To muddle or not?

Off the back of a full two-hour lesson trying to get A2 students to use communication (achievement) strategies, I set up a language lesson using the ‘best in 24’ activity from Teaching Unplugged. The launching question was ‘what’s the best thing you’ve eaten in the last 24 hours?’ I had thought about two potential logical language-study follow-ups: the present perfect for experiences and relative clauses.

I’m not going to describe what happened in much detail here. Basically, I followed the procedure for the activity: putting a student in “the hot seat” to demo the conversation, then students in pairs doing the activity themselves while I took notes of their language output. Linguistic feedback focused on a couple of nice phrases (‘it was a bargain’) and some error correction. Students repeated the task after tweaking the launching question topic.

Teacher notes inform lesson direction

What interests me on reflection is the decision to go with relative clauses rather than present perfect, based on my notes of student output. I had recorded specific examples of a correct relative clause from one girl in class (She’s the person that I met) and heard many students explaining details with crude simple sentences (I ate seafood. It was delicious.) that could have combined into more complex ones. Really shows, yet again, the importance of listening and taking notes and USING THEM as the decision-making catalyst for subsequent language study.

So, happy with that call (despite a tasty looking present perfect activity which I was excited to try out but didn’t get the chance. See Thornbury’s Learning Body at the New School talk and the bit about physicalisation of the present perfect for a taste), I rushed out at break time to prepare a short text about a restaurant experience, modeling / presenting relative clauses (if the language focus comes after break-time, after the launching communicative activities, is it still presentation?).

The text:

When I was 18 I had a special friend. He’s the person that showed me how to eat seafood. He took me to a seafood restaurant that was small, dirty and really busy. We ate tiger prawns bigger than my hand and raw oysters that looked disgusting but tasted delicious. He was also the person that bought me my first beer. The food that we ate was amazing and the bill, that he paid, was a bargain.

Students read and decided on a suitable title. My favourite: Beautiful Seafood Memories.

As much as I wanted to allow the image of tiger-sized, man-eating prawns, we looked up pictures of tiger prawns and then oysters. Content largely understood, we explored the structures.

Focus on form

We did (what I consider to be) noticing tasks in which students circled things being described, and underlined their description. I tried, with whole class questions (what was the restaurant like? Can you tell me about my special friend?), hand gestures and multi-coloured marker board work to hammer home the relationship between the thing and the underlined description.


Did everyone totally understand the relationship? Could they explain the form? Could the produce accurate relative clauses in context? Could they spot their own mistakes? At best, it was a mixed bag or comprehension and ability. I didn’t allow opportunities to deal with the rabbit-hole of issues that arise whenever we study a language item.

Muddling and studying

This leads me to my biggest current conundrum when teaching language: breadth vs depth, using vs studying, wider range of avenues for communication vs control over a particular item. Because of my current preference for getting students to muddle through a range of what may be conceptually and structurally challenging language, at the expense of detailed understanding and accurate manipulation of a particular form, a la the PPP approach, I do less CCQs in favour of just letting students get on with having a go with the language, and then doing error correction and revisiting of texts that students have read before or written themselves, or even both.

This is the main point of chewing this lesson over now – is it better to muddle through, to have a go with challenging language and not be an expert of it. To accept that language is messy and difficult and we have to find our way through it and “get a feel” for it. Or is describing language learning in these terms just the work of a charlatan who doesn’t want to engage in intensive study of forms? Is it better as a teacher to control the situation and use the classroom time to focus on accurate manipulation?

Finishing and extending

After the reading / noticing tasks, students……… wrote their own text about a special person or place, handed them in and I used them at the start of the next lesson for some error correction and repetition of the circling and underlining (noticing) tasks from the original class. The 2nd class got into the area of relative pronouns (which, who) and adverbs (where) with similar activities to the 1st one.

I sent out a Google Forms questionnaire after the 2nd lesson to get some student feedback. The results are here, if you’re interested. Only 4 students have responded so far (out of 12) with generally positive remarks. However, I don’t think students here would ever say ‘that lesson was an embarrassment to teaching’, even if they truly thought it. So definitely take the feedback with a generous sprinkling of sea salt.

One thing I’d add to the lesson if I could do it again:

Students needed to do an activity in which they engage with the difference in meaning between that as a demonstrative pronoun and that, in this lesson, as a relative pronoun. This “word grammar” kind of activity  should be a part of classroom activities when dealing with language. This is where Thornbury’s maligned Natural Grammar book may come in handy for the teacher (and possibly student). It also reminds me of the sorting activities in the closing stages of The English Verb. What weight to put on noticing tasks versus mechanical production of accurate form? Which one should be the focus of the after-break form focus? I have my preference, but I am unsure if it’s valid or simply a hunch.

Thanks for reading.

Gratitude if you can help out with any of the issues I’m trying to process, among them:

  • Is wide-ranging but shallow “muddling” a good thing?
  • Does reading and noticing after such activities provide solid chance for acquisition of form?
  • Are these form activities more favourable than ones that ask students to mechanically reproduce accurate sentences?
  • Do students appreciate being asked to muddle through without explicit direction in how to be accurate?




5 thoughts on “To muddle or not?

  1. Hi, Jamie! As far as wide-ranging but shallow “muddling” is concerned, I have no definite answer. All I can say here is that I do give my students a chance to study some grammar items in depth. We drill the present perfect, for example, for a good part of the lesson, but then we leave it completely and delve into something different – more spontaneous and less controlled. I’d compare it to swimming in dangerous waters without a compass; it’s confusing, but you still enjoy the adventure. However, from time to time, you need to anchor.

  2. Yeah and maybe those anchors are the things you can see and remember most clearly when you look back on where you’ve been swimming… Interesting thought.

    Thanks for the comment Hana 🙂

  3. Hi Jamie,
    I share your confusion on this matter. Personally, I tend to let students muddle as I find it more challenging and interesting — after all language is not Maths. But I also get the feeling that some people get really confused, and would benefit from deeper understanding and mechanical drilling of a certain form.
    So generally what I do depends on the class I have in front of me. I am lucky enough to teach small classes (6-7 people), so I get to know my students quite soon. I experiment with both methods, and as soon as I learn their preferences, I adapt my style to what feels more comfortable to them.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Giulia.

      You make a good point, you have to make these calls based in your students. I’ve had this class for a while so think I’ve got a feel for how much compass-less swimming they can handle and enjoy (to borrow Hanas metaphor above), but there’s always individual learner differences and newer students I don’t know so well and who don’t know me either. Like you say, there’s time and need for in depth accuracy work (diving (?), if we’re really going to force the metaphor).

      Reading plus noticing then writing is my go-to process in this regard at the moment. I wonder about the benefits of noticing vs drilling when it comes to helping students acquire accuracy… must be some research somewhere…

      Thanks for getting involved, Giulia.

      1. I’ve recently read Uncovering Grammar by S. Thornbury, and he goes as for as to say that “forcing production of a newly learned item too soon (…) may be counter-productive, in that the effort involved in articulation diverts attention away from simply understanding how the new item works”. What do you make of this?
        He says there is a body of research to support this theory, maybe you can have a look at his reference list…

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