A complete teaching unit was first developed by Sirio Di Giuliomaria and Mario Papa in the early 1970s as a result of their studies in the field of methodology and applied linguistics, as well as a result of their experience as teachers. This teaching unit was largely discussed in many LEND meetings and then adopted in the “Corsi abilitanti” (Qualifying courses).
Later, in the early 1980s, Giuliano Iantorno and Mario Papa took up that teaching unit again, made some changes and introduced some innovations in it, in the light of the latest results of the research in the field of language learning and teaching. This revised teaching unit was adopted by hundreds of teachers as their teaching guide during their everyday work, as well as by other authors of English coursebooks.
The teaching unit I present here is the result of further studies and experiences made by Giuliano Iantorno, Mario Papa and Janet Shelly in the field of language learning and teaching.
A teaching unit, which is usally completed in three or four lessons, should consist of at least four stages.
1. Presentation, which is generally carried out through dialogues, or a video, a photo story, a reading passage, a web page, an advertisement, or other linguistic material
2. Oral practice, done through communication activities which reflect real situations of communication
3. Grammar and written practice
4. Expansion, through activities which exercise integrated skills.
1. Presentation stage
This stage is very important because it is the first time the linguistic material that students must learn is presented. The language might be presented in many ways, but the ones we have experimented with success are two: through dialogues or through a video. It is imperative that students clearly understand from the outset what is presented.
Teachers who do not have the possibility of using a video may adopt various techniques, and the expert teacher is able to select the most suitable ones according to the type of material he/she is using and his/her teaching situation. The techniques described here have been tested by the authors and by many other experienced teachers over many years of teaching. Nevertheless, the techniques we suggest can be varied and adapted to fit the various teaching situations.
For example, if the dialogue is accompanied by a series of pictures – as is generally the case nowadays - students should be guided, by observing the pictures, to recognize the various elements of the situation of communication, namely:
- the people involved in the dialogue;
- the setting;
- the possible relationships among the people in the pictures;
- the possible topic of conversation.
This can be done from the very first lesson. For this reason, the pictures should be specially taken to represent the overall situation as clearly as possible in order to transmit cultural information easily. As a general principle, students should be encouraged to predict what the characters will say before they listen to the recording of the dialogue, or before the teacher reads the dialogue.
a) Pre-listening activities
Since language often depends on the situations speakers are in, before asking students to listen to the recorded dialogue, the teacher should help them recognize and consider the various elements of the situation of communication. Teachers may ask questions such as:
- who is speaking?
- who is he or she speaking to?
- where are the speakers?
- what do you think they are talking about?
- what relationship is there between the speakers?
This can be done from the very first lesson with the help of the pictures. Of course questions can be asked in the students’ mother tongue at the beginning of the course. It is obvious that as students progress in learning, more use of English can be made.
Working with a picture involves many levels of interpretation. Four levels of speculation are suggested here:
a) what is seen in the picture
b) what is known about the setting and the characters
c) what can be inferred
d) what can be hypothesized
a1) What is seen ìn the picture
At this level of comprehension, the students’ task is to identify the components of the picture. Questions may be Who/what can you see? How many people are there? What are they wearing? What colour …? etc.
The teacher can also try to discuss cultural aspects, for example the sort of houses shown. It is better not to provide too many explanations although some comparisons and contrasts can be made between the British way of life and the culture of the students’ country. By looking at the picture/s carefully, students can better understand not only the foreign culture, but also their own.
a2) What is known about the setting and the characters
As students proceed through the course and look at the pictures which accompany the other dialogues, they should be able to recognize features they have already met: people, objects, places, relationships between people, people and places, people and objects, etc.
a3) What can be inferred
Students can also infer relationships between people, people and objects, people and actions. At an elementary stage, they should be guided in making these inferences also by observing the facial expressions and gestures as well as the body positions and the proximity of the people involved, etc.
a4) What can be hypothesized
This stage is slightly more difficult. The teacher may ask students to make hypotheses about relationships between what is shown in the picture/s and what is not.
