Friday, 12 March 2010

A lesson in the psychology of learning languages (part 2)

A week or so ago, I posted the background to a problem that I think all teachers, including ESP materials writers, need to address, namely the psychological barriers that prevent people from using English in real-life situations and that prevent them from admitting they don’t understand.

In this posting, I’ll work through a lesson plan to tackle that problem. I won’t say solve the problem – I wish I had a magic wand, but this is actually one problem we can’t solve for our students – they have to overcome it themselves.

There’s a related linguistic problem which is perhaps easier to solve. They may not actually have the language they need in order to interrupt effectively and check information in English. Let me demonstrate that these aren’t as easy as they sound with another example using me as a case study in how not to do it.

I have two sources of paranoia when I’m in a large group of people speaking Polish and I sit quietly rather than getting involved in the conversation. Firstly, by the time I’ve thought of the right words to say, the conversation has moved on and it’s too late. What I need is the Polish equivalent of “Shut up for a second while I think of what I’m going to say”, which is normally expressed more politely in English as “Could I just say something here?

My second source of paranoia is the panic that even though I understand 90% of what I hear, that 10% might make the difference between success and humiliation. At an integration day at my company several years ago, we had a nice session where we all got musical instruments and the trainer got us to create group music. At one stage, he asked (in Polish) for volunteers to be bell-ringers, so I thought that’d be fine for me and went forward … only to realise, to sniggers from around the room, that he’d put the feminine ending on the word for volunteers … so I made a fool of myself in front of 120 people.

Now, no amount of language could have helped me there, but in smaller gatherings, it’s important to be able to pinpoint misunderstandings. Rather than simply blurt out “I don’t understand”, our students need to be able to ask “Sorry, what exactly do you mean when you say ‘volunteer’?” or “Sorry, you said you’d liked what exactly?

So … so far I’ve got two aims, a psychological one (learner training) about understanding that we all have crises like these and we need to get through them, and a linguistic one of teaching useful phrases.

Before we go any further with the lesson plan, it’s important to note that the aims come first. Very often, we find a good text or video clip, plan some exercises around it, and only then think about aims (to give reading practice, to give speaking practice, to teach some nice vocabulary). Don’t get me wrong, those are all very important aims, and certainly nothing to be ashamed of. But as I’ve said elsewhere, they’re not enough. The difference between a course and a series of lessons comes down to the aims you start with.

Once you’ve got aims, the next thing you need is a context. Now, because I’m doing this not actually as part of a course, I have the advantage – or disadvantage – of having the whole range of ESP topics to choose from. I’ll make an arbitrary decision to focus on English for Marketing, since that’s a field I have some knowledge of, and also because our new book, Cambridge English for Marketing, is out in the coming weeks. (Look out for it – it’s great!) And within that field, I’ll go for the marketing budget, simply because I remember there was some tricky vocab there.

OK, so now we can start planning stages. Since we’re actually teaching something in this lesson, I think we need an input stage, an analysis stage and an output stage. You could call that presentation-practice-production if you like, but I prefer my own names for the stages, which I think are better descriptors.

What could we do about input? Well, we really need to see or hear some characters doing things badly and/or well, in order to provoke some good discussion and also to model the language for later. I’m going to use Xtranormal for this. I’ve never used it before, but I’ve been very impressed when I’ve seen others use it. I hope it works for me.

Anyway, here’s a dialogue to illustrate how not to do it. I’ll show you the second part in a moment.

Remember, my aim here isn’t to give listening practice, so I think this is a very valid way of presenting a script. For more ideas on this sort of listening activity, see this posting.

I’d better point out at this stage that I’m building a toy lesson. If this were a real lesson with real students in mind, I’d check my facts more carefully and probably make the dialogues longer. But I just want to talk you through the stages in the process here.

So … we’ve got some dialogues. Time to start lesson-building. Three rules are worth remembering at this point. Firstly, personalise. So start with a discussion lead-in based on your students’ experiences … of what, though?

The second rule is: content before language. The language focus (as well as the learner training) will come after the listening. At the beginning, we need to focus on the story – what they’re discussing in the dialogue, in this case, marketing budgets.

The third rule: contextualise. Before we listen, we need to have a good idea of what we’re listening to and why.

