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Planning a Unit of Work

Este material explica cómo planificar una unidad, teniendo en cuenta dudas y dilemas. Fue escrito  luego de identificar necesidades, temas e intereses y con el objetivo de poder clasificar el material lingüístico.


We’re teaching beginners

This means that we must:

  • give a lot of weighing to exposure. This action results in longer pre-tasks and shorter task cycles;
  • plan a set of short tasks rather than one long one;
  • lay less emphasis on public use of language until learners have gained confidence, the planning and report stages are either omitted or very short, with yourself giving the first reports informally;
  • initially concentrate on words and phrases, only gradually progressing towards grammar;
  • work on language and communication awareness.
And here we are, notebook pen and textbook.

When we sit down to plan a unit of work there are many aspects we have to consider. Generally, the textbook we use is great help because there are several aspects that were decided upon by the author or authors.

The choice of topics is essential for learner motivation. But it is also crucial that the linguistic aspects should be properly sequenced so that the learning task becomes orderly and smooth.

The materials –texts, activities– included in the textbook we-ve chosen have been graded on the basis of degree of difficulty – alleged order of acquisition or natural route of development, length, number of unknown words, etc. Illustrations are essential to lead in the activity. The task preparation phase has that purpose. Remember: task preps are the key to the success of an activity.

As anyone can imagine, within a content-based task-based approach, grading becomes very complex. Language learning, as you know, is a process of learning to do things with language. Grading tasks, from this perspective, means specifying degrees and types of skill as well as choosing language contents and ordering them some way.

Some of the aspects to take into account are:

  • how contextualised the language is, or the degree to which the language is put in a context, which facilitates comprehension;
  • how demanding the expected language use is, or the degree to which language use makes cognitive demands on the learner, which implies defining which skills are easier than which others;
  • how much sense the (language) task makes to the learner, or the degree to which the learner’s prior knowledge is required to make comprehension easier;
  • how autonomous a certain group is, or the degree to which your help is demanded from all or some of the learners;
  • consequently, how much stress is experienced by the learners, or where on the continuum positive excitement –paralysing anxiety a certain task or group of tasks finds the learner;
  • how «considerate» the language learning task is in general and on particular occasions, or the degree to which learner factors have been taken into account: confidence, motivation, personal learning pace, cultural knowledge/awareness, linguistic knowledge;
  • how adequate a certain task or group of tasks is, or the degree to which they can be said to be relevant, possible to implement in terms of available time, demanding in terms of grammatical accuracy/contextual appropriacy;
  • how functional the texts chosen to teach the language are, or the degree to which the texts required can be characterised as demanding in terms of size and density, format, contextual clues, content.
All these decisions have to be tailor-made. There are very few general principles, and the few there are so general that remain unnoticed due to their very generality, so to speak.

And then what? How to start the task?

A good way to start is with a very simple activity. Announce what you’re going to do. Think of ways in which you could explain to learners what you expect them to do, preferably in English.

By necessity, your instructions must be very short and to the point. Use simple sentences. Look at your learners. Check if they’re attentive. Check their reactions. If they’re not, stop and wait for silence. If necessary start again. But don’t always start again: they will get used to it and will not listen the first time.

Gestures will always be useful. If necessary, think of Spanish key words in-between. Immediately check comprehension. Ask them what they’re going to do. But remember: you must try to build a transition from Spanish into English as soon as possible. Plan for that as well.

Tell your learners you’re going to try once to see how it works. Give this the status of a trial, so that there can be error.

Think of this: for a short time –we hope!– or during brainstorming sessions, learners will have to answer in Spanish. Preferably, however, try to find ways to check understanding in English. Strategies like «Listen-and-Do», which require some non-verbal response, like pointing to pictures, performing an action, might come in handy.

Teach your learners a few routines to go by at the beginning. Include these in the planning of your unit. What are routines? They’re semi- productive expressions which they can find appropriate to the situations proposed, combined with vocabulary coming from the topics chosen. Many of these will be transparent –cognates in writing at the beginning. But they will not be transparent when produced orally.

In this way true beginners can begin to make themselves understood. A basic requirement is for this initial repertoire to be communicatively useful, and success allows their marvellous brains to put everything into the right place.

So, make a list of those routines. Pin them up in one of the corners of the classroom.

Well now, you’ve thought about what to do. Now let’s think about how to do it.

Encourage learners to start the activity. Think of ways to create some «magic». If the topic is interesting, if it’s in keeping with your learners’ interests, then the whole thing will be much easier.

Plan the activity and then set a certain time to do it. Try to assign a possible time limit. But if you say 5 minutes, keep your word. Even if you then realise it was too little. If this was the case, don’t negotiate: they won’t take you seriously next time. But find ways to make the time longer.

Next time you will have learnt the value of 5 minutes with these learners.

Meanwhile walk around, listen to them, help them, suggest but don’t give answers directly. Correct errors only if there’s no understanding. Encourage them to say things in English, even if these are isolated words, or «inventations».

If it is a game, play it. If you feel fine playing.


And now a little headache: quick learners, learners with a higher level of English

What to do? How to plan for them?

Not all learners do all things at the same time. We must respect each learner's personal rhythms and see if we can find different ways to help those that take longer. Besides, learners can do some things faster than other things.

What to do with them?

Here are some ideas:

  • get all the quick learners at any one time together into a group and plan a few follow-ups of the activities you’ve thought about for the group at large;
  • with all the quick learners together, in a group, ask them what they would like to do in relation to the task the others are doing;
  • distribute one or two quick learners in each of the other groups and instruct them to help their classmates;
  • if some quick learners know more English than the group's level, apart from being quick, ask them to help you correct some drafts during process writing.

Something important: don't always do the same. Remember they need attention and have a right to enjoy the interaction with the group.

Well, this is the end of one more chapter. Hope you’ve found it useful.

Bibliography

ESTAIRE, S. & ZANÓN, J. (1994). Planning Classwork: A task-based approach. London: Heinemann.
SCRIVENER, J. Learning Teaching. (1994). London: Heinemann.
WILLIS, J. (1996). A Theoretical Framework for Task-Based Learning. London: Longman.

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Publicado: 15 de enero de 2015

Última modificación: 10 de febrero de 2015

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