Action plan – from the top of the mountain

This academic year has been special for me – for the first time ever I got the opportunity to examine students at the final state exam. I had undergone a series of trainings to become a certified examiner, which was a challenging and exciting process. However, it remained a mere theory until it really happened in reality. When it finally happened, I realized that it’s necessary to climb to the top of the mountain to really see how winding and crooked the path below is. In other words, there are things you can’t learn on the go – some things can only be learnt in retrospect.

To everybody’s satisfaction, the exams went smoothly, mainly because the students and the examiners were well prepared – hats off to them all. Although it was a stressful time, it was also very enjoyable and fulfilling. It was the icing on the cake, so to speak. In hindsight, though, I must admit that up till then I felt rather schizophrenic and insecure about the way I was preparing my students; I wasn’t quite sure whether to concentrate on the ultimate goal itself and spend endless hours on preparing mock exams, or whether to ‘just’ teach the language, and let things go their own way, keeping in mind that if students learn the language properly, they will pass the exam without major difficulties anyway.

Now that I’ve placed my flag up there on the summit, I can descend contentedly and set myself new objectives and thoroughly plan the next climb for my future senior students. Maybe it won’t be as exciting as it was last time, because the anticipation of the unknown is gone, but it will definitely be a much safer trip.

Here’s my reflection and an action plan for the present and the future. As the final exam is, unsurprisingly, divided into the four language skills, I’d like to stick to the format and analyze each skill separately.

1) Speaking: Now that I’ve seen a couple of students in action, I know that I don’t need to spend ages on drilling English tenses. My students will primarily need a lot of B1/B2 lexicon, i.e. ready-made chunks of language, to be able to express their ideas clearly and fluently. They can’t waste time retrieving words from memory and creating grammatically complicated sentences on the spot because the examiners subtract points in the fluency and/or content sections if the student doesn’t react promptly (and extensively) enough. So a special vocabulary notebook for recording words, collocations and useful phrases is a must (plus plenty of speaking practice, both fluency- and accuracy-focused).

2) Reading: Students need to practise reading for comprehension but there’s no point in reading lengthy texts on boring or irrelevant topics. I believe it’s praiseworthy and beneficial if students read extensively at home but it’s useless to force them to do so (at least in relation to the final exam). Nevertheless, my task is to make sure that all students come across a variety of topics and text types because thus they will encounter varied vocabulary, which will come in handy in the speaking part as well. I’ve found it useful when any text, even the one originally aimed at testing or improving reading skills, is exploited to the full, i.e. additionally analyzed and discussed from a linguistic point of view. In my experience, most students fail to comprehend texts because they don’t have a sufficient knowledge of vocabulary – not because they don’t understand the grammar (though, of course, grammar and vocabulary are interconnected to a certain extent).

3) Listening: The aforementioned rules apply to the listening part of the exam as well; students need to listen to a plethora of relevant topics but they also need to understand what’s being said. In my view, there are two scenarios: a student fails to understand because s/he doesn’t know some bits or s/he knows all the words but the speech is simply too fast or unintelligible. So once again, vocabulary is the key, along with a lot of meaningful listening practice.

4) Writing: In order to produce a decent piece of writing, students do need to be aware of basic grammatical rules (word order, making questions and negative sentences, use of articles, un/countability, verb agreement, etc). They obviously need well-chosen vocabulary but more importantly, they need to be able to work with a dictionary. They are allowed to use one during the written part of the exam, and based on my observations, they often find it difficult and/or time-consuming to find and subsequently select the appropriate word offered in the entry. I admit that I’ve always kind of neglected training dictionary skills. I’m not sure to what extent it I should concentrate on spelling but I believe practice is the most effective strategy in terms of improving one’s writing skill in general, including spelling. In other words, if students write a lot and get plenty of feedback, their writing will improve automatically. Two of the most problematic aspects of a B1 student’s written performance are cohesiveness and coherence, which is something that needs to be focused on as well. Finally, students need to be familiar with a few basic text types, such as an e-mail, informal letter, narrative, announcement, etc. to give their writing an appropriate form and style.