So let’s start with a lead-in discussion:
- Have you ever been involved in planning a marketing budget?
- What did you do?
- If you haven’t, what stages do you think it involves?
- What different approaches might there be?
- How difficult would it be to get the relevant information?

And so on.

It’d be good here to do some work on the theory of marketing budgets, such as matching six popular approaches with explanations. This is actually a task in our Marketing book, so I’ll leave you read up on it here.

Now we need a first listening task. We’ve already personalised and contextualised to some extent, so we can focus on the actual interaction here. Perhaps first get students to predict who the two people might be, at what stage in the development plan they should discuss the budget, which approach they should choose and what sort of data they’d need to collect. Then watch the clip to compare it with their ideas. I nearly said ‘watch to check’, but that would imply that my answers are somehow more valid than theirs, which is unlikely given that they’re probably marketing pros and I’m an English teacher who’s making it up as he goes along.

Lead-in, predict answers, watch to compare.

Now we’re ready for the meat. At the end of the clip, the woman asks ‘What’s the problem?’, so let’s turn that into a class discussion. This is where all my psychology comes in (see my previous article). Get them to tell anecdotes about times they sat in silence instead of admitting a lack of understanding, or share your own stories of foreign language paranoia (or you could tell them some of mine). I won’t go too deeply into the discussion for two reasons. Firstly, this kind of open-ended discussion can’t really be planned too deeply – as long as you know the key points you want to cover (see my article), you’ll be fine. Secondly, I’ve got another lesson on exactly this topic, which I wrote some time ago for Professional English Online. It’s not been published yet, so I don’t wan to pre-empt it, and in the meantime I don’t see much point in reinventing the wheel.

OK, now we’re ready for language work, so we’d better watch the second clip. But … remembering the rule about content before language, we need comprehension questions first.

How about these:

1. When the woman talked about competitive parity, what did the man think she was saying?

2. Why did the woman start talking about golf?

3. Why did the woman talk about the standard of his work?

4. What exactly is competitive parity?

Right. Now we really are ready for the language work. An old favourite here is a gapfill. Students predict what could go in each space and then watch again to check. Here are the gapped sentences.

I’m sorry. I don’t know _____ _____ _____ _____ the word ‘party’ in this context.

I’m sorry. I don’t know _____ _____ _____ _____. I don’t play golf.

_____ _____ _____ there’s something wrong with my work?

I’m afraid I still _____ _____ _____.

Now we can elicit some more ways of checking information, of pinpointing the exact word that’s causing problems. Perhaps we could also focus on the language the woman uses to explain the concepts. Also, I haven’t done anything on interrupting and all those other functions I mentioned at the beginning – let’s save those for next time and do them properly.

Perhaps there’s room here too for another discussion: in both parts, the man looked a bit stupid. But in which part did he look more stupid? In which part did he overcome the problem?

Then we just need a role-play to bring it all together. You could follow my procedure for instant role-plays (here), but make sure you elicit before you start some really tricky vocab that can serve as the focus of the role-play. (But remember my lesson when this policy went wrong). Tell students they have to use the techniques and language from this lesson (including phrases that they generated themselves).

So students do the role-plays in pairs. Perhaps they could swap roles and do it again. A nice bit of feedback and discussion. Homework: use the techniques and language at work some time before the next lesson and be ready to tell us how you got on.

The end. Simple as that. Try it out, let me know if it works or falls flat, or if you improve my rough ideas into a polished lesson. Good luck.

Related posts:
A lesson in the psychology of learning languages (part 1)
Listening: What’s the aim? (part 2)
Instant role-pays

1 comment:

  1. Oh, language paranoia, my friend. Although I understand 98% of standard English, there is no way I can talk without fear in front of a room full of people. At conferences. And even though I CAN speak quite reasonable English (I'm a qualified English teacher, right?) I tend to make mistakes, create strange structures etc. when I speak to other speakers of English (still talking about groups). Classrooms are different. And I don't get that paranoia in normal daily situations like shopping. And when I'm in a country whose language I don't know at all. I feel absolutely unashamed trying to repeat phrases, ask people what they call this and that and it's fun. So thank you very much for the post. Made me feel better and it ALSO was quite inspirational :)