Consciousness-raising activities: What they are and why you should be
Oct 21, 2009 Lesson Planning 7754 Views
Consciousness-raising activities: What they are and why you should be using them for all levels.
One of the most enjoyable moments of learning a language is that moment when things suddenly make sense, when you understand a rule, or make your own which then proves to be true. I remember the time I realized I could form the equivalent of adjective clauses in Japanese. As yet, I have never sat down and learnt the grammatical rule. My only explicit learning comes in the form of corrections from friends of family of the type "No, it's Shinjuku de mae ni katta keitai ". Despite this, I am able to use this grammar fairly accurately and without thinking unduly about how to form the sentences. Where has this knowledge come from?
The answer is, obviously, living in Japan. But living in a foreign country does not mean a language will be learnt. The reason I have picked up this particular grammar is through conversations in which I understood most of what was being said. The level was slightly above my own, but I could understand it, and I could use this input to make my own conclusions about the language; in other words, comprehensible input and “i + 1” (Krashen & Terrell, 1983).
Students studying in English-speaking countries are surrounded by this kind of input, although they may not be skilled or proficient enough to make us of it. Students studying EFL in their own countries usually need to be provided with it. This is where the idea of consciousness-raising activities comes in. Of course, CR tasks are also extremely useful for ESL students, however in this article, I will comment on the particular benefits for EFL learners.
What Consciousness-raising Activities are
Ellis (1991) and Willis & Willis (1996) broadly describe consciousness-raising tasks in terms of these stages:
1. Students are given a text which uses a particular structure or grammatical form. An ideal text would contain authentic language, and does not need to be specially written with learning in mind, providing the students are able to understand it. There need only be enough examples of the target structure in the text. The learners then process it for meaning, which means they look at the text as a piece of reading rather than as grammar to make sure they understand its message. For example, the students can answer comprehension questions.
2. The target structure (TS) is highlighted in the text, either on the text itself or on another copy. Sentences are kept within their context, rather than pulled out and analyzed separately. The TS can be underlined or color-coded. Alternatively, students can find examples themselves, such as “Underline every example of a, an or the you can find”.
3. The students look at the examples and see how they work in the text. For example, they could be given questions such as “What words go after a, an or the?” or “What is similar among all the examples you found?” In pairs or groups, students discuss and make assumptions such as “have been is used with since and for”. I would argue this discussion can take place in the student’s first language if they are of a low level.
4. The students are then asked to formulate and/or present a rule for what they have found. It does not have to take the form of a perfect grammar explanation. An example would be “The is used when you know about something, and a and an are used when you don’t”. It is not necessary for the rule to be entirely correct or to cover the whole of the grammar point, but merely that it increase the awareness of how the TS functions in English.
5. I would add a fifth stage: almost all learners will need some form of confirmation from the teacher, particularly those students who are unused to consciousness-raising, are of a low ability or simply are not very good at forming generalizations. If this takes the form of a ten-minute grammar explanation then the purpose of consciousness-raising will be lost, as students will believe their assumptions did not have a value. Rather than spending too much time correcting wrong assumptions, the teacher can briefly highlight correct assumptions by summarizing them on the whiteboard. Therefore, the teacher acts as confirmer and summarizer, not source of knowledge.
Of course, consciousness-raising is only one type of language-focused learning, and aids rather than replaces explicit or implicit teaching by other means. It might be a good idea to tell this to skeptical students at the start or end of class, along with a brief justification of consciousness-raising; I recommend telling a story similar to that which begins this article.
Why you Should be Using CR
If the goal of a class is to teach the present perfect, then the most logical way to do it might be to present it, practice it, and then produce it in a freer manner (PPP). This is one type of grammar teaching, and should not be discarded by any means. However, as mentioned above, consciousness-raising tasks help to build other types of knowledge besides knowing “SVO” because your high school teacher told it to you. Here are some reasons to use CR tasks:
1. CR tasks build implicit and well as explicit knowledge. Traditional grammar instruction is focused on explicit knowledge of rules and features, whereas communicative language teaching tends to eschew rules in favor of practice in communicative use, which builds implicit knowledge. CR tasks allow learners to make assumptions and see examples of forms, building implicit knowledge, and then to form rules from the patterns, which builds explicit knowledge.
