Here’s my third blog post in the last 12 months. I really do churn them out, here at the blogging factory. But I digress. Below is the video for the IH Live Online Workshop I did in December on looking at decoding, as well as comprehension, in listening lessons. The webinar goes over some background to what is involved in listening itself and then looks at some minimal preparation listening activities to work on decoding in class. The slides are below the video. Hope you find it useful.
I’m sharing the link here from my talk opening the IH Online conference. It’s a wonderful event and I enjoyed presenting. The talk is this post expanded somewhat. The slides are below the video. Many thanks to Shaun Wilden for inviting me to speak. The conference continues today (30/11/13), with real teflebrities like Scott Thornbury and Jeremy Harmer. Check it out!
Why are reading and listening lessons often treated as procedural, formulaic and possibly even dull? Do learners actually get a chance to develop their skills in such lessons, or are they just given opportunities to read or listen in class? If the latter, is that a valuable use of time? Is skimming always the first thing we should do with a text?
Below is a talk I gave for IHWO a few weeks ago that tries to address the above questions. I’ve shared it here so you can see the slides too, which are below, and which might be helpful as the video lags slightly at points.
Many thanks to Neil McMahon for inviting me to speak and for all the technical wizardry, as well as everyone who attended the talk over the two days.
In an earlier post on top-down/bottom-up processing and context/co-text, I mentioned that there might well be another one on issues to do with teaching receptive skills. And here it is.
Recently I have become somewhat fatigued watching trainee teachers pre-teach vocabulary prior to receptive skills work in class. I would actually go further and say I am starting to actively hate it. A bit like other pernicious habits such as smoking or having children, it’s not something I do myself, but I see a lot of people I know doing it (they don’t post about it on Facebook though, admittedly) and so it’s always sort of just blended into the background of language teaching for me, which is always a worrying realisation. Such a worrying realisation, in fact, that I more or less blindly suggested trainees include it in receptive skills lessons for about two years before I started to wonder. A little reflection can be a dangerous thing.
What is pre-teaching?
Christine Nuttall (1982: 62) points out the suggestion that “moderate L1 readers can recognise about 50,000 words”, which does seem like a lot (maybe it’s lexemes?). Now there’s no way that most learners are going to build a lexicon of so many items they can recognise, so can they never become even ‘moderate’ readers? Teachers, then, need to find ways of helping learners cope with text and read better. One way many people employ of doing this is to pre-teach vocabulary (or “lexis”, for the sophisticates amongst you), which is part of trying to scaffold the comprehension of the text.
In a ‘standard’ reading lesson procedure, it would come before the learners read the text, but generally after there’s been some sort of lead-in and schemata activation. It tends to involve the teaching of a few (3 or 4 usually) selected items that the teacher assumes the learners will not know and which are useful when reading the text in question. Its purpose is to facilitate the learners’ reading development by helping them not concentrate on every word or unknown item that might distract them from the reading work, most likely a immediately preceding a subskill task such as reading for gist (skimming) or specific information (scanning), amongst others. It is particularly common with the use of authentic text, which will more likely contain more difficult lexis.
My problems with pre-teaching
Seems pretty logical, right? So why would I be thus nonplussed by this practice? Here’s my reasons (in no particular order):
It really can break the flow of a lesson.
Learners often seem to look a bit bewildered at why 4 seemingly random words are being taught.
I’m just not convinced it actually helps learners read better or develop strategies to deal with text.
Don’t think of white bears! What are you thinking of now? If you highlight some lexis before moving on reading work, is there not a risk you actually distract from this work by drawing attention to difficult items? (This can be Tolstoy or Dostoevsky’s contribution to ELT…)
If done badly, it’s seriously counter-productive and can lead to boredom, disengagement, etc.
It’s not how we read in real life – this is hugely important: just who is going to pre-teach some selected items for learners when they read in the real world?
Selecting the words necessarily involves assumptions about the learners. How do you know they won’t know that word? Why do you think they don’t? What if they do?
And it also involves assumptions about the usefulness of the items – would you pre-teach “lusophone”, for example, in Dubai?
