Introducing new language in the EFL classroom

Can we make ‘controlled practice’ of newly introduced lexis and grammar more meaningful and interactive?

Here are 7 tips on personalizing guided practice activities to boost learner motivation in the EFL classroom

    One of the ways our EFL students pick up new language forms best is through an ‘accurate reproduction stage’ (Harmer 2001:155), where we ask them to repeat and practise using new words, phrases or grammar structures in a ‘controlled way’. Teacher feedback is an important part of this lesson stage. We need to make sure that our learners have fully grasped the underlying meaning and usage of the newly acquired lexis and structures. Guided practice tasks such as drilling, gap filling and sentence completion will always form an important part of our lesson. It is through such activities that our learners begin to memorize and assimilate the meaning of the new language forms more fully. This controlled repetition can be however a quite dull and demotivating process especially when the tasks involved lack authenticity and the examples used in language practice are decontextualized and not relevant to our students’ interests, level and communicative needs.

     Below are some points to consider if we want to promote learner creativity and increase intrinsic motivation when introducing new TL forms and structures to our learners.

  1. Focus on meaningful context (and authentic examples of language use)

        We must make sure that our controlled practice tasks (and the language used in them) are always linked to a context/situation that is relevant and meaningful to our students.

Contextualization is key in the effective practice of newly acquired lexis and grammar in the target language. We need to provide our learners with meaningful background for this new language by building up context through useful, authentic examples of language use that will highlight the TL forms and their functions. We want the language of the examples used in guided practice to be as ‘close’ to our learners’ world and needs as possible. Our students need to feel ‘connected’ to the content and meaning of the language used in these exercises and view it as a rehearsal for future use. They need to recognize the usefulness in these phrases and train themselves on how they can adapt them to real life communication.

2. Eliciting the new language forms: focus on student-centered/discovery activities

    Cultivating the anticipation of discovery should be one of our main tasks in the language classroom. We must activate our learners’ schemata and previous knowledge by having them guess the function and meaning of the new language forms through brainstorming, through authentic and engaging activities that trigger our learners’ minds and imagination. We must train them to expect the unexpected. The teacher is there not feed them with input and instructions but to provide the stimulus and let the learners give the response and be actively involved in the learning process.

    With regard to introducing new TL lexis and grammar, Harmer (2001:155) stresses the importance of encouraging students to ‘understand new language forms’ either by ‘discovering them for themselves in a text’, or by ‘looking at grammatical evidence in order to work out a grammar rule’. In order to verify that this discovery leads to ‘real understanding’, regular comprehension checks are important.

3. Harmer’s ‘Immediate creativity’

         Sometimes our students (especially the ones at higher levels) can easily grasp the meaning and usage of new lexis and grammar. In such cases, instead of focusing on extensive guided repetition we can ask our students to ‘create their own sentences using the language form’ and come up with phrases that are related to their life experiences and could be reproduced by them in the future for real life communicative purposes. Harmer (2001:156) reiterates the effectiveness of this ‘immediate creativity’, as it does not only boost learner interest, but is also a ‘good indication’ of ‘how well the language form has been understood’.  

4. Using authentic, challenging tasks

      In order for our learners to become more actively involved in the learning process, we must focus on stimulating their creativity through authentic, meaningful tasks. These can be part of the guided practice or interactive follow up activities. For Penny Ur (2012:83) one of our main jobs as teachers is to help our students ‘make the leap’ from ‘form-focused accuracy work’ to ‘ fluent, but acceptable production’ by providing what she calls a ‘bridge’ i.e. a variety in tasks that familiarize students with the structures in context and give practice ‘both in form and communicative meaning’. A slight degree of unpredictability in tasks (even in the controlled practice section) will kill boredom and will boost learner alertness and motivation.

    Below you can find a sample list of activities that do not only focus on practicing the new language forms, but also on boosting learner interaction and fostering our students’ communicative competence:

5. Personalizing the activity (promoting learner involvement)

     Different levels of motivation mean different performance levels. Our students have to be intrinsically motivated in order to be willing to participate more actively during the lesson. Active involvement is key to a successful learning environment. Learning is then more meaningful to them as it is connected to their everyday lives, their preferences and interests. Through this inclusiveness our learners become more engaged in the language tasks.   

  With regard to controlled practice, we can make it more engaging and meaningful to our learners if we allow them to personalize the activities, to add their own ‘touch’, to use the examples found in the tasks to initiate a whole class discussion on a related topic. In the link below you can find some useful ideas on how we can ‘personalize’ simple gap filling activities in the language classroom and encourage spontaneous language use. One simple technique suggested is to add a ‘follow up task’ to the gap filling and sentence completion exercises by asking learners to share their opinions about the phrases they just completed and ‘say if they can relate to them’.

6. Giving a communicative purpose to the activities (Encouraging s-s interaction)

     In many cases our learners will rarely find the opportunity to practise the TL outside the language classroom. It is therefore essential to encourage them to interact in the foreign language as much as possible. By working in pairs or groups in order to complete a task, our students will combine their knowledge of L2 lexis and grammar and will learn from one another. Learner cooperation even in guided practice tasks such as simple matching activities will not only increase student talking time (STT), but will also enhance our learners’ communication skills.

    In the link below you can find examples of interactive guided practice activities that promote learner involvement and address a variety of learning styles. These include a kinesthetic adaptation of a gap fill, a ‘treasure hunt’ gap filling activity and ‘board race’ sentence completions.

     Giving a communicative purpose to these activities is important here as it does not only promote language practice, but it also serves as a rehearsal for real life speaking in the TL. Our learners need to see a purpose behind each task and to be able to use the newly acquired lexis and grammar to achieve a particular goal, to get their message across, to exchange information with each other as they would do in real life situations.

7. Focus on accuracy and fluency : providing opportunities for freer practice

    A learner who is focused ‘only on fluency may make numerous mistakes’ that could hinder communication. Even if the message is clear, the student may ‘retain some features of low level English and persistently make the same mistakes’ (Watkins 2008: 54). Similarly, students who focus only on accuracy may find it difficult to take part in real-life discussions. Since our learners need to develop both fluency and accuracy it is important to provide them with a balance of activity types so this can be achieved. By combining guided practice with a more free and creative language production we will maximize our learners’ opportunities grasp the meaning of the TL forms, to memorize them and use them effectively in the future.

Published by Joanna Nifli

Greek-Canadian ELT teacher and freelance translator with work experience at the United Nations and the European Parliament. Holder of an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (MA TEFL), the Cambridge CELTA and an MA in Applied Translation Studies from the University of Leeds. Interested in innovative pedagogies in language education, TESOL, teacher training, applied linguistics and related topics

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