My Delta LSA: Are we the baddies?

When I passed my first Delta Module Two assignment, I knew that I just needed to do well in the externally-assessed LSA in order to obtain the diploma. My LSA1 dealt with cleft sentences and the lesson was quite unremarkable, so I decided to do something a little bit different in LSA2. As I mentioned in my blog post with general advice for passing Module Two, it makes sense to try out new things during the course. This article describes how I approached my assignment, which was awarded a Merit grade, and explains my choices.

My Delta LSA: Are we the baddies?

I wasn’t very happy with my first assessed lesson. I passed it, but I felt that I had played it safe and delivered an acceptable grammar lesson without any memorable moments. Once I knew that I didn’t need to pass the next assignment, I said to myself that I should be a little more ambitious. Since I believe that it’s perfectly possible to have fun while learning English (see my review of Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington’s lesson), I chose a topic guaranteeing that even if I failed the LSA, I would do so with a smile on my face.

The title of my essay was Helping higher level learners understand TV comedy sketches. It wasn’t the best Delta Module Two essay ever, and I only got a Pass due to a few issues in suggestions for teaching. Anyway, this is what I wrote about:

At first, I justified selecting the topic by saying that learners often explicitly express the wish to understand popular culture. I highlighted the role of humour and mentioned that being familiar with famous comedy acts may be helpful in terms of positive attitude towards learning a foreign language and the L2 community. Then I narrowed down the scope of the essay to television sketches because radio shows are more suited to advanced learners due to the lack of visual cues. Of course, the comprehension approach is not enough when you try to help the learners enjoy this type content, so I suggested focusing on the following elements:

1) Textual patterns
Since sketches are usually short, there isn’t enough time explain things, and that’s why they rely on content and formal schemata. Basically, they refer to the real world and people’s expected behaviour in speech events. Many sketches stray into the ridiculous by deviating from the usual script. I referred to John Cleese and Graham Chapman’s job interview sketch to demonstrate how that may work.

2) Lexical cohesion
The authors of sketches use various lexical devices to ensure that the text holds together. I used Explaining things to a woman by Viva La Dirt League to show how repetition of related lexical items can be used for comedy effect. This is a great example of a sketch based on escalation, in which the premise becomes more and more absurd as the story unfolds.

3) References
In order to enjoy comedy sketches, it’s important to be able to spot relevant references. This goes beyond anaphoric and cataphoric references because there are usually many mentions of concepts from the real world. SNL’s Papyrus contains tons of references like that.

4) Top-down processing
We don’t usually use just one type of processing, but accessing background knowledge is crucial when it comes to sketches. A simple phrase can help us activate relevant schemata and predict what may happen next. Paying attention to what we can see plays a very important role as well. I used a still image from the beginning of the Faking the Moon Landing sketch by Mitchell and Webb to illustrate how many useful clues we can see before the characters even start to speak.

5) Features of pronunciation
Sketches aren’t typically made with English learners in mind, so there’s no simplification and the actors employ a full range of phonological features: connected speech, strong accents, using intonation and sentence stress to emphasise an idea, etc. These features usually represent one of the main reasons students struggle to understand what the characters are saying.

The process of writing the essay was enjoyable because I had to watch a number of comedy sketches on YouTube for my analysis. I also did a lot of reading on a variety of processes we employ when listening. I used these references in my essay:

• Brown, G., & Yule, G. (1983). Discourse Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
• Dörnyei, Z. (2001). Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
• Field, J. (1999). Key concepts in ELT. ELT Journal 53/4, 338-339.
• Field, J. (2008). Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
• Hunt, L. (2013). Cult British TV Comedy: From Reeves and Mortimer to Psychoville. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
• Kenworthy, J. (1987). Teaching English Pronunciation. Harlow: Longman.
• McCarthy, M. (1991). Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
• Neale, S., & Krutnik, F. (1990). Popular Film and Television Comedy. London: Routledge.
• Richards, J. C. (2008). Teaching Listening and Speaking: From Theory to Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
• Richards, J. C., & Schmidt, R. (2002). Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
• Stebbins, R. A. (1990). The Laugh-Makers: Stand-up Comedy as Art, Business and Life-Style. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
• Thornbury, S. (2005). Beyond the Sentence: Introducing Discourse Analysis. Oxford: Macmillan Education.
• Thornbury, S. (2006). An A–Z of ELT. Oxford: Macmillan Education.
• Underhill, A. (2005). Sound Foundations: Learning and Teaching Pronunciation. Oxford: Macmillan Education
• Ur, P. (1984). Teaching Listening Comprehension. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
• Wilson, J. J. (2008). How to Teach Listening. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

