An ELT Glossary : Affordances

Affordances are learning opportunities that arise during the lesson. They may have been predicted by the teacher when planning the lesson, but very often have not - they arise from the communication that occurs between the students or the teacher and students and are frequently unpredicted or unpredictable. However, because they arise from what the learners themselves want to say or understand, if focused on, they have a high probability of being  "noticed" and retained. 

For example : 
  • during pair or group work (PW/GW) at a free practice stage, a learner makes an error with a non-target language (TL) structure that the teacher (T) has frequently heard made in the class. By focusing on it in a follow up, the T. helps the learners "notice" it, and possibly goes on to practice it through repetition, a substitution drill, getting each learner to write another sentence about themselves using the same pattern, or some other activity
  • during a PW/GW warm-up discussion on "What did you do at the weekend?", aiming to reactivate the simple past, a learner says she played badminton. In the follow up the T. asks if any other learners do any sports or other physical exercise on a regular basis, and elicits the expressions focusing on their collocation with do / play / go (eg do yoga, play tennis, go running). She then elicits the rule for the choice of verb and asks the learners in pairs to brainstorm all the other sports/physical activities they know, listing them in three columns according to the relevant verb. Afterwards she elicits and boards these, and feeds in a few more that the learners haven't come up with. 
  • during a T/Class follow up, a learner uses, accurately, a lexical chunk that the T. believes other learners may not know or use spontaneously. He brings this to the attention of the class, checking comprehension and doing some repetition practice.
  • during comprehension work on a text. a learner asks about an item that the teacher had not predicted would be problematic, and therefore had not focused on in the activity sequence provided.

Notice that none of these activities were related to the main aims of the lesson. The second and fourthmay have been predictable, but it's unlikely that the first and third were. They were "emergent language" - language which simply "came up" during interaction between the learners or the teacher and the learners. This means that if the T is going to take advantage of affordances (and I would argue strongly that s/he should) two things are important :

  • Distinguish between an affordance and a sidetrack. If you take the learners' attention off the target language for too long or at the wrong moment, then they may forget about the main aim of the lesson. Notice that I've emphasised here that the focus on the non-TL occurred in the follow up to activities. For example, in the first case (an activity aiming to reactivate the simple past), the sports lexis could be dealt with first, so that the T. could then pass on to a focus on the simple past and continue from there. In the other cases, the non-TL might be dealt with after any focus the T wanted to include on the TL - thus dealing with the main aim immediately after the activity while the Ls were still focusing on it before moving on to the unrelated focus. Make room for affordances, but avoid leaping from one unconnected point to another - which can disorient learners and hinder, rather than promote noticing and retention.
  • Time must be left in the lesson plan to deal with the affordances. In my own plans, if I think an activity will take fifteen minutes, I often time it for twenty to twenty five. This gives me ample time to deal with the activity itself thoroughly, but also to follow up on any affordances which have presented themselves. 

Further reading

Thornbury, S. A is for Affordance