Community Language Learning : Part Two

I’ve never trained as a CLL teacher, and I’ve never taught an entire course through CLL. However, I have sometimes used it as a component of a course.

One of the courses which I remember best was a mixed ability course with a group of six students ranging from complete beginners to upper intermediate level. It was impossible to teach them as a “normal” lockstep class, and I decided to get them working on self-access materials each at their own level while I circulated, helping and guiding as necessary. But to do that for the whole course would have meant an incredible amount of preparation – I needed to prepare materials for four different levels at each lesson. So I decided to spend half of the time using a CLL approach, sometimes letting the most advanced student work as the knower to increase the challenge for her, while I just confirmed her input and handled the analysis and reflection stages. It worked well, as even when the lower level students heard more complex language than they were ready for, they had already heard the sentence in their own language, and therefore didn’t have to panic about meaning. The reflection stage also usefully allowed the students to express their feelings about being in such a mixed ability course (which had been imposed on all of us) – the lower level students discussing their insecurity and fear of looking stupid, while the higher level students talked about their fear that they would not learn anything. Together they reached the understanding that the method would allow them each to use and to ask for analysis at their own level. The higher level students would be able to confirm their own understanding of more basic structures, while the beginners realised that it would often be more sensible to focus on general understanding of the higher level language, without worrying too much about the details.

However, the group which I want to describe in most detail was a group of three complete beginners. They were managers from a company, ranging in age from early forties to late fifties, and were sent by their company to do an intensive course – six hours a day for two weeks. I was in charge of designing the course and teaching most of it, but I had the help of another teacher for an hour and a half each day.

My first concern when I heard about the course was its intensity – I was sure that the students would not be able to cope with six hours a day “straight” group teaching. My first concern was therefore to build in a variety of approaches, and above all, a change of pace at different points in the day. I didn’t think there’d be too much problem in the mornings, but I was worried about the “post-lunch dip” and tiredness in the later afternoon. I therefore decided that the two sessions in the morning would be “normal” teacher led lessons, but that after lunch we’d change approach. The first session would be self-access based. The school had a good self-access library which the other teacher was familiar with, and he therefore took charge of this session. The final session of the day was CLL.

On the first day, I explained the method to the students and they got started. Each of them in turn started a monologue – My name is … I come from … and so on. They stayed within a fairly basic range of language, but even so, there were things which I was dying to point out in the analysis stage. But they didn’t ask. In the reflection stage, they expressed general satisfaction with the method and welcomed it as a change of focus at the end of a long day, but said it had been a bit boring because they already knew everything which each person had said about himself. They therefore decided that they would each think of a more interesting topic to talk about the following day.

On the second day, the first student again started a monologue on his chosen topic – but this time did not stop. In the end, each of the other students had a chance to say something, but very soon the allotted twenty minutes ran out. Stevick (in A Way and Ways, cited in the first part of this article) says that he indicates to each student when they’ve had their turn, but I wanted this to be one of the things the students worked out for themselves. In the reflection period, they were clearly dissatisfied with how things had gone, and I started by asking the student who had talked the most for his feelings. He said at once that he realised that he had dominated and that it had been unintentional – what he’d planned to say had just taken longer than he’d thought. I then asked if they had any suggestions as to how they could do things differently so as to make things more useful. Almost immediately they suggested that they should stop monologuing, and start having a more natural conversation. They also came up with the idea of repeating some of the situational dialogues, roleplays etc that they’d studied in the morning in order to consolidate the language they’d been learning.

From that time on, there was no problem with the content of the discussions or the turn-taking. They came up with different ideas for conversations each day, but it was always something interesting and useful. On the other hand, I was never entirely happy with the analysis phase, which was the aspect of this particular course which most tempted me to revert to a “teaching” role. I felt at first that they were simply not “noticing” some of the language that was coming up, rather than that they truly did not want to take an analytical approach, as Stevick reported with some of his learners. But in retrospect, this may have reflected my own preferences rather than theirs, and probably had a lot to do with the time. By the time they got to the analysis stage they’d been going for nearly six hours.

This course, however, illustrates what I suggested in Part One of the article : CLL is not something which will work most effectively the first time you do it, and in my experience there are generally one or two sessions which the students are dissatisfied with before they truly make the method their own. If you want to use CLL, you therefore need to allot a sizeable portion of the course to the method, and to possess the skills necessary to “counsel” the students through any negative patches – in particular active listening skills, and the ability to support students while they work through their own reactions to the method, without imposing your own ideas about how they “should” be doing it, but helping them to find out for themselves.


provided under Creative Commons License by ExtraOrdinary people via flickr

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