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  • Lego Language

    Teaching English can be quite challenging.  How do you teach “What did you do last weekend?” to a class which may not even know the days of the week?  

    One of the reasons it can be difficult to teach English is because we, as native speakers, were never “taught” the language.  We can explain addition and subtraction because they were taught to us.  But we acquired our English language skills naturally.  

    The easiest way to think about teaching is to see language as a series of building blocks, like Legos. You need the bottom blocks in place in order to build up.  It is the same with language.  

    I always recommend to teachers that they start from the absolute simplest possible form of a question and build up from there.  This way you can be sure that all the students are starting from the same point and progressing in a logical, connected manner through increasingly complicated material.

    To begin, you have to be a deconstructionist and ask yourself:  what is the easiest possible question you could use as a base?  

    Let’s go back to our initial question, “What did you do last weekend?”  I’ve seen many new teachers walk into their classrooms Monday morning and toss this question out.  It’s a question native speakers would ask each other so it seems very natural to ask the students as well.  Unfortunately, this particular question never goes over well.  

    Look at the question and try to pick out how many different elements go into understanding it and formulating a possible answer.  Go ahead, give it a try.  It’s good practice.

    Every single word in that sentence has to be individually understood within the context of the sentence itself in order to be able to formulate a proper response.  It’s not the same as “What is your name?” wherein the students only have to recognize the word “name” to understand the correct response.  

    “What did you do last weekend”? is a complicated question and you cannot expect your students to know how to respond.  That’s where you, Teacher, come in.  First, understand what the students have to grasp in the question.

    The students have to understand that the teacher is asking “What” meaning they have to reference an action or an item.  It’s not who, where, when, why or how.

    “Did” means the students have to understand that 1) they need to refer to an action and, more importantly, 2) they have to be able to put that action in the past tense.

    “You” is the easy part of the sentence.  More or less all ESL students will understand the teacher is asking them about their own weekend, not someone else’s.

    “Do” again reinforces the action element of the answer.

    “Last” means they have to understand past time and specific points in past time.  

    “Weekend” means they have to be familiar with the days of the week and the expression of “weekend” as referring to their days off from school.

    The answer, while simple for native speakers, is actually complex for most ESL students.  They are not prepared for it.  It is your job to prepare them.

    Again, think about language as blocks.  You’ve got your pieces already for “What did you do last weekend?”  Now you’ve got to teach those individual pieces before putting them all together. Understand that this cannot be accomplished in single class.  It could take weeks just to build up to this one question.  But if you want to do it right, making sure the students can understand and actually use the language then that is what it takes.  

    Dissecting the sentence means presenting the students with extremely simple ways of using the various blocks.  For example, “What’s this?” is a good, simple way of using and practicing “what”.  

    “Did” is more complicated.  You’ll have to go back and make sure the students understand a lot of verbs.  A good, easy question for this is “Can you (verb)?” An effective follow-up question is “What can you do?”  Next it would be good to introduce or review “What are you doing?” (which leads us back to another good “what” question).  Then you could move into “What did you do?”  This last transition is a fairly good one because it will be easy for the students to follow, as they were just doing things in “what are you doing?”, and it leads directly into our ultimate question.

    “You” and “Do” are already incidentally covered through your previous steps.  They shouldn’t present any problems in terms of understanding for the students.

    “Last” is a more complicated concept.  You have to cover “First” in order to be able to talk about “Last”. The easiest thing is to have classroom competitions.  Who can run the fastest (one - three students at a time)?  Who can finish their drink of water the fastest?  Who can write their name the fastest?  Who can spell “elephant tusks” the fastest?  This is a good opportunity to be creative and have some fun.  With every contest, make sure you line up the students in the order they finished and state clearly “John is first, Bob is last.”  If you’re worried about upsetting the kids, put yourself in the first contest and lose miserably and comically.  Make it okay to be last.  If need be, hop in the contests every once in a while to maintain the fun level.  Once the students understand the concept of “Last” then you are ready to talk about days of the week.

    In order to understand “Weekend” the students must know every day of the week and that weekend refers to Saturday and Sunday.  “What day is it today?”, “What day do you like?”, “What day is this? (pointing to the word on the board)”, these are all good questions to cover with the students to make sure they understand days of the week.  “What do you like to do on Saturday and Sunday?” is a good question because then you can erase “Saturday and Sunday” and put in “weekend”.  “What do you like to do on the weekend?” is an excellent barometer to check whether the students are ready for our ultimate question.  

    There are many more variations of questions where we can combine pieces of our targeted language: “What can you do on (day) / the weekend?”, “What did you do first?”, “What did you do last?” and more. Think about the different kinds of questions you would ask in a regular conversation and you’ll find many options.  Any of these additional questions will be helpful to the students as it increases their expertise with the language and gives them more confidence.

    Now, finally, after all those individual pieces have been thoroughly taught and understood, are we ready to put them all together.  If they have been taught correctly, the question “What did you do last weekend?” will not come as an overwhelming amount of material to process and respond to.  Instead, the students will quickly be able to understand the question and begin to formulate a response.  It will be a fun question, based on a logical progression from “What’s this?” and upward.  Instead of seeing confusion and doubt, you’ll see young minds putting the pieces together and gaining understanding. This happens because the teacher has properly deconstructed the sentence and taught the individual elements to the students.  

    “What did you do last weekend?” is just one example.  Some questions are easier, some are harder.  The main skill is to be able to dissect the sentence and teach it in small parts to your students.  If you want to practice with this, try breaking down and then teaching/building up these sentences, just as we did above:

    -        How many birds are there?
    -        Do you like cookies?
    -        How old is your father?
    -        Who is your teacher?
    -        Are you going to the shopping mall on Tuesday?
    -        When do you like to go to the cinema?

    Seeing the English language itself as sentences made of individual pieces is one of the most helpful skills a teacher can possess, not only for him or herself, but also for their students.