Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A Beginning, a Middle and an End

By Peter McKenzie-Brown

Whichever language skill you are teaching, each component of your lesson should comprise beginning, middle and end. On the surface, this sounds obvious. But in language teaching, nothing is as it seems – or so it seems.

A better way to describe this issue is to talk about pre-skill, skill and post-skill activities. The three sections of a lesson segment should include an introduction that activates any schema the learners may need to succeed in the activity; the activity itself; and a review of the activity. To use reading as an example, the moving parts of a good teaching activity should include pre-reading, reading and post-reading components.

In the balance of this discussion, we will use reading and writing activities to illustrate this general idea. However, you can equally apply it to instruction in listening and speaking.

The communicative language teacher’s main responsibilities are to choose class materials and activities and to set class standards; in many ways, the choices are the hardest part. CL teachers should adapt readings to the level and interest of their students. All else being equal, students learn best when they read items that interest them. When you are presenting a text to students, there are a number of steps you should take to help your students get the most from their reading.

These include pre-teaching essential vocabulary and engaging the students by having them try to predict the content before they actually do the reading. If you have a class full of young adults, for example, you might begin the section with the observation, “We are about to read a short love story. What do you think will happen?” These kinds of pre-reading activities promote comprehension. In turn, this encourages your students to react personally to what they are reading.

You should base a sequence of classroom activities on your reading text. In this way, you can integrate better reading with improvements in one or more of the other skills – listening, speaking and writing.

Student Generated Reading Materials: Sometimes, of course, you won’t want to provide your students with canned material. You may opt instead to have them generate their own reading material.

You can have intermediate or advanced students choose their own research topic and find their own study materials in the newspaper or on the Internet. Once they have chosen their reading materials, you can put them through pre-reading, reading and post-reading exercises. This kind of project will extend over several classes, or even several weeks.

If you have lower-level students, you can use the “language experience approach” to help a class of beginners extend their spoken language into reading and writing activities. Begin by discussing a shared experience in class. Then lead the students in telling you a story. Write words and phrases on the board. Gradually develop their language contributions into a story, prompting revisions as you go. Read and reread the story together. Depending on the language skills of your students, use “repeat after me” or “choral reading” approaches. You may want to extend the story by having the students illustrate it.

After it is complete, you can further exploit this exercise by preparing flash cards that give brief cues to the story. Then erase the board, and have each student tell the story using only these cues. You will probably want your learners to tell these stories in small groups, so they get maximum language practice.

Make student-generated material go a long way, by pointing out elements such as punctuation and repetitive grammatical forms. Point out parts of speech, and use readings as springboards for speaking, listening, and writing. Finally, post student-generated writings on the wall to remind students of what they have learned.

Also, after you isolate a word, phrase or sentence, put it back into context so you can re-establish “syntax.” Syntax is the teacher’s word for the rules we use to combine words into phrases and sentences.

Reading Skills:
Of course, in reading lessons it is also important to present strategies for effective comprehension. Here are three key skills.
• Skimming is used to quickly identify the main ideas of a text. When you read the newspaper, you're probably not reading it word-by-word; instead you're skimming the text. Skimming is done at a speed three to four times faster than normal reading.
• Scanning is a technique you often use when looking up a word in the telephone book or dictionary. You search for key words or ideas. In most cases, you know what you're looking for, so you're concentrating on finding a particular answer. Scanning involves moving your eyes quickly down the page seeking specific words and phrases.
• Surveying a text involves beginning a reading by examining some of its parts. Read the headlines and sub-heads, the first and last paragraphs, captions, charts and tables and other graphic materials. These will give you the main ideas of an article or brochure before you begin more intensive reading.
Teaching these learning strategies can greatly improve your learner’s reading comprehension.You can learn about other strategies to improve reading in teachers’ books and on many Internet sites.

Teaching Writing: Writing reinforces general language development and helps develop language proficiency, but it is also a valuable form of self-expression. CLT gives listening and speaking skills a certain primacy, but students do not always have to speak before they can write. (Of course, when you are working with students who have not yet learned the Roman alphabet, writing is usually a long time coming!)

The well-known applied linguist Doug (H. Douglas) Brown lists six principles for designing good writing lessons.

First, he says we should teach our students what good writers do. What do good writers do? Well, they focus on the main idea. They consider their audience. They constantly revise their writing. They follow a general outline as they write. And they get feedback on their writing from others. Build these practices into your writing lessons.

Brown also talks about balancing process and product. When you work with your students on process, you are inwardly focused, on the writer. You help your learners understand what the writer must do to generate ideas and so on. A focus on the writing product is outwardly directed. Who are the audience and what are they willing to read? What form should the piece of writing take? You also need to explain why correctness is so vital.

Another of Brown’s principles is to show differences between writing in English and writing in the first language. The focus here is style rather than language. For overseas teachers who cannot speak the local language or read the local script, this is impossible, of course.

His fourth principle is to connect reading and writing activities. This follows the general principle that CL teachers should wring as much as they can from a given task, stopping well short of boredom.

Also, he says, make writing as realistic as possible. Have students write for a real purpose. There are many varieties of writing that you can teach, and they exist for just about every student level. A few writing schema your students will be familiar with include email, letters, postcards, stories and newspaper articles. Forms they may be less familiar with include essays, poetry and business letters. As you begin a writing exercise, you should be sure your students understand the form (schema) they will be working on. Once they understand the form, the rest will be easier.

Finally, Brown says, teach writing in three stages.
• Generating content is the first. He calls this prewriting, and it involves research, brainstorming and other techniques for idea formation.
• Planning, organizing and preparing the first draft make up the second stage. At higher levels, for example, common planning and organizing techniques include writing a thesis statement, preparing outlines and developing topic sentences.
• Revision and editing come last. Except in special cases (for example, advanced students), it is not helpful to correct all the mistakes you can find in your students’ writing assignments. Like the other aspects of language, the development of writing is a gradual process. However, you should encourage your students to get feedback on their writing from other students by peer review. Also, your students should have opportunities to rewrite their work after you (or their peers) have corrected it.
And this, of course, takes us back to the beginning. Good activities for teaching language skills comprise beginning, middle and end.
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