Speaking Hangman

Here’s another speaking activity you may want to try with your students to pep up your lessons. The aim of the activity is to increase student talking time and to supply them with ideas how to describe a picture exhaustively.

One of the tasks in the final speaking exam here in the Czech Republic is picture description. To complete the task successfully, students must describe a photograph and then compare it with a different picture. They don’t usually struggle with the language, but they do sometimes find it challenging to come up with enough points within the given time limit.  That’s why I thought it would be a good idea to give them more opportunities to practice this.

As a teacher, all you need to do during the preparation stage is find a sufficient number of picture sets. Each set consists of two images which are different but have lots of similarities too. I simply cut them out of magazines which were lying around, which didn’t take me more than ten minutes. Since you will be able to recycle this teaching material, it’s definitely worth the prep time.

Students work in pairs. Each pair gets one set of pictures (it’s good to have a set of three images in case you happen to have an odd number of students). The partners must not see each other’s pictures. They also need a piece of paper and a pen.

It’s best to demonstrate the activity with one student like this:

  • Student A: In my picture, there are some people. 
  • Student B: Yes. In my picture, the people are outdoors. 
  • Student A: Yes. In my picture, the people are doing a sport. 
  • Student B: No. (Student B draws one part of the Hangman image. It’s his/her turn again). In my picture, the people are all boys. 
  • Student A: No. (Student A draws one part of the Hangman image. It’s his/her turn again). In my picture, …..

As the title implies, the aim of the game is to ‘hang’ the other person.

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I made several observations while monitoring:

It seemed that in order to succeed, the partners tried hard to concentrate and listen to each other carefully.

Most students started very tentatively, using some vague, general ideas. However, as the game proceeded, they came up with a lot more specific descriptions.

They gave each other all sorts of hints throughout the game which each of them tried to use to their advantage. For example, I heard one boy say: In my picture, one man is holding a bottle. >  The other boy replied: No. (because the people in his picture were holding glasses of beer). In order to play it safe and make his partner reply positively, he said something about a vessel with some liquid. I thought it was a very clever move and I really appreciated the fact that they were encouraged to play with hypernyms and hyponyms.

As they actually had to provide very precise information (for example, it’s important to distinguish men from a man or a bottle from a glass), they had to pay attention to grammar, vocabulary as well as pronunciation when producing the language.

I noticed that the less similar the images were, the less smoothly the game went so I recommend that you find pictures which are almost identical (especially with lower-level classes).

In the end, the students looked at both pictures and had a few aha moments. We didn’t have time but as a follow-up activity, I could have asked them to actually compare the images.

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The Scissors Effect

post-it-notes-2836842_960_720On Saturday, I attended another IH conference in Brno, which I think is beautifully summarized in this blog post by James Egerton. A couple of people I met there wanted to know when I’m going to present again. Honestly, I think my answer was a bit evasive, but judging by the nods of agreement, it must have been entirely satisfactory, especially for those who had once presented too: “It’s very comfortable and convenient to sit back in the audience and enjoy other people’s presentations with a pleasing memory of previous success”.

However, I won’t pretend that the idea of presenting again hadn’t crossed my mind before my friends asked me about it. The trouble is that my last experience was more than gratifying. Yes, I find it troubling. The thing is that since my presentation was quite successful (judging by the feedback I got afterward), now there’s something to live up to. I’m sure that if you are a self-conscious perfectionist, like me, you probably know the feeling.

Anyway, I think it’s time to move on and start thinking about the potential whats and hows instead of making all sorts of excuses to myself. So, I guess, this post can be viewed as an unofficial conference proposal made to myself, publicly. LOL

On a more serious note, last time, the topic of my talk revolved around my favorite low-prep speaking activities. It turned out to be a relatively safe and easy start for a newbie presenter. I knew I was on the safe side because all the activities I was planning to share had been thoroughly tested in my teaching context – by myself. I also knew that ELT conference audiences are usually interested in practical activities rather than, say, academic theory. And these are the two most important points I want to stick to in the future as well.

So, here’s an idea for my future workshop:

I think it’s always immensely helpful for teachers if they can take away activities which at least temporarily bridge the proverbial gap between the fast and slow finishers. What I’m touching upon here is the so-called scissors effect. In economy, the scissors effect is what takes place when revenues and expenses move in different or diverging directions. In ELT (I might be coining a new term here), something similar happens when the most proficient students gradually get even more proficient due to their high motivation and/or great exposure to L2 outside of the classroom and the gap between them and the least proficient ones (those who don’t immerse themselves in L2 so much and/or have a lower aptitude for language learning) gradually widens, which then makes it more and more difficult for the weaker ones to keep up in class. Needless to say, this to some extent complicates your life as a teacher as well.

