Years ago, when I was at school, we didn’t have homework, we had something called prep. It was work to be done at home, or in a free period if you were lucky enough to have them, but the point of it was, I imagine, to prepare you for the next class. With the talk of flipped learning over the last 20 years or so, the concept of learners preparing for the next lesson outside of class has become more and more discussed but still not that often acted upon. The last few months have made us really consider how we can best deliver our teaching in a blended way, combining remote teaching via Zoom along with teacher-directed preparation and student-centred self-study.

Quite by chance we seem to have stumbled across the perfect blend, but getting the right ingredients at just the right time and in the right amounts is what is now causing us to think. Looking at the stages of the delivery of one teaching point, whether it is a skill such as deducing the meaning from context, a lexical set such as collocations to do with global warming, a pronunciation point like intonation patterns in questions, or a grammar rule makes you realise just how complex the different layers of learning are and how we need to be incredibly sensitive and flexible when teaching. We are still not very clear as to how learners order the various words, rules, sounds and expressions as they acquire them nor, indeed, what they should learn next.

I recently got my class to read in groups a short article from the newspaper – they were all content-rich stories from around the world and were each about 200 words long. Stage 1 involved extracting the main parts of the story such as the birth of a panda cub at a zoo in Washington. Stage 2 involved discussing the main points with their group, in other words sharing a story with someone who had just read it. Even at this stage, they began to have problems, not only of understanding but rewording and clarifying. Stage 3 involved telling the story to people from other groups and at this point pronunciation, prior knowledge, fragile grammar and vocabulary began to have an impact. I asked them to take all four articles away and read them for pleasure. I left things for a day or two and came back with a recording of the story headlines but with one new piece of information. At first, it was as if I was starting again. They struggled to link what we had done on Monday with what we were doing on Thursday. I think this is a major issue with language learning. So many lessons work beautifully as standalones, but learners don’t always see the links. I believe this is where classmates can be of great help, offering ideas and insights to their peers. That is why the idea of a study group doing their prep together after and before lessons could be such a useful part of our future learning approach.

We have turned half of this issue over to articles from teachers doing their classes online in emergency remote, unprepared ways and I am sure you will see some similarities to your own situation. Many of them offer useful ideas based on well-thought-out strategies. In many ways there is less of an emergency air to these articles and more a ‘this is the new normal’ mindset. Wherever you are teaching and however many learners you have in your class, do remember to remember the emotional impact of what is going on – for many of our learners, the future is far less clear and you will have to remain kind and reasonable in your expectations. You only need to read about the British schoolchildren whose exam results were automatically downgraded by software, meaning they would have failed to get to university, to realise how traumatic this whole situation is. Fortunately, the British government changed their mind. Not everyone will be so understanding over the next year or so. Enjoy this issue and wherever you are, stay safe.

 

Robert McLarty

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