05 NOVEMBER 2014
As we all know, a bored student is an unengaged student, and an unengaged student is an unteachable student. Variety is not only the spice of life but the essence of effective English teaching. One of the delights of being an English teacher is that, as long as the skills are delivered, the content is free: there is no list of facts and topics which has to be covered, as there is with other classroom subjects. IGCSE and Checkpoint First Language are text-based curricula, but the choice of texts is left entirely to the teacher, and the reading and writing skills acquired are transferable.
Coursebooks are a necessary basis of an English programme to ensure that the necessary skills are taught and practised and the curriculum specifications are covered, but they alone do not constitute a varied and inspiring scheme of work. Teachers should use additional materials to suit the particular interests of their classes and take account of what is going on in current affairs and local life; a comprehensive reading programme requires novels, plays and complete short stories to be supplemented by the teacher.
Variety is one of the factors to be considered when doing a lesson plan. Over the course of a scheme of work all of the following aspects should be considered and implemented where possible. Different students respond differently to different stimuli, and without variety there can be no differentiation, vital for the tailoring of tasks and outcomes to the needs of the individual learner.
There are many types of suitable resources in addition to books: newspapers, magazines, leaflets, recorded interviews, posters and postcards, video clips, CD tracks, websites, blogs, interactive software, even humans (e.g. a visitor to be interviewed about their memories).
A wide variety of text genres, styles and registers, to be derived from a wide variety of sources, is relevant to the delivery of a comprehensive English Language curriculum (even without Literature): informative, narrative, argumentative, persuasive, descriptive and reflective. The main binary oppositions are fiction / non-fiction, prose / verse, serious / comic, personal / impersonal, formal / informal, short / long; and then there are all the sub-divisions within these categories, such as adverts, ballads, news reports, transcripts, diaries, brochures, reports, reviews, legends, letters... The wider the range of texts, the wider the range of topics, voices, personae and audiences the students are exposed to. Familiarity with texts of different types gives intrinsic interest to lessons and aids skills development and student confidence, in preparation for their text-based exams.
A successful lesson usually consists of several tasks and a mixture of reading, writing, speaking and listening tasks. The same skill can be presented in many different ways: grammar and style points can be taught through non-fiction and fiction texts, and summary can be practised on just about any text. Likewise, tasks do not always have to take the same form: reading a text prior to an oral or written response can be done by silent reading; teacher or single student reading aloud (using voices / accents perhaps); listening to a recording of the passage; reading around the class in order or randomly; students taking the roles of characters in dialogue, with another voice for the narrator; good readers only (perhaps a paragraph each); volunteer readers; students performing mime as others read.... Sometimes it is appropriate to put a time constraint on a task, and sometimes it enhances engagement to make it competitive. No approach remains effective if it becomes the usual and predictable approach. Furthermore, the important learning is sometimes achieved during the process of tackling a task and doing the first stages (e.g. recognising summary points or writing an opening for a narrative), so a final product is not always necessary and students should not always be required to provide one.
In most lessons there are opportunities for whole-class, group, paired and individual work, and even within these groupings there are considerations and choices to be made concerning gender, ability, size and number of groups, student-chosen or teacher-selected pairings and groups, self-selected or allocated roles. Even in teacher-led activities, the teacher can sometimes adopt a role so that they are not always the same old teacher!
Though is is generally understood that variety of content and task is desirable, it is often overlooked that there are different ways of eliciting the response from students once the task has been completed. If students do not always know what form their feedback will take - for example whether everyone's work will be collected in or whether only one person in the group will give oral feedback - they are likely to be more committed to the task. There is a range of options for both oral and written response forms for most tasks, and the teacher can select what is most appropriate in the particular context. For instance, for an oral response students may volunteer to feed back, or those who have not put up their hands are asked; written responses can take the form of notes, column, grid, diagram, poster or illustration rather than continuous prose; students' audio or video recordings may be played, or reports delivered as presentations or powerpoint slideshows.
And then of course there's the issue of whether to assess or not to assess a response, and there is a variety of ways to do so if the answer is yes. Assessment, and particularly Assessment for Learning, will be the subject of a later post.
Marian Cox is an experienced teacher and author of First Language English and Literature. She is also an examiner with experience of writing English exam papers.
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