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Teaching functional language: Exposure

This is part of a series of posts on teaching functional language. I’ll be referring to and expanding on my post Teaching functional language: Staging, so you might like to have a look there before reading!

So we’re looking at Exposure in functional speaking lessons. Actually, lot’s of what I’ll say here is just as applicable to a vocabulary or grammar lesson, too.

To start off, let’s break down what we’re talking about here. Learners are going to listen to a short stretch of English and…

  • Get immersed in the context of the lesson
  • Meet the new language
  • Actively try to understand the input
  • Get interested/engaged/motivated
  • Have a model of the discourse type

I used to struggle with giving learners a model like this in my first years teaching. I’d often go wrong by focusing on functional language without giving learners a proper model at any point in the lesson, especially when using photocopiable materials. This can be problematic for a number of reasons, but chiefly because learners don’t know what they’re aiming for. Even if you give them the target language, they might not understand how it’s used in a stretch of discourse (eg. how to respond to a phrase), they won’t get clues about the register or style of the language (eg. polite or not), they’ll have no clues to help them remember it, they may assume that it works the same as in their L1, and so on. There’s an easy solution to this one… include a model! We’ll look at where to get one from in a minute.

At other times, I would go too far the other way. I’d include some Exposure, but spend too long on it. If it was an engaging video, I’d get carried away with it, leaving little time for Noticing, Remembering, Using and Refining the functional language (see Teaching functional language: Staging for more on those). Or I might get carried away with developing listening skills – something more suited to a listening skills lesson. The solution here? Prioritise. As a very rough guide, about 10-15 minutes on input in a one-hour lesson should suffice or if you want to spend longer on it, consider putting the listening into a separate lesson.

I suppose the questions that most people have about this stage of a functional lesson are:

  • Where can I find a source of Exposure?
  • What do I need to consider when choosing a source of Exposure?
  • How am I going to use it?

So that’s what you’ll find in the rest of this post… I hope it’s useful!

So where can I find a source of Exposure?

Most of the time, you’ll be working with a recorded monologue/dialogue from a course book. Depending on what course book you use, this might be a good thing (thinking of the audio recordings in Speak Out) or a bad thing.

Another great source of exposure is Teacher Talk. Not the sort of waffling that many of us got told off for on the CELTA. I mean telling an anecdote or story to the learners as input, AKA live listening. For example, when teaching sequencers for telling a story (then, next, after that, in the end, etc.), I like to tell my story about when I got stranded at Lima airport because I couldn’t pay the $20 departure tax. The great thing is that this is real communication, and if you pick the right story, the learners will be way more interested in what you have to say than what the 2D characters in your course book have to say. You might want to record yourself as you’re talking so that you can play it back to students again after.

One other thing that is great about this is its flexibility. You can take a responsive Dogme-like or task-based approach and just add in the Teacher Talk when necessary, adapting it to what you’re talking about. For example, after diagnosing some mistakes that learners were making, you could tailor your teacher talk to include a correct model of that specific language.

Taking the Teacher Talk thing a little further, you could record your talk or a conversation with someone before the lesson. Teachers always do this on training courses (CELTAs, DipTESOLs, etc.) but seldom in practice. This is a shame, as it can be nice to bring other people into the classroom, so to speak. It needn’t be too taxing. For example, the World Cup is all over the news at the moment – if you were teaching how to give opinions, you could just go round the staff room asking teachers ‘What do you think about the World Cup?’ Recording it before the lesson also means you can play parts again and again or type up a transcript.

Next, there’s always the Internet. Youtube Vlogs are an incredible source of authentic conversational English. You could search for the target language or a keyword that relates to the topic or situation that the language is likely to be used in. Here’s one I used on the DipTESOL, focusing on using vague language and giving opinions:

And here’s one I recently used in a teenage class, focusing on reminiscing (from LearnEnglish Teens):

What do I need to consider when choosing a source of Exposure?

When choosing what source of Exposure to use, you’ll need to think about a few other things.

