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Language Awareness Methodology in ELT Learning and learning styles Teaching Business English Teaching General English  

Language Awareness

1. Introduction

“Language Awereness is a mental attribute which develops through paying motivated attentention to language in use, and which enables language learners to gradually gain insights into how languages work. It is aslo a pedagogic approach that aims to help learners to gain such insights”. (Tomlinson in Bolitho et al, 2003, p.251). 

“Motivated attention” is the term that is specially valid to me here.  If a learner pays motivated attention to the language it means he/she is not indifferent to it and asks a lot of questions about the language and would like to know more. He/she also compares it with the mother tongue and draws conclusions and concepts about both languages.

Language Awareness is a process going on in learners. They develop their own language awareness from the new world opening for them.  This process starts from the very first moment a person begins to study a foreign langauge. Not only learner develops language awareness but so does the teacher. Interaction within the classroom implies that teacher’s opinion is  important to learners.  So, a teacher should be careful not to destroy the learner’s view of the language by being more authoritative and saying what is wrong and what is right. “Most learners have an emotional as well as an intellectual relationship with a foreign langauge” (Bolitho, 1999, p.5).  A good teacher should give his/her learners chances to develop their own relationships with the language.

 I designed a piece of language awareness material and would like to reflect on the way it went on in my classroom.

2. Profile of the group I teach

The group I teach is a Business English pre-intermediate adult group. The content of the course book is rather sufficient and more likely to be referred to as Intermediate, that is why I took authentic text from www.bbc.co.uk. The course book I am using with my students in the lessons has got a section on Present Simple and Present Continuous. The two tenses are contrasted in one of the units of the book and both of the tenses are applied in a business context. It is indicated that surrounded with the context of future time and with future time adevrbials Present Continuous tense can be used to talk about plans.  Nothing is said though about the difference between Present Continuous for future and will+infinitive. That is why I decided to suppliment the grammar point of Present Continuous and will+infinitive with Language Awareness material.

Very often I can hear from my students things like “Why are there so many tenses in English? Can’t they dispense with one past, one present and one future tense?”. These questions, to my mind, can be answered through Language Awareness work.  The material I designed is aimed at raising learners’ awareness of usage of  “to be + verb+ing” as well as “will+infinitive”. The topic I chose was the prices for houses in the UK and all the prognoses connected with this subject. There are opinions of some experts in this material that I found very useful to demonstrate the difference between the two structures. Besides, there are a lot of words and expressions that were new to my students and I was challenged by teaching vocabulary through Language Awareness kind of work.

3. The Language Awreness material I designed and the way it went on in the classroom

A: Task: Read the text and answer the questions after each section

1. UK house prices are now nearly 15 per cent lower than 12 months ago, according to the Nationwide, with the price of an average house dropping by £30,000 to £158,872.

But when will the house price crash end and how far will prices fall? Should buyers grab a bargain now, or wait another year, or even longer. Times Money asked five experts for their predictions on when the market will hit rock bottom. Here are their answers. And have your say in our poll below.

Look at the underlined  words and answer the questions:

1.      What other things can crash

2.      What can a person grab?

3.      Why does the journalist say “Grab a bargain” not ‘buy”?

4.      “wait another year” – how long should the buyer wait for? Shall he wait for 2009 to come or should he spend one more year waiting?

5.      In what way can a person ‘hit rock bottom’

6.      Why do you think the journalist chose these words?  What is their impact on the reader?

The way students identified the meaning of the underlined words came from the direct tranlations they already knew for “crash” and “grab”. It was a good chance for students to see the way these words are used figuratively.  There were good comparisons between “grab a bargain” and “buy”. Question number 4 lead to some confusion in answers, I think this was due to the confusing way I built the question. Question number 5 was also not easy to answer for my students. I had to provide some aditional explanations about what happens to a person that hits rock bottom. Then students had to compare the use of this phrase in relation to prices.

B: Look carefully at the language used in the five expert predictions below.  Which do you think is most certain?  Which is least certain?  Give reasons from each text for your answer.

2. Martin Ellis – chief economist, Halifax

Prediction: Another 8% fall

“We are predicting a 20 per cent fall over 2008 and 2009 – so as we calculate that prices have already fallen by 12.4 per cent, we would expect roughly another 8 per cent fall before prices start to bottom out at the end of 2009.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding the economy and unemployment figures in particular at the moment, so it’s very hard to say when prices will start to recover. Prices certainly won’t bounce back quickly.”

1.      Does the expert expect a fall of exactly 8 per cent? Is he very sure in this figure?

2.      Please read the example: Peter's feeling of sadness bottomed out and then he began to feel cheerful again. What happened to Peter’s feeling of sadness? What happened to the prices at the end of 2009?

