Picture the scene, if you will:
- An ordinary 90-minute intermediate-level adult class. The second of two lessons this group have in the morning.
- Ten students, divided into two groups.
- Each group has a different reading text – authentic articles taken from the TfL and RMT websites about the Tube strike happening in London this week.
- The students’ task: work together to find 10 given words/phrases in the text and, with reference to the surrounding context and co-text, discuss their meanings.
- If their can’t resolve any uncertainties through 2-3 minutes of group discussion, they can look in a monolingual dictionary.
Let’s watch one particular student during this task. We’ll call him Pete.
- Pete has been at the school for some time and been taught by many of the teachers as he bounces from class to class.
- Pete is well known to make little effort, frequently miss lessons and not participate in activities when he does turn up.
- Pete doesn’t really interact much with other students or take an interest in what they say or do, but seems happy enough just to sit there with one eye on his phone all lesson.
- Despite talks with his teachers and various other people who want to help him actually get something from his course, his behaviour never really changes.
Back to the lesson:
- Pete is in a group of 5 with 3 other students who are super-engaged with the task, discussing the different possible meanings of the lexis and how it fits into the wider context of their article, and 1 other student who seems interested but reluctant to speak (first day nerves?).
- Pete is, as usual, leaning half-heartedly towards the other students but tapping away on his phone instead of actually collaborating with them on the task.
- Pete is offered the chance to do the task alone if he prefers, which he refuses.
- Pete is asked if there is something else he is thinking about which I/we can help with. Nope.
- Meanwhile, his peers get stuck on the phrase ‘voluntary redundancy’. ‘Voluntary’ they know; ‘redundancy’ they don’t; they can’t work it out from context.
- Quiet student reaches for the dictionary.
- I intervene:
“Pete, here you go [passing him the dictionary]; why don’t you look up the word?”
- Pete [bashfully]:
“Er… which word?”
- Other students [more politely than the situation probably warrants]:
- Pete flicks to the ‘R’ section quite slowly, but not as though he’s bored by the task. Just… slowly. I wait and watch. The other students wait and watch.
- Quiet student kindly prompts:
“Ra… re… good. No, back a page. No, that’s words which start with ‘ret-‘.”
- Pete looks up and says baldly:
“I don’t know how to use a dictionary.”
Teaching the teacher?
I do believe I just had an impromptu 10-second teacher training session.
The way Pete said “I don’t know how to use a dictionary” was so simple, so straightforward. He wasn’t embarrassed; he wasn’t complaining: he was just stating a fact.
It would never have occurred to me that he simply didn’t know how to find the word “redundancy”. Looking back, I think his quiet classmate had actually opened the dictionary at ‘R’ for him. Anything he did after that was just flicking through the pages more or less randomly in the hopes that ‘redundancy’ would appear.
I have to admit that I don’t do as much learner training as I should, or would like to.
I do hide to some extent behind the very real barrier which is continuous enrolment: as we lose some students every Friday and gain some every Monday, the class composition is quite unstable and it makes learner training very tricky, as many important and useful language learning skills/strategies do take some time to develop. A week just isn’t enough to do more than set the ball rolling.
So what do we do – start again every Monday and bore the students who’ve been there and done that?
A-ha! We could get them to teach the new arrivals how to do things like use a dictionary! Win-win, right?
But no, I don’t think so–there are so many valuable skills and strategies like this that we could spend our classes doing nothing but learner training.
Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing? Or perhaps a compromise: training in how to use the language integrated with training in how to learn it?
To be fair, I think we do quite a bit of that in different ways already: we often talk about how to record vocabulary, how/why to use phonemic symbols, how/why/when to use translation, why a variety of individual, pair and group work is useful, and so on.
But I admit, dictionary skills are an area I rarely work on–perhaps because most of my students do seem to know what to do when I hand them a dictionary.
Nevertheless, it’s worth remembering that some don’t.
Thanks for the wake-up call, ‘Pete’!
Anne Hendler recently challenged teacher-bloggers to share just one little thing which happened in the course of their ordinary teaching day which might have made it extraordinary.
David Harbinson, among others, took up the challenge. He pointed me towards it, and this was my response.