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Circling

I sometimes come across teachers online who struggle with how to keep lessons in the target language. Circling is an important way of making this happen without losing the class.

I came across the term "circling" with reference to questioning technique some time ago when reading about TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) , the north American language teaching approach closely associated with naturalistic or comprehensible input style teaching. In fact, what they call circling is nothing new. It was used in its most elaborate form in the Marc Gilbert books Cours Illustré de Français back in the 1960s. Circlng is, however, a convenient term to describe that form of artificial questioning language teachers use when practising new structures or vocabulary with classes.

Most of you will know what I mean. If you were teaching prepositions to near beginners it would go something like this:

Is the book on the table?
Is the book on the table or under the table?
The book is on the table. True or false?
Is the book on the chair?
Where is the book?

If you were introducing -er verbs in French to beginners you might have a pair of pupils David and Chris up to the front to draw simple animals on the board. David draws a cat. Chris draws an elephant.

David dessine un chat ou un éléphant? (Il dessine..)
Est-ce que David dessine un chat? (Non, il dessine...)
David, tu dessines un chat? (Oui, je dessine...)
Chris tu dessines un éléphant, oui ou non? (Oui)
Chris tu dessines un chat ou un éléphant? (Je dessine...)
David, qu'est-ce que tu dessines? (Je dessine...)

Tout le monde, David dessine un lion? (Non, il dessine...)
Chris dessine un tigre ou un éléphant? (Il dessine...)
Qu'est-ce qu'ils dessinent? (gesture both of them) Ils dessinent...

(Teacher draws a cat)
Nous dessinons un chat.
David, tu dessines un chat. Moi, je dessine un chat? Nous dessionons un éléphant? (Non, nous dessinons...)

etc etc

Some teachers may dislike the artificiality of such dialogue. I understand that. The whole class knows the book is on the table, why on earth ask about it?! But it is one of the prime ways we stick to the target language whilst maintaining comprehension (pictures and gesture help a lot), thus developing listening skill, vocabulary knowledge, oral proficiency and grammatical accuracy. Some would claim that the very repetition of structures helps students "internalise" or "fix" them, so they become part of their tacit knowledge. Good "circling" covers so many bases that it would be foolish to avoid it, I believe.

The artificiality of circling can, in fact, be played around with by using an exaggerated tone of voice or disbelieving facial expression. Students will happily play along with this, realising it's a bit of a game.

Even with more advanced learners you can use quite artificial dialogue. More advanced learners will feel patronised if you ask obvious questions. But this sort of activity works well:

e.g. "I am going to give you a deliberately false and stupid statement, correct it for me."
      "I am going to give you an answer; what was the question?"
      "I am going to give you two/three different statements. Which is the right one?"

As teachers my belief is that we should not avoid these types of artificial communication in the classroom. If the long term goal of producing proficient linguists is achieved in this way, let the ends justify the means.

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