Teach English in Liangtian Zhen - Chenzhou Shi

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Jack Hunsberger III How to approach lesson planning with the aim of developing independent problem solving Abstraction is in essence, the formation of broader, and more difficult and subjective systems from inputs. It is a concept that can be applied to the four language skills: reading, listening, speaking, and writing. As an idea becomes more abstract and subjective, it requires more information, and becomes more difficult to answer. Some of the easiest, and least abstract pieces of language are simple Yes/No statements and questions. “Do you like ice-cream?” “Yes, I do.” “No, I don’t.” A more difficult question might be, “Who likes ice-cream?” More difficult still would be, “Why do you like ice-cream?” A simple, but by no means exhaustive list of abstraction moving from simple to difficult might be: Yes/No, sentence analysis, paraphrasing, opinion, symbolism, and themes. Indeed it is much simpler to answer a simple question, “Is John riding a bike?” Than it is to answer the question, “Why do you think John wanted a blue bike?” Communicative Competence1 is a term used in linguistics to refer to a person’s knowledge about the structure of a language, as well as their situational knowledge of when and how to use it. It is in essence the extent of knowledge required to independently comprehend or produce language effectively. Communicative competence is only considered to be complete when a student can complete a task unassisted; when there is incomplete communicative competence, a student must be assisted in order to successfully complete a task. Too little communicative competence makes a task impossible even with instruction. There is a minimum amount of competence, or background in a subject in order to perform an assisted task. The effective zone for assisted learning falls between impossibility and mastery of a subject, and is the range in which a student can successfully complete a task under the guidance of an instructor. The range between what a student can achieve on their own, and what they cannot do even with the assistance of a teacher is known as the “Zone of Proximal Development.”2 It is basically the range of activities that a student can complete with guidance that they cannot yet do by themselves. The level of communicative competence is one factor that determines the difficulty for a given task. A task with the same level of abstraction changes in difficulty when the communicative competence either increases or decreases. For example, for a class reading activity, if the students read a text that has a lot of unknown vocabulary it would be much harder for them to give a summary of the contents, than if it were an easier piece of writing. The same concept can be applied to speaking activities. One of the example lessons in Unit 12 of the course had an activate activity where the students prepared and delivered a weather forecast. If, after giving a weather forecast, students were asked to make a forecast about future events unrelated to weather the task would be much more difficult. It could also be applied to the receptive skills lesson in Unit 11; if, after listening to the text on Elvis, students were to listen to an account about another famous person the task would become much more difficult – maybe even too difficult. This is because the competency of the students decreased since it is a new situation. There is a way to possibly offset this difficulty as we shall see. If making things more abstract make the task more difficult, then the opposite should be true: making the task less abstract should make it easier. The example from Unit 11 that I referred to had the students do true/ false paperwork for the study phase, but let us assume that they were instead able to complete a gap-fill activity: a type of sentence analysis. In listening to a piece about another famous person they could then be asked true or false questions. Since true or false questions are easier to answer than sentence analysis, decreasing the difficulty of the type of question might be enough to offset the added difficulty of a new situation. Let us say then that several similar activities are completed, since the students would be becoming increasingly familiar with the format their competency would increase. It then might be possible to make the activity more difficult by asking more abstract questions such as paraphrasing or opinion. A simple way of visualizing the difficulty of a given task would be to imagine it as a dot. Above it is a line representing the cutoff where a student can no longer perform a task unassisted. Below, there is another line that represents the change from a student needing assistance, to where they can complete a task independently. As competency increases both the lines move up, and the task comes closer and closer towards being something the student can do independently. Conversely, if competency decreases from something such as a change of context, both lines move down, and the task requires more scaffolding or assistance from the teacher. It isn’t just the lines that can move however; the dot that represents the given task can either move up or down based on abstraction. If the task becomes more abstract, then it will move towards the upper line, and if made less abstract, it will move towards the lower line. In this way both abstraction and competence affect the difficulty of a given task. It is easy to see that the world is full of similar and dissimilar situations, and not all questions are a simple Yes or No. By designing lessons that adjust the abstraction and competency demand of tasks you can hopefully encourage your students to engage in dissimilar situations, and be able to use English more abstractly. Notes 1) Hymes, D.H. (1972) “On Communicative Competence” In: J.B. Pride and J. Holmes (eds) Sociolinguistics. Selected Readings. Harmondsworth: Penguin, pp. 269-293 2) Saul Mc Leod “What Is the Zone of Proximal Development?”