Learners and lexical phrases

The teaching tip in short
If the course book has a group of functional frames / phrases (agreeing / disagreeing / giving an opinion etc) that learners are supposed to go on and use in a communicative activity, type the phrases out. When you have done the stages that help them work out meaning / form / use, give a set cut up into individual phrases to each learner. Then as they go on to the speaking stage of the sequence where you hope they will use them, they should try to get rid of as many as they can as they speak, discarding cards as they use a phrase. This works best when there is a more controlled stage of practice before something more natural (because you can use the game like cards system in the controlled step), but can still work in an otherwise genuinely communicative discussion.

The thinking behind it

The situation
In the last year or two I’ve taught different levels of The Business and In Company and these books introduce a lot of functional frames and phrases.
The pages I was preparing for class last week were in the intermediate version of The Business. I like the book. If most people in the class have middle management jobs it works well without too much adding or dropping. On this double page spread it has an intro chat that keeps the unit theme of responsibility / gifts / bribes rolling (the listening and the discussion scenarios all use this too), a listening that includes the functional phrases, gist task first, then tighter focus on the use of the target language. Then they go back to the phrases introducing a little variety as the first few are done via gap fill and the second batch are ordering the words in the phrase (which is not exactly all of the form they entail, but addresses it a bit), then the meaning is dealt with as they are asked to put the phrases into groups with functional headings.
Finally they are given a series of short scenarios for slightly controlled pair work practices (with prompts written in to try and get them to interrupt etc)  and then finish with a meeting, in which in a perfect world they would be deploying the phrases – some of them at least.
What’s not to like ? If I watched a Delta lesson with all those stages neatly fitted in, I’d be happy.

The problem
There are a lot of phrases.
Giving and asking for opinions (7)
Managing the discussion (5)
Disagreeing tactfully (3)
Interrupting (3)
Asking for clarification (3)
Persuading (3)
That’s a total of 24.
You can’t lose phrases from the page (though sometimes in the face of a really bewildering array, I’ve given up on the book and gone to something easier with the same end or made a slimmed down version of activities myself). But if it is a group that will cope, I usually tell them to choose one they like for each function and stick with that (walking away from the lesson with six new phrases, one for each function would seem to be a success to me), but the sheer volume can confuse (and sometimes overwhelm those who were only just keeping up or the one who has had a hard day at work). But they like the choice. Seeing phrases that serve functions they have been patchworking bits of English together as best they can to achieve quite often lights them up with enthusiasm as connections about what something means / what purpose it serves drop into place.
The other problem is that occasionally they do all of the beautifully sequenced noticing, form / meaning / use exercises and then don’t use the phrases in any of the speaking activities at the end (does that link to training – attend courses, write assignments, try things out, get excited about different approaches, not realise still running teacher controlled lessons in which learners passively watch, though now watching teacher do more interesting things).
But you can only take in so much at any one time, perhaps those phrases will resurface in a conversation at some later point.

The solution
Looking at the mass of phrases and the groups they were supposed to write them into, I could see what the learners would do – numbers scribbled on phrases in the exercises above and then those same numbers sorted into the chart for the phrases below as they avoided writing the phrases out again (‘but it might be wrong Sally – I don’t want to write till we have checked’), saving themselves time, but sidestepping the action that might help them retain the phrase and failing to leave them with a nice clear usable record for the next two activities.
So I spent ten minutes typing the phrases out (once things are in Word you can do a lot of copying / pasting / reworking quite quickly so it has often proved worth the ten minutes). I started with a small version where all the phrases were under the right headings (hang on to that, it is your key), then copied it again further down the page and blew headings and phrases up to an easily maneuverable (and cuttable) size.
When they got to the chart stage of the lesson, I handed out bundles of phrases and headings for them to sort (in this group individually, though it could have been pairs if that dynamic would have worked better). When they were done, I had the original small version to give out as a key so they could check it themselves.
I told them to keep everything as it was when we moved on – phrases laid out in groups on table.
When we went on to the mini dialogue prompts.I made it into a game. As they talked in their pair they were to try and get rid of as many of the phrases / sentence stems as they could, though with the caveat that the dialogue still had to make sense. When they said something, they moved the phrase from those set out in front of them to a discard pile.

