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Producing Rather Than Parroting Language

By Bonnie Billak
Producing Rather Than Parroting Language

When working with language learners it’s important to focus on creating producers of language, not solely consumers. Hearing students using the target language does not necessarily mean that they are fully producing the language. Often they are parroting what they have learned from repetitive activities or from pure memorization. Therefore, let’s take a look at some common classroom activities/lessons and see how they can be reworked to change parrots into producers.
Typical lessons/activities that have a tendency to produce parrots include:
1. Repeat after me lessons or each person sitting in the circle repeating the same thing in English one-by-one.
2. Using the same English activity each day with no change in format, i.e., good morning songs, show and tell, what did you do on the weekend, etc.
Changing the presentation of these lessons will enrich them with a strong language element to promote and develop the creation of language producers. For example:
Activity 1 - Rather than having each student repeat what you say, help students to use the new word or phrase in a sentence of their own creation or frame a sentence for the student to complete. By doing this, you can also assess comprehension of the new information. This makes the lesson more interesting for the students since they are not hearing each student in the class repeat the same word/phrase over and over one after the other.
In the case of circle activities, the teacher can model the word or phrase, have the students practice it as a group, and then ask each student to turn to the person next to him/her and practice using the word/phrase in some way such as taking turns asking a question or making a sentence with the word.
Activity 2 - Students quickly learn routines/activities that are repeated each day. Therefore, to maximize language learning, let the students take turns being the teacher and actually leading the activity. They love this feeling of responsibility and will take the job very seriously.
When using the same song each morning, try to break the monotony by stopping to ask a question about what is being said in the song so that the students stay alert and have their language skills exercised. Otherwise, the activity will only serve as a parroting lesson.
In the case of show and tell, do it with items that the students choose within the classroom, i.e. book, toy, picture, etc. or, better yet, with work they have actually done in the class. This will avoid parents pressuring students to memorize show and tell monologues at home. It also builds and strengthens their ability to speak English—to say exactly what they want to say rather than only using set phrase patterns they have memorized.
Turn “what did you do on the weekend” activities into fun games that strengthen both listening and speaking skills. For example, after two students have told the class what they did on the weekend, ask for a volunteer in the class to tell you what the students said. Once students catch on and learn to play the game, ask them after three students have told what they did. You can also vary the game by asking which person’s weekend activity they liked the best and why.
When using these strategies, focusing on the positive and providing the scaffolding needed for success are of utmost importance. Even if the students are not able to formulate phrases on their own, the fact that they are trying deserves class applause. Now, take a close look at your lessons/class activities to see how you can tweak them to ensure that your students are developing into producers rather than parrots.
Bonnie Billak is an ESL Specialist at the International School Nido de Aguilas in Santiago, Chile. She also does consulting work in the field of ESL teaching and program design and/or evaluation.

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