The issue of fast finishers is often dealt with quite superficially, I think, by simply suggesting that they should be given extra tasks to do. This, unfortunately, also means extra work for the teachers but most importantly, based on my experience with teaching teenagers, it just doesn’t work very well. If you think about it, from a psychological point of view, it’s quite logical; most fast finishers don’t want extra assignments just because they’ve done what they were supposed to do. To say the least, it’s not fair. And, by the way, allowing them to go on Facebook after they’ve finished doesn’t look like an option to me either.

So, as there are times when I really want to minimize the gap and have no time or resources to further engage the fast finishers, I resort to activities which help me solve the problem pragmatically. Here are some examples of what I have in mind:

READING: Check out this activity which I thoroughly described here on my blog. I called it a sequential reading activity. It enables slower readers to easily keep up with the faster ones since the whole text is not read at one go but is divided into smaller chunks which students read one by one. Each chunk is analyzed and discussed before the students move on to the next bit.

WRITING: Here’s an example of a simple collaborative writing activity where each student is doing something meaningful at each point but where everybody can write only as much as they manage within a certain time limit (see activity 1).

SPEAKING: One of my favorite speaking activities which I think can potentially reduce the above-mentioned gap is described here (see activity 2). As you will see, the crucial aspect of the activity is the seating arrangement as well as the overall set-up.

LISTENING: One of my favorite listening activities combined with writing is what I call Write the last word you heard. This basically means that I play the recording of a text my students are already familiar with, and at some point, I pause the audio – usually after a period or after a longer chunk of language. Students then write the last word/expression they heard. I explain the benefits of the activity in more depth here.

MISCELLANEOUS: This activity is similar to the one above except that I read the text myself and pause right before the word or expression I want my students to fill in. This auditory gap-fill is much better than a classic one because all the students are working at the same pace (it’s the teacher who actually sets the pace by reading the text). Although individual students may have different knowledge related to vocabulary, collocations, grammar structures, spelling, etc., nobody can finish the task faster than the others. It’s good to carefully (but discreetly) monitor the ‘slowest’ student in your class and adjust the pace accordingly if need be.

Well, this is just an idea which I’d like to shape and mold. We’ll see if something more complex comes out of it.

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Playing with the sound

megaphone-157874_960_720It goes without saying that silence can sometimes speak louder than words and that the more loudly the teacher speaks in order to be heard in a noisy class, the louder the students get. This, I think, is also true for situations when you play an audio to the class. Over years, I’ve discovered that playing with the volume and sound can do wonders.

Whenever I play a recording during listening practice, I always start at a fairly low volume. Especially kids and teenagers are never fully concentrated from the very start and I’ve found out that if the recording is not loud enough (relative to the noise in the room), the students will be more inclined to calm down and to start paying attention. After all, unlike a video, an audio can only provide the sound so students have nothing else to hold on to.

If the above doesn’t help and provided the recording is only a few seconds in, I stop the disc, rewind and play it again (and again) from the very beginning. I even do this three times if necessary. Believe it or not, the students will eventually calm down without me having to say a word.

If I notice that someone is not paying attention later on during the listening practice, I just pause the recording again and look at that person with a threatening compelling expression on my face. A few seconds of silence can sometimes help me to get that student’s attention back without disturbing the others in the room with additional ‘noise’.

I was once told by an inspector observing my class that the recording I’d played was too loud to her taste and that it’d really got on her nerves. Fair enough, I thought. I’ve kept that in mind ever since. The fact is that you’ll never know until you sit at the back at the classroom. The speakers are usually turned towards the class – not the teacher – so the volume may indeed be too loud without you even realizing it.

I’d say that the older I get, the less noise I’m willing to tolerate overall. Even more so after my nine-year-old son told me that it’s simply too noisy at his school – especially during breaks. So I gather that even children prefer a quiet atmosphere to a noisy one. I’m not saying that learning can’t occur when there’s a little excitement but there should certainly be a limit.

As a rule of thumb, I’d now say that it’s always better to have a low-key presence in the classroom. This means operating in a quiet but effective way, sometimes deliberately speaking beneath the din of the mob and turning the volume down rather than up in an attempt to gain students’ attention when using technology.

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Sequential reading activity

silhouette-191102_960_720A few days ago I read this post by Anthony Schmidt, which familiarized me with the concept of close reading (I had actually come across this term earlier, in one of my philosophy classes back at uni, but I’d never thought of applying it in an L2 classroom). Some days later, I was rummaging through my half-forgotten computer files when found some stories I had once downloaded for later use. I happened to come across this story (originally seen on this blog), which I thought would be perfect for my teenage students at that point. The whole story revolves around a complicated relationship and it’s quite sad, but it’s of great educational value, I think.