It’s not appropriate for every receptive skills lesson but is often presented as such cf. when I did CELTA years ago.
It can distort the focus of the lesson from a reading skills development one to a lexis learning one.
If you’re ‘demanding high’, why not just let the learners get on with it and come back to lexis, etc., after the reading stages of the lesson (more on that below).
It may hinder learners’ developing “word-attack skills”, to borrow Christine Nuttall’s term (anyone else actually see a text being knifed by Nuttall there?), such as working out which words are important/can be ignored, inferring meaning, etc.
One size does not fit all
Perhaps you feel I’m being a bit harsh on the poor wee lamb to the pedagogical slaughter that is pre-teaching. Let me redress the balance a little then. Pre-teaching does, mayhap, have a place in some lessons, but not all. You may want to help learners a little bit with a few items that may be tricky, or let them know that Mariánské Lázně is a place, so they don’t worry about it upon encountering it in a text about Spas and faded European grandeur; however, this should be decided upon based on the text, the lesson, the learners, the aims, the loadsa things specific to that group and that class and not simply be a given in any skills lesson. There is, as usual, no one-size-fits-all solution.
Another argument for pre-teaching (or actually more for raising awareness of reading as strategies/skills) is that this idea can often be revelatory for trainees who have little access to professional development or training, or who have come for more ‘traditional’ teaching backgrounds, as it is a common practice to teach all (presumed) new lexis before learners read (often out-loud one at a time – heaven forfend!). This approach has precedents in older approaches such as The Reading Method recommended in the USA in the 1920s, which revolved around the text as the central component of the learning process, with each text being accompanied by a list of vocabulary which was to be taught before any reading occurred (Richards and Rodgers, 2001:50). However, this is not pre-teaching, as it aims to teach lexis, not facilitate reading development. Here, we have a text being used for language development, not to develop the learners’ skills in reading. While this distinction may seem unintuitive for some, it is an important one.
Well if you must…
So, what if you are going to pre-teach? While this isn’t the point of this post, here’s an idea or two. It makes more sense to me to work with the most frequently occurring words in the text, as these will be the ones that help the learners get the gist of a text more than “glabrous”, for example. Try using a Wordle (you just input the text and it prettifies it into the most frequently recurring words) or putting the words up on the board and getting the learners to check them in a dictionary (paper or electronic), or to predict the content of the passage from them before reading to check (efficient gist task there). There is actually research that claims that pre-teaching the most frequent words can greatly aid learners’ reading comprehension (the article itself is more concerned with vocabulary and frequency lists, but there is a brief treatment of pre-teaching near the end).
The final word
So, to conclude this ramble, the answer is to be judicious and to take a more complex approach to skills lessons. These are merely not ‘easy’ lessons for the teacher in which they can sit back, relax and let the learners get on with it and it worries me they are often treated as such. But to come back to pre-teaching, use your professional expertise and make judicious choices about whether to pre-teach and you’ll probably find that it is not as necessary as you might think and can be cut from a good number of lessons.
Once the skills work has been done, then there’s a perfectly good text there to work to exploit further. By all means, go back to it, unpack it, teach some lexis from it (or better still, try to get learners to work it out for themselves), use it as a basis for other language work or as a model for some writing/speaking work. But first, let the learners try to make sense of the text as they would in real life, help them develop their skills in reading and don’t over-scaffold by pre-teaching too much or at all. Or is it just me?
Nuttall, Christine (1982). Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language. Macmillan.
Richards, J. and Rodgers, T. (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. CUP.
Let’s start off with Ferdinand de Saussure’s second favourite Youtube clip (he details his favourite videos in in his seminal paper Les Clips, Le Signifié et Le Signifiant: Quelque Chose que Je Viens d’Inventer (unpublished), page 3).Your pre-listening/watching task is to find it amusing.
