The recommended dose of vocab

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When I work with texts in class, I usually like it when my students take something away. What I mean by this is that apart from some food for thought, I like them to leave the classroom with a bunch of new lexical items. I call this “a recommended dose of vocab”.

When I use coursebooks, not much work is left for me as a teacher – the texts and vocabulary have already been carefully selected by the authors. I don’t have a problem with that, but I’ve recently been quite keen on working with my own texts. I mostly find these on the internet – in online newspapers, journals, and magazines. I look for texts that are not too difficult form my B1-B2 students, but sometimes I need to abridge them anyway. I also like to create glossaries or just highlight some of the words which I think are worth our attention.

I normally choose such words based on my hunches and my knowledge of a particular group of students. In fact, the background of my students is never a complete mystery to me because Czech learners of English create a sort of homogeneous mass. This means that generally, their knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, and topics is not highly diverse and thus it is quite predictable. Although my students’ levels of proficiency may range from B1 to C1 in the same grade/group, there are hardly any surprises for me. In other words, after 25 years of experience in teaching, I can predict all the potential strengths and weaknesses of any Czech student. Once I estimate a student’s level, I can also estimate what words he or she will be familiar with. This skill of mine is not some kind of superpower – I simply know what has been covered in their previous courses, which is one of the advantages of a national curriculum.

pills-3151089_960_720The above hypothesis is tested whenever an exchange student joins a group of Czech learners of English. As their educational and cultural backgrounds are very different, their knowledge, or a lack thereof, differs a lot in many ways. This means that, for example, they opt for ‘different’ grammar and vocabulary, and they struggle with different aspects of pronunciation.

I’ve recently discovered a couple of tools which enable me to create glossaries or word lists based on objective factors – not just my hunches (thanks, Nathan). The Text Analyzer, for instance, determines the approximate level of proficiency that the text is suitable for and then generates a suggested vocabulary list. What’s more, it can also create definitions for the selected words. The Online Graded Text Editor helps you create your own wordlist from a text based on a level you choose. So, for example, if you, like me, mostly use the CEFR guideline to describe achievements of your learners, you select an appropriate CEFR level and the program will make a list of vocabulary items out of that level. In other words, if I was preparing a text for a group of B2 students, I would click on the drop-down menu and select the B2 level. The tool would then produce a list of words out of level B2.

As I thought it would come in handy to be able to quickly generate a list of useful words for my students to take away from the lesson, I decided to experiment with the tools a bit in class. I’d found an authentic text about a specific topic which I first ran through the CEFR Vocabulary Profiler. The text was labeled as level B1 text. Only 4% of the words were B2 vocabulary items and there were no words out of level B2. This surprised me a bit and proved that my hunches about the level of a text are not reliable. I tried a different wordlist on The Online Graded Text Editor – Cambridge KET PET FCE – and selected the PET level (this is the level the students I work with usually aim at). The tool then generated a list of items out of the level.

I explained to my students how I had obtained the list. I asked them to find and highlight the words in the text. I asked them to guess the meanings from the context and co-text. Then we translated the words and they recorded them in a chart. We paid attention to the most immediate collocates too.

I know that some people might criticize this approach because I actually spoonfed the students with teacher-generated content. Still, I think it’s better than blindly follow the coursebook. The teacher knows her students better than the coursebook does after all. Having said that, I think it’s useful to also ask the learners what they consider useful. The trouble is that shifting the responsibility on to the learners can get a little chaotic if it’s done right in class because each and every one will probably come up with different suggestions. Thus I find it helpful if my students leave the classroom with something tangible – with a dose of vocabulary offered by the teacher. Whether they take it in or not is up to them.

 

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When the key is wrong


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I like coursebooks with answer keys. I like them because they save time and they make me feel safe. Wait! I know I should be able to answer every single reading comprehension question or grammar point problem correctly, without hesitation. I also know that as part of the planning stage, I should complete all the tasks and exercises myself before I ask my students to do them in class. Except that I sometimes don’t.