Asking them to do this felt risky as it seemed a very artificial use of language, but they worked at it with gusto and most got rid of about half the phrases in the next 10 minutes (in a sequence of four short dialogues). While there was some hesitation between exchanges as people sat thinking of how they could work a phrase into where they wanted to go next, it wasn’t too clunky and the dialogues required the functions, so there was not too much shoehorning of things into places where they perhaps shouldn’t really be. It worked so well that when we came back from coffee I got them to re-sort the phrases (often get them to do vocab things one more time later in lessons and on this occasion it meant the phrases were ready to roll again) and tried the same trick in the bigger meetings. They were more relaxed about it (the novelty value having worn off), but did still glance at the cards laid out in front of them and I could see what favourites were and pick up on mis uses to tidy up later. In terms of value for effort, it was well worth the time making the cards. It certainly resulted in more of the phrases being used in the lesson. Should I be getting them to do something so unnatural ? They enjoyed it and these are learners who don’t lack for opportunities to use English, they lack for accurate and effective English to cope in a daily working life that often contains a lot of moments where they are required to operate in English.
Why does the artificiality of it worry me ?
But it worked, it fitted together neatly and I (and they) could see concrete results.
Where can I apply the same principle in training ?
Have to work out what the ‘thing’ that worked was exactly.
Think that is probably the stuff of another post.
Or maybe an addendum down here another day.


4 thoughts on “Learners and lexical phrases”

  1. My favorite way of dealing with lexical chunks and functional phrases, ever since a colleague showed it to me last year.

    I think “the thing that works” here is that putting the language on cards simply forces learners to notice it and use it. Higher-level learners especially can be quite good at circumlocuting around a phrase they don’t know and relying on the listener to pick up the intended meaning. When their task is to get rid of a card they’re holding in their hand, they will find ways to use the new language rather than just talking around it.

    Practicing scales on the guitar or the piano is artificial in the sense that it is not really “music”, but it builds finger strength, flexibility, timing, and muscle memory. It requires a lot of deliberate thought in the beginning but eventually becomes automatic and makes it possible to play beautiful songs. Playing a game with functional phrases on cards certainly may lead to some stilted conversations at first, but it’s the same kind of deliberate practice. It forces learners to make decisions about when and how to use each phrase–where to put it in the conversation, where to modify it, how to pronounce it, etc. These decisions will necessarily be slow and taxing at first, but will become easier over time, and ultimately lead to learners using the phrases accurately and appropriately and speed in a natural conversation.

    My thoughts on it anyway 🙂

  2. There is nothing that is really new in the world of TEFL. But the fact that you don’t flinch at the artificiality, but accept that is something we sometimes have to run with leaves me thinking even harder as to what the ‘training equivalent’ might be …

    1. Training equivalent of artificiality? I would nominate Module 2 of the Delta and, to an even greater extent, the CELTA. As you said on our course, the purpose of the teaching practice is to “miniaturize” the course participants’ teaching. Most teachers teach lessons that are longer than an hour each and have to sustain students’ interest over weeks or months, not just two or three lessons. It’s obviously impractical for a tutor to observe a teacher teaching a whole course, so Delta Module 2 has to provide a limited timeframe and concrete objectives, in order to make sure teachers can demonstrate certain techniques and abilities in the classroom. One thing I struggled with was planning lessons to meet my training needs first (skills assignment or systems? a language area that will stretch me? one that I think will impress the tutor?) and the students’ learning needs second. The students themselves are a cobbled-together group of people who are willing to do free language lessons with trainee teachers and have few if any shared goals. Isn’t that quite artificial?

  3. Ouch, yes. I see what you mean Zach. We have been running a big part time Module Two here since mid-December and I’ve got used to going into classrooms again and again in very different environments (I’m about to go and watch a lexis lesson with a class of five-year-olds, but most of the classes are in big private universities) and it has got to the point where I can name the learners in one or two of the groups, so I guess I forget from one July to the next about some aspects of the intensive where they are not your own classes. I was thinking about the minutae of things I want to get people to notice in teaching (how instructions work, what they actually said as opposed to what they thought they said, how changing the groupings can change – I read about instructional rounds in a book review this week and it has had me thinking about those elements). But you are right in one sense. The whole experience has an artificiality about it (in both the good and the bad sense of the word) and one that is heightened on the intensive. There are some aspects of the intensive that are more useful / interesting for what I was thinking about though – for example, the way you all watch each other teach night after night and the availability of different kinds of feedback as a result (it is much harder here to persuade my part timers to get to each others schools as a lot of them are expected to be at work at pretty much the same time and this city is so big …

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