Then one day I got Jeremy Harmer’s book “The Practice of English Language Teaching” and found out more about the discovery technique i.e. the ways to encourage students “to work out for themselves how language forms are constructed and used”. How does it work? Let me show you an example.
Put your students into pairs and give them the following exercise:
A: It's a lovely summer day, isn't it?
B: Sunny and not too hot. You like summer, don't you?
A: To be honest, I prefer spring. But we haven't had much of it this year, have we?
B: You're right. It rained a lot, didn't it? I thought I'd turn into a mushroom.
Read the dialogue and pay attention to the words in red. They are called question tags. Now answer these questions:
1. What is the position of question tags in the sentence?
2. What do you notice about the word order?
3. Some are negative whereas one is positive. Can you figure out what the form depends on?
4. As you can see, the examples show the use of different auxiliary verbs. Can you explain the choice?
Can we use the same technique when teaching new vocabulary in a reading material? Of course, we can. I rarely pre-teach new vocabulary. I usually have my students read a text and try to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words from the context. What are the benefits of such approach? First of all, it makes them look for the overall meaning of the text. It makes them examine both context and grammar for clues. They become more engaged as readers. In order not to get them overwhelmed by dozens of new words, especially if the text is long, I always remind them that not all the words are equally important and that they should focus on those that are relevant to the story. When they fail to figure out the meaning of some words on their own, I use the technique I was taught by Andrew Weiler during his presentation “Ways of Teaching Vocabulary Using Reading Material”. The idea is to help students work out the meaning of a word by asking them questions which will lead them to the right answer. In other words, we should not explain the meaning of a word, but use questions to elicit the meaning.
Let me illustrate how it works.
“The British tradition of explorers dates back centuries, when intrepid men set across the ocean to discover new lands. The public have always looked up to these explorers as heroes, even if they were unsuccessful.” (taken from the text ‘A British Tradition’, Solutions, intermediate, OUP)
Who does the word describe? What qualities do you need to be an explorer? Look at the second sentence where the word ‘heroes’ is mentioned. What kind of a person do we regard as a hero? What do heroes and explorers often face?
Look up (to someone)
Look at the second part of the sentence: ‘even if they were unsuccessful’. Does it imply people are indifferent to explorers? What does it suggest? What feelings do explorers inspire in people?
These are possible questions I use with my students. The trick is to guide them step by step, adapting your questions to their response.
To be honest, this technique is time-consuming and cannot be put to practice at any time. Still, by using it, we do not enable our students only to learn new vocabulary. We help them become better learners. They ask questions in L2, look for clues, guess the meaning, discuss it, and think about the overall meaning of the text.