Using student output: a personal story and restructuring

Students wrote holiday stories on the class blog which I took into class and used as reading texts.

This is worth elaborating. Viet (45ish, male) wrote a tender, heartfelt story about a long lost love which was so good I had to find a way of using it.

Here it is as it was posted on the blog:

Thirty years ago,we had group 3 people.Mr Tan ,Miss Trinh and me.We were the best friend since we were classmates in hight school.We usually watch movie,go out to eat together.So,mr Tân and I love her together. I thought she know it. But mr Tân and I never talk about that. I want to tell her that I loved her but didn’t know how to start.I decided every Sunday morning I sent her the rose by post office.but I don’t write my name. she is very happy about that, but she didn’t know who gave her flowers.Until once day,I discovered Mr Tan and her going out together without me. Mr Tân and her loved each other because she thought Mr Tân who gave her the flowers every Sunday morning.

Wanting to use this text with the class, I prepared the lesson with the same thinking as a dictation – getting the students to notice the differences between their text and my version may lead to positively restructuring their own language.

To do this, I re-wrote the text in my own words. I didn’t change the content, just upgraded and corrected the language:

Thirty years ago, we had a group of 3 people: Mr Tan ,Miss  Trinh and me. We had been classmates in high school and best friends since then. We used to watch movies and we would go out to eat together. So, Mr. Tân and I both loved her equally. I thought she knew it,  but Mr. Tân and I never talked about that. I wanted to tell her that I loved her but I didn’t  know how to start. So I decided to send her a single red rose by post every Sunday morning. But I kept my name secret. She was very happy about that, but she didn’t know who gave her the flowers. Until one day, I discovered Mr. Tan and her going out together  without me. In the end, she and Mr. Tân fell in love with each other because she thought  it was him who gave her the flowers every Sunday morning.

First, students read Viet’s version and decided on a title, settling on the delightful ‘One Way Love’.

Then there was time for the class to ask Viet questions about his story.

These two reading activities were some of the most engaging and interesting I’ve ever seen. Students were genuinely interested in asking Viet questions about the story – and doing so basically demonstrates comprehension. Enough understanding to engage with the text, its purpose and its author, which is surely as much as we need to expect in the general English classroom.

It was great to observe as a teacher. Essentially what was intended as checking understanding of a text turned into a spontaneous, language rich Q and A session, centred around student memories, feelings and desires for further information. I was buzzing inside just watching this unfold.

Once this stage had settled down, I gave students my version of the text and asked them to read and compare with Viet’s. I have a feeling this task needed more focus – there were so many things to find that it may have helped to narrow the search to just spelling, then verbs, then punctuation, then nouns etc.

After re-writing Viet’s story, I had decided on adverbs and adverb phrases as the primary language focus for students. This was a pretty arbitrary decision, based on something I remember someone saying sometime somewhere about how we should be teaching adverbials more and tenses less. I also – for some reason – decided to include a few verb phrases, pronouns, demonstrative object pronouns, ‘that’ as a linker, a dummy it sentence… an eclectic but far too intense selection of language forms for this class. In hindsight this looks like a really odd choice and caused the problems about to be described.

Back in the lesson, students were busy finding differences between the texts, with some success, but without any guidance and with the wild abundance of forms to focus on it was a bit of a mess and something I would control and scaffold better next time.

I called it to a halt once everyone had found some differences and glossed over the feedback a bit as I could see it taking forever to go check everything.

Then I gave students a gapped version of the re-written text to complete:

……………………., we had a group of 3 people: Mr Tan ,Miss  Trinh and me. ……………………. classmates ……………………. and best friends since …………… We ……………………. and we …………….. to eat ……………….. So, Mr. Tân and I both loved …………equally. I thought she knew ……….,  but Mr. Tân and I never talked about ……………. I wanted to tell her …………… I loved her but I …………………….start. So I decided to send her a single red rose by post ……………………. . But I ……….. my name …………….. She was very happy about that, but she ………………………….. gave her the flowers. ……………………., I discovered Mr. Tan and her going out together  …………………….. In ………………, she and Mr. Tân …………in ……………. with ……………………. because she thought  ……………………. gave her the flowers ……………… Sunday morning.

The gaps focused on the differences between mine and Viet’s text, so would have complemented the previous tasks if I hadn’t had been so trigger-happy with the language I wanted students to focus on.

Feedback was students coming to the board to write the missing words in order. Next up, turn over your papers and try to retell the story using the feedback list on the board.

Although the failings of this lesson were my fault, it did remind me of an issue with Dogme teaching and using learner language as the syllabus.

Learner output is unruly and I find things get out of control pretty quickly, linguistically speaking. Before you know it there are 15 phrases containing a fantastic range of different forms on the board. As a result, nothing gets studied in much detail, provoking the idea of the value of doing one thing well and remembering it, rather than spreading your attention over a range and not really mastering anything. How can teachers navigate this sea of colliding forms for the maximum benefit of the students?

What springs to mind, and what I think I was trying with some of my seemingly arbitrary gaps was to delve into the lexical dimension. Some of my gaps (it was him who, didn’t know how to start) were supposed to be treated as unanalyzed chunks. I did see some of these being used in the student stories later on – so great – however this doesn’t explain away many of the other gap-fill choices I made.

