Observing class in retrospect

A while ago I stumbled upon two intriguing blog posts on classroom observation by Mike Griffin. One of them describes the author’s experience of being an observee, the other one uncovers his long-ago misfires as an observer. I really enjoyed reading the posts and so immediately an idea crossed my mind: I should give it a try and think about the topic as well. Like most teachers, I’ve obviously had some experience with traditional classroom observation, and I’ve been on both sides of the barricade, but it’s not what I’ve decided to deal with in my post.

I’ve recently grown fond of making short videos of my classes. At first I saw them as nice visuals for my blog to illustrate what I do in practice, but I believe they can be more than that (and I don’t mean just nice memories). As the cameraperson I use a simple device, my mobile phone, and besides my occasional remarks I’m not part of the video at all, and I don’t intend to for the time being. After all, it’s important what students do rather than what I do.

When watching the videos full screen I can see what I saw when I was in the classroom. But not quite, actually. Some time has passed since then so I look at what I saw then from a slightly different angle. This perspective helps me reflect on and analyze an activity or the whole lesson in a more objective way – or at least I hope so. It definitely helps me remember and recall things. This post is in effect an attempt to find out if videos like these (very short, unplanned, low quality ones) can help me spot something important, something useful for me in terms of improving my classroom management skills, for example. The fact that I only video my students for short periods of time is to the good because my activity is not so disruptive. And as the device in my hand is almost invisible, I dare say the conditions are quite natural.

Video one: my thoughts and reflections


+ Watching the first video I can see at first sight that the students are doing what they are supposed to do. This means that I demonstrated and provided clear instructions (attached below, at the very bottom of the page).

+ Ss speak English most of the time, they respond to each other and so the communication is meaningful.

+ The seating arrangement is perfect for this activity – nobody gets in the way of anybody and there’s plenty of space around each student.

+ Everybody is fully engaged at each moment of the activity – either listening closely to guess the words, or trying to describe the words clearly.
!!! Some students seem lost, especially when they can’t guess the word. They may be silent because they are thinking but it’s more likely that they didn’t get enough input to find the answer. Some Ss repeat or rephrase but this could definitely be worked on next time.

tip: Next time I should encourage the listeners/guessers to ask additional questions or ask for clarification. I might put some useful expressions on the board, such as Can you repeat it? Can you give me a synonym? Can you say it in different words?

Video two: my thoughts and reflections


+ The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed. Although the speakers get slightly impatient when their partners can’t guess the word, they are polite and supportive. Everybody is smiling and nobody looks bored or desperate. 

 + Ss use L2 most of the time, only occasional L1 remarks can be heard, especially those expressing surprise. The use of L1 in the classroom is a much debated issue in the ELT field but with monolingual classes, it’s almost impossible to avoid this. However, if you give Ss a reason to communicate in L2, they certainly will.

!!! Although some Ss do repeat their utterances to make things easier for their partners, they actually repeat the same thing, which isn’t very helpful because the problem is not that the listeners can’t hear but that they don’t have enough information to figure out the answer.

tip: Again, Ss’ attention should have been drawn to some useful functional language and the speakers should have been encouraged to rephrase, rather than repeat. Next time I might stress this problem in advance.

Video three: my thoughts and reflections


+ Students change their partners smoothly and briskly, which is hard evidence that they understood my instructions. It’s very important that Ss are enabled to work with different partners during the game – this makes it fairer and more balanced because not all Ss have the same language skills and abilities (this is a mixed-age and thus mixed-ability class). This diversity can be an obstacle, especially for the stronger learners. On the other hand, the stronger Ss can help the weaker ones to succeed.

+ What I find really positive is that throughout the whole activity, I don’t need to interfere.

+ Ss make some minor errors but this activity is supposed to help them practise and improve their fluency, rather that accuracy. They manage to get the message across and thus complete the task successfully.

!!! The point of the game is to define the word in such a way that the partner can guess it. It’s only natural that Ss’ try to find the easiest way out and sometimes they only produce a limited amount of L2. I can’t blame them because the point of the game is to fill in the grid and they do their best to achieve this.

tip: It’s difficult to make Ss’ produce more L2 if they feel there’s no need to do so. I could have pointed out that the better and more elaborate definition they provide, the faster they can actually achieve their goal and win the game.

I believe that I have come up with quite a few ideas here. The positive assessment seems to prevail and that’s good, but I realize that it’s important to look for flaws and imperfections as well – or rather look for improvements. Apparently, by observing videos of my lessons I could find ways to improve my teaching but more importantly, I might become a better and a more objective observer of others.

