The value of discussion

Yesterday I started a discussion on Facebook. I don’t do this very often; I’m too shy, you know. I asked a question about a grammar issue I wasn’t sure about, namely indirect speech (reported speech or back-shifting).

 

I’m surprised to see that this grammar point has so many alternative names; more than it deserves, I believe. My PLN was really helpful but apparently, reported speech is not a big issue for most ELT professionals. Too much ado about nothing, so to speak. And honestly, I too believe that there is more important stuff to deal with in language teaching.

 

Anyway, most of those who responded are native speakers (at least I think so because I stopped paying attention to this distinction some time ago), and they revealed that their answers were largely intuitive. Some teachers tried to come up with reasonable explanations and rules, which was also very helpful. It’s always good to combine those two approaches.

 

Ironically, with more comments coming, I started to feel ashamed of having spent so much time on this with my intermediate class. I suddenly wanted to get rid of the incessant pressure to cover things which don’t deserve the time and effort. For some inexplicable reason, I feel I need to cover the matter because it’s in the book, in the exams, in the curriculum, and so on and so forth. Back to the FB discussion …  my discontentment with the way I teach grew, especially when I read Ken Wilson’s comment:

 

This discussion shows why exams that test grammar are SO misguided. Students answering this question are not in a position to have this discussion with the person marking the exam.

 

So true, I thought. Unfortunately. But then I saw a light at the end of the tunnel. Yes, we can’t immediately change the way grammar is generally tested, but we can change the way our students look at grammar. I must admit that I, myself, was brought up in the grammar-is-king environment, and I’m still learning to view things in a more balanced way. But I’m convinced that we must keep reminding our students that there’s no point in learning grammar out of context; in this case the situational context. This is what coursebooks sometimes omit or neglect.

 

It may seem like jumping around but now I should explain why I started the Facebook discussion in the first place. The day before yesterday, I had a lesson, and at a certain point I got stuck; I realized I didn’t have the correct answer. What is worse, I gave my students an imprecise answer and I knew it. After the lesson I felt a mixture of confusion and anger – I was angry with myself, of course. Why hadn’t I prepared for this more carefully? And why didn’t I confess on the spot that I didn’t know? In the afternoon I decided to ask people on Facebook hoping that my answer was right after all! But I discovered the opposite. At this point, I realized I needed to go and tell my students in the next lesson.

 

And I did. Earlier today I told them about the Facebook discussion. By doing so I revealed that I hadn’t known the answer myself. But to my surprise, these sorry-I-don’t-know-all-the-answers shoes suddenly felt pretty comfortable. What’s more, my students seemed genuinely interested in what I was telling them because it was all genuine after all. Throughout the lesson, I came up with more disputable examples of reported speech and I asked them what they thought. They threw suggestions at me, but there was no conclusive answer. To my amazement, they didn’t seem to mind. I think it’s because they got the opportunity to show what they knew. Finally, I told the class: “I don’t know but I’d say it’s this way because….. Whoever sees this in some kind of context, please let us know”.

 

Needless to say, I felt different after this lesson. The transformation was not automatic though; it was born out of the feeling of guilt uneasiness. This feeling finally made me step out of my confined space; it made me go and ask publicly and admit that I’m still learning myself. I know this is not the final stage; I’m not miraculously enlightened. More moments and situations like this will come in the future. They’ll come in disguise so that I don’t recognize them immediately. They always do.
 

 

I’m a chameleon, so what?

Veiled chameleon, photo by Billybizkit
They say you need to individualize classroom instruction. In other words, since each student has their individual needs, and their identities are unique and complex, you need to treat them as individuals, not as members of a group. It’s not that I don’t agree, it’s just that I want to say that from time to time it’s interesting to zoom in and reflect on a group as a whole. Although a group consists of individuals, it’s an entity itself, with its unique, complex characteristics. 
It’s obviously not a revolutionary revelation that each group has a different dynamic. But now I’m not talking about specific behavioural patterns or relationships within a group. I’m talking about the way you deliver instruction; the way you teach a particular group. There’s little doubt that it makes a difference if you teach adults or young learners, if you deal with a big group or a small group, or if you have just one student. But that’s not my focus either. 
At the moment I teach English to six different classes. The youngest learners are in class 2 (12-year-olds) and the oldest ones are in class 7 (17-year-olds). There is no point in comparing these six classes as groups because they are at different levels of proficiency. However, I can’t help juxtaposing, say, this year’s class 3 with the last year’s class 3. The result of such a comparison is intriguing; apparently, I’m a chameleon type of teacher.
Imagine English as potato mash but I’m feeding you diced potatoes, at least for the time being. This is what I thought and uttered the other day, and this metaphor more or less reflects the way I’m teaching English to class 3 now. Here, I serve grammar items one by one – like diced potatoes (or McNuggets, to use Scott Thornbury’s terminology). It’s because I believe they learn best if the language is presented step by step. They can’t take in more. My contention is that they feel confused when they don’t know why something works the way it does. They need explanations, translations, graphs and lots of examples. I don’t want to sound too narrow-minded or biased, but to me this is the only way to draw their attention. This is the only way to help them succeed. 