Authenticity. An authentic listening is great – it is what learners are going to hear in real life, it’s got hesitations, background noise, overlaps, informal language and all sorts of ‘disfluencies’. It is also likely to be more representative of real communication, as Thornbury explains (Beyond the sentence, p78):

“On the whole, casual chat of an interpersonal kind is often under-represented in ELT  materials, in favour of the more utilitarian exchanges associated with obtaining goods, services and information.”

On the other hand, it is likely not to have the density of target language that you get in a constructed listening text, which can make it less practical. My colleague Pete has a good discussion of the pros and cons of authenticity in language models here. You’ll also need to think about the difficulty of authentic texts…

Difficulty. One problem that you can find with Youtube Vlogs and other authentic material is that they can be very fast and include a lot of idiomatic language. If that video is meant to serve as a model of some new language, you want to make sure that it is accessible to learners and doesn’t include too high a proportion of unknown language items. As Nick Bilbrough advises in Dialogue Activities (p12):

“The difference in level between their [learners’] use of English and that used in the dialogue should not be so great as to make the learning of new language items an impossible task.”

Practicality. Other considerations are likely to be more mundane. You don’t want the input to be too long, as learners might not see the wood for the trees. It needs to be good quality audio if it’s a recording. Etc, etc.

Ok, I’ve got a model. How am I going to use it?

First of all, you’ll prime learners before listening to it. This gives them a more compelling reason for listening. It will also set them up nicely to unconsciously notice linguistic features they hear in the Exposure. It could also make sure they understand the situation (how many speakers, where the speakers are, etc.), which can be useful when listening to disembodied voices from a CD player. Here are some common ways of doing that:

  • Test. Set learners up with a task that mirrors the real-life task that the speakers are doing in the listening. For example, in the reminiscing video above, get them to tell each other what they miss about being a child before listening to the speaker doing the same thing. To quote Nick Bilbrough again (Dialogue Activities p21):

“Set up the roleplay activity before doing any of the listening exercises. This is a good way of engaging interest from the start, and raising awareness about the gap between the learners’ use of English and that used by more proficient speakers.”

  • Prediction. When I tell learners my about a cockroach incident I recently had, I show them some pictures and they guess what happened. Then I tell them and they see if they were right. Simple. For more on this activity see my post The hilarity of incongruity. Learners can also make predictions from words (as in example below) or by listening to part of the dialogue and guessing what happens next.
    dialogue skeleton.jpg
  • Pair or Class discussion. If you’re going to be listening to someone giving a complaint in a shop, you might just ask learners about the last time they did that and share experiences together as a class.

Now they’re ready to listen. You’ll focus on meaning, not on linguistic forms at this stage. Personally, I prefer tasks to be quite light and focused on ‘gist’ as opposed to something like T/F questions or listening for specific details. This way, the learners are getting Exposure, engaging with the context, understanding in their own way and starting to notice linguistic forms by themselves. Let it ‘wash over them’. Suitably ‘light’ tasks include:

  • Checking predictions. ‘Let’s listen and see if you guessed right.’
  • Answering a simple question. ‘What does Asha miss about being a child?’ would do the job for the video above, for example.
  • Taking notes. Give learners some prompts about which to take brief notes.
  • Ordering. Learners could order words or pictures while listening. Alternatively you could give them a short cut-up dialogue to order before listening, then listen to check if they got it right. In written form and in spoken form – double Exposure!

You might want learners to listen a second time, still focusing on the meaning of the listening or you might want to listen again to focus on the language used at this point – Noticing. More on that next time.

Please do comment! I’d love to hear your thoughts on Exposure and teaching functional language 😉

Further reading

Take a look at the rest of this series of blog posts:

  1. Teaching functional language: Staging
  2. Teaching functional language: Exposure


Featured image adapted from: Doris Auguste Heindorff listening to a gramophone, New Farm, Queensland, ca. 1905, State Library of Queensland. For more information on images on TESOLtoolbox, see Imagery.

1 Comment so far

  1. Pingback: Teaching functional language: Staging | TESOL TOOLBOX

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