I am of course speaking of figuratively falling into a river, but it can still feel like drowning when your students are expected to produce language in an activity they aren’t ready for. The danger of taking an accidental plunge can be applied to any framework for teaching in which scaffolding (simply speaking, moving gradually from supported activities to free activities) is an integral part of planning. So, how can you prevent falling in? Stepping stones!
When planning a lesson that leads to a completely free production activity, think of practice activities as stepping stones that lead to the other side of a river. Your practice activities are the steps leading to your overall goals/objective which is usually some kind of free fluency activity like a role play, a project, a field trip or a presentation. This applies to the objective of a single lesson as well as weekly or monthly objectives. Whether you are thinking about the short-term or the long-term (a narrow river or a wide river) your students need enough scaffolded practice in order to reach the level of fluency you have in mind for them.
Now, when planning your stepping stones (practice activities), there are 3 important things to consider: the amount of activities, the depth of communication each activity requires, and the amount of support/help the students receive in each activity. To go back to our image of the river, these 3 factors control the amount stones, the size of the stones, and the space between them.
The first thing is to make sure that you have enough stones! If you are planning one lesson (as opposed to a week or monthly unit), make sure your students have enough chances to practice and interact with the target language so that the stones form a walkway to the other side of the river. A lesson without enough practice activities leads your students to the middle of the river and then asks them to jump the rest of the way across. The result of this is an objective activity in which your students make many mistakes and ask for a lot of help from you, the teacher.
The second thing is to make sure your stepping stones are the appropriate size. This, to me, means that each activity has the appropriate level of communication and interaction related to your students’ exposure to/knowledge of your TL (target language). The first practice activity is going to seem ‘easier’ because your students aren’t so familiar with all of the aspects of the new language and are building familiarity. They need an opportunity to write the words down, and discuss what they mean and practice saying them. It is common for the first stepping stone (practice activity) to have a simple writing element in addition to a speaking element. This activity would make for a very large stepping stone, easy to step on from the bank of the river. However, as your students move on to the next activities the stepping stones should fit your students’ building dexterity with the language. If you continue to have very simple writing practice activities, you are filling your river with concrete and making it into a road to nowhere! I am not saying that your stepping stones get significantly smaller (more difficult) so that the last activity has only enough space for a little toe before the student has to vault to the river bank. What I mean is that the stones become a bit more challenging to jump on (maybe a little smaller, maybe a bit of moss on one) so that your students rise to the challenge and are prepared to step off of the last stone and explore the land on the other side without your help. This usually means that the practice activities focus more on speaking and communication in a real world context as your lesson moves towards your objective activity.
The last thing to keep in mind is that your stones are well-spaced across the length of the river. This is where the scaffolding of TL support comes in. You can have an amazing array of practice activities that flow naturally to more challenging and deeper aspects of the language, but if your students are always able to stop and get help when they forget something, they are building a dependence that can hinder their ability to reach fluency. A few places students receive support are the white board, handouts from earlier practice activities, their notebooks, and also, you, the teacher. When you don’t gradually remove this help, your stones fuse into 1 stone and there is no progress to the other side. With each activity you have to slowly and gradually remove the help the students receive so that with each new stone they can make the jump on their own. If you keep this in mind, by the time they get to the fluency activity they feel ready and confident to focus on communication and you can take a back seat and truly assess how much has sunk in. To keep an eye on this make sure you are eventually erasing the board, removing handouts, closing notebooks and even saving your error correction to end of the activity.
So, the moral of the story–plan enough practice activities that not only slowly remove TL support, but at the same time go deeper and focus more on the real-world communicative usage of the language. If you keep this in mind while planning your stepping stones, your activities will clearly and effectively lead your students to your lesson’s goal. Woot!