Community Language Learning
Contributions by Jessica Toro, Rebekah Brunelle, Rosa Dunton, Richard French and Robert Armitage.
Background to the article and to CLL
We are a group of teachers working in varying contexts in and around BCN, who came together as a result of a workshop on Community Language Learning (CLL) given by Roger Hunt and Gerard McLoughlin at IH Barcelona.
CLL itself isn't a new idea. It was developed in the 60s by Charles Curran as a principled attempt to democratise the relationships between learners and teachers in the classroom. The basic procedure is as follows:
- Seat the learners in a circle around a tape recorder. The teacher is outside the circle.
- Each learner in turn tells you what they want to say. This can be in English or in their L1. You reformulate/translate into authentic English, then the learner tapes it.
- Build up a manageable chunk of conversation, stop, play the tape back and listen.
- Write the conversation on the board. The learners ask you questions about the language, and you explain briefly. If necessary, write up a translation too. If they want to copy things down, they can at this point.
- Ask the learners to have a short conversation, using the language you've got on the board. Then start the next round of taping.
- The language which emerges from the procedure can be the focus for further practice activities and tasks.
Although it's older than, for example, CLT, and is described in several readily available books on methods and approaches in ELT (listed in the bibliography, below), it seems to be little used by our fellow professionals. But at the IH workshop Roger and Gerard's live demonstration of the procedure showed us how motivating it can be, as well as a great way to introduce variety and innovation into our classes. So we decided to try it out, and later, share our experiences and reactions.
I used CLL with my 9 year olds. I gave them prompts to talk about, using flashcards with food items and 'like/don't like cards'. They loved the fact that the record button was red and they also learned to say "push the red button". They realized that English sounded different and most of them caught other students' mistakes. I was surprised by their seriousness: they really listened to each other for I think the very first time.
They all participated and became interested in how to say new things, things that were more personal and real to them. Those little details about our students that are sometimes limited by vocabulary and structures we have to teach according to our syllabus. I became interested in what my students were like outside our premises because they wanted to share a lot of themselves with me. Really humanistic, our relationship is much closer
and more personal now.
As a private school, the commercial side to it was fantastic. Parents came in asking about the tape and wanted copies. Students don't usually go home and speak to their parents in English yet mine got so excited that they told their parents they spoke in English and made a tape. Proof that they were learning something!!!
I tried it with two groups.
The first were three children, aged 11-13, at beginners level. The topic was shopping, and I used a roleplay where the kids went shopping for jeans, tops, and radios. We worked on the language first, putting it on the board before taping it, and then added more as the learners asked questions that came up during the activity; we didn't write up the whole conversation. They loved it, so much that they took over the production themselves, making sound effects, etc; the dyslexic boy did particularly well. The language which came up was practical and specific: functional things like 'What would you like/I'd like,' authentic chunks for opening and closing conversations in shops, and very specific vocab like 'fluffy jacket'. They particularly enjoyed listening to the tape, and were quite critical of their pronunciation. They learned a lot and liked it so much that now I use CLL as a bribe to make them study other stuff!
The second group were six teenagers and adults studying FCE. I used CLL as feedback on their language, and to identify where they could improve, in a First-Certificate-style 'sell your product and say why it is the best' oral. The type of language which came up was: introducing and asking opinions and concluding turns. This time the students didn't like listening to themselves because it made them very critical of their performance, and they didn't want to do it again.
I used CLL with an upper-intermediate group. The students were fluent but had problems with accuracy and pronunciation. I asked them: 'What do you like to do in your spare time?', and they took the mike in turn and answered the question before handing it on, but they didn't have a discussion about the topic. Then we put the conversation on the board and analysed it. My feeling was that the activity was boring; but the students thought it was great, and they said that it was really useful and they wanted to do it again.
I experimented with CLL with a group of three elementary/pre-intermediate adult learners: Pedro, Belén and Neus. I didn't impose any topic or task, and started by explaining the procedure. Pedro and Belén really got into it, and at the end were quite amazed at the length and complexity of the interaction, but Neus hated it and only said one sentence. A couple of weeks later I tried it again in a class that Neus didn't attend.