So, why would I be sharing this with you? The reason is to talk about how you make sense of it. After all, the humour is based on, among other things, some excellent neologisms, so there’s a lot going on when you process what Blackadder says (for the purposes of this post, let’s pretend there was no video and this is an extract from a reading lesson). Here’s the transcript (the reading text) from 49 seconds in:
Dr. Samuel Johnson: Here it is, sir. The very cornerstone of English scholarship. This book, sir, contains every word in our beloved language.
Blackadder: Every single one, sir?
Dr. Samuel Johnson: Every single word, sir!
Blackadder: Oh, well, in that case, sir, I hope you will not object if I also offer the Doctor my most enthusiastic contrafribularities.
Dr. Samuel Johnson: What?
Blackadder: “Contrafribularites”, sir? It is a common word down our way.
Dr. Samuel Johnson: Damn!
Blackadder: Oh, I’m sorry, sir. I’m anispeptic, frasmotic, even compunctuous to have caused you such pericombobulation.
Bottom’s Up (or “How I Learned to Love Christine Nuttall”)
One way of looking at ways of interpreting meaning from a text is to think in terms of what is often called “context”. However, this is a rather woolly term, applied by different people to different things in different disciplines and rather inconsistently at that, so we can further break it down into:
The co-text: the linguistic features of an unknown item, such as its place in the sentence or the morphemes of which it is composed
The context: what Scott Thornbury calls the “physical and temporal setting” in which discourse occurs and which requires a knowledge of its purpose, participants and whether it is written or spoken.
A further way of looking at how this text might be interpreted is to to examine different processes which readers employ when we try to comprehend something. These can be grouped as follows:
Bottom-up Processing: involves making use of linguistic clues (letter recognition, affixes, syntactic categories, etc.) present in the text and building meaning up from these components.
Top-Down Processing: involves using existing schemata (world knowledge) to aid comprehension and treating text as a whole, rather than a series of individual words.
This rather neat distinction is, of course, a bit too clear-cut to really tell the whole story. It would be rather naive to expect a reader to simply employ one set of processes in interpreting a text and so more modern approaches to talking about receptive skills work posit an interactive model of textual interpretation whereby both these sets of processes occur more or less simultaneously and, well, interact to help us achieve comprehension.
Both Top-Down and Bottom-Up processes can function at various levels when working with text i.e. at word level, sentence level, text level or even, say, an entire novel. For example, if you were reading a noir detective novel, the top-down processing would involve knowledge of noir conventions (genre), expectations of plot, character, etc., while the bottom-up processing would be actually working with the words and clauses to build up the meaning as you go. At word level, on the other hand, bottom-up approaches would be to look at combinations of letters, affixes, and so forth to build up meaning, while top-down processing might check this by activating existing knowledge of what kinds of word/letter combinations are permissible in English (this is extra-textual, after all), allowing you to work out that ‘krk’ is not a valid English word (it means “neck” in Czech).
The next section is “like fitting wheels to a tomato – time-consuming and completely unnecessary”
Ok, so that’s all very well, but how does all the above relate to Blackadder? Well, let’s make a good joke really quite un-funny by deconstructing it co-textually to work out what “contrafibularities” means.
First of all, taking a step out of our reading lesson, note how I’ve spelt it. How do I know that the plural form ends “-ies”? After all, it’s a made-up word, which I’ve never seen written down. The reason for that is my knowledge of general English word patterns/spelling conventions, which dictates that a noun which sounds like it ends in a “-y” in the singular would be “-ies” in the plural. But that’s not the co-text, despite being at the morphological level; rather, it is my extra-textual knowledge – implicit or explicit – that comes into play (here, more exactly, my knowledge of English as a system – though plenty people disagree with me there and would class it as co-text).
Getting back to co-text, I wrote above that “contrafibularities” is a noun. Well, how do I know? I know because it occurs as the head of a complex noun phrase introduced by a determiner (“my”) and because it seems to be in the plural. If that’s a bit much, it means that it comes after an adjective (“enthusiastic”), which is what nouns tend to do when adjectives are around, and my brain extra-textually knows this. It also knows that “offer” is a ditranstive verb (takes two objects) and so if I offer something to somebody, then that something is the direct object which, again, tends to be a noun phrase: co-text being interactively checked by my knowledge of English syntax.
