Describe, give the purpose of and evaluate three of these teaching techniques: Elicitation. Concept questions. Drilling. Substitution tables. Information-gap communication tasks.
‘Elicitation’ is a term used to refer to the extraction of information. It is defined both as, “to bring or draw out” and “to provoke (a reaction, for example)” (TFD 2008). In a teaching context, it refers to a technique of ‘eliciting’ information from a student or group of students, generally by asking them a question. Neil Mercer describes the IRF process – initiation, response, feedback, as “the archetypal form of interaction between teacher and pupil” (Mercer 2007: 245) Elicitation is the method used in this exchange. The teacher will ‘elicit’ relevant knowledge from the student, the student responds, and then the teacher gives feedback, as in this example:
Teacher: Who can tell me what we call a word that describes a noun? Anna?
Student: An adjective?
Teacher: Yes, an adjective, excellent.
Mercer goes on to make a distinction between ‘direct elicitation’ and ‘cued elicitation’ (246). A direct elicitation is a straightforward request as in my example above. With a cued elicitation, clues, which could be visual or verbal, are given as to the response required. For example:
Teacher: What’s the name of this object? (holds up a mug) M…m….m
Teacher: Yes, that’s right. This is a mug,
The purpose of elicitation is to check on the students’ understanding and knowledge of what is being studied. It is useful as, instead of just telling a student the answer, they are made to respond themselves, re-affirming their knowledge to themselves, to the teacher, and giving them the confidence that they can use this knowledge in an appropriate way. As Mercer points out, “teachers need to check students’ understanding of procedural factual matters, and that is commonly the function of IRF exchanges” (245).
On the other hand however, if the method is relied on too heavily then it can be limiting. As Mercer points out, “it gives little opportunity for using language in more creative ways” (245). If used as in my examples above, then there is little space for the student to have any creative input into the lesson. The teacher has a ‘right’ answer in mind, and attempts to elicit this from the student, who will then respond either rightly or wrongly. As Jeremy Harmer has argued, PPP – presentation, practice and production, which uses elicitation as a technique came under a lot of criticism in the 1990s for being too “teacher-centred” (Harmer 2001: 80). Used as a sole method, elicitation can be dry, boring and too focused on the teacher’s control and dominant role. It is up to the teacher to evaluate when elicitation can be useful, how it could be incorporated into other methods, and when other techniques may be preferable.
Drilling is the use of repetition and imitation of chunks of language, generally in a mechanical way, after stimulus from the teacher or audio material. It could be used for example with a class chanting grammatical structure, “I go, You go, He/she/it goes, we go, you go, they go”, or in repeating phrases from a tape. The purpose of it is to cement learned material into a student’s mind, and for the student to practice speaking in order for grammatical structures to seem natural.
Scott Thornbury points out some of the benefits of drilling. Firstly, that “it may in fact be a useful noticing technique” (Thornbury 2008: 64). If repetitions are incorrect then the teacher can notice this and correct them. Secondly, he suggests that the use of repetition has an important effect on the memory of language:
Drilling may also function to move items from working memory into long-term memory, just as we tend to memorise new PIN codes or telephone numbers by repeating them a number of times. (64)
Thirdly, he suggests that drilling “provides a means of gaining articulatory control over language” (64). In other words, through repetition, students get used to actually pronouncing and properly articulating the words and phrases, rather than just seeing them written down.
While drilling may have benefits, it has also been criticized. Paul Knight points out for example “that it promoted mindless repetition over communication” (Knight 2007: 152). This suggests that techniques of drilling fail to teach complexities of language, and ways in which language is used in pragmatic situations. It focuses on speaking rather than writing, and on grammar and unconscious absorption of information, rather than communication, As in ‘elicitation’, it is also very ‘teacher centred’ giving no opportunity for students to respond in any other way than the drill requires. The drill allows even less imagination or creativity on behalf of the student than elicitation, which may lower motivation and willingness to learn.