What I found most interesting was the complexity of grammatical structures they used, including first conditionals, future continuous, present continuous passive etc: structures that we haven't "done" yet, and some of which don't even feature in the coursebook. They seemed less worried about linguistically complex phrases than in a normal class, and they picked up a couple of phrases, like 'What are you talking about?', and have incorporated them into their active language use. I also noticed that they are now more willing to ask 'How do you say (quite a long complicated phrase) in English?' than they were before. Also I noticed how bad their pronunciation was even though I made them repeat the sentences sometimes several times before recording them. And I still don't know what to do about students like Neus, who don't take to the process.
My learners were a group of 4 computer workers at an elementary level who like to speak a lot, especially one who tends to dominate the class as his level is a bit higher and he is their boss. Although what they were doing was meaningful and useful for them they made a lot of mistakes and were not really reflecting on what they said. So I decided to use CLL as a way of bringing some order to what they were doing and as a way of "forcing" them to reflect.
They took to it very well, and now we use a 'standard' CLL format, with no set topic, most Mondays. The results are exactly what I had hoped for. They do look closely at what they have said and really get into making hypotheses about why the forms, especially particular verb tenses, have been used, in contrast to their L1. It's the contrastive analysis which is proving to be the most fruitful work. This seems to be creating in them a healthy acceptance of differences, a beginning of a "feel" for what is English and what isn't. An added bonus is that it stops the boss dominating the proceedings!
It also brings benefits to the more structured work we do with a course book as a way of consolidating what they have seen and analysed there. All in all a positive experience.
I used the CLL procedure on various occasions, all with one-to-one classes.
Montse, an adult false beginner whose tendency is to switch into Spanish to get round difficulties. I had her bring in photos from a visit to Japan, choose one and explain it: for this we used CLL-style taping, then we wrote up the conversation and reflected on it. She was enthusiastic and launched straight into English! – and the script allowed her to ask questions about 'there was/were' and the present perfect, as well as focusing on pronunciation. As I'd hoped, the framework kept her to English, and the language work was useful. At the end of the class she suggested that we do it again next time.
Gemma, an adult learner who has reached upper-intermediate in the language school at the university, but whose speaking is fragmentary, beset with problems which prevent her expressing herself effectively. In preparation for a conference presentation, I asked questions about her paper, then we worked on her answers before taping them, then listened to the whole tape and made a script, after which she asked me questions. Language focus resulting: pronunciation, articles, 'first conditional', word order. Again the results were useful because it slowed down conversation and allowed us to focus specifically on the holes in her English.
Tere, an adult mid-intermediate business learner. I asked her to make a brief presentation of a new product; first she made some notes, then we made the tape, with me asking occasional questions to expand the discourse. She asked me language questions while we were taping, so there was plenty of new work-specific lexis and discussion of forms. She was very happy with the result, although she'd felt uncomfortable about being taped. We consolidated this by writing a magazine article about the product launch. I felt this was a very complete, topicalised and authentic sequence, rich in language; and Tere has since got over her shyness with the tape during other sessions on, for example, telephone conversations.
Results and questions
Our experiences were in general positive, and suggest some tentative conclusions, as well as a few questions.
- CLL seems to be particularly useful with both kids and lower-level to intermediate learners
- With higher-level learners it's useful to have a task which will raise the level of challenge
- The language focus resulting is relevant and authentic, tailored to the learners real linguistic needs
- It can produce personalised, memorable speaking
- It helps keep classroom discourse in English
- It helps focus on problems of accuracy and complexity
- It's a good way to focus on pronunciation
- It can consolidate and extend textbook work
- Learners in general respond well to the procedure
- It's particularly motivating for children
- The framework can equalise the group dynamic in the case of dominant learners
- Adults may have problems of self-consciousness with the taping
- What are the most productive tasks that can be introduced into the procedure?
- What if it's boring for the teacher?
- What do we do about those learners who don't take to the procedure?
- How do we put learners at ease with the taping?
- And stop them becoming too self-critical?
- Diane Larsen-Freeman: Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching, OUP 1986
- Jack C Richards & Theodore S Rogers, Approaches & Methods in Language Teaching, CUP 1986
- Earl Stevick, Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways, Newbury House 1980
Steve Roberts: about myself
I'm a teacher, trainer and writer living and working in Barcelona, Spain. At the moment I mostly do one-to-one/small group ESP classes, as well as the odd workshop. I've been working in Barcelona for nine years, before which I worked in the UK and France, as well as other parts of Spain. I'm particularly interested in learner-centredness, materials-light teaching, the process syllabus, and group dynamics in both teaching and training.