I often say a language is a tool and any tool can be mastered. Is a language that simple though? A language is probably more accurately described as a collection of tools, all of which can be mastered. We combine the use of these tools to reach specific goals of ours when communicating. Were I simply gossiping, I’d probably use some Present Perfect to break the news, some Narrative Tenses to make my stories interesting, some Reported Speech to speak of others and so on. Were I giving a speech in public, I’d probably use some Second Conditional to grab the audience’s attention, I could also use some Question Tags and Negative Questions to get an active response from my audience. The tools we teach as Language Teachers should not be seen as independent but rather as cogs that, when used in combinations, enable us to communicate our thoughts and ideas in specific situations.
Let us focus today on mastering one tool. We will discuss in a further article how to devise course plans that answer the need of combining the tools and that build up to fluency.
Most ESL textbooks and methodologies tell us that the last step of your lesson should be a production activity. In this production activity, students are to use the target language to resolve a real-life situation or roleplay. How do you get your students to use the new target language rather than rely on language they feel comfortable with? It is essential to have the proper build-up leading to their free use of the target language. In my experience, the proper build-up consists of a series of exercises that develop the student’s confidence and instinct using the new target language.
I would describe this series of exercises as:
1 | P1
We find this type of practice in most textbooks. Their main purpose is to build the student’s confidence by clearly emphasizing the patterns and basic logic that was just presented. At P1 level, the student has no liberty to choose amongst other options. Most typically, the exercises are “fill in the blanks” or “make the sentence/question” type exercises. Choose your exercise carefully as a strange exception or a contradiction will cause the students to lose confidence and hinder their progress.
2 | P2
This type of practice focuses on developing quick time response in the students. The goal is to emphasize the patterns explicitly without naming it. Most typically, these exercises are card races and reaction games. The students here participate in competitions amongst each other and so, develop instincts and confidence with the new target language in specific situations.
3 | P3
Once the patterns and basic logic have been enforced in the mind of the student, it is essential to put the patterns and basic logic in real-life situations. P3 type exercises are short dialogues and roleplays that focus specifically on the target language. It is a kind of short “production” type exercise where the students are specifically told and shown how to use the target language to solve the situation. The purpose is to create specific links between the target language and different real-life situations this target language could be useful with.
4 | Production
This is the production activity teachers find in the Teacher’s Book of most ESL textbooks out there. It consists of a real-life situation: a roleplay or discussion. The goal is for the students to resolve a real-life situation using all the tools they have at their disposition, including the new target language. If at the production stage, students do not use the target language, then either the production activity was not conceived properly or the build-up did not build the students confidence enough for them to use the new target language.
In my experience, I have found that such a format (P1, P2, P3, Production) develops the student’s ease and confidence in a new target language. This build-up falls under the E.A.T. Principle of language teaching (Establish structure and logic, Automate, Test Instincts). With every new target language, you should choose or devise your production activities so that the students can use the new and previous language structures logically. In the end, you will find that your students naturally and confidently use the new language they learn and so speak English fluently at their level. In a future article, we will look at how to devise course programs to ensure a logical build-up from target language to target language, with consistent review and instinct tests.