Ok, so I’ve worked out the part of speech, but what does it mean? Again, the co-text helps here. If it’s modified by “enthusiastic”, “contrafibularities” is likely to have a positive meaning. Likewise, the nearest verb is “offer” and you tend not to offer negative things to people. Combine this with our knowledge of how humans conduct their affairs (context) and we see that someone having completed a groundbreaking project is likely to be lauded by someone else and it all starts to add up to a positive word in some way. Then, it even sounds a bit like “congratulations”, which would fit – “offer” would collocate with “congratulations” too – so we arrive at our idea of the meaning. And we all this did this in .06 of a second (I know; I timed it) and with a lot of interactive processes going on.
Above the level of the word
The preceding discussion has focused on an example of what’s often called “deducing meaning from context” or “inferring lexical meaning” or other similar appellations. This is a commonly discussed subskill in the teaching of reading and one you’ll find a few Delta background essays on. It’s also something you can help your learners develop in by working on it in class, showing them how to do it and providing practice in order to help them become more autonomous readers who don’t need to translate every word they don’t know, but who can develop a greater tolerance for ambiguity (though you must still remember those learners who only read to increase their vocabulary). However, when we interpret the meaning of a text, there’s much more going on above the level of the individual word.
Let’s look again at this sentence:
Blackadder: Oh, well, in that case, sir, I hope you will not object if I also offer the Doctor my most enthusiastic contrafribularities.
On its own, out of its context within this piece of discourse, this sentence seems to suggest that someone is offering someone else something positive, but we have no idea what that might be or why it might be so. No amount of co-textual, bottom-up processing can help us work out its meaning without the rest of the discourse: its context (including knowledge of this TV show). And yet, when we hear Blackadder say it, we immediately know he is being sarcastic. How can we help our learners know the same?
Going deeper, we have:
a situation whereby a servant is more intelligent than his really quite stupid master (yes, actually taking that old conceit from Roman Comedy and making it funny – they did only have one joke, the Romans, and they weren’t even very good at that, but I digress)
Said servant is prone to entertainingly sarcastic outbursts.
Into this walks a famous intellectual who’s just written the first ever dictionary
we would expect him to be congratulated for this
Before Blackadder even speaks, those familiar with the above are ready to top-down interpret the exchanges therein in this context. So where does the humour actually come from?
The most important aspect, for me, would be the word “contrafibularities” again. To congratulate the man who just wrote the first ever dictionary with a word he does not know is somewhat ironic and then you add to that that Blackadder just made that word up and you have a double helping of irony served with extra sarcasm and drizzled in some quintessentially Blackadderian disdain. And you know this and interpret it as such, but you’ve put together your context and your co-text to get there, to infer the speaker’s attitude and interpret the humour, but can you expect your learners to (not that I’d really suggest working with this text in most learning contexts)?
The answer would be probably not, as they will likely lack a good bit of the background to the context. A better argument for presenting reading text in context i.e. activating schemata with some pre-reading work, and helping learners use contextual clues to interpret text, I really cannot think of. Present that text to a native speaker with no idea about Blackadder and you would get similarly blank looks of incomprehension (as my current Delta group now knows..). Then, of course, many learners would tend to treat “confibularities” as if it were a real word that they simply don’t know, rather than applying their co-textual strategies to deduce a likely meaning, so helping them with this subskill can aid them here too.
Reading Lessons vs the Complexity of it all
Assuming the teacher follows a ‘standard’ format in class and introduces the context (‘the first dictionary’?!), maybe pre-teaches some lexis, perhaps sets up a prediction task, then has a gist task, then a detail one and then moves on to a follow up productive activity, then it’s hard to see how the learners really get anything out of this. They may have practised reading, but have they really developed it? Have they thought about how the comprehended (or didn’t) the text? Have they examined lexis they didn’t know and tried to deduce its meaning? Did they interpret any attitude in the text? Did they see how contextual clues can help them with comprehension? Did they think about strategies they can employ to deal with difficult text? Or did they just get the five detail questions right and we moved on? And do they even have to do this? This might well be the subject of a future post.
