Sunday, 10 January 2010

Freer practice

First of all, sorry for the prolonged absence. As always, I've got far too much work on, and my deadlines finally overwhelmed me before Christmas. I'm working on two huge career-milestone projects at the moment, plus four or five smaller ones, none of which I can even hint at on this blog. Very cool but pretty frustrating.

So with that in mind, I'll mark my return to the blogosphere with something short and sweet.

Last week, with my Upper Int Business English group, we were doing second conditionals. (For those of you who don't 'do' cliches of English grammar like that, please forgive me. I made sure it was business-contextualised and communicative, and my students claimed to find it useful. As adults who've mostly learnt by doing rather than studying, it was new grammar.)

And I'd better admit it ... it was the next thing in the book.

After the little presentation in the book (some contextualised examples, which we analysed) and a few short written practice exercises, they were ready for a bit of freer practice.

I'm not sure if that's a universally recognised term - I use it all the time, but just in case, it's the type of practice exercise that bridges the gap between controlled practice (gapfills, transformations, drills, dull stuff like that) and free practice (role-plays, debates, simulations ...). The problem with free practice, as I'm sure you all know, is that students promptly forget to use the target language, being so engrossed in the task itself.

So the trick with freer practice is to make the task not quite engrossing enough for them to forget the aim of the exercise, which is to use the target language - to take risks with it, to play with it, to experiment with it, to get their heads around it in the heat of semi-fluent speech. I think those are valid aims.

Usaully, it's enough simply to tell students to use the target language, and also to get them to police each other (e.g. by asking questions with the target structure, or insisting on some risk-taking from their partners).

The exercise in the book didn't sound very promising. Discuss with a partner: If you set up your own business, what would it be? What problems would you have? It's a fine context, but I could see those questions lasting about a minute at best, so not much of a discussion.

So before we started, I drew/elicited a mind-map onto the board. In the centre, I wrote 'own business', and then there were arms coming out of the centre saying 'name', 'type of business', 'location', 'premises', 'clients', 'competitors', 'source of finance', 'number of employees', 'business philosophy', and so on.

This turned the activity into a proper interview. From two questions we now had around a dozen. The interviewer had plenty of questions to ask, making it more of a dialogue than the monologue it could have been. In fact, the interviewer probably practised the target language (second conditionals, don't forget) more than the interviewee. But that's fine - everyone had a chance at both roles. And it generated tons of target language. Bucketfuls. Very nice.

(Whether they'll go on to use the language in free practice and then real life is another question, but we teachers have to be optimistic, I suppose.)

As a final flourish, I asked them to feed back to the group, but not about their own business plans, but about their partners'. That made the feedback session much more interactive and engaging - and also very funny, as the feedback included the ridiculous or silly ideas, not just the ones that survived the discussion.

In the next lesson, I did my cost cutting worksheet from Professional English Online, which demonstrates and practises the real business benefit of being able to distinguish between first and second conditionals when discussing proposals.

Between them, I think my two freer practice activities did actually go some way towards convincing them that the language is useful and not too difficult, and helping them to get their heads round it and feel a bit more confident about using it. And we had fun in the process.

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