The last two stages are very important in developing the creative ability of students. The ability to make hypotheses is an essential thinking skill that needs to be pracised both in the foreign language and in the mother tongue.
The specific aims of the above activities are:
* to present the general situation
* to set the scene
* to give a general idea of the story
* to present the cultural environment
* to recall known vocabulary and structures
* to present new vocabulary and structures
* to predict events
* to encourage creativity
These activities with pictures are most productive if they take place in a friendly atmosphere. This encourages students to speculate quite freely, so that even shy students will want to contribute.
Pre-listening activities can also be carried out by trying to focus the students’ attention on one or more key points in the dialogue. The teacher can, for example, write questions on the blackboard/whiteboard before asking students to listen to the dialogue, and ask them to answer the questions after listening. Listening purposes should also be given in the Students’ Book.
Students listen to the dialogue once or twice without pauses and then discuss the answers to the listening purposes given in the book or written by the teacher on the blackboard or whiteboard.
c) Predicting the utterances of the dialogue
The teacher may ask students to reconstruct the utterances of the dialogue asking questions such as: Who speaks first? What does he/she say? Then the students listen to the actual utterances to confirm or reject their hypotheses. The teacher stops the CD player and asks other questions like: What do you think (Bob) will answer? and students provide suitable answers. The teacher plays the CD player again. Then he/she asks other questions to elicit all the other utterances of the dialogue. It is important that students listen to each utterance after they have made a series of hypotheses.
This procedure is used to encourage students to predict most of the utterances contained in the dialogue. The teacher must accept all the students' predictions, provided that they are appropriate to the situation of communication. This is to ensure that shy students are not discouraged from mentioning their predictions, as would instead be the case if these were continually rejected by the teacher.
d) Listening and repetition
Students listen to the dialogue with pauses and repeat the utterances. When students repeat the dialogue for the first time, it is advisable that they do not see the written version, in order to avoid interference due to the differences between sounds and their written symbols. If teachers consider it useful, they can ask the class to repeat the utterances in chorus, then in groups of students (for example whole rows), and finally individually. Alternatively, the teacher can assign the roles of the characters to students and each student repeats his/ her own part.
When interference from the written text is reduced to a minimum, students can repeat the utterances by reading from their books.
e) Reading out loud
Reading out loud should be done by groups of students either at the same time or one after the other. Each member of a group reads the utterances of one character out loud.
f) Reconstruction of the dialogue
The reconstruction of the dialogue must obviously be carried out with books closed. The teacher asks questions to help students reconstruct the dialogue: Who speaks first? What does he/she say? What does X answer? What happens now? etc.
At this point, the dialogue will have been memorized by almost all the students, who will therefore be able to act it out. This is always extremely interesting and fun for students, and it would be a pity to dedicate only a short time to this activity. If the lesson is almost over, it would be better to postpone this activity until the following lesson thus giving all students, even the slowest, enough time to memorize the entire dialogue at home.
It is advantageous to use "props" (the teacher or the students can procure them). Other students not directly involved in the activity in question can provide background noise (a doorbell ringing, a door opening, etc.), or they can act as "extras". The whole activity should be carried out in a lively, playful atmosphere in order to reassure and encourage stage-shy ‘actors'. The teacher should coordinate the activities, but also be able to remain in the background at the right time and, when necessary, suggest forgotten lines. He / she should avoid correcting students. Correcting can be done after the acting is over.
2. Oral practice (Communication activities)
At this stage, the functions and structures presented in the dialogue are practised intensively, usually with new lexical items. Each activity must be highly visible and clear, and reveal the kind of communicative function it exercises so that students can immediately become aware of the real use of the utterances they produce during practice. Moreover, in these activities there should always be some kind of information gap, so that one speaker will not know what the other speaker will answer and vice versa.
Occasionally, participants will have to talk about their personal experiences. These activities are of fundamental importance for the success of the course. Not only do students practise listening and speaking, but they also exercise skills such as organizing oral and written discourse, predicting
language, negotiating meaning and correcting each other's mistakes.
