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Teaching Tips 114

But I don't speak their
Sign language
Mind the gap!


But I don't
speak their

This week we look at a thought when teaching learners whose mother tongue is unknown to the teacher. As an observer of a lot of lessons at different levels of teacher experience I see quite a few with teachers who do not know the mother tongue of the monolingual groups, in this case, Spanish. Communication breakdowns between student & teacher can sometimes seem obvious to me but totally bewildering to the teacher. The teacher is left shaking her head wondering what it could possibly be that the student wants to say.

These teachers are at a disadvantage as having a degree of ability with the mother tongue can help in several ways;
- understanding what the students want to say in speech & writing,
- anticipating what they might have problems with,
- understanding some of the causes of their errors,
- using translation as a tool in the lessons.

But then there is the danger that as we know the mother tongue we make allowances when students express themselves, we know what they want to say & incorporate that in the interaction. If they were faced with native speakers of English, the reaction they get might well be very different. However, the advantages of knowing the students' mother tongue clearly outweigh the disadvantages.

So what can we do if we are faced with a nationality that we have no awareness of their mother tongue? Here are a few ideas:

1. Quickly get hold of 'Learner English' Edited by Michael Swan & Bernard Smith (CUP 2001). This is an excellent reference book, each chapter dealing with a language in terms of pronunciation& structure, together with problems learners might have. To see the review of the book on the site:

2. Learn the language if you can. If you have moved to a new country the obvious thing is to immerse yourself in the language & try tom pick up as much as possible as quickly as possible. If you are in an English-speaking country, the likelihood of dealing with one nationality is much reduced.

3. Talk to colleagues when you are planning to see if your students will have problems with what you are going to teach. Anticipating can go a long way.

4. Learn from your students. Ask them how certain things are expressed, although don't rely on this as you have no way of knowing if they are right.

5. Possibly insist that your students keep everything in English as there's no way you can tell if they are translating things right or not.

6. When there is a communication problem between you & the students, insist that they clarify what they want to say.

7. Find out not only about the language differences but also the cultural differences.

8. Talk to your students, if they are of a level to discuss it in English, about how useful it is that you are unaware of the mother tongue as you are reacting as any other native speaker, making the students work harder to clarify their messages.

9. With younger learner classes, find the translation for some basic classroom instructions. These might save a lesson with a boisterous group of youngsters.

And then there is the complicated, but incredibly interesting & dynamic, situation of the multi-nationality group. More on this in a future Tip.

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road sign


Have a look at the following UK road signs. Do you know what they mean?

road sign road sign road sign
road sign road sign road sign
road sign road sign road sign
road sign road sign
road sign road sign road sign

How did you get on?

Now have a look at the first part of an article:

Road signs 'lost' on many drivers

Many British motorists are lost when it comes to understanding common road signs, a survey suggests.

Some 67% of the 2,500 people polled did not recognise "no through road" signs, and one-third could not identify the sign for "no motor vehicles".

Fewer than 33% knew what a "no cycling" sign looked like and one-third were confused by height restriction signs.

Now think about what signs you would like to see on the roads that are not currently in use.

Then have a look at the second part of the article:

Vauxhall's poll found drivers would like to see signs such as "cash machine nearby" and "urban foxes crossing".

'Wild goose chases'

The next most popular new signs motorists wanted to see were ones warning drivers to be more environmentally friendly by switching off their engines - for instance, outside schools while waiting to collect children.

Other popular suggestions were:

  • Wifi hotspot;
  • Healthy eating zone - indicating places where healthy food is on offer;
  • Drive-through approaching;
  • Up-to-date children-crossing signs - with the boy wearing a hoodie;
  • Beware of skateboarders.

Simon Ewart, of carmaker Vauxhall, said: "UK motorists love to drive, but our research shows that there is a need to contemporise the road landscape to mirror the needs of modern motorists.

"We are all more aware of green issues, so a simple reminder to turn the engine off when waiting has to be a good thing.

"We've all been on wild goose chases looking for cash machines. A new road sign could save endless hours searching the streets."

Story from BBC NEWS:

Excellent material for classroom use.

Use it more or less as I have done:
1. give out the signs & ask students to discuss their meanings
2. go on to the first part of the article
3. go through the answers to the signs, discussing whether they think that there are some that most wouldn't know.
4. get the students to brainstorm signs they would like to see on the roads.
5. then on to the second part of the article
6. finishing with a discussion on any other signs they would like to see on the roads.

