I’ve been on the hunt for fresh ways to approach needs analyses in my classroom, especially with lower level students. I’ve been hunting especially for the most bottom-up way of getting students to express what they (think they) need out of their language class.
There’s nothing like personalising students’ reasons for being in a classroom (i.e. their ‘needs’). But I think needs analyses are difficult things to just generate through conversation or questions. In my experience I often end up with stock responses that don’t mean a whole lot.
So on Tuesday, I experimented with this lesson on my first year engineering students.
Student A gets a blank sheet of A4 paper and is told not to say anything for the entire duration of the activity.
Student B has been given instructions to get Student A to make a paper plane, without using any hand gestures, only words. Preferably full sentences.
Blackboard work as necessary. Instead of pre-teaching vocabulary like ‘fold’ and ‘turn sideways’ and ‘open out’ etc, I let the activity run and wait to be asked before I put these items on the blackboard. On Tuesday, all I needed to write on the board was ‘fold’ and the students got the language from the people around them without needing me, although the prepositions weren’t always accurate.
We step outside the class for a minute, fly the planes in a ‘race’ and decide on the winning design as a nice end to this activity.
Student B then gets a blank sheet of A4 paper and is told not to say anything for the entire duration of the activity.
Student A is not allowed to speak either and has to instruct Student B to make a paper boat, this time using gestures only.
The activity runs, without any need for a blackboard. In my classroom, this took half the time of the words-only task and no one encountered any difficulty.
These tasks were extremely contrived. They don’t reflect real-life communication. Rarely do we ever use only words or only gestures.
Language is one of the most full-bodied of human experiences; every breath, blink and brow movement sustains our words and gives them more meaning.
What my activity does yield (I hope!) is a reflective space that is stripped down to the basics. How much time do we spend labouring over procedural language when a simple gesture cuts through the chase? What are the universal communication codes that we all share which might speed up how we learn?
We then did our needs analysis, and after that we had a conversation which I recorded. I’ll share with you some really interesting things that were said.
Here are my students’ thoughts:
“We need grammar to understand people. But I think vocabulary is way more important.”
“A conversation between two high level English speakers will be of a certain level of course but when they have to speak with someone with a lower level they will adapt their vocabulary and grammar, we always adapt actually.”
“Successful language needs a certain level of grammar yes, but also vocabulary…it’s so important.”
“Gesture could be universal… if we communicate with people from nearby cultures for example French with Italian because in other culture gesture could have a different meaning…but there are somethings universal.”
“Gesture are more practical and give more precise idea if we want to describe an action for example. In fact if we use words alone for very practical things, the person in front of us can misunderstand us.”
“I think the low-level English speaker can be a successful communicator without having necessarily good marks on a test.”
“You can’t oblige anyone to improve in a language.”
“It’s all about the subject, if someone loves it, he will express himself very easily. So it depends on the passion of the communicator.”
I closed the activity with a writing task called “my language learning goals for the holidays are…” (it’s half term here in France).