Almost all the activities should be carried out in pairs. Working in pairs helps solve the problem of lack of time for individual student production and comprehension practice. The class is divided into pairs and the teacher assigns the letters A and B to the members of each pair. All pairs work simultaneously and, at the end of the activity, the two members exchange roles so that each student can, for example, ask and answer questions. If the class has an odd number of students, the teacher can pair up with the odd student and take part in the activity.
The seating arrangement of the class should be changed frequently so that students can change classmates.
During these activities the teacher should take the role of monitor. He / she can walk around the classroom, listen to the pairs of students and make the necessary corrections. Often, however, the classmates themselves will correct each other.
The teacher might, from time to time, adopt another procedure. He / she can walk around the classroom, listen to the pairs of students and note down any mistakes they might be making. After the activity has been completed, the teacher may go over the mistakes noted down beforehand with the whole class.
Pair work activities have the advantage not only of getting all students involved simultaneously, but also of avoiding the boredom caused by listening to the same exercise repeated over and over again.
One might object that practice is rendered less effective by the fact that all the students are talking at the same time. However, this rarely happens. Students get used to lowering their voices almost immediately, because they realize that yelling does not help and only causes other students to raise their voices as well. Sometimes, when the activity is over in a few verbal exchanges, it might be a good idea to substitute a chain exercise for pair work: student A asks a question to student B, who answers. Student B then asks the same question to student C, who answers and then asks the question to student D, and so on.
Group work is also interesting and useful; it is carried out in the same way as pair work. It is often necessary for the group (usually a small group of 3 or 4 students) to select a group leader who will report the results of his / her group work to the class. An important characteristic of this kind of activity
is that students are asked to work together actively. They themselves must provide the necessary information, thus giving the exercise a touch of the personal information unknown to the partner. This justifies the verbal exchanges and makes them similar to those occurring in real situations of
3. Grammar and written practice (grammar activities)
Students should start from real linguistic experiences to discover how the language they are learning works. These experiences lead students to consciously make use of the linguistic materials. Afterwards, guided by the teacher, they can make generalizations about the basic structures they have already met. This is best done through a guided inductive method that allows students to “discover” rules through discussion with their teacher and classmates. The main characteristics of this procedure are:
* Discussion must take place after a certain amount of practice on the linguistic material dealt with, and not before. The teacher is usually advised to conduct discussion either after work on the dialogue has been completed, or after the ‘Oral Practice’ stage. Of course, teachers are free to do this even later, for example at the end of the teaching unit.
* It must be the students who "discover" the rule and not the teacher who explains it; this procedure is based on the pedagogical principle according to which learning by discovery lasts longer. Of course, the role of the teacher is more delicate than tradition generally allows; he / she becomes, that is, an 'elicitor of knowledge' and no longer the ‘depository of knowledge’.
In this section, each grammatical note should be followed by one or more written exercises for immediate practice of the new rule. The new structures are isolated and compared to the corresponding mother-tongue structures. The notes that follow are simple, and are limited to essential aspects. All fine distinctions not to be found in the actual use of the language at any stage must be carefully avoided during this stage, and grammatical terminology should be limited to the strictly necessary.
This section has several basic aims:
- to provide practice in applying the rules;
- to make it possible for students to concentrate more on language use;
- to enable any students, who for some reason were not present during the discussion on the language, to understand the mechanisms of the language on their own.
Teachers should remember that the content of this section must never be used for testing learning.
4. Expansion (Integrated skills)
This section represents the transfer stage, where all the linguistic material presented earlier in the unit is made use of again, together with the material learned in previous units. Students carry out language activities within the scope of the main language skills they practise:
* spoken production
* spoken interaction
and other abilities such as:
* organizing oral and written discourse
* predicting language
* negotiating meaning
* correcting each other's mistakes.
a) Listening activities
A good language course should contain many listening activities in all the units, always recorded on CDs.
