Developing Productive Skills
When we choose to develop a productive skill, either Speaking or Writing, what we need to see from our students is effective production of the lesson’s target language. This will usually include accurate use of the vocabulary or grammar being taught, effective communication of meaning and practical application to a real life situation. If the student can perform well in all of these regards by the end of the lesson, then we can say that the learning process has been successful.
In order to get there though, and to give your students a fair chance at succeeding, there are a series of activities that we should complete along the way. It is a big mistake, for example, to just assume that your students will be able to write freely and at length once they have mastered the target language—there is a lot more to consider. Also, we should avoid just presenting the students with explanations of grammar or definitions of words and expecting them to then be able to use them communicatively. It is to avoid precisely these mistakes and others that I am writing this post.
With regard to introducing the language that you want your students to produce by the end of the lesson, you’ll notice above that the first stage of the process is input. In order to produce anything, learners first require some input. This is true whatever the learning objective, from riding a bike or playing piano to scientific research. It is unreasonable to expect somebody to produce something that he has no model for in the first place. Therefore, the first thing we need to do as teachers is provide that model.
To begin the learning process, you should provide your students with a model, a real-life example of the thing you later want them to produce. Let’s imagine your learning objective is something like, Students will be able to write about their recent holiday experiences in a post card using the past simple. In the encounter, you would want to show the learners some examples of post cards that exemplified the structure, content, language, etc. that they are to use themselves.
Note, we show these examples before we tell the learners anything about the language goals. There are two reasons for this: first of all, we want them to get a holistic feel for the text. Whether it’s written or spoken production, we want them to begin by experiencing the whole finished product; if you draw their attention to specific language features first, for example, they will focus on these and lose sight of the complete text—wood for the trees, etc. The second reason we do this is because it is more effective to allow the learners identify the features themselves without being told, which brings us to the next step.
Once the learners have encountered the new language in context and got a feel for the real use, we can bring their attention to the technical aspects. In the case of the example given above, we would want them to pay attention to the use of the past tense. Again, we would aim to allow the learners to do as much of the work here as possible, giving them the opportunity and guidance to identify and interpret this rather than simply listing them on the whiteboard or explaining them in lecture format.
We can lead this process by eliciting with questions like these:
Is this about a holiday in the past or the future?
How can you tell?
What words here tell us about the activities that the writer did on the holiday?
Whilst eliciting, we would record the learners’ responses on the whiteboard, making use of colours and clear organisation to best highlight the learning focus. This way, the lesson content is coming from the learners, not from the teacher, and the more involved the learners are in the process, the more effective it will be.
By the time this part of the process has finished, you should have a clear outline on the whiteboard of the Target Language and some examples from the source material of how it is used; learners should have identified patterns and be able to determine any grammatical rules from the examples given; and they should be able to say confidently what the focus of the lesson is, i.e. what they are learning today.
This stage is all about giving the learners the language elements they’re going to need for the production task later on towards the end of the lesson. The next stage we’re going to look at is about making sure the learners know how these elements work.
Language Practice: Accuracy
After your learners have picked out the language elements from their contextual encounter and you have recorded them on the whiteboard, it is time to start the journey towards your students’ using them communicatively. That journey begins with a focus on accuracy. The principle here is just as Picasso said: you have to learn the rules so that you can break them. For our learners to really sound natural, they have to be able to effortlessly use the language with accuracy.
To do this, we need to give our students language exercises that isolate the language and emphasise accurate use. At this point of the process, accuracy is the most important thing about what the learners do, but that won’t remain true for long. Here, though, there should be clear right and wrong answers, ticks and crosses, ones and zeroes.
Useful exercises here are things like gap-fills, match the clauses, complete the sentence, etc., exercises where there is only one correct answer. The goal here is to give the learners intensive practise is producing the accurate form of the target language, whether that’s using and spelling or pronouncing words accurately or structuring phrases and sentences accurately. Well executed practice at this stage will help your learners to internalise the accurate form and strengthen their recall for the language later on, meaning that they should automatically recall the accurate form when they come to use it.
