What is the Point in Pre-Teaching?

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?

References

Nuttall, Christine (1982). Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language. Macmillan.

Richards, J. and Rodgers, T. (2001).  Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. CUP.

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C is for Contrafibularities, Context, Co-text and Big Blue Wobbly Things

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)

Quick IELTS Academic Writing Task 1 Activity

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…

Aim

  • 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

Sample IELTS Academic Writing Task 1

(Task taken from ielts-exam.net)

Procedure

  • 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

  1. In general, Australian household spending was higher in 2001 than in 1991, though by a small margin

  2. Average expenditure on transport decreased by almost a third

  3. Average expenditure on transport increased sharply from $75 in 1991 to $120 in 2001

  4. 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.

Dogme, Lexis and Fiction

It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged so it’s about time I did so again before I forget how. This time, a slightly different one once again. I’ve been meaning to start an occasional series of posts of my experiences as a language learner and relating these to wider teaching and learning issues, and so here’s number 1.

Some Background

I’m preparing for the DELE C2 Spanish exam and am in a class with two others, both of whom find themselves in the same exam boat (if you’re lucky, one day I might post a rant about the lack of validity of said exam, but I’ll save that for a rainy day..). The others are Ben and Dónal, both of whom are incredibly fluent and confident with their speaking, something which used to intimidate me somewhat. The class is taught by Fernando, who has been my teacher for 2 years.  The classes usually have an exam focus for about a third of the time and then, well, it’s quite difficult to describe in the remaining 80minutes. Ben has blogged about this class before.

There is usually a great deal of lexis floating around and I’d say that this would be what I take most from the class – chunks, new words, expressions. Given how lazy I can be as a language learner, this lexis is invaluable to me and the memorising of it very important, not just for the exam, but for my overall development as a speaker of Spanish.

Whose Story Is It Anyway?

A while back, I read one of Dale Coulter’s lesson skeletons on his blog, in which he described an activity in which the learners created a fictional story by adding one line to a text and then passing the pen to the next person. They continued this until it came to a natural end and then Dale analysed the emergent language with them. I then read the following comment from Scott Thornbury on this activity.

My tiny doubt: if the learners are taking turns to continue the text, whose ‘story’ is it? Presumably it becomes fiction after the first writer yields the pen. Does this matter?

This got me thinking. I consider myself very much a Dogmetist – though possibly not an absolute purist – and like to think I conduct my classes as much in this direction as teaching context and situation allow. Given that I would happily use an activity similar to Dale’s (I have blogged before a Mexican joke the learners came up with in class) I found myself asking if I am indeed a Dogmetist or whether I have misunderstood certain aspects of the approach (if it’s safe to use that word). Furthermore, as there have been various attempts to work on definitions of Dogme recently, I thought this might be of interest.

“Un Puerco Espín Con Un Pincel En Su Boca” O “Un Querubín Llora”

This all came back to me recently during a Spanish class in which Ben and I created a fictional story about a porcupine artist subject to persecution for his obvious artistic talent. Now, this is not an example of one of our personal stories, but was co-created and incredibly funny (for us, don’t ask Fernando..). This has made it all the more memorable for me and some of the vocabulary that came up seems to stick. I’m delighted I now know how to say “porcupine” and “paintbrush” in Spanish, two things that do not figure much in my daily life. Now, it must be said that this exercise was actually to recycle lexis that from previous classes, and that there was no focus on form. That said, there was the new lexis such as the aforementioned.

Another example from a recent class would be a segment in which Dónal, myself and Ben had to create new laws that should be introduced. I forget the characters now, but through a process of random selection I remember that Dónal was a Libertarian from Vanuatu. We then had to argue in favour of our laws, and against those of the others, from the point of view of these roles. This was another frankly ludicrous class that was thoroughly enjoyed by all and involved us “owning” the language in the room by being playful and creative with our ideas and indeed the language itself. I learned how to say “cherub”, the Spanish equivalent of “the straw that broke the camel’s back” and “labyrinth”. Again, this lexis is not likely to come up much if we were to exchange personal stories as there just aren’t that many labyrinths and cherubs in my life.

It’s Nothing Personal

So far, so good. So what’s this got to do with Dogme? Here’s a quotation from How to Teach Vocabulary, which goes as follows and is not discussing Unplugged Teaching:

“…the associative links in the second language lexicon are usually less well established than mother tongue links. To extend the metaphor: learning a second language is like moving to a new town – it takes time to establish connections and turn acquaintances into friends. And what is the difference between and acquaintance and a friend? Well, we may forget an acquaintance, but we can never forget a friend” (How To Teach Vocabulary p20)

If this is so, our job as teachers is surely to try and make lexis as memorable as possible to help strengthen the less well established L2 associative links. However, to do this as Dogme teachers, do we need to always and only work with learners’ personal stories in class or can we allow for more creative, fictional, texts to be used to focus on lexis, providing the learners a space to say what they want and supplying new lexis as a need arises?

To take it one stage further, what about other emergent language? The two examples from my Spanish class were not exploited into a focus on form, the first being a revision exercise and the second a fluency practice. However, would it have been ‘wrong’ in deep end Dogme to do so? Could these only be used as practices/revision, or not at all? Had I been the teacher, I certainly would have exploited these opportunities for a focus on form of some sort as the learners were really engaged in the exercises. Given how memorable the incidental lexis from these classes is for me, would other emergent language not be equally so? And would this not pass into the class ‘folklore’, as it has done with us, creating a class story that is equally as valuable as one of our personal stories – making it a “friend” rather than just a passing “acquaintance”? And would that be incompatible with Dogme? If so, it seems I may well be a Principled Eclecticist, but that’s a whole other debate…