24/03/2013 15 Comments
One of my favourite ways of capturing and recording language while working with small groups of up to about six language learners is on little pieces of paper. When these pieces of paper have featured in some of my posts, people have remarked on their use and, consequently, I’ve become more aware of how I use them and thought I’d try to write about them in a bit more detail. While possibly too simple a thing to write about, I’ve found them to be a very efficient, flexible and satisfying way to work with learners and their language. So, this is a this-works-well-for-me-it-might-for-you kind of post.
A few years ago, I was meeting with a group of learners in a room without a white board. A brand new building, great facilities, but I got the room without a white board! I brought a portable flipchart with me. I used it much as I would a white board and it was fine. It wasn’t ideal, though. The pages quickly filled up. I couldn’t erase parts of phrases to replace them with alternatives. I couldn’t quickly get rid of evidence that I had made a mistake! And, recovering and reviewing earlier language meant flipping frantically back through the previous sheets. So, not very efficient and not at all flexible.
While working with the learners, we all sat around the same table – much as a group sitting down to dinner would – and when a learner asked about something, or needed a word or phrase, I jumped up to write it on the flip chart. I didn’t mind doing this, but some learners seemed to feel they were putting me out by asking a question, some saying “no, no, it’s ok, you don’t need to write”. So, not very satisfying either.
During one session, I stayed at the table more and wrote the language on paper and put it in the middle of the table so that everyone could see. This had the advantage that I wasn’t using as much paper. To add flexibility, I tore the paper into smaller pieces. I realised that this meant that I could quickly retrieve language used earlier in the session and use it in new contexts. I could also bring similar language together to allow patterns to be noticed. The flexibility meant that learning opportunities were more accessible and exploitable. What might have remained a chaotic list of words and phrases on sheets of A1 paper, became language we could move around, discard, and add to easily.
I started to bring pre-cut paper into sessions with me but when I got the chance to use a room with a white board, I took it, relieved, and started once again to use the board. My board work, however, has always tended towards the chaotic. I start with good intentions, with images of colleagues’ well-organised boards in my head, but it quickly gets out of hand. The board needs to be cleared regularly – after having taken a photo of it, if I remember – and the language at the beginning of the session exists only in memory or on my phone (and, possibly, in the notebooks of learners!)
With small groups, though, I now hardly ever use the board any more. I have my pieces of paper in every session and I use them according to what’s needed with any particular group. I first mentioned them in my first ever post writing about my Tuesday evening ESOL group. They also featured when I wrote about what I had planned, but not how I planned it.
Most recently, I used them with a beginners group of Polish learners when the topic of what they do at Easter came up. Using a version of the language experience approach – putting the learners’ ideas into English – and with the ideas on using translation from George Woolard’s recent publication in mind, we gradually built up and captured their story on the bits of paper, breaking the sentences up into phrases. We read it through and focused on pronunciation. One person was there for the first time and didn’t want to speak in English but had helped to build up the story using L1. Then, I kept the beginning of each sentence where it was and we mixed up the rest of the pieces of paper. Using Google Translate (carefully), I played a translation of a sentence (and variations) in their language for the learners to reconstruct in English using the pieces of paper. We checked the result by playing the sentence in English on Google Translate. (I could have said it myself, but it seemed to give the learners a bit of a boost to hear their sentence said by another voice.) The new learner participated in reconstructing the sentences by helping to select and arrange the language needed, seeming more confident as the session progressed.
Having the pieces of paper in the middle of the table meant that this was a very collaborative activity, with learners having to work together or at least monitor what others were doing or saying. We were able to start with what the learners wanted to talk about and work with that and, by doing so, the meaning was clear to them from the beginning. I just needed to check that I understood properly before providing an English version for it. And, I now have the set of pieces of paper that I can bring in next week to review and expand the language we encountered.
Following this, a learner wanted to know the word for ‘daffodils’ in English. We found it and I said that this was my favourite flower. For the last 15 minutes we asked and answered questions about our favourite flower, sport, colour, etc, all with the support of a substitution table made of little pieces of paper!
So, this is what I do. I often think that what we choose to do in class is guided by our personalities and how our mind works (or doesn’t). I need to keep things simple! I’d be very interested to hear what you do – either using pieces of paper – or in dealing with chaotic white boards!