2. CR tasks work for learners with different learning styles and intelligences. Not everyone responds well to a teacher-fronted lesson in the PPP format. Many learners switch off as soon as the teacher starts talking, or may passively receive information and give appropriate answers without actually processing anything. If the rules are student-generated, then it is par for the course that they are more likely to be remembered and understood.
3. CR tasks present grammar in context. Although CLT does provide a context, it is generally created by the learners themselves. Traditional grammar - and indeed any textbooks organized on CLT principles - present grammar as isolated sentences. Context allows learners to see what other forms typically appear with the TS, and how these forms interact.
4. CR tasks present authentic language. Examples can be taken from the internet, for example, providing they are appropriate for the level of the students. Even the best textbooks tend to include inauthentic sentences we would not normally use.
5. CR tasks can present a large amount of input. What EFL learners in particular lack is input. Rather than single sentences, CR tasks can be used to give a larger amount of input and get students used to understanding English in more substantial texts. Japanese high school graduates, for example, are often intimidated by texts longer than a few lines. CR tasks provide fluency reading practice.
6. CR tasks encourage cooperative learning. Rather than individually processing grammatical forms, and then producing them together, learners work together cooperatively to process the language.
7. CR tasks are interesting and fun. Texts can be newspaper articles, gossip columns, horoscopes, even transcripts of on-line chats.
8. CR tasks lower the affective filter. A teacher-fronted classroom can be a relaxing, familiar environment, but many learners do not have fond memories of language classes. Allowing students free reign to work without teacher interference may well make learners feel more relaxed.
9. It is easy for learners to prepare their own CR tasks. Students can find examples of the grammar using search engines or concordancers and use set questions to make assumptions. Equally, student-generated texts can be used to help cement knowledge.
10. Skills learnt in CR tasks can be used outside the classroom. Essentially, CR presents a way of analyzing language. It can be applied in any situation; learners simply need enough examples of the target structure.
How to Use CR Tasks in Class
As mentioned above, in order to use CR tasks it might be necessary to provide some reasons. I would use “It makes it easier to remember, and you can see how grammar works in real English” as the main two reasons. CR is a new technique, and learners generally respond well to being told why the activity is useful.
In the title of this article, I write that CR tasks should be used for all levels. It is important to remember the goal of these activities is not fluency practice in discussing grammar, but increased grammatical awareness. Therefore, I would argue that it is not essential for students to be performing the task only in the English. In fact, low level learners should be using their L1 when they are making assumptions. If you want to give students the opportunity to use their L1, but also want them to be using English, I would set the final task stage as a presentation, with groups making a two-minute talk about their generalization and rules at the board. This will result in some L1 usage, but a final result in English. In classes of very mixed L1s, students could be given some phrases to help them discuss, or could be provided with more, and more explicit, questions to answer.
A natural follow-up to a CR task would be a communicative task using the target structure. This gives the teacher an opportunity to assess how well the students are able to use the grammar. I would prefer to hold off on a more explicit grammar lesson until another day at least, for the reasons mentioned earlier.
To conclude, consciousness-raising tasks are ideal for EFL learners because they provide input and grammar in context. They allow students to make their own assumptions about how English works and confirm them with their peers. As long as the students are not prevented from using the L1, all levels can gain something from CR. As long as CR takes place within a balanced focus-on-form program, using a variety of types of learning, students will potentially find these types of tasks illuminating and motivating in a way that traditional grammar exercises are not.
Ellis, R. (1991) Second language acquisition & language pedagogy. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Krashen, S. D. & Terrell, T. D. (1983) The natural approach. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
Willis, D. & Willis, J. (1996) Consciousness-raising activities. Retrieved October 10, 2009 from http://www.willis-elt.co.uk/documents/7c-r.doc