Do your students immediately ask you for help when they don’t understand something? That they feel comfortable asking you is one thing. Relying on you to explain EVERYTHING to them is another. You need linguistic investigations. One of the toughest aspects of teaching adult ESL is, the better you are at it, the less your students need you. In fact, your true success is when you render yourself obsolete! You’ll still have a job–in fact, you’ll be more in demand than before because other students will want to learn how to achieve the same success. So, how does NOT teaching them, in fact, teach them more than anything else, and what does that actually look like?
Teaching Students to Teach Themselves with linguistic investigations
Never heard of it before? I’m both not surprised and amazed that this isn’t more widespread. We are so accustomed to doling out information to students. Hey, it’s how we learned it, right? Even in my education classes where professors extorted us not to be a “sage on a stage,” they said so during hour-long lectures while we took notes. (I got my master’s back in 2013, but I doubt there’s been a huge change since then.) But, know better, do better, right?
How to teach with linguistic investigations
Choose the concept.
You aren’t going to use linguistic investigations to cover ALL the grammar you need to cover in your class. Loads of time just isn’t a given in intensive English programs. To start with, choose something very specific. A verb tense is just too broad. A present perfect linguistic investigation will work better for students who already know how to do a linguistic investigation. This doesn’t mean you have to do something basic. Just pick a distinct aspect of present perfect, such as the use of for vs. since.
Create the materials.
Just because your students will teach this rule to themselves doesn’t mean you don’t have work to do. First, create two lists of present perfect sentences…about half using “for” and half using “since.” Use negative and positive statements, as well as yes/no and information questions. This is important because you don’t want them drawing a false conclusion that “for” is never used in questions just because you neglected to provide an example sentence in question format.
Next, type up all these sentences in a table to create cards. This is not the time to handwrite because you will need several sets of these cards, about one set per 2-4 students. Make the cards large enough that they are easily handled but not so large that they won’t fit on the surface of whatever your students have to work on. Ensure the font is easily read and the size is as big as possible. Print, cut, and store each set in a separate plastic bag (sandwich or snack-sized). Using a different color of paper for each set will eliminate any hassle of getting cards back into the correct sets if they accidentally get mixed up.
Set up your student groups.
Divide the class into small groups of 2-4 students. Have them clear all their belongings from the surface of the table/desks. Tell them that while they won’t be investigating a crime, they will be examining the “scene” for “clues” during their investigation into grammar. You’ll have to give many more instructions for the first couple of linguistic investigations than will be needed in subsequent investigations. This is one of the beauties of this type of activity–you eventually do nothing beyond prepping materials.
Provide students with a framework.
With “for” and “since,” it’s easy to see what they need to do first. Tell them to read the cards and decide what they all have in common. You may want to provide a further hint and tell them to decide what all the VERBS have in common.
Once they have determined that the sentences are all in present perfect (or that they all use have/has and verb three), ask them to divide them into two groups. Now, they might divide them into statements and questions or use some other method to decide what makes up the groups. That’s fine; congratulate them on having found a way to divide them and then challenge them to find another way.
Once they have divided the cards into a for pile and a since pile, they are ready for the next part. Ask them why some sentences have for, and some have since. You can go a little further and ask them to look for patterns, or you can even ask about patterns in the time expressions. I’ve found it’s best to give as little information as possible and then dribble in bits more as necessary.
Especially for the first few investigations, I often give them guideposts with my facial expressions and my sounds of “a-haaaa” or “eeeehhhh” or even use “You’re getting warmer” to motivate them and steer them along.
Students articulate the rule that you never told them.
This is it! This is when your students will tell YOU what the rule is for using for vs. since in a present perfect sentence. Unlike when you just give them the rule, they are far more likely to remember it and not ask you about it again the very next day. Plus, they have just learned that grammar has patterns and that they can use those patterns to discover a rule. Well, they may not have grasped that yet, but you don’t have to tell them. They’ll realize it soon enough as they do more linguistic investigations.
Sounds great, but…
But I don’t have time for all this! Yeah, I hear you. It’s not something you can do every day or for every grammar concept. Only you can determine how often an activity like this is feasible for your teaching situation. Just remember that the more often you can do it, the faster they will become at completing it. Plus, once they know how to do this type of activity, it’s JUST THE THING to do when you know you are going to be observed.
Think about it–there’s very little teacher-talk, group work, lots of speaking opportunities for students, a high level of engagement–all the things whoever is observing you would want to see. And if you have students who just DON’T talk much, reward the ones who do! I’ve sometimes given a prize not to the group that discovered the rule first but to the group of students who talked it out amongst themselves the most. When they don’t know which will garner the prize, they’re more likely to talk more as they try to solve the mystery.
Want to give linguistic investigations a whirl?
Head on over to my TpT store to grab my free For/Since in Present Perfect Linguistic Investigation resource.
And now something special just for you!
This is NOT available in my TpT store, but you can still get it for free. Sign up to get my Participial Adjectives Linguistic Investigation now, and you’ll get on the email list for the weekly password to the subscribers’ freebie library. I add a new resource every week!