Any initial teacher training qualification in TESOL will rightly stress the importance of clear lesson structure for language lessons. Staging a class with purpose is important to work towards your lesson aims in a systematic way, and to ensure that you include time for student talk, correction, assessment of upgrade and all the other features of an effective lesson. However, many training courses focus almost religiously on the Present-Practice-Produce (PPP) and, more recently, the Engage-Study-Activate (ESA) structure so much that other ways of building lessons purposefully are left by the wayside.
Why the PPP lesson structure?
The prevalence of PPP and its constituent sub-stages is so pervasive that I have even heard students in teaching practice lessons criticising the teacher for not giving adequate practice of new language before moving on to the production stage, with the callout: “teacher, aren’t we going to do a free practice stage?”. Yes, the PPP lesson structure does the job, and it is important for trainees to understand the reasons for staging lessons in this way, but at times PPP feels formulaic, especially given that trainee choices in what to teach do not always fit the structure.
PPP is really designed to teach new language to students for the first time, with careful contextualisation, checking and graded practice tasks helping students deal with brand new forms from a zero point. In reality, however, teaching practice groups often have a jagged profile, with students often coming from different classes, and even different levels to make up the required numbers on the day. For this reason, members of the group may have quite different levels of competence in different areas, and may well have some experience of the language being planned by trainees at their level (after all, trainees have very limited contact with their TP students, and may not have a full appreciation of what language they know).
Alternatives to PPP
On CertTESOL courses that I deliver, I try to ensure that trainees have exposure to a range of different ways of structuring their lessons; bottom-up. top-down and inductive approaches all have their place on an initial course, whether they are used by trainees or not. Admittedly, some trainees are not ready for the more creative lesson planning that this entails, but at least they can be aware of different ways of doing things, and have the skills to choose from a range of options depending on their teaching purpose and the profile of the group they will teach.
What is the procedure for a Test-teach-teast lesson?
One staging technique which I have found trainees and students really respond to is Test-Teach-Test (the other TTT!). For those of you who are not familiar with this procedure, the lesson starts with an assessment of students’ current level of knowledge in the target area being taught in the class. This is not a formal test, but can be a text, listening or set of grammar questions clearly focused on the target area. Students are instructed to do their best to answer the questions, and if they don’t know, that’s fine, just to leave the answers blank. This is the first ‘Test’ stage.
What follows is an extended feedback stage focused on the questions the students have just answered, with stronger students providing help to those who have little experience with the language, and with the teacher acting first as guide, then as corrector of errors as students become more familiar with the concepts being taught. Any areas of the target language which prove too difficult for anyone in the class can be picked up and taught directly, through prepared examples, sentences and presentations. This is the ‘Teach’ stage, which can be somewhat prepared beforehand, but often evolves organically out of the feedback from the first Test stage.
Once students have had the chance to work with the target forms from the aspects of concept, form and pronunciation, and they have demonstrated that they have greater understanding of the target language, they are presented with a second ‘Test’ task, similar to the one used in the first stage, where students can try the same type of activity with the same target language, demonstrating the progress that they have made during the first stages of the class.
The benefits of Test-teach-test
Although TTT flies in the face of some of the key principles of TESOL which trainees learn on their initial training courses (presenting meaning before form, setting context before presenting new language, giving input before setting tasks…), the benefits of TTT on initial training courses are many. Firstly, this structure is designed to address partial upgrade of language, which is a common feature of TP student groups for the reasons mentioned above. This can take the heat off the trainee teacher, as the spectre of ‘what if they know this already…?’ is dispelled - that is the whole purpose of TTT, so this is harnessed for the students, not against the teacher.
Secondly, TTT lessons provide clear, tangible evidence of upgrade. The demonstrated language understanding and use from the first Test stage can be compared to that of the final Test stage, and more often than not, upgrade is clear, based on the teaching which occurs in the middle of the lesson. This is ideal for observed TP lessons, as this evidence of upgrade is what everyone is looking for to demonstrate effective teaching. If no upgrade is seen during the lesson, then at least this can focus trainee feedback on specific areas which may have been lacking, without the false positive feedback that can lead to a fail for a TP lesson.
Thirdly, the TTT procedure encourages student-centred, inductive thinking, as students work out the patterns of language based on the examples they see in the first Test stage, and the feedback points they get from their peers in the beginning of the Teach stage. This is partially due to the fact that the first Test stage presents language in context (though not carefully contextualised by the teacher) and students must deal with the concepts as they appear without relying on ‘correct’ ideas from the teacher.
The final benefit of the TTT structure is that it allows for positive error and self-correction by students, even encouraging errors as a learning tool as they make their way through new territory at the beginning of the lesson without support. Error and self-correction, based on peer feedback, is a powerful tool for learning, and helps new language enter the competence of learners deeply. In addition, this encourages a reflective learning approach, as the types of error and peer-learning strategies can be evaluated during the learning process, and be borne out in the final Test stage as demonstrated progress. The clear outcomes produced by a TTT lesson are also a good motivator for students, as they can see their progress in target areas within a single lesson.
Overall, I would recommend that all initial TESOL trainees try out the TTT structure for themselves. Yes, it can be a little unpredictable, and yes, you have to take your hands off the wheel to allow students the freedom to work with language themselves, but this develops the more student-centred teaching style that we encourage from the outset of the course. These are important skills that trainees need to develop before they go out into the real world of independent teaching after the course.
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Tom Garside is an international education developer and founder and Director of Teacher Training at Language Point, 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.