Beginners in the Dark

Beginners in the Dark

Many an ineffective learner fools themself into a feeling of learning: they memorise long lists of words that they cannot use; these remain in their minds like objects in a glass case in a museum, never to be used for fear of damage…. They have not realised that learning one’s first foreign language involves bridging a conceptual gap: moving from a unique way of expressing a thought to being able to choose – according to the situation – to putting the same idea into different words, according to different sets of rules.

1. The Learners

The work I am to describe all began one day when I walked into a class where 16 eager young faces turned towards me, but none could see. I knew over half the children as I had been visiting the School for the Blind, Aydinlikevler, in Ankara for over two years. However, I had never officially taken responsibility for a class. Five minutes previously, I had offered to do a lesson for a trainee teacher to observe… and had had no time to plan nor to worry about what I was walking into: I suddenly found none of the techniques I would usually use in a standard classroom were appropriate. I was far too dependent on visual exchanges of information: not only writing on the board, drawing or using pictures, but also gestures, mime, body language, pointing, making eye contact with a student I wished to single out, smiling to encourage and frowning to disapprove…

Over the next eight weeks my repertoire of techniques, having been fundamentally challenged, was enriched and strengthened. The children, the teachers and I had worked together to come up with a series of activities that complemented the textbook (A standard textbook for sighted children, brailled, but without any compromise for the omission of the pictures referred to in the text; possibly better than no book at all). The activities were initially generated according to the ages and reported levels of English of the pupils. However, it rapidly became apparent none of the children – even in Year 8, after 5 years of English lessons – had any effective active language, so we reverted to establishing the basic foundations of the children’s first foreign language…..

A few months later, the 17th August 1999 earthquake in the West of Turkey shook far more than the foundations of the buildings. Families were rehoused in tents, in tent-cities which in a few weeks became major settlements, where families from different backgrounds were suddenly neighbours. Once schools opened after a six month break, children who had been getting reasonable education were sitting beside others who hadn’t been to school for several years: a difficult situation for a teacher, on top of the varying degrees of trauma experienced by 40 or more pupils in each class. Having spent the month of September organising activities for the 7 to 12 year olds in a tent city of 3000 people in Adapazari, I returned for a week in February 2000. At the school, I was hijacked into as many English lessons as the children could manage; again I was on the spot: what to do in 40 or 80 minutes that would be of any use? The classes I worked with were as follows:4 periods in a class of 12 year olds (year 6; nominally in their 3rd year of English); one hour each in various classes (Years 5, 6 and 7), and finally two hours in another Year 6, with whom the most effective work was developed.

My purpose having initially been to find ways in which, with minimal resources, learners with little or no sight could develop strategies for independent learning, I was now looking at something broader: to find ways of reviving the learners interest in English and their confidence in their own ability to learn. Reviving is the accurate term, as these were mostly learners whose failure to learn had been destructive. Since then, my interest has turned towards strategies beginners use or fail to use, the analysis of unsuccessful strategies often proving more illuminating (Holt, 1968)

2. The Activities.

In each new situation, I needed to start by finding out what that particular group felt they knew. At the most basic level, this meant ‘words’; only once a positive atmosphere of confidence was established could we go up one gear to the threatening ‘sentences’.
2.1 The Class Pool of Vocabulary.    The teacher needs a large supply of small pieces of card or paper, and a bag large enough to hold all of them; an alternative is to get everyone to tear out the central pages of their notebooks, then making 18 or 36 pieces! Shock horror! What sort of a teacher is this, destroying the books? The learners are given a limited time to write as many words as they can remember, one per paper. It is essential to make sure they only access words from their minds, not from their books: the words written on the cards must be those in their active vocabulary. This is a very active stage in a large class; all contributions are welcomed with an encouraging smile, without comment or reaction towards those who can only write a few words. As all contributions are anonymous, those frightened of making mistakes start to produce; everyone can then at least manage five words: WHAT / IS / THIS / A / BANK (or their Turkish versions DIS / IZ / BENK) thanks to a recent television advertisement. And FUTBOL / FOOTBALL of course. The fun now starts: a word is drawn at random from the bag…..and put to a variety of uses:

1) to give concrete proof of the amount of knowledge the group has.

2) to revise knowledge of pronunciation, spelling, and meaning (possibly using L1)

3) to use the word: in a sentence. A brave learner produces the first sentence! If any corrections are needed, the sentence is offered to the class for improvement, the teacher giving hints and clues if necessary, and reminding the class of the correct structure at the end. Many basic L1-linked errors can be picked up in this way; though much patience is needed, most will learn to self-edit with minimum prompting.