The last year’s class 3, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy the ‘puree’ style of teaching from the very start. They didn’t want to be served potatoes; I fed them bits of the puree immediately; maybe because somebody else had already fed them diced potatoes before. One way or another, they usually got it when I dealt with grammar issues implicitly. I could throw new language items at them and they had no problem to understand and respond. I’m not saying that all of them felt the same way but generally, they loved group discussions, project work and collaborative learning in general. I didn’t need to worry that they’d stop using English if I didn’t keep an eye on them all the time. They explored and discovered. They experimented. They spoke a lot, and they didn’t seem to care about mistakes. They were eager to get their message across, no matter the cost. They were independent and autonomous and came to each class with more knowledge than I’d taught them because they were genuinely interested in the language and voluntarily got exposed to it outside school. All in all, I felt like a totally different person/teacher in this class. That doesn’t mean I felt better or worse that in the other one, though. I just used different techniques and skills with this group. I applied different methods. I could experiment myself. I could be creative. 
This first group seems to prefer diced potatoes and that’s why I serve them. But as I said before, I see any language as puree or mash, where the potatoes finally blend and merge with other ingredients. Ultimately, you can no longer distinguish one ingredient from another in the mixture, and, I suppose, this is the time when one starts acquiring a language, rather than learning it. So I believe that once the learners get a grasp of how the language system works, some day, they’ll be able to dip in the puree. 
Switching from an atomistic to holistic style of teaching, and vice versa, is not a problem for me. Within one day, I change my teaching style the same way a chameleon changes its colour when adapting to its new environment. I blend in with the surroundings and adjust my teaching to match the spirit of the group. I don’t know if my approach is right but the transformation is natural and inevitable. I’d like to think that I follow my intuition; that the learner is more important than the method, but I may only be volatile and fickle. I may lack consistency or aherence to principles. Some ELT professionals may even consider me a herectic, but by some inexplicable force, I’m driven to teach a particular group in a particular way.
So now when I ask myself what kind of teacher I am, I can no longer give a definite answer because it largely depends on who I’m teaching at a given moment. My teaching can be highly communicative in one class, while it can be more traditional in another. However controversial it may sound, I believe it actually helps me grow as a teacher. It broadens my horizons because I can try out more strategies and techniques than if I only stuck to one way of teaching. Anyway, what else would you expect a chameleon to say? 🙂

Why oh why?

I wanted to tell you that it was not correct but the activity was going so slowly that I didn’t want to prolong it by interrupting. 
You may try to guess who uttered the sentence above. Or I may well reveal it right away. It wasn’t the teacher – it wasn’t me. It was one of my students; one of the best ones, I should stress. The thing is that I wasn’t concentrating enough, or I may have been concentrating on something else, and I overlooked a minor mistake somebody had made while we were checking an exercise. The strong students are always alert; they are watchful, like on tree stand hunting. As they have nothing better to do – they were the first to finish and thus they are a little bored – they have plenty of time to look around and listen while others struggle to get their answers right. Despite paying close attention to the struggling student, I may easily overlook the incorrect or imprecise part. I usually do realize it a couple of minutes later and I try to fix it by telling the class apologetically; however, I do so only when a minor mistake becomes important because the language item is the focus of the exercise. In a mixed-ability class like this, the response I usually get from the crowd, in the form of an almost inaudible and incomprehensible mutter, is usually something along the lines: Oh dear, didn’t I say it? And I respond, amused but rather impatiently: “So why didn’t you tell us if you knew? You would have made things easier for me – for all of us”. And then the same student adds: “I wanted to tell you that it was not correct but the activity was going so slowly that I didn’t want to prolong it by interrupting”. Now I don’t know whether to thank the student politely or shoot another impatient look at him. This was a reproach in disguise, of course. I wonder why incidents like this make me feel so frustrated. But then I sit at a staff meeting and the boss claims something we all know is wrong. But nobody dares to object openly; either because they don’t want to upset the boss or because they want to go home as soon as possible. That’s when I think of the cheeky student and I’m grateful for his honesty. 
There’s another thing that bothers me. I feel rather schizophrenic about my attitude towards my almost grown-up students. They are 17 or 18 so I feel I should treat them as adults. I shouldn’t reproach and scold them. But there’s this thing about homework, latecomers and disruptive chatting; what should I do when 50% of them haven’t done their homework? Shall we check it with those 50% or leave it till the next time, when everybody has completed (copied) it? I know that for some students homework is a waste of time, but is it fair not to require it from them? And what about the latecomers? Not only is tardiness violation of the school rules and latecomers will officially be punished anyway, but most importantly, it is disturbing and impolite. Also, I feel really embarrassed when I have to scold an 18-year-olds who are chatting and laughing out loud because something hilarious has caught their attention. The other day one of the students almost had a nervous breakdown after somebody had laughed out loud and she thought they’d laughed at her. 
I think I know why these things bother me. I think it’s because deep inside I wish I could gain control over everything in the class, which I obviously can’t. I like discipline but I hate enforcing it. I hate bossing people around. I want everybody to be happy, including myself, which is not possible, of course. The thing is that if you work hard and plan a lesson thoroughly, you somehow expect that things will go according to plan. But why can’t I just apply all the wonderful tips EFL teachers share on the internet? Why can’t I just teach the language the way I think is best for my students? Why is teaching so complicated? Why is it not straightforward and predictable? I really hate to ask questions you’d expect from a novice, and I hate the feelings of powerlessness after so many years of experience. Well, maybe I should be thankful for all those feelings in the end. Perhaps, without them I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the successes. How would I actually know a lesson went well without having experienced a feeling of despair and failure? Would I want to improve my teaching if I thought there is nothing to work on? There’s no point in answering suggestive and rhetoric questions. But it always helps me to ask them…. 

Come on in … #ELTworkplaces

I’m really glad I’ve finally got to this wonderful project called ELTworkplaces invented and launched by Anna Loseva. Anna calls the idea of sharing photos of workplaces of EFL teachers from all around the world unimaginative. I think it’s awesome. I think it’s cool to get the opportunity to peek into places and spaces of people you’ve known for some time but haven’t been able to visit and meet in person. For example, I was thrilled and genuinely interested to see where Mike Griffin works. It was almost like being there in Korea. This time I’d like to invite you, my virtual friends. Come on in and be my guests for a while. Enjoy your imaginary coffee/tea I’ve prepared with love.

My office is spacious and light. In fact, it’s one of the biggest rooms in the building, and my colleagues never forget to mention it upon entering. But the space is not used functionally; there is almost no furniture so if I want to store files and books, I need to place them in paper boxes or just lay them down on the floor. But more cabinets and shelves are coming soon.

Oh, I forgot to mention that I’m not alone in the office. I share it with my wonderful colleague. It was her patience and persistence which finally earned us this luxury. She would press and push (gently) until the boss said “all right then, it’s yours!”

This is our desk (in fact, a set of three shabby desks pushed together). As they’re always covered with stuff, their woeful condition remains our secret. My colleague and I face each other, which is great except that it’s hard to concentrate on correcting and filling in forms if one is gossiping. My colleague has a splendid, huge, leather swivel chair. I sit on a small, upholstered one. Don’t look for signs of inequality here; her chair is actually a second-hand one, and I think it was her fantastic husband who got it for her. I need to work on this. 
This is the best part – the huge upholstered couch which can accommodate up to five people in a sitting position (tested and proved). And if you happen to have a headache, you can imagine it’s the greatest thing ever. Again, this piece of furniture is one of my colleague’s greatest achievements. I’m thankful. 
The view is not bad either. Our office is on the second floor (no lift). One of the four windows faces the church and a couple of historical buildings.  You can watch students coming and leaving, and if you are ‘lucky’, you can even spot some smoking.  
And finally, this is the message board with lists of phone numbers and birthdays, and a photo of one of our ELT role models. Whenever we feel depressed or stuck in a rut, we always turn to George’s reassuring and soulful look. 
Thanks for visiting. It was a pleasure for me to have you here. 

