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Observation 1 Lesson Breakdowns1
Date: May 21st, 2008 No. of students: 15 Age: 16-17 Level: Intermediate Book: Activate! B2, Elaine Boyd & Mary Stephens, Longman. Topics: word families; reading: "Tough Love" Duration of the lesson: 80 min
A lesson breakdown, as the term is used here, is a very broad term for an interruption to a lesson, covering anything from minor hiccups to a major impasse. It is a point in a lesson when due to a communication problem or misunderstanding, the lesson is unable to proceed, whether for an individual or group of students or for the whole class. It can happen between teacher and student or in student-student interactions. And, of course, it may not happen at all! However, in all types of communication there is the potential for misunderstanding and therefore breakdown and repair. In the language learning classroom, where the target language being learned is also the medium of instruction, it is highly probable that breakdowns, small or large, will occur. It is important to note that the term 'breakdown' is not a negative laden term and does not imply hostility or failure. Furthermore, the language used to negotiate the breakdown is itself meaningful and valuable and as such, constitutes an important source of real input for language learners. One might call it the very heart of the communicative classroom. Essential as it is to the processing of language, the learner's experience of the negotiation of meaning is integral to learning.
The students were practicing for a term test in two weeks. The teacher assigned a reading from the book. The students had to read the article and then match a list of statements to the corresponding paragraph of the reading and justify their decision. They could carry out the task individually, in pairs or in small groups. Before checking the correct answers, the teacher asked a few students to read one paragraph each.
Topic taken from Classroom Observation Tasks, Ruth Wajnryb, (CUP, 1992).
LCB – Taller Didáctico – Observation 1 – María Pérez Armendáriz 1
What happened? Ss stopped doing their task and started talking loudly Loud banging noise T shushed a S Several Ss are talking about another subject Constant background noise coming from within the classroom Source of breakdown A S from another course walked in to borrow a seat A S slammed a dictionary on a desk A S insulted someone aloud S from another class put his head through a window to ask a question S was listening to music at a very high volume L used for repair and negotiation In Spanish, the T tells the class to be quiet and continue working The T said 'Finished?' and the S said 'No.' There was no L or negotiation involved more than a 'shhh' and a look from the T The T said 'What are you talking about?' The S answered in Spanish but took a few minutes to leave In English, the T asked the student to turn the device off. As he did not hear her, she got closer and told him in Spanish the same instruction Seriousness of breakdown major minor minor major
1. In the far right column of the chart categorise the instances of breakdown as 'minor' or 'major', where 'major' is defined as interrupting the smooth flow of the lesson. 2. In the case of the breakdowns you observed: a. Could the breakdown have been avoided altogether? Two of the breakdowns were difficult to avoid since they were interruptions coming from outside the classroom. But, for example, the case of the student listening to music could have been avoided by setting some rules from the beginning, either of the year or of the every lesson if necessary. b. Could it have been repaired more efficiently? The 4th interruption was difficult to avoid, but it would not have been so difficult to prevent it from spreading throughout the lesson. Some students had finished the task and continued talking about another subject while the rest finished. The teacher should have had something extra to keep those students who finished early occupied. 3. In the instances of breakdown that you collected, consider: a. The pattern of interaction at the time of a breakdown. The patterns of interactions were always T↔S. The only ones 'negotiating' were the teacher and the student (or students) involved in the breakdown. b. The language used by the teacher and students in the attempt to negotiate meaning and repair the breakdown. The teacher tried at first with English, but in some cases, seeing that her attempts led nowhere, she resorted to Spanish. The students always responded in Spanish. There was no attempt to deal with the situation in the target language.
LCB – Taller Didáctico – Observation 1 – María Pérez Armendáriz
Now comment on the value that the experience and encounter might offer for the learner. In this particular case, no one learned anything, so there is no major value to draw from the experience. The teacher did not seem interested in doing much about the lesson as a whole and the students behaved as expected from a teenagers that are bored and someone calls their attention: they say 'OK', stop for a short time, and then continue with what they were doing— related or not to the subject. In the light of the fact that breakdowns are a usual part of normal conversational/ interactional language flow, how do we weigh up the value of the language experience for the learners versus the interruption to the smooth flow of the planned lesson? The ideal would be a perfect lesson where everything goes as planned, but I think that every language experience is valuable to one's development, and if there is an interruption to the flow of the lesson we should take advantage of it. If the breakdown allows it and it is appropriate at that moment, the teacher should take the opportunity to expand on what has happened and encourage their students to try to solve the issue the best way they can with the knowledge they have. This will help develop their negotiation skills for other kinds of planned activities. 4. In the face of a breakdown, what can a teacher do to: a. Heighten the value of the breakdown for all the class? If the breakdown is a matter of meaning for one or two students that would help the rest of the class, then she can devote some time to clearing doubts or explaining. b. Minimise the interrupting effect on the lesson? Find a way to get the students back to work without undermining the importance of an interruption in a lesson. The goal would be to have them focus again so as to prevent the lesson to be wasted on a long discussion.
How aware are you of breakdowns in your lessons and the language used to negotiate and repair meaning? Depending on the importance of the breakdown, there will be a change in the language. If it is an issue that far exceeds the common issues of the English lesson—such as someone getting hurt—it will most likely require the teacher to answer in the mother tongue to give comfort. If the issue is a simple matter of disagreement, the teacher could take advantage and try to get everyone to participate but under the condition that they have to manage in English. Have you learned anything through this observation experience that you would like to pursue further? Not really. There was not much to consider since the teacher did not do much and devoted half her time to talking to 'the observer'. The teacher quickly dismissed the interruptions and with them any chance to teach something to her students.
LCB – Taller Didáctico – Observation 1 – María Pérez Armendáriz