Well, there seems to be a lot to work on, but I feel much better now that I’ve written it down in ink. I have to keep the ultimate goal in mind all the way up but it’s also important to walk slowly and safely, step by step, and have fun now and then. The experience of being up there with my students helped me realize that the ultimate goal is not a terminal station – it’s just a springboard for further progress and my students need to be well-equipped for another journey.


Reading between the lines?

It’s no exaggeration to say that the ability to read between the lines is certainly more difficult to master that reading itself and the question is how much it has to do with the skill of reading at all. I’m just curious.

I don’t know when exactly it happened but it’s been a few weeks since my six-year-old son started to read. I’m convinced, though, that he could read between the lines, i.e. guess someone’s real feelings, long before he became familiar with the writing system of the Czech language. Many a times he’s asked me this question: “Mum why are you looking at me this way? Is anything wrong? Are you sad?” Sorry for the diversion, this is not the topic of this post but I certainly wish the reader to read between the lines from now on.

My son turned six in April 2014. It’s not something uncommon for a child born in this part of the world to be able to read at the age of six. It’s actually pretty commonplace that many kids can read before they start attending elementary school. So reading is one of the skills whose mastering we simply take for granted. What is striking though, is the fact that like my son, many other kids (including me when I was one) learnt to read on their own – nobody had to teach them.

I remember my son recognized most uppercase letters of the alphabet very early in his life – at the age of two or three. I found it really amazing but obviously, as he wasn’t attending any kind of educational institution yet, it was us parents who had told him what sound corresponds with each of the letters.

However, later on, by contrast, I was surprised at the fact that, at the age of five, he could skilfully decode separate letters but he couldn’t decode the whole words. In other words, he could spell the words but he never knew what word he had spelled. In Czech, most words are pronounced as they are spelled. Based on my observations (as a parent of three and as a teacher), I believe that in most cases, in order to decode the whole word, the first thing a Czech kid needs to do is to join the individual letters to make syllables. I’ve noticed that once the kid is able to divide the word DESKTOP into DESK-TOP (to give an example of an English word that is pronounced as it is spelled), he knows what he’s reading. At this point something amazing must be going on in the child’s brain. With a little bit of scaffolding, he suddenly discovers the charm of syllabication rules.

My son is now able to read the titles of all the bedtime stories we’ve read to him. He undoubtedly remembers the stories, and this kind of background knowledge, together with the visual support, helps him to decode individual words quite fluently. I must smile whenever I see him trying to decode every sign we pass by in the street. Currently, one of his favourite activities is decoding what his Cini Minis box says about the health benefits of eating cereal, or how my night cream will make me look young and beautiful. The trouble is that many of the signs he comes across are in English, which makes him even more curious. He wonders why I pronounce Angry Birds or Hot Wheels the way I do; why, that’s not how the words are written.

Anyway, all this light and cheery talk brings me to a burning issue. According to the World Literacy Summit held in Oxford, UK, 2014, 775 million people worldwide are illiterate. I find this number alarming and unbelievable, especially if I realize how little it takes for a child to learn to read. With no intention to simplify or over-generalize, because this is a serious matter, all that is needed in the early stages is someone who tells the child what sound corresponds with a specific letter. But of course, motivation is what matters most. Every day my son can see his role models read books and newspapers and he obviously wants to imitate what we do because he probably believes it’s a great thing to do. Therefore my amazement is no more genuine; children in poor, developing countries don’t have parents who own shelves full of books. Their parents can’t read and they probably don’t see any point in learning to read anyway. This vicious circle makes me feel sad and I wonder: is there anything I can do? Is there anything each of us can do to improve this situation? Is it our business at all?

So sometimes, when I watch my beloved son read clumsily but enthusiastically, I realize how lucky we were to be born somewhere where education is accessible to everybody; where every child is obliged to learn to read, write, count and speak at least two foreign languages – something that is just a dream in some parts of the world. We often complain and rant about our education (teachers are underpaid and beware, they may be replaced some day, and kids get too much homework and stuff) but the fact is that we ARE lucky and we fuss about small things while there are much bigger issues to ponder and deal with. And, on the other hand, there are many ‘obvious’ things we should start cherishing.

The science of deduction: RP6 – Think SMART

In this final (but at the same time initial) phase of our RP Challenge, John Phordresher prompts us to think SMART. As he puts it in his PR6 post, SMART plans are a critical component to the ELC. “It is with our actions plans that we take what we have learned through our reflective process and attempt to apply lessons learned in our next experience. And then the ELC process starts anew.”

SMART is an acronym for 

  • Specific – target a specific area for improvement.
  • Measurable – quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress.
  • Assignable – specify who will do it.
  • Realistic – state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources.
  • Time-related – specify when the result(s) can be achieved.
  • In my post I’m going to focus on all the aspects of SMART: area of improvement, indicator of progress, ‘who’ (the agent of change), realistic results, and ‘when’ (the time horizon of achieving the results). My RP5 post will take the reader to all the previous stages of my reflection process. 

    Area of improvement: 
    One of the areas I struggle most with is the fact that I set myself vague goals. I feel I need to work on specific, short-term goals rather than dreaming about what may happen one day if…. My over-holistic approach to anything and everything often interferes with my desire to be more analytical and rational. I somehow believe that analytical mind brings peace, safety and certainty (yes, I almost sound like Sherlock Holmes now). As I described in one of my previous posts (not related to this challenge) I’m attracted to people who have the qualities I feel to lack. I believe that by observing myself (my teaching) and constant reflection, as well as by observing my role models, i.e. colleagues and members of my PLN, and cooperating with them closely, I can do a lot to make things better because this approach brings knowledge, happiness and harmony to my soul, which subsequently helps me handle situations like the one I described in my RP3 post. 

    Indicator of progress:
    As my area of improvement is so intangible and non-specific (which is actually the core of my problem), it’s difficult to quantify or suggest an indicator of progress. But I suppose one of the indicators may be being able to handle an incident in class with dignity and with peace in mind.

    Who will do it?
    The agent of change is me and only me. I can’t predict what other participants of the learning process will do; I can’t change the way they think and behave. All I can do is to be well-prepared, ready and alert, with as few expectations as possible. I can’t expect, for example, that all students will appreciate what we do in class. Some will find my methods useless and being in class a waste of time, which can be a source of bitter disappointment on both sides of the barricade. This is what I should keep in mind all the time; I’m NOT and can’t be on the same wavelength with everybody (= every student). I’ll always be there for them but it doesn’t really matter how they perceive me as long as I’m at peace with myself.

    Results that can be realistically achieved:
    As stated above, it’s rather difficult for me to look too far ahead. But I also struggle with small objectives that need to be set on a daily basis. I imagine most people would be surprised at the way I describe myself but that’s how I feel. I live intuitively, in the present (drawing on what happened in the past). That’s how I live and teach and that’s why I’ve never been a good chess player. I enjoy the magic of the present moment which can lead to more magic in the classroom if we are all tuned in. That’s why the dogme approach appeals to me. But although I’m a dreamer who realizes she’s dreaming, now and then I need to be woken up by various incidents to be be able to live fully and passionately again. Back to the realistic results; I think I might be able to stop and think each time when I feel disappointed or hurt emotionally and say to myself: “It’s not about you, girl. Don’t take things personally. Get up and go on. Forgive. Change what needs to be changed. Start anew.”

    When can the results be achieved?
    I suppose the results can be achieved right now, in a minute, tomorrow, next week. They can be achieved constantly. The danger is that I may fall asleep again and start dreaming my dream of me as a wonderful teacher loved and secretly admired  by every single student. But if I keep my eyes open, I’ll be able to see things; to see them from different perspectives. Some students don’t care about me and what I do for them. And it’s perfectly fine. Some will even dislike me, for all possible reasons. And that’s perfectly fine because I’m bossy, impatient, I sometimes speak too fast and chaotically, and I don’t always teach grammar explicitly. A few of them may like me because I’m nice, I smile a lot, I’m humorous and always in a good mood. Either way, being a teacher means dealing with lots of different human beings who come with different backgrounds and expectations. All I can do is to be myself and let others decide how to feel towards me and my way of teaching. 

