Sheltered Initiation Language Learning 

Intermediate exercises

These intermediate exercises exemplify SILL on an intermediate (and advanced level) — whether you are a student or a teacher. In either case, the techniques can be used with or without a regular textbook; for the student, this is a model of how to prepare yourself for an upcoming encounter involving a new topic or situation, as well as for routine independent study.

If an intermediate/advanced learner cannot learn five new words and immediately use them in confident speech, that would seem to be a big problem (and a reason for them to have started with SILL). But aim for SILL fluency now in any case.

Speaking (with or without a textbook).

After elementary level, it is best for each speaking lesson to have a specific topic: either a situation, or a topic for discussion (debate). We will exemplify the latter, imagining as a discussion topic whether America should commit itself to space travel and a space station.

(If using this technique with a regular textbook, select five words of greatest interest and usefulness for speaking in general, and teach them with the three Study-Steps used above. You can make two or three such speaking lessons out of any textbook lesson, and then use the rest of the lesson for comprehension and "pencil grammar.")

Note known words that might be relevant to the given topic, e.g. go, stay, live, Earth, good, bad, money, dollar, million, billion. (I am assuming that these words are known, not just that they were studied, by all students.)

Choose 5 words that are maximally useful for the given topic. This obviously does not include all relevant words. For example, I would prefer to teach star(s) rather than space, and to encourage using airplane rather than learning spaceship. The goal is to choose words that have general utility beyond the specific topic. Also, the easiest words possible should be chosen, and words that are very similar in sound or meaning should be avoided. A possible choice: star, important, station, airplane, travel.

Thus you ensure that the words are maximally usable. (If you are a teacher, correct the choice of words if appropriate before teaching them. If a student, make sure that you can say sentences fluently, and think of how to express your ideas simply; don’t think of additional words that you might want, but figure out how to say the most with words you know.)

Some 10-15 sample sentences should be made up before beginning the actual discussion.

A station in the stars is very important.

An airplane to the stars is a lot of money.

Only one or two or these should be presented to students as samples. Note how the emphasis is on simple ways to say interesting ideas, not on stylistically perfect sentences: Foreign learners are unlikely to be so perfect (unless you hover above them, and correct them endlessly).

After the actual discussion, comment on their fluency (confidence, continuousness, creativity).

You can have a post-mortem, mainly to check if there were any ideas that could have been expressed better. You can think of one or two more words that would be good to know — and have students learn them immediately. But beware of piling up dead words in the learners’ heads!

Creating comprehension exercises from a textbook

To use a foreign-language textbook (as a student), it is best to preview any given reading by "skip-reading"; circle all known words (but write translations, if you must, only in the margins, not in the text itself); then write your own short story (one or two sentences) in English using these words. (You can summarize words, rather than use them individually, e.g. foods rather than meat, bread, potatoes,…)

At this point, you should try to answer any available comprehension questions about the reading.

After this, you can work cooperatively with other learners. First, you can vote on your summaries.

Then, you can read intensively. Each student should be "in charge" of a single sentence. You must give (without apology or hedges) your best guess for the meaning of the whole sentence. If you know almost all words, you might give it word for word, using "zip" for each unknown word.

Other students should then contribute anything more that they know. When "in charge", their job is to contribute clearly, yours is to hear them, then deliver your improved translation. (In class you should be graded on the quality of your participation; as in speaking, hedges, vacillation, interruptions are harmful — just do your best in a loud, clear voice. No single student should be allowed to contribute more than once for each sentence, or otherwise to "dominate.")

Afterwards, go around the class, with each student repeating the improved translation for his or her sentence(s). Any additional ideas should be heard, and then the full translation repeated again.

"Summaries" and comprehension questions can be revisited at this point.

The teacher must not supply any translations, make any suggestions, or answer any questions through the whole process. She may comment if students are not cooperating effectively, by mumbling or hedging their suggestions, or not hearing each other; but she must not highlight correct answers, so as to guide students to the correct answer. The goal here is to ensure absolute independence.

Finally, students can be asked to guess, and then match, 5-10 words from the reading. They can check their guesses as homework, learn some new words, and then each do a more exact translation and correct their translations. The teacher can review in detail, and supply any desired translations; but, in general, the teacher should require student guesses for any answer that she gives.

Creating a comprehension exercise without a textbook

To create a comprehension exercise "from scratch" for a class that you teach, write a story using only words that all students know (not just that they have studied), for example:

Cities of America: Washington DC is where the president works; the White House is there. New York is the place where people do most business. Los Angeles is the place where most movies are made.

Write questions for this story, perhaps in the form of a table.





Then add "distracting material," using words so difficult that few if any students will know them, in the original story:

The following are some of the major cities of America: Washington DC is the urban center where the president and members of Congress work; the White House and Congress are located there. This is where federal laws are written and passed. New York is center of commerce, the place where people do most business, especially international deals and contracts. Los Angeles is the preeminent entertainment center, the place where most movies are made, whether for distribution in theaters or for television. The majority of celebrities maintain residence here.

Students should read and "summarize" the story (as described above), and answer comprehension questions individually; they are not allowed to leave blanks, and should avoid "hedging" expressions like "I’m not sure, but maybe …"

After all this, they can work cooperatively (e.g. in small groups, then as a whole class), as described above, all the way through matching exercises on a few of the words in the "distracting material." As above, the teacher should maintain absolute silence, except for observing when students are not cooperating effectively, until after all exercises have been completed by students alone.

What a SILLy idea!

For students to speak and read on their own in class!

The goal in SILL is authenticity of skill: There is no point for students to read "authentic" newspapers if they can only read with a dictionary, just as there is no point for them to have "natural" conversations if they have to memorize them.

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