Here are four sets of activities that I carry out before and after engaging students in more cognitively and/or linguistically demanding tasks. The rationale for them is that they facilitate the performance of the target task by providing the learners with opportunities (a) to recruit as much relevant information as possible from Long-term memory and (b) to practise the skills involved in the target task in ‘safer’ and more structured ways before launching in less structured and more ‘stressful’ activities. The execution of these activities not only results in greater learning, but also mitigate learner anxiety and significantly impacts their sense of self-efficacy.
1. Pre-/Post-speaking task activities – Before engaging in a challenging speaking task, especially when it is an unstructured one and requires spontaneous talk, I make sure that the students have a full-on warm-up which involves all four skills and gives the students plenty of formative feedback from myself or their peers.
Step 1 – ‘Fun’ and challenging vocabulary building activities (see www.language-gym.com/work-outs for online self-marking examples) and gapped model sentences activities containing the kind of language which you predict students are likely to use. ‘Drum the words/phrases in’ as much as you can for 10-15 minutes.
Step 2 – Narrow listening activities. By these I mean very short texts/model sentences about the topic, which the students might find useful. Students have to note down the gist of each text.
Step 3 – ‘Public chatroom’; on Edmodo, Facebook or a google doc, the students ask questions generated by themselves or by the teacher about the topic-in-hand to specific classmates, the whole class or even the teacher. A slow chat unfolds which is displayed ‘live’ on the screen, for everyone to see, in which students write to each other and teacher monitors and gives concurrent feedback. Writing/talking mats maybe used to scaffold this activity.
Step 4 – Preparation; the students are given a few more minutes to prepare for the speaking task, ask the teacher or their peers for clarification where needed, look at any scaffolding material provided (e.g. writing/talking mats).
Step 5 – The speaking task is carried out 2 or 3 times with different partners. Scaffolding is allowed but gradually removed. – unless the students are still not very confident, they should do the final ’round’ without any scaffolding
Step 6 – students, rigorously without a script, carry out and record same task on mobile phones or iPads.
Step 7 – students view the video-recording and have another go. Both recordings are shared with the teacher.
- 2. Before using writing/talking mats for speaking or writing – Writing/Talking mats are often used to scaffold oral or written production, but way too often are given to the students before a demanding task without much of a chance for the students to acquaint themselves with the meaning of most of the words, with the way the information is organized, with how the vocabulary is pronounced, etc. I always carry out the activities below – and more – before using the mats to scaffold a more cognitively demanding task, to enable the students to use them more effectively and efficiently.
Step – 1 Word/phrase hunt; give the student (either on paper or via google classroom) a list of words/phrases to search for in the writing mats (under time constraints)
Step 2 – listening comprehension; (Provided that the writing mats are clear, well-structured, not overly crowded and have bilingual translation) Put the mats on the screen and give each student a mini-board (alternatively they can write on i-pad using the ‘Educreations’ App). Make up sentences (incrementally more difficult), utter them clearly and ask them to translate from L2 to L1 than from L1 to L2 on their mini-boards. The sentences can be pre-recorded. I do this on my iPad using Voice Recorder Pro and air-play them – a very quick and easy process that takes a few minutes only.
Step 3 – listening comprehension in groups; students do the same task you modelled in Step 2, in groups, taking turns to make up sentences for their peers to understand and keeping score as to who gets the most sentences right
Step 4 – gapped / jumbled / altered sentences for the students to ‘restore’ to the original version in the mats
Step 5 – writing mats can now be used to scaffold writing, the teacher being safe in the knowledge that the students are better acquainted with the mats and can use them more rapidly and flexibly
3. Pre-/Post-listening and Pre-/Post reading comprehension activities – Before a reading and listening comprehension task teachers may want to involve learners in two types of activities in order to (a) facilitate comprehension and consequently learning; (b) to consolidate the material they have just processed during the comprehension tasks. The (a) type activities would involve two kinds of activities: firstly, schemata activation, that is the activation of background knowledge about the target theme, what the students know already about it. A very easy-to-prepare activity would be, prior to reading an article about French eating habits, to brainstorm in groups of three or four (possibly in the target language) all one knows about the topic. This activity stimulates top-down processing skills in preparation for the reading task. The other (a) type activities would include vocabulary building activities which recycle 4-5 times the key vocabulary in the target text. These activities are equally important as they support bottom-up processing skills. After completing the reading comprehension task, activities could be carried out which include: (a) activities aimed at consolidating the language learnt; (b) metacognitive activities involving the students on reflection on what they found hard in the text and/or on three key things they learnt.
4. Pre-/Post-test activities – Before carrying out a test I always make sure that the students have ten minutes at least to warm-up through vocabulary building activities on words related to the topics covered by the test. I usually draw on my website, www.language-gym.com as we use iPads. Even if the students come across words that are in the tests’ reading/listening texts I do not see it as unethical; after all, any assessment, to be valid and fair, should test students only on what they have learnt. For the assessment to have a positive wash-back effect on learning, provided that there is time for it, I make sure that the interesting language in the test is not wasted by staying confined to the assessments task(s). Without carrying out any ‘post-mortem’ as to how well the students did, I usually engage them in fun vocabulary-recycling activities which involve some kind of dynamic learning and get the students moving round (e.g. vocabulary treasure hunts around the classroom or MFL department corridors) and/or elicit a strong competitive response (e.g. Kahoot quizzes). A good way to put an end to the depressing and lethargic post-test atmosphere that sets in after an assessment (especially when it was lengthy and challenging).