Cracking the code: staging noticing activities

Incorporating ‘noticing’ activities into langauge lessons has become one of the hallmarks of my teaching evolution over the last year or so.

The concept of noticing something – so simple – seems to be a vital bridge between input and acquisition.

So the next question is: what can we do to get students to notice features of language?

What I did before

Because the very fact of noticing seems like such a simple idea, I had not given noticing activities themselves much consideration. I just kept things simple, got some coloured pens out and directed students to highlight, underline, circle features in a text then come to some conclusions about the language involved based around guided questions, following up with categorising and supplementing with other examples.

If it wasn’t very teacher-led like this, then it usually failed. The deep-end approach to noticing: I would ask students to colour / underline / highlight parts of a sentence or short text in the way they think is best. I was trying to get them to notice by themselves, without my guided questions or instruction.

However, I find when students are left alone to notice features of language that seem ever so obvious to me, the results are a bizarre range of colourations, impossible to draw any conclusions from, amidst random (often sentence-length) underlinings. It becomes clear that they have noticed nothing in particular, apart from a latent distrust over my teaching methods.

Then something came to me whilst revising so …………….. that …………….  / such a …………. that…………

What I did differently this time

I gave a short dictation of two sentences. Instead of asking them to colour the sentences or telling them what to colour. They watched as I coloured my sentences on the board using three different colours.

I then realised I had created a code that could be cracked. So I wrote the three colours (red, blue, black) under my sentences and asked the students to ‘crack the code’ – “What do these colours represent?”

By presenting a sensible model like this – rather than asking them to do it all by themselves or telling them what to colour – it allowed for situation that seemed to sit between these two alternative techniques. The new technique had scaffolding but it wasn’t a case of spoon feeding. It was demanding and interesting (cracking codes is a fun challenge, right) and importantly encouraged noticing through a purposeful task.

After the code had been cracked and the results put on the board:

so such noticing

I asked students to write two sentences of their own about the same topic (in this case, about family). Afterwards they were then ready to lay this code down on top of their sentences: colouring, underlining, circling within the restraints of the established code.

With my old deep-end approach – simply asking students to colour their sentences in the best way they see fit – this activity would flop. But with this more scaffolded noticing process, this final activity is no longer deep-end but supported and achievable. It acts no longer as a very challenging and often confusing instruction to ‘colour your sentences’ – what the heck is the teacher talking about? – but to consolidate noticing using their own output.

I was happy with the results (though forgot to photo them). I got the impression that language was better-noticed than previously, certainly the students’ texts looked far less chaotic and unfathomable.

This balanced approach (not deep, not spoon fed) worked particularly with these teens who have little experience in criticial thinking and are used to lock-step teaching.




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