Overt Teaching is something we have spoken about many times but never really written about…overtly. It is a part of our lessons, our procedures, our approach to teaching English but we’ve never really made the case for it on our blog…which seems odd.
No time like the present to sort that out.
What do we mean by Overt Teaching?
In our industry there has often been a tendency to hide what we are doing from our students. We sneak grammar in under the cover of darkness like spies crossing from East to West Berlin, afraid that our eagle-eyed students will notice the present perfect and completely disengage from the lesson. Or, we work towards the big reveal, the “ahhhhhh” moment when our students realise what we’ve been working towards this whole time.
The flaw with the above is that if our students don’t know what they’re doing and how it applies to their life, they’re much more likely to be disengaged. Equally, if we tell our learners we’re doing the present perfect, they are likely to disengage if they don’t see how it applies to their real lives.
Teaching overtly suggests that we involve our learners in the learning discussion throughout the lesson. Below are some key stages of the lesson when this can be easily applied.
Starting off on the right foot:
The beginning of your lesson is arguably the most important aspect as this is where we get all of our buy-in from our students. If we look in the average coursebook, considerable time and page space is (quite rightly) taken up with engaging our learners in the topic of the lesson. As an industry we recognise the importance of this but the actual aims and the objectives of the lesson are not given the same pride of place.
They are very often squashed into a tiny box in the top-left corner of the page. As teachers we very often display them on the wall or on a board or as part of our lesson plan that nobody looks at but why do we do this? Is it because our institution demands it? Is it so we can tick an accreditation box? Or, is it because we recognise that a clear understanding of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it is crucial to student engagement? If it is the latter, then we should be bringing it into our lesson, not as a monologue from the teacher but as a dialogue with our students.
Have a clear distinction between your objective (the final outcome you are working towards) and your aim (the things you will cover in the class to help them achieve the objective successfully). Careful and consistent wording can help with this. Consider:
Today we are going to:
So that you can:
Make it a discussion and increase student engagement through simple questions:
- How will this objective help you in your real life?
- Which of these aims will be challenging for you?
- Which is most important for you?
- Which do you feel will be revision for you?
By involving our learners in this discussion, we put some of the learning responsibility on them. They have decided which aims they will need to focus on more; they have related the objective with their lives and decided how it will benefit them.
Setting up an activity:
Aims and objectives at the beginning of the lesson are crucial but it doesn’t stop there. Sadly, minutes after we’ve finished with the above discussion, our learners have probably forgotten what we’re working towards and are focusing on the interesting reading or listening exercise. Maybe they’re entirely focused on the grammar because they’re finding it challenging. Continued discussion throughout the lesson is key. We need to help our learners see that everything in our lesson is building towards the final objective; it’s not busy work, it’s not just stuff we’re doing, it’s building towards something greater.
Before or after an activity consider asking your students why it was important. For example, why did we just learn 6 new collocations to do with work? Because we’re going to need them later when we introduce our jobs. And will all of these collocations be useful for all of you? No, these 3 are useful for me but the others aren’t as useful because I don’t work in an office.
Why did we just listen to that conversation? Because it was a model for the conversation we’re going to have later on.
These quick interactions help keep our students (and us) on track and moving towards our objective. Don’t expect them to have the above answers the first time you ask them though. As with anything, you will need to elicit and support your learners in coming to these realisations. Gradually, you can train them to understand why as opposed to just what they are doing.
Ending up on the right foot:
The beginning of the lesson is crucial to engagement but if you don’t actually reach the objective, you’ll lose your students’ trust the next time around. We’ve all been derailed mid-lesson and changed our plan because something more important has come up but how often do we communicate this to our students? It’s so important that we explain our decision-making process to them. We laid out our objectives and why they were important; if we veer from them, we owe it to our learners to explain why.
But lets assume we don’t get derailed. We reach our final production stage. We’ve spent 2 hours teaching vocabulary, grammar and skills that we now want our students to use in this final conversation. We set up the task and…none of them use the language! We’ve all been there but the question is what do we do about it?
Tip 1: Success Criteria
Very often our learners just forget what is expected of them. They’re keen to communicate so they fall back on what’s easy and use the language they had at their disposal at the beginning of the lesson. Clearly setting our your expectation before the activity is key. Ask your learners what a successful conversation looks like for them. Elicit that in order to be successful, they’ll have to use the language and skills from the lesson. The beauty of this is that everyone goes into the activity clear in their minds what success looks like but this can vary from one student to another. Success for a new student to the group might just be using the grammar correctly but for a stronger student, it might be combining the grammar and the new vocabulary. By opening it up to students and making it a dialogue, you move the responsibility for success back onto them. They’ve decided their own level of success and now they have to try to achieve it.
Tip 2: Repetition
Accept that you will have to do the final activity two or more times and plan this into your lesson. The first time students have the conversation, they are usually considering the content. They’re just trying to communicate and asking them to add in new language and skills is quite the load.
Let them have the conversation, then refocus them on the success criteria. Ask them to discuss whether or not they used the language from the lesson and then set the task up again. The second and third time round, content is not an issue anymore and they can focus on upgrading their language and skills.
Overt Teaching doesn’t require you to change how you teach drastically, it just suggests you ask a little more of your learners. We all say we want more autonomous students…perhaps this is a first step. Throw back the curtain on your teaching & planning, let them in.