Please, Draw the Word ‘House’

There is a great chance you already asked your students to draw or maybe designed a lesson which students were required to show off their artistic skills regardless their age. The value of such activity when teaching infants is commonly known, they love drawing and it is a tool to check whether the students are in accordance with what has been taught. As for adult learners, they are more hesitant in performing this kind of task, but the reason for applying it is similar. To check their understanding. However, there are linguistic reasons for having students draw and they are related to their acquisition of a foreign language. Leia mais

The Word Won’t Escape Me Anymore

If you were ever interested in becoming acquainted with a speech impairment called aphasia and its effects on people, you probably read this amazing and very humane book “The Word Escapes Me: Voices of Aphasia”. This book brings reports of professionals and patients with aphasia (PWA) with emotional and realistic descriptions of what life is like when speech suddenly becomes a hassle. Although the book contains real stories involving all sorts of aphasia, this article will focus on Wernicke’s aphasia and how linguistics can help PWAs overcome it.


– Understanding the monster

Before we start talking linguistics and possible solutions that can bring speech back to its track we need to understand what Wernicke’s aphasia stands for.

Wernicke’s aphasia is a speech disorder derived from a stroke or another kind of brain accident that hinders oral competencies of people. The injury happens in the superior temporal lobe in the left hemisphere of the brain which means that comprehension of the language is directly affected, but differently from other types of aphasia, this one also disables the ability people have to understand and produce certain words intelligibly and so it is called the fluent aphasia (

What this kind of impairment does to people’s speech can be noted in (1) and (2) and it is important to shift your attention to the person replying in this conversation ( for it is the motive PWAs struggle getting their normal lives back, but in time, they realize that there is a new normal.

(1) Hi Nicole! What did you do this weekend?

(2) Hi Mary Kay! I went to the catabot and then I saw the gleeblabla…


– What does linguistics have to do with it?

At a first glance, this may seem more a medical issue than a linguistics topic for analysis, but if we take a closer look you will see that linguistics is just as related.

Considering Neurolinguistics, it is possible to find the relation since the superior front lobe of the left hemisphere is responsible for formulating our speech (Robson et al., 2014), i.e. when we are engaged in a conversation, the left part of our brain is the machine that puts words together, combines them in the syntax of our language and not least importantly, it also finds out the intention behind words and syntactic order. Then, all of a sudden PWAs find themselves in a situation where this part of their brains insists in not working as it did before.

This new situation shatters the person’s self esteem and this can be one of the factors that supports the idea that their intentions remain untouched even though their utterances are not in compliance. If we consider the previous dialogue, in (2) the patient clearly produced noises instead of words, but if they had access to maybe a written paraphrased text they could have a chance to communicate better. Given this situation, one can support that there is not a single utterance that is intention-free, i.e. every speech is then a locutionary sentence full of intentions and enforcements other than just say something (Austin, 1975).

A third connection between Wernicke’s aphasia and linguistics is regarding PWAs’ recovery. You may have heard of the term neuroplasticity before, but is that really clear to you? So, let’s figure it out. Even though we do have certain parts of our brain that is responsible for decoding certain types of information – the left superior temporal lobe is responsible for languages – many parts of our brain work at the same time when we speak or are exposed to speech. If our brains were an unchangeable organ, then there would be a limit for the amount of info we could insert in it, but that is definitely not the case for we learn, decode, relate new things all the time and yet our brains are still there, inside our skull. This happens due to the connection our neurons make with one another linking information which is called synapse.  Considering that this can perfectly happen as long as there are neurons, PWAs have a chance to re-acquire their speech with a frequent amount of guided exposure which will then trigger the neural compensation, i.e. they will start using parts of their brain (mainly the right hemisphere) when engaged in a conversation.


– The words won’t escape anymore

We have seen in this article that Wernicke’s aphasia is a result of a brain injury mainly caused by a stroke that impairs speech regarding utterances, we have also talked about the connection between this impairment and linguistics theories when we linked aphasia with how languages are decoded, how preserved intentions can be a the key to speech re-acquisition and now we will see how Tomasello’s Usage-based Learning studies are aligned with a proposal to make PWAs’ speech become closer to what it used to be.

