Chia Suan Chong looks at pre-teaching and why we should consider dropping this stage of the receptive skills lesson.
What do preschool, prenatal, prenuptial, pre-op, pre-election, and pre-theatre have in common? They all refer to things that take place before the big event: before proper school begins, before the baby is born, before getting married, before the operation, before the election, and before the theatre show.
So when we talk about pre-teaching, are we talking about something that happens before the teaching?
What exactly is pre-teaching?
Pre-teaching refers to the teaching of certain skills that would be needed for a lesson. This is sometimes done in a session prior to the actual class, and can be helpful for students who might struggle to follow a lesson.
In the world of ELT, pre-teaching often refers to the teaching of vocabulary so that unknown words do not end up blocking the understanding of a listening or reading text. Here, pre-teaching is a in-lesson stage that often takes place before a speaking or writing task, providing students with the language they might need to carry out the task.
In the vein of words like ‘pre-book’ and ‘pre-agreed’, ‘pre-plan’ and ‘pre-cook’ (to book in advance; to agree in advance; to plan in advance; to cook e.g. for a party in advance), pre-teaching is what happens in advance of the main event i.e. the task.
It is important to point out that the main event in question here is the task: and that may be a listening task, a reading task, or a group task that involves speaking and writing. The main event is NOT the pre-teaching of lexis (or it won’t be called ‘pre-teaching’. It’d simply be teaching).
For the purpose of this article, I shall narrow the scope to receptive skills lessons (listening and reading) where pre-teaching is most commonly seen. After all, if it’s a speaking task, we could simply argue that learners need to have the opportunities to negotiate meaning. And if necessary, we could provide the necessary language only when the gap has been noticed and not trying to pre-empt the language they would need.
On a CELTA course, it is almost a given that trainees are indoctrinated into including a pre-teaching stage in any receptive skills lesson. And any CELTA tutor would tell you that observing a trainee pre-teach lexis can sometimes be puzzling, frustrating, and exasperating as they might
- Pick out every single unknown word in the text and pre-teach it, turning pre-teaching into a main event where a random list of vocabulary is presented one after the other with no context (because the context would come later in the form of the reading/listening text!)
- Pick out words that students already know and teach them.
- Pick out words that are so obscure and useless that students would probably never encounter them again.
- Pick out words that might be in the text but don’t really have much to do with the main message of the text.
- Pick out words that can easily be guessed from context and co-text when the students actually begin listening/reading.
Of course, it’d be unfair to expect trainees new to teaching to be able to successfully judge what words they should pick for the pre-teaching stage. It is a complex skill that requires knowledge of their students’ needs and lacks, a successful evaluation of which words are essential to the meaning of the text (and to the answering of the task questions), and a sound judgment of the lexis that have a higher frequency and are more useful to students.
While some teacher trainers have resorted to asking trainees to limit their pre-teaching to five lexical items, my more extreme response is to suggest that we cut out pre-teaching altogether and go straight for the main event.
After all, if it’s a receptive skills lesson, then shouldn’t the focus be on reading/listening skills and strategies?
And most importantly, pre-teaching prevents learners’ from developing a tolerance of ambiguity – a skill that is vital in language learning.
Have you ever met the kind of student who simply is unable to read a text without pausing every few words to check the dictionary for the meaning of the words they don’t know? In fact, they do it so much that they lose sight of the big picture: the meaning that the text is trying to convey.
Or the kind of student who is set a listening task but encounters an unknown word during the listening and gets so hung up on it that it creates a mental block and they are unable to focus on listening to the rest of the text?
I am extremely familiar with that kind of student not only because I have taught many of them, but also because that student was me.
Pre-teaching a list of words that I was about to encounter in a text would have temporarily placated my short-term needs to know every single word in that text. But then I’d probably start obsessing about some of the words on that list:
- How should I try and remember this word for the future?
- I know what the word means but I still don’t understand the reference. Do I need to check it out online?
- This looks like a word I’ve come across before but is this a different meaning to the one I already know?
- Why is it that I know the meaning of each word in this text but I still have no idea what it means!?!
Eventually, I’d have lost sight of the reading/listening task and having spent my time and energy fixating on the lexis, my confidence level is also likely to be extremely low.
However, one day, when I found some authentic materials that I really wanted to read, and some TV shows I really wanted to watch, I went ahead and did them sans any pre-teaching or obsessing about the lexis. It was by plunging into the deep end that my receptive skills really began to improve.
In getting rid of the pre-teaching stage, we can allow the main event to really take centre stage and give learners the opportunity to truly develop their receptive skills.
- Picking texts that are engaging so that the motivation to find out more would override issues with individual unknown lexical items;
- Having an explicit discussion on the receptive skills that are being developed and the strategies one could use;
- Help students understand that the sum of the individual parts, i.e. each and every word, does not necessarily make up the whole.
- Guiding learners to focus on the tasks at hand: What is the question asking? Avoid worrying about unknown words that are not relevant to the task question.
That said, if the text is question is an article about hedgehogs and your students don’t know the word ‘hedgehog’, then that might be sufficient reason enough to pre-teach it!