Here’s my article in this month’s MET that I mentioned in my last post (republished here with their permission):
There are many different ways of presenting and practising language, but most of them could be seen as a variation on PPP (Presentation Practice Production), the method in which the teacher presents the target language (e.g. Present Perfect Continuous, or collocations with “do”), gives the students some controlled practice in which they concentrate on producing the correct form in the right situations, and then sets up a more communicative activity in which the students will have an opportunity to use the same language in a more realistic way. Perhaps the most well known variation on PPP is TTT (Test Teach Test), in which the students are tested on their knowledge of the language before it is presented. Some versions of TBA (the Task-based Approach) are similar to TTT and so can perhaps be seen as a variation on a variation.
Of those approaches, URA (Use Recall Analyse) is probably closest to TTT, but with a different emphasis at the start and with another very important stage always included. It is an attempt to reproduce in a classroom setting the way I have picked up languages more naturally, e.g. from being in a country where the language is spoken, from conversation exchanges and from reading. In those situations I found that I often had to pick out some basic understanding of new language such as whether it was something positive or negative and respond in an appropriate, if simple, way. Other times I would have to use the language straightaway without really having had time to think about its more general uses, e.g. using a word I just had come across in a newspaper to talk about the story with someone or using a grammatical form I had heard for the first time in someone’s anecdote to ask them a question about what happened. In either case the next two stages necessary for this to turn into language learning were to recall these forms later and then analyse how they are more generally used. These make up the stages of the Use Recall Analyse approach. As well as being a more natural way to learn, I believe that it is a good way of training students to pick up the language outside the classroom. The individual stages are looked at in more detail below.
In the first stage of URA, students start by using or responding to the language in some way. The emphasis is not on testing their knowledge (as the name of the first stage of TTT would suggest) but instead language which is almost certainly new to them is included and they are asked to react without thinking about it too much yet. This echoes how people pick up language that they hear and use it back to the person they heard it from and is similar to the nods, shakes of the head and grimaces of incomprehension that I generally managed to just about communicate with when I had to use my schoolboy French for the first time in real life. Examples of the Use stage include students miming sentences like “You are going to climb a mountain” and “You were packing your suitcase” and holding up cards that say “Offer” or “Request” depending on which of those two the sentence the teacher reads out is. Some other possibilities are given in the example lessons at the end of this article.
As this approach is used over a few classes students should learn something about how to cope with such real life situations as reading texts with unknown vocabulary and responding with simple answers to questions they have never heard before. It is very important that this stage is designed so students can do what you are asking them to without having to do the whole Analyse stage at this point.
As in real life where you will need to later remember the language you read or heard before you can really learn it, in this stage students are asked to recall something about the language that they used or responded to in the Use stage. For example, if they have been using or responding to sentences with “do” and “make” in the Use stage, in the Recall stage they are then tested on their memory of which sentence took which of those two verbs. They then check with the original source of the language such as the list of phrases that the teacher was reading out, the tapescript, or the worksheet they were just using. As there will be some they cannot remember they will need to use their language knowledge and the other examples to help them guess, preparing them mentally for the Analyse stage and often leading to student questions that move naturally onto it.
In the Analyse stage students now look at the patterns behind the language they have just tried to recall. For example, if in the Recall stage they were trying to remember which verbs they used or responded to in the Use stage were in the continuous form, in the Analyse stage they try to work out why, e.g. by seeing which of the possible rules you give them match the examples they have just tried to remember.
Although in real life situations such as living abroad the Remember and Analyse stages of picking up language are often subconscious, I have found that at least half of my sudden jumps in language knowledge have happened after conscious thought. I also believe that conscious practice of recalling language and analysing can help develop subconscious skills.
Students can then be asked to use similar language in a second Use stage, e.g. a controlled practice speaking or writing activity, or a communicative activity that is more like a Task or PPP Production stage. Personally, though, I prefer to give them time to absorb the language and think about it for themselves before doing further practice in a future lesson.
Merits of the URA approach
The main advantages of this approach over more traditional ways of doing PPP and TTT are:
– The first stage can be more interactive and interesting
– Students are likely to come across something new from the very first stage
– The students get to practice communication survival tactics such as picking out just one or two important things from new language, using language which is new straightaway to talk about the topic at hand, and quickly responding in a basic but understandable way
– Students also learn how to learn, by developing their ability to notice things about the language as they are using it or responding to it, and their ability to recall it later
Examples of URA lessons
Present Perfect Simple and Continuous Sentence Completion
In the Use stage students are given fifteen to twenty uncompleted sentences with Present Perfect Simple and Continuous in them such as “I have been thinking about _______________ recently” and “I have watched too much ________________ this week”. They complete at least half the sentences with true information about themselves while the teacher goes around the class helping them. In pairs or small groups, students take turns reading out just the parts they have written (e.g. “Korean soap operas”) for their partners to guess which sentence they wrote that in.