    P.S.: I highly recommend this RP6 post by Anne Hendler.  

    The hardships of an advanced L2 learner

    These days, a bunch of ELF teachers = bloggers are sharing their experience with learning foreign languages. You can find them on Twitter under the #langmt hashtag. Coming from experienced EFL teachers, their advice and tips are of great value; they are looking at L2 learning from two different perspectives – professional and experiential. The posts are highly motivating and they’ve inspired my resolution for the upcoming summer holidays: to brush up my German. What makes the reading about their experience even more interesting is the fact that the bloggers are dealing with various, mainly ‘exotic’ languages, such as Japanese, Malay, Italian, Russian, or Korean. Although I’ve attempted to learn several L2s in my life, ironically, I’d like to share my experience with learning English.

    As a fairly advanced learner of English, I’d always kind of believed that the more I read and listen (or hear) in English, the more words I will automatically remember. I believed that passive knowledge will automatically become active at some point. And that was the conviction I would share with my students. It was until I noticed that despite having devoured piles of English books and watched tonnes of English movies, I only improved my reading and listening skills (to a certain extent, I should stress). Unfortunately, my vocabulary never expanded dramatically, i.e. beyond my long-desired level. I did remember (= acquired) certain recurrent phrases and bits, but unless I took the less frequent words down in ink, I didn’t really recall many of them later on.

    The most valuable experience I’ve had so far as an L2 learner is the extensive practice through writing this blog. First of all, my spelling has improved noticeably since I started. I can confidently claim so because a few weeks ago I, as a participant of a workshop on dealing with errors, was asked to complete a spelling quiz and my result was 100%. This truly surprised me because I’d never thought spelling is one of my strengths. The test was actually a warm-up and a lead-in to follow-up activities aimed at improving students’ spelling. I was fully absorbed in the activities but while listening to the presenter, I caught myself wanting to shout out: “These games are great fun but you can primarily improve your spelling by practising writing and by wanting to write correctly!!!” In other words, only conscious effort, concentration and plenty of practice will help you spell and write better. There’s no other way, unless you are a genius, which I’m not.

    I’m still struggling with writing, though. Oftentimes I find my writing plain and I hate my habit of repeating the same words again and again. I sometimes feel like a prisoner in a small cage or a child writing her homework; I can’t find the words to express my feeling properly. This brings me to another subject – vocabulary. I hope it won’t be over-generalization to say that the more vocabulary one knows, the easier it is to learn new items. But still, every learner has their own specialities, i.e. things that they find problematic. For example, it took me ages to learn the word ‘duly‘. Although I knew its frequent collocates (duly noted, duly executed), I couldn’t remember its direct translation and its accurate meaning. Other nightmares were the words ‘conspicuous‘ and ‘prolific‘. There’s a lot to hold on to and draw on when learning some English words; in the case of prolific, the pro– prefix is the same as in the word pro-ductive, which comes in handy provided your attention is drawn to the similarity. Nevertheless, this word kept troubling me until I learnt about sketches – simple drawings or doodles I can attach to new vocabulary items to make my learning easier. Sketches are fantastic for initial phases of learning an L2. However, the more abstract terms one encounters, the more one has to rack their brains to come up with a suitable sketch..

    The most intensive learning experience I’ve had so far regarding learning vocabulary happened a couple of years ago, when I was preparing for my CPE exam – a door I had to open to be accepted to my MA studies programme. It was a worrying situation; I had been a (respected) EFL teacher for the past 15 years and suddenly I had to start learning what I’d actually been teaching for what seemed ages. You can imagine how worried I was about the possibility of not passing the entrance exam. I wasn’t afraid of speaking, though (I’d had plenty of practice as a teacher after all). But I knew the written part of the test might be tricky, which proved to be true. I remember that my favourite website at that time was Flo-Joe. I took a few mock tests there and to my disappointment, I discovered that I needed to start working hard. I must smile now when I look at my notebook in which I used to record unknown vocabulary, useful collocations and chunks. What a diligent student I was! By the way, I didn’t know they were called chunks at that time yet. I discovered the beauty of ELT terms later on, in the MA programme I had been accepted to.

