This summer, I’ve teacher-trained and I’ve taught B2 students preparing exams – all ‘unplugged’ – although ‘unplugged’ is, in this day and age, a bit of a misleading term. The things I’ve learned myself regarding using this approach are:
- Students learn. They engage, and as a consequence they learnt more ‘intensely’. The approach appeals, challenges, takes them into account as individuals and pushes them out of their comfort zone – it helps them develop personally, linguistically, professionally or all of the above, depending on the person and context. It starts where they themselves are at the beginning of the course (not where a book or other ‘programme’ has decided is their point of departure) and pushes them as far as they’re happy to go – encouraging them to make that point of arrival a point slightly (or even way..) beyond the one they had envisaged when they set out.
- Students / trainees become aware of the extent to which they are themselves responsible for their learning/development – aware of the fact that it’s in their hands. They see how much effort, energy and presence goes into classes from their teacher’s / trainers’ side of things (it’s a walk-the-talk thing), they are made aware of their own weaker areas, what they could or need to do and how to do it, and of just how motivating and confidence-building (tangible) learning or development can actually be – and the rest is up to them. This helps autonomy and risk-taking. It helps reflection.
- It also seems to be highly motivating when they are in a group – others make the effort visibly to work for the team, so they do too. Setting up classes as a team affair, really working on gelling that team and making the team responsible for the initial stages of planning (in a non-strict sense) ie for deciding on the loose shape of what goes into the lessons and therefore roughly what the output and outcomes might be, really teaches trainees/learners a lot. They are, again, more responsible and motivated. They also feel supported by the team and are willing to take risks (linguistic, professional or personal, depending on the individual).
- When you take the care to tailor the lessons to the students’ needs, to work with what emerges, but you do it in a ‘diligent’, coherent, caring way, their investment in the course increases exponentially.
And a bunch of other things I’ll develop in more blog posts after this series of posts on confidence is finished. But another thing I have become aware of while teaching the B2 candidates is that (lack of) repetition in cahoots with dependency on the coursebook can shape and define some of the most frequent errors. Think about this:
I taught well over 100 B2 students this last academic year. I taught around 15 B2 this summer. I realized that all but about 3 used ‘this, these, that, those’ indistinctly (if they used ‘those’ at all). This was true in both their written and spoken English. The four words were as interchangeable as perhaps and maybe. These were students who were grappling successfully with a range of tenses and modals, but they couldn’t use this, these or that correctly – or those at all. Then, of course, in exams and tests they were marked down for having “A1 errors”. But why did they make these (or is it this? or that?) errors? Look through coursebooks and you’ll see why. On the whole, it’s a language point that is taught in A1 / Beginner / False Beginner books and not again. It’s been DONE. While tenses are repeated in the same order year after year, possibly being built on to contrast them with another tense, this little family of four has been DONE.
And by B2, the tangle has become a nice tight knot. The two culprits, as far as I can see? Coursebooks and lack of repetition-accompanied-by-noticing (see the previous post). Which really means only one culprit: the teacher. The teacher who sticks to the coursebook like an infallible, life-saving, omniscient SatNav device is doing the students a disservice and is fossilizing or, even worse, creating these errors. (Is there such as thing as an infallible, life-saving, omniscient SatNav? Try finding your way around Jerez or the back roads of Devon with one….). An A1 student is like a child learning its L1 – there’s a massive amount of new information. Some of it is repeated course after course (present tenses, past tenses, position of adjectives, can, auxiliaries in questions…. You know the routine), some of it is not. It’s like having a new class of 35 students. You learn all the names the first day, then forget the names of those who skip the rest of the classes or disappear around Halloween. The associations you made in the first class fall into disuse. If you bump into one of those absentees a year later and call him/her Lindsay/Lindsey when he/she’s really Leslie/Lesley but no-one reminds you………. How far is your memory failure aka error your fault? Especially if someone’s being paid to remind you of Lesley/Leslie’s name.
It only took one lesson to sort out the this, these, that, those muddle – maybe 10 – 15 minutes of looking at it and pointing at things and discussing and working with examples and students making exercises in groups for other groups to do. They never muddle ‘here’ with ‘there’ or ‘now’ with ‘then’, so those became the hangers for the ‘time and place’ concepts of the demon (strative) quartet. Easy. Honest. Something similar had happened with the position of ‘only’ and ‘even’ in relation to auxiliaries. Learning by osmosis had been the apparent approach to-date, so we ‘hung’ them on ‘already’ and ‘just’ and are zooming in on them when they crop up. Of course, it’ll take repetition and they’re writing repetitive (but fun) raps and sketches for homework incorporating various things, but it’s like learning a musical instrument – you repeat the scales again and again, you bash out the same tunes (preferably the ones you like and have chosen yourself, or it really is death to motivation) once, twice, thirty times (I asked a musician/music teacher how many times he reckoned it took to get a song “right” – thirty was his number: thanks Freddy!) and THEN you’re ready to jam.