According to Wartenburger et al. (2003), meaning of words is a result of a declarative memory, i.e. someone will tell the meaning of a word and it will not hinge on assumptions or conjecturing. Indeed, this kind of exposure can benefit PWAs as it happens in classes where a teacher will design lessons which will provide patients with a great amount of exposure triggering parts of the brain that were not affected by the injury. This combination complies with studies on Usage-based Learning since this exposure will be the fuel for the neural combustion because the intervention of the teachers through their lessons might be the stimulus that these patients need to compensate the hemisphere that got impaired by the injury. Therefore, without this social input speech re-development would limp and opposite is also true. Without higher functions speech cannot be whole. If that was so, PWAs would not need any type of compensation to speak properly again, but they do need and they do compensate which leads us to one conclusion: we don’t have a specific organ dedicated to organize our speech, we learn to speak as we learn everything else – with exposure, repetition and reasoning (Tomasello, 2003).

Thus, the exposure to the language they want to re-develop will work as the model for the new brain connections so that the intention (previously stated as preserved) regain their proper outcome – the speech. The role linguists have in this new  era of a patient is very important such as the understanding of how acquisition takes place and also the implications that this process has on the brain of the person. In addition to that, and maybe more important than anything else, respect the individual, have empathy, acknowledge their emotions and rescue their story. This will make our jobs easier.

Well-Structured Classes Give You Wings

I have already mentioned in previous articles the importance of having a 3P structure for our lesson plan, but I have never dove into this issue because otherwise we would turn a simple 500-word article into a book. However, it is possible to detail this structuring through Lecercle’s speaker/listener system and how it promotes autonomy of our students – because autonomy.

Lecercle’s communication structure (1999) establishes that a speaker utilizes cognition to organize utterances and then produce them. All this linguistic information – phonetic combination, syntactic structure, lexical choices, intention, etc – reach the listener who has the role of decoding what is being spoken, understand the information and formulate his own reply once is his turn to talk. This system turns listening into an active skill and we can do the same with our students in the classroom (that’s why I insist in saying that teacher have to develop their lesson plan and not only lean on textbooks). Making our students listen and speak gives them an opportunity to use their higher functions (cognition) to make out what is being said to them and also it allows them to produce and such production is the main step to have them work freely.

The deal here to make our students have more and more autonomy, which here is the use of English to perform tasks, is to develop our lesson plan very well and carefully. Brazil is still at the baby-step phase with regard to the implementation of student-centered culture, but we English teachers can start promoting it and dividing our classes in sections Presentation, Practice, Performance makes the assignment of this freedom to do their activities more natural and these activities are going to be developed to meet the needs of our students. In order to shorten this article and not make you doze off or lose interest and turn on the TV – I myself do doze off when texts are too long – I’m going to put the highlight on the last P, Performance. This is the phase that we teachers worry about having our students work freely. Debates, role plays, games are some of the tasks that promote students’ autonomy for, in a drilling phase, we can challenge our students with tasks which communication in the target language is essential for the activity to be successful. Our role then is to pay close attention at our students’ performances (remember that the grouping and pairing them up facilitates) without any sort of interference. After all, we seek student autonomy and having them talk, listen, understand and solve problems is our goal. If we put our hands in it, we break the whole purpose of the activity.

We sure talked about only a chunk of our lesson plan and many other things can be done in the other P-sections of our classes. However, what matters is that we create activities that are relevant and promote autonomy by speaking the target language (English in this case). This will only happen if we prepare our classes, if we teachers leave the status quo and try to commit to developing our lesson plans. The activities will certainly be positive more often for nobody knows students better than the teachers.

To Correct Or Not To Correct? That’s The Question

Have you guys ever seen that little plant that when it’s touched it closes instantly? Well, that’s exactly what happens to our students when teacher end up poorly providing feedback. Correction is the moment in which students really learn and this learning will influence the evaluation they will go through.

For times, teachers believe they have the formula for correction and support the perspective that students must receive feedback firmly for thus order and discipline will be kept. That is not true. Correction is more technical than behavioral and with regard to English classes, order has a different characteristic: it comes from noisy classes because students have to talk and express themselves. Thus, the feedback given by the teacher needs to be delicate, subtle, preferably with as a follow-up activity so that students do not feel they are being punished. A follow-up activity with a good transition will transmit to the students the necessary information for the feedback towards errors without that look of ‘what a boring teacher, he corrects me all the time’ for students not always need to know they are receiving feedback.