    The most surprising discovery for me is the fact that when I came back to that website two years later, I remembered all the exercises. I also remembered where I had made mistakes back then and which words I had recorded. I can also recall where I’d been sitting and what I’d been feeling when practising. The learning context clearly left deep traces in my neural network. I believe that the importance and seriousness of the situation and the circumstances under which I learnt helped me remember things better. Looking back at what I had achieved back then makes me believe that learners can achieve almost anything. Motivation (no matter whether intrinsic or extrinsic) is a powerful drive in learning.

    The last thing I want to touch on is learning versus acquiring. I spend hours a day acquiring English, i.e. reading and listening to what interests me without really thinking about the language itself. This is great but unless I jot things down and thus zoom in on the language, I don’t feel I’m making progress. The good thing about delving into stuff that I’m interested in is the fact that later on I have some memorable context to rely on. Referring back to context helps me recall words. To illustrate what I mean, here’s an example: I remember this very rare verb I once came across on Scott Thornbury’s blog. In one of his comments he used the expression: a yammering idiot (mind you, he talked about himself)…. I’d never heard the word before but the context in which I saw it was rather amusing and thus I remembered it very quickly. I’ve never used it until now and I’ve never seen it in a different context. To conclude, with rare words I sometimes find it useful to note down where and when I saw them. This helps me remember and recall them better.

    Before I say goodbye to the reader and finally hit the publish button, I’ll have to run a spell check on my post. I can be sure to detect several typos. So no matter how great of a speller I may think I am, I’ll always rely on technology in this respect. But even my spell checker is very useful for my learning. It’s not just a tool that does everything for me; by allowing myself to manually correct the typos, I make myself notice them and consciously process them instead of leaving them in the vast plains of subconsciousness….

    Update: There’s a follow-up post called More Hardships (and joys) of an advanced L2 learner, which, I believe, is reflective as well as practical.

    The #OneThing Challenge

    Some days I feel like reading what other people produce or share, some days I feel like writing a post myself. Yesterday was my ‘reading’ day. I came across several interesting posts: Vedrana Vojkovic’s one on the perks of teaching online, Sandy Millin’s post on the Silent Way, and I had also discovered a series of blog posts on critical pedagogy, the third of which was published yesterday by Divya Madhavan. The three posts were totally unrelated; they had nothing to do with one another except for one thing – they were all about education. All in all, it was a kaleidoscopic ‘blogosphere’ day and I went to bed feeling more sophisticated and with a broader picture of what education means. But today I feel the need to write. This urge comes to me irregularly but quite frequently, especially when #OneThing happens…

    Yesterday all final year secondary students in the Czech Republic sat the written part of the English Maturita Exam (the word ‘Maturita’ comes from Latin and it is supposed to refer to the fact that students are mature enough to leave school if they provide concrete evidence – passing the Maturita Exams). When the tests were published online a couple of hours later, I immediately downloaded them so that I could go through them with my younger (less mature) students the next day (today). Unfortunately, the tests have been dumbed down recently to suit all students across the schooling system spectrum. As a result, my A2 grammar school students found the Use of English part a piece of cake and the worst result was 12/15 (even though they constantly claim that grammar is what troubles them and what they need to practise most). Needless to say, this is not good in terms of their future external motivation.

    Anyway, I discovered that the Use of English part was a piece of text based on the true story of Sharbat Gula, the Afghan girl who was the subject of the famous photograph by Steve McCurry. It was a commonplace, uninteresting multiple choice gap-fill test. But I didn’t mind because I had only planned to show my students what this part of the exam was like by asking them to try to do the gap-fill. I had wanted to find out what areas of lexico-grammar we need to work on. When reading the text, however, I remembered that I had seen the picture in question before and that it had a great impact on me. It occurred to me that this inauthentic (simplified) text with no visual support was actually perfect for the classroom. So I decided to exploit the seemingly boring exercise to the full. First, without any warning, I projected the famous picture on the screen.

