Tag Archives: Activating Vocabulary

1001 ELT CASE STUDIES * CASE 2 – My students just won’t use all these linking words or new vocab when answering discussion questions … What shall I do? – Use them yourself. Respond to the questions first. Be a good model answer provider.

CASE #2  Sometimes teachers complain that their students stick to what they know or “play safe” when answering all kinds of “discussion questions”. To put it differently, they just won’t use any of the new language, be it linkers, grammar or vocabulary.


One easy way to make your students use the language you want them to is to use this language yourself in response to all those questions you want them to “answer” or “discuss”; to be the first person to answer, and to ask the students to listen carefully and then say what exactly they agree/disagree with, and/or what is also true about them, and what is not.

To make the task even more focused, you can instruct your student(s) to listen to your answer and note down all the linkers you use (or whatever other target language you want them to use in their answers), and then spend a minute (or two or five) planning their response in such a way that when it is their turn to speak, they will use the same linkers ( or target language) as you and will structure their response in a way that is very similar to yours.

It is also possible to adapt this solution to weaker students that won’t talk much in any language. To be specific, you can ask them to take notes as you answer the question, and then to repeat your answer drawing on their notes. As these people frequently lack speaking subskills in their L1, you might want to take an interdisciplinary approach, which implies asking them, before they repeat anything, to analyse their notes a bit by means of discussing them with you or to offer to compare their notes and your notes (yeah, it does help to have a kind of “answer key” for that purpose), and to identify the speaking strategies used.

In many ways, this solution is similar to what they call job-shadowing in human resource management, which is when a new employee becomes his/her mentor’s or more experienced colleague’s “shadow” for a while learning to do the work by means of observing and copying their mentor’s every move, frequently breaking the routines they have to learn into manageable reproducible chunks of work that they do very slowly, step-by-step, under their mentor’s supervision.

What some language learners find difficult (apart from idea generation) is figuring out how long their responses should be (length), and how they should be structured (coherence/cohesion). As teachers, we have certain expectations, but unless we demonstrate or tell our students explicitly in what way we would like them to speak, they may never know, which – at the end of the day – can frustrate both us and them.  You cannot invent things like this,  just like you cannot invent your own grammar rules or collocations in a foreign language, you can only copy and learn by example. If you provide no good input, no examples in the form of a coherent response, your students will be left to themselves to figure out what to do with all those lists of collocations or cohesive devices, and what is the main problem here is that this figuring out could literally take years, and in some cases it may never happen.

What is important to understand here is that not everyone is naturally good at or really into analyzing the structure of another person’s utterance unless explicitly told to do so.  What is more, when these people joined your class, they did that to LEARN from you rather than to LISTEN TO YOU SAY “now answer my questions” or “now make sentences using the words and phrases in the box on page 6”. One of the most natural functions of a teacher in any language class is to be a good IMPROMPTU model answer provider or generator. Sadly, some teachers frequently shrink to “instruction readers and correct answer providers”. This is something that a good teacher should strive to avoid at all costs, in my view.

“WHAT about TTT  (teacher talking time)?” – you might ask.

I knew you’d ask this question. The thing is that you should not confuse “talking about stuff that has nothing to do with your lesson aims”, i.e. digressing and taking the floor for extended periods of time during the lesson time and again, and providing “language or skills-development input through listening”. Remember that when you speak, your students listen.

Of course, you might as well record yourself answering questions (this could take tens of hours of lesson preparation time!) and play back the recording instead of giving a live performance. The only question is why you should do this if you can deliver your answers live (and record the lesson if necessary).

By far the most compelling reason for using audio recordings in class is that many teachers do not have the language or skills to speak like voice-over artists. However, if you do have the skills, and when it comes to answering all kinds of everyday discussion questions, you should have those, why not put them to good use and benefit the student?

If you never speak the language in class the way you would like your students to speak, never give them an idea as to what and how they could or should say, where are they going to get that knowledge from? An odd CD that that their coursebook comes complete with? Do you seriously think that could count as sufficient input? I hope not.

You may argue that there are millions of audio and video recordings online, and your students could listen to those. Well, you have a good point here.  Those videos and podcasts can indeed  be a good solution. If you have access to loads, do use them.  In practice, however, every so often using them is a GOOD, BUT VERY TIME-CONSUMING and FREQUENTLY VERY EXPENSIVE SOLUTION as it may be plain impossible to find audio samples of good answers to most if not all the questions you would like your students to answer. It can be particularly hard if you want to teach your students how to answer the same questions in several different ways, eg what to say if you agree, what to say if you disagree, what to say if you don’t want to answer the question, what to say if you don’t know what to say, etc. What I mean here is actually answering those questions and not talking about “how to answer”.

What is more, using pre-recorded audio for every single question or just one question has one more grave disadvantage in classes that aim at teaching real-time conversation skills, namely doing this can have a demotivating effect on your students. The main reason is that it can be very discouraging for language learners to realize that their teacher will not speak the language himself or herself, and would rather show videos and play radio shows for them to watch and listen. It is like being taught to play tennis by someone who is morbidly obese and does not know how to hold a tennis racket, but is still very eager to teach and will show you videos or play audio recordings explaining how to play the game every time you ask a question or need to learn a new move or technique.

What students eventually come to think of when the teacher resorts to providing instructions only when setting the task is that their teacher neither will nor can speak the language. This does not happen overnight. Nor does every student happen to harbour such thoughts, but it does happen. And when it does happen, students change schools or teachers, or give up on their studies completely. The root cause of that is that what most students studying with teachers want is to be inspired. They need you as a teacher to boost their confidence in their ability to say things in the course of having a normal conversation with them. If they can produce answers of the same complexity as yours, they believe they “can also do it”.  Unlike all those soulless CDs, you are a mortal made of flesh and blood, you are real. The latter is what makes all the difference. We believe in ourselves more and we learn more when we learn from people “like us” in ways that are as much down-to-earth as possible.

:) By all means, there are many ways to deal with the issue raised, and the suggested solution is by no means the best. There are other methods and teaching techniques out there to exploit. Yet, I hope that now that you have reached the end of this post, you have started to question all this hype about TTT … My own experience has revealed that the GIGO principle is very often observed in many modern classrooms, meaning that when there is no good live input on the side of the teachers in the form of their own answers to the very same questions they want their students to respond to, their students do not learn to speak at all or do not learn to speak as well as they could and would if they were provided with examples in the most natural way possible.