Here the students could see the use of Present Continuous for the process going on around the time of speaking “We are predicting…”. The words “we would expect” refer to the present but the impression the reader gets is about the future.  A good insight here is that it is possible to describe forthcoming events without using grammar structures that are referred to indicating future. The words “Prices certainly won’t…” show that something is very unlikely to happen in the future. The students gave good reasons why the journalist used these particular phrases. The phrase “bottomed out” caused some confusion. The comparison between “Peter’s feeling of sadness” and prices going through the same process appeared to be not quite comprehensible. Some of the students came up with translation which was Russian slang but it was very appropriate.

3. Jonathan Davis – housepricecrash.co.uk

Prediction:  Another 35% fall

“The market will not bottom out until spring 2011, by which point there will be a 40 to 50 per cent drop from when house prices were at their peak in August last year.

“If you remember the last house price crash in 1988, it took until 1994 for the market to recover, so a good four or five years. There is no reason whatsoever to suppose the market will recover any quicker this time.

“It is far too early to bag a bargain – people should not be buying for at least another two years. We are only one year into the crash, and it has a long way to go yet.”

1.      True or false?

a. The market will reach its lowest point by spring 2011.

b. The highest price for houses was in August last year.

c. The last price crash was in 1988 and the years before everything got back to normal were really good.

d. It is not yet the best time to invest in property

The questions here look more like concept check questions. It was interesting to look at how students understand the phrase “a good four or five years”.  This is not how we would say in Russian. So it was good to raise learners’ awareness that in English it is possible to say so. I missed the opportunity to ask about the degree of certainty when the speaker says: “The market will not bottom out until…” This could be a nice utterance to discuss with my students and to listen to their reasons.

4. Yolande Barnes – Savills

Prediction: Another 10% fall

“We are forecasting a 25 per cent drop from when house prices were at their peak last year, so that means we’ve got about another 10 per cent to go. Whilst we expect prices to bottom out during 2010, the prospect of recession means we do not expect prices to start recovering anytime soon. Houses will not regain their 2007 value until about 2014, or possibly 2013 in the south-east.”

1.      How high are the prices when they are at “their peak”?

2.      What happens to prices when they “recover”?

Students could answer the two above questions very easily. I also asked a question: “Why did the author use the word “recover” about the prices?” One of my students said that this word actually shows that the prices went down (“fell ill”) and started to go up i.e. “recover”. This is a good metaphor to have in mind when describing the trends in prices.

5. Nicholas Leeming – propertyfinder.com

Prediction: Another 10% fall

“There will be a further drop of about 10 per cent throughout 2009, before the market starts to level out at the end of the year. It will take a while for the effects of the Government bail-out to filter through – the capital markets will not be freed up until maybe the third quarter of 2009, when we can expect to see more mortgage transactions and a gradual recovery of the market.”

1. Will it take a long time for the effects of the Government bail-out to filter through?

2. Which of the following do you associate with ‘level out’?

 (a) an upwards tendency (b) a plateau (c) a downwards tendency?

The first question here is a vocabulary kind of work. The second question reveals students’ associations with “level out” which shows students that they can associate the words with something they already know and thus work out their own images of English words.

6. Nick Bate, UK economist, Merrill Lynch

Prediction: Another 10% fall

“There will be a 25 per cent drop from the market peak last summer – we have already seen about a 15 per cent drop, so we have about another 10 per cent to go.

“However, no one can say with any confidence exactly where prices will be in a year’s time – but it will certainly be a long time before prices recover to the levels we saw last year. With unemployment rising and people becoming less credit worthy, banks may continue to be reluctant to lend for some time, and this will lead to a very muted recovery.”

  • Is the above prediction very certain? What words tell you that something is to happen for sure and which words should you doubt?

  • Will the bank be eager to lend money to borrowers?

  • Is the recovery going to be rapid?

  • Question number one makes learners think about the language used. In particular about the words used and the reasons why those words were used.  Being able to give reasons for somebody else’s choice the students will able to justify the choices they make in their speech. They will be using the language with more awareness and creativity and will be paying “motivated attention” to it. (Bolitho et al, 2003, p.251). 

    Before I started to work with the material I did not introduce the function of predicting for will+infinitive. I wanted my students to come up with the undestanding from the context. We looked at the difference between the two structures being used. While doing the activity I could see that sometimes the students seemed puzzled by my questions. For example: “Why did the author use will+infinitive in this sentence not to be+verb+ing?”. It was great to listen to the reasons the students gave. The most precious thing was that the students were developing their sensitivity to the language items without help of the grammar book or the rules given to them in advance. “Language Awareness is an internal, gradual, realization of the realities of language use”. (Bolitho et al, 2003, p.252).   This was a chance for the students to build their own hypothesis and think of the reasons to support their guesses. The students looked at the words like "predicting", "certainly" and that's how they managed to understand what the author was going to say.  This piece of material helped students to become aware that grammar is also one of the means of communicating a message. My students used to see  grammar only as the pattern to follow in order not to make mistakes. Language Awareness work let them see that the choice of the grammar tense influences not only the time of action (past, present, future) but also the shade of meaning. Students started to compare English with Russian langauge where there is one past tense, one present tense and one future tense. The meaning of certainty and uncertainty is transferred through the words like “for sure”, “may be” etc. i.e. the meaning is transferred through vocabulary, not grammar – a good insight for my students to get. Besides, future time can be conveyed though the context and future time adverbials that are as important in conveying meaning as the verb forms. On top of that a speaker may not use the verb forms attributed to indicating future but it will be evident that he/she is speaking about forthcoming events. 

