This afternoon, I have had the pleasure of attending a fantastic webinar presented by Andrew Walkley, one half of the popular Dellar-Walkley duo whose project Lexical Lab you might be aware of.
The focus of the webinar was Language-focused teacher development, looking at the way we deal with vocabulary in class and what we need to be doing outside class in order for this to become more effective. I took notes as we went along, so here they are, slightly edited to make them more comprehensible…
- First we were asked to put groups of four words into order of their frequency.
- Then we were asked to make examples for a set of seven words and a structure (the past continuous).
Andrew went on to explain that within the CLT era, we have seen some particular types of approaches emerge, that are language rich and responsive – TBL, Lexical Approach, Dogme, Demand High…
- In TBL, if there is breakdown in communication, this is where learning is supposed to happen, the teacher facilitating this learning.
- In Dogme, maybe some further practice together will be done too.
- With Demand High teaching (which concept he said sparked this talk), there was a complaint that a lot of teaching taking place where you move from task to task but without much actual teaching happening. The teacher needed to be stronger in saying ‘no, this is wrong’ or pushing individual students and teaching them in the moments where they are struggling. A lot of Scrivener’s solutions were technical, technique-type things, e.g. the teacher pretends not to understand what the student is saying, thereby forcing them to explain why what they were were saying was right.
That’s ok to a point, but Andrew felt that it wasn’t the real reason why the teaching wasn’t happening. He has been interested in the Lexical Approach since its publication 20 years ago now, he has also been aware of the expectations of thinking about language and dealing with language that are advocated in LA are high. He recognises that it is difficult.
Andrew then introduced us to a book, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It deals with the difficulty for experts in employing their expertise. This is because of the need for fast, in the moment, spontaneous thinking, where rather than think clearly about certain aspects of thinking, we replace a kind of logical thought with heuristics i.e. a generalised idea of something.
This brought us back to the task we did at the start.
Andrew showed us the answers to the frequency question:
Then he asked whether the corpus frequency answer (biased towards written) is reflective of the bias in native speaker natural use? His feeling is that often we overestimate certain frequencies of words and underestimate others. In the spoken corpus, arise and beard come at a similar level. Many students are interested in academic and professional lives in English, where they may not be using the language all the time in the workplace or study in Britain etc, but the resources they use may be in English, so a word like ‘arise’ would have a higher frequency and value.
As for the activity of making examples: our tendency is to produce examples like the ones we produced, but sometimes these aren’t actually the most common uses or even the way we use the language. Of this type of example, they may be one in a thousand in the corpus. E.g. She is a Christian. So… how is Christian really used? Andrew confessed that he might struggle with some of these words, in terms of making examples. E.g. whereby, arise, in terms of. Some of these are more difficult to think of examples from. They don’t fit into that simple x is y pattern. They require more complex sentences:
It’s difficult to think of these kind of examples on the spot, Andrew explained, the Daniel Kahneman book offering some very clear reasons as to why. This is to do with biases that overtake logical thought. Our tendency would be to put words like blonde, banana etc. higher up because we know we can think of examples for these more easily than arise or whereby. If we think about the number of different contexts that we use banana or arise, then it becomes clear that arise would occur in academic texts, meetings, and several more possible contexts than the word banana or beard. Similarly serious vs. fun, there are a wider number of things that can be serious than there are fun things. As I understood it, this is availability bias, one of three factors that affect our choice:
- availability bias
- representational bias
Apparently words also have a representational bias, e.g. x is y, x does y, doctor has a white coat etc. So the examples and explanations that come to mind are often of that nature.
Finally, priming: In English language teaching, this is quite strong. E.g. I was having a bath when the phone rang.
- Because of what we’ve learnt before and what we’ve seen in coursebooks before, we think of certain examples and contexts, and we don’t see the wider context we could use.
- Sometimes when we are trying to hear what students are saying, and trying to correct them, often what we are primed to notice is basic grammar, typical grammar that we have taught before. So, we will commonly notice the present perfect used incorrectly or missed third person ‘s’ and these we look to correct.
Andrew explained that this is problematic in terms of these responsive methodologies. There is too big a cognitive load for any teacher trying to use these methods.
When you are in class, e.g. with TBL you are catering for individuals and have to do many things, which he went on to describe:
- You have to hear the student first, which is already difficult possibility due to layout and noise levels.
