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Concept, Context, Connotation


The 3 C’s of Language Learning

Understanding concepts, in different contexts with various associated connotations, is not an easy task. Teaching it can even be more difficult. So how is this achieved in a language classroom in a relatively ‘effortless’ way? 

I’d like to share, if I may, one of my favourite methods of demonstrating the concept of the use of Present Perfect vs Past Simple. It’s not my original idea (wish it was!) but more we share these resources, the easier the language learning will be (I hope!).

As with many introductions to a lesson, I start by setting the scene – “Ok, everyone, today we’ll be going on a cruise around the world. Who’s been on a cruise liner before?”. First, some silence forms in the class, some shoulder-shrugging, bottom lips turned outward, with expressions indicating “No, not me, never”.

I carry on by saying that we need to make a list of ‘things’ to do before we leave our ‘home’. First I elicit a couple of examples, like ‘turn off the power’ or ’empty out the fridge’. Ideas start rolling in but at this stage it’s best to form groups and collate the ideas on a large piece of paper. Ahh, I also insist on listing both the verb and the noun ;-). After a few minutes, or four-five items, I collect the pieces of paper from each team and indicate that it’s time to go, as the cruise liner is about to leave. Yes, still spot the puzzled faces in the room 🙂

Just as we’re all about to leave the house, I stop everyone and start going through the list: ‘Have you turned off the power?’ ‘Have you emptied out the fridge?’. I just go through the list that the students create, so it’s just verb and the noun on the paper. I just complete the missing parts of the target language. The answers are always ‘Yes’, except when a few students start getting into the act, and say ‘No, I forgot. I go and switch off the power!’. <Insert laughter here>

Then we start walking towards the ‘port’. I try to encourage their imagination further by saying things like: ‘Oh wow, look at that beautiful liner! Students usually enjoy it when the teacher starts getting ‘silly’. We get onboard, find a comfortable place, preferably by the pool, have some cocktails and start enjoying the scenery. It’s only when I start swaying from side to side, indicating that the liner has just left the port that students begin to worry about me. Sometimes some start getting sea-sick, and that’s a great sign!

Eventually the role-playing comes to an end 😦 but by then students can really get curious about the whole thing, wondering when they’re going to start learning English! I ask them ‘Can anyone remember what I said just as we were leaving the house?’ Answers vary – ‘turn off power?’ ‘Close. What did I ask exactly?’ ‘Did you turn off the power?’ ‘Hmm, not really. Keep trying.’ Sometimes a student eventually figures it out. When he/she does, it’s quite rewarding for the student as well as the rest of the class! ‘Have you turned off the power?’ ‘Yes, that’s it! Well done!’ Then I ask the dreaded question – ‘Who can explain why I used that form?’ Put another way – “Why not use “Did you…?” This is a difficult concept to grasp. I allow for sometime so that the students have an opportunity to collect their thoughts.

Well, you can guess the rest. The exciting trip to the Bahamas becomes a grammar lesson – the difference between Present Perfect and Past Simple. The important thing is to elicit the concept from the students, to show that they understand the situation. This is also achieved by Yes/No questions: Are we still at the house? Can we go back inside and turn off the power? etc. They need to be able to ‘touch and feel’ the concept, in order to relate to it.

Here comes the relevance to virtual worlds – it’s much easier to immerse yourself and your students in the role-play in virtual environments. It’s more ‘realistic’ and fun! There are already many travel destinations in Second Life, even some boats (haven’t found a cruise liner yet but working on it). Perhaps the role-cards could be prepared in advance, hence becoming notecards in SL. Holodecks could be used for pair or group work / discussions. The items can be collated on the SL classroom board (or on any Web 2.0 tool). I haven’t tried this yet but I’m planning to use it – as soon as I resume the virtual lessons. Watch this space 🙂

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