So, two days ago I walked into class without any copies or texts (oh, Dogme be with me now!) but just some colored markers and a pad of easel paper.The goal was to help my pre-intermediate level students build some good basic language for "talking about talking" in the classroom, especially when they need help. The intended outcome was one or more student-made posters of useful phrases that we can all refer to when someone gets stuck. I want to see if this will reverse a trend I've noticed: a majority of this class speaks the same L1 (Russian) and they have been switching to it when they have communication issues in class. This marginalizes the other students and makes it more difficult for me to assess their needs.
As students gathered, we engaged in small talk -- asking about Thanksgiving (recycling language from before the holiday) and talking about the weather (more recycling from several weeks ago). I kept my eye open for communication issues to arise because I wanted to bring up the topic in a natural way, but this was familiar language for the class. So, I introduced some "incomprehensible input", asking what everyone thought of the all the precipitation we'd been having lately. There was a pause. One of the more outspoken students said "What is that word?" So I wrote the word on the board and explained it.
Then I asked everyone to consider what they each personally would do if they heard that word OUTSIDE of class, from someone who was not their teacher. There was an admission that not everyone would speak up; they would probably just let it go. We discussed possible reasons why someone might not speak up (not confident, not sure what to say, afraid they won't understand the answer).
I asked students if they had any examples of communication issues outside of class. A student shared a story from just the day before. She had gone to the corner store and said to the clerk "Please give me a lottery." As she told the story in class, she pronounced lottery with equal stress on all syllables. The clerk said, "What?" and she repeated it. The second time she repeated it, the clerk said "Oh! A LOTtery ticket!" and completed the transaction. There was some laughter and agreement; most students had had a similar exchange at one time or another.
We then proceeded to discuss the scenario and I asked students to make suggestions about how communication could be better. In addition to paying more attention to stress (which we've talked about in previous classes), some ideas were that she could give more information (include the word "ticket") and/or point to what she wanted. We also talked about things the clerk could have said to get the information he needed. Students contributed a few ideas ("repeat please", for example) and I fleshed it out with others. I asked the groups to choose some phrases that would be useful in class and write them on their sheets. Finally, I shared other ways to turn an imperative into a polite request and the students added them to their sheets. Here's one of the two sheets:
A couple of reflections: First, I did more talking in this lesson that I would have liked. Second, this lesson didn't have any reinforcing activities. Perhaps pairs could have thought of a similar communication issue (preferably a real one from their lives) and developed a role play using a couple of the phrases. On the other hand, in our next lesson several students began using the phrases in class and I highlighted this enthusiastically. I'm also going to use them myself, making a point of checking the sheet before I say them. Also, the action research project is not over. I want to add to the phrase lists as other ideas come up during lessons, I want to see if students start using them more and I want to see if this reduces their use of L1 overall.
One final note on a rather long post ... I went into my second class of the day with the same intention and it didn't go anywhere near as well. That was a reality check! I happened to hit the right conditions with the first group, but still have a lot of learning to do wrt adjusting to varying situations. Not quite Super-Teacher ... yet.