Accentuating the positive with a learner-centred focus
Credit CC BY-NC 2.5 XKCD, https://xkcd.com/557/
Planning end of term lessons is daunting. Students are worn out and preoccupied with approaching exams, as are we, often teaching to those tests, like it or not. Drafting a lesson plan for a recent College English I class, the requirement that I use mandated reading materials seemed to add insult to injury, leaving me with a decidedly dull (to put it in the most flattering of terms) article as our focus. Worse, we had to tackle the tough topic of cohesive devices. Anaphoric reference can produce glazed-over stares even with students’ favourite celebrity tweets as text. Would already tuckered first-years be able to slog through this yawn-inducing piece? On the bright side, the article was conveniently graded to their level, with nary a word above B2, but it was also entirely bereft of figurative language or literary style – just stiff verbiage in clunky paragraphs hooked together by mechanical transitions. On first pass, it held little promise of being entertaining reading for students or supporting an engaging lesson. Inward groan and visions of mobiles lighting up under desks.
News of the lesson’s demise were premature, though. Working through the lesson plan, time pressure pushing me to focus solely on laying out activities that would meet each of the week’s mandated objectives, my perspective on the text pivoted. Importantly, the article’s topic was highly relevant and personally applicable to my students: it looked at the costs and benefits of visual media use. Moreover, because the author offered polemical but poorly supported views, the article was sure to spur lively discussion. Finally, the very lack of sophistication that had prompted me to dismiss the article was really a boon. This simplicity laid bare for learners each of the tools the author employed to get points across. Students could perceive easily the elements creating cohesion in this article. Even better, its less than elegant transitions and lack of strong evidential support for its claims opened the door for students to step in and exercise their own stylistic and critical faculties in distinguishing fact from opinion, identifying with precision relationships between segments of text, and devising better ways to express those relationships with elegant transitions.
Instead of detracting from our lesson, this ‘clunky’ article would be the foundation of a dynamic in-class experience. Its simplicity would enable our lesson to be a truly collaborative, constructive endeavour, enlivened by students’ ability to participate fully and actively in peer-to-peer exercises and produce critical evaluations of their own, unburdened by the teacher talking time needed to elucidate subtleties of a ‘better’ but also more difficult piece of writing. And the benefits of this article’s apparent shortcomings extended beyond the classroom, too. The article’s lack of polish was a clarion call for students to craft their own improved versions in a rewriting homework assignment.
As a language learner, not just a teacher, these realizations had real resonance. I remembered how grateful learners are for the moments of clarity provided by texts like these – simple pieces boring to native speakers but exciting to learners because the writing is just within our grasp – in that realm Vygotsky called the “zone of proximal development” – creating a wide open field for active practice of new skills. You can check out a case study by Nassaji and Cumming (2000) looking at how Vygotsky’s ZPD theories apply in the EFL classroom here and Yu’s (2004) overview of ZPD in EFL here, and John Spencer’s super clear and concise video introduction to ZPD here. As for my own results, the lesson plan and accompanying handouts for the entire unit are posted on the Projects page. Feel free to reuse or rework any of these materials if they are useful for your current classes and, as always, your comments, feedback, and shared upcycled versions are always welcome!