Today is a happy day! Colin and I are on our way back to China. We’ll be presenting at the SETRA conference in Beijing next week, and we are absolutely delighted for the opportunity to talk about some of the things we’ve been working on in the past year. We are still interested in the fundamentals of grammar, vocabulary, and the four skills, but we’ve also been implementing projects in our classes. Along the way, we’ve discovered paths to fluency that foster language use with a broader scope than many controlled exercises allow, and here are some ideas that we’ll be discussing.
We loosely define projects as anything we do that has some sort of product as an outcome. Students might do a survey, as our friend Janet did with beginner students. Or they might make an advertisement to practice imperatives – this done by our friend Erin. At slightly higher levels Colin has had students writing brochures with cultural information for travelers coming to their countries, and I have had students produce podcasts and a play.
One thing that all these projects have in common is that there is scaffolding and abundant learner initiative. Students must interact in authentic ways to complete the projects and the process involves higher order thinking skills such as comparing, evaluating, and creating (Bloom’s Taxonomy) which intersect with the four Cs of 21st century skills, which are communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.
At lower levels, we naturally want projects to be simple. It makes sense to focus on grammar and specific vocabulary so that students learn core fixed patterns such as questions and answers. In doing her survey with beginners, Janet’s aim was to help consolidate BE verbs, numbers and family members, but she also included some pragmatics. The goal was for students to collect data on the ages of various family members. She gave them the vocabulary and question models. Then anticipating that some older relatives would have passed away, she gave students a very useful human response, “I’m sorry to hear that.”
Janet then sent students around the room to ask questions and record answers. As they practiced, Janet noted that she was hearing “I’m sorry to hear that,” and it was being reiterated multiple times with multiple partners. So not only were they operationalizing numbers, family vocabulary and BE verbs, but they were also practicing the function of expressing sympathy. Best of all, it was authentic.
Interestingly, Janet was barely involved in the process. Instead, she was watching, taking notes, and “learning” her learners. This is one of the coolest things about projects. It allows the teacher time to step back and observe students’ engagement with the language. How often do we get a chance to spend an extended period of time (10 minutes or more) just absorbing what is going on among and between learners speaking in English. It can feel a little weird to be ignored, but ultimately, an observation stance can provide a picture of developing language that is more vivid than a test.
Janet’s observation afterwards? “I can see that they need lots of practice saying the same thing over and over at this level.” This is really a confirmation of what we inherently know, but in this case my takeaway is that Janet had scaffolded a situation so that learners were getting that needed practice.
Janet’s project also showcases one of many hidden outcomes of projects that don’t always appear in curriculum documents. Students engaged with one another have a lot going on in their heads, and the hidden outcome is the relationship. We don’t just communicate with words. Our voice, our pauses, the way we stress words or how loudly we speak, our body language, facial expressions and gestures all convey interest, confidence, fearfulness, lack of confidence, confusion and many other messages. And all the while, our conversation partner’s eyes and ears are “reading” our implicit messages. This information crowds cognitive space. In a test, students aren’t distracted by all the nonverbal communication going on, but in real life they have to assimilate it because it is essential to understanding messages and responding to them.
In moving to intermediate and above, we feel a more lexically-based grammar makes sense. The patterns that appear in conversation are different from the patterns used in writing, and the language patterns of storytelling are different from the language patterns of describing weather events. All might have familiar grammar, but each features a subset of frequently occurring lexical chunks that derive meaning from the vocabulary that is slotted in. Projects at the higher level, then, involve exposure to genres such as job applications and interviews, planning, making suggestions and responding in a collaborative assignment, or the particularities involved in reading and writing in an academic field.
An example of a lexical-grammar approach is my podcast project. My intermediate students listened to a Ted talk and podcast by human resources executive, Regina Hartley. Hartley sees a lot of resumes, and in her talk, she describes applicants as privileged “silver-spoons,” and less-privileged “scrappers.” The silver spoons’ resumes look polished. They have all the right education and credentials, while the scrappers resumes reflect hardships such as interrupted education and less impressive internships. Hartley’s message was that the scrappers might have skills that the silver spoons don’t, and they should be given an interview. She also tells the story of how she herself was a scrapper who overcame obstacles and built a successful career.
Students’ listen to her talk, read the transcript, take notes, create definitions and reflect on their own histories in groups. They analyze outloud whether they are “silver-spoons” or “Scrappers” or both. They identify language chunks such as battle the odds, overcome obstacles, bring out the best in people, and many others. Next, they interview each other using their phones to record.
This initial experience is preparation for the next assignment which is interview someone outside of the class. They are giving a short brief which is to introduce the topic, define silver spoons and scrappers to their interviewee, and then record the interview.
The podcast takes several class sessions, but it is rich with opportunities to bring learning together. Students go from reading and listening skills, to language work to experiencing an interview and getting feedback to conducting an interview and sharing it with the class. My role is simply to scaffold the process, observe and give support where needed and set up interviews with people on our campus.
Ultimately experiences like these have convinced us of the need to embed language work into interactive and purposeful projects. We’ve seen how classrooms come to life as learners play a larger role in bringing their own social skills and experiences to the task, and we learn and connect on a more personal level along the way.