According to Ellis, Loewen and Erlam (2006), it is through feedback that acquisition takes place for they have almost all their attention directed to the teacher besides the activity have happened moments before, i.e. it is easy for students to relate the correction to what they said. Among the types of feedback available there are explicit and implicit feedback. As redundant as it may sound, the explicit one is evident for our students that they are being corrected whereas the explicit is not (duh, huh?). The explicit form of feedback is apparent for students there was an error or mistake for correction is directly addressed to the student.

Student: Yesterday I go to the mall.

Teacher: You need past tense here.

Student: Yesterday I went to the mall.

In classrooms with younger students or with a beginner level of proficiency, this type of feedback tends to be more effective for students are said what they should have uttered.

For students with a proficiency level a bit higher (let’s be clear here that i’m not talking about C1s or C2s only), corrections can be made subtly and yet be very effective. Recasts are also a very subtle way of correcting  our students without their noticing they are actually being corrected for recasts are part of implicit feedback category.

Student: She will going to the concert tonight.

Teacher: Oh! She will go to the concert. What concert will she go to?

Student: She will go to Foo Fighter’s concert.

Obviously, by using recasts the expectation is that the student notices the proper model of the language and reproduces it from that moment on, although that doesn’t always happen.

Whether we use explicit or implicit feedback, we have to be sure corrections will be made subtly, delicately so we do not block English in our students minds. Furthermore, poorly offered feedback will not generate the desired outcome which means that moment when students say ‘oh yeah, I got it’ will not happen. there isn’t a magic formula for feedback, it hinges on the profile of our students after a thorough scanning by the teachers and on the development of follow-up activities so that our plant do not close.

A GPS For The Scavenger Hunt

I am pretty sure that all teachers, and I am one of them, have already used bi-dimensional maps whether they were those fold-up maps, illustrations that were in  textbooks or even a simple map drawing on the board. But, imagine the reaction of a student whose daily routine is all about iPads, Playstations and smartphones. Such map would be really boring to this kid.

That’s exactly when someone might say “map apps are also bi-dimensional. How can they be so different from what has been done in the classroom?”. Well,  many maps nowadays are 3-D which means that teaching directions and even some expressions that are very useful for those who travel often or those who don’t want to get lost when looking for a place or address. As a drilling activity the teacher can design a game in which the classroom becomes a neighborhood and then students are separated in groups. Each group  can be a car, given that every car would have 4 people, then there would be around 10 cars on the “street”. In case there is and odd number of  students, there can also be pedestrians and bikers. The teacher can be a traffic guard controlling the “traffic” so that students respect the rules (all communication must be made in the target language). When students do something other than what they were asked to, the teacher corrects them using the appropriate technique granting the “traffic” flow.

I know I have mentioned Michael Tomasello and his study on language acquisition through its use before. This means that interaction takes an important role in the acquisition process of sintax, phonetics, semantics and pragmatics whereas the brain then has the responsibility of decoding  all these features, thinking, in other words, to produce sppech in an organized manner. I wonder if the proposed activity is aligned with Tomasello’s proposal. Let’s find out. The interaction between student and teacher happens naturally and the fact this is a group activity the Zone of Proximal Development takes place and students can assess one another and communication in the target language (maybe with very few words in Portuguese) stimulates cognition in the acquisition process. Mission accomplished! But what about the map? And what is so techie about it? At the end of the lesson plan there may be a performance activity, when students fly freely, without interference from teachers. Considering a class of Primary school, or maybe the first grades of Secondary, the teacher can suggest a scavenger hunt. The plus here is tat the teacher can hand out GPS devices and set them to English language so that students find their treasure by listening to the directions given by the device.

Almost everyone has seen and used a GPS device. Stepping into a classroom with an activity that requires old fold-up maps is nonsense in a context and reality where students use smartphones and tablets. Doing it so might demotivate students and they are not going to be as engaged as you wanted them to, resulting in a poor performance. Once motivation is zero, then the whole process is disabled. But that is an issue for another post.