Alice Savage

Projects for a dynamic classroom

giraffes-627031_1920In 2018, an Atlantic Monthly article featured a writer’s experience with Duolingo, the language app that uses gaming principles to attract learners to their lessons. The stickiness of the app seems to work. The article stated that Duolingo has 27.5 million active monthly users, and it is not the only one. Babbel and others are now providing students with convenient, easy and cheap options for language learning. As a classroom teacher, this gives me pause.

However, there is good news too. The author, David H. Freedman goes on to say that while his experience helped him become very good at multiple choice Italian, he was not that good at actually speaking to people. He needed something more. What apps can’t do, he learns, is pragmatics. Pragmatics involves the voice, gestures, signaling mechanisms and language choices that we use in authentic interactions with other humans. Language is designed to allow us to navigate an infinite variety of intentions and relationships, and at this level of interaction, apps fall short. We speak differently to a child than a parent, differently to a customer than a spouse, and again differently to a taxi driver than someone we meet at a wedding – or maybe not in that last instance.

In fact, in his new book on prosody, Nigel Ward makes an interesting point about the role of even simple greetings in interactions. The ritualistic language of greeting helps us establish one another’s pitch tone, which in turn allows us to interpret what people mean outside of the actual words.

In another example, we can consider how children say, “I’m sorry.” It’s often quite clear to native speakers whether the statement is sincere or not, and it depends what is going on inside the head and heart of the speaker.

This need for pragmatics is good news for classroom teachers because it provides a reason for students to get in their cars or on the bus and travel to a room with other learners and engage in social activity. What happens in the classroom can now take place at a more extensive and meaningful level of interaction.

It also entails letting go of the tedium (or is it comfort?) of the right/wrong answers of T/F, multiple choice, gap-fills and other exercises that populate many traditional coursebooks. These single-right-answer exercises can easily be done with machines and don’t require a community of peers. If they go online, teachers can use the classroom space to scaffold genuine interaction with content, the sharing of ideas and collaboration on the creation of a project where there is no one right answer but perhaps a new understanding of a topic.

In other words, we can use language as a vehicle rather than the end itself. Of course, language must always be a part of a lesson but perhaps we don’t have to break it down into its smallest pieces quite so much, especially at the intermediate level, and perhaps we don’t have to organize modules around fixed language rules.

The diagram below illustrates how patterns of language operate like fractals, with discrete patterns potentially occurring within larger patterns occurring within larger patterns. This phenomenon introduced by Diane Larsen-Freeman in the 1990s, applies complex systems theory to applied linguistics, and it has gained much positive attention in the decades since.

Note that the innermost circle comprises language with much of the context removed, e.g., past tense = verb + ed talked, pushed, etc, and this is the language that can be dealt with through an app. The middle circle includes more context at the phrase and sentence level, which involves combining words and patterns e.g., we played soccer until it started to rain, while the outermost circle requires an interaction among content and speakers or readers/writers, and reflects genuine communication, e.g., What are your plans for Thanksgiving? as a lead in to extending or engineering an invitation.

fractal language

Projects offer a way to spend more time in the outer circle. The content (texts, podcasts, videos, etc.) that feeds into the project features the language frames and chunks that can be explored and developed. Then the processing activities can provide fluency practice (extensive speaking) while creating opportunities for the teacher to deal with emergent language.

In other words, the language aims emerge from the project-in-process and what the teacher observes students doing with the language. A presentation on emergent language at the 2019 IATEFL by Nick Andon and Danny Norrington-Davies showed how an attentive teacher can observe students interacting with language and provide feedback either in the moment, at a delayed stage, or in a follow up lesson the next day.

Scary! Doing something like this means relinquishing the comfort of an answer key, and experiencing students interacting with content in new ways. However, a detailed assignment can provide steps for moving students toward the product; ongoing feedback in the form of one-minute papers can inform teaching; and notes on the progress can provide the basis for an evaluation rubric. (The rubric is also something that can and should evolve over time and with experience.)

In this model, there need not be as much formal assessment, and the time often spent creating and marking tests can be used for investigating, processing, planning and shaping.

The following are two project ideas that have worked pretty well in our community college program. Students’ responses were largely positive, and the curricular outcomes for specific language targets were easily met.


Listen to and make a podcast: Most people have a phone these days, so the tools for a podcast are right there in the students’ hands. For content, check out national media outlets. Whenever someone has written an interesting non-fiction book, they often do a TED talk, an NPR interview and maybe write a few articles for national media. Adapt this material as content. Have students discuss the ideas, apply them to their own lives, and then interview one another, recording the interview and then sharing it with the class.

Regina Hartley’s NPR interview, “Why we shouldn’t overlook the scrapper with the Atypical Resume” worked well for an intermediate level integrated skills class. A human resources expert, Hartley introduces a type of job applicant whose resume has gaps that suggest the person did not have great opportunities growing up. She compares these scrappers to applicants whose resumes demonstrate that they grew up with advantages (silver spoons). Then she explains why scrappers with their resiliance and motivation surely deserve an interview.

Students listened to the interview, worked on the terminology, and discussed their backgrounds as silver spoons, scrappers, or both. Then they interviewed one another in a practice run, recorded it and got feedback. Next, they went out into the community to interview people and create a podcast.

Their assignment for the podcast was to introduce themselves, explain scrappers and silver spoons and then record a five minute interview with a native speaker about how they self-identified and their career story.

Produce a play: Drama has always been popular in ELT, and in addition to games and improvisations, students can work with the conversational models in a play. Working with a theater script supports pragmatics awareness through characters’ efforts to overcome obstacles and achieve goals. It also affords multiple opportunities for contextualized and meaningful pronunciation work including sounds, suprasegmentals and using one’s voice for emotional messages as well as gestures and expressions. Finally, the rehearsal process offers abundant fluency practice and collaborative skills.

I was lucky enough to teach an English through theater class with my play, Rising Water. We read background articles, learned vocabulary, and had discussions about parent/child relationships, teenage risk-taking, and climate change. We also explored the pragmatics of disagreement and how sometimes the need to be polite can override our sense of safety. Students worked in groups to identify their motivations, learn lines, block their scenes, create a program, work out costumes and even do sound design. Then we performed the play for an audience of friends and family. Students had a follow up awards ceremony and then went on to write their own plays.

These are just two examples. Students have also created a blog, organized a poster session, done panel presentations and debates. They even used our college’s maker-space studio to create talk-show videos on courtship practices around the world.

While the projects had different end products, each followed a basic sequence that began with content, then processing of the content and working with language followed by repurposing that language into a publishable product. Along the way, there was much learning on the part of both teacher and students, but I believe we felt excited about going to class each day, and that, perhaps more than anything, is what can keep our profession relevant in the digital age.

Photo credit: Christine Sponchia

Image by <a href=”;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=627031″>Christine Sponchia</a> from <a href=”;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=627031″>Pixabay</a&gt;




2 replies »

  1. What a fantastic find that Regina Hartley’s NPR interview, “Why we shouldn’t overlook the scrapper with the Atypical Resume” is for our community college students. I can see how this simplified form of the Ted talk can work very well with intermediate levels. Detailing the process from listening–> working on terminology–> personal connection–> practice interviews in class –> authentic interviews in the community–> podcasts is logical and clear. Moving from interviews to podcasts adds a very attractive layer for students–who appreciate adding techno-savvy skills to their learning. Thanks for a great idea!


    • Thanks Katie,
      They made some great connections with members of our college community to boot, as some of the interviewees were librarians, advisors and other support staff.


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