Any teacher working towards assessments or barrier tests experiences the familiar pressure to get through syllabus content so that their students are ready to pass end-of-semester tests. In addition, syllabi are often designed by educational authorities who may not fully appreciate what it means to work with the specific range of abilities that is found in a typical class at that school. For these reasons, time pressure tends to be a major factor in assessment-oriented education. This is especially true in the field of languages, which is not a knowledge-based discipline; in a foreign language class, it is not enough for students to ‘know’ the language they are being taught, but they must demonstrate that they can apply it in situations different from those in which they studied them. Given these pressures on teachers to fulfil their duty to the school and its students, it is tempting to run through potentially tricky language points with students quickly, covering a lot of ground and completing the required work in good time. However, this can lead to a lack of the deep learning which is necessary for students to go away and use the language they learn effectively and with confidence. This article will examine why it is necessary to take a slower, more thoughtful approach to language education, ensuring that students acquire the language we teach rather than just having a surface level of knowledge in order to pass tests
Evidence-based teaching and demonstrated upgrade
A common issue in the language classroom is that teachers are so focused on working to the syllabus requirements, that they end up teaching according to the content of the lesson rather than teaching the students themselves. As the famous adage goes: teaching does not equal learning, so this is a real risk to the language development of the students. Remember, the only way that you can get evidence of your students’ progress is for them to independently apply the language you are teaching in either speaking or writing. Only then can you gauge how accurately they are using the forms you teach. Simply explaining a language point and asking students if they understand (even if they reply that they do) gives you no evidence of what they can actually do with the language. This is the essence of evidence-based teaching. The goal of an effective language educator should not be for their students to get the correct answers in a test, but for them to demonstrate the language they are learning in order to communicate their own ideas in their own time.
In order to gather this evidence form student language, of course you need to provide enough opportunities for the students to speak or write out their ideas. This may take longer than the explanation / restricted practice approach that is commonly used, but will yield much stronger results in the long run. No single item of language works in isolation from the other forms around it, so by communicating their ideas in an extended way, including the language you are teaching, you are not just getting evidence of the specific forms that students are learning on that particular day, but you can also assess their use of all the other important language which they use around the topic they are speaking (or writing) on. This provides further evidence of need in different areas of student language, and can inform your future teaching in order to address the weaknesses of the students in a more focused way.
Speaking and writing as demonstrations of proficiency
Bearing in mind that both speaking and writing activity are important markers of proficiency in specific areas of language, it is important to include some of these kinds of task towards the end of any period of input on a specific language point. This may not take as much extra time as you think: where speaking tasks are most effective when done in class, writing tasks can be given as homework, saving you time and allowing students the chance to really think through how they are using their language to make their points. Even after students have performed some kind of restricted practice (gapfill, sentence completion, matching tasks, etc.) it is really important that they get the chance to contextualise the forms you teach for themselves, integrating them into their own language and ideas to gain a fluency of use with them. This will reinforce their learning, and lead to more comfort and flexibility with them in later interaction and assessment situations.
The importance of processing time
A common complaint from teachers is that students don’t contribute in class, or that a few more confident members of the class are much ‘stronger’ students, as they always have an answer for the teacher’s questions. Taking another view, are these students really stronger in their language use than the ‘quieter’ students? How do you know, if they are rarely given the opportunity to speak? In this case, there is a worrying lack of evidence about the proficiency of any but the most confident students. Accepting this situation (which we call ‘flying with the fastest’) can really put other members of the group at a disadvantage, and leads to a fragmentation of the language ability among the group, in turn making it more difficult for teachers to meet the needs of every student.
Learning new language is not an easy task - figuring out grammatical, spelling and vocabulary patterns takes time, and we all process things differently due to the huge range of linguistic, cognitive, social and experiential strategies that the brain uses to store, process and retrieve language as we learn. For this reason, it is really important that teachers (the dominant force in most classrooms) do not deny students the opportunity for thinking things through. This opportunity is most evident in the form of processing time - the extra period that we all take (though we may not feel or realise it) to answer a tough question, choose the best word or grammar structure, or simply understand what is being said in another language. In teacher-led interaction, which takes up a large proportion of the direct teaching which goes on in most language classrooms, the teacher is performing at a much higher level in the language being learnt, as compared to the students. It is really important that we remember this when we interact with students, leaving gaps and period of silence for students to respond, rather than moving on too quickly, before the class has had a chance to process what is being asked of them.
