Discussion: How Are Languages Learned?

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Participants who responded to this PD assignment include:

  • Anne Dobney, Anaconda Community Literacy Program

  • Bobbie Kandarian and Shirley Burns (together), Flathead Valley Community College, Kalispell


Write a brief summary or overview of the reading:

-         In this chapter, Bell points out that “the major advantage of pair work is that it gives each student the greatest opportunity for verbal interaction.”  Besides conversation, collaboration on vocabulary exercises or written exercises also provides for verbal interaction.  She notes that teacher preparation for pairs is simpler than preparation for group work. In addition, Bell highlights problems to watch for in pair work, such as domination by one partner, personality conflicts, or varying ability.  These problems are addressed in the examples she offers.  The examples are divided into exercises for “equal ability pairs” and for “cross-ability pairs.”  Each section has tips and examples for the following types of pair exercises:  “information gaps,” “puzzles and games,” “dialogues and role plays,” “interviews,” and “other activities.”

-         We use pair work in our classes, so some of the reading was familiar, but the chapter provided us some great ideas on how to improve   our pair work exercises.

What was the most interesting part of the reading for you?

-         I really appreciated the detailed examples of activities for pair work and the tips on how to vary or extend them according to the abilities of the students.

-         It focused   us on recognizing   some of the problems that we have experienced with pair work.  For example, pair work can be used with almost any exercise, but we have sometimes observed that students work individually within the pair.  Therefore the shared conversation is missing.  The assignment may be completed, but the opportunity for oral communication is lost. Our first solution to this was to change the partner, but the situation still persisted   especially in certain cultures.  Now we will experiment more with exercises designed to force collaboration.

How might what you read influence your instructional practice?

-         Since Anaconda has few (none right now) ESOL students, pair work is often likely to be the only “group” activity possible.  This chapter provides a plethora of ideas to work from, and allows for the event when the teacher must be one half of the pair.

-         We concluded that the greatest benefit of pair work may come from exercises   that force the pairs to depend on each other for some piece of information to complete the assignment.  For example, a pair could develop a role play for making an appointment with the principal at their children’s school.  One member would   write the dialogue for the secretary who answered the phone, and the other member would write the dialogue for the parent requesting the meeting.   The pair would have to talk back and forth to make the conversation flow correctly.   Chapter 7 gives many ideas for pair activities.

What benefits may result from this influence?

-         I can see more variety in presentation resulting from the ideas in this chapter.  I can also see the benefit of simplification.  Some of the exercises are very short and simple, yet they provide a learning experience that can be successful.

-         Pair work/team work is very important in our culture.  Almost every job interview contains questions about the applicant’s ability to work with others and requires the applicant to cite examples.   Many cultures don’t focus or stress on team work.   The more the students have success with pair/team work in class, the better prepared they are for success in the workforce.  This is our mission, not only to improve their English, but to prepare them for success in our culture.

What challenges might arise?

-         Challenges might arise in a classroom with such limited numbers, where pair work cannot be varied as to partners.

-         The small size of our population limits the flexibility of the pairs.  We don’t always have an ideal situation as defined in the book, where we can expose our students to a variety of different partners. Our small numbers don’t accommodate some of the exercises discussed in the book where   large numbers   of pairs are required; again preparation time is a large part of streamlining the exercises to fit our environment

What would you like to study further?

-         I intend to read the whole book!  What a jewel!

-         We would like opportunities to develop and experience pair work exercises.