There are situations when I don’t have the time or an opportunity to go over every single text or exercise in advance. For example, my students suddenly remind me that we haven’t checked the answers to a text I once assigned as homework. In such a case, I’m obviously grateful for a reliable answer key. Alternatively, the text seems too easy to me to even bother to read it. Oops. Did I really say that? My excuse is that such a text is probably not the center of my attention; it’s just a springboard for a series of follow-up activities. Or I simply assume that I remember the text from the time I last did it with another class so the answer key is there on my desk just in case.

However, answer keys are not absolutely reliable. Now and then it happens that the key says it’s option D, but 14 out of 14 students choose B. That’s clearly suspicious. Something similar happened today. I was a bit confused at first and for a while, I was bluffing; I insisted that the answer my students had come up with was not correct. However, they immediately gave me several arguments justifying the other alternative. As this is a fairly advanced group, I faltered. My students could tell I was grasping at straws and they were slowly gaining the high ground; I was in a minority and I was losing the game. Worst of all, I was starting to realize they were probably right…

Seriously, at that very point, it occurred to me that it was a great learning opportunity for all of us. I asked them to look for more evidence in the text and the discussion went on for a while. In the end, it was not just about the three options but the students were encouraged to go a little deeper and convince me that what they were saying was right. I believe that this pushed the task a little bit further towards the authentic side of the spectrum.

When I think about it, coursebooks with wrong or incomplete answer keys are actually beneficial (if you have the nerve). Flaws make them look less sterile and shallow. They enable your students to see that even coursebook writers are sometimes wrong and that the students are good enough to spot the errors. This proves beyond doubt that they have learned something. They can be proud of themselves and I am too.

 

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Is professional development in vain?

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I bet you are all enthusiastic and full of energy now that the conference season is at its peak. I bet you feel in awe of what your colleagues do in the classroom and you are eager to try out all those new ideas you took down during the workshops you’ve recently attended. But let me tell you something, professional development and teacher training are both completely futile. Or at least that’s how some of our students see it.

Earlier today I had a lesson with a group of teenage B2 students. They were preparing for a written test – an opinion essay. The topic was: Can money buy happiness? I’d brought some material which I thought would help them get a broader picture of the issue (a 12-minute TED talk video and a handout with random excerpts from online articles related to the topic). During the speaking activity, I overheard a student say that money can definitely buy happiness. He went on to explain that you can actually buy anything you want; for example, you don’t need to be talented or hard-working because you can buy a university degree. He added that there is basically no difference between someone who has obtained the degree legally and someone who has ‘bought’ it.  I chipped in and said that I disagreed. I told him that he would probably tell that one of his teachers, for instance, had once bought a degree. Now I realize that I should have used a different example, such as a doctor because what the student then said virtually spoiled my day (which by no means was his fault, of course).

Practically anybody who speaks good enough English can enter this classroom and ask us to talk about whether money can buy happiness. And I wouldn’t tell if the person’s degree is fake or real.

First of all, now that I’ve written it down it looks more cynical than it actually sounded. He didn’t sound rude or offensive to me and I actually got his point. In fact, he is a very motivated and gentle student, who always cooperates with me as well as his peers.

Still, his remark got me thinking. It occurred to me that maybe, the more effortless our teaching appears, the less professional it looks. Apparently, it doesn’t matter that the unbearable effortlessness of our teaching is a result of many years of experience, years of teacher training and further professional development, a lifelong passion for teaching and maybe a bit of talent too. It seems that our students believe that as soon as we enter the classroom, we start throwing some random stuff at them, which anybody could do for that matter.

I think the problem is the Communicative Language Teaching. I mean, CLT simply looks suspicious because the teacher does very little while the students do a lot. Consider the following activities:

You ask your students

  1. to discuss a topic in pairs or groups and then you ‘just’ go around the classroom and monitor. Later on, you ‘just’ give collected feedback to the class, but X and Y are not really paying attention because they think it doesn’t concern them – they didn’t make this particular mistake after all.
  2. to discuss something and you don’t ‘even bother to’ correct their mistakes at all.
  3. to watch a video and take notes while listening. Later on, they ‘only’ compare and discuss the notes with their partners.
  4. to read an authentic text you found on the internet (because you thought it might be interesting for your students) and discuss the questions below the text (which, obviously, you created yourself).
  5. to play a game.
  6. to brainstorm ideas and make a mind map.
  7. to do a collaborative project on a specific topic.
  8. to revise vocabulary in pairs, i.e you ask them to test each other and give each other feedback.
  9. to create their own questions for a text you later give them.
  10. to create polls and questionnaires.
  11. to take an online personality test.
  12. to make a PowerPoint presentation.