(And finally, for those who made it this far and are wondering about De Saussure’s favourite YouTube clip, it’s the first minute or so about the C)
I do Bikram Yoga. There, I admitted it. Just to get that out there before we move on. I also need to tell you that I have as much flexibility as some thin steel at absolute zero (though without the steel) and am, concomitantly, rubbish at Bikram yoga. I’ve had about 45 classes now, still can’t even touch my toes and nearly die at least once during the arduous 90-minute lock-step torture that not even the Inquisition dared employ. Ok. Confession over.
The reason I mention this is because there is a distinct difference between the two instructors I see most often. Let’s call them Rita and Laura. While both are technically very proficient and even gifted at what they do, know the 26 poses inside out (not an unapt expression for yoga) and offer helpful suggestions for getting a position right or improving your own practice, the classes with Rita are just much better than those with Laura. Why would this be so and what does it have to do with ELT?
The answer is: rapport. But just what is that? The MacMillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners defines rapport as “a relationship in which people like, understand and respect each other” (which suggests I failed to establish rapport with a couple of ex-girlfriends.. ). Narrowing the scope more to ELT, Jim Scrivener describes rapport as: “the quality of the relationship in the classroom: teacher – student and student – student. It is not primarily technique driven, but grows naturally when people like each other and get on together” (Classroom Management Techniques p40). So, basically, it’s about people liking each other and getting on well together, which is all very well, but how can it be achieved?
One of the problems with rapport is that some just seem to have it naturally, while others can struggle. While it’s difficult to say exactly why one teacher might have better rapport than another, there are certain behaviours that a teacher can work on to help them get there. To this end, Scrivener goes on from the above quotation to list “authenticity”,” good listening”, “showing respect and support”, and “a good sense of humour” as highly desirable in achieving a good rapport with a class. While in How to Teach English, Harmer adds “recognising students” to the list, as well as “being even handed” (pp26 & 27). So, now we have a fairly complete list, let’s see how it manifests itself in my yoga classes.
A rapport diagnostic: how to aid and hinder rapport-building
In this section, we’ll look at some of the ways that Laura manages to create a negative atmosphere at times, and some suggestions for how to remedy this.
What the instructor does: singles late-comers out, stops the class to tell people off for being late and implies that they’re not taking the class seriously.
The problem: in a room full of adults, who are there to improve in some way, this sort of public reprimand is unhelpful, has a negative effect on the atmosphere in the room and can even be somewhat cringe-worthy.
What the instructor should do: be understanding. Everyone coming to yoga has a job, often a high-pressure job in this part of the world, and the traffic is a nightmare.
Perhaps they just got held up and couldn’t get there on time. At least they tried! Why not simply brush it off, continue and maybe after class have a quiet word, asking what the problem is and hinting that it’s not ideal to arrive late, but at least they’re making an effort to come.
What the instructor does: singles out only strong participants for praise
The problem: those less proficient at yoga are rarely – if ever – encouraged and can feel that they’re not up to the mark and that their efforts are futile (I know; I’m one of them!)
What the instructor should do: Be even-handed. Distribute praise evenly throughout the group when the situation demands it. If someone has put in some extra effort, improved on a posture last week, is noticeably suffering (very common!) and needs encouragement, praise them. Don’t praise everything, or it loses its effect, but don’t just praise strong students as this can be counter-productive. Not all of us can put our foot over our head while balancing on one-leg and hold it for 25 seconds…
What the instructor does: reprimands people for getting things wrong or for, accordingly, “not listening”
The problem: mistakes are part of the learning process and just because someone makes one doesn’t mean they weren’t listening!
What the instructor should do: show some respect and support. Demonstrate the posture again and highlight the part that’s gone wrong, not singling anyone in particular out. Simply deliver the ‘correction’ in a more supportive manner, telling a few students that they should continue to work on a certain part of the posture (nothing wrong with demand high yoga…). Perhaps offer some individual guidance while monitoring (yes, in yoga too) and don’t stop the class to tell people they’re not listening just because they’re not 100% perfect (I’m pretty sure this is actually some teacher insecurity hindering learning here, but that’s a blog post for another time..).
