple positive, as this should make it easier to compare all three approaches.

 

1. Lead-in

Not all teachers include a lead-in in a Test-Teach-Test lesson. However, one of the dangers of this approach is that it can be rather dry and decontexualised – so we are going to show how one can be included, and how we can strive to maintain some context when using this approach.

We could very easily use the same lead-in as we did for using a text and using a situation and follow the same procedure.

 

2. Test

With Test-Teach-Test our aim is to see what student do and don’t already know. It’s rare to teach something to a class and find that absolutely no one in it has ever come across anything at all about the structure you are going to teach. Most learners will have had at least limited exposure to most language that they are going to study at their level, before we decide to actively deal with it in the classroom. For this reason, Test-Teach-Test seeks to find out what it is they already know / can do and help them with the parts that they don’t know / can’t do. If this is done effectively, then it could be argued that Test-Teach-Test is a more efficient use of time than using a context or text, since we are not wasting students’ time teaching them things they already know

To find out what they can and can’t do, we start with a ‘test’. This is usually some kind of controlled practice. In other words, a task where students have no choice but to try and use the target language, so that we can see if they use it correctly or incorrectly. For example, we could take the text (email) from Ana in Barcelona and make it into a test. See below:

 

Use the verb in brackets ( ) to make the correct past simple verb for the gap.

Hi Sam,

We’re here! We_________ (arrive) about 10am yesterday morning. It____ (be) really easy to get from the airport to the centre of the city, so I don’t think you’ll have any problems. There’s a bus that leaves every twenty minutes. It_____ (cost) about 8 euros.

Our hostel is in the centre, which is great. Yesterday we______ (walk) all over the place. We _______ (visit)  a large square, or Placa in Spanish, then we ______ (go) to see Gaudi’s cathedral – which_____ (be) amazing – you have to see it! Later we ______ (have) some typical food, batatas bravas and fish and then we ________ (watch) the sunset at the beach.

You are going to love it here – see you on Friday!

Ana

 

Students would be instructed to fill the gaps individually. While they are doing this, we need to monitor very carefully, noticing what they are OK with, and what they are struggling with. Students would then compare answers and help each other with their difficulties. Again, while this is happening, it’s a vital time for the teacher to monitor actively and carefully, so that they know what is most needed in the next stage – ‘Teach’.

 

3. Teach (clarification of MPF)

In doing the Test stage, students should have revealed any weakness or problems with the MPF of the language. Here then, the teacher would clarify the meaning of the language (always meaning first) for the students, and the pronunciation and form. If, during the Test and in the Teach stage not too many problems or difficulties were revealed, then the teacher need not spend too long. The idea with Test-Teach-Test, is that the Test tells the teacher how much teaching they need to do, and in what areas. For example, we might note that students could complete the gap filling exercise well with the regular (ed ending) past simple verbs, but had trouble with the irregular verbs. That would mean we should respond to this in the Teach, by spending less time on the regular verbs and more time on the irregular verbs. Or we might decide, in some cases, that the form can be handled by way of a handout. If on the other hand, form proves problematic, we might decide to spend time at the board eliciting and highlighting the form. The key in the Teach stage, is to do what the students have shown they need, not what we have decided they need ahead of time.

This does of course mean that as teachers we need to be well enough prepared to be flexible, and be very aware of the potential problems an area of language may cause our students, so that we are ready and able to help them. When teaching the past simple, we might well be able to anticipate that students will have some difficulties with the pronunciation of the verbs ending –ed, as this is a common problem among leaners.  So, with TTT we need a combination of preparation, prediction and flexibility.

 

4. Test

When we are satisfied that we have helped students as much as we can, just like with the other approaches, it’s time to get them using the language. Essentially, the second Test is very controlled practice, similar to the kind of activity we gave students in the initial test. We are hoping that as a result of the Teach, students will now be better able to do the second Test. If we have been successful and after this stage we could move on to something more fluency based (freer practice). If we still feel that students need more work on accuracy and using the language correctly we would insert further controlled practice in after the Test and before the freer practice.

 

5. Freer Practice

As described above – hopefully we have seen some improvement in understanding and accurate use of the target language, and that being the case, we would use the remaining time to work on fluency with the language through freer practice tasks.