“How To” Exercises

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Vivian Cook

ETAS (English Teachers' Association. Switzerland), 4, 4, 1987

We all know that language is about communication; we all know that language teaching means getting the students to communicate to each other. But just what are they actually communicating? Communication implies that there is something to communicate, a content. Teaching language for a communicative goal means not just devising activities for the classroom but also finding information to communicate . What do students and teachers actually talk about? Pick up a textbook written in the past forty years and the main subject matter seems to be soap opera style families; more communicative textbooks add activities with maps of fictional towns, functional exchanges in railway stations, and so on. Look in most communicative classrooms and you find people describing pictures, working out times of trains, pretending to be waiters, and so on.

Taking communication seriously means thinking carefully about what should be communicated in the classroom; language is much more than a vehicle for buying fish and chips or finding the time of the next train to London. One possibility, as Henry Widdowson has argued, is to take the content of the language lesson from other school subjects; studying physics through English automatically gives the students genuine subject matter to talk about. The approach suggested here, however, is to use content from other areas of life. The aim is that the student goes home at the end of the day and says "Do you know what I learnt in my English lesson today?" If the lesson aims to teach the students how to communicate something, it might as well be something that is interesting and useful in its own right as some arbitrary difference between two pictures, or the layout of an imaginary town, or gossip about made-up people.

One of the many ways of doing this I call "How to" exercises. A "How to" exercise teaches the students something through English that they did not know before. A practical example is "How to stop a nosebleed". I use a short series of pictures showing the alternative methods of stopping nose­bleeds and describing them briefly, e.g. "If there is an accident and an unconscious person has a nosebleed, keep their mouth open with something." Students look at the pictures and demonstrate how they would carry out instructions. They suggest alternative methods, or reject the ones given; then they can discuss and demonstrate other simple first aid - how would you stop hiccups? choking? In some ways a typical communicative activity; the difference is that the content is specifically designed so that they will have learnt something more than English from their class.

A variety of such How to exercises can be devised. One requirement is that they can be carried out or simulated in the classroom without any special equipment; "How to keep fit" can put the students through some simple exercises, "How to eat with chopsticks" can be demonstrated with pens or pencils. Another requirement is that they should be relevant to the students' own situations; "How to stop fires" can go from general instructions - "If it is a fat fire, turn off the electricity and cover the cooking pot" - to the actual emergency routes from the classroom; "How to cross the road" can deal with local traffic problems .

The "How to" exercise can teach people to do things that they can carry away from the classroom. "How to do a card trick" not only teaches them to follow instructions in English, but also actually to do the trick; similarly from "How to play the Marienbad game" they learn not only to comprehend the rules of the matchstick game sometimes known as Nim, but also to solve a real logical problem through English. Such practical exercises shade into those that deliberately provoke discussion and disagreement, ranging from "How to make a good cup of coffee" through "How to find somewhere to live" to "How to live cheaply".

Sources for some of the above activities were taken from First Aid books, a brochure from the Hong Kong Tourist Board, the Highway Code, Jane Fonda's Workout Book, and so on. Of course the advice or instructions should be reasonably accurate; I'll never forget a teacher who told me of seeing a student he had been teaching aviation English fatally crash in front of his very eyes. Though misunderstanding advice about nosebleeds or cups of coffee is unlikely to lead to such disastrous results, it is better to play safe.

A further source that is often neglected is the shared experience of the classroom - second language learning. Why not have an exercise on "How to use the dictionary" for example? I also take Joan Rubin's description of the 'good language learner1 as a basis for "How to learn English" - advice such as "Talk to yourself in English while you are doing other things". Not that the students are necessarily supposed to agree. But it seems odd how shy we are about discussing the actual learning of English in the classroom. "How to" exercises like this try deliberately to make certain that the classroom is about something definite and something relevant.

The "How to" exercises mentioned here are mostly based on those in V.J. Cook, Meeting People (Pergamon 1982).