To be honest, at first, I wasn’t sure what to do with it (apart from just getting my students to read it). However, then I remembered Anthony’s post and an idea occurred to me. I made 18 copies of the story (each story is 3 pages long). It’ll become clear later why I deliberately copied each page on a separate sheet of paper. Anyway, I put the stories into separate folders to keep them nice and neat (making 54 copies for just one activity is, to my taste, quite a waste of paper so I wanted to make sure I’d be able to recycle them a lot!).

Each student got their own folder with the three pages in it. I asked them to take out the first page only. They had to place the rest of the story face down. I did this for several reasons: I wanted to keep them in suspense throughout the reading activity. Also, I wanted to make sure that the fast readers were not too far ahead of the others and that the slow readers had plenty of time to read at their own pace without feeling too stressed out (and eventually disturbed by those who had already finished).

Now, back to the idea of close reading. Anthony Schmidt wrote in his post that close reading is a technique or approach to reading instruction that takes a deep analysis of a text in order to gain a thorough and precise meaning of its ideas, form, structure, and so forth. I decided to try a light version of close reading because after all, I teach kids at a secondary school.

Before I let the students resume reading, I asked them lots of random questions about the story (the first page only!). I elicited some general thoughts, speculations, and predictions. We also discussed some of the grammatical structures used in the text as well as vocabulary items.

Then I told the students to look at the next page. The plot thickened there. When everybody had finished, I asked more questions. There’s a very important twist at the end of the second page, which is absolutely crucial to the overall understanding of the message of the story. I was a bit worried that my students might not quite get the point but I was totally amazed at the answers I got.

I let them read the final part (page 3). More questions popped up and more amazing answers emerged. We tried to read between the lines whenever possible. Finally, I asked them to have a short chat in pairs – just to share feelings and observations.

I had prepared most of my questions about the text in advance and I must say that I really liked the planning stage. Judging by the number of points I had come up with, the story is a wonderful source for language learners and I can only recommend it.

sunset-2724464_960_720I should stress though that keeping your students in suspense and constantly firing questions at them will make the activity rather intense so you should expect your students to get tired at some point. When you feel this is coming, speed things up a little. Leave out the questions which are not vitally important from your point of view. But you should definitely have some closure before your students leave the room. Ideally, they’ll keep chatting about the story on their way out. 🙂

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Pause, rewind and start again

compact-cassette-157537_960_720Surely you know the feeling when something is not quite right the moment you wake up. And surely it doesn’t take long before you get some concrete evidence which only confirms your earlier hunch. As soon as you arrive at work, you find out that you’ve left your keyring at home. That wouldn’t be a big deal except you’ll have to keep asking your colleagues to unlock the classroom doors for you. Surprisingly, the printer is out of order and you desperately need to make some photocopies. Five students have forgotten their homework which, unfortunately, you’ve built the whole lesson around.

But sometimes there are occurrences less tragic than the ones described above telling you that it’s going to be a weird day. Something’s in the air. For some reason, you speak totally incomprehensibly when asking your colleagues about something, you babble when explaining something to your students, and you play the wrong recording or read the wrong text in class. In other words, you constantly make an idiot of yourself.

I pay close attention to these symptoms because they always bear a message: you’ve stepped out of the flow. When I get the message, I pause – no matter where I am at that moment.

It happened again in class earlier today. But it didn’t come from the outer space. It wasn’t caused by some magical forces. I should have expected it simply because I wasn’t fully concentrated. Not that I was totally absent-minded or something but since we were doing some mundane stuff, I got a little mindless. Inevitably, I started making silly mistakes. When I realized it, I apologized to my students. I felt embarrassed about the lack of professionalism on my part. I asked them if they knew the feeling when something is not quite right. They nodded in agreement and smiled. They looked as if they were keen to talk about it. I should have exploited it. However, I needed to go on. So I paused. I took a deep breath. I started over. And I made sure I was present every single second from then on.

It happened once again later in the day. But it was less embarrassing this time. I already knew what to do. I paused. I rewound. I held an imaginary clapperboard in my hands and said: ‘Take 2’. Students laughed. I learn from my mistakes …

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When the soup is not thick enough.

soup-570922_960_720There is this ‘thickness’ I like to refer to when thinking about a successful lesson. A ‘thick’ lesson, like thick pea soup, needs some specific ingredients which you have to weigh and measure very carefully to achieve the expected outcome. But let’s be honest, sometimes we just drop in a bit of this and that, in a fairly random manner, and still, the soup is quite tasty as well as nutritious.

