Yesterday was the last class of term with my beginners class. The night before I sat at my computer and went through our lesson summaries from the last three months. I wanted to take stock of what we’d done. As I went through I picked out the main language areas that had emerged from our conversations. I copied and pasted the notes from the summary into a separate document and I was quite pleased with the 11-page result. There were ten core structures and a list of “saying of the day” expressions that had started to feature as a regular slot. I pruned and edited and printed them off, with each area forming a kind of revision card and that’s what I took to class with me the next day.
In class I set up my room, looked at my revisions cards and wondered what best to do with them. I wanted to look back with my students over what we’d done, I wanted them to feel good about how much they’ve learned, about the progress they’ve been making and I wanted to talk about what they could do over the Easter break. I didn’t want to make copies of my 11 pages (enough paper wasted there already!) and I didn’t want to lead, I wanted to follow, but I also wanted to share my excitement about how much ground we’ve been covering together. So I decided to cut the papers back to post-it notes, each with the heading of the topics. I set them out on the table and wondered what to do with them.
I had twelve post-its and the logical thing to do seemed to be to draw a grid with twelve numbered blocks on the board, and the message to the right, with the icons in blue for looking back and looking forward. This is what was on the board when the students walked in. We had the usual opening chat, talking about what the students had been doing the day before ( a beautiful, sunny spring day). It was difficult to rein them in and get down to business. I explained that the grid represented what we’d done together over the last three months and that I’d been reading back over our summaries and I asked them to draw up a list of the main areas they could remember . I turned my back on them and left them to it. When I turned back to them, I fielded the list in black on the left hand side of the board. The interesting – and of course, inevitable – thing was that their list and my post-its were pretty different. Not completely, there was common ground, but what they remembered (and I hadn’t fished out) were specific contexts e.g. meeting a friend in a bar. We talked briefly about each area, remembering key phrases and key conversations. Then I started to put up my post-its, starting with the common ground first: the past simple, the confusing area of do/does/did, we tied there is/are in with talking about the local area, and like/would like with role-playing taking an English-speaking friend to a bar. And then I added the post-its that weren’t on their list and we talked about the contexts where each had emerged. I sat down at the table with them and we went through the revision cards very quickly checking they remembered. I thought they might ask questions, want to go back over explanations, but they didn’t. On the table we sorted the “cards” into columns, the ones they felt confident about, the ones they wanted to go back and do more work on. We took this back to the board and I started annotating each box in the grid with their comments. I added a tick if they felt happy with the underlying concept. Sometimes this was qualified, mainly with the feeling that they needed more practice, with the simple past with the frustration they felt at not remembering irregular verbs. Others got smiley faces which meant they felt confident and autonomous using the language. It left us with three areas to look back at and move forward with next term.
The conversation opened out, as it always does, and when I asked them which areas they found more difficult, they escaped from the limits of the grid. They talked about specific problems: pronouncing final consonants, using pronouns and possessives, getting the noun/adjective order wrong. They also spoke about the gap between processing the language and expressing themselves and the frustrations they felt when they had to think too hard to find their words and craft an utterance. By the way, the wording on the board is theirs not mine. We then switched from difficult (below the board) to easy (above) and here the conversation became much more interesting. They talked about feeling much more confident when faced with new language. They said that the work we had done on morphemes helped them decipher words as they read (they’ve started reading graded readers outside the class), that now they know how to identify words from the same word families, and that they could see the word endings –ly, -er/or, -ing, -ed and use them as clues. They said they felt they were getting a feel for the bigger picture (my words now, not theirs) and they nominated the “saying of the day”: I know what I don’t know!
Having identified weak points and strong points we looked at what they felt they needed, and again the answers surprised me. They weren’t asking for things from me (extra homework, more video clips etc), they were thinking about the conditions they need to learn: a strong context for meaning (and we looked at the bar conversation in particular and the language embedded in that situation); and the opportunity to practise the grammar (back to their words now! I guess I would have said language areas or structures or patterns myself and avoided the G word!) in “normal conversation”, by which they meant our conversations in class. I wanted to push this further and see if they could provide these conditions for themselves outside the classroom. We talked about them talking the areas they wanted to work on and writing short texts, conversations if they wanted to, that provide a rich context for meaning and then practising talking about them, or rehearsing the texts until they felt comfortable with them. This was their task over the Easter holiday. Tomorrow I’ll send them an email with the photo of the board and a reminder of our plan and we’ll see what happens.