Monday, 28 September 2015

Managing classroom oral work

This is a short extract in draft form from the forthcoming Language Teacher Handbook being co-authored with Gianfranco Conti.

One of your most important skills as a language teacher is the ability to interact orally with your class, largely in L2. This chapter examines the many ways you can develop a dialogue, sometimes artificial, sometimes authentic, with your students. This skill allows you develop multi-skill lessons where students listen, respond, then go on to read and write.

Questioning techniques

Questioning in language lessons is not usually the same as in other subjects. We use it mainly as a device to develop acquisition. In the early stages of language learning especially, questioning is only sometimes used in a genuinely communicative way. “What TV programmes do you like?” is a genuine question which elicits an unknown response. Asking a student “Is the book on the table or on the chair?” is silly, in a way, because both you and the student can see very well where the book is. So the latter is in a sense inauthentic, but is nevertheless useful in the language teaching process since it allows students to get comprehensible input and provides them with an opportunity to understand a message, respond easily, practise their pronunciation and develop their control of vocabulary (book and table) and grammar (in this case using prepositions).

As students build up their proficiency questions are likely to become less artificial, but even at advanced level, a question on a text may fulfil this same “artificial” role of eliciting the use of a structure or item of vocabulary.
We believe that this form of questioning, although somewhat artificial, is a key weapon in your armoury.

You could employ a hierarchy of questions from easiest to hardest. This is sometimes called “circling”. More processing or production is required of students as the questions increase in complexity.

Question type
Do you like lions?
This is a lion. True or false?
Is this a lion or a tiger?
Is this a lion, tiger or giraffe?
Question word questions
Where is the lion?
Open ended questions
What do you think of lions?

In the easier questions the student is provided with the language they need to respond, so the response is to some extent repetition. In the highest level questions the student has to decipher the question then provide their own language in answer.

In a skilled questioning sequence with beginners you would start with the easiest questions and work up towards the hardest. Some call this scaffolding. When you start teaching it is wise to plan out your question sequence in advance. With experience this becomes second nature. Note also that being skilled with questioning technique allows to differentiate between faster and slower students. 

One useful technique is “return to student” whereby, if a student has been unable to answer or has answered inaccurately, you go to a number of others, then return to the first student so that he or she can give a successful response.
So, a typical beginners’ sequence might go like this. We have only given part of the sequence. In practice you would do more examples.

Teacher                                                                     Student (or class rep.)

Is the pen blue? Yes or no?                                      Yes.
Yes, the pen is blue. Repeat: the pen is blue.           The pen is blue.
Is the pen red?                                                          No.
Is the pencil red?                                                       Yes.
Yes, the pencil is red. Repeat: the pencil is red.      The pencil is red.
The ruler is green. True or false?                             True.
True. It’s green. Repeat: the ruler is green.              The ruler is green.
Is the ruler green or red?                                          Green.
Yes, it’s green. Repeat: the ruler is green.               The ruler is green
Is the pen green, blue or red?                                   (It’s) green.
Yes, it’s blue. Repeat: the pen is blue.                     The pen is blue.
OK, is bag black, green or red?                                Black.
Great! It’s black. Repeat: the bag is black.              The bag is black.
Where is the black bag?                                           On the table.
Yes, the black bag is on the table. Repeat.               The black bag is on the table.
What is on the table?                                                The black bag.
Excellent! The black bag is on the table. Repeat.    The black bag is on the table.

At the end of a sequence you could always check in L1 or L2 that students have understood.

Any problems with that? Did you all follow (thumbs up)?
How did we say…?

You may want to give notes for students to copy down.

Of course, when you see this dialogue written out it appears very artificial (some teachers would reject it for that reason) but students are happy to play along with this game, particularly if you explain why you are doing it. In the process of a 10 minute exchange of this sort, students are getting lots of easy, repeated comprehensible input and a chance to practise their pronunciation and embed vocabulary. If students hear the word “bag” twenty times they are more likely to remember it without having to resort to a conscious rote learning method.
Sequences like the above can go very quickly and work best with hands up. You could always top the sequence and say you are going to ask the next question with no hands up.

You can also bring fun and humour to such sequences by feigning surprise or insisting that something is true when it clearly isn’t.

In addition you can turn the session into a writing one, with students writing down answers they hear, either in a notebook, on a tablet or a mini whiteboard. This provides more active involvement for the whole class and creates a multi-skill task.

Teacher                                                                                Student
The pen is blue.                                                                     No!
Yes, the pen is blue!                                                             No!
OK. The pen is red.                                                               Yes!
So, the blue pen is on the table.                                           No! The red pen!

With some classes you might be able to get students to play the role of teacher. Some take to this really well once they see how it works and their classmates respond keenly.

This general approach to structured, hierarchical question-answer works well with realia, flashcards, PowerPoints and simple texts.

We have gone into some detail about this because we believe you might find it a tremendously useful skill if one of your aims are to maintain L2 use during lessons whilst building up lexical and grammatical knowledge. It is one way, indeed, of “teaching grammar”.

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