- You have to understand what they want to say/write, recognise the error/gap in their language, and give the ‘correct’ example (” because sometimes what we want to be doing is extend ss knowledge, e.g. where they use a particular word where another less frequent use works better)
- You then have to explain or check why one is correct and the other isn’t, if we are talking in terms of TBL and Dogme, then extra examples of new language are necessary, and for Dogme also further ‘spontaneous’ practice.
- Finally you need to remember it in order to revise and recycle it at a later date.
That’s a lot to expect. And multiplied by all individual students with individual needs. So, instead, Andrew said, we fall back on examples given before, or focus on relatively infrequent words and give simplified examples which don’t necessarily reflect enough of how those words are used. Yet if you are a believer in a more lexical approach to teaching, one of the most important things is giving good examples of how language is used.
So, this is the big issue with these methodologies. Ironically, often, somebody who doesn’t like coursebooks will give examples that have been seen in one before! Coursebook writers are similarly primed. You come up with examples which afterwards you think ‘what was I thinking? Nobody would ever say that!‘. If you believe that exemplifying natural use is important than you need to also think outside the class. Inside the class it is too difficult due to cognitive load. It may also be that to become a better non-course book user, we need to become better coursebook users and writers!
The more we focus on different words and how we might exemplify them and ask questions about them, and think about spontaneous practices for them, the more we will get better at doing it spontaneously. Kahen (of the above-mentioned book) suggests the example of chess players who basically learn lots and lots and lots of moves. It takes all those hours of practice in order to become spontaneous in the context of a chess match. We may not have so much time to prepare in our lives but it’s an ongoing process so if we work at it incrementally, we’ll get better at it.
In terms of training and development, however, most focus is grammatical, rather than lexis. Grammar rules into which we slot the words. Andrew doesn’t particularly agree with this. At this stage in the talk, he outlined some potential issues for teacher development:
- In terms of the planning, on training courses and post-qualification, planning focuses on activities: thinking of activities to help practice bits of grammar or vocabulary in the course book. Whereas we should think a lot more about the lexis and the questions we are going to ask about it etc. in the planning.
- Judgement of lessons in observations shouldn’t based on fulfilling aims as it goes agains the idea of being responsive to students. So we need to think about how we think about language AND expectations of what a good lesson is.
- Teacher development tends to focus on learning new techniques. E.g. Demand High. Frustrating because it is more techniques, other ways of doing somehting. Wehreas I feel we need to focus more on actual language.
Andrew put forward some alternatives:
- Macmillan dictionary: game to decide if it is three star, two star or one star words. (Different frequencies) Once you realise that something is frequent, thinking about why it’s frequent and as a consequence thinking about the kind of examples you might give to reflect that frequency.
- The compleat lexical tutor: I missed this explanation!
- Phrasal English.org: Uses the BNC. Put in a word or two, request exact word or same lemma. E.g. inc plural, past participle form included. Gives a rough count and a concordance. (Like wordandphrase.info, I think?) May be skewed by names. E.g. Christian. But still gives an idea. You might just take this as a staffroom thing, e.g. reading something or taking a collocation. Have competitions who thinks something is more common than something else. E.g. ambitious plan vs ambitious scheme. Then find out. To help us think about frequencies.
Exploiting vocabulary exercises
Essentially a lot of vocabulary activities focus on single words. Increasingly, now, you also get collocation exercises, matching two words to make a collocation. You might even have whole sentence exercises e.g. gap fills, little dialogues matching question and response. We need to think about slightly different ways of using these.
- In a single word exercise, we should think about what collocations to elicit from students about these words and questions to ask about the vocabulary. Not just meaning focused but usage focused.
- With collocation exercises, now we need to think beyond the collocation and think about the collocates of the collocations e.g. example sentences and dialogues, or a story to tell?
- And then if you think about the whole sentence exercises, ask questions to get students reuse grammar and chunks, and other vocabulary that isn’t the focus but can be exploited.
Take for e.g. a ‘Which is the odd one out?’ exercise
The temptation is to say the non-odd words out are the same. But are they? And what do the students get apart from adding re-? Instead think about how we can use these words more. What collocations can go with these words?
- Is what we reconstruct the same as what we rebuild?
- Is what we reconsider the same as what we reexamine?
- E.g. we can rebuild a relationship but we don’t reconstruct or remake it. We reexamine the evidence but we don’t rethink the evidence. We might rewrite an essay but not reword it. We might reword something shorter like an answer. We remake a film but we don’t rebuild it.