4) to develop sentence structure by gradual extension: the initial sentence, once correct, can be the basis for construction of longer sentences, going step by step from the simplest structure to a much more complex one.

5) to work on specific vocabulary, eg animals, for then focussing on particular structures, eg definitions ( plus colours, number of legs and wings, size).

6) as a stimulus for story telling or writing. Each participant writes one word for each of several categories; eg. a person, a place, an action (verb), a vehicle, a food, a drink, a colour, an animal, etc. Once the words have been scrambled, each player takes 3 random words and makes a sentence. Can others then guess which were the words picked out of the bag? Can anyone extend the sentence by including some of their words? The game gets more difficult when each player takes more and more words…moving from sentence to story.

7) as a way for a learner to check their own vocabulary: pulled out at random, the new words are rapidly sorted into ‘known’ versus ‘unknown’, before the known words are written up in sentences, and the unknown one are checked again.

8) to construct word banks suitable for each level, including not only words taught by textbooks, but those picked up from songs, advertisements, technology, etc.

9) to survey the active vocabulary of a class at a given time. If done at regular intervals, eg every two months, vocabulary enrichment can be monitored.

2.2 Stories.   The perfect solution for those who can’t see, or won’t talk! The teacher begins to tell a story, with very simple sentences, known vocabulary and structures and lots of repetition: the aim is to create a ‘safe’ environment, with nothing to discourage anyone in the room. At first learners may wish to translate into L1, but this fades away in time. After a while, questions can be asked: ‘what is my friend’s name? where does she live?’, gradually inviting the learners to participate: first with yes/no answers, then one word, then a phrase or sentence. Eventually the class can contribute to the story, offering solutions to a problem or deciding what the hero will do. If any time is left before the end of the class, the learners can be challenged to write the story, or at least what they can remember, perhaps only a few sentences, or even just ONE! An example of a story is given in Appendix 1. As an extension, the whole story can be written out, added to, amended, etc, possibly in groups, thus providing a source of reading material suited to the level of the class.

2.3 Minibooks.    A minibook is a piece of A4 paper folded in such a way as to produce a small 8 paged booklet, of equal surface area, but far more appealing than the original rectangle. As it has three pairs of inside pages, it lends itself well to the three main parts of a composition, though of course, such technicalities remain unmentioned. These are personal and pocket sized: ideal for secrets and messages; they also give scope for illustration, and variety of layout. These are now commonly used in primary education in Britain, to encourage progress in mother tongue writing skills. I have also used the method for teaching simple sentences in several languages. Anyone interested in learning how to make one, please get in touch:

Immediately after the earthquake, I had used this activity – in Turkish – with children to encourage them to express their feelings and thoughts as a means of allowing the young victims to overcome the effects of the disaster. During my February return visit, an eighty minute session with a 6th year class, of whom many pupils had had little functional English teaching prior to the earthquake, lead to the production of 22 minibooks, to which I replied with a more complex story, involving more grammar structures and richer vocabulary. The children have decided to reply with further stories, so I am preparing some more to follow my first.

In a two hour session, I first let children ask me questions and write the answers I give on the board; all amount to how to introduce a friend, or a fictional hero…Thus the basic patterns are established. Different possibilities and variations are discussed before children are shown how to fold a mini-book. First drafts are checked before full artwork is unleashed in the final copy.
2.4 Applications of the activities to adult learners:

1a) Vocabulary Pool can be used:

–with upper intermediates, to revise recent vocabulary and check for correct usage.

–with beginners of a new language, for self study. It is particularly useful if a new script is involved, eg. Farsi, as the word must be recognised in isolation, without context clues. It allows familiarisation with the script: ‘Am I reading it the right way up?’ is the first step, long before skimming and scanning are possible.

1b) ‘Sentence Extension’ is pushed to the limit, leading to ‘The longest sentence’ game, in which pairs write simple sentences, which are passed on the next pair who rewrite the full sentence, making any corrections they think necessary, and adding an extra clause. Each round continues until no group feels they can add anything grammatically acceptable. This is particularly useful for relative clause production.

2) Story telling is one of the rare activities that can be done in an evening class, in the winter, when the power has been cut!

3) Composition teaching at advanced level through “collage”: The class is divided, after the initial brainstorm, into as many groups as there will be paragraphs. Each group writes a paragraph, a form of writing students at this level feel they can handle with confidence; these are pasted together, in the original handwriting and leaving gaps between the pieces. The collage is then returned for students to focus on cohesion of the whole. The philosophy here is to start from where the learners are, rather than with the ideal composition. By providing writing which has been pasted without any attention to unity and coherence, the need for these two features becomes obvious.

