Errors in disguise

A