    Source: Wikipedia:

    It was an advantage that none of the students had ever seen the picture before. I asked them to describe it in detail and guess what the girl’s background was. At first puzzled, they eventually came up with some amazing ideas and we ended up with lots of new vocabulary on the board.

    Then I showed them another picture, resembling the first one, but this time there was a much older woman holding an issue of National Geographic with Sharbat Gula’s face on the cover. Some thought it was the girl’s mother, others guessed (correctly) that it was the same girl, many years later. Finally, I googled a picture of Steve McCurry and asked them to make connections.

    When I thought I had aroused their interest sufficiently, I handed out the tests. Without grumbling, they immediately started working. And I could be sure that they knew what they were reading – they weren’t just filling in the gaps without thinking about the context.

    After checking the answers and explaining some important grammar points, we did a follow-up activity (highlighting collocations and useful phrases in the text) and I left the classroom happy, knowing that I had something meaningful for my students and that, hopefully, some learning had happened.

    This post was inspired by Anne Hendler’s #OneThing Challenge.

    The most inspiring teacher

    I remember this moment as if it happened yesterday; I was about to take the oral part of my university entrance exam.  It was a hot summer day and my exam was scheduled for late afternoon. ‘Bad timing’, I thought, ‘the committee will be tired’. A group of five other students (my rivals and competitors) and I were waiting anxiously for the door to open and the committee to call us in. When the door finally opened for a short moment, I could see him – my most inspiring teacher. I could feel his charisma immediately, it was like a blast of energy, and this moment filled me with awe and admiration (yes, before I heard him utter a single word). But the door closed again and we had to wait a few more minutes for the interview. Meanwhile, some students, my future friends and kindred spirits, were discussing how difficult it was the previous year to pass the exam, which would have, under normal circumstances, scared the hell out of me because I desperately wanted the place. But for some reason, from then on, I wasn’t afraid. Although I got the results of the exam almost four weeks later, I knew I had passed right after the interview, right on the spot. And I was enjoying this sense of anticipation and excitement. The interview was one of the most enjoyable and victorious moments in my professional life (another I remember was my final state exam). Anyway, as I said, the man in the room later became one of my most inspiring teachers, and he was also my helpful MA thesis supervisor. 
    Without the slightest hesitation I can claim that he had me wrapped around his finger from the very beginning – I would have done anything to please him. So I worked really hard. When he once appreciated my work saying: “…. and you thoughtful work has not remained unnoticed”, I felt on cloud nine and worked even harder. And my effort was fruitful. Today I should thank this man for all I know about applied linguistics and teaching. Not that he taught me everything I know now; there were other great teachers. What I’m most grateful for is the fact that he inspired me to keep looking and continue studying.  
    I had always wondered why this particular teacher was so inspiring and charming. I clearly had a soft spot for this man. It even crossed my mind that we had met in our previous lives. I kept wondering until that Friday afternoon when I was taking my father home in my car and I caught a glimpse of his eyes in the rear-view mirror. It suddenly dawned on me that the teacher resembled my father! There was something about the way he walked, the way he looked at people, and his habit of sarcastically dismissing my (and other people’s) answers (and thus actually challenging me), and most of all, his sometimes cynical sense of humour….. 
    What’s the point of this post then? A lot has been written about ‘the’ ideal teacher (a really great post here). But I believe that being a good teacher is not just about what one does in the classroom and what he or she is like. It’s about each and every student’s background and their deepest, subconscious emotions which they bring to the lessons. I personally know a teenage student who apparently hates all female teachers but has no problem with male teachers. This must have some deep psychological roots and unfortunately, we can’t do much to change the situation. What I’m trying to say is that the teaching profession is more complex than just a set of classroom management and methodology rules; it’s about who we are and where we’ve come from.