Finding a focus

It is hard to guide people to effective focuses for Delta LSAs. Should they start from the reading ? Or from the learners ? Or from the list of focuses that ‘work’ (in that most centres provide lists of suggestions to try and show teachers the kind of things they could think about, though there is no such thing as a definitive list as people occasionally do great things with unlikely sounding focuses and occasionally truly do not ‘get’ what is usually a safe focus).

In a sense it feels like a micro version of a lot of other learning problems – a teacher needs to get started to get a feel for it and then keep toggling back and forth between looking at the problem overall and actually getting on and trying to do / write the LSA, but people don’t want to start out on paths they don’t feel sure of, so some hold back trying to plot the path ever more specifically. The specificity without some actual practice rarely helps though. If you are teaching language (unless you are a vehement supporter of extensive early silent periods), you would usually encourage learners to try things out, to say something, even though they have not yet ‘learnt’ it all (I have often overheard ‘When I know more English, then I’ll speak’ said in Turkish in a group in class when I’m gently trying to push them to do a task). With Module One we get teachers saying they won’t try the exam practice till they have learnt more of the things they are likely to need to apply, but if you don’t try the exam practice you don’t get feedback on what it is you do or don’t know and therefore need to study. In both those cases people will have different points at which they are ready to launch themselves into the fray, but waiting longer doesn’t necessarily help and that seems to be especially true with LSAs. Once there is something written down, something concrete in a draft, I can say, ‘yes that reads as though it will roll’ or ‘no, that’s too wide or tackles the wrong things in the wrong section – read X, add examples, think about Y, use sub headings more and drop the stuff about Z as it doesn’t add anything to your overall line’. There is something to work with, something to look at and negotiate. Some discussion of a title to set a focus even before a draft is a good thing (as the teacher can talk through what they intend to include and forums become a resource others can consult), but too much discussion of titles without much reading or observation on the part of someone who has not yet started writing can end up circular and result in a dialogue which sometimes feels as though they are hunting for a magically ‘right’ choice of title which will make the LSA work (as opposed to the content / style / balance / evidence of understanding, which were all of it well achieved would almost certainly outweigh minor oddities in the title) and that once they have established what that perfect title is the assignment is ‘done’ – on a clear path to success. Perfect titles that lead to success are a chimera if ever there was one. In fact if you don’t know much about an area, it is only by starting the reading, getting a feel for what there might be, that you can begin to understand what might be included. If you haven’t yet learnt how to talk about conversational strategies or discovered that positive questions can carry positive tags (and that this conveys something in itself) then how can you delineate what should or should not be included in an analysis section. By starting to read and starting to write, you acquire the voice you need to shape and defend an analysis.

Some things are required. The four assessed LSAs have to be two different systems (lexis, grammar, phonology, discourse) and two different skills (one must be receptive and one must be productive). Having named one of those areas as the base for an LSA, in order to meet one of the criteria in section 2 you have to show how you are covering part and not all of it. Cambridge suggest that can be done by mentioning things such as context, learners or text type . This is important as you can’t say very much about an entire skill in a 800-1000 word analysis (and therefore can’t show much depth of understanding) so the narrowing makes sense, but it is also a problem as sometimes teachers get tangled up trying to follow the instruction and limit in all the ways they have seen mentioned (which is not a requirement, limiting in only one is often fine) in one title.

Some people come into forums with something specific they have seen learners doing that they want to deal with (an error, an area, an element of language they are hearing misused or need to see that is not manifesting, a exam task that always confounds learners). Often this leads to good assignments as the specific interest can be built on (what chunk of grammar does that naturally sit in ? which sub skill is it that is lacking ? what strategies could best be applied to the task) and going from that out to a sound working focus is usually do-able. It also means the teacher is interested in what they are reading about and everyone will see the benefit of the assignment. If the lesson is well designed there should also be a nice loud penny dropping moment in class, which is the stuff that often results in higher grades. So starting from perceived learner need and working back from there to the reading can work well.

Sometimes someone comes into a forum with something new they have read about and the realisation that this is something they have never previously noticed or addressed and also something that might help their learners. This can work when it is a new understanding of sub skills, such as seeing that course books tend to use texts as vehicles for presenting language rather than actually developing sub skills or even the difference between a series of activities that show learners how to do something and a series that just ask them to do it and then present answers which assess whether they were able to or not. The idea that we can and should provide techniques and insight, not just practice. Occasionally it works less well when what has been noticed is a new activity (rather than looking at language systems or skills). Starting from what the learners will do rather than what they will know or be better able to do (and how / why better) makes it easier to envisage an instant lesson, but much harder to reverse engineer to a point where you have sound lesson aims and a background that fits well behind them in an LSA.

What is most interesting about working with teachers on setting focuses is that so many are possible, that often people suggest they do something I have not seen done before, but sounds feasible, that there is not a set of right answers or assignments, one of which they must now produce, but a huge array of possibilities. When someone asks about something new to me, I am mentally trying to work out how you could present it, whether there is enough in it to demonstrate understanding, whether there is a pattern that can be teased out from comparing two things, whether it is in fact ok to concentrate more on one element or another as long as you show you are aware of the thing you are choosing not to delve into at great depth. It frequently means looking things up and quite often leads to bouncing ideas around among other tutors. That is what makes the job interesting. If there were a set of correct assignments out there, one of which you were hoping to get the teacher to produce then where would the interest be for anyone ?

So to find a focus ? If it were me, having chosen an area (a system or skill) I’d start watching classes with a particular thought to that area and also start reading something general about it. With luck, something would chime between what the learners are doing (or failing to do) and what I was reading about.

Having written that and it being Sunday evening, Brain Pickings had landed in my mail and the second thing I read in it was this piece about being paralysed by perfectionism when trying to write.

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