So in the last post I was thinking about how there is a lot of useful language in coursebook texts that is not taken advantage of. I talked about coursebooks only because most of us use them whether we want to or not. I have my reservations about them, but we’ll leave that aside for now.
The first thing to do is choose which patterns we want to highlight. I don’t have much of a rationale for this at the moment, other than intuition for what seems common in English yet without an immediately obvious form, and what could be used to generate other examples. Something like “…He spent a long time studying…” (something from a coursebook text I used last week), where you can change the subject, you can use all sorts of different time phrases and obviously change the verb.
Beyond intuition, there are resources that I think could help with this which I want to try, with online text analysis tools such as Lextutor or TextStat, and Rules, Patterns and Words by Dave Willis first on my list. In the absence of a more rigorous decision-making process about what to focus on, (and, for me, even in the presence of one), the ideal option is for the students to pick out patterns themselves.
I have tried a few times to get students to identify patters themselves, but I haven’t yet been really satisfied with the result. I think the first step is to get them to look beyond single words. It’s easy for them to read a text and say they understand all the words, but they might not necessarily get the meaning of, for example, a close friend. What I usually do is suggest they look for unexpected combinations of words in the text (a suggestion from Michael Lewis), usually after comparing a couple of examples like pick up a bag/pick up a colleague. This usually works fine to sensitise students to the possibilities beyond single words, but I still can’t get them to find longer, less obvious patterns.
One possible solution is translation. Since the value of patterns lies in their comprehensibility, a simple activity where students translate the text into their own language and then translate it back into English might serve to highlight which patterns are not already in their productive competence. A short break or change of activity between the translation and retranslation stages might also be a good idea, to reduce the impact of memory.
Another possibility is muddled sentences. Allocate a line of the text to each student and get them to cut it up into single words (mark the first and last words to make it a bit easier) and put them in an envelope. Each student passes their envelope to another student, and they try to reconstruct the line and write it down. Afterwards they compare and discuss which lines were hardest to reconstruct and why.
Once you’ve identified the most useful patterns, you might want to (time permitting) practise them. I normally put it in a substitution table on the board and get students to suggest alternatives for any relevant category. They can then make their own example sentences. If they’re personal, so much the better! As an alternative to personalised sentences, I read about a nice variation on this on the IH London teacher’s blog called Silly Grammar. You can find it here
Unlike words and collocations, patterns are more difficult for students to record in an organised fashion, since they don’t lend themselves so easily to categorisation. Recording them as single items on flashcards like in a vocabulary envelope might be the best bet, with an L1 translation on the other side. It is also important to revisit the original text a few times over the course-my DELTA tutor suggested that every text should be used 3 or 4 times in a typical course. This is probably difficult for many teachers constrained by a syllabus, but if you can find a few minutes each lesson to spend on a quick language -focused activity (underline all the nouns, find the mistakes, find the missing words etc) with a revisited text, it might be enough to maintain the spark of that new language in your students’ memories.
I always think it’s worth thinking about the disadvantages of any idea. In this case, the main issue for me is how much time I can end up spending on something like this, and whether it is the most effective use of class time. In the beginning I think it’s fine to spend a bit more time on it, while your students get used to looking for patterns. Once they get the idea you can leave it up to them, and hopefully they’ll be able to do it in-flight while doing whatever other task you’ve set them. This language is then hopefully more salient and memorable for them, because they chose it. Finally, I think that a lot of text-based work stops a bit short of where the students could go, with regard to the amount of intensive linguistic focus, and I think a lot of classes will appreciate the extra challenge.