I am not anti-course book. I have nothing against course book writers. In fact, some of my wider-world colleagues are course book writers. It’s starting a lesson with “Open your books to page 7 and look at exercise A” that bugs me.
This reflection came up after the first month of a new academic year. During this first month, the new classes begin, we discuss how the students like to learn, what they liked and disliked about past English classes, and the students’/teachers’ roles in a class where content is co-constructed–not dictated and transmitted.
Also, the students receive their course booklets for the semester. Each time “I’m going to hand out your booklets for this year” was met with “(groans and sarcasm) Oh yay, THE booklet.” Two students in two different groups actually asked “Is it for burning?”
For context clarification: Each semester, the students get a new booklet. Most of my groups are in their 3rd semester and as such are used to the booklet system.
Content-wise these booklets are not half-bad. They’re produced in-house by a dedicated head teacher (not me, just for the record), incorporate authentic materials, and are updated every year to improve on last year’s model. Sure they lack the glossy cover and full-color illustrations of publishing house course books, but don’t we have a popular idiom in English…something about not judging a book by its cover?
After witnessing the same less-then-enthusiastic reaction with several groups, I wanted to try something. With one lower level group, the first module in their book was spelling practice. Instead of handing out the books and asking them to do the exercises, I asked the students to spell their last names so I could note them in my records. As usual, there was confusion with the pronunciation of I vs E vs A, J vs G, Y, and H. After getting names, I suggested we do a little letter pronunciation practice and asked how they’d like to do so.
The students had lots of ideas—hangman, crossword puzzles, scrabble, etc. For these last two, I suggested that the person would have to spell the word they wanted to place while their partner actually wrote in the word to add an actual pronunciation element. Some students wanted to do this in plenary, others wanted to work in small groups to be able to have more speaking time (yes, one student actually said that’s why she preferred to work in a small group).
We put two groups off to the side while I led a round of scrabble with about half the class, drawing a grid on the white board and having students spell the words they wanted to add. They all paid close attention as words were being added, probably trying to plot where they could place a word come their turn.
This activity wrapped up and I gave out their booklets. As expected, students let out little groans. Then I opened the book and pointed out that the week’s lesson was supposed to be…spelling practice. I think at that point they saw through my little tactic of starting off with a task that would lead to work on the programmed target language. Needless to say there were no “Oh, so the booklet isn’t so bad after all” jumps for joy!
But they had been engaged in the work we had done. They had looked like they were enjoying it. When we wrapped up the lesson with a review of those problematic letters—A, E, I, G, J, Y, H–there was noticeably less confusion.
So what made the difference? After all, the content of the book unit and the content of the actual lesson were the same.
I’ll share my reflections on that in the next post. In the meantime, what do YOU think changed the way the students reacted to the activity?