THE IMPACT OF CONSCIOUSNESS-RAISING
ON A MIXED LEVEL CLASSROOM
"By working as much as possible with the students' inner resources,
and by encouraging in-dependence, autonomy, and responsibility, the teacher
is subordinating teaching to learning."
(Stevick 1990: 106)
Looking back, this was my credo, but not always my doing (Woodward 1996:8).
For many years I worked without having a sound theoretical background, as I
tried to employ different methods to what I often felt was a burden: to teach
mixed level classes with up to 24 male students.
The issue I wish to examine is how I could integrate grammar in my mixed level classroom, thus making focus on form an integral part of the language learning experience of my classes, rather than separating the students into ability groups with no stimulus for the whole class and little effect on their communicative language use.
GRAMMAR TEACHING AND THE COMMUNICATIVE MIXED
A mixed level class - the cohort of the study
The mixed level class described in the following study consists of 16 to 18 year old future pri-mary school teachers in Zug (Switzerland). Over the years I have developed ways of working on projects and topics which are of interest both to beginners and more advanced students (two of my students have been to the United States for a year, two were complete beginners when the school year started, the others have had one or more years of English). Grammar was treated separately from the topics of the syllabus.
The unbridgeable gap
The comment that the emphasis on communication seems to slacken where it matters most, in the classroom, (Kumaravadivelu 1993: ) was a remark that struck me, because it was very true for the grammar part of my lessons. The emphasis on communication seemed to slacken where it mattered most, in my teaching of grammar.
The contrast couldn't have been greater. To make my students feel relaxed and comfortable I use Irish tunes and sing songs of the American West and Gospels. I integrate TPR in the warm ups of my theatre workshops, simulate sinking tankers in wash bowls and make blind-fold tests of different beverages. I supply the transcriptions of the BBC programmes with word for word translations (Birkenbihl V.1998 / Rogers M. 1996, 149). We have interesting discussions about Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 and the influence of American icons, like Coke, on our culture.
Different humanistic methods had affected my teaching, but not the teaching of grammar. (Lozanov 1979, Krashen 1982 Linn Dhority 1986, Asher 1986). Grammar has somehow re-sisted fundamental change. Up to now, it has been a foster child as far as methodology is concerned, with students working through a specific exercise book according to their level. I was unable to bridge the gap between beginners and advanced students. Grammar and focus on form were seldom interwoven into the topics of my language classroom.
Obviously, in language teaching the form and meaning of structures should not be dealt with separately - the form represents the meaning and the meaning is embodied in the form. (Williams, E. 1996)
I just didn't know how. To my knowledge, no work had yet been carried out on these questions regarding mixed level classes. In the final year it sometimes dominated the lessons preparing the students for their diploma. So two teaching styles competed with each other. In the grammar section communication was almost non-existent, for the exercises were reviewed in the light of a set key. The focus was on correct and incorrect, giving little opportunities for communication, except for relating the exercises to pre-established rules. When working in class it was more the chalk and talk I detested so much. As we will see in the evaluation of the collected data, it was more difficult than expected for the teacher to become independent of school book rules and keys. Considering the time we spent on grammar the effect of doing exercises was insufficient on their language use. Even if I tried to integrate exercises with content elements of the topics, it did not bridge the gap between a communicative classroom and the uncommunicative grammar-learning situation. I knew that there were other approaches but I felt that I did not want to spend more lesson time on grammar.
In the search for solutions, Prabhu's article No best method - why (Prabhu 1990: 161-176) was quite encouraging. The author argues convincingly that it might not be worthwhile to concentrate on a abstract best method being out there somewhere, but that I might find a workable solution by operating with some personal conceptualisation of how my teaching would lead to desired learning (Prabhu 1990:172 / Bailey and Nunan: 1996).
It was not until I started to keep a diary , inspired by Kathleen M. Bailey (Bailey1990, 215-226) and Altrichter / Altrichter 1993, 10-40), that I became aware of my focus and started to develop first thoughts of possible action research.
The evaluation of my diaries and past final exams (after three years of English) showed that my students were quite good at solving grammar exercises. Their communicative skills and strategies were quite impressive, but they were lacking attention to form. Close analysis showed that my system had considerable disadvantages.
After this analysis, the question which provided my point of departure was relatively clear: How could I integrate grammar in my mixed level classroom, thus making focus on form an integral part of the communicative language learning experience of my classes, rather than separating it from the topic oriented course.
This meant that I did not want to split the class too often into ability groups and let them work with an exercise book appropriate to their individual level. I wanted to boost the dynamics and the communication of the class as a social learning-entity in my grammar lessons.
