classroom activities

Color-coding to develop meta-linguistic awareness in the classroom

Photo by  Agence Olloweb  on  Unsplash

Photo by Agence Olloweb on Unsplash

In genre-based approaches to language learning, one of the key goals is to teach students not only what texts mean, but how they mean, so students can use (or resist) these conventions when they express themselves.  While the goal of understanding WHAT a text means is fairly straightforwards for students and instructors, I find that the goal of understanding HOW a text means is more complicated.  To give a precise example of what this means, in a “recount” which is the retelling of an event, there are usually three stages: an orientation, a description of events, and an evaluation.  So for example, it might be something like the following:

Orientation: Last weekend, I went to the zoo with my family

Events: We saw the giraffes, and fed the ducks, and rode the carousel . . . (etc.)

Evaluation: It was a really fun time!

Focusing on WHAT this text means would include what specific animals we saw, or where we went, etc.  Focusing on HOW this text means would include noticing the use of the past tense to describe the events, a time phrase in the orientation, and a phrase giving an opinion in the evaluation.  These could then be used in another recount, describing a different event.  By helping students understand how texts are structured, in addition to what they mean, they can use these structures when they create language.  Importantly, understanding structure is not just about understanding grammar, which is where we sometimes get confused—grammar (such as using the past tense to describe past events) is only one part of understanding how texts achieve their communicative goals.  

For this stage, which I call “analysis” or “ta7eel” in my lesson plans, I have tried various techniques, from presenting my own analysis of the stages and important linguistic elements to each stage to asking students to find specific phrases and language that achieve the goals of the text.  However, I have never felt that this was particularly successful—while some students were able to recycle this language when creating their own versions of these texts, others were not.  

However, this semester I have finally hit on a technique using color coding and google drive that seems to be more effective. As I’ve noted earlier, in our curriculum students work with a text each night that serves as an example of the Can-Do Statement targeted in class the next day.  So for example, for one of my lessons, the Can-Do Statement was “I can describe a holiday” and the read a text that describes how Ramadan is celebrated in different Arab countries (from the Al-Kitaaab textbook).  To understand the meaning of the text, students work with it at home, recording what they understand and don’t understand, and then we discuss this in class.  

For the analysis stage, I split the class into four groups, with each group responsible for a paragraph describing a particular country (which I pre-typed into a document in a shared google drive).  They then had to color-code the text, with one color for information specific to Ramadan, and another color for parts of the text that would be useful in describing any sort of holiday.  To start them off, I gave them the following example:

Screenshot 2019-02-07 09.12.44.png

After they have analyzed the text, the students can then rework it, by substituting the information specific to Ramadan with information about another holiday, while keeping and using the more general language.  In this class, I actually just had them illustrate their paragraphs with pictures of the information specific to Ramadan, as many students were unfamiliar with these customs, so obviously I don’t always follow this technique myself! However, when we did a lesson with a text on weddings instead, I had them edit the text to describe a wedding in another location/religion/social group, etc.  

If the texts are listening ones, I’ll either have the students transcribe a specific section (each group has a different speaker for example) or I’ll transcribe it for them (if I think it is particularly difficult).  They can then conduct the same color-coding analysis, but in the creation part I’ll have them make their own video (if it’s presentational) or conduct interviews (if it’s interpersonal).  

So far, this has been working really well, and I’ve even heard students say things in class like “Oh, I’m starting to see how this describing works” in addition to having them produce higher quality examples of the Can-Do Statements.  So, I’m excited to see how this continues throughout the semester!