This is the second post in a series I’m working on to address my concerns about whether Communicative Language Teaching isn’t a bit hard on more introverted learners, with its almost obsessive focus on maximising speaking and interaction.
In this series, I’m experimenting with some practical classroom ideas that seem to suit learners who are more introvert and prefer activities that allow for individual thinking time, processing language ‘internally’, so to speak, rather than by lots of pair- or group-work. And I’m sharing the results here!
In this post, I’ll talk about something I tried recently, which I’m just going to call ‘guided reading/writing‘.
The idea was to use a real series of emails between friends to help learners understand and later use appropriate lexical chunks when writing informal emails to make social arrangements.
Here’s how it works in a nutshell:
- The learners read each email first just for general understanding of its message, then more closely to identify useful language.
- They do this alone, but with me feeding in the questions which lead them to the language.
- Only then do they compare their ideas about the language they have found.
- I elicit these chunks to the whiteboard, confirming what’s correct/plausible/acceptable, and we move on to the next short email in the exchange.
This guided reading is couched in a broader lesson structure involving setting a clear context first and allowing learners to practise later.
Naturally, there are plenty of other valid and valuable ways to teach lexical chunks and writing skills, but I found this approach useful for several reasons:
- Like any form of guided discovery, the students found useful language in context by themselves, just with a little prompting. And I do believe that inductive approaches, which promote noticing as opposed to being spoon-fed, lead to better understanding of new language, its meaning and use.
- By giving the students the chance to just read the emails once first with no strict ‘task’ (not even a simple ‘gist’ question), it reflects how someone might really react to an email that pops up in their inbox from a friend they haven’t seen in a while.
- By giving the students questions verbally after they’d read the email once, rather than on a worksheet, it helped me keep the whole class moving forward together at an appropriate pace (one of the trickiest things with teaching groups of people!).
I also found this lesson appropriate for learners who are either reluctant readers/writers or are more introverted. This is because:
- Most of the work is individual. The students have space and time to just think! They don’t have external voices nagging at them when they’re trying to find an answer to a question. The only intrusion on their thinking space is when the teacher gives the next question, and I am extremely careful not to do this until I’ve literally seen them all write down their ideas and then look up at me to show they’re ready to move on.
- Despite the quiet nature of the guided reading moments, there’s an indescribable feeling of pace in this approach which I’ve never experienced when students were silently working through one long worksheet individually, with some finishing way ahead of others (and I do so hate to stop activities and move on when at least one student is evidently still miles and miles behind – “Don’t worry if you haven’t finished” is really not my favourite teacher phrase).
- By giving the questions verbally but allowing students to write their answers down, rather than calling them out to the whole class, each student seems to have a kind of mini one-to-one lesson. I can stay seated in one place where I can see all the students’ papers, but still feel connected to each student on an individual level.
- Similarly, stronger students can’t dominate this sort of activity. All students are able to think as long as they need to before answering (i.e. making a written note of their ideas), to signal (non-)comprehension discreetly by looking up at me, and not to worry about others’ reactions to their initial ideas. It’s less face-threatening than whole-group discussion.
- Some of my students are not that confident with written text, often because they have a lot of difficulty with spelling. They tend to avoid reading and writing. Being given the questions verbally and thus hearing the teacher’s voice seem to be somehow comforting to these learners. It seems to help them bridge their stronger and weaker skills.
Here’s a working example, from a lesson I did with an intermediate class a few months ago.
For material, I printed out a brief email exchange that had taken place recently between me and a friend of mine.
There were 4 short emails in total and I selected some useful language from each one that I suspected my students did not already know or use when making informal social arrangements among themselves. (For example: “How about…” or “Maybe we could…”)
1. Students discussed in pairs what social activities they’d already done during the week (it was a Friday and our school has a busy social programme throughout the week, so I knew they’d all been somewhere interesting and met some other students from the school!). Then they discussed their plans for the upcoming weekend.
2. I gave each student a Post-it note and told them to write a brief message on it to someone else in the class, as though they were writing them an email/Facebook message, inviting the other student to join them that weekend. When done, I told them to put this to one side for the time being.