Since sometimes I tend to be hard on myself and I care about what (I think) my students assume about me as a teacher, I asked myself this: What should I do to make my teaching look ‘more professional’ in the eyes of my students? Is it possible and/or necessary at all?

I hope I will speak on behalf of many English teachers out there if I say that all the above techniques are always chosen carefully and the choices are based on the teacher’s pedagogical beliefs and scientific research into how languages are learned. But this is something our students don’t and can’t see. Should we constantly justify our choices then? Shall we tell them why we want them to do this or that? Shall we show off from time to time and prove that we know our stuff – at the expense of student talking time, for example?

Or shall we just relax and enjoy our (seemingly) effortless way of teaching?

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The 22nd P.A.R.K. conference – some views and impressions

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Brno, Czech Republic

It was a real pleasure to be the conference reporter for the 22nd P.A.R.K. conference for English teachers in Brno. What I most loved about my role was the fact that I was free to choose how to go about things. This was motivating as well as liberating. Thank you, David. 🙂

Prior to the conference, I had the following plan:

  • Mission One: to tweet from the plenaries
  • Mission Two: to post some informal stuff on Facebook
  • Mission Three: to interview some of the presenters/attendees
  • Mission Four: to write a blog post where I’d share some details from the three sessions I attended

IMG_20180407_160801Mission One: I did tweet from both plenaries under the #PARKconf hashtag but it turned out a bit trickier than I had anticipated. The worst and the only enemy was the Wi-Fi. Unlike the previous year, I did manage to get the Wi-Fi password and connect but I didn’t expect it to only work in some parts of the venue. If you think about it, it’s not that surprising; it’s a huge school building after all. I guess the organizers have no control over this because they only rent the venue for this occasion. As a result, I got no signal in the classrooms where the workshops took place, and just a little bit of signal in the hall, especially at the bottom of the auditorium, where I had chosen to sit for the first plenary. So after each session, I literally shot out of the classroom to send a tweet. I must have looked like a social media addict to people who had no idea what I was doing. The irony of all this was that both plenaries were about incorporating technology into the language classroom.

Anyway, this precarious situation made me resort to a combination of methods; I tweeted and posted on Facebook during the plenaries and the coffee breaks but I used the good old pen and paper method to take notes during the other sessions. By the way, I realized I couldn’t do both at the same time. I guess I’m old for this type of multitasking. IMG_20180407_123838To be honest, I could concentrate much better without any technology available. The thing is that while struggling with the Wi-Fi connection during the first plenary by Saun Wilden, I missed some parts of the talk. Fortunately, my three guardian angels, Petra, Markéta, and Vendula, were sitting right next to me so they could always fill in the slots. The fact that as a reporter I felt a lot of responsibility and I really wanted to get things right made me realize that if you want to share information on social media in real time, you need to listen very closely. In other words, you can’t switch on and off, which you normally do as a regular conference attendee. So at the end of the day, my friends were tired but I was totally exhausted.

IMG_20180407_083535Mission Two: I’m quite happy with the stuff I have posted on Facebook. This was mainly photos from the coffee room and the school cafeteria. I remember my first P.A.R.K. conference some years back when I hadn’t ordered lunch and then I nearly starved to death because there was nowhere to grab a bite. There were only a couple of coffee machines scattered around the building with endless queues of teachers waiting for their daily dose of caffeine. This is ancient history now. You can buy some really tasty snacks and get beverages and coffee right on the spot, at any time. I don’t know how they do it but they are never sold out.

