Teaching English at the cutting edge

This article reports on practitioner-led classroom research which took place between February and May last year at Tower Hamlets College in east London. The aim of the project was to use recordings of student-led parts of ESOL classes as a tool to help us recognise and work with emerging language.

'Student-led' refers to the times during lessons where students were pushing themselves to communicate, where the topics were to a great extent driven by their conversations and discussions.

These parts of the class could be the most exciting and involving for students and teachers alike but what learning was taking place?

Sometimes just providing students with a forum for their ideas was enough but we wondered how we could teach more in these parts of the class. Three hours of impromptu student-led discourse were recorded and transcribed with this aim in mind.

Emerging language refers to the language forms that were generated when students were attempting to express ideas and tell stories that were important to them. This was language at the cutting edge of learners' capabilities and, for us, effective teaching meant working at this edge.


A reformulation is when the teacher repeats back what the student has said with improvements. The focus is on improving the whole message rather than correcting a specific language item.

The following is an extract from a discussion about anti-social behaviour in a student's building. She is telling the teacher that she is intimidated by the youths who hang out by the main entrance.

Student: If afternoon I putting the bin, I didn't go because I am scared

Teacher: Oh you were scared to take the rubbish down?

From this extract we can see the teacher is doing three things:

She is making sure she has understood the student and in doing this she is keeping the rest of the class in the conversational loop. But she has also reformulated the student to a more clear and natural version of events. This upgrading is central in a language teacher's role.

The teacher in the above example said the following about reformulation:

"It comes naturally to me - I probably do it with all my friends. It shows our understanding, it shows our empathy but what I am trying to do here is ensure that I've actually heard what they are saying, and they'll always say 'no' if I'm wrong. It's a form of checking."

It is important to note that the teacher was only able to upgrade the student's language because she was actively listening and responding on an emotional level to what the student was saying.

Perhaps the final part of the teacher's quote is the most interesting:

"They'll always say 'no' if I'm wrong. It's a form of checking."

She has pitched her response just beyond what the student is capable of producing herself, at the cutting edge of her capabilities. The leamer is leading and the teacher is following, working at that edge.

We realised how often summarising reformulations were used by teachers as a form of conversational lubricant. One of the major questions that emerged from our research was how teachers can leverage these reformulations for learning, without disrupting the flow of conversations.

Student-led parts of the class can often be the most chaotic. Recording, transcribing and listening back to them slowed down classroom time, giving us a better idea of what to listen for and sharpening our decision-making during the less predictable parts of our own classes. The project is on-going with phase two taking a closer look at interaction patterns during group work.

Richard Gallen, is an ESOL lecturer at Tower Hamlets College.  For further information on Richard's project and to share ideas and information contact richgallen@hotmail.com


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