Consciousness-raising activities - a convincing
starting point for action research
When I first started to read about consciousness-raising activities, (Ellis 1993 / Hopkins and Nettle 1994. / Celce-Murcia, Dornyei & Thurrell 1997 / Willis and Willis 1996) I felt for the first time that I might have found a key to bridging the gap of communicative language teach-ing (in a general sense) and grammar. Because I felt reminded of similar approaches in German pedagogy 20 years ago (Sitta &Böttcher 1981) which had failed to be implemented in a wider scheme, I did not just want to try another new method, sweeping aside all other approaches in my classroom. From my own experience, when learning English (as a self-taught person while working on North American farms) I was convinced that the responsibility of the students for their learning was a crucial factor which could not be compensated for by the change of methods.
I decided to focus my investigation on how I could implement a consciousness raising based grammar approach, thus bridging the gap to my content oriented phases of my teaching. I wanted to find out:
a) if in a mixed level class grammar could be integrated in a communicative approach.
b) how students would react to this new way of learning and in which ways they would profit.
c) if the new approach to grammar would have any consequential effect on my regular course.
d) in which way I would adapt to the new situation.
Encouraged by skimming through my old teaching diaries and by my positive experience
with a content based syllabus I decided that the implementation had to bear
in mind three conditions:
1st condition: The aim of making use of a consciousness raising grammar approach should be reached by taking advantage of the mixed level entity of the class and keep up the emotional involvement of the participants in our topics and themes . (Wagenschein 1996:116).
2nd condition: The dynamics of the group, students' reactions, needs and proposals should be taken into consideration in the planning and realisation at all times and not exclude other methods of grammar teaching at all times (Stevick 1990:106).
3rd condition: The consciousness raising approach (C-R) should expand existing methods rather than replace them, thus making use of the students' experiences of pre-established learning habits and rituals already present in the classroom thereby providing security for the students so there is room to take risks. (Burke 1995:26)
The data collection
In an attempt to keep track of the insights I gained and the changes I implemented, I decided to base my action research on a multiple data set, to permit data triangulation (Bailey and Nunan 1996, Wallace 1998, Altrichter 1993). I focused my diary on grammar and attention to form, made audio and video recordings of lessons, asked a colleague to act as a critical friend and students to answer a questionnaire.
The research procedure
According to my own principles stated above to integrate students' feedback, reactions and proposals I worked with a few selected and exemplary C-R activities that were directly linked to the topics of my normal lesson plans. This enabled the students to influence the further development of grammar acquisition. Due to lack of space, this further process of different follow-ups is given only little attention in the evaluation. To ensure the participation of eve-ryone, the alternating between pair work and class work was emphasised. (A circular seating plan was chosen to support the 1st condition).
Topic of the phase
Focus on Form
Stages in the process*
|Photography in Winter||Present Perfect and Past||Comparison of interviews (students and native speakers)||Classification
Hypothesis building and checking
|Photography in Winter||Word Order||Sorting word order of incorrect sentences||Reconstruction / Deconstruction||Teaching Diary|
|Shamim Must Stay||Indirect Speech||Comparing 'Who says' and 'who said'||Identification Hypothesis building||Video Recording
|The Superlative Vacuum Cleaner||Adjectives and Adverbs||Reconstruction / Deconstruction||Teaching Diary
|The History of Coke||Verb forms||Verb gap exercise of known text||Recall / Identification
|The History of Coke||Definite Article||Comparing sentences with different uses (peace / the peace of)||Classification / Hypothesis building||Teaching Diary
|The History of Coke||Definite Article||Mistake Search||Reference training to pre-established guidelines||Teaching Diary
*classified according to David Willis 1996: 69
In the following section I would like to present crucial elements of the data collection. The different steps of planning, teaching and evaluation had to be looked through continually in order to gain new insights and new ideas for the further stages of implementation. In this process it proved to be helpful to give some decisive insights a status of hypothesis. Those which kept their validity till the end of the study are mentioned below. In the last section I will analyse the impact of the change on other elements of my teaching.
Evaluation of my data collection
1 Tense choice - a diary study
Task 1: Photography in Winter
The students had worked in groups of three through an intermediate text describing the difficulty of doing outdoor photography under very harsh conditions. I had brought along all the equipment that was necessary and had pre-explained some of the very specific terms. Then I handed out the following questions and asked the students (groups of two) to carry out a fictional interview with the author of the text.
Students carried out the task with enthusiasm, changing roles. Then they sat back in the circle and I asked them to split the questions of the interview within the class and to let me record them.
In the next lesson we listened to the tape, comparing the tenses of their questions and the answers. I put some of the answers into a table on the board.