    “Language Awareness is not taught by the teacher or by the coursebook; it is developed by the learner” (Bolitho et al, 2003, p.252).  But this does not mean that a teacher should leave it up to the learner. A teacher’s objectives must be “helping learners to develop such cognitive skills as connecting, generalizing, and hypothesizing, and developing learners to become independent, with positive attitudes towards the language, and to learning the language beyond the classroom” (Bolitho et al, 2003, p.252).  As a follow-up I could have asked my students about why they think there are so many words to describe financial processes? And is it the same in Russian? Thus I could have increased my students’ intererst to all kinds of financial discourses. Perhaps they would get interested in finding examples of other ways of describing financial processes in English. They would get aware that even in describing a serious topic there is place for playing with language and making it more vivid. As a teacher I should have done that. A teacher should be able to look at the language inquisitively and intuitively, make hypotheses and look for confirmations.

    Teacher Language Awareness (TLA) is a crutial element of language awareness work. “TLA....relates to the L2 teacher’s need to be able to function effectively as an analyst of the language, with the ability “to talk about the language itself, to analyse it, to understand how it works and to make judgements about acceptability in doubtful cases” (Edge,1998, p.24). While making this piece of material I found out some words and expressions I did not know before. Things like “ to hit rock bottom” and “to bail out”. In the lesson I asked students to predict the meanings of the words. They were very successful I should say. What helped them is the context that facilitated guesses and me welcoming all the options that students provided. I think that making right guesses encouraged the students. The new vocabulary was not something undesirable for them. It was an opportunity to show everyone’s ability to understand and analyse a complicated authentic discourse on finance. This kind of work was motivating and encouraging.  

    Teachers are very busy with feeding their students with irregular verbs and things like Past Simple vs Past Continuous. The teachers know grammar rules and this is the first thing they teach. However, “Subject matter knowledge is not sufficient to ensure the effective application of TLA in pedagogical practice”  (Andrews, p 24, 2007). Doing language awareness kind of work means  teaching students to understand the message through language feeling, reading between the lines. No doubt each teacher should do language awareness work. It should be instilled at every level. Even at the beginner level. A teacher should introduce  language as something alive but not fixed and structurised.

    4. Conclusion

    Having tried to do language awareness work I realized that first it is difficult to design a piece of language awareness material and second it is not easy to actually ask students do this kind of work. I cannot say I managed to do my work perfectly well but I think I helped my students to understand that in English reading between the lines is not only  possible but also very important. 

    I have a student who constatntly asks for a translation of words and sentences. At first I  did not like it but later realised that this thirst for translation can be used as a good basis for language awareness tasks such as – translating the senctence and discuissing if the direct translation should be used or we have to change something. We can look at the meaning and see if it changed or not.

    Designing this task was a valuable experience for me. It made me think not only about the language itself but also about how to make students see what I see in the language. Language awareness for me is like seeing something invisible. It turns out that even if you know the translation of the word it does not mean you know the word. For me as for a teacher this idea is very important to bear in mind. Very often in the lesson I just give the translation to my students. Language awareness work gives me and my students a chance to analyse things and not just use pieces of language mechanically. This kind of work awakes motivation in learners because it turns things round for them. They start discovering something they have never paid their attention to before.

    When doing language awareness activity I realised this is so very much what we (me and students) are not used to doing. I always found myself getting to concept checks and comprehension checks. I found it difficult to ask questions leading students to the answers I wanted to hear -the answers that would correspond to the notion of Language Awareness. At this very moment I realized how little I do in my classroom to let students feel the language not just understand it.

    My furture work with students will involve more work on connotations and shades of meaning so that learners could have no fear of hypothesizing and experimenting with the language. I would like to develop a series of materials on different language awareness areas. This kind of work will make me think more about the language and thus my learnes will get more and more aware of the language they are studying.




    Andrews, S. (2007) Teacher Language Awareness. Cambridge University Press

    Journal articles

    Bolitho, R. Carter, R. Hughes, R. Ivanic, R. Masuhara, H. Tomlinson, B.  (2003) Ten questions about language awareness. ELT Journal Volume 57/3 July 2003 pp. 39-46 © Oxford University Press


    Bolitho, R. (1999) Language Awareness in the English classroom. English Teaching Professional Volume 6 pp.3-6


    Edge, J. (1998) Applying linguistics  in English language teacher training  for speakers of other languages. ELT Journal , Volume 42(1) 1998, pp. 9-13

    Web site

    www.bbc.co.uk (accessed 5 November 2008) (unknown author)