As a solution to the problems of flying with the fastest and teacher domination, use students’ names as a tool to get different members of the group interacting (and to prevent shier members from hiding behind more vocal students). Once it becomes a routine that you will not let anyone sit back and let the others do the talking, you will be surprised at the level of proficiency that will be demonstrated. Don’t let more confident students talk over quieter ones, and only accept responses from the student you choose by name, and you will be able to gather much more evidence of the levels of development (or otherwise) of all of your students. Again, this takes a little more time, but prevents nasty surprises when test time rolls around and it is too late to fix weaker students’ language in time.
The value of errors and mistakes
Another part of evidence-based teaching which often gets sidelined to save time is student error. An assessment-driven approach almost by definition stigmatises incorrect answers; get a question wrong and you lose marks, miss out on all-important grades and risk failing altogether. However, this is only true in the exam situation itself, where points are awarded according to pure accuracy of language (as in most summative assessments). Learning, however, involves lots of mistakes which happen for specific reasons. Knowing what kind of mistakes your students are making will give you further evidence of what they need to improve in their language, so in fact errors and mistakes should be encouraged during student speech. Only then will you be able to advise students on how to get better.
This is yet another reason why in-class speaking is such an important part of guided language development. Being able to focus on the specific needs of a group of learners can only raise the accuracy of student language and lead to greater success in end-of-term assessments. Make room for errors in your discourse with your students. Don’t punish errors, encourage the kind of free speaking at the level your students are working with, to pick out the errors that are relevant to their needs, assessments and proficiency level. Yes, mistakes take time to address, but left unaddressed, they can become ‘fossilised’ and cause problems not just in upcoming assessments, but into the students’ future study and lives.
Recycling and revisiting taught language
A final technique which is often lost due to the time constraints of the standardised syllabus is the revisiting of previously taught language. A raft of research from educational psychologists, vocabulary experts and language acquisition researchers shows that it is often not enough to teach something once and move on, expecting students to be able to retrieve the language they have learnt at the same level as when they studied it, weeks before. For this reason, it is essential to return to the words, phrases and structures that you teach in subsequent lessons, building on students’ knowledge and helping them to see language in different contexts over time. Only then will they retain what you teach deeply, and be able to retrieve it with confidence later in their study.
It is a good idea to make a weekly word list to recycle at the end of the week. As you teach new words and phrases, write them to one side of the board and at the end of the lesson, transfer them to cards or slips of paper, colour-coded by week. Collect bundles of weekly word cards and store them in a box in the classroom. Every week, spend one or two lessons playing vocabulary recycling games to spark students’ awareness of the forms, and bring them back to their conscious minds, for re-processing and greater retention. As the semester goes on, mix recent words with older items, to facilitate more ‘meetings’ with taught language. If this becomes a routine in your teaching, students will come to expect these games every week, and the likelihood is they will start going to the vocabulary box themselves to do some revision so that they don’t lose the games that you play. Yes, recycling activities take up more time on the schedule, but if something is worth teaching once, surely it is worth revisiting to ensure that students actually remember it.
In summary, there are several considerations about timing which can enhance learning in the language classroom. Ensuring that you get evidence of language performance from the majority of students in the class, control of minute-to-minute discourse allowing for more processing time, working with errors instead of against them, and revisiting taught items at the end of the week can all help your students to think more deeply, reflect on their use of the language you teach, and remember what you teach more deeply for the test. Taking time to focus on these aspects of teaching and learning pays dividends in the end, and you may wonder what you used that time for in the first place, when you see your students engaging more with the language you teach.
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Tom Garside is an international education developer and founder and Director of Teacher Training at Language Point. He has published a methodology e-guide for teachers of ESOL, a Pronunciation activity book centred on pronunciation card games, and will be speaking on ways of ensuring sustained development for English Language Teachers at the Future of ELT conference at Regents University, London on June 15th.