IATEFL Belfast 2022: Emergent language: Activities and answers to the key questions – Richard Chinn and Danny Norrington-Davies

Richard and Danny are going to look at activities you can use to start working with emergent language in the classroom.

Unplanned language that is needed or produced by learners during meaning-focussed interactions. This language is then explored through re formulation, clarification and support from the teacher.

Chinn and Norrington-Davies, 2022 (forthcoming)

It includes errors and communicative breakdowns, but also covers alternative ways of producing the same meanings. It can also be language that teachers or learners judge to be in some way new, interesting or useful to share. And it includes questions raised by learners about an aspect of language.

These are some of the key questions Danny and Richard are asked, some of which will be covered in this presentation.

Issue 1: I find it hard to hear what my learners are saying

It can be a challenge to tune in and listen carefully. We can’t necessarily hear errors or gaps.

First, we need to focus on the meaning of what learners are saying. Focus on the content. Develop listening skills to work on learner language.


  • Stop listening for errors – focus on meaning. What are the interesting things they’re saying? What is worth sharing?
  • Spend time tuning into individual groups (not just 10 seconds)
  • Note down what they are talking about
  • Put these points on the board to support feedback on content after discussion parts of the lesson

Tuning in task:

  1. In class set the learners a meaning focused speaking task where there is an exchange of ideas.
  2. While they’re speaking, unobtrusively move around the group listening to what they’re saying.
  3. Write notes on the board.
  4. Use these to focus your feedback.

In our discussion after a task Richard and Danny gave us, Jason Anderson and I talked about focussing on how people communicate, not just what they say. Some of the emergent language Jason and I selected might be the vocabulary they were lacking, but also the B2 learners’ ability to interact and help the other person understand your point, rather than focussing on getting your point across. This was the text we were discussing (which we heard rather than read):

Emergent language doesn’t have to just be grammar and lexis focussed. It can be about how we communicate ideas, how we express things in a way that doesn’t offend others.

Here’s an example of what they might put on the board to frame their feedback:

Here are examples of some of the prompts they might use to work on the emergent language:

Creating the conditions for facilitating meaningful feedback

  • Build rapport (Mercer and Dornyei, 2020)
  • Congruence – being genuine
  • Attitude towards the learner – unconditional positive regard (always being positive to learners, even if you don’t agree with them)
  • Empathy
  • Asking more referential questions (Thornbury, 1996) – genuine, real questions which the teacher can’t necessarily answer

Using these skills, one teacher reported:

  • Better able to notice what the learners were talking about
  • Able to relax
  • Able to notice interesting points which students were making
  • Conducted useful feedback on content
  • Didn’t pick up on any EL yet
  • Able to ask extra questions
  • Later on was able to work on EL once he’d developed these skills

Issue 2: What aspects of language/interaction should I focus on?

This depends on the context you’re teaching in and the kind of students you’re teaching.

Here are possible examples, but there are other possible answers:

  • Prioritising language that causes miscommunications/ obvious gaps
  • Choosing language or interactional skills relevant to the teaching context
  • Focusing on repeated issues with the same or similar forms / repeated interaction issues
  • Choosing a gauge that is interesting or useful
  • Focussing on high frequency language
  • Recycling previously taught content
  • Working with language influenced by the learner’s L1
  • Providing feedback on task specific language / interactional moves

An interesting process could be using a transcript and/or recording for a teacher training workshop within a school, getting teachers to discuss these areas.

What can I do next?

Gathering data

You can do it by instinct, but recording yourself doing feedback on content can be really useful for reflection. Note your moves as a teacher, student uptake etc (Walsh, 2011).

Take photos of your board.

Keep a teaching journal.

Dialogue with colleagues (Walsh and Mann, 2017)

Discussing student reactions

Discussing what is suitable for your context

Discoveries can be illuminati very (more about what you knew you do) and heuristic (more about what you didn’t know you do)


  • Focus on genuine, meaningful interaction and pick up on content.
  • Examine your underlying beliefs about the language you do decide to pick up on and monitor your practice
  • Explore your practice with colleagues.

Danny commented that teachers who started to work with emergent language found that over time students started to share more and be more positive about these interactions. Teachers who were reluctant to work with EL initially found that over time they and students got better about working with it.

Danny and Richard have written a book: Working with Emergent Language which will be published soon:

4 thoughts on “IATEFL Belfast 2022: Emergent language: Activities and answers to the key questions – Richard Chinn and Danny Norrington-Davies

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.