What the instructor does: knows the names of the stronger participants, but not the weaker ones (though oddly, she knows mine – must be a case of going long enough that she can’t not)
The problem: as with the praising, weaker students can feel discouraged or even slighted.
What the instructor should do: recognise students. It’s hard, very hard, to do, but a little more effort would go a long way. It’s particularly hard with a “drop-in” like event like this particular yoga class (an open group or rolling intake in ELT), but after a couple of weeks there really is no excuse. Even I know the names of some others I’ve barely spoken to. She could make some notes pre-class to help her remember or talk to people before they go in, asking how they are, etc. (she does this to a point, but only with the stronger ones or long-term regulars like me).
What the instructor does: delivers the class as if it were training session on how to kill enjoyment, rather than a collective exercise in, well, exercise.
The problem: there’s very little humour, or give, in her classes. They can be isolating. Sometimes it can seem monotonous, as if I have to get the most out of it for myself, without being gently nudged along by the rapport the teacher creates.
What the instructor should do: have a sense of humour and reference the group effort. Rita has a good sense of humour and uses it well: “you’ve paid for the pain, make the most of it”, “only four postures to go before that glass of wine”, etc. I’m not saying she’s yoga’s Eddie Izzard, but in times of stress like the last third of a Bikram class, a little light banter goes a long way, helping you feel normal and part of a group. Yes, part of a group. This is exactly what Laura fails to do. And not having a sense of humour which, when used effectively can help create a group atmosphere, does not help.
What the instructor does: insists that postures are done by the book, regardless of individual issues with any one position in particular.
The problem: everyone is different and has different strengths and weaknesses and these should be catered for; it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing, the human body: my bad ankle is your dodgy hip. I guess it’s the yoga equivalent of learning preferences, in ELT terms.
What the instructor should do: listen to the learners. It took about 2 months before I convinced Laura that I simply cannot do a couple of postures due to my knees. It’s not a case that I’m simply being a recalcitrant pest – that’s my knees. Rather than trying to push me to do a posture (three actually) in a certain way, help me round it by suggesting something else. I’m being slightly disingenuous here as she has now done this, but it took a while. Learners are individuals and should be treated as such.
Taking a Position
So that’s my list of ways in which rapport is not built in my yoga class, with the parallels for the ELT classroom needing no further explanation. I bet you never thought a Bikram Yoga class and, say, a pre-intermediate English class could have this in common, but they do. The same would apply to many other situations, such as group work, leadership, or even talking down the pub with your friends. If the rapport isn’t there, it’s just not going to work out as well. Of course, rapport can actually have a detrimental effect, and we’ve probably all seen those teachers who get by on it alone – the entertainers whose teaching may not be wonderful, but whose students sure have a good time in class (Scott Thornbury writes about this here). However, it’s clear that rapport is an essential element of good teaching, for me, and I enjoy my yoga classes far more with it, than without. And the same goes for my CELTA groups, my friendly games of doubles badminton, my office, my Spanish classes, my IELTS re-certification training… you name it. It really can be the rapport what makes it.