Information-gap communication tasks
In contrast with the ‘teacher-centred’ methods I have outlined above, and the way in which they both remove language from its communicational context, other activities can be used, which are based more on ‘communication’ than repetition or answering questions. The aim of ‘communicative language teaching’ as defined by Paul Knight is:
The desired outcome is that the learner can communicate successfully in the target language in real situations, rather than have a conscious understanding of the rules governing that language. (Knight 2007: 155)
This can be seen as a contrast with the methods I outline above, which are, on the whole, more focused on gaining and consolidating a knowledge of language rules and structures, than of dealing with the pragmatics of daily communication in the learned language. An ‘information gap’ activity is a method which is based more on this communicative approach. One student may have some information, which they have to share with others in order to make a decision or solve a problem. An example would be a role-play where one student is the hotel manager and another student has to book a room. What is important is that they are more focused on the information they are communicating than on the structures they are using to communicate it. Harmer expands, “They should use a variety of language rather than just one language structure. The teacher will not intervene to stop the activity” (Harmer 2001: 85). There are ways to make activities more interesting. For example, if the student needs to book a room but only has a limited budget, and the hotel only has certain rooms available, then more negotiation, more language-use and more focus on information will be needed than in a simplified dialogue such as ‘Can I book a room? / Yes.’ How this type of role-play is structured will require the organization and pre-planning of the teacher.
As Raptou points out:
These types of activities are extremely effective…They give every student the opportunity to speak in the target language for an extended period of time, and students naturally produce more speech than they would otherwise.
(Raptou 2001: 1)
As her example suggests, rather than a ‘teacher-centred’ scenario where the teacher is the main speaker and leader, while students mainly listen and respond, here the teacher plays the role more of a ‘facilitator’, allowing a more student-centred model. These scenarios may be more fun for students than, say, the repetition of drills, and allow for an aware teacher to notice where problems lie and help students in appropriate ways, which may of course be different for each student. Raptou describes another advantage of this approach in that “students are forced to negotiate meaning because they must make what they are saying comprehensible to others in order to accomplish the task” (Raptou 2001: 2). This, she claims, leads to increased motivation, even participation, and an acceptable level of accuracy.
There are also problems with such an approach however. It requires a certain level of knowledge of the language already, so would be harder to implement with students at a very basic level. It may be hard for the teacher to have control over the situation, and while a student-centred focus may be ideal for certain (positive-minded) students, it could be seen by others as offering the potential for laziness. It is also harder to assess than a more grammatically focused exercise, and there may be more errors that go unnoticed or uncorrected.
As Thornbury points out, language learning requires a balancing of accuracy and fluency:
For a long time language teaching operated on the basis that accuracy should precede fluency, and that the only speaking learners were allowed was the oral manipulation of recently taught grammar structures…
..A radical re-thinking of the relative importance of accuracy and fluency fuelled the evolution of the communicative approach.
(Thornbury 2008: 115).
While drilling may improve accuracy, and elicitation provides a good way to assess accuracy, the communicational approach of the information gap method is more focused on fluency. I would suggest that rather than using any of these techniques individually, the teacher must be aware of the purpose, positives and negatives of each one, and then choose how best to incorporate them into lesson methodologies.
Harmer, Jeremy (2001) The Practice of English Language Teaching. Third Edition. Harlow: Longman
Knight, Paul (2007) ‘The Development of EFL Methodology’, English Language Teaching in its Social Context: A Reader Eds. Christopher. C. Candlin and Neil Mercer. London and New York: Routledge
Mercer, Neil (2007) ‘Language for Teaching a Language’, English Language Teaching in its Social Context: A Reader Eds. Christopher. C. Candlin and Neil Mercer. London and New York: Routledge
Raptou, Violet (2001) ‘Using Information Gap Activities in the Second Language Classroom’, http://www.caslt.org/Print/gapp.htm
Accessed 11th Jan 2009
TFD ‘Elicitation’ (2008), http://www.thefreedictionary.com/elicitation
Accessed 11th Jan 2009
Thornbury, Scott (2008) How to Teach Speaking Harlow: Pearson Longman