What are we looking for?

In this post I will deal with an opportunity missed to deal with emergent language.

Last week I observed a trainee in his training school teaching a lesson with pupils in their first year of English. The lesson topic was the present continuous tense and the coursebook used provided a text with quite a few sentences containing that tense.

The trainee asked the students to come up with verbs from the text (very grammar-oriented, I know). The first answer that came up was an example with a going to future, which was indeed also in the text. The trainee said “No, that’s not right. Find other verbs.”

To that a pupil replied: “What are we looking for?”

This wonderful moment, a pupil using exactly the tense form they were supposed to be looking for, was ignored by the trainee and he continued his quest – business as usual – with a focus on the exact examples which were in the coursebook text.

Trainee students are often very focused on their lesson plan and on the answers they want to hear, so I think we should forgive the student for not paying any heed to this moment of serendipity. It could have been a unique opportunity to deal with emergent language, though.

If Dogme is not overly enthusiastic about coursebooks, it is exactly because of the danger for the coursebook to take over from classroom reality. Also in this lesson the coursebook text was deemed more important than the pupil’s text.

On Scott Thornbury’s blog ‘An A to Z of ELT’ he wrote two – as usual – very valuable entries on ‘F is for Focus on Form’. He quotes Long ( 1991, quoted in Doughty and Williams 1998, p. 3) saying that a focus on form “overtly draws students’ attention to linguistic elements as they arise incidentally in lessons whose overriding focus is on meaning or communication”.

In the ‘F is for Focus on Form (2)’ entry Thornbury states: “In Teaching Unplugged we insist that the language that emerges in the conversation-driven classroom “must be worked upon. It must be scrutinised, manipulated, personalised and practised (p. 20).”

I am a staunch proponent of the two quotes above. I believe we should stimulate natural pupil conversation and work with the language (both when correct or when it contains errors) that inherently emerges, so that the whole class’s communicative skills are enhanced in a context they can relate to. Grammar for grammar’s sake may be very interesting for the linguist (I love it myself), but will it therefore also lead to more successful communication? I have my doubts.

Doughty, C., & Williams, J. (eds.) 1998. Focus on form in classroom second language acquisition. Cambridge University Press.

Long, M. 1991. ‘Focus on form: A design feature in language teaching methodology’. In de Bot, K., Ginsberg, R., & Kramsch, C. (eds.) Foreign Language Research  in Cross-cultural Perspectives. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Thorbury, S. (2011) F is for Focus on Form. Retrieved February 27, 2013 from  http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2011/03/13/f-is-for-focus-on-form/

Thorbury, S. (2011) F is for Focus on Form (2). Retrieved February 27, 2013 fromhttp://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2011/10/16/f-is-for-focus-on-form-2/

2 Responses to “What are we looking for?”


  • Hi Bruno,

    Often I think I’ve been guilty of missing such opportunities to work directly with a spontaneous remark made by a student – not so much because I’m focused on a coursebook or any other material but rather that maybe I’m not aware enough when these moments happen. I think the unplugged teacher has to be hyper vigilant in this sense, seizing upon words and phrases that our learners actually are using at any particular moment.

    With regard to the particular moment you mention in your post, I guess if I were on the ball, I’d turn it into a bit of a memory game “What did Jan just say? ‘What are we look for?’ Hmm, think again and write down your guess…” That’s what a skillful teacher of any sort would do, I guess ;)

    Cheers for the post and making me think about where I’m at in my own practice.

    Mike =)

    • Dear Mike

      Thank you for your valuable comment. I believe that your suggestion on how to deal with this, is indeed the route to take.
      It might take some experience to keep your ears open for these fortunate opportunities in a classroom. It is also a matter of being focused mainly on the students in your classroom.
      Most of all, don’t feel guilty. As writer Adele Parks once said “The past is for learning from and letting go. You can’t revisit it. It vanishes.”

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