Why have you put on mittens? - Present perfect
Because it was so cold. - Past Simple
Why have you put your camera into a plastic bag and sealed it off? - Present Perfect
I wanted to prevent condensation. - Past Simple
Why have you bought extra batteries? - Present Perfect
Because batteries drain very quickly in the cold. - Present Simple
When I wanted to know why the tenses of their answers differed from the questions,
students started to discuss this intensely. Because some were struggling with
the names and notions of the tenses, I had to bring out the tense chart at the
rear of the classroom. The more advanced ones started to explain, soon others
followed. After 15 minutes we broke off and I let a tape run with the same interview-task,
but this time carried out by me and a native speaker, as interview partner.
Again we tried to focus on the tenses. First in groups, then in class. We discovered
similar patterns as in the interviews of the students and looked for reasons
for the differences.
The evaluation of the lesson (diary) showed:
Everybody had participated.
Some students asked whether I could explain the tenses again the following day, as they had not quite understood when to use which tense.
Students had practised classifying and building hypotheses (Willis and Willis 1996: 69).
Their guessing and applying of rules had been quite surprising.
The task had been challenging enough even for the advanced students and had not worked to their detriment.
Some students wanted now to practise.
I was reminded of Burke:
However, I now began to suspect that what the learners were
really appreciating was the amount of security drilling (...) was providing.
(Burke 1995: 27)
The beginners had turned the C-R activity into a listening comprehension exercise.
In my classes every student is responsible for the increase of his vocabulary,
which is tested weekly. The beginners had asked a lot of comprehension questions.
The last observation, on the surface not very favourable for my project, seemed in the light of a mixed level class to be the most important. When learning was accepted as being superior to teaching it would not matter, whether fully involved students focused on an aim different from that of the teacher. (Freire's idea that they (children) would learn better if they were truly in charge of their own learning processes, Papert 1993: 15)
The beginners had realised that listening comprehension and vocabulary training was of far greater importance to them than tense learning (condition 1 and 3, see above). As long as there was a possibility of participating in the discourse, the aim of individual learning was reached. By now, the beginners had turned the private translators (more advanced students) into their personal trainers, letting them explain grammatical issues at all times and only occasionally feeling the need to tap into the teacher's resources.
Even if students' focus is not on grammar, consciousness-raising exercises can stimulate other fields of language learning in a mixed level class.
The follow-ups to consciousness-raising activities turned out to be as important
as C-R exercises. Due to the lack of space I would like to pick out just two,
because they led to establishing the hypothesis . The main difficulty I was
confronted with was that of coping with the cues and clues students send in
their messages when they were experiencing problems (Gordon 1974: 46). As in
the case of most teachers, I have a tendency to take on all the problems students
have and thus prevent a truly communicative situation.
It was still ringing in my ears after the interview exercise that they wanted me to explain the tenses again. Next morning I put the tense chart in the middle of the circle and simply repeated the problem that had been posed the previous day. I asked them if they could help. Now it was the students who started to explain. It was as if they had a collective brain. No one knew all the answers but they managed to help each other find explanations. I tried not to make it too easy for them. I quoted sentences from the interview and asked for justification of a chosen tense or asked them to exemplify their claims.
When Faerch (1986:132) explains that the teacher may either expand or clarify a student formulated rule, or formulate a rule, I realised that this could be reversed.
In a mixed level class a teacher should not assume ownership of students' learning problems. Rule formulation and exemplification can often be done by the more advanced students in the mixed level class.
Students wanted now to practise what they thought they had understood. They had by now listened to a third tape excerpt, the fictive Brenda Tharp interviewed ten weeks after her trip to the Rockies. Should I be against the practice, just because I had chosen to emphasise a consciousness-raising approach? Was this a move from receptive to productive learning? (Leech 2000, p.22). If my students' reactions, needs and proposals should be considered in the planning and realisation at all times and other methods of grammar teaching should not be excluded whenever necessary (condition 2), I concluded that their wish to practise should be respected and met. In two lessons they worked in pairs for about 25 minutes. The working in pairs allowed them to discus their strategies and solutions (in L2). Thus practising was not just a question of being right or wrong but a chance to prolong what we had started out to do.
If students want to practise after a phase of hypothesis building, categorising and explanation, solving exercises is far more motivating and the chance that students discuss their solutions in terms of their prior hypothesis make the exercises less mechanical and more communicative.
2 Direct and indirect speech - transcription results
Students had five minutes time to find out in pairs which sentence was said by which character of a radio play. I then collected the answers in a circle, stressing 'Who says'. After this task they listened to a slightly changed version of the teacher and a native speaker on tape. I gathered a few first remarks which showed an irritation about certain changes. To make it easier for the beginners, I handed out a transcript of the tape and let it run again. Then they compared with their partner. After this we started a class discussion about the differences. Cross-language exploration quickly revealed the problem and students started to engage in a contrastive analysis which I supported with a little table on the blackboard and the tense chart on the ground.
|Adverbs of place / time|
When going through the video and audio recordings with my critical friend, hypothesis 2 turned out to be a key to increasing students' awareness of and sensitivity to language. I was not allowed to speed the process up by cutting corners (Hentig 1996: 115). The more they felt true questions and detours were part of the game, the more enthusiastically (especially the more confident students) engaged in the process of hypothesis building and checking. Confident students were not necessarily the more advanced students.
