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Teaching Tips 173

Supportive listening
Gestures of support
Product, process or genre?


Supportive listening

If you ask most students learning English which areas they find most difficult they are likely to say listening, speaking & vocabulary. Listening tends to top the charts & rightly so. Generally speaking, apart from you talking, the students tend to listen to cassettes or if they are lucky the odd video. The cassettes are very difficult as there are no paralinguistic or situational clues available i.e. you can't see the speakers, the setting & all the messages that body language convey.

Here are a few ideas to help 'lighten the load' for your students & make it more success oriented & enjoyable:

1. Sink the students into the theme - warm them up to the what they might hear e.g. if the text is about schools then you could brainstorm vocab connected to it & briefly chat about their school experiences. They'll be more relaxed & receptive to the listening activity.

2. Pre-teach crucial vocab - i.e. the vocab which is necessary for meaning & the tasks.

3. Give an extensive task - we always listen for a purpose - a couple of questions that require them to listen very generally to the text first time they listen.

4. Make the tasks challenging but manageable.

5. Let them compare their ideas in pairs each time before general class feedback.

6. Choose interesting texts for the students.

7. Use videos rather than only audio cds - the more visual clues the easier it is to understand. It is very unfair to expect listening skills to develop with the use of audio only texts.

8. Tell the students which skills you are helping to develop with the tasks you are setting so that they know why they are doing them - awareness is half the battle won.

9. Keep telling them about 'prominence' - the stressed words - they don't have to understand everything.

10. Match the task to the text - think about what a native speaker would do when listening to the text & transfer that to the tasks you plan.

11. Get them used to a lot of listening.

12. Try to pitch the texts you use well - don't make them too difficult - it can be demoralising. Think about speed of delivery, cultural familiarity, background noise, accents of the speakers .

13. Take into account the students on the day - are they tired, hot? etc. - & act accordingly.

14. Have the scripts at hand if you are worried they may find it too challenging - they can then listen & read at the same time.

15. Get them listening at home - suggest websites, encourage them to use the coursebook cd etc...and then bring this back into the class so that they can see it is a valuable activity.

16. Last but not least, be sympathetic to their problems with listening.

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Gestures of support

Last week I wandered around Placa Catalunya in Barcelona where the 'indignados' are camping out. The demonstrations started in Madrid & quickly spread around Spain & then to Italy, as a response to the approaching local elections & disillusionment with politics & politicians. It was a lovely scene, lots of people sitting listening to speeches, surrounded with stalls offering everything free food to legal advice to a library. As the speeches were made the listeners responded with hand gestures; one hand in the air & hand shaking to mean they agreed with the idea, two hands up & hands shaking if they were more enthusiastic about the idea, & arms in the air with fists rotating round each other for 'get on with it, we've already heard this'. It was excellent to see, this instant feedback allowing the speaker to continue without being interrupted by applause or being shown that the speech needed to be cut.

When we are interacting with our students we are giving off a variety of signals & some overt ones are the gestures that we use to elicit & correct. These gestures sometimes become so much of a habit that you can find yourself with friends or family & unconsciously using them as you do with your students? Can be embarrassing correcting your uncle's use of the past simple!

The classic classroom gesture is the hand held out vertically & slowly moved from left to right to signify something that isn't right but was probably a good idea anyway. You have to be careful with gestures like this as students can get the wrong idea. This could be interpreted as nearly right, when in fact it was completely wrong. Some would also argue that gestures, as used by the teacher, provide the students with a false crutch to rely on which won't be there when they're 'on the outside', in the real world. They are inevitable & a useful tool.

A few common gestures:

'past' - thumb pointing back over your shoulder.

'now' - point down to the floor in front of you.

'future' - point ahead of you.

'listen' - hand cupped behind ear.

'stop' - raise hands.

'give a complete sentence' - hands held apart horizontally, as if holding a brick at each end.

'repeat individually' - beckoning gesture with the whole hand.**

'repeat chorally' - firm sweep of the arm.

'break the sentence down into words' - use each finger to represent a different part.

'get into pairs' - 'join' the students with fingers on each hand coming together.

prepositions can be easily shown with one hand being 'in', 'on', 'behind' etc the other.

** Rather than pointing, with the index finger, I think this is a better way of calling on the individual. I personally don't like being pointed at. Cultural considerations are certainly important when deciding which gestures to use.

Do you think about gestures? Do you consciously think of new ones? Do you use any others? Are there any that you can't use in the culture that you are teaching in?

Gestures are important tools in classroom management & students can see their usefulness & do appreciate you using them.

So how about letting our students gesture to us, as in the demonstration, when they understand a presentation or have enjoyed a task, & then if a task is going on for too long or they don't understand something, an appropriate gesture could be signalled! Why not?

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Writing skills
Product, process or

A brief look at aims & approaches when looking at writing in class. There seems to be a fairly common idea amongst teachers that if their students are putting pen to paper, they are developing the writing skill. For low level students who use a different script in their mother tongue, any kind of writing could certainly be said to be helping them with the writing skill.

However, for the more advanced students & those who have the Latin script in their mother tongue this isn't necessarily the case. There is a distinction between language consolidation & classroom language recording & actually developing the skills needed for effective writing. Have a look at the following activities & decide if they are writing skill development tasks or some other task.

1. students fill in the gaps in sentences with the past simple form of the verbs given.
2. students brainstorm ideas for the story they are going to write.
3. students re-write their letters to make them better.
4. students copy new vocabulary from the board.
5. students write postcards to each other.
6. students do a fastwriting activity - Tip - Just write it!
7. students make notes while they listen to a dialogue.
8. students write down the record of the new grammar point.
9. students transform sentences from the active to the passive.
10. students match words & definitions.

 2, 3, 5, 6 & 7 are writing skill development tasks.

Traditional ELT writing classes have used a 'model approach' to the skill. The students are given an example of the type of text they are to produce & they copy bits & change the content to match their brief.

Nowadays, when developing the writing skill, teachers combine three approaches; a 'product approach', a 'process approach' & a 'genre approach'. The first, the product approach is the more traditional one as in the 'model approach' above, that emphases the end product, what the students produce at the end of the writing. There is little concern as to how the student reached the product.

The process approach emphasises the journey to the product, the actual composing that may include the brainstorming, planning, drafting, writing, revising & re-writing. Clearly there is a product here, the students do produce a text, but we are also interested in the creative processes, as well as the end result.

A genre approach targets the common written genres that our students might need to produce. Some of these might include informal letters (to friends, colleagues), formal letters (that request information, complain & express opinion etc), emails, faxes, cvs, postcards, forms, lists etc. Here we might look at examples of the genre we are concentrating on, not to copy but to help the students refine their ideas during the process.

It is always a good idea to clarify aims & the writing skill also needs a principled approach. Combine the three approaches & you'll be doing your students a service.

A couple of excellent writing skills books:
Process Writing (Longman Handbooks for Language Teachers) by R.White & L.Arndt (Longman)


Writing by P.Hedge (OUP)


Some past Tips on the skill:
Thank you - punctuation
Questioning it
Keeping to the limit
Listening in
There once was an English teacher
Silently chatting
Interesting writing
Writing for beginners
Hopeful haikus
Just write it!
Bizarre consequences

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