Mission Three: This was a tricky one and I didn’t really get down to this properly. Let’s start with the excuses. Firstly, there was not enough time to interview people because the breaks were short and I really needed coffee and the restroom. By the way, another thing that the organizers have no control over are the queues outside the restrooms; at an event where the majority of the 300+ participants are females, there are never enough toilets. Secondly, I needed to switch off now and then and catch up with friends since I really wanted to enjoy the event to the fullest. Finally and most importantly, I just didn’t feel like bothering people who were either having fun chatting with their friends (the attendees) or were busy running around trying to make sure everything was all right (the conference organizers and presenters). The truth is though that I’m too shy and not suited for such a role (yet?). On the bright side, I did manage to talk to some people unofficially: I talked to David Koster for a bit (David was in charge of the organization and he was the one who’d actually asked me to do this), and just upon leaving, I also bumped into Mike Astbury (Mike was one of the presenters and he’s a fellow blogger).

IMG_20180407_083412What I did quite thoroughly though was that I unofficially interviewed my three guardian angels: Petra, Markéta, and Vendula (I call them this repeatedly because they also drove me to and from Brno, in a VIP car, as they called it). The girls work in different sectors and at different levels of education in the Czech Republic and each of them has a different amount of experience (18, 22, 6). This makes them a perfect sample of participants to interview, I guess. I found out that Petra and Markéta had attended the conference for the 10th time at least. That’s pretty amazing! They also told me why they keep coming back to this particular conference (to get inspiration, learn about some teaching tips and acquire new techniques, get useful links to teaching websites, improve their own English, meet friends). They shared with me how they choose the sessions (based on the content, not the names or the speaker’s mother tongue). The most interesting insight I had is that they don’t really care about the gender of the plenary speakers. Having two male plenary speakers is not a problem for them. To the contrary, since most teachers in the primary and secondary sector of Czech education are female, they welcome the opportunity to listen to a male speaker. They looked surprised when I explained the controversy behind this.

Mission Four: Here I am, writing the post. As I said before, there were two male plenary speakers, both native speakers of English. As an attendee, you have no control over this. As for the other sessions, I didn’t plan to make a choice based on the speaker’s gender or their mother tongue, but after reading the workshop annotations, I was pleased to see that I’d picked three female presenters (one North American and two Czechs).

IMG_20180407_110900Petra Kacafírková’s topic was Leximapping – How to teach through mind maps. Now that I’ve seen the session, I realize that it was more interesting than the title had originally implied. I had expected to see a very practical workshop where we’d be shown different kinds of mind maps and techniques of incorporating them into an L2 classroom. This, I had thought, would come in handy in my teaching context. To my surprise, Petra grounded her assertions on some theory on how vocabulary is learned, which convinced me that she knew what she was talking about. I was impressed when after mentioning names such as Michael Lewis, Hugh Dellar, and Andrew Walkeley she added that “their approaches cause a bit of controversy these days but that she likes them anyway”. However, I sat up and took notice when she claimed that when we are being creative we use our right brain hemisphere. I really loved her PowerPoint presentation, which, in fact, was an interactive mindmap itself. I’d like to learn to design such a slideshow some day. Anyway, she introduced a couple of areas I’d like to further explore:

  • Tony Buzan – the inventor of mind mapping
  • leximapping.com. Unfortunately, as I’ve just discovered, you can only access the website if you buy the book. This is something that always discourages me.

You can access Petra’s conference material here.

IMG_20180407_115103The next session I had chosen to attend was called Mooveez: Teaching speaking made easyMooveez, the winner of the 2016 ELTon award for Digital Innovation, is an app for teaching English (and some other languages) through movies. This, again, was a bit of a product placement strategy, but I don’t really have a problem with it if it’s clear and obvious from the start. You can always choose not to go after all. The app looks cool at first sight and I’m definitely planning to explore it in more depth because I teach teenagers plus I believe that one can learn a lot through films. The only thing that discourages me is that the app is not designed for desktop computers – only smartphones and iPads (I think). Also, once you get the license, you can only work on three different devices. Thus it’s probably suitable for one’s personal use and/or 1-2-1 teaching but not for a regular L2 classroom. Although it’s not free (the club subscription costs 900 Czech crowns per year), there’s some stuff for a free trial. I know we teachers can’t expect to get everything for free but we celebrate if we do and we are disappointed if we don’t.