3. Discussion:

The original purpose of the vocabulary activity was to get feedback on the level and type of knowledge the learners had. Words are not only learnt from textbooks, but from songs, advertisements, names of companies and words on clothes. This sampling technique possibly has great potential. Data given in tables 1 and 2 were collected within a limited time. Classes given longer time showed increasing repetition of words; Class 7A in Table 1 was given several minutes more but shows the class generating relatively fewer words (as a ratio over the number of papers written); in this class ‘school’ got 17 mentions, ‘you’ 12 and ‘teacher’ and ‘book’ 11, while in the 7B class only the word ‘pencil’, given 15 times, got more than 10 mentions; the 6A class mentioned ‘hello’ 13 times. A study could be undertaken to establish an effective time, which would generate greatest number of words without excessive repetition.

When done within a time limit, this method gives a rapid impression of the most readily recalled lexis. This does not mean that other words are unknown. For example, the sample in Table 2 gives ‘mother’, ‘father’ and ‘grandmother’; from this it could safely be inferred that ‘grandfather’ would be known. Thus only the tip of the proverbial iceberg is revealed.

As this sampling was done at class level, it gives no indication of the variation among the learners. The presence of even a single good student could sway the outcome. However, I am disregarding it as the presence of such a student in a class is potentially a resource for the others.

It is interesting to note that the lower grade Year 6 is able to generate a significant number of words not produced by those at a higher level. Theoretically, the knowledge of the more advanced learners should include all of that from lower levels. The data disprove this, but what does this signify? Is this a disregard for the simpler words that mattered at the beginning, or something else?

Some words have been remembered due to similarity with L1, for example ‘artist, balloon, basketball, bicycle, cinema, doctor, office, piano. The word ‘lamb’ may be from ‘lamba’, the Turkish for lamp.

Very few adjectives are recalled; other than colours, there are only 7 adjectives in the 266 word list, perhaps reflecting the lack of need at beginner level.

There is an unexpected singular / plural differentiation; the data include ‘boy’ and ‘girls’, ‘carrot’ and ‘onions’, ‘apple’ and ‘bananas’ and ‘baby’ and ‘child’! I have no idea why this is happening…

As regards verbs, the verb ‘to be’ is recalled in greatest frequency and with most variety of forms, as expected. Then the data are not so regular with only four past forms, and one verb is given only as past participle: ‘seen’!

Finally some words aren’t actively identified as individual words e.g. ‘many’ and ‘am’ are only recalled in conjunction with other words.

When comparing the list of total vocabulary collected with that recommended for starters (Cambridge Young Learners), a couple of points can be made:

— When looking at words in the data not given in the Cambridge Starter lexis, there is a higher than expected frequency of nouns. Is this because they are more concrete, or less irregular?

— The Adapazar? data include most days of the week, and twenty three different numbers; the Cambridge list omits all days of the week and numbers beyond ten, sequences that learners can ‘safely’ memorise….

The story telling activity is suitable for a less responsive class. However the minimum level of passive knowledge of English of the class must be known to be able to pitch at a stimulating enough level without excluding the weaker members.

This short story correspondence has not only benefiting the limited number of learners in Adapazarı. These minibooks have been appreciated by a wider audience, including a thirteen year old who has dropped out of school and been labelled unsuccessful by his teachers. He was able to understand all the sentences without assistance. In another instance, a 7-year old, after a year of intensive English, read the book I had written as a reply, and declared she too would write one. She produced a long narrative of English words in a combination of Turkish and English structures. This would provide an excellent basis for editing skills…


Holt J. (1968) How children fail. Pitman.

Manchester City council, Education Department. (1988) Early Literacy Project: A Framework for Assessment.

Reading in Junior Classes (1985) Department of Education , Wellington, New Zealand.

University of Cambridge Local Examination Syndicate, 1998, Handbook: Cambridge Young Learners.

Appendix 1:
The teacher tells a story about ‘a friend’. eg:

“Hasan is from Samsun.

He is eleven.

He is a student (note: though ‘pupil’ is more correct in British English, I do not correct this slight misuse of vocabulary, so as not to confuse the children or dent the image of the class teacher. This word came up ten times in the three classes sampled; it is taught vocabulary)

Hasan is Turkish; he is a Turkish boy….not a Turkish girl!

