getting the balance right

Balancing Act
This is part four in the series about my beginners class.

In this and the next post I want to take a step back and look at the slightly bigger picture.  We’ve now been having classes for  a month and there are quite a few issues that I want to reflect on and explore over the course of a series of lessons.   The first is the question of balance.

There are a lot of things to balance in the classroom (and outside) of course:  activities and personalities, needs and wants, presentation and practice, extension and revision.  But there are two things in particular I’m exploring at the moment with my class; the balance between input and output, and the role of L1 in the classroom.  Getting the balance right in both of these areas is a constant tight-rope act.  And it doesn’t just depend on me either, though I think I tend to feel that the responsibility is mine when things are maybe tilting too much one way, or the other.

Input and output

First to define terms, for my context at least. So, what is input?  Well in our case it can be language modelled by me, for example the first basic exchanges that I drilled in class, or the expressions I use repeatedly in the emails I send to my students with the lesson summaries and notes on homework (hello everybody) , or the language I use in the summaries themselves (today we talked about jobs). The language in the youtube clips we look at in class, or the students watch at home, the short reading and listening texts “borrowed” from coursebooks, the language offered in response to students’ requests, the answers to students’ questions. This is all input, whether it’s focused on or not.  And that’s another balancing act – to focus or not to focus – but one I’ll go into later!

And output? This is any chance the students get to use the language, whether simply repeating for sounds, repeating a dialogue we’ve built together, performing a simple role play, or piecing the language together to say something about themselves, their lives, their thoughts, their opinions – or the jokes they want to crack.   It’s also the written exercises and short texts I set for homework.

So far, so simple, but then comes the question of balance. First there’s the internal balance. How much input should come from me, from a text, from the students themselves?  What form should that input take?  What’s the right balance between chunks, individual words and underlying structures?  And what about the balance in the output?  How much controlled repetition do they need to feel confident enough to use the language? How much time can we dedicate to cobbling together meanings from chunks and words held together by good will and cooperation?   So many questions, and I’m afraid that there are very few solid answers.


My instinct is to try and create as even a balance as possible between all these factors, but also to allow space for each student to find the balance they need.  Of course, this is utopic.   From lesson to lesson, from student to student, the balance constantly tips in one direction or the other.  And of course, that’s fine too, and perfectly normal and natural,  and I’ve found that writing the lesson summaries, reflecting on the activities in the classroom as I write the summaries, blogging about the details of the classes, all these things are helping me to be more sensitive to imbalances, but not only to feel them, but also to give me time and space to think about how to right them.

So, in one lesson we may spend, what feels to me like much too much time on the initial questions and doubts that arise from going through the summary from the previous lesson.  In one extreme case 30 minutes of our hour-and-a-half lesson was spent looking at little things that came up from the lesson before (the prepositions in and at – again! – confusion between pronouns and possessive adjectives,  doubts about don’t and doesn’t) . These 30 minutes were spent in a question and answer session with me at the board and discussion and examples from the whole class.  I think it served to clarify things for some, I don’t think it deepened anybody’s confusion any further, plenty of theories and contrastive analysis was shared,  but I really, really don’t think it was the best use of time.  There was a lot of input from me, but not much output from them.  There may have been some processing going on, maybe some confidence building as the students felt their questions were being answered and that the linguistic ground below their feet may have been a little firmer, but to my mind there was far too much me, and not enough them.  I tipped the balance for the rest of the lesson with a listening task recycling vocabulary from the lesson before and a short focus on the use of possessive ‘s followed by fairly intensive practice in a definitions game.   The focus was away from the board and me, with the students working in pairs and groups and quite a lot of focused, controlled production.  The lesson was OK I think, but I went away with the feeling that there was an underlying imbalance – not just in that lesson, but in the general dynamic –  that needed addressing.


In the next class, rather than hand out paper copies of the summaries as I had done so far, I projected them on the whiteboard, and we quickly whizzed through them, making any notes and clarifications on the board.  It took ten minutes instead of thirty.  I had included a gapped summary of the listening text where the students needed to complete the information. They did this in pairs. It threw up a couple of problems with the vocabulary.  It also allowed for a quick revision of the ‘s which came from them not me. I helped me feel better about that particular balancing act.  We’ve done that for a couple of lessons now, projecting the summary on the board.   It allows us to move on more quickly to the “meat” of our lesson.

But of course, that was just one stone righted.  The lesson that followed the first projected summary uncovered a new imbalance.  It was a very input heavy lesson.  First I asked the students to brainstorm all the questions they could ask using what, how and where from the course so far.  It was a fairly impressive list after just three weeks. But we didn’t really do much with it apart from admire it.  They all knew all the answers for each other already so there didn’t seem to be much point in asking the questions.  Instead we moved on to introduce a new question and a new topic – jobs.   Again I asked the students to brainstorm all the jobs they knew, prompting them by asking for a couple of cognates (dentist, manager).   They happily filled out a mini whiteboard with jobs. We worked closely on the stress patterns, the weak forms, the pronunciation in general.  I provided a couple of items, but mainly the vocabulary came from the students.  I highlighted the use of a/an with jobs, pointed to the use of a with a consonant, an with a vowel ( I left the question of sound and articulation for a later lesson). We watched a video clip where people talked about their jobs, and then finally, in the last quarter of an hour, the students talked about their own jobs.   These 15 minutes were possibly the most useful of the whole lesson, but then again, maybe without the rest of the class, the following language wouldn’t have emerged:

I’m a social worker. I’m unemployed at the moment.

I’m a painter and decorator.

I’m retired. I was a Science teacher in secondary school.

I’m retired. I worked in a bank.

There was some interesting stuff here, not least the need for the simple past, given the age of some of the students.  Slipped in here it came very naturally, and it gave us the chance to pick up, very quickly, very superficially on the –ed ending, sowing seeds for later when we can slowly introduce more and more past verbs as they come up.  But again it was input, not output and after the lesson, as I quickly jotted down notes on the class and what might come next, I asked myself this question:  Are the students getting enough chances to express themselves, and to feel good about using the language?  Are they experiencing success and feeling like they’re moving forward?   I set myself the goal to try and make sure that there are at least three feel good, productive moments for all the students in each class.  A pretty small goal, but I’ll have to wait to see if that particular balancing act can work out over a series of lessons.

Sorry, a lot of questions, but not a lot of answers! And a whole area left hanging.  In the next post,  Do you speak Spanish?,   I’ll come back to that.  In the meantime, if you have any answers to offer, please leave a comment!

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1 Response to getting the balance right

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