My lesson plan was titled Using top-down processing to understand TV comedy sketches, and it was tailor-made for my group of volunteer upper-intermediate learners based in Mexico and Peru. I focused on practising activating content and formal schemata, inferring, interpreting the meaning of visual cues, and using co-text to anticipate what may happen next in the sketch. My subsidiary aims were related to key topic-related lexis and the ability to notice them in the text. I managed to meet all the criteria, so let’s take a look at some of the sections of the plan.

In Group profile, I referred to my needs analysis, which revealed that most learners in my group enjoy watching films and TV series in English. They also expressed the wish to be able to understand them more. I knew that this was the right group for this kind of lesson since most of the students were mature learners with a really good level of world knowledge. I also pointed out in Individual learner profiles that some members of the group struggled with decoding rapid speech. In Timetable fit, I mentioned the fact that I had tested the waters in one of the unassessed lessons by using this scene from Father Ted when talking about regrets. We had a lot of fun trying to transcribe the utterance I wouldn’t have done a Chinaman impression if I’d known there was going to be a Chinaman there to see me doing a Chinaman impression.

We also had a very interesting conversation about World War II and Inglourious Basterds, so I decided to choose Mitchell and Webb’s sketch Are we the baddies? for my lesson. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend watching this video:

In the Analysis section of the lesson plan, I focused on top-down processing, discourse features, and lexis. My Assumptions were based on the learners’ background knowledge and their positive attitude towards authentic texts. In Anticipated problems & solutions, I predicted some issues with trying to decode the characters’ rapid speech and emphasised the importance of visual cues.

Here is an abridged version of the lesson procedures, in which T stands for the teacher and Ss for students:

1) Lead-in
Whole-class conversation about YouTube and the type of content the Ss enjoy watching.

2) Text exposure
a) T shows three questions on the screen: Who are the people? Where are they? When does the scene take place?
b) Ss watch the first 30 seconds of the sketch without sound. They then discuss their answers to the questions in pairs or small groups.
c) Ss present their ideas in a whole-class discussion.
d) T shows this screenshot from YouTube on the screen:

My Delta LSA: Are we the baddies?

e) Ss work in pairs or small groups and discuss what the video may be about based on the screenshot.
f) Ss make their predictions in a whole-class discussion. T plays the first 20 seconds of the video with sound on and asks Ss to compare their predictions with the content of the sketch.

3) Brainstorming
a) Ss respond to a Mentimeter survey with word associations related to Germany’s role in World War II.
b) T shows the resulting word cloud on the screen and draws attention to relevant lexical items in order to activate real-world knowledge.
c) T uses photos of symbols used by the participants of WWII to elicit words such as stars, stripes, lions, hammer and sickle.

4) Anticipating and predicting
a) T displays an incomplete sentence They’ve got ______ on them and plays a short passage (0:20–0:35) of the video. Ss use the chat box and write the word they think David Mitchell’s character is going to say.
b) Ss explain what clues they based their answer on before T reveals the word skulls and asks Ss what it makes them think of.
c) Ss comment on the relationship between the two characters and how it contributes to its comedy value. T reminds the Ss that the sketch is called Are we the baddies? and asks Ss to predict which of the two characters is going to say it. T then plays a passage from the video (0:20–0:50) to check if the prediction was correct.
d) T asks the Ss about the variety of English the characters are speaking and enquires if someone has heard the word horrid before. Can it be used to describe a person?
e) Ss work in pairs or small groups and discuss what may happen in the rest of the sketch based on the clues they have been exposed to.
f) T then shows the second act of the sketch (0:52–2:47) without any interruptions to see how the sketch ends in comparison to the predictions.