These are the kinds of things we want to be able to tell our students. We need precise examples. Going back to supermarkets, we might overestimate its frequency, quite often we don’t say I’m going to the supermarket, we say I’m going to Tescos or Carrefour. Perhaps these are better examples for our students in some ways.
Take for e.g. a collocations exercise
We need to think about:
- What works with these collocations e.g. swimming pool and swimming trunks. Fishing rod and fishing gear. After you have matched them up, possibly with a picture thrown in, what next? Need to know how to use them!
- A second question you might ask is who would you say it to, when would you say it, why would you say it? Think of how they might work in a dialogue. Sometimes the compound gets split up. E.g. see you on the track in half an hour. (Running track) Or swimming pool. Let’s go swimming. Ok see you at the pool in 15 mins.
Andrew suggests that we need to spend more time thinking about this aspect of language rather than on activities, in our planning.
- Think about the kind of questions we ask about vocabulary. Can we generate language around target words? E.g. What might you ask if someone is carrying a lot of gear? Can I help you? Oooh where are you off to?
- Thinking about these kind of questions on the spot is quite difficult, you need to think about them beforehand to be able to ask them on the spot.
More complex sentence examples show more of how language works, so students see more examples of grammar in use.
- Rather than x is y. (She is a Christian vs As a Christian, I think we should look for non-violent solutions = As a x, I think we should y.
- Who was the guy with the beard? I haven’t seen him before = who was the guy with…the blonde hair, sitting next to you… etc. I haven’t seen him before.
- Through vocabulary, we can ask simple quick questions to review grammar. E.g. When the paramedics arrived, his heart had stopped beating but they got it going again and then rushed to the hospital. –> Draw attention to the past perfect, when you get something going again, why/where else do we rush to?
There are lots of these kinds of patterns we could draw attention to, that are useful and interesting little patterns that students could use but don’t make it into coursebooks. You have to have thought about the example before, but once you have thought about it in planning before, in the context of a text or language focus etc. it makes it available to use spontaneously in response to students in the future.
Andrew then told us about one aspect of his and Hugh Dellar’s Lexical lab: you can send in a completed exercise and Andrew/Hugh will suggest questions/chunks relating to it and invite suggestions from others too.
Other tips from Andrew:
- Think about what the students might want to say in the speaking exercises you plan to set up. It may mean either doing the task yourself, or with a teacher partner, and seeing what comes up.
- Get teachers to record their answers. Notice the language that is repeated or could be useful for the students to do the task. Often there is a disconnect between grammar practice and single word practice and the task we set which requires a more complex use of language and may include a variety of things we haven’t thought about.
Ongoing questions to ask to promote teacher development:
The first two questions require genuine interaction in the classroom, where rich language can be found. The third is important as what is new? A new combination? New phrases around known words? Because often the grammar or word is known, but the language around it isn’t. The fourth encourages you to reflect on the questions you ask and improve them for next time. The last question is based on the idea that we do get better at dealing with language if we write material. Ideally do it with someone else, get someone else to look at it. This encourages you to be critical and think about language in use and how students might want to use it.
Being able to answer language questions and being able to ask questions about language in this way is not a natural thing but a little bit like relearning the language and a process that needs to be ongoing along with your students. You need to practice it.
Language-focused TD is like language learning: it never stops!
Thinking about the wider context of language use. We need to think beyond the obvious. Maybe students won’t use the banana example because they go to the shops themselves and don’t have anyone to ask to buy bananas for them! Whereas the words we thought less common might have more possible contexts of use and so be more common than we thought.
In response to concerns that this approach may become too teacher-centred, Andrew responded: talking about language and giving examples is student centred, as it is what the students want to say and need to hear in order to be able to say them better. Teacher talk: needs to be for the students’ benefit. It is also important to use generative, slightly open questions. Students might make jokes in response to them. E.g. Why would you want to reconstruct someone’s face? Because they are plug-ugly vs. after an accident.
I found this webinar absolutely fascinating. It reminds me of my last observation where I think basically my DoS was recommending that I do this. I.e. that I plan my vocabulary focus more, because of it being difficult to respond effectively on the hoof, and I think the intention was in this vein. Having watched this webinar, I now have a much clearer idea of how to go about that than I did previously. Am looking forward to implementing this and gradually developing in this area.
It was my first time to see Andrew speak and I have to admit to now very much looking forward to hopefully attending his talk at IATEFL!
Thank you very much, Andrew, for a really valuable hour and a bit! And thank you, BELTA, for hosting him!