Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Focus on Form: Does it work?

Structure of English was an excruciatingly painful class for me. You see, I'm a native speaker of English, and I've studied English and Journalism as an undergraduate student. I've written for newspapers and I've also written some short stories, but I've never been good at grammar. In fact, I'm always making mistakes in my own writing. So, learning all of the metalinguistic labels, syntax, semantics, phonology, phonetics, and especially the sentence trees was a painful experience for me.

At first I thought that English could be taught without teaching grammar. Students could pick up language just by taking in the language and repeating it (input and output), but I've learned through my own experiences in learning Japanese and through teaching students from both low and high communicative and grammatical competencies, that students need to know how to focus/notice and overcome the problems that keep them from progressing in their studies, or else they will fossilize or become frustrated.

Also, teachers need to be competent in the language they are teaching. In my opinion, there is just no way around it. How can we expect our students to understand the language they are trying to speak if we are unable to describe it.

I'm continuing to build lessons that allow students to focus on the grammatical problems they are showing in their speaking. This focus on form lesson is centered on relative clauses and is designed to allow students to notice the form, meaning, and use of the relative clauses by first noticing the form, talking about the form and meaning, and then using authentic reading materials to give us some practice time. Last, we used some pictures to produce the "necessary" language of the grammatical structure we are studying. Please take a look at my lesson plan.

Today, Mike observed my class, so I'm looking forward to his observation report and will compare it to this blog. We began the class with some house keeping. I asked students if they had copies of their evaluation for Matias' timed conversation. I'm missing one evaluation. I may have accidentally lost her evaluation.

Then I asked student to chose a partner and have a timed conversation using the questions that I have them for their mini-project which is due Sunday at 10 p.m. They said they hadn't looked at the assignment yet, so I wrote three conversation questions on the board and the students conducted a three minute timed conversation. At the end of the conversation, I pointed out that they were all using "follow-up" questions to help expand the conversation, and I then asked the students for the other two strategies that we had used in class: negotiating meaning and shadowing.

Then I explained to the students that we will be working on a grammar point that they all had some difficulty with during their last timed conversation: relative clauses. I handed out a worksheet that asked students to match the main clause with the relative clause. Then, when they finished, I asked the students to read the question and then tell me what noun in the main clause was being modified by the relative clause. There was a brief comical moment when one of the students answered that "The students that I slept on are tired." The student who was responsible for this sentence laughed so hard that she had to leave the room.

Then I asked the students to choose one of three news stories being passed around and to find four examples of the relative clause in the stories. When they finished, I asked the students to write their sentences on the board. After they were finished, I asked the student to tell me if the relative clause was modifying a subject, object, or indirect object. Then I asked if the trace word was a subject, object, or indirect object etc...

When we finished with the noticing the form and meaning of the relative clauses, I asked the students to produce sentences and showed them several pictures that I had found on the LA Times of people vacationing in the Gulf region despite the oil spill, and had some unusual features such as people in hazard suites or tar balls nearby. I asked each student to produce one sentences using relative clauses from different positions in the sentences.

We then wrapped up the class.

Planning for this class took a lot of time, and I was very worried about whether I would actually be using Focus on Form attributes:
  • Providing students with opportunities to notice and create hypotheses on the form, meaning, and use of the targeted form
  • Using authentic materials as data samples
  • Encourage students to conduct inductive reasoning to understand the form, meaning, and use of the target structure
  • Give students opportunities to produce the language that necessitates the target form
  • Build in a way to assess the students' understanding in the post-task phase
I think my lesson, for the most part, follows the focus on form structure, although I'm not sure on the sequencing and formal introduction of the rules that help guide the students understanding of the target language. I began the focus on form lesson by priming the students knowledge of relative clauses and bring to their attention the part of speech and role of the noun being modified. I think that by actually telling them explicitly that the some relative clauses were modifying subjects, that I may have short changed my students inductive reasoning process. Also, I'm worried that the I presented the target language reasons to soon in the lesson and it may have been better to present those reasons after the students wrote their example sentences from the reading practice.

However, I think the students did a great job in identifying relative clauses (even reduced relative clauses) and understanding the basic grammatical structure of the clauses. A question came up during this stage on when it was ok to delete the relative pronoun. One student said it was alright if it was the object of the sentence, but I said I would have to look it up. I'm so angry at myself that I couldn't remember this rule, because I remember covering it a billion times when we went over tree structures in Language Analysis and Structure of English. I looked up the rule in Cowan (2008, p. 432) and it states: Omission of a non-subject relative pronouns is possible in all O and OC relatives and in IO, OP and of which POS relatives that have a stranded preposition.
E.g., We just met the woman Alan likes so much.
We know the student the dean sent the message to.

Cowan, R. (2008). The teacher's grammar of english: A course book and reference guide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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