Monday, 26 September 2011

How important are language aims?

How much do you think you are a language teacher as well as a subject teacher? Last week I worked with a group of teachers from the regional network in the middle of the Netherlands. We talked quite a lot about how important it is to formulate both subject and language aims for your lessons. You are probably used to thinking about content aims, e.g. “Students will be able to make a drawing of what a cell looks like”. But what do you need to think about if you are formulating language aims for subject lessons? Here are some tips.

It’s pretty obvious that the children in your classes are continually learning new vocabulary, so you will automatically think about an aim like “Students can name 20 bones in the skeleton” or “Students can recognise words relating to the structure of organisms, e.g. organ, tissue, cell” for biology. But have you thought about language beyond vocabulary? Language aims can be formulated at word, sentence or text levels.

At word level, think about specific words or types of words that students need to use. But every unit in your course book or every YouTube video also demonstrates the use of some kind of grammar. So if you are formulating aims at sentence level, think about how students will put words or phrases together or the type of sentence that they need to use. For example, “Students understand how comparatives are used in a text comparing two paintings” for art, or, in maths (yes, maths teachers, you are language teachers, too, if you work in a CLIL context!), “Students can use modals to discuss possible solutions”. You can always ask an English teacher colleague to look at your material to help you to decipher the grammar in a text or unit.

At text level, think about the overall purpose of the task or the type of text that the students are working with.Another kind of aim is one more related to a text. The more specific the aims, the better. So “Students practise writing” is probably less helpful than this music aim “Students can write a short description of a piece of music or drama for an advertising leaflet” or – for PE - “Students can write instructions for a short sports exercise”.

One useful tip is that when you are working with writing tasks think of using PAST (the purpose, audience, structure, and tone of a text) to help identify specific language and/or content aims. So for the aim above about music (“Students can write a short description of a piece of music or drama for an advertising leaflet”), the purpose (P) is to persuade, the audience (A) is people who pick up a leaflet in a theatre, the structure (S) is a brochure and the tone (T) is quite formal but also enthusing. The tone is the writer’s attitude or feeling towards what they are writing about.

Good luck with your future aims.

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