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A Language and Communication Coaching activity for groups

In my InnovateELT 2024 workshop, I suggested that instead of “Today I’m going to teach you these tenses, structures, words in English” (which begs the question “why?”), a more effective approach for our English learners is “Today, you’re going to make a significant improvement in how you communicate in English in this particular situation tailored specifically to your needs”.


From my extensive experience as a TESOL Diploma teacher trainer, I know many language teachers will nod their head in agreement. However, in the workshop I was asked a follow-up question, “How do you do that with groups?” So I decided to write this blog on what I call “Situational group Language and Communication Coaching” to address that question.

        

Procedure for “Situational group language and communication coaching”:

 

1. Brainstorming. Divide the class into groups and set the task of finding common situational goals they want to work on. These can range from formal to informal situations, and learners should be encouraged to carefully consider their English needs when making their lists. You may find you have a group where one learner wants to work on attending a formal job interview (Situation 1), another making a complaint over the telephone (Situation 2) and yet another going on a first date (Situation 3). Clearly, these are very different situations, but that’s fine, because learners are going to choose from the whole class list when it comes to doing the communicative task.

 

2. Data collection. A list is made of all the proposed situations, with each group contributing all of their ideas. The number could range from 3 to 100 different situations, it doesn’t matter, as long as the learners have identified situations in which they want/need to communicate in English. In fact, depending on how many ideas have been collected and the aims of the particular course, this list could constitute all or part of the course syllabus. It would certainly fit the criteria of a learner-centred course, given that the learners themselves have chosen the content. This type of approach also suits communication-based courses, such as those that may be offered at summer schools.

 

3. Learner choice. Learners decide which group they want to join. Each group must have at least two members, although it’s perfectly fine to have groups of different sizes. For instance, one pair may wish to work on Situation 1, a group of ten on Situation 2 and another group of six on Situation 3. Here, the instructor must use their judgement regarding how to divide up the larger group(s). I would recommend a maximum of six per group, so in the case we’ve mentioned, there would be two learners working together on Situation 1, two groups - one of four members and one of six - working on Situation 2, and a final group of six working on Situation 3. So you have divided this class of 18 learners into four groups. We want to avoid odd numbers if we can, as ultimately the leaners will be role-playing in pairs, so take this into account when forming the groups. In cases where learners do end up in a role-play of three, an effort should be made to include them in a role-play of two next time to ensure equal opportunity of communication. Equally, the larger groups will generally receive more attention during the next stage (role-play preparation), since you are trying to give all your learners an equal amount of attention, although there may be exceptions to this, when one group requires less help than others, for example.

 

4. Role-play preparation. In their groups, learners build up a script to role-play their situation. The length and complexity of the script will depend on the level, ability and engagement of the learners, not to mention whether they gel as a group or not. This is one of the instructor’s many responsibilities during the activity, which include prompting ideas, feeding vocabulary and correcting language as they buzz around the different groups, but also ensuring progress is not held up by squabbling or disagreements within the groups. The idea is for the learners to construct a script that will provide for a role-play of 2-3 minutes, and the instructor is responsible for making that happen. It involves a lot of work, and learners must be aware that your attention is divided between four groups (in this case), so they should be using other resources such as dictionaries or even AI, depending on your goals/approach. Always remember that the ultimate aim here is for your learners to improve their knowledge of the English language AND their ability to communicate in English, so any help they get with writing the script is valid in my opinion. You may even want to make it an AI-driven activity, with learners deciding on the content in their L1 and then getting AI to translate the script. The most important work they do in this activity is REHEARSING the script, so whether it is you as the instructor or AI that is providing the language is not important. Both you and they will have important decisions to make regarding content, whether it is generated by AI or by the learners themselves.



5. Rehearsal. The learners split up into pairs or groups of three to rehearse the different roles. The instructor’s role is crucial here, since they will again be buzzing around from group to group, this time correcting on the spot and collecting emergent language for group feedback. The former will be done to allow individuals to accurately reproduce the script, while the latter will be used later to correct errors relevant to all students in the class. I could mention the instructor’s role in more detail here, but that would distract from the importance of learners engaging in meaningful rehearsal, the main communicative aim of the activity. One additional point I would make about the instructor’s role is that they should comment on their learners’ delivery, encouraging and praising where appropriate, and modelling when necessary.

 

6. Performance. The learners act out their role-play privately as many times as possible with the time available, and if deemed appropriate for these particular learners, perhaps in front of the whole class. Acting out in front of the class adds a level of performance pressure that may or may not be desirable, depending on the learners. It certainly makes it more authentic, but learners may not yet be ready to work under such pressure. One idea is to have learners rehearse their role at home and perform it at the beginning of the next session.

 

NOTES:

-       the script serves as a guide, containing the target language the learners require to meet their communicative goals. It can be deviated from, however, and improvisation is perfectly acceptable, which means the instructor should be aware that the job of language feeding / correction continues, i.e. any sentences/language added during the acting out of the role-play should be corrected so that learners have the corrected version at the end.

-       Ideally, learners will also film themselves on camera and use that recording to analyse the impression they make and their use of English. This can lead to a number of motivating and engaging activities making use of the recordings in class. However, it is very important in a group situation such as this to respect individuals’ privacy and understand the dangers inherent in recording learners. Therefore, I would not recommend this unless all learners are happy to give their permission to use the recordings to improve their English. Clearly, whoever has the recordings in their possession controls their use, so learners filming each other may not be appropriate.



Outcomes

By the end of the activity, learners will have decided their own goals, worked together to produce a rehearsal script or sentences to fulfil those goals and had the opportunity to role-play that situation in pairs or groups, first privately and then in front of the whole class if deemed appropriate.

 

Although many teachers will already be familiar with this type of role-play activity, over many years of observing English classes, I have found the procedure always to be lacking in terms of effectiveness, either because too much time is wasted setting up the roleplay, the learners don’t take the activity seriously (usually because they did not choose it themselves) and/or not enough attention is paid to accuracy and delivery in the rehearsal and performance stages. The importance of accuracy during the rehearsal stage cannot be stressed enough, and learners must be encouraged to pay close attention to their pronunciation and avoid a mechanical performance when executing their roles. Although they are not actors, they should be encouraged to visualise themselves using English in the given situation and try to feel their role. Importantly, they will then be able to identify the issues they will face in that situation, including emotional barriers as well as specific problems with language or fluency. The rest of the class should be encouraged to act as a support group and only give constructive comments as feedback. It is well worth doing a session on this prior to the activity itself.

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