Back to the lesson:

After these noticing and re-telling activities, students then wrote a similar romantic story using the phrases on the board. By this point I had erased anything that wasn’t an adverbial, provided some substitution possibilities, e.g. thirty / ten / a couple of  YEARS / MONTHS / WEEKS ago, and successfully deflected any questions about the past perfect.

Certainly the intention of this lesson was better than the execution. For a brief moment during the reading stages I was watching students engage in some of the most genuine classroom discussion I’d ever seen from this group. Unforgettable! My approach and principled decision making when doing text-based teaching needs some honing but I’ll definitely be trying this again.

To think about:

  • How else to get student output into the public domain?
  • How can teachers navigate the sea of colliding forms without drowning our students?



6 thoughts on “Using student output: a personal story and restructuring

  1. Great post. Have you thought about setting differentiated (group?) focus on form? Everyone who’s ready for adverbials does those, those who need the relative clauses more do those, and past perfect for those who need that. It can take a while to get used to doing this but it can really pay off. Something like, “Mr. A, can you find the words and phrases that show time? Ms. B, can you find some expressions for talking about a time further in the past than the main time of the story, and Mr. C, how is extra information about people given in the story?”

    It sounds like a really good lesson. I’ve entertained class blog ideas for a while but most of my learners are too shy to put their writing in English out for all to see.

    Cheers for this,


    1. Hi Marc, thanks for that – I really like your suggestion of divvying up the language investigation tasks. Could potentially lead to students teaching each other about different forms in the text, or at least presenting their findings to the class. How do you decide who focuses on what? Set the “more difficult” language forms for stronger students? Just let them choose from a list of potential forms? Or just allocate arbitrarily much like I did when deciding what forms to make as the gap-fill focus?

      I still worry about the question of quality over quantity in these kinds of activities – is it better to focus on one kind of form (adverbials, for example) rather than accepting that text does have a variety of forms that could be investigated, possibly all in the same lesson.

      I’m guessing the former option lends itself to specific form-focused follow up activities, a clearer sense of progress and a more thorough understanding of a particular kind of form. Sounds pretty good. The latter maybe pays more attention to understanding the text (?) and not on forming hypotheses about particular language forms. Maybe the second option allows for individual students to pick up what they are ready to learn (Mr A chose to find past verb forms because he wanted to, Mrs B decided time adverbials were her cup of tea), rather than forcing forms upon them.

      It all leads back to the question:

      How can teachers navigate this sea of colliding forms for the maximum benefit of the students?

      Yeah it was my first class blog – certainly not a complete success. A few got into it, posting photos, anecdotes from holiday (when asked to for homework) and comments. Others….not so much. We’ll continue it in the next course and see how it develops.

      1. Thanks for the reply. I would say differentiate according to need but I do like the idea of having students choose with the caveat that students obviously don’t choose focus on form they have already mastered – they take it up a notch. I am also fine with a focus on form being wide and shallow than being narrow and deep; who knows all learners will benefit from a focus on formS?

        1. Focus on form just means study, right. It’s hard to imagine someone not benefitting from study. No matter how much they resist it they will take something away. But you’re right – who knows – maybe Krashen does…

          That issue (for me) of wide and shallow vs deep and narrow (I’m permanently borrowing that little piece of language if you don’t mind!) is one of the big things that came out of my most recent course with adults. It’s so hard to know in the moment where the balance is.

          When does a wide focus become distractingly broad? Maybe it doesn’t, as long as the teacher encourages noticing and makes sure to consistently and extensively point out forms when they come up and relate these encounters back to previous moments with the same form.

          Without this wide-ranging attitude to forms in the classroom communication can get stifled – ‘we’re not studying that today so don’t worry about it’ OR students are made to feel that some parts of language are so complex they couldn’t possibly handle them – ‘you say it like this *insert difficult piece of language* but we aren’t going to study that today. This is frustrating for students.

          On the other side, is being overwhelmed with language even more frustrating?

          It’s a minefield to be honest. Constantly concerned over moving on with the thread of the lesson or whether to retreat and retrace our steps to make sure everyone has safely navigated the emergent language.

          Sometimes I look at the board at the end of a lesson and it is a cluster bomb of lexis and structures. I wonder what anyone will remember or take away, especially compared to a very controlled pre-determined structural approach.

          I don’t however wonder anymore about which kind of lesson is more engaging for students because it’s blindingly obvious.

  2. I “edit” my students’ output and use it for reading. There is no need to show them the student’s errors. Ignore mistakes instead of calling attention to them. Use circling and PQA to reinforce “chunks” that they seem to lack.

    1. Hi Judy, thanks for your sensitive suggestion! I could be wrong but I presume you’re saying that by calling attention to errors we may demoralize students? I think that’s fair – there is always the danger of students losing confidence and getting upset about coming face to face with their errors in public. Maybe don’t call them errors, they’re differences. Diplomacy is key, heh.

      I will say that the more I teach adults the more I think they actually want this kind of instruction. They want to be corrected, they respond well to the teacher using and working with their output, they want the teacher to show them how to express more accurately the things they tried to say.

      I like the circling activity you mention, especially with YLs to get them to notice features of a text. Sorry I don’t know what PQA is – presumably not the Pauline Quirk Academy of Arts that came up on Google?

      Is circling to notice enough though? Does the act of comparing two texts make noticing more tangible than re-reading an edited text? Is there more mental work involved in one than the other and (therefore?) more chance of the language form taking permanent roots in the student’s mind?

      Thanks for making me think about this!

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