Language Practice: Usage
All that focus on accuracy is useless without some usage practice. If you practice the language only through accuracy-focused activities such as those suggested above, your students will have a good grasp of the language rules, but they will only be triggered to recall them in those same situations. This commonly leads to learners who are great at passing tests but who are not able to engage in conversation or other communication fluently. Students and teachers alike are often confused by this outcome, but it’s actually very simple: if you practise test questions, you will become great at answering test questions, but it will not make you a competent user of the language.
Therefore, after your learners are able to use the language accurately in the restricted exercises, you should give them the opportunity to personalise the language by allowing them to use the language a little more freely to express their own ideas. Here, you’ll ask them to produce small samples of language—e.g. sentences, paragraphs—preferably related to their own lives/experiences. Sticking with the example we’ve been using, you might get your students to write some sentences about things they have done this week, at the weekend or earlier in the morning.
The purpose of doing this is to shift the learners’ mental access to the language so that it is not just a test item but functional language that they can use in communication. This lays a foundation for application, which they will be moving on to in the final stage. It makes the language active instead of non-active, something that has real uses rather than just a set of rules. This is the key to communicative fluency.
Now that you have drilled the accurate forms and allowed your learners to practise using the language, they’re almost ready to apply the language in a real life scenario. However, there is still one more stage before we get to application. This is a stage that is often neglected by teachers, and neglecting it can lead teachers to make some very damaging conclusions about their learners.
I meet many teachers, for example, who tell me that their students don’t like to write. Even though they are getting good scores on their tests and progressing well through the units, whenever they are asked to write, nothing. Ignoring this stage is the real cause of learners’ apathy towards writing in many cases. The fact that the students have learned new language, is by no means a guarantee that they are ready to use it creatively and extensively.
Before asking your students to produce language at any high level, you should give them a fair chance to develop their ideas. This can be done in a number of ways and will often build up over a series of exercises including list building, group discussion, brain-storming, mind-mapping and many others. These are essential if you are asking your students to write or speak about something that they might not necessarily have a pre-existing interest in, but more than that, they are also skills in their own right that your students will find valuable in other areas of life.
Do not make the mistake of assuming that your students’ heads are bustling with ideas and opinions on any and every topic that you raise in the classroom. Make room in your lesson plan to help them develop these ideas, and preferably encourage them to do it collaboratively. Brain-storming on the board as a whole class, or list-building in the form of a board-run team game are some great ways of doing this.
After building up the skills, knowledge and ideas needed through the previous stages, your students should now be ready to produce their own language. It should be clear by now that when I say “produce”, it means much more than just writing or saying some sentences or phrases. The activities that many teachers have their students complete are more like re-production than production, in that they simply involve students recycling the language that the teacher has given them.
The difference here is that these production tasks require the students to create new language using what they have learned and that they are in response to some sort of real-life stimulus or problem, meaning that the students must use the language in a fully contextual and adaptive manner, rather than a rehearsed and unreal classroom activity. Ideally, the best way to achieve this is to have the learners produce something along the lines of what they saw or heard during the input stage but with a different context or parameters.
For example, if you want to practice future tenses, you might introduce them with an event rundown describing what will happen at a party or public event of some time, and then later you might set your students the task of planning their own event based on certain requirements stipulated by a fictional client. This way, the example used in the encounter provides input both for the target language as well as the context and usage, which helps also with idea development.
If this is a writing task, you should also add a sub-stage here for planning and drafting, which again will help the students with the creative aspect of the task and also will provide an opportunity to develop even more valuable skills for the rest of their lives. Planning is really just a step up from the idea development stage above—once the learners have developed their ideas and generated a good number of ideas, planning is really the process of selecting the strongest ideas and applying some organisational structure so that they can write a coherent text.
Once learners have completed their first draft, encourage them to check it for accuracy but more important for clarity and have them write a final draft if necessary. If your focus is on speaking instead, then you should encourage them to practise and rehearse in pairs or groups before the final product.
To maximise the value of this whole process, ideally after the production is complete, students will do something with their work that is more impactful than merely submitting it to the teacher. Written work can be posted on blogs, Facebook updates or sent as emails, etc., while spoken production can be video or sound recorded and uploaded to services like Youtube or Soundcloud, or you could even arrange for the learners to speak via Skype with one another or with third parties like students from another school.
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