The Pre-Teaching Dilemma

A very controversial issue that I always come across in discussions related to English-language-teaching is whether pre-teaching is recommendable. Most discussions I’ve seen revolve around the pre-teaching of vocabulary before a reading or listening. On the one hand, pre-teaching of key vocabulary allows students to tackle the task more easily and reduces their anxiety. On the other hand, it is not a very natural activity, as in the real world we are not pre-taught the vocabulary in texts that we read or listen to We need to learn strategies to handle unknown words. I do not want to expand the discussion of whether or not to pre-teach vocabulary and I think Rachel Roberts provides valuable tips on this, while Chia Suan Chong makes the case against pre-teaching. My focus in this post is going to be on the pre-teaching of language structures.

I have recently watched several sample classes on the same lesson for beginners – one about the weather. The lesson starts with a preview of the unit, in which students are expected to explore a picture of rain in the city of Kolkata and the title – “What’s the weather like?”  Then they are asked to read a group of sentences –  such as, “it’s rainy.” / “It’s stormy.” / “It’s sunny.” – and listen to sounds related to the weather conditions to do a matching activity. The purpose of the activity,  as its name goes, is to provide a preview of the lesson. In other words, it is a discovery activity. Perhaps, just perhaps, the teacher can pre-teach stormy, rainy, sunny, etc., so students can perform the task more confidently, but just that, and very quickly. Otherwise, the activity becomes too easy and there is no language discovery involved.

This preview activity is followed by another listening activity in which teens from different countries are chatting online and one of them asks the others about the weather in their cities that day. Again, the purpose of this dialogue is to provide students with authentic-like input, at the discourse level,  in which the question – “What’s the weather like?” – is repeated in a meaningful context (input saliency/input flood), followed by its variations of answers. All students are required to do is look at a chart with words related to weather and check what each person says about their city. Only then will students engage in a conversation about the weather in their city – after having been exposed to the meaningful input, at the discourse level.

However, eight out of ten of the prospective teachers I have observed teaching this lesson started it with their elaborate PowerPoint presentations, with beautiful pictures that they used not only to teach all the weather conditions, including some that were not part of the preview activity, but also to engage students in drills to practice asking and answering questions with “What’s the weather like?” All this before students even opened their books.  Thus, when they finally did open their books and performed the listening activities, these tasks were too easy and lost their purpose because there was no discovery involved. The teacher had already spoon-fed the students with the structure and the vocabulary. The preview activity, which was supposed to provide meaningful input to students so that, later, they could analyze this input and figure out the language structure, was totally spoiled.

This is the kind of pre-teaching that I think we should eliminate from our practice. It is related to teachers’ need to control the learning so much that there is no room for discovery, for uncertainty, for listening to nature’s sounds without knowing all the weather words, for example, and answering by elimination. Students practice the structure in a rote manner without having first observed how this structure is used in a meaningful, authentic-like context. Form comes before meaning, when it should be the opposite. Language is reduced to the sentence level in the PowerPoints, when in fact it is presented at the discourse level in the book. However, using the book is bad. “Let’s do something outside the book,” many believe.

Bearing this in mind, the next time you introduce a lesson, consider these questions:

  • What is the purpose of the unit-opening or the preview activity? To pre-teach the vocabulary and the structure or just to contextualize it, to provide input, and to motivate students for the lesson to come?
  • Am I allowing students to discover the language or am I spoon-feeding them?
  • Am I getting something that is being presented in the book at the discourse level and presenting it at the sentence level using my PowerPoint just for the sake of not opening the book?
  • Am I allowing students to experience a healthy dose of uncertainty and ambiguity in the classroom, so they will learn how to face it in their L2 experiences outside of it?


Isabela Villas Boas

Isabela Villas Boas holds a Master's Degree in Teaching English as a Second Language from Arizona State University and a Ph.D. in Education from Universidade de Brasília. She has been at Casa Thomas Jefferson for 33 years, where she is currently the Corporate Academic Manager . Her main academic interests are second language writing, teacher development, ELT methodology, and assessment. She also supervises MA dissertations for the University of Birmingham. She has recently published the book “Teaching EFL Writing - A Practical Approach for Skills-Integrated Contexts.

  • David Deubelbeiss
    Posted at 11:09h, 28 fevereiro Responder

    I disagree with your conclusions. What you should rather conclude from your observations of teachers is 1. no textbooks need to be used …. teachers are quite capable of preparing interesting, motivating, instructing materials on their own Plus, we always teach better when we do this. 2. Let student “have a go” then review vocabulary as needed based on assessment of student knowledge and ability. Be more inductive. (you did address this).

  • Isabela Villas Boas
    Posted at 21:24h, 27 maio Responder

    Dear David, I am really sorry that I missed your comment and did not respond in due time.. Dealing with multiple platforms can be a challenge for me sometimes. I understand your point about the textbook, but this is not totally possible in our context..However, I don’t think this is the real point here. Even if no textbook is used, an inexperienced teacher can sort of spoil the discovery process that should happen with whichever materials they choose to use. This is the aspect that I really wanted to emphasize and I apologize if this was not totally clear. Anyway, thank-you for your feedback and sorry again for taking so long to respond.
    Best regards,

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