J.St: I'd deport the lot of them. Is that the same as I would (deport)?
J.St: So, short form of I would deport the lot of them?
T: Yes, this is a short form of would, I would deport the lot of them.
J.St: So , here there is no difference between direct and indirect speech.
T: You're quite right.
[ several examples of present simple changed into past simple follow and are written into the above table on the blackboard]
L.St: Direct speech is in present simple and has changed to the past.
T: Yes, but what do you make of B? My sister has looked after the boy ? Yes?
L.St: Present Perfect changes to past perfect simple.
For the first time in my career students asked written questions about grammar!
Question to Mr. Hegglin! I recently helped Tobias (beginner) with some of his English work. I discovered this phrase: ... or my fingers would have frozen. I remembered that I told him to write that as he asked me how to translate this sentence. .... sonst wären meine Finger eingefroren. I was uncertain whether it needs the past simple or the present perfect in order to build the subjunctive (conditional). Please write down the rule required to solve this linguistic nuance. Luke O.
The challenge of true co-operation in finding grammar patterns leads to an involvement of everybody on pair work level and active engagement of the more confident students on class level. The findings are relevant to all participants.
3 The benefits of recordings and feedback of a critical
friend for the teacher's development
One of the major difficulties I experienced was my own inadequacy in dealing with this kind of grammar approach while being recorded and (at other times) supervised by my critical friend. Lack of security often led to a change in my oral language use during the first ten minutes. I realised that the new approach often left me in mid-air concerning the course my lesson would take. Sometimes I was also afraid that students would leave me on slippery linguistic grounds.
The teacher was not relaxed and the intonation was slightly patronizing and slow as if the teacher had to make himself understood.
Reading Grammar and the language teacher ( Bygate, Tonkyn and Williams 1994) helped me to become more aware of the relativity of pedagogical grammar and the importance of gradience in English grammar. Talking about language in terms of gradience is a continuing learning process.
4 Evaluation of a grammar questionnaire
The feedback was very positive and encouraging. All of the 24 questionnaires were returned and signed. This helped not only to get significant results but also presented itself as an opportunity to compare the questionnaires of the beginners and advanced students.
To my surprise the beginners and the advanced students were very much in favour of the new system. The beginners mentioned that the speed of the lessons was sometimes a problem but that they felt that they could participate in our class discussions. Approximately half of the grammatical topics were judged as being too difficult for them. Amazingly enough, the advanced students only assessed three topics as being easy.
How can this positive effect of a C-R approach be explained? A key question was the one about the increase of knowledge in different categories. Whereas learning about grammar rules scored high with beginners, explaining grammar was the favourite of the advanced learners. Only one of the advanced learners wrote that he had benefited little from grammar rules and finding out about grammar. These findings pointed at a possible extension of hypothesis 1 and led me to my next hypothesis.
The different abilities that are in demand when working with a C-R approach open opportunities for beginners and advanced students in mixed ability classes and thus permit a co-operation on class level.
If the beginners and the best students of the class did not want to back out of the new system then who could possibly have voted against it? A careful analysis of questionnaires and performance of the students showed me the answer. It was what I would call false beginners who feared that they could lose ground against the real beginners. I knew from interviews that they had profited little from the one or two years of English they had attended before coming to our college. Now they were very insecure because it was not them but the real beginners who were given much more attention.
When I started out I was afraid that the C-R approach might be good in non-mixed level classrooms. It was a tremendous experience to follow this developmental process so closely and that will be vital for my future teaching. The results exceed my expectations.
a) Grammar could be integrated in a way that students had sometimes difficulties in distinguishing whether we were working on our topic or a grammatical theme.
b) Students reacted favourably to the C-R approach. Most surprisingly, beginners and advanced students could be integrated in a satisfying manner.
c) By transforming grammar into more communicative units, students experienced the lessons as far more interesting and coherent. I will have to accelerate the succession of different topics, for the time spent on each has increased without me noticing it. Here, students' feedback was extremely helpful.
d) Now that a promising direction of development has been found, grammar has no longer to be restricted by only employing mechanical exercises. My students will not allow me to go back to those. For me it was much more encouraging and challenging to teach this way. I am now interested in knowing more about grammar.
It was very helpful to be guided by conditions that were based on experiences. I did not just want to give up for 'another best method'. This procedure reinforced my self-esteem and led to hypotheses that will be helpful for future reflection and evaluation of my teaching.
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