At this point, listening is of an extensive kind which is very similar, therefore, to the way we listen to a conversation or to the radio, for example. At this stage, of course, vocabulary and structures are not strictly controlled, but it is not necessary for the students to understand every single word of what they are listening to. They must instead grasp the global meaning or be guided toward concentrating only on some elements present in the text. The task of the student is therefore reduced, but his / her interest in listening is held high because of what he / she is asked to do while listening. The task should never be too difficult; in this way the student is reassured that he / she will be able to accomplish it.
b) Speaking activities
These activities aim at developing students' oral production and interaction through the recall of linguistic material learned previously. Production is stimulated by involving students in simulations and discussions.
Several linguistic devices can be used, such as interviews, problem-solving activities, crosswords, word puzzles and songs.
Moreover, games are useful, because some of them stress competitiveness as a means of stimulating oral production, while others require verbal cooperation to achieve the objective of the game.
Songs are also very useful. First the teacher plays the recording and the students listen to the song and do the activity linked to it. Then the teacher reads the text, explains the meaning and asks students to practise pronouncing the words line by line. Finally, the teacher plays the song again and asks students to sing along. The teacher should sing with the students, encouraging the shy ones to sing in the chorus.
Dedicating the last five or ten minutes to a song is an excellent way to conclude a lesson in which students have concentrated on exercises, leaving them in a good mood, and more eager than ever to begin another lesson. Motivation and pleasure are worth a hundred exercises!
c) Reading activities
Written texts are always accompanied by various kinds of activities. These activities take into consideration the various kinds of reading each of us engages in during our everyday life. In fact, the way we read is influenced essentially by our reasons for reading and by the kind of text we are
reading. If we want to know what time a television programme will be broadcast, for example, we look through the text rapidly, the text in this case being a TV guide, until we find the place that interests us; this kind of reading is called scanning.
Other kinds of texts can be read in this way, too. We can also scan a text to find, for example, a date or a name that interests us in a newspaper article.
Another technique, known as skimming, is adopted when we are reading a text quickly in order to find out if it is of interest to us and if it is worth reading more carefully. It is important that students become accustomed to using these techniques right from the start.
Therefore, various activities of this type are found in a good course book together with other activities aimed at helping students understand the meaning of the various texts.
The activities accompanying the text are sometimes placed before the text they refer to, and students must carry them out while reading. This differs from the usual technique of presenting a list of questions at the end of the passage. The questions at the end only check comprehension of the passage itself, whereas the activity to be carried out before reading or while reading helps students understand the passage and helps them develop the reading skills in the foreign language that they already possess in their own language.
It is clear, therefore, why we think that priority should be given to these kinds of activities. However, various questions should also be included to check comprehension.
Further practice in reading comprehension and in understanding the organization of texts can be given in the Workbooks that nowadays accompany every coursebook.
d) Writing activities
The written activities in this section aim at guiding students to produce simple written texts like a letter, an email message, a brief report or a summary. The exercises are graded and begin with the organization of the sentence and then go on to the organization of paragraphs within a complete text. To do this, the most common logical-syntactic connectors must be introduced quite early in the language course.
Summary writing should also be dealt with, and this involves the use of techniques which help the student to extract the main ideas from a written text and reorganize them using appropriate connectors.
This section, dedicated to pronunciation, must be carried out in the classroom with the teacher's help.
The pronunciation exercises should concentrate on areas of pronunciation, intonation and stress that students of English find particularly difficult. For example, particular attention must be given to:
- [s] and [z] sounds (voiceless and voiced) in plural nouns and in the third person singular of the present simple tense of verbs;
- pronunciation of -teen and -ty in number endings
- [ə] sound
- [d], [t], [id] sounds in past tenses
- [ ð ] e [ θ ] sounds
- [ ŋ ] sound
- [h] sound at the beginning of a word
- pronunciation of the sound [r]
- pronunciation of diphthongs
- word stress and sentence stress
- intonation in question tags
- linking sounds
- full and abbreviated forms of words
- silent letters
f) Vocabulary work
The activities presented here aim at making students aware of the meanings of some of the words they have encountered in the unit. Through vocabulary activities students also enrich their knowledge of English words and acquire insights into word formation.