Reconstruction for Noticing and (therefore?) Learning


Group of 11 Vietnamese adults who work at the same university.

Previously: we’d looked at telling anecdotes, with a model and analysis of some useful language as well as spoken discourse markers.

What I’m aiming for, syllabus-wise

Something important to me at the moment with these general English classes is:

  • How to make better use of student output.
  • How to create a syllabus / series of texts that students have made themselves.
  • How to take the things the students say and write and convert that into input for future classes.

In doing this:

  • it creates automatic chances for revision and re-encounters with the language studied.
  • It creates threads throughout the syllabus.
  • It means we don’t need coursebooks.
  • It encourages the teacher to be creative with material writing.
  • It makes students see that their teacher is really trying to create relevant lessons.
  • It makes going into class exciting because you know as a teacher you have materials that students will enjoy working with.

Reformulation and Reconstruction

It’s all been reminding me of Thornbury’s article about reformulation, reconstruction: tasks that encourage noticing. It’s quality and freely downloadable from his archive: ELT Journal 1997, 51/4, 326-35. 

It talks about the role of noticing in SLA and how we can get students to notice the differences between their output and proficient output,  via reformulation and reconstruction tasks, for example Community Language Learning and Dictogloss.  He also gives some advice for how to train students in noticing. It’s an excellent and convincing piece.

One key learning from it, beyond the practical activities was a key difference between reformulation and reconstruction:

Reformulation = the learner’s text is re-written or re-cast by the teacher.

Reconstruction = the teacher’s text is the starting point, with learners attempting to re-build that text.

Homework makes everything possible

All that, and the desire for the mythical  student-created syllabus, in mind, I was very happy to receive a piece of written homework from one class member, Yen:

Yen’s Spider Story

It was a Sunday evening when I was doing housework and there was a spider that appeared on the table. At that time, I was very scared and did not know to do anything to take it away. Then, I picked a plastic food cover near the table and hid the spider inside. I was waiting for my husband to come home to solve it for me.
So I guess it goes to show that my fear of spider from the child is still there even I am getting old now.

I got Yen to read her story to the class and field a few questions, which she did admirably.

Noticing the differences

Listen and mark

Students were given a paper copy of Yen’s story.  I then read my version of the story and asked everyone to mark anywhere in Yen’s text where there were differences in language.  In hindsight, this may not have been necessary but at the time I thought they should probably hear my story, just as they had heard Yen’s version. Here is my one:

Yen’s Spider Story (Jamie’s version 1)

It all happened one Sunday evening. I was busy doing housework when suddenly, out of nowhere, a spider appeared on the table. In that moment, I was so terrified that I couldn’t think of how to get rid of it. Thankfully, there was one of those plastic food covers near the table so I quickly picked it up and hid the spider underneath it. I then had to wait for my husband to come home and take care of the situation.  So I guess it goes to show that even though I am older now, I still have my childhood fear of spiders.



Taking note from the Thornbury article’s mention of memory, and thinking this text too long for a dictogloss, I did a kind of read-o-gloss. Basically, I projected one sentence at a time for about 10-20 seconds. Students were allowed to only read the sentence, not write anything yet. The sentence then disappeared on the next slide and they had to write it down from memory.  We did it with the whole story,  sentence by sentence.  Challenging, perhaps slightly too long, but now everyone had a copy of my text and they had had to work for it.

A missed monitoring opportunity

Students were then asked to find differences between the two texts. I wish had monitored better here. It seemed like this was really hard, or they were not looking in the right way, but I didn’t really get to check or push them in the right direction.  My bad: I had to make another slide which seemed crucial at the time as it was the basis for the reconstruction task coming up.

What prompts?

That task was to try and orally re-tell the story using these prompts:

Reconstruction task

Tricky decision here: The prompts that are in read were SOME of the differences between the two texts, and there is clearly and adverb(ial) thing going on here. However, it is rather inconsistent in its choice of prompts.

Not only that, but, there were content-heavy chunks in the story that I also wanted the students to notice. So I guess it would have been good to have a second reconstruction task after this one, in which the prompts were reversed: remove the adverb phrases and replace with the other content-heavy chunks: plastic food covers, take care of, then get students to reconstruct again.

I mean, there are even problems with the one I ended up using. It seems quite inconsistent in its choice of prompts.  That’s what happens when you have to make materials in class. Making these prompt slide(s) again would add some decency and principles to this part of the lesson.

A sandwich with no meat?

The rebuilding tasks – read-o-gloss & the prompt thing above, are, I suppose if you believe Thornbury, were acquisition happens.  Unfortunately, it was in these two meaty stages that I was either busy or hadn’t prepared adequate materials. Derp.

Target Language and Practice

So, after that, I then told students certain things to underline and circle in my version of the story. Traditionalists will call this the target language, which is true.

There was some practice and students coming to the board to write sentences to check they understood usage of the language in this frame:

2017-08-02 (1).png


Finally, we had ten minutes for discussion questions that made use of the content-heavy chunks and some of the adverbs:

2017-08-02 (2).png

Homework = Focus on forms

2017-08-02 (3).png

That’s not all though

There was actually a 3rd version of the story:

Yen’s Spider Story (Jamie’s version 2)

It all happened on a Sunday evening. I was busy doing housework when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a spider appeared on the table. In that moment, I was so terrified that I just couldn’t think of a way to get rid of it. Luckily, there was one of those plastic food covers things by the table, which I quickly picked up and used to hide the spider. I then had to wait for my husband to come home and take care of the situation. So I guess it just goes to show that I am still as scared of spiders now as I was when I was a child.

I kind of set an extra homework task: to basically do what we had done in this lesson – finding the differences between two texts – using my two versions of the story.

We may well do this in class next week though. Or not. What do you think?

I suppose in theory you could do just keep producing new versions of the same story and teach a ton of language / have students “notice” a ton of language: a syllabus made entirely of one endlessly reformulated and reconstructed text. Or not. What do you think?



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