I’d say that an experienced teacher can usually discern potentially ‘nutritious’ content at first sight. The trouble is, however, that even potentially nutritious content doesn’t necessarily have to result in what I call a ‘thick’ lesson.

The other day I found some very interesting material for my teenage students – I actually wrote about it here. I thought the content of the given text would be perfectly suitable for what I wanted to achieve; my aim was to introduce the topic (Teenage problems) in an interesting and authentic way and I also wanted to have a lead-in to a discussion. I prepared a matching exercise; I cut the text into pieces so that students could in pairs match the solutions to the problems.

I used the text twice – with two different groups. Although it was an authentic text rich in unknown vocabulary, both groups did the matching exercise successfully and quickly because there were lots of keywords which helped them. The problem was that they did it too quickly. It seemed to me that some students could actually match the corresponding bits without having to read the text at all. I can’t really blame them, though. I somehow assumed they would read the texts except that most of them didn’t – simply because they didn’t need to in order to successfully complete the task. What was worse, those few who did try to read the text closely did the task much longer than the rest of the class, which inevitably resulted in some chaos (the fast finishers obviously started chatting and disturbing the ones who were doing what I assumed they should be doing).

Although the students dealt with an authentic text and learned some useful concepts which we could later work with, I nevertheless had this feeling of ‘flatness’ or ‘shallowness’ after the activity because we hadn’t exploited the text to the full, which was a pity. Things just didn’t pan out the way I had expected probably because they hadn’t been designed and thought-out well. Considering the fact that I had spent about 30 minutes only copying and cutting, I think I should do better next time.

 

 

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On the teacher status

room-2775442_960_720Whenever I read articles comparing the social status and pay of teachers all over the world, I despair a little. Especially the graphs are disheartening. The thing is that the attitude towards teachers in my country is, according to Professor Peter Dolton, author of the Global Teacher Status Index, very low. It’s actually one of the lowest of the 21 countries surveyed, just above Brazil. As far as salaries are concerned, Europe ranks as the best place to teach. However, while Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Germany are the top highest-paying countries for teachers at the high school level, teachers in the Czech Republic are paid the worst of the 35 countries surveyed. Only Slovaks are paid even worse.

Normally, those facts are pretty irrelevant for me personally. I’m a grammar school teacher based in the Czech Republic and as I like to say, I have a relatively safe, well-paid job. I love teaching and my job satisfies me most of the time. So why is it that such information can be so discouraging?

I think that surveys like these can sometimes do more harm than good. Firstly, people who’ve so far had no idea about the situation will now feel that, aha, this is the way it is. If the information that teachers have a very low social status and they are paid badly spreads to all walks of life, who would like to become one under the given circumstances? Who would want to respect teachers now? In the best-case scenario, people will pity them. Secondly, people like me, who already are teachers, will suddenly feel second-class. Hm, so this is how people view my profession?

Having said that, I wonder whether similar surveys can challenge the status quo in some way. If so, where to start then? Pour more money into the education system? Start paying teachers better? If the government valued teachers more, they’d certainly find ways to find the money. But each government consists of people …

One thing is certain, the financial aspect is not what motivates Czechs to become teachers. In other words, people choose a career in teaching for different reasons. On the one hand, this is a good thing. Since young people choose to teach despite the discouraging financial conditions, they must have a strong desire to do so. Unfortunately, it’s not the whole truth.

According to the above-mentioned article, in Finland, for example, getting into a teacher training program is already an honor. Finnish teacher education programs are extremely selective, admitting only one out of every ten students who apply. This is true for medical or law schools here in the Czech Republic – definitely not for teacher training programmes. Pedagogical faculties, the institutions which are responsible for training future teachers, are not very selective. Because they don’t need to be. Also, if you say you’ve been accepted to study a teacher training programme, it doesn’t sound like a great achievement to many. It was this way in the past and it still holds true nowadays. The only way of ‘improving’ your reputation is to study a teaching programme at a philosophical faculty (Faculty of Arts) of a given university, where the curriculum is more theoretical and thus, for some reason, seen more ‘prestigious’.

There’s one more aspect that the article mentions and it is professional development. In Singapore, for example, teachers have more than 100 hours of professional development every year. But again, if teachers feel their profession is not highly valued by the public and they think they are paid badly, who’d want to invest their time and sometimes even money into PD, especially if it’s not compulsory?

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It all seems like a vicious circle. Anyway, the good news is that teachers in the State Sector of education here in the Czech Republic should get a 15% pay rise soon. We’ll see if it will make the sands shift a little.

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