5) Consolidation of knowledge
a) Ss work on a shared Jamboard page and write down how the previous activities helped them understand sketch. There are five items:
• Looking at the title, tags, and related videos on YouTube
• Talking about Germany’s role in WWII
• Discussing the symbols used by Germany and the Allies
• Focusing on the characters’ relationship and their personalities
• Predicting what the characters will say
b) T checks the answers in a whole-class discussion and asks Ss to elaborate on how the processes were beneficial.

6) Practice
a) T tells the Ss that they are going to watch another video and shows the following screenshot from YouTube on the screen:

My Delta LSA: Faking the Moon Landing

b) T plays the Faking the Moon Landing sketch without any interruptions.
c) Ss work in pairs or small groups and discuss what helped them understand the sketch.
d) Ss share their ideas in a whole-class discussion and highlight the processes that helped them expand on what they heard or to compensate for not being able to understand 100% of the characters’ speech.

7) Wrap-up
T asks the Ss to fill out an anonymous questionnaire in order to collect data for the Professional Development Assignment.

The Commentary section of the plan was about justifying my choices. I emphasised my intention to go beyond testing what the learners already know. I hoped that the lesson would make the learners more aware of useful processes that can help them understand authentic texts. When it comes to choosing the second sketch used in the lesson, I decided to go for one made by the same comedy duo because I didn’t want to make things more difficult by asking the learners to listen someone speaking a different variety of English. In addition, I picked a sketch based on a historical event so as not to completely change the focus.

In general, I was pleased with the lesson. The students seemed to have a good time, which is always nice to see, and I believe that they got something useful out of it. It wasn’t a typical listening lesson, so I knew that it was a risky move, but fortunately everything turned out to be perfectly fine. When I observed the students using the Jamboard to explicitly state why they found the activities helpful for understanding the sketch, I knew that I’d get a good grade. Of course, no lesson is perfect, and there were a few minor issues in timing and giving instructions, but nothing that would ruin the learners’ experience. The LSA also inspired me to teach relevant features of connected speech in my next LSA so that I could give the students a few tips for understanding fast colloquial speech.

What did I get out of this LSA?
As you can see, the 60-minute lesson was preceded by a lot of work. In fact, the three documents I’ve summarised in this blog post comprise 8,826 words (including appendices). Obviously, it’s not feasible to have such level of preparation in your daily teaching practice. The main reason I found this assignment very useful is that it showed me how many things I need to consider when planning a lesson. Even when I write down just a few notes before teaching my lessons here in Colombia, I try to ask myself how the students are going to benefit from the activities. This LSA also reminded me why I love teaching English. When you manage to build rapport with students who are on the same wavelength as you, the lessons become very enjoyable for everyone involved. Having positive experiences such as this one motivates me to stay in TEFL and to keep looking for new ways to deliver engaging lessons.

Review: Learn English with Ricky Gervais

Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington are known mainly for their acting work. What many people don’t know is that these two gentlemen are also accomplished English teachers. This blog post highlights the methods, approaches, and assumptions about language learning used in their showcase lesson. I recommend that you watch the following video before reading my analysis.

At the beginning of the lesson, Gervais sets out his methodological stall:

Learn English with Ricky Gervais

It is clear that he is a proponent of the direct method, which is based on using only the target language so that the students learn how to think in it (Larsen-Freeman 2000). This method became popular as a result of ‘the increased numbers of monolingual native speakers who started, in the twentieth century, to travel the world teaching English’ (Harmer 2007:64). Its opponents say that the direct method is just an excuse for not bothering to learn the language of the country where you work, but Gervais has pretty good reasons for choosing it. He is aware of the fact that his lesson is aimed at a multilingual audience, so he simply has to rely on English.

Gervais then introduces his co-teacher and highlights one of his prominent physical features. Pilkington disagrees with that approach:

Karl Pilkington in Learn English with Ricky Gervais

He is undoubtedly referring to the work of Michal Lewis. Pilkington is familiar with the lexical approach and the idea that ‘a principal role for the syllabus is to provide principled ways of including only maximally useful items’ (Lewis 1993:106). He correctly suggests teaching the learners how to ask for bread or milk.

