Learner’s internal syllabus


June 4, 2013 by Willy Cardoso

While everyone seems comfortable in the lock-step chain of activities so far presented in the lesson, the student with arms crossed, Marco, starts the exercise as soon as he can identify to which exercise the teacher is giving the directions. Surprisingly, or not, Marco finishes filling the gaps of ten decontextualised sentences someone once wrote in Oxford only a few seconds after the teacher finishes explaining what the twelve students in the class are supposed to do.

Marco starts looking at his colleague and shyly leans toward him as if seeking some form of communication. When without saying a word he finds the attention he was seeking, he… doesn’t say a word.

His colleague, Igor, asks “Did you finish?”; to which Marco replies very slowly, enunciating very clearly, as if trying to make his colleague notice each word:

I have just finished.

Igor: Just or already?

Marco: Yes.

Igor: Already. (slightly leaning his head forward, as if to show this is the correct form)

Marco: Just.

Igor: No, already. (repeating the same head movement)

Marco: I’ve just done.

Igor: No. Already done.

Marco looks a bit confused now, he frowns as he mulls over the impasse.

Igor: I have already done or I have just done?

They both think and cannot conclude. Marco looks at the teacher twice, but the teacher is not looking at him, so he doesn’t say anything.

‘Just is for 5 minutes ago’, continues Igor.

In a helpless look Marco shrugs and says ‘Okay’.

He sighs… and after some seconds he yawns.

The teacher now calls everyone to start checking the answers… to an exercise about the second conditional.


10 thoughts on “Learner’s internal syllabus

  1. stevebrown70 says:

    Yes! “It’s not in my plan so I’m not going to teach it”. THIS is why planning can be a bad thing!

  2. says:

    These teachers are everywhere :;((

    Enviado via iPhone

    • stevebrown70 says:

      Could this because teachers are encouraged to teach in this way on many teacher training courses?

      • Which teacher training courses are those? The ones I work on have never encouraged this kind of thing. In fact, I’d say the ‘teach the students, not the plan’ mantra is so well established that it’s something of a cliché…

      • stevebrown70 says:

        Yes, we say that a lot. But how much input do trainees actually get on HOW to do this? If you compare the amount of input on how to exploit learning opportunities as they occur with the amount of time spent focusing on planning lessons in advance, I think most teacher training courses lean more towards the latter.

      • In this case, it’s clearly not the teacher’s fault. In fact, I’d say there’s nothing the teacher can do. Each learner has an internal syllabus and it’s just impossible to tap into that all the time, unless it’s one-to-one tuition.
        If the teacher had heard the conversation above and intervened, some other students in the class could have felt ‘lost’ about the why’s of such intervention, or even feeling that the teacher is addressing something off-topic and ‘wasting’ classroom time. However, it could be that other students had similar doubts to Marco and Igor’s, so which way should the teacher go?

        Nonetheless, it seems to me in the situation I describe above that Marco, although probably more proficient then the rest of the group, is not a ‘good’ student in this class – and of course I use the word ‘good’ very cautiously, and I emphasize in this class, because in this class he clearly had some doubts and didn’t say anything, and in this class – apparently – questions that are not about the grammar of the day might be considered off-topic, even though I didn’t describe that.

        You’ll see that I didn’t mention anything about the teacher, the lesson plan, or anything else. This is about learners, two learners only, and I have no idea what exactly the other students were doing. But what I can suggest from this observation is central importance a learner’s internal syllabus in his/her language learning and how it can be destabilized by other learner’s internal syllabus. Notice that the first question Igor asks is ‘DID you finish?’, to which Marco answers ‘I HAVE just finished’ — to me Marco is drawing his colleague’s attention to the distinction between ‘did’ and ‘have’; but the negotiation carries on with a focus on just/already. So, Igor didn’t ‘take in’ the answer and followed his own agenda.

        As an insider I know the teacher would’ve done something, would’ve helped if the students asked her, but they didn’t. So again, this is not about teaching – it’s about learning.

      • I get your point about this being about the learner’s point of view of rather than the teacher’s, and situations like this are why I’m a fan of noticing/restructuring activities such as Dictogloss which draw learners towards noticing the gap between their internal syllabus (or interlanguage?) and one which they’re aiming for.

        Just to go back to this question of training courses though, I think giving a teacher input on to be flexible regarding the lesson plan is an avenue in which you can only go so far. I think this is something which comes with reflection on teaching practice. In this way, the trainee teacher (or just teacher) has their own ‘internal syllabus’ in terms of development, which they ‘negotiate’ through practice. It’s a tenuous link though, I know : )

  3. Hi Willy,
    This is good stuff! There is so much to be learnt for us as teachers from observing the processes of our learners.

    It reminds me of a Polish learner in a class of mine many years ago who used to really annoy me. Whenever I set up some kind of pair or group work activity he’d always be writing things down while his partners waited for him. What I later discovered was that he was making a note of the language items I was using for setting up the activities. He was a very successful language learner and this strategy seemed to work well for him.

    This was a massive learning curve for me and helped me to discover a couple of things which now seem obvious. Firstly that learners may be benefitting from what you do with them in class in a way which is different from what you had planned, and secondly about the value of teacher talk as comprehensive input.

  4. […] @muranava referred us to this post by Willy Cardoso […]

  5. Listen to your Student! It’s the only way to lead them to some learning.

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