We recently had a query from a reader regarding the kind of language-generating concept questions we advocate. Basically, he had received some criticism after a lesson observation that the class was too teacher-centred, too input heavy and students didn’t have enough time for output (aka – practice or production). There is no doubt that asking concept checks which are more open or divergent can result in more talking between the teacher and students as a whole class as well as some additional input on top of the language in your exercise. If we write up (extended) examples of the language in the exercise on the board, that may also mean more ‘teacher-centredness’ and less time for ‘output’. This can prove to be a challenge for teachers (usually CELTA or DELTA trained) who may have been educated, firstly, to equate teacher-centredness with teacher talking time or classes delivered in plenary mode and, secondly, to believe that the less teacher talking time there is, the better things will be as it (supposedly) allows more time for student ‘output’. If you are in a situation where such a teacher is observing or evaluating you, it can put more lexically-minded teachers in a difficult situation of either arguing your point of view against someone ‘above’ you or simply conforming. Hopefully, sites such as Lexicallab and other teachers with like-minded views can provide you with some support to your arguments.
Having said all this, I think any observation of teaching is an opportunity for reflection and so in this situation we might want to think about at what point our questioning and input can become too much, how much output we encourage and the ways we might encourage it. There are obviously no clear-cut answers to these issues – it depends almost entirely on the students, the language, the aims and outcomes of the lesson and simply the moment itself. So what I am going to suggest here are some questions and options to reflect on the questions you ask and the amount of feedback you give on vocabulary exercises.
Have you got feedback from your students on your lessons generally? Do they like the balance between your teaching and them speaking?
- Are the students answering your questions or are you? If it’s you giving answers or having to reformulate a lot, this might be a sign to ask fewer questions.
- How many extra new items of language are you writing on the board on top of the ‘new’ language in the exercise? Could you just say this new language instead of presenting it to be learnt?
- Of the new language items, how many are synonyms and how much extends what students can say in terms of a conversation or text? For example, students may be served better learning to say the reasons they are bored or questions they may ask when it’s hot than learning ‘fed up’ or ‘boiling’. See this post.
- Of the new language items, how frequent are they? You may want to spend less time and effort on the less frequent items?
- Are there other opportunities within the lesson to explore the language you’re teaching? There may be more than one controlled exercise in the material. You could ask questions about some language in one and explore other items in the next. If you have freer practice you can correct some of the language students use (because you have thought about the language around the words you are teaching), and you could ask some of your questions as part of that feedback. It may also come up in reading / listening texts in the coursebook material. Re-check meaning and explore the words then too as you go through comp questions and the like.
- Will you revise the language in a later lesson? Save some of your additional questions till then.
- Do I have to ask multiple questions about all the items or indeed any question? Most vocab exercises will contain some known words – perhaps you don’t need to ask much about these. If you are new to these kinds of questions focus just on two items first. Build it up. Get a feel for what students like / tolerate.
- Have you planned your questions? Do they have clear answers? Are there too many possible answers? I personally find it difficult to ask questions on the spot, unless I’ve taught the answers before or have planned the questions before, so writing q’s before the lesson can speed things up. We may have asked the wrong question – try them out on another teacher or friend.
Finally, you could give the checking questions as a task in itself (something we’ve started doing more of in the second edition of Outcomes). We still have these as impersonal, ‘What might …’ type questions seen in this post. We then often follow these with more personalised questions or other traditional ‘output’ tasks – of which more in our next post.