My McDonald type of teaching

I was cleaning the windows when the telephone rang. 
I’m sure you’ve recognized it – it’s a classic example of a sentence you can find in coursebooks. I call it the 2 in 1 type, i.e. something was happening when something else happened somewhere along the line. I use a lot of miming when presenting this grammar structure. Kids laugh and teenagers think I’m a nerd. I draw graphs and write equations on the board. I use rulers and pencils to visualize it. I use Czech a lot when explaining. And sometimes I feel I’m no longer an EFL teacher but a maths one, for example. There’s another type – the 1>2 type, such as in I came home and cooked myself dinner. I ask my students to translate a couple of sentences to help them grasp the way English differs from Czech. I believe I need to draw my students’ attention to these structures, otherwise they’ll end up lost in translation. While doing so I’m fully aware that this is not exactly how English always works but I keep going because I can see all the happy faces that gleam with contentment: Wow. I got it right. This is so simple. I believe, be it only for a while, that I’m a good teacher. 
Then I stop and continue to do vocabulary work. I toy with the lexical approach for a while. I ask my students to underline collocations and useful chunks of language. We do functional language. We communicate, collaborate and cooperate. We read authentic texts. This time I believe I’m a great teacher. Because great teachers do these things, don’t they? But I feel exhausted after a while so we resume doing grammar again. We go back to the safety of grammatical structures. We attach what we learnt in those genuine texts to something solid. And so we drill ‘used to be’ and didn’t use to be’. We look at old photos and observe how much we’ve all changed (the present perfect is poking out its little arrogant head here but no, I have to ask him to hide for the time being, his time has not come yet). 
No, my teaching can never be completely dogmetic and communicative. It will always be the McDonald type of teaching. Maybe this is not the best way to acquire a language but it can be a good way to learn it under certain circumstances, such as with only a couple of lessons a week, in an L1 speaking country, with an L1 speaking teacher. I learnt the same way after all. I believe that if learners understand the rules underlying the language – and there are rules and principles everywhere we look – they will be motivated to explore and experiment. People need to understand to feel safe. But some day they’ll be able to step out of their comfort zones – somewhere beyond the safe territory of the classroom and the coursebook. And once they’ll be able to build solid structures on these foundations. 
No, it’s not ideal and it’s not perfect. They’ll be surprised and shocked to discover that the language works differently. They’ll be astonished to see that some of the things they once learnt are not 100% useful. Some of them are not even true. They’ll be pleased to see that the structures which were once forbidden are now allowed. But doesn’t this always happen when kids leave kindergarten and later, when they leave school, and finally, when they graduate? Reality is always different from the artificial environment of the schooling system, no matter how great the system is. We can never replicate real life in the classroom. Yes, we must try to get as close as possible but it would be silly to think that learners can acquire L2 the same way they acquire L1. It would be silly to believe that our students will automatically speak with a native-like accent using native-like English if we teach communicatively.  

But what happens in the classroom is real life in the end. So learning should be made meaningful and enjoyable, even in this totally artificial environment. The thing is that seemingly meaningless stuff may later turn out to be meaningful and very useful. It’s the reality experienced outside the classroom which will finally bring all the theoretical matter to life. More than once my students uncovered the artificiality and nonsensicality of the language presented in coursebooks and as a consequence, some very interesting discussions emerged. It’s the ability to think critically and to express opinions which I find the most valuable for their future endeavours. What matters, I think, is the cognitive and affective attitudes to learning and knowing we cultivate in the classroom. In other words, the how is more important that what. So, no longer do I plead guilty of being a bad teacher just because I explain grammar rules explicitly. No longer do I feel guilty about translation and using L1 in the classroom. Because these are the stepping stones; the bridge leading to all the important jobs I’m obliged to do as an educator…

A tale of an ordinary teacher

Once upon a time there was an ordinary teacher who loved her job. At the beginning of her career, the teacher felt a bit like cuckoo’s offspring. Although she had a good teaching job, she couldn’t help feeling a little sad; she never had her own office. The thing was that within one day she taught different classes at different places. No wonder that after some time she’d had enough of her nomadic lifestyle and felt she needed to settle down and try something different. But she didn’t do anything. She waited instead. As luck would have it, one day she met somebody who asked her if she wanted to teach at the local grammar school. She knew that she would earn less money and that she would actually get more work, but she didn’t care. She was determined to go after her dream – a place where she could store her own files, notebooks and dictionaries; a place where she could make herself a cup of coffee.

Although she’d always felt like a born teacher, she was aware of the fact that she didn’t have the right qualification. Or more precisely – she was told she didn’t have the right qualification to continue teaching in the public sector, and she was advised she’d better get one soon. So one day she enrolled at university and got the right degree. Thus she became a fully qualified teacher, which made her feel really happy and respected. But she still felt a little sad; unlike other colleagues of hers, she’d never been a class teacher. She still remembers occasional remarks uttered in the staffroom or during a coffee break: “Oh dear, I’m so exhausted. I don’t know what to do first. But once you become a class teacher you’ll see for yourself”. Anyway, despite the fact she finally started to feel a little guilty for not being a class teacher, she carried on working hard. She discovered the magic of webinars and workshops, for example. She still remembers her very first conference – her boss’d asked her to go somewhere and she’d said yes without even knowing what she was doing. It turned out to be one of the best opportunities ever because her passion for professional development was born. 

One day, all of a sudden, she got two fantastic offers to which she couldn’t say no; she was ‘given’ her own class and she also became the head of the subject department at her school. She felt flattered and she appreciated all the trust. The truth is that with the trust came a lot of new responsibilities, but she didn’t mind. She was happy and eager to prove they’d chosen well. 

The ordinary teacher who loves her jobs knows how lucky she is. Most of her professional dreams have come true after all. But at the same time she realizes that the way her life has shaped itself is not just a result of her own decisions. She’s had dreams but she’s never come to meet them directly; she’s waited for them to come to herShe’s allowed hersef to be part of other people’s plans too. Does this mean she is an opportunist? I’m sure she’d like to think of herself as patient and determined. But maybe she’s just not too confident to go after her big dreams openly and that’s why she waits and adapts her actions to take advantage of opportunities that gradually come to her. Maybe she too shy to ask for something directly. She has secret wishes and she hopes someone will read her mind. Maybe she just waits and picks apples when they are ripe; or she plants seeds and quietly watches them grow before she harvests the crop… 

Do I teach communicatively?

Ideas are infectious. They spread quickly like viruses. This time I’ve been infected by Anna Loseva’s idea to answer a simple question: Do I teach communicatively? I once attempted to ponder this issue but back then I only concentrated on one single activity, which I dissected using Scott Thornbury’s technique. But I was caught off guard when I asked myself: Do I teach communicatively? I don’t think I’ve ever asked myself this question. It’s not like Was this particular activity communicative? It’s much more; it’s reflecting on my teaching philosophy. It’s shedding light on my deepest beliefs. But as Anna points out, beliefs aren’t always identical with one’s actions. And I understand what she means because I face the same problem. I think I know what is right but I don’t always do the right things. I know French fries are not healthy for me but I still love them. What’s worse; I let my sons eat them!

Anyway, let’s get back to the original topic of this post. Do I teach communicatively? Communicative teaching emphasizes interaction, which is the means as well as the ultimate goal. Yes, there’s a lot of interaction going on in my classes. But does that mean that I teach communicatively? I’m not sure. I need to analyze a bit first. Here’s a list of principles proposed by Doughty and Long (2003) which serve as a guideline for implementing CLT.

1. Use tasks as an organizational principle

2. Promote learning by doing. 
3. Input needs to be rich 

4. Input needs to be meaningful, comprehensible and elaborated. 

5. Promote cooperative and collaborative learning
6. Focus on form
7. Provide error corrective feedback 
8. Recognize and respect affective factors of learning
I’m going to look at each of the communicative principles through the lens of my own teaching. Or vice versa, I’m going to look at my teaching through the lens of these communicative principles.

The task principle: I think I do use tasks but if you ask me what a task is, I need to have a think. Is it a specific piece of work required to be done as part of one’s duties? Or is it the learner’s effort to comprehend, manipulate and produce the target language? One way or another, I can claim that I use tasks as the organizational principle of my lessons. As a matter of fact, I can’t picture a lesson which wouldn’t be ruled by this principle (unless the students fall asleep or pay absolutely no attention). Even at a lecture the audience has some task to do, be it only following the lecturer carefully or taking notes.

The learning by doing principle: As far as learning by doing is concerned, don’t we always learn by doing? To be able to answer this question, it’s necessary to specify what we mean by doing. Even when I sit silently, just listening to the teacher, I kind of learn by doing – I’m making mental connections to my previous experience, I’m re-organizing and re-constructing my schemata; I’m putting new pieces of an imaginary jigsaw puzzle in the right place. Or I can literally be working with these pieces trying to figure out the correct word order of a sentence, for example. In both cases I learn by doing.

The richness of input principle: Input needs to be rich. Yes, I agree but too often do I feel restricted by the limitations of the classroom and the time allocated to my lessons. Yes, students need to be exposed to a plethora of language items and contexts but the real context is always the same – the classroom environment. Honestly, I’m not overly concerned about the authenticity of language learning. To be more precise, I believe learners can learn a lot using invented materials and coursebooks. But I certainly do my best to provide the learners with variety, even though it’s a very limited kind of variety. However, it’s the learners who finally need to make the final move; they need to go and find the different contexts outside the classroom. Luckily, it’s never been more feasible than now with all the online sources and opportunities an L2 learner has nowadays.

The meaningfulness and comprehensibility of input principle: Who decides if the input is meaningful? I’d say it’s always the learner, not the teacher. For me as a teacher, it’s difficult to judge what is meaningful for my students. I think I know what might be meaningful for them but I don’t know exactly what’s going on in their little heads. There are things which I find totally meaningless but to my students they make perfect sense. On the other hand, making input comprehensible is something I can achieve, and I have the means to find out if I succeeded. For example, I can ask comprehension questions or I gain hard evidence when my students complete a task.

The cooperation and collaboration principle: I believe that cooperation must be taught and learnt – I don’t think it’s a natural feature of human nature. Not all human beings are selfless and willing to work collaboratively because they feel that a success of a group is less valuable than an achievement of an individual. One of my duties as a teacher is to demonstrate that under certain circumstances a group can achieve more that an individual, especially in language learning. In fact, communication and interaction are inherently collaborative in nature, so avoiding them in the classroom would make no sense.

The focus on form principle: I’d say that unlike in L1 acquisition, in order to learn a language in the classroom environment it’s the form that must be made salient. However, it’s the connection between form and meaning that is crucial. Teaching functional language is one of the ways of connecting meaning and form. Exposing learners to collocations and chunks of the language is more important than helping them understand grammar torn out of context.

The error and corrective feedback principle: I strongly believe in the power of corrective feedback, no matter whether it’s teacher > student feedback or peer correction. There are circumstances when correction is totally inappropriate, as some say, but as L2 learners are generally aware of the fact that they are in the classroom in order to learn the language, they may infer and understand that it’s the teacher’s task to provide feedback, either explicitly or implicitly. Thus there’s no need to feel offended.

The recognition of affective factors principle: Finally, it’s clear to me that the overall atmosphere in the class will be relaxed if my students feel at ease. I can’t say I have some evidence proving that they will learn more if anxiety is kept at a minimal level. But honestly, I don’t need any direct proof of that anyway. I’m obviously not going to stress my students out just because I think they may learn more vocabulary. But this is a feature of my personality, not just a belief.

Having said what I have said, I may tentatively claim that I do teach communicatively. What I can never answer, though, is whether my teaching could be more communicative or if other teachers teach more communicatively than I do. In other words, is my teaching communicative enough in comparison with other teachers? Could this ever be measured? If not, how can I become a better teacher? I don’t think it would be helpful to analyze each activity I introduce in the classroom because it’s not just about activities. It’s about the overall approach and the ultimate goals of instruction and education the teacher keeps in mind. It’s definitely a complex issue that needs a lot of constant reflection. 

Diversification in a mixed ability class

Only a week ago I talked about the challenges of teaching large classes. However, I’ve come to realize that, in effect, it’s not the number of students that is actually challenging. If one had a class of forty well-behaved students of the same age, gender, and level of proficiency, with the same interests and cultural backgrounds, it might well be much easier than teaching a group of five students who share none of the attributes. I’m well aware of the fact that I’m oversimplifying. What I’m trying to imply is that over less than a week my main focus has changed from ‘large’ to ‘mixed ability’.

