Writing lessons: the Englishin3d approach

Happy New Year 2022!

I had a slow start to the year, with an eye operation meaning that I was out of action, quite literally: the surgeon’s instructions were to lie face down for a week. During that long week, I had various ideas for the site, but it’s only now, through the process of drafting out new posts, that I’m able to elaborate on those thoughts in an organised way.

I’d like to write a few introspective blog posts early in the year, as a kind of manifesto for Englishin3d, staking out a position on current topics within the English-teaching sphere. These posts will be partly for my own benefit, a kind of self-feedback on what I’ve put on this site and why, but they’ll be public too, in case they’re useful to other teachers and writers.

Today, let’s look at the Englishin3d ‘recipe’, the procedure I follow when creating lessons here on the site.

(But first, a caveat. This article is about lesson writing in an online environment, and not about lesson planning. Writing here is a little different from what I do in my day-to-day preparation for class, for several reasons: Englishin3d isn’t written with a particular class or student in mind, and the WordPress format is inflexible in certain ways, not least that there’s none of the back-and-forth interaction that characterises classroom teaching. Also, when I’m writing here, I don’t have time pressures or deadlines, so can take as long as necessary to create something I consider perfect!)

1. Find good input

By input, we’re talking mainly about listening and reading texts, although input can also be a list of questions on a topic, or potentially something non-linguistic like a picture or a silent video. By ‘good’, I mean that it is interesting enough to get a reaction from students and provides the opportunity to expose students to useful nuggets of language.

I use ‘authentic’ input – things from the world outside the language classroom – for several reasons. It’s rewarding for students to know they’ve handled and understood ‘real world’ English. It’s a good introduction to the quirks of English as spoken or written by its users. Borrowing from the web (via links or embeds) is something I can do that coursebook writers can’t so easily do, and it makes sense to use that flexibility rather than replicating a coursebook format.

2. Analyse the input

The most mechanical phase, though not always the most tedious, is the task of finding the ‘nuggets of language’ that I mentioned earlier. (1) Nuggets can be grammar (e.g. conditional sentence types), vocabulary (e.g. lexical sets such as colour words – for an upcoming lesson), or functions (e.g. comparing). Mostly, these are contained within the input material, although sometimes there are bits of language that students might need that are suggested implicitly (e.g. words to describe a specific photograph).

The main thing to look for is any repeated bits of useful (high-frequency) language that are well exemplified by the input. To do this, I scan any texts carefully, and tend to make a transcription of any videos I use – I don’t publish these for copyright reasons, but it’s really helpful to be able to sift through the material slowly.

A subsidiary process is to find language that’s not useful: difficult or low-frequency language, dialect or slang that might impede students’ understanding without offering anything worth remembering after class.

3. Edit the input

It’s usually necessary to crop the input material in some way. For instance, All I’ve Ever Known is based on a 30-minute documentary, and using about half of the documentary makes for a lengthy lesson once activities and tasks are added.

The aim when editing is to maximise two ratios:

  • the ratio of very interesting content to less interesting content
  • the ratio of very useful to less useful language

It’s easier to edit videos than written texts. With YouTube embeds, it’s possible to select the clip you want to play, whereas with articles on other websites, the options are usually to link to the full page, or to do something cheeky like copy-pasting excerpts. For that reason, I sometimes write my own texts, saving a headache over copyright laws at the expense of authenticity.

4. Segment and scaffold the input

I’ve listed these processes together as they often need to be considered at the same time. A long video or text needs to be segmented in order to add some scaffolding – for instance, pre-teaching vocabulary, asking “What do you think happens next?”, or simply giving students time and space to talk about their reaction to the input. Deciding where to divide the segments depends on the judgements we make about which scaffolding to add.

It becomes unavoidable at this point to make some mention of methods of instruction such as PPP, TBLT, Dogme, guided discovery, and Socratic questioning, as adherence to any of these will govern the types of scaffolding we add. If an expert in methodologies were to browse Englishin3d, I genuinely don’t know what they’d regard as the prevailing methodology here; I’ve mixed and matched according to the types of activities I judged as most appropriate to juxtapose with each piece of input.

5. Smooth the gaps

After scaffolding, what next but a bricklaying metaphor? And it is essentially a continuation of the same process of adding activities around the input, with a close eye on how the lesson is experienced in the classroom.

I’m an advocate of tidy lessons in which a restricted set of language items are taught, practised and used, and every stage of the lesson leads on seamlessly to the next.

On the other hand, language learning isn’t a tidy process, and a well planned lesson does not guarantee that students will learn the things intended by the writer or teacher. But there’s a difference between what goes on in the classroom – where there may be off-topic discussions, surprise interruptions and degree of creative chaos – and the type of ‘lesson’ that exists as a set of texts and videos and tasks, on paper or on a WordPress site.

I think that written-down lessons such as the ones on this site need to be made seamless and tidy, or else they can fall apart completely when subjected to classroom pressures. I’ve blogged before about several rules of thumb for creating a user-friendly lesson plan:

Teachability is also important, as teachers (if they’re well prepared) encounter the lesson before the student does, and their own preparation impacts the student experience. My key tips for teachability are to include more activities than the minimum necessary to make the lesson, and to provide direct instructions for students rather than indirect instructions to teachers.

Personally, rather than including a separate teaching plan alongside the lessons, I prefer to include instructions and language explanations with the student materials, to enable self-study. I also provide a lot of discussion questions in each lesson, as I feel that these are a powerful tool for linking ideas, priming students for an upcoming listening or text, or getting students practising language nuggets.

…Now, back to phase 1, and loop back through.


Notes:

1. By ‘nuggets of language’ I don’t mean the purely grammatical ‘McNuggets’ scoffed at by Scott Thornbury: I use the term to cover bits of vocabulary, grammar items, functional language or indeed sounds which become apparent when analysing the input, and which may or may not subsequently be made the focus of follow-up activities. For that reason, I’ve avoided the more common term ‘target language’, which implies a different approach in which the first step is to decide on which language students ought to learn and then structure the input around this target.

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