In the Recall stage they turn over their worksheets and try to remember (or guess) which of the sentences that they completed had the continuous form, perhaps with gapped sentences such as “I ____________________ (think about) changing jobs recently” and “I ________________ (watch) too much depressing news this week” to help them.
In the Analyse stage they try to work out why some of the sentences were in the continuous form and others weren’t. They can then do another Use stage with further speaking and/ or writing where they are asked to or are given the opportunity to use the Present Perfect Simple and Continuous forms, perhaps after doing more traditional grammar exercises for homework.
Requests and Offers Minimal Responses
In the Use stage students listen to the teacher reading out sentences like “Would you like to leave a message?” and “Can I leave a message?” and raise the “Request” or “Offer” cards they have been given depending on what they hear. The teacher gives them the correct answers as they go along, with some very brief explanations if they need it.
There are a few possibilities for the Recall stage. Students could be asked to brainstorm sentence starters for requests or offers, label the sentences that they heard in the Use stage with Request or Offer on a copy of the worksheet that the teacher was reading from, label sentence starters rather than the actual sentences they heard, or fill in gapped versions of the sentences they heard such as “___________ help you? – Offer”.
In the Analyse stage they can try to work out what forms are generally used for requests and offers and/ or look at formality and politeness. They can then use the same sentences to start mini-roleplays for further practice and expansion.
Countable and uncountable personalization
In the Use stage students are given some nouns with amounts for each one, e.g. “a dozen eggs” and “half a cup of milk”. They try to make true sentences about the person or people who are in the same group (e.g. “I guess you use about half a cup of milk on your cornflakes”), with their partner correcting them if the information is wrong.
In the Recall stage students could put the nouns they were just using into ones which took “a”, ones which had an “s” and ones which took neither, using their memories or grammar knowledge, or already making generalisations from the ones they remember to complete the ones they don’t. After checking their answers, in the Analyse they try to construct some rules about why some nouns took “a” and/ or “s” and others didn’t. You could also include nouns which are both countable and uncountable by putting pairs like “Some onion” and “Some onions” into the Use stage.
Determiners definition game
Give students at least twenty nouns which very commonly take one determiner along with that word, e.g. “the Atlantic”, “the Himalayas” and “some information”. In the Use stage they choose one of them and define which they are thinking of without using any part of it (e.g. “It’s the ocean between Europe and America”) until their partner guesses correctly. Don’t insist on the right determiner in the answers at this stage.
After trying to recall the determiners in the next stage, students try to work out general patterns such as “Use ‘the’ with mountain ranges” in the Analyse stage.
URA plus skills
The URA approach can easily be linked to reading and listening, in similar ways to how PPP lessons nowadays often start with examination of language in a text that the students have just used for comprehension work. Ways of doing this include:
– The comprehension questions contain the target language. After answering the questions, students turn over their worksheets or close their books and are asked to recall something about the questions they just answered, e.g. which ones had “Is there…?” and which ones had “Are there…?”
– Students are asked to write short answers to the comprehension questions, e.g. a number or a name. They are then asked to recall the whole sentences in the reading or listening text, thereby producing the target forms.
– Students are given a prediction task before the reading or listening, with the words and expressions they are given simplified in some way to strip out the target language. After reading or listening and discussing how accurate their predictions were, they are asked to recall the forms used in the text. For example, students are given the infinitives of verbs that are in the Simple Past in the text (“be”, “rise”, etc) to make their predictions from and are asked to recall the forms in the text (“was/ were”, “rose”, etc) in the Recall stage.
URA can also be combined with activities that are usually used in classes concentrating on speaking, e.g. asking them to recall the target form in conversation questions they just discussed, or asking them to remember the first lines of conversations that they just used to start off some roleplays.
It is probably obvious from the explanations and examples above that there are actually two kinds of first stage before students try to recall the language and then analyse it – students reacting to the language and actually using it. In fact, I did toy with calling this article URRA (Use/ React Recall Analyse) or URA/ RRA (Use Recall Analyse/ React Recall Analyse), but given that URA already doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue like PPP or TTT (whether you pronounce it “you are A”, “you’re a” or “oo-ra”) I decided not to make the terms any uglier! I hope the name and the fact that it takes a bit of work to set up doesn’t put anyone off, and I’ll put a list of links to worksheets using the URA approach on my blog to make trying it out for the first time easier and to get people’s feedback on how it goes.
I’ve used this approach far too many times to be able to remember what they all are, but I’m going to try and list them here as I remember them: