How to Make Teaching English in Mexico a Reality Part 3

First Published on Mexico Connect
November 1, 2006

How to Plan Realistic, Communicative Practices
in the ESL Classroom

 by Julia Taylor

Would you ever walk up to someone, shake their hand and start to describe what you’re wearing? “Hi. I’m wearing a beige T-shirt, blue jeans, a black belt and black shoes.” No, of course you wouldn’t because the person would look you in the eye and say, “I can see what you’re wearing, you idiot.”  Yet, English as a second language (ESL) teachers the world over have their students do this and not just in front of one person, but in front of a whole roomful of people. 

This “state the obvious” or “display” kind of classroom practice is unrealistic when compared to real world situations, yet despite this fact, it is quite common in ESL classes. Wouldn’t creating realistic practices be a much better way for students to practice language in the classroom? First of all, it would be motivating because they could picture themselves actually using what they’ve learned in real life.  It also would help them to remember by connecting what they’ve learned to an appropriate situation so that when they find themselves in a similar situation in the real world, their memory would kick in.

THINK OF REAL LIFE SITUATIONS

You can plan fun, realistic classroom activities by thinking of real-life circumstances, then adapting them to the classroom. In order to do this, start by asking yourself a series of questions.

First, you have to ask yourself, “In what situations in real life would the desired language be used?” In the example above, you would ask yourself when people actually do describe what people are wearing. One situation in which someone might describe clothing is when telling a friend what they wore on a date (students would need to know past tense to do this one). Other possible situations would be when looking for a lost family member at the mall, when pointing someone out in a crowded room, or when calling a blind date on a cell phone and telling them how to pick you out of a crowd of people.

The next question is to ask yourself, “How can I create a simplified version of one of these situations in the classroom?”  This question has a two-part answer. The first part focuses on the actual interaction between students and the second part focuses on the materials that you will provide for the students, enabling them to do the activity.

PLAN THE CONVERSATION

For the actual interaction, picture your students working with a partner, participating in one of the ideas that you’ve thought of. For our example, let’s first discard the idea of telling what they wore on a date because there won’t be any way for them and their partners to tell if they are correctly describing what they actually wore. Let’s also discard the idea of phoning a blind date because students will be able to see each other while working together in the classroom. The ideas about looking for a lost family member at a mall or pointing someone out in a crowded room could work if the class is large enough (since they would be using a classmate as the missing person).

Students can describe what a “lost” classmate is wearing. If their partner can “find” the person (or tell who it is) then they both know that they have correctly described and understood. The same thing could be done with the idea of pointing out a person in a crowded room. It just depends on which situation you prefer to create in the classroom. If your class is too small to do this activity you would need to find a way to get them around other people (like going out to where other people are gathered) or to use visuals of many people.

PLAN THE MATERIALS

As far as the materials go, try to think of things that will help students picture themselves at the mall or in a crowded room (such as at a party). Background music, posters, “props” people can hold such as telephones, clip boards, and hats all can add to the fun and authenticity of an activity. The intentional use of props goes beyond making the activity more fun. It helps the students to understand the activity without the use of their native language.

PLAN THE LEAD-IN ACTIVITIES

Once you know how you are going to create this final conversation between your students, work backwards and ask yourself what they will need to know how to say.  For our example, students need to know vocabulary for the colors, clothing types and names of accessories.  They will also have to know how to create the grammar “is/are wearing” for “he,” “she” and “they” as well as the connector “and.” They will have to have a clear picture of the mall or the crowded room without you having to switch to their native language to say, “OK imagine that….” In other words, you must think of how to set the scene through props and by maintaining the same general theme throughout the entire class. 

After having thought about what you will need to teach them before they can do the final conversation, you will then be able to decide in what order you will present the ideas. You should plan to teach some vocabulary in one activity, the grammar in another, etc. Don’t forget to have each activity somehow related to the mall or crowded room theme.

If you teach them everything they need to know ahead of time as well as help them to imagine the situation you will find that they happily participate in the practice. They will feel successful and motivated. As they are practicing you can move around the room and listen to how they say what they want to say. You’ll know if they “got it” or need you to plan a review in the near future. Both you and your students will feel assured that they could describe what someone is wearing in an independent situation, without their teacher standing by their side prompting and correcting them.

Your students will appreciate your ESL classes more if you free them from parroting display language and, instead, have them participate in realistic and communicative conversation practices.

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