There’s a little anecdote I’d like to share here: at the beginning of the session, the presenter, Jane Mataruga, asked if there were any native speakers of English in the room. Jane thought that if there weren’t, she could speak Czech. However, a couple of hands went up. At first, I thought that maybe she wasn’t too confident in English. Obviously, I was wrong because she immediately continued in her flawless English. I considered it a nice gesture from her to offer to speak Czech in a room full of Czechs. On the other hand, many teachers come to conferences to listen to ‘nice’ English, as they put it, so they might be a little disappointed if a speaker opted for Czech.

The last session was delivered by Christine Thompson and it was called What not to correct (or when to just leave well enough alone). I liked Christine’s talk a lot. Instead of summarizing it, I’ve decided to write a list of questions we discussed during the workshop because a good question is worth a thousand words:

  • What constitutes an error?
  • Why do we correct errors?
  • Is error correction good for our students?
  • Does error correction eliminate errors?
  • What particular error/area drives me crazy?
  • What makes an utterance wrong?
  • What are the good reasons to correct?
  • What are the bad reasons to correct?
  • How would I feel if I was corrected?
  • Will you correct this? Won’t you? Why?
  • How can we define standardization?

IMG_20180407_144023A personal conclusion I made for myself after the session:

We should be careful about how much and how often we correct. The more resolute we are in this respect, the more rigid our students will be in the future regarding the incorrectness of other people’s englishes. This is not a good approach in the days of the rise of English as a global language.

Thanks for reading!

See you again in November.

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The Alchemist

Just a few thoughts before I write a ‘proper’ post about the 22nd P.A.R.K Conference I attended earlier today:

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Organizing an event for 300+ people is clearly a challenge.

Organizing a conference for 300+ teachers is a heroic act.

Pleasing 300+ conference attendees is a miracle.

The thing is that we teachers are extremely hard to please; we have high expectations – of ourselves, our students, and conference organizers. We spot every flaw and we always know how to do things better. Everything is complicated by the fact that not each of us has come for the same thing. We have different reasons and motivation for spending a Saturday afternoon far away from our homes and families. All in all, we can be the worst enemies or the best allies. So you’d better cherish us and make us happy.

To make us teachers happy, you’ll need to be a bit of an alchemist. You’ll need to know the right amount of every ingredient you drop into your magic potion you are about to serve us. Too much of a good thing can kill us but if an important ingredient is missing, we can easily get dissatisfied. Balance if the key.

But luring us once is not enough. You have to make us come back again. So the drug you mix should be strong and highly addictive. You have to entice us using various tricks and don’t forget to add a few novelties now and then. It’s not too difficult though since we crave to be enchanted and entertained. This is because we give out so much energy in the classroom that standing on the other side of the barricade, even if just for a while, feels extraordinarily liberating.

But you also need to be a bit of a telepath sometimes (unless you are clever enough to collect feedback from us). We expect you to keep the things that we think worked well and change the ones that didn’t.

Finally, make sure that we feel we matter. Every one of us.

 

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Sell the words


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This is a quick post to share a no-prep vocabulary game/revision activity that worked quite well with a couple of my classes.

Straight to the point…

Ask students to pick 20 words (from a vocabulary list) which they think are difficult/cause trouble.

When they finish, explain the aim of the activity: it is to ‘sell’ as many words from their lists as possible within a certain time limit (10-15 minutes). The students will probably look puzzled at first. Explain the rules.

Rules: Students mingle. Each student should talk to as many people as possible (ideally, they should only talk to one student once). Student A defines a word from their list. Student B listens. If that particular word is not in Student B’s current list, they must ‘buy’ the word and write it down in a separate column. This enables everyone to keep track of the ‘purchased’ items and distinguish them from the original words. So, Student A has just managed to ‘sell’ a word and thus they can cross it out from their list. Student B then defines a word from their list (obviously not the one they’ve just bought!). Again, if it already is in Student A’s list, Student A politely refuses it, if not, they accept it and they go to another student.