I was reading something EFL-related today and thought of an IELTS writing activity that would be quick to prepare, with minimal materials and useful for the learners too. With the Academic Part 1, one of the biggest problems candidates can face (and I know this from my experience as an IELTS examiner) comes when they have to analyse the data. They have to pick out salient features and avoid writing irrelevant information like their opinion. In describing the features of the given information, they also need some quite specific lexis for describing trends, etc. This activity should help with both of these things. So here it is…
To help learners prepare for Academic Writing Task 1 by developing their skills for analysing the input material
To raise learners’ awareness of some common lexis for describing graphs, charts, etc
Prepare a list of 10 statements about the chart, some true and some false (see below for examples)
Give the learners the chart and let them look at it for 30 seconds so they can get a feel for what it’s about and start mentally processing it
Now dictate the statements without the learners seeing the chart
In general, Australian household spending was higher in 2001 than in 1991, though by a small margin
Average expenditure on transport decreased by almost a third
Average expenditure on transport increased sharply from $75 in 1991 to $120 in 2001
The spending decrease on clothing can be explained by cheap imports from China
The learners now compare together what they’ve written down, thinking particularly about spelling and punctuation. You could hand out the printed statements here, display them or simply write them up yourself so the students can see the correct versions
They now look back at the chart and decide which statements are correct, incorrect or inappropriate (see no.4, for example)
You can now do some language work by having the students analyse the dictated statements for collocations, fixed phrases, topic-specific lexis, etc, which they can use when they write their own version.
Brief Analysis and Variation
This is done as a dictation for the listening practice, which may well help them with the types of texts that might appear in the listening exam. That said, you could easily get the learners to do this for each other, either dictating their own statements or simply writing them before swapping with another group and repeating the above. It would be more difficult to do follow on language work from this, but it would give them great practice in analysing data. You’d also have to monitor quite closely here to make sure their analysis was along the right lines.
Two recent related but separate occurrences inspired this blog post. Firstly, I have done a lot of observations recently and seen some very good classes, some excellent classes, but I haven’t seen much drilling; secondly, a colleague told me I drill more than he does. So, I got thinking. I looked up drilling in Penny Ur’s A Course in Language Teaching and it gets a mere perfunctory mention on page 54 (Ur 1995: 54). Why don’t teachers like drilling? This post explores this question a little before describing some drilling techniques further down.
What is Drilling?
Basically, drilling is a form of repetitive practice that has been used throughout the years to practise a various things, from grammar structures to connected speech. For anyone trained as an EFL teacher pre the 1980s, it probably conjures up images (sounds?) of grammar drills, audio-lingualism and a faint hint (smell?) of behaviourism. However, for those of us trained much later, drilling was that thing we had to do when we presented new language, which we elicited, and we weren’t allowed to do it if we’d already written the form on the board. You did chorally first, then individually and just made sure you did it as it might get you an above standard.
From my experience as a CELTA tutor and from conversations with working teachers, drilling is usually frowned upon either for the first reason outlined above – that it’s out of date – or because teachers do no feel confident having a room full of people repeating stretches of language – they feel awkward and like they’re patronising the class. However, if done well, I see no reason why this latter point should get in the way and the former point involves a link to a now discredited methodology which we can surely see past.
Repeat, but not ad nauseum Repeat, but not ad nauseum Repeat, but not ad nauseum
Anecdotally, I can tell you I like drilling. I mean, just try saying estrategicamente if you’re not a Spanish L1 speaker, and if that was easy why not try “desafortunadamente, se regocijó cuando el venezolano lo hizo estrategicamente”.. Drilling can help with ‘getting your tongue around’ a word, a chunk, or even an individual sound. In this way, it can help learners develop the muscle action of the L2 and can perhaps help them remember features of said language’s pronunciation better. Think to yourself how difficult it is to say certain things in an L2 (or 3 or 4..) the first time you encounter them. For me, I have to repeat them to myself a good few times and then I start to feel it becoming easier. Why shouldn’t the teacher help their learners with exactly this? That said, teachers have to be careful of not overdoing and forcing a learner to repeat ad nauseum a sound they find very difficult. After all, the learners have to be able to recognise that sound first and if they can’t, they won’t be saying it any time soon and prolonged repetition would be a very demoralising experience.
Returning to the Spanish sentence above, it basically means nothing (something like “unfortunately, she/he/it rejoiced when the Venezulan did it strategically”). This is another reason that drilling fell out of favour. In a communicative approach, we are supposed to ensure meaningful communication takes place in our classes and sentences chosen simply for a grammatical or phonological pattern are not encouraged as practices as they don’t involve the learner really interacting with meaning. However, that being said, I see no problem with incorporating a light form of drilling as part of a language presentation, providing that it is done within an established context and with natural sentences.