The instructions for the activity:

  • Take two blank A4 sheets and draw grids like this (I demonstrate while I speak) with 16 identical squares, 4 X 4, each square is allotted a code, for example A1, B4.
  • Fill the first grid with random vocabulary from unit X. The other grid will remain empty. (I give Ss time to complete the first grid)
  • Now, hide your grid with words under the textbook so that your partner can’t see it.
  • Choose any square from your empty grid.
  • You partner starts describing the word which he or she has in that square. If you guess it, you can draw a cross/nought in the appropriate square in your empty grid. If you can’t guess it, you have another chance – you can choose another word. Then you swap roles.
  • You’re not going to speak to the same partner all the time. You’re going to move around during the activity in the following way (I demonstrate – see video three above).
  • The aim is to fill all the squares in your empty grid, i.e. to guess 16 words altogether.
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    About Hana Tichá

    I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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    8 Responses to Observing class in retrospect

    1. Lumara says:

      Hi Hana! I'm a Science teacher from Puerto Rico and find your English language lessons as a great way to teach vocabulary words/ key terms in any given science topic. I teach biology and there are so many words and concepts unknown to students that we as science teachers feel we are teaching another language. This is why I am so interested in the ways and methods of ELT.


    2. Hana Tichá says:

      Thanks Lumara!
      I'm happy you find my activities useful. And the fact that you're from a different field makes me feel even more flattered. I think that most good activities (and the methodology) can be adapted and applied in any subject. I like your professional approach and open-mindedness. Your students are lucky that they have such a flexible Science teacher 🙂 Good luck.


    3. venvve says:

      Hi Hana,
      I enjoyed reading the post and found your approach interesting. I do have a question about recording the students – you say that the conditions are quite natural because your mobile phone is almost invisible in your hand. Do the students know they'll end up on your blog?
      The reason I ask is because I was once told that having students participate in research would involve getting their parents' written permission – if you're planning on getting the results of the research published. At least in Croatia. So I'm wondering about the ethical issue here (though I use the term with some reluctance because I don't want to be seen as claiming that you might be doing something unethical. 🙂
      Maybe I missed an earlier post where you explained this?



    4. Hana Tichá says:

      Hi Vedrana,

      Thanks for the question. I totally understand why you ask it. The students know that they are being videoed, and I always ask for their permission and I also tell them that I will make the video public. It was a hyperbole when I said that my phone is almost invisible; I'm obviously not sneaking around 🙂 I often hold my phone in my hand because I stop the time, record voices or we use it to play the 'bomb' vocabulary game. That's why the Ss are used to that. We also watch the videos together. I give them the link and ask them to watch the video with their parents at home (this is a private course and the parents are happy to see that their kids do something enjoyable and meaningful), and I point out that if anybody should be uncomfortable with the fact that the video is on the internet, I'll immediately make the video private.



    5. Rose Bard says:

      Hana I'm happy to get the chance to read this post. The activity you describe will be useful in my own class. The only drawback will the fact that my groups are small (from 1 to 6 students). The points you raise in how to improve based on your observation will be helpful too. I'll put it into practice in couple of weeks after the bimester exams first in a way to review vocabulary as we have been focusing on vocabulary learning through reading of stories and intentional vocabulary learning with pre, while and follow up activities. This will be great as follow-up reading task.
      Thanks for sharing!

      As for videoing, I wish I could do this in my classes. Audiorecording is done but privately for the purpose of transcribing and analysing. In my context reflective practice has a long way to go. Somehow we are in a culture where we are afraid of looking at our flaws. A pity. I really believe that you can't change something if you don't know what you should change. And change would happen if you are able to see it yourself instead of others telling you. More effective.


    6. Hana Tichá says:

      Hi Rose,
      I'm glad the you find the activities useful. The truth is that you need a minimum of 2 students but 6 is OK. If you only teach one student, you can stand in for the missing partner. And if you teach a small group, you don't need to ask your students to change their partners. I believe that kids like to move around a bit, but adults don't mind staying with the same partner. As you say, this kind of activity is great for revising vocabulary. The bonus is that it's motivating.
      I'm sorry to hear that reflective practice is not a tradition in your culture. Mind you, if I hadn't met the people like John Pfordresher, Anne Hendler, Josette LeBlanc, David Harbinson, Anna Loseva, Kevin Stein, Zhenya Polosatova and others, reflecting on my teaching would look totally different. And yes, I agree with you that you can't change things if you don't know what to change because you first of all need to see the flaws yourself.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.


    7. Rose Bard says:

      A pleasure reading and commenting here. I have loads of catch up to do. Lots of great stuff here for me to read and reflect on my own teaching. I miss being around. 🙂 The names you mentioned are a gem. I'll surely use this activity. Thanks again for sharing your journey. I'm slowly back on the game.


    8. Pingback: #200 | How I see it now

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