05 Aug Making English Real
Article originally published in the IH Journal, issue no. 46. Author: Glenn Standish.
No matter how hard we try and plan, there’s always something a bit artificial about classroom tasks. This article suggests a few ways of making English more real and engaging in the classroom.
The classroom is the place where most English learning takes place. Yet it’s also a very artificial place. We expect our students to meet once or twice a week and produce English but it’s usually very controlled and even at the best of times the productive tasks are still book-bound or rather staged.
Take a classic student book (Interactive 1, CUP page 37) as an example. The portfolio task is to write an email. There is a model example, an error correction task followed by a lexical exercise. The students are then instructed to write an email to a friend. The teacher’s book (Interactive 1, CUP page 40) basically informs the teacher that the students can write their e-mail for homework. And that’s what a lot of teachers would get the students to do. Write an ‘e-mail’ in their notebooks and bring it to the teacher next class to check. Countless teachers (both inexperienced and experienced) would fall into this trap. However, the task is very artificial. First of all, the students are not writing to a friend (but actually an imaginary friend) and secondly they aren’t actually writing an email at all but a writing task in their notebooks.
When approaching tasks like this we have to ask ourselves what the fundamental point of the task is and try to give it a sense of purpose. In the case of the e-mail, the sense of purpose would be to make it real and get the students to physically write a real e-mail and send it to one of their fellow classmates in class. The emails could then be printed out so that error correction can still be achieved. Suddenly, by changing things ever so slightly, the task has become real.
Task-based tweaks – Keeping it real
Of course, Task-Based Learning is not a new concept but it’s an area which lends itself well to making the class as real as possible. Chong (2017) feels that there are several key areas to consider when approaching task-based learning activities. Is the task relevant for the learners’ needs (e.g. does a class of pre-teen students really need to focus on job interviews?)? Is the task motivating? By giving it a sense of purpose it should become motivating for the student. Will students have enough time to do the task? Often teachers rush the productive activity or not enough time is spent on setting it up.
Finally, it’s Chong’s final question that I feel is really the most important. Will the outcome have real-life consequences? This ties in with the idea of making it motivating. If the task has real-life consequences it will have an ultimate sense of purpose for the students and therefore become motivating for them. A role-play in class is an effective means of practising and producing the language. However, a role-play performed in front of the students’ parents or filmed as a performance on camera, suddenly makes the task real. Consequently, it should be more motivating for the students as there is an ultimate goal and sense of purpose to the task. It’s clear what the goals are and why they should be achieved.
At International House Toruń, we are always looking at ways to try and bring classes and activities real. Here are some examples of activities that we have done with our students to try and make English as ‘real’ as possible.
Dining in English
We collaborated with a local American diner in Toruń and took a class of teenagers to the restaurant. The waitress was instructed to only use English and not Polish, and the menus were also in English. The students simply had to order their meals in English.
Escape in English!
Escape rooms are very popular worldwide, and most cities and towns have at least one, if not several. The idea is simple: the students get locked in a room and they have 60 minutes to try and escape following a set of clues. Again, we collaborated with a local escape room here in Toruń. The clues were translated into English and each group were given a couple of teachers to help encourage them to use English. To be honest, this was not necessary as our students were naturally thinking and speaking in English for the whole hour.
This is a great idea for a double lesson towards the end of the school year (especially when the weather is better). The students become tour guides and they plan a walking tour for you (the tourist). They work together and think of places that they would like to show you. These don’t necessarily need to be tourist attractions or points of historical interest. They could be places that mean something to the students (e.g. cool places to hang out, the best place in town for an ice cream, etc). They then plan a route and research these places. The teacher monitors and eventually gives them prompt cards for the students to write down key bullet points about each different place. In the subsequent lesson, the students take the teacher out for a real walking tour of the city. Of course, this is subject to good weather (always have a back-up plan) and if the students are under 18, then you would need to go through the correct school channels to get parental consent (if your school will allow this).
Creating a class/school magazine as a showcase for your students’ work is nothing new. However, most magazines are probably a collection of hand-written pieces of writing put together on A4 paper and photocopied in black and white on the school’s copier. An alternative way is to collect in the work, put it together using a programme like Microsoft Word or Publisher and then use the online tool www.yumpu.com to convert the magazine to a ‘real’ digital magazine which can be viewed online and the pages turn when you click on them. It’s far more professional-looking and should make the students feel very proud of having their work published. The magazine can then be shared on social media.
Again, this is something you can do towards the end of year and could actually involve several classes if not the whole school. We designed a treasure hunt trail of clues around the city. Students were put into different groups (a mix of ages and levels) and paired up with a couple of teachers. They then went off around the city looking for specially-hidden clues. Toruń and its medieval charm really added to the atmosphere and we had teachers dressed in special costumes helping them (there was a knight in shining armour, a court jester and even a dragon).
One highlight involved a teacher dressed as Sleeping Beauty whose sole job was to ‘sleep’ under the arches of Toruń’s Teutonic castle. When each group approached her, they had to ‘wake her up’ by singing a song to her in English (and they couldn’t use Happy Birthday). Once Sleeping Beauty woke up, she then gave each team their next clue.
This is something that we’ve been doing for many years here at IH Toruń. The idea has been tried and tested. Students write and send a postcard to like-minded students at another school somewhere in the world. It’s amazing how excited and interested the students genuinely are. Often, they ask their teachers when the next batch of postcards will arrive and literally jump at the chance to write a response to their new-found friend. It’s the fact that students get a personalized card from a real-life person that the students love the most. It also brings the coursebook writing tasks ‘alive’ and makes the activity a real-life scenario.
Times Square camera (or any live city cam)
This is a fun and real-life way of practising present continuous in class. You know the classic coursebook scene with a picture of a street full of people and students have to look at the picture and describe what’s happening right this moment (using present continuous). You could do the same thing but beam a live webcam from a city (such as Times Square in New York – www.earthcam.com/usa/newyork/timessquare/) and get the students to actually watch and say what’s happening right this moment. By seeing a live image like this, it really does help to cement the use of this tense for describing what’s happening now. For younger children you can always try the live Penguin cams at Edinburgh Zoo (www.edinburghzoo.org.uk/webcams/penguin-cam) as a fun alternative (e.g. ‘a penguin is eating fish’, ‘a penguin is swimming’).
These are just a few of the ways that I’ve tried to make English ‘real’. If you have any other ideas and suggestions, I would be happy to hear from you! E-mail at email@example.com and let’s continue to make English as real as possible!
Chong, Chia Suan (2017) Using Tasks in a Communicative Language Teaching Classroom. ETProfessional blog
Hadkins, Helen & Lewis, Samantha (2011) Interactive 1 Student’s Book. CUP
Holcombe, Garan with Hadkins, Helen & Lewis, Samantha (2011) Interactive 1 Teacher’s Book. CUP
Glenn Standish was born in New Zealand but brought up in Saudi Arabia and the UK. He has been teaching English in Poland for almost 16 years and is currently the Director of Studies at IH Toruń. He is also a tutor for the IHCYLT (IH Certificate in teaching Young Learners and Teenagers) and IHCAM (IH Certificate in Advanced Methodology) courses and a Cambridge Examinations oral examiner. Glenn has been an IHCYLT visiting tutor with IH Bucharest for a couple of years now.