He has two sisters and a brother. (these can be exploited in a different story)

He has got…….animals (eg a donkey), toys, etc….

He can…….ride a bicycle can’t……swim

He hasn’t got….a bicycle!

Poor Hasan! What can he do? (open to invitations from the class, often given in L1 but later translated into English.)

He can ask his big sister: Please can I ride your bicycle?

He can ask his father: Please can I have a bicycle?

He can ask his friend: You play with my football. I play with your bicycle.

He can take (a more basic word than ‘steal’)!

He can sell his donkey and buy a bicycle…

He can work with his donkey; he can sell potatoes, tomatoes, leblebi (nutty chickpeas),….. and get money….. and buy a bicycle!

Table 1: Summary of data collected in 3 middle school classes, expanded in Table 2.

(+ from Year 6, * from Year 7A, and ^ from Year 7B)

+ * ^

  1. of papers 198 418 281
  1. of words 96 168 132
  1. of unique words 34 79 52

Of a total of 266 different words collected, 31 were mentioned in all three classes.

Table 2: Total vocabulary collected from three secondary school classes in Adapazarı.

For symbols, see Table 1

about * afternoon ^

apple * ^

are *

armchair *

artist ^

baby + * ^

bag * ^

ball ^

balloon ^

bananas ^

bank * ^

basketball *

because ^

bed * ^

begin *

bell *

bicycle * ^

big + *

bird + * ^

black + * ^

blue + * ^

board + ^

book + * ^

box * ^

boy *

brother ^

bus * ^

butterfly +

cake ^

calendar +

car * ^

carrot ^

cat + * ^

ceiling *

chair * ^

cherry *

children ^

cinema *

class + ^

clock + *

coca cola *

color ^

come *

computer + ^

country *

cup *

dark *

dear +

desk + ^

dictionary *

dinner *

do *

doctor * ^

does * ^

dog + * ^

done *

door * ^

down *

drank *

drink * ^

duck +

duster ^

ear ^

eat ^

egg ^

eight + ^

eighty +

elbow *

elephant + * ^

eleven + *

English * ^

eraser + ^

exercise *

farmer ^

father + * ^

fifteen ^

fifty +

fish + * ^

five + * ^

flag *

flower + * ^

football * ^

forty +

four + * ^

France *

free *

Friday ^

friends ^

from + * ^

garden ^

girls * ^

glass +

gloves +

go *

good + *

got *

grandmother ^

green * ^

grocer *

had *

hat * ^

have *

he + *

hear ^

heavy *

hello + ^

help * ^

helped *

homework ^

horse ^

house * ^

how + * ^

how many *

hundred + *

I + *

I’m +

in *

iron *

is + *

it + * ^

jam *

jar *

jump *

king +

kitchen *

lamb ^

lawyer +

lemon +

lesson ^

library *

life *

like *

lion +

listen ^

love +

made *

make *

man *

milk * ^

miss +

Monday * ^

monkey ^

morning * ^

mother + ^

mount *

music ^

my +

name + *

net +

nine +

no *

notebook + * ^

nurse ^

o’clock *

office ^

old +

one + * ^

onions ^

orange * ^

oranges ^

parent *

party *

peasant +

pen + * ^

pencil + * ^

pencilbox ^

pencilcase + *

piano ^

picture * ^

pink * ^

plate *

play * ^

police ^

poor +

pullover +

put *

rabbit + *

red + * ^

room *

rubber * ^

ruler * ^

run * ^

sailor ^

sandwich ^

Saturday ^

school + * ^

schoolbag + ^

seen *

seesaw *

seven + * ^

seventy +

she + * ^

shoes ^

sister * ^

sit *

six + * ^

sixty + ^

skirt +

sleep * ^

small +

some *

speak ^

spent *

spoon +

strawberry *

student + * ^

sugar *

sun *

Sunday * ^

swim * ^

table * ^

tailor ^

take off *

tea * ^

teacher + * ^

teeth *

television *

ten ^

tennis ^

that + *

the + *

their *

there + *

they *

thirteen +

thirty +

this *

thousand +

three * ^

ticket *

tomorrow *

toothpaste * ^

tree + * ^

Tuesday + *

twelve +

twenty *

two + * ^

umbrella ^

van +

vase +

verb ^

volleyball ^

wall +

want *

was *

wasn’t ^

we *

Wednesday +

well *

were * ^

what + *

when ^

where + * ^

white ^

window + *

word *

work *

yard *

yellow + * ^

yes + *

yesterday ^

yet *

you + *

your ^

zero +