One of the groups I teach this year encompasses several reference levels as described by the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages). I haven’t actually measured it but I estimate that in the group there are 1) a couple of learners at the A2+ level – the weakest, least confident learners struggling with the core matter they need to acquire 2) quite a few at the B1 level – this level corresponds with the coursebook we’re using so I suppose they feel quite comfortable 3) some at the B2 level – those who take it easy and generally get good grades, and 4) a few at the C1 level – in short, those who have answers to all my questions and nothing ever surprises them. I should stress that all the learners still have two full academic years to go to finally and officially achieve B2 level – the expected outcome of secondary education, i.e. the teacher’s ultimate goal. However, if this was my only goal, some of the students could let their hair down or skip all the English classes from now on, and they would still pass their final exams. This is not what I want (the skipping).

Inevitably, I came to a conclusion that helping my students achieve the B2 level can’t be my primary goal any more. I simply needed to change my mindset and start thinking about alternative approaches. I came up with a simple idea: in the next two years I’m planning to help my students to follow this pattern of development:

A2+ > B1 > B2
B1 > B2 > B2+
B2 > B2+ > C1
C1 > C1+ ? 
I don’t know if this pattern makes any sense to the reader. I’m not sure whether it makes sense to me either. What I’m trying to say is that I plan to push each and every student further up towards a higher level. I’m not so worried about the first group. If the students work hard enough, they might be virtually pulled up by the demands of the teacher (and the system) but also by the presence of more proficient students. I suppose most of them are more or less externally motivated because they want to pass their exams. The students who’ve already achieved the B2 level may feel they don’t need to work hard any more so internal motivation is the key here. I need to convince them that this is not the terminal station. The most challenging subgroup seems to be the last one. Why should they bother at all? They are at a fairly high level already and it may be difficult for me to offer something they don’t know, at least within the regular classes where I need to help the less proficient students. 
Enough of theory; I’d like to share a couple of activities I’ve done so far, which, I believe, worked quite well for all the subgroups. When we worked on compound nouns, I handed out an extensive list of extra vocabulary items and asked Ss to highlight those they think they know. The strongest Ss highlighted 90% of the items while the weaker students were only familiar with, say, 30%. This didn’t matter though. All the students subsequently worked with what they knew and shared their knowledge with each other. Eventually, they all learned more than they had known before. 
The other day we worked on reported speech. The topic of the lesson was mystery and crime. As an extra activity I handed out a short story from a level 5 graded reader and played the recording while Ss followed the text. I asked them to highlight all the direct speech chunks as they were listening. The story was quite easy for the most proficient Ss within the group. Nevertheless, it was also gripping and thus kept them in suspense all the time. I was pleased to see that the text was sufficiently challenging yet comprehensible for the weaker students. The main aim was not purely and only linguistic (apart from the focus on reported speech, which only took a couple of minutes anyway); it was a mysterious story which incited a lively discussion. Also, as the Ss could keep the texts, they could read them at home as many times as they needed. Some Ss probably had to work a little harder than others but that’s just fair. The students will also need to change their mindsets, not just the teacher. 
The basic requirements are the same for all students, though. They write the same tests and there are specific criteria they need to meet in order to get a good grade. I should stress that this doesn’t discriminate the weaker students. If the students work hard, they can all get decent grades, no matter what level they are; this is how the tests are designed. Surprisingly, the most proficient students are sometimes less successful because they overestimate their knowledge, or they don’t find it necessary to revise for exams. So it’s the diligence and the desire to improve which finally pay off, not just a natural talent, and I believe it’s the way it should be.  

Large classes – a nightmare or a challenge?

Last Monday my regular teaching schedule officially started. I couldn’t wait to see the kids again after the holidays. I was full of energy and enthusiasm, but at the same time I was somewhat concerned about the two large classes I’d been assigned. I’d already confessed before that I find it challenging to teach English to a class of twenty-two students.

One of the classes in question is grade 8 (13 year olds, a mix of boys and girls). I only know half of the class well; I’ve been teaching them for more than two years now. The other group had a different teacher in the past but I’m familiar with most of the faces too. I memorized the names quickly. I discovered that the fact that the two groups can demonstrate their knowledge in front of each other actually spices up the lessons. Kids simply love to show off in front of their peers. My biggest concern regarding this group is the discipline. Will I be able to handle such a big group during certain phases of the lesson, such as conversation activities? When 22 kids start chatting at once, they can’t hear each other clearly. Will I be able to include mingling activities at all? Is there enough space for this? Will they be meaningful under the circumstances? How will I make sure the kids don’t copy each other’s tests when there are so many of them squeezed in one room?