Pilkington then gets distracted by thinking about the smell of milk and starts providing convoluted examples without paying attention to grammatical accuracy. Gervais needs to intervene:

Learn English with Ricky Gervais

This is something that needs to be emphasised. When we provide models of language that are too simplified, we run the risk of alienating the students. As Thornbury (2013:16) says, ‘it’s not just a question of making mistakes, it’s the ‘infantilization’ associated with speaking in a second language – the sense that one’s identity is threatened because of an inability to manage and finetune one’s communicative intentions’. Gervais’s solution is simple: Always speak proper English!

Pilkington responds by speaking proper English:

Karl Pilkington in Learn English with Ricky Gervais

Those of you familiar with the Delta Module One exam (Paper 2, Task 2) know that material creators work with assumptions about language learning. Pilkington believes that it is valuable for learners to be exposed to idiomatic expressions, and that’s why he uses go up to instead of approach. He also skilfully explains how the word smell can be both positive and negative. Well done!

What is really impressive about the lesson is how it deals with emergent language:

Learn English with Ricky Gervais

The main idea behind this is to ‘show learners that you value their output’ (Meddings & Thornbury 2009:20). Gervais is great at spotting the right moment for focusing on linguistic items that have emerged during the course of the conversation. Of course, the Dogme approach isn’t for inexperienced teachers, and you need someone confident in their abilities. Pilkington is one of those people, so he is always happy to provide concise explanations. When someone thumps you is a great example of that.

Both teachers then act out a few real-life scenarios:

Learn English with Ricky Gervais

Gervais and Pilkington don’t believe in pre-teaching lexis. They prefer Nation’s (2013:348) premise that ‘incidental learning from context is the most important of all the sources of vocabulary learning’. They empower the learners to work out the meaning of the words from context. I have to say that Gervais and Pilkington are masters of using schemata, which are ‘a means of representing that background knowledge which we all use, when we produce and interpret discourse’ (Brown & Yule 1983:250).

The authors also recognise the importance of explicit teaching:

Karl Pilkington in Learn English with Ricky Gervais

Pilkington uses /weə/ to highlight an issue that many English learners struggle with. Homophones certainly make the learning process complicated. Fortunately, his extraordinarily good examples I’m wearing a jumper and Where’ve you been? make the distinction between the two meanings perfectly clear. Great stuff!

As we known, it is very important to conduct a needs analysis at the beginning of the course. Let’s take a look at this crucial stage of the lesson:

Learn English with Ricky Gervais

According to Long (2015:88), ‘millions of adult learners around the world pay with their own time and money to acquire the very different functional language abilities they need, often urgently, to achieve their equally different educational or career goals or to meet immediate social survival needs in a new country, whether as tourists or newly arrived immigrants.’ Gervais and Pilkington show how a pedagogic task (a role play in a safe environment) can prepare learners for satisfying their needs (such as an urgent cosmetic procedure) in the real world. They also realistically point out that not all people involved in customer service are pleasant and helpful.

At the end of the lesson, Gervais reminds the learners of the main lesson goal:

Learn English with Ricky Gervais

Did they manage to achieve it? I believe they did. The lesson provides students with everything they need when visiting England. Co-teaching is never easy, but in this case both teachers complement each other and put their expertise to a good use. I believe that the lesson is a great example of principled eclecticism. Gervais and Pilkington do what Larsen-Freeman (2000:183) calls ‘creating their own method by blending aspects of others in a principled manner’. The research process must have been very long and thorough, which helped the authors reach the pinnacle of their teaching careers. I don’t think it’s possible to create a better lesson, so it is no wonder that both protagonists decided to retire from ELT after publishing this valuable material.

• Brown, G., & Yule, G. (1983). Discourse Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
• Harmer, J. (2007). The Practice of English Language Teaching. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
• Larsen-Freeman, D. (2000). Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
• Lewis, M. (1993). The Lexical Approach. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.
• Long, M. (2015). Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
• Meddings, L., & Thornbury, S. (2009). Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. Peaslake: Delta Publishing.
• Nation, I. S. P. (2013). Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
• Thornbury, S. (2013). Big Questions in ELT. Smashwords: the round.