FAQ:

Before I launched the game, my students had a lot of questions. Their initial curiosity helped me avoid potential problems:

  1. Do I always have to accept the word?  – Yes, you always have to ‘buy’ the word’ if it’s not on your list. 
  2. Do I have to accept a word which I have already sold to somebody? – Yes, but the word should not be from the same person you sold it to. You must accept it again and add it to your list if it’s from a different ‘owner’. 
  3. Can I sell the words I previously bought? – Yes, but not to the student who sold it to you.
  4. Shall I say the word out loud when I guess it before we accept or refuse it? – Yes. This is to make sure you are both talking about the same thing. 
  5. What shall I do if the student I’m talking to doesn’t know my word? Can I ‘sell’ a different word from my list? – Yes, but you should try to help them first. You can reveal the first letter, for example. If this doesn’t work, you can try to define another word. 

Finally, ask the students how many words they have sold. If you want to make it more ‘financially authentic’, you can also ask how many words they have bought. This number is then subtracted from the ‘gain’. The funny thing is that while some students profit others end up in debt.

This activity is good for recycling vocabulary (or any language items for that matter) and for practicing speaking. So far, I’ve done it with four classes of different ages and levels of proficiency and they all seemed quite engaged.

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The Spinning Dancer and the ELT truth

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The left brain vs. right brain theory has been around for some time now. It suggests that people who are left brain dominant are more analytical, while right-brained individuals are more creative. I was reminded of this theory again a couple of days ago when a friend of mine sent me a link to The Right Brain vs Left Brain test. Being a fan of optical illusions, I quite liked it. In fact, I invited all my family members to try it too and we spent an hour staring at the animation discussing how it works.

Later on, I did a bit of online research and learned that the brain hemisphere distinction was based on clinical studies conducted in the 1960s. The studies involved about 40 “split-brain” patients – people whose brains were severed surgically in order to treat epilepsy. However, and here comes the twist, healthy people don’t have split brains – the two halves of our brain are well-connected (by the corpus callosum) and they share information with each other. So, in most of what we do, the hemispheres have evolved to operate together and as for creativity, for example, things get much more complex since there are many ways to be creative. So, yes, the theory is probably another myth we tend to stick to.

Back to the Spinning Dancer test. Do you see the dancer turning clockwise or anti-clockwise? If clockwise, you tend to use the right hemisphere. Arguably, although we can try to focus and change the direction, most people see the dancer turning anti-clockwise. By the way, I did too at first.

However, the above conclusion didn’t quite match what I had observed. When doing the test, each of my family members saw a different picture, so to speak. At first, we thought it was some kind of trick – that the dancer actually changed direction now and then. But my 10-year old son was standing right next to me and while we were looking at the video synchronously, we saw things differently.

I suddenly remembered all the arguments I’ve had or witnessed in my life. It’s often been two (or more) people looking at the same problem but perceiving two different manifestations of it. Think of all the ELT-related debates: Is Chomsky’s Theory of Language Wrong? Should we include PARSNIPs or should we avoid them? Are coursebooks evil of good? Are NNESTs as good as NESTs? Is technology beneficial or harmful to language learning?

But … what if it’s always both – depending on the perspective of the onlooker. What if there is no ultimate truth? What are such debates and arguments for? Are they completely futile? Not quite, I’d say.

In the staffroom, my colleagues and I also have discussions on the way English should be learned and taught. Some of my colleagues think that we should only accept codified expressions and grammar structures and dismiss the newly emerging ones – at least in formal styles and/or exams. Some teachers at our school ask students to study alphabetical lists of vocabulary before they later encounter them in context. I disagree but whenever a hostile idea arises in my mind, I think: What if their way of doing it is also good? What if they are right after all? And what if we are looking at the same picture – just from a different angle? What if it’s just a question of Gestalt Shift? Don’t all roads lead to Rome after all?

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