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Sunday, April 26, 2015

Why I Love 'Back to the Well'

At the end of May I'll be co-facilitating a workshop once again with John Sivell, TESL educator at Brock University. We'll be talking about the notion of taking students back into the same audio or written text over and over again. In how many valuable ways can we revisit the same passage or dialogue, squeezing it to extract all the juicy linguistic affordances we possibly can before ushering students on to a new text?

I believe in this.
Chart paper helps us revisit lexis.

I have watched as students build their meta-linguistic skills, and with that their confidence. I've seen how this way of approaching the new lexis results in narrowed cognitive burden, and a more relaxed classroom.

One reader of this blog asked me in an email how I can take such a thorough, thoughtful pace and still cover everything I'm expected to cover in a term. That's a good question.  I've answered that question one way, John another.

At my school, we are given the freedom to balance how much we cover with how well we cover it. The answer John has given to this question in Toronto was something to the effect that sure, you can rush through and say you've covered a lot, but where is the value in that if students don't RETAIN any of it?

Back to the well, for me, means doing all the exercises that come with a given text, such as comprehension questions and the like, then going back into the same text with a nice variety of vocabulary, syntax and discourse activities. The aim is to give students' brains multiple meaningful encounters with the new language.

At first we are getting more familiar with each vocabulary word. We look up the definition, note the part of speech, note any irregularities (such as irregular plural form for nouns, irregular conjugation for verbs), list lexical sets of which it may be a member, debate whether the connotation is positive, neutral or negative, jot down as many forms of the word as we can find, use the word in a sentence. We use a website or corpus to discover collocations and discuss what register we think the word falls under (e.g., standard, slang, colloquial).  We make semantic maps and play games like "Each One Teach One."

The middle of the week may find us engrossed in dialogues or correcting each other's parallel paragraphs that we've written borrowing structures taken from our text. We look for useful lexical chunks that can be turned into pattern drills. We might analyse clauses or label all verbs as transitive, intransitive or both--dreaming up three possible objects for transitive verbs.

In other words, by the time we finish with the text, we know the language structures inside and out. We've looked under the hood and we know how this engine works. And we are happily ready to move on, not feeling one bit rushed.

I am now in my second year implementing this way of teaching, and I continue to swear by it. I've seen how it creates a more egalitarian classroom where keen students are satisfied by the depth of exploration while those slower to process are less stressed by a pace that leaves them behind.

What do you think? Is John and Chirawibha's idea of "Sending Them Back to the Well" something you would try out with your learners? Why or why not?


  1. Hi Kelly,

    Great posting, full of wonderful ideas for "going deep" with content. An excellent approach, especially with literacy students. I agree with John's comments about covering too much too thinly. However, I do feel bound by our school's LINC curriculum and mandatory themes for the higher levels. But, as always, you have inspired me, and I know that implementing some of your ideas in my classes will give my students an enhanced learning experience.

  2. Hilary, this is a good point. I am also teaching the LINC curriculum and settlement themes. However, the students and I have the freedom to decide together whether covering banking, job search, housing and visiting the doctor will take one month or three. I realize not all teachers and their students have the luxury of setting their own pace, though I suspect that most settlement English classes do have this freedom.

    I'll invite John to reply to your comment, as well.

  3. Hi Hillary – I can see your point, but my suggestion is that back-to-the-well revisiting of material is just one instrument in the educational toolbox: it seems to be a very effective and versatile tool, but certainly not the only resource. Individual teachers will surely have insights into when and how to employ it, depending on the constraints that exist at each site. The good news is that even a modest increase in students’ experience of revisiting and recycling material may well be beneficial. / John