Bloopers #1: Lost in London

This is the first in what I hope will become a series of ‘bloopers’ – moments in my language teaching/learning career where things haven’t gone quite how I would have expected or hoped!

We learn from our failures as well as our successes, so why not share both?*

So, without further ado, here’s blooper #1.

A couple of weeks ago, an elementary ‘conversation’ class landed in my timetable.   I decided to take the class out around London on the Friday on a sort of ‘treasure hunt’, and spend the preceding 4 days working up to it.

We started off by working on that staple functional language lesson common to all low-level language learners in a new city for a short period of time: asking for and giving directions!  (They were going to need to do this in order to find the things on their treasure hunt on Friday.)

by @sandymillin for #eltpics

What I did:

  • Students worked in pairs.  Each pair had a street map and had to choose a destination on it that they could walk to from our school.
  • They prepared what directions they would give to someone who stopped them outside the school and asked how to get there.
  • The pairs re-paired and they took turns asking for and giving directions to their chosen locations.

All sounds fine so far, right?  Well…

A couple of days later, I bullied an Italian-speaking teacher friend of mine into role-playing similar dialogues with me in Italian.  (I speak no Italian at all but am going there in a few days and wanted to be prepared for when I inevitably get lost!)

While practising asking for, checking and following directions in my very basic Italian, I realised how silly it is to go to the trouble of doing all this when you’re actually holding a map in your hands.  It just felt really unnatural.

What I could/should have done:

  • Students work in pairs.  One has a map (since they don’t actually know the city well enough to give directions yet) but the other mustn’t look at it.
  • The student with the map gives directions as requested, which the ‘lost’ student has to remember, then repeat back to them (to practise the kind of instant clarification strategies we employ when we do this in real life).
  • To check the ‘lost’ student has understood, he/she could then trace with a finger/pencil on the other student’s map the route which he/she has understood.  The partner would be able to confirm if the ‘lost’ student had got it right or not.
  • If the ‘lost’ student gets partway to his/her destination and forgets the directions (as happens sometimes!), he/she would have to pause there to ‘stop someone again’ (of course this would just be their partner again, pretending to be a new unsuspecting local) and go through the ask-clarify-go process again.

This to me seems a better reflection of what we really do when we are lost in an unfamiliar city and ask someone on the street for directions.  We probably wouldn’t do this if we already had a map in our hands, and we’d need to double-check we’d understood correctly and potentially stop someone later to ask again, e.g. if the route between A and B was originally quite long/complicated.

And there you have it.

Having reflected on and learned from my ‘blooper’, I plan to try out this new lesson plan next time I have a similar group!

(P.S. I should admit – the lesson was apparently not a total failure, as the students did get more confident at speaking in this kind of exchange and said they’d successfully asked for and followed directions when they went out on Friday.  But still – we can do better!)

*I was also inspired by this year’s excellent Failure Fest at the IATEFL Conference and the horde of subsequent posts by various ELT bloggers in response to an #ELTchat blog challenge (including Katy DaviesJosette LeBlancSophia KhanAnn LosevaJames TaylorTom Randolph and others!).  Hats off to all you magnificent failures, you!


5 thoughts on “Bloopers #1: Lost in London

  1. I completely agree with the ‘silliness’ feeling when I give students a map in class and then get them to give directions to their partner. Often, the students will just show their partner, and I have to ask them not to show their partner. In the real world that would not happen at all.

    I agree that it can be good to give the students the confidence before going out into the real world and I like the suggestions you have made.

    To help the students with the very basic commands, one thing that I often do, as perhaps a kind of intermediary step, is after the students have practiced a little with maps, I give them a post it note and get them to draw a star or other object on it. I then have the students go to some place in my language centre (it’s large enough to do this) and ‘hide’ their post-it note. They should come back to the classroom and then give their partner instructions on how to get there. The partner has to listen carefully, and if she/he gets lost, they have to come back and get the instructions again. This way, they are practicing actually having to listen to instructions for a real reason – retrieving the post-it – but there’s not the real pressure of having to do it for real if they’re not ready yet. Of course it’s not the same as giving directions for outside, and some of the expressions might be different, but I have found that it gives my students that can-do attitude.

    1. Hi David, thanks for that idea! Sounds great. My school isn’t very large but I think we probably would have enough space to make the ‘Post-it hunt’ work. I’ll have to try it out one day!

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