If we drill relatively briefly and with short chunks of language, drilling can be motivating and beneficial. On his blog, Scott Thornbury mentions two ways out of this: an “eight-to-ten syllables max” rule and backchaining. The former is Scott’s personal preference, and a good idea to boot, but the latter is an established technique in which “the sentence is drilled and built up from the end, gradually adding to its length. Certain parts may be drilled separately, if they present problems. Each part of the sentence is modelled by the teacher, and the students repeat” (Kelly, 2000: 24). A recent example from one of my classes is:
“riding a camel”
“get used to”
“get used to riding a camel”
“‘ll have to”
“he’ll have to”
“he’ll have to get used to riding a camel”
Notice that this involves focussing on natural chunks of language. It would be very odd to drill “to riding a camel” as this doesn’t follow a natural pattern of English chunking. This type of technique also serves to promote noticing of features of connected speech. That is to say, the learners are exposed to natural chunks modelled in a natural way and I always highlight what happens with weak forms, sentence stress and any features of linking as we go. That way, while they may not immediately improve their pronunciation, this may help them recognise fluently delivered English better. I would also probably go through this three times maximum to make sure the learners didn’t disengage or feel patronised in any way.
Some other ways to go about drilling include:
Mumble /Silent Drilling – the teacher models the language and the learners repeat it to themselves, under their breath or quietly. They can also work with a partner to do this. This breaks the reliance on the choral-individual technique and may be more beneficial to certain learners as they can repeat the item as many times as they want and at a speed they’re comfortable with.
Changing Emotions – the learners repeat the teacher’s model, but after a couple of times, the teacher changes the emotion from a ‘normal’ one to, say, sad. The group then repeats as if feeling very sad. Try another one like ‘excited’, or ‘happy’, etc. This can help break any monotony associated with drilling and be a fun, engaging activity, which has the double bonus of raising awareness of different intonation patterns.
Jazz Chants – Jazz chants are an area teachers tend to shy away from in my experience (I have been no exception in my time) but which are basically drills disguised as fun. Popularised by Carolyn Graham, these should involve the repetition of “short, multi-word sequences and should have a consistent rhythm” (Thornbury 2005: 66). You can see a video of Carolyn here talking about how to create your own jazz chant (http://www.teachingvillage.org/2010/05/23/how-to-create-a-jazz-chant-by-carolyn-graham/). These chants again have the benefit of raising awareness of sentence stress, intonation and connected speech. They can also reinforce grammar/functional structures (kept short) and can be used effectively with adults and YLs alike. The fact that the meaning should be clear from the context may even help make the chunks in the chant more memorable as the learners are, in a sense, interacting with the chant on a meaningful level too and the rhythm may help some learners remember the chunks better too (if you can get the tune of “First She Gave up Smoking” out of your head after doing it, you’re a better man than me…).
Substitution Drills – These are commonly associated with very restricted grammar practice and work along the lines of “there is a car” [dog] “there is a dog”, etc. The learners repeat the modelled grammar but with the new information substituted in. They do get more elaborate than my example, but that’s basically the gist. It’s important to ensure these are not mindless like the above example, but that there is some cognitive challenge. Instead of “dog”, for example, you could say “dogs” and so the learners would have to think to produce “there are some dogs”. This stops such drills becoming dull and mechanical.
Change Accents – If you’re confident about your ability to pull of a variety of different English accents in class, why not have the learners repeat after you model a different accent each time. This has the benefit of being quite good fun, but could also raise learners’ awareness of different accents. I’ve found this is especially effective with YLs, their preferred accent usually being Italian, complete with gestures.
Vary the Speed/Volume – Start the drill slowly and gradually get faster and faster and until it becomes clear the class can’t cope any more. Alternatively, do exactly the same but with the volume, gradually getting louder. Or combine the two. Again, this is very popular with YLs and can lead to some quite noisy classes!
Jim Scrivener lists a large range of different types of drills on pages 258 and 259 of Learning Teaching (2005) for those who’re really interested.