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Twist and shake

A surprise element awakens curiosity, says Alan Wesson

If you do not motivate your students during the receptive part of the learning process, they will not be able to produce and use the language taught. I learned this on my first day as a teacher, in a grim Midlands comprehensive. I had planned flashcard presentations, followed by the reading and listening presentation activities in the book, and culminating in productive oral activities. But when I came to use the book, few of the students could understand the material in it, and even fewer wanted to. Nothing in the book was in the least bit motivating.

The class could not do the productive activities that I had planned and which required production of what had gone before, because the preceding presentation and receptive activities had not "hit home".

I realised that the receptive activities, which were so dull in the textbooks of the day, were actually their most vital element. Without them, no one would acquire the language being taught, and they would therefore not be able to speak or write it. But I could not get the students to concentrate, listen or understand enough to get beyond the receptive stage and into saying interesting things about what they had learned.

The next topic I planned to teach was "room descriptions", and I had an idea - a presentation based on my own room. Fortunately, much of the language was simple - for a start, my cat loved to sleep on a pile of students' exercise books. I looked around the room, and my eye fell on the antique toilet full of cacti and my collections of clepsydras and bakelite radios. Although I needed to gloss "clepsydra", the others were mostly cognates or familiar words.

The lesson brought the house down. Within a few minutes the formerly sceptical students were competing to see who could work out the most detail (students love finding out about their teachers), and they set their own homework at the end of that topic (ths was, of course, to do the same for their own room).

This taught me a lesson. Who cares what someone's room is like if there is nothing interesting in the text? Who cares how many sausages the person in the restaurant ordered if there is nothing to make it worth listening to? I certainly do not care, and I do not see why students should, either. It is vital to accept that many children do not want to learn a language and to sugar the presentational material a little. We are responsible for providing material that is well structured - but above all that is motivating, interesting and even bizarre.

The test I apply is: "Would I want to read this if it were in English?". If the answer is no, there is probably no reason why it would be worth reading in a foreign language, either.

This approach has become all the more important as language teaching has moved away from the mechanistic and transactional lexis of the 1980s, and now attempts to tackle interactional topics about which students might actually want to communicate. Whereas flashcards may be great for teaching things such as "I'd like a kilo of bananas please", they are not too effective for presenting "There isn't very much for young people to do in this town".

This is where cartoon strips or short texts and tapes with humorous angles and twists come into their own. Sources of inspiration include:

* Short stories with unpredictable twists in the taill Storylines and motifs from television advertisements

* People saying one thing but thinking another

* Mistaken identity

* People complaining and meeting an unexpected response

* Computer or equipment malfunctions

* People getting their "come-uppance"

* The criminal world

* Irony

* Unexpected twists or punchlines

* Conflict.

Alan Wesson's books include 'Lernpunkt Deutsch'; and 'Aufgeschlossen' and 'AufgeklArt' (Nelson Thorne); and 'Fusee' (Hodder amp; Stoughton)

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