For road signs in your country, I'm sure you'll find them quickly through Google. Here are a couple of links:
UK road signs:
US road signs:

Australian road signs - pdf:
(To download images, right click & 'Save image as' - or simply print off the whole page.)

And then as a follow up, use the following activity called 'Life Maps' from 'Personalizing Language Learning' Griffiths & Keohane (CUP).

With the road signs you gave out earlier, students design a timeline that represents their life to date, & possibly how they would like to see it developing as well. So for example:

road sign All went fine although there were two diversions ; the first when I wet to work abroad for two months & the second when I had a short sabbatical.
road sign I decided to slow down & take things a bit easier.
road sign I had a difficult project but managed to complete it on time.
road sign I took on a new job & it didn't work out at all.

Give each student time to develop their lives & then they tell each other. If they haven't got a sign that corresponds to something they would like to say, they can design their own sign. A lovely activity.

To get hold of 'Personalizing Language Learning' Griffiths & Keohane (CUP)

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Mind the gap!

Mind the gap!

We all use written gap fill tasks for controlled practice to check that our students have a grasp on the form & meaning of language areas. These usually take the form of a series of sentences with a word taken out & usually given in brackets for the students to change the form of the word. And then there are passages with selective words taken out, a selective cloze, with the gap marked. A real cloze has every 'nth' word taken out, no matter what it is. This is a difficult task & needs consideration before using. For more on cloze testing:

In the excellent teachers' resource book 'Stories - Narrative activities in the language classroom' (CUP) Ruth Wajnryb gives an activity called 'Text Repair'. This is a variation on a gap fill but this time a text is given with a certain feature completely missing eg. the articles, the verbs etc - & there is no guide as to where the missing words are. The students have to read the text carefully & use their knowledge & intuition to insert the feature with the correct form in the appropriate place. Here's an example with the verbs missing:


Fate - A Folktale

King Solomon's servant breathlessly into the court, "Please! me your fastest horse!" he to the King. "I in a town ten miles south of here by nightfall!"

"Why?" King Solomon.

"Because," his shuddering servant, "I just Death in the garden! Death me in the face! I for certain I to and I to around when Death to me!"

"Very well," King Solomon. "My fastest horse hoofs like wings. HIM." Then Solomon into the garden. He Death there with a perplexed look on its face. "What' wrong?" King Solomon.

Death , "Tonight I to the life of your servant whom I just now in your garden. But I' to him in a town ten miles south of here! Unless he a horse with hooves like wings, I don't how he could get there by nightfall . . ."


Here's another story with the articles missing:

New Shoes - A Taoist Tale

A man needed new pair of shoes. Before he went to marketplace, he drew detailed picture of his feet on piece of paper, carefully measured them, and wrote down all their dimensions. Then, he set off on foot for shoe store. Arriving later that day at bazaar, he unhappily discovered that he had forgotten to bring paper with his measurements on it! He turned around and walked back home to get it. It was sunset by time he returned to market, and all shops were closed. He explained his situation to one of shopkeepers who had already packed away all his wares.

"Foolish man!" said merchant. "You could have trusted your feet and tried shoes on in store! Why did you go home to get your diagrams?"

man blushed, "I guess I trusted my measurements more . . ."


Clearly, to make it easier some guidance as to placement & verbs could be given, as in a more traditional gap fill.

Students discuss possibilities in pairs, 'repairing' the text, & then compare as a group, coming to a consensus, & finally comparing with the original version. Lots of speaking & language focus, drawing on their knowledge of the language & their intuition. The content of the texts could then be exploited in a follow up task. A useful variation on a very common task to review a language area.

And then there is the other extreme, the idea of a storyboard where students are given a blank text, with each word represented by a line. This is best done on the board together. As the students suggest words, you or a student writes them in the correct position. Slowly they build up the whole text, thinking hard about possibilities depending on the contextual clues. They would begin with frequent words - articles, auxiliaries etc.. You might give the general topic so that they can suggest content words to help the building. A fun whole class activity.

So instead of just pulling out a traditional task, play around & try out different variations. Your students are sure to appreciate it.

To get hold of 'Stories - Narrative activities in the language classroom' by Ruth Wajnryb

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