Recently, I came across two lesson activity ideas online. On the surface both seem like good activities however one they contrasted nicely with each other and highlight the difference I see between USING and MANIPULATING language.
First the activities.

: Cut up letters of the alphabet and put into an envelope. Maybe 5 sets of the alphabet. In pairs or small groups, students make as many words as they can using the “letter tiles”. Read them out afterwards. Winners get a prize and also the longest word!

USING Language: Brainstorm some of the student’s favorite pop groups. Write them on the board along with ways to say you like them or don’t like them. Next, on a small slip of paper, students write their favorite group from the list. Then, they walk around the classroom asking others who is their favorite group. Also, why. If the student likes the same group, they link arms and continue finding fellow “group” lovers. When finished, the teacher asks, “Who likes “x”? and the students shout out “We do!”

What I find is the difference between “good ” teaching and “not so good” teaching, lies in the difference between these two activities. Manipulating language and word games can be great but only as a seasoning, not as a classroom meal!
We don’t learn language through simply manipulating words and letters or definitions. Ask anyone who has studied for the TOEFL test, if it helped their overall fluency as much as getting their hair done and chatting with an English hairdresser.

It is all about MEANING and as teachers, we should always have our activities pass this litmus test — is meaning being negotiated? Do the two parties have to communicate and listen to and share information? When we Manipulate language we are doing Anything But USING language , we are ABusing language and treating it as a thing and not something that is of life.

Manipulating language is mechanical. It does not seed the user’s brain so that outside that context, the language can be referenced and used. It is in one file, it is conditional.

Using language is organic. It is how language was created and how it is used everywhere, every moment. It allows small roots to take hold and grow in those that would acquire it in this fashion…

I know this is highly theoretical but as teachers, let’s reflect on this and do more Using of language and less ABusing of language…

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Teacher trainer, technology specialist, educational thinker...creator of EFL Classroom 2.0, a social networking site for thousands of EFL / ESL teachers and students around the world.

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