The other large group consists of students aged 17-18. Some of them are pretty boisterous, but that’s not what worries me most because they generally like English. The trouble is that it’s a mixed-ability class; there are students who’ve just obtained FCE certificates (I estimate that some of them are as high as the C1 level), while others struggle to keep up with the intermediate level coursebook. How to keep them all engaged? What activities should I include to provide valuable input without boring the stronger students to death and putting off the weak ones? Will I often have to supplement the coursebook which is too easy for the best students? Who’ll pay for the huge amount of copies then? I suppose I’ll need to make use of technology, such as mobile phones, laptops and projectors. How will I manage to assess each student’s oral performance at least twice during the term if there are so many of them? And will I be able to judge their performances impartially when there’s such a big gap between the strongest and the weakest student? Will I resist comparing the students’ performances?

I thought the first lessons with these groups had gone well. Unfortunately, the way I see things is not always identical with how others see them. I felt really disappointed when I heard that some of the kids (and their parents) had already written the lessons off saying: Students: This sucks … I don’t want to be in the same class with the FCE holders – they will laugh at me and I’ll be discouraged to speak in front of them. Parents: This is hopeless; the kids won’t get enough opportunities to speak any more. Such a big class can’t be taught effectively. These doubtful voices really make me sad, but then I think: this wasn’t my decision, so it’s not my fault. It’s not in my power to change it. All I can do to face the challenge and do my best as a teacher. My optimistic prediction is that we’ll all eventually get used to it but meanwhile I’ll need to take action.

One thing is certain; these lessons will need a lot of consideration, planning and subsequent reflection. I probably won’t be able to do things the way I did them with smaller classes. In other words, I’ll need to step out of my comfort zone. By this change will inevitably affect the students themselves. These are some of the things I think I’ll need to tweak.

1) I’ll have to include even more pair and group work in the lesson plan to provide students with plenty of opportunities to speak. However, students will also need to work individually to be able to process everything thoroughly. I’m an extroverted, impatient energetic person, and I often have to remind myself that students need plenty of time to complete their task. This will become even more challenging now because the more students, the more divergence. I suppose that less S>T talk will happen, even though I hope that there will be some space for short presentations.

2) In a big class, students are more likely to be distracted by the others – their remarks, questions, movements, etc. Also, the faster students often get impatient when they have to wait for the others who haven’t finished yet. I’m afraid I won’t be able to avoid occasional reprimands, which I really hate. The thing is that I don’t normally mind when students burst in laughter or chatter now and then. To keep a quiet and good working atmosphere though, they won’t be allowed to do things they normally did before. This may make them feel less comfortable in the beginning, but I hope they’ll adjust.

3) I’ll definitely need to pay more attention to the seating arrangement. In such a big class, there are things which I can easily overlook. There may be pairs who don’t work efficiently enough and thus they may need to change partners. Also, lazy or shy students may hide behind the hard-working and more confident ones.

4) It’s difficult to keep track of every student’s work and progress in such a big class. Hence new ways of assessment will have to be considered if I don’t want to have piles of uncorrected tests and essays on my desk. Peer correction and assessment first spring to mind. If I still want to correct things myself, I’ll need to make a schedule so that I don’t get overloaded with work.

5) I’ll need to select activities very carefully – not too easy but not too challenging, with extra or bonus sections for those who are fast and/or more proficient. These extra parts should be optional but motivating enough to attract the stronger students’ attention. Last time, for example, I handed out lists of one liner jokes based on homophones. The language itself was not difficult but it definitely made the students stop and think. The aim of the activity was to understand the jokes but in fact it was a linguistic exercise in disguise, focusing on words with multiple meanings. In the end I felt that everybody enjoyed the activity and found it useful.

I’m convinced that the number of students in a class is important but it’s not the only factor of effective language instruction and learning. There’s no need to think that students can’t learn in big classes. They can, of course. But it does make a different when there are 22 students instead of 10 or 12. But I’m an optimist – I believe that as soon as I adjust my teaching style to the given situation, these large groups will finally become my most favourite classes. Anyway, I promise to keep the reader of my blog posted.