Monday, January 21, 2013

I Can't Help Noticing

In our program, classes continue without a formal break throughout the year. But it's not exactly a walk-in situation. We limit new enrollment to the first class day of a month when the teacher feels there is room for new group members. Recently, more than half of my afternoon group stopped coming for various reasons, so we're down to six -- with two of them only able to attend once a week. I've put the word out: new learners can start attending on February 5th!

In the meantime, I've had the opportunity to work with a different group dynamic. We definitely can't break up into small groups and even pair work is limited. I don't use a lot of materials anyway (thanks, unplugged mentors!) but what there is is easier to produce. I always try to sit when I can, because I feel that it equalizes and informalizes. Now, with only three or four learners, we all sit at one small table for almost the whole lesson. (I recommend keeping a lap board, marker and eraser right there at the table.) I have the impression that eye contact is more frequent and of longer duration, and it seems that discussions take off more easily. I do think lessons are a bit more intense. Three hours is a long time with only three or four learners!

I'm also sensing the learners shifting with the dynamic. I think everyone feels more responsibility for helping to keep things going, so people step up and take initiative more often. One learner opened up her smart phone and, to my delighted surprise, began asking a series of questions about language. I had encouraged the group some time ago to notice the language they hear around them, to take notes, and to ask about them in class. Apparently, she had been jotting them into her phone for several weeks. I guess she felt more free to ask about them in our smaller, more intimate group.

She asked (effectively), I know there are some verbs which can be followed by a gerund (stop eating), some verbs which can be followed by the infinitive (need to eat) and some verbs which can be followed by either (love to eat/love eating). I heard this sentence and it doesn't seem to fit the rule: I look forward to meeting you.

After some discussion and clarification, one of the learners hit upon phrasal verbs. We found "look forward to" in a reference book, confirming that it is indeed a phrasal verb. The conclusion was, then, that "to" is not actually part of an infinitive construction ... and this phrasal verb can be added to the list that takes gerunds. That's all explicit grammar and it's OK, but I especially enjoyed seeing that the noticing bug, which had already infected one learner, was beginning to spread. As we went about other activities, verbs followed by gerunds seemed to pop up quite regularly!

Of course, it was just that we were now sensitized to that structure. (When hubby bought a Prius recently, we started seeing them all over the place!) I would call that incidental noticing. Except for the one learner who is now taking notes, I think it will fade quickly ... or will it?

courtesy of YST aka kryptos5
The term "noticing" is also used in mindfulness practice. It's the same idea: we try to pay attention to what's happening now. In practice, especially for beginners, what really happens is that we notice for a few seconds (we're sensitized to it when we first sit down) and then our minds wander off to who knows where! Periodically, something wakes us up and we begin again.  Some practitioners of Zen suggest using sounds of daily life as "bells" to wake you up and bring you back to the present:

we can use the ringing of our telephone, the local church bells, the cry of a baby, or even the sound of fire engines and ambulances as our bells of mindfulness (from the Plum Village website)

When I pause the lesson to pay attention to language, maybe it's ringing a bell of language-mindfulness.  One learner has joined me.  Since this group is so small, I think there's a good chance that the rest will pick it up too ... when new learners begin in a couple of weeks, maybe we'll already have a language-practice going!

By the way, I used verbs followed by gerunds seven times above.  Read again: do they pop out? :-)


  1. I really enjoyed this post, Kathy. I particularly liked how you all worked together to figure how why the language the learner noticed was different to the rules as she understood them.

    I was also interested to read about how you limit enrollment to the first week of the month when the teachers feel there is room. I've started thinking and working this way and already it makes things more manageable and easier to plan for. Thank you!

    1. Sorry I didn't respond sooner, Carol! I've been slacking at the blog lately due to a project in progress (hope to post about it soon).

      I think it's definitely a plus to take learners in as a group for many reasons. One big one for me: when there's a group of new learners, it makes sense to take a full lesson for "getting to know you" activities between current and newer learners ... we form a new whole. When one person comes it, it can feel as if he or she needs to accommodate to whatever's already there. Does that make sense? (I think I'm rambling, ha ha!)

  2. Kathy, so good to be back here once again. I enjoy reading your posts so much and I have read this one in particular several times without commenting.

    Last week my students had to decide which report speech word (say, tell, admit, and so on) would fit in a sentence and instead of just giving them the answer, I asked them to notice the examples on the side and compare, to notice the different elements. Funny though, one of the learners said that she couldn't see it, but it didn't sound correctly the option that the other learner had written. I praised her for that and nudged her to look at each element and see what was there. She sort of shouted back that she wasn't the teacher to know. lol That was a rather funny episode at the end and we all laughed together as right after saying that she could see it. That is what I love about this post, the fact that encouraging students to notice language and the patterns can help them move forward and learn more. This episode happened with a group of intermediate B (CB) level girls who are 15/16 years old. They are really great in communicating in English, but depends too much on the teacher and specially when comes to accuracy. I'm working this semester with them on that. I hope by the end of the semester that can improve their vocabulary (off to read your recent posts) and accuracy.

    Good to see you around!

  3. Hi Rose, Thank you so much for reading and commenting! I've never had a student tell me "I'm not the teacher, you know" but I've gotten looks that could be translated that way. I hadn't thought about noticing with regard to accuracy, but I think that's a possibility: if a learner starts "noticing" more, could that lead to self-correction and eventually better accuracy?

    It's funny, I was just reviewing the last chapter of the vocabulary book and the page I'm looking at discusses noticing! He says "According to Nation (2001), the three most important components that foster L2 vocabulary growth are noticing, retrieval and creative or generative use of the words." He goes on to show how a teacher can help learners notice (anything that draws attention to words as language items) and notes that when two learners talk together about what a word means, they're noticing.

    In my post, I was thinking of noticing in terms of syntax but I see now that it's the same for lexis!