English in 3 dimensions: a concept

The rest of this post is something I’ve been mulling for some time but this will be my first time putting it into words. Whether it passes the test of being transmitted from whirling synapses to lexical squiggles on a flat, rational surface we shall have to see. You have my insincerest apologies and profoundest excuses for anything here which doesn’t make sense.


I wonder if you’ve ever noticed – I’m sure you have – how most of the textbooks and syllabi that English teacher use in class have a way of taking a particular topic as a theme, and arranging assorted nuggets of grammar, vocabulary and often pronunciation and skills work around the chosen topic. For example, let’s look at a familiar lesson from New English File Intermediate. Lesson 1B uses the theme of cheating in sport as a basis for grammar work on narrative tenses (past simple, continuous and perfect). This is initially done through some reading texts, then in comes a bit of light grammar, then your students have to flick to the back for some more taxing exercises on the tenses involved, then return to the main page and the sporting theme for some speaking and listening practice. But we’re not done yet, oh no indeed! For here’s a quiz about sport, then another turn-to-the-back for some vocab work, followed by a bit of pronunciation. Vowels /ɜː/ and /ɔː/ this time. And a bit more speaking to finish – although of course with New English File ‘finish’ is always a relative concept, and there are various other bits of the chapter in the teacher book, resource book etc.

I’m sure you’ve also noted how this is both a random process and an extremely logical one. In the New English File example, there’s a nice balance of skills work, with speaking activities to break up the more ‘bookish’ episodes of the lesson. Also, the other chapters in the book neatly avoid any explicit references to narrative tenses, or indeed these particular vowels. They’ve other areas to cover, after all. And yet is there anything that links narrative tenses particularly to sporting stories or to /ɜː/ and /ɔː/? I’d suggest not!

So what the book is laid out to do is something like this:

 

  Grammar Points 1 – 6
 

 

 

Themes 1 – 6

X
X
X
X
X
X

 

Only that I’ve simplified this down to just grammar. What about the pronunciation work? Well, this exists as a third dimension, treated in the same kind of way. You’ll notice that there’s an ‘X’ in each of the grammar columns, and it’d be the same in the vocabulary dimension – all of the phonemes which Oxford wants in its intermediate course gets its ‘X’ somewhere in this book. In one chapter, with one theme.

And we can add some more dimensions. How about vocabulary as a fourth? And then if we took the whole of New English File we could line the various volumes up, elementary to advanced – and what we’d have is a series of four-dimensional boxes, each peppered with a carefully thought-out, logical display of these ‘X’s. Each line, each layer, each vertical or horizontal strand would have its ‘X’, and yet none would repeat or regurgitate the same material. And it works well. I respect New English File, I like teaching from it, and I’ve seen it work its calm, un-showy magic on students’ learning (though I’m not sure I ever got used to all the flicking-to-page-128-and-back-again).

Yet what I want to do is bring some chaos to the neat system. Every time I use New English File, or any other such textbook, I find I want to do this:

 

Grammar Points 1 – 6
 

 

 

Themes 1 – 6

X X X
X X X
X X X
X X
X X X
X X

 

I want to do this in every dimension. Fill the thing with ‘X’s.

And here’s the thing. It’s now possible, with the help of the web, to have ‘X’s sprayed as liberally as this. Textbooks are basically linear, and space is limited. They’re also generic. They can’t be repeating bits, or they’d end up too heavy, too dense, and would run the risk of boring the better students (not to mention any teachers tasked with wading through this textbook).

On the web, material doesn’t have to be organised linearly. Think of Wikipedia – every article, every definition, is dense with hyperlinks which enable us to refer to other pages, to read around the topic, to find out not only that an echidna is a type of monotreme, but also to read about monotremes, explore the history of Millie the Olympic mascot and have a look at some subspecies of the echidna. And all within seconds.

Could something similar be done with an English teaching resource? I rather think it could. I’m imagining a network of links, going to and from texts, to and from videos, linking these with a whole range of vocabulary and grammar points which arise. And in turn, each grammar node would contain explanations and examples; these would link to exercises for students to try, and on to other examples of texts on different themes. Meanwhile, each one of these nodes would link with others exploring pronunciation, vocabulary, introducing speaking tasks and discussion questions.

The resulting lesson as experienced by students would still be linear – one thing follows another; Time sets the rules – but there’s more flexibility, more choice of tangents which could be taken, more chance for the students to question and explore.

I can see some big advantages to such a network. Previously covered material will naturally get revised and relearned, giving another chance to any students who missed it or forgot it.

The opportunities for either spinning off at a tangent or repeating and re-encountering previous lesson material mimics the ‘received curriculum’ which language students are typically getting during their lifetime. Every time students move to a new language class, start a new year with a new teacher, buy a new phrasebook, they’re likely to find themselves being taught things which they’ve already covered in a previous course or class. My putative network is just making explicit the kind of relearning and looping back through old material which is implicit in many students’ experience of language learning.

An online network of this type also may help less experienced teachers to cede some control of lesson content to students, knowing that sufficient content is easily accessible. With a traditional textbook, dangerous moments can arise if, for instance a student asks a difficult question about some of the vocabulary in a reading text, or if the class embarks on a tangent together and departs totally from the original topic. The teacher is put on the spot! It’s tempting then to avoid any situations where students can take the lesson into unexpected territory. But if the content is all present, and accessible via one click on a hyperlink? That might remove some of the pain from the teacher’s point of view – and encourage them to let the students decide which links to follow, or which route to take through the material.

The constraints? I can see this only as an online system. It doesn’t really suit offline methods, such as printed worksheets: how would the teacher know in advance which ones to print?

There’s a practical issue too: how would the teacher notes be separated from the students’ pages? Would the content itself be designed to be read and navigated by teachers or students or both? Writing it for both would be a kind of holy grail for me: I find most teacher books impossibly fiddly to use and have often prepared and taught using only the student book. But can it be done this way?

Finally, the whole thing just might work too well, so that the teacher’s only role is to pick the starting point for each lesson – if that. Which carries dangers too, for the entire profession…


So there it is. Teaching in 3 (or more) D. It’s fiddly. I’ve put it in words, yet I don’t fully understand it. I’m not even sure it’s a thing. But I want to try it.

In the mean-time, have an echidna.

 

6411084389_6a0ddc75d4_o

Photo by Adrian Midgley, https://www.flickr.com/photos/midgley/6411084389

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