3. I explained that my friend (“Sarah”) and I had had a similar exchange of emails the previous weekend. The students needed to know some basic background information: that my friend’s sister was expecting a baby and I wasn’t sure if she’d be free at the weekend for our planned coffee, or if she’d be with her sister.
4. I told them we had sent 4 emails in total, and that they were going to read this chain of messages. I explained that we would stop after each message to look at useful language for making social arrangements in English via email.
5. I gave them the first email and told them simply to read it, and then I would give them some questions to help them find specific useful phrases:
These are the questions I asked them:
- What expression do I use to check my friend still wants to meet me? [“Are you still up for…?”]
- What expression do I use to say when I will be available? [“I can do…”]
- How do I sign my name? [“L”]
Once everyone had had a look and written down their ideas, I got them to briefly compare with another student and we put the correct phrases on the board. Then I let them ask any other questions they had about other lexis in the email (e.g. “nephew”).
We followed the same steps for the second email, i.e. my friend’s response:
Here are the questions I gave them (verbally) after reading:
- How does she agree to my suggestion? [“Let’s do coffee!”]
- How does she suggest a day and a place? [“How about…” and “maybe near…”]
- How does she explain why this place is a good idea? [“We could check out the Christmas tree”]
- How does she say where she and her flatmate are going on Friday? [“Me and my flatmate are heading down to…”]
- How does she say what time she plans to arrive at the park? [“Aiming to get there for about 8ish”]
- How does she invite me to come to the park? [“Wondered if you fancy joining us?”]
- And how does she give me the option of saying ‘no’? [“If not, no worries”]
After all students had noted their ideas, compared them, we’d all agreed on the appropriate language and I’d thoroughly checked they really understood it (e.g. does “8ish” mean exactly 8:00 or approximately?), we moved on to the next email:
They read it and then I gave these questions:
- How do I say ‘sorry, no’? [“Can’t join you…I’m afraid”]
- How do I say Saturday is a good day to meet? [“Saturday works fine for me.”]
- How do I suggest where to meet? [“How about I meet you under…?”]
As before, the students compared and we put all the useful language on the board.
At this point, it was necessary to explain to students who hadn’t been to Trafalgar Square recently that there was an art installation there that looks like this:
They read the final email in the chain:
And these were their questions:
- How does she say ‘That’s a really good plan’? [“Brill.”]
- How does she repeat and agree with my suggested time? [“11am…it is.”]
- How does she sign her email? [“xx”]
By the end of all this, we had plenty of useful language on the board and had spent a lot of time talking about its meaning and use between quiet guided reading of the emails themselves.
Everything up to this point had taken about an hour.
Follow-up (in class)
The students now had to find that Post-it I’d given them earlier and re-write their invitations on a new Post-it, rephrasing their original ideas by using the new language they’d discovered.
When ready, I played ‘postman’ (woman? or email server perhaps?) and delivered their ’emails’, to which they continued to reply for the next 10 minutes of the lesson, creating their own email chains and making plans.
(Some of them actually followed up these plans and did some kind of social activity together that weekend, I believe!)
So what makes this an ‘introvELT’ lesson?
As I said in my original post on this topic:
Some people just prefer to listen, or think things through before they speak. There’s no reason why this preference would change when they’re in an L2 environment.
That is to say, the quieter and/or more introverted students in our classes are not necessarily antisocial, incapable of speaking or uninterested in other people altogether! Unfortunately, it seems they’re often branded as such by teachers who expect every moment of class time to be taken up by speaking, and who are afraid that a few minutes’ silence means the students ‘obviously’ aren’t learning.
But a lot of language processing happens internally. To my mind, more introverted people (like myself) are particularly sensitive to the need for individual reflection and don’t appreciate being robbed of this necessary condition for learning by a teacher who insists everyone always speaks as much as possible, even during activities which tend to be more solitary by their very nature, anyway, like reading!
I found this a fairly easy lesson to prepare for and conduct (and the format is easily adaptable to other types of text), but it seemed to yield considerable results in terms of these students’ knowledge and confidence in using this sort of language. They also gave very positive feedback afterwards. And it was quite a ‘quiet’ group, on the surface of things. But inside their heads, there was evidently still plenty going on!