“Is it a good idea to use unforeseen episodes in class to teach  and vocabulary?”

Imagine this situation. Matt (the teacher) is near the end of a course with group of Italian teenagers who are studying to do the Cambridge First Certificate exam.

Matt’s phone rings and he knocks a bottle of water all over the floor.

Matt: Oh ****! Sorry about that.

Matt goes to the board and writes: “If my phone had not rung I would not have knocked the water off the table”.

Matt: OK, so I want you to invent similar sentences about something recent that happened to you using the third conditional.

Students write examples.

Matt: Giorgia, what have you written?

Giorgia: If Mister Matt had followed his rules about turning phones off, he would not have knocked the water off the table.

Matt elicits further examples.

Matt: OK five minutes to go, usual thing. Write down five words, expressions or grammar things you learned today. Then give today’s lesson a title.

Matt: Pietro, what are your words?

Pietro: knock off, hypocrite and … ****!

M: Very funny! And Silvia, your title for the lesson?

Silvia: “Mister Matt’s telephone incident”.

Matt handles his little ‘incident’ very well by abandoning his lesson plan and by exploiting the episode to revise the third conditional.

Students tend to learn everything (grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation) better, if they learn it in a context, and particularly if that context comes up naturally during the lesson. The third conditional is now likely to stand a better chance to be imprinted in Matt’s students’ memory than if they had just learnt it from their coursebook.

Matt has also developed a very clever technique for getting students to memorize what they learned during the lesson.

First, he asks them to write down what they personally remember from the lesson in terms of language items. This encourages them to record only what they think is useful or significant for them. ‘Significant’ could also mean things that they found interesting, quirky, funny or simply memorable in some way.

Second, he gets them to associate the five items with the lesson itself. The association could be, as in this case, an episode during the lesson. Or it could be the topic of a discussion that took place, a student recounting something that happened to them, some external interruption to the lesson etc.

When students then read over their notes in a month or so’s time, by seeing the association with what happened during the lesson, they will recall the lesson and then, hopefully, remember what was learned too.

Here is an example of what Silvia might have written.

13 October, Lesson: Matt’s telephone incident (phone ringing and knocking over – far cadere – his water)

third conditional: [if + had + past participle … + would have + past participle] If I had not come to today’s lesson I would not have had an opportunity to laugh. If I had done my homework [instead I forgot it], Matt would have been happy. 

pron: wouldn’t’ve /wudntuv/

words: mobile = cell (phone), laugh my head off (ridere a crepa pelle), sugar (polite form for ****, cf cavolo/cazzo)

The idea of associating the time in which a language item was discovered and/or learned with the item itself was inspired by Robyn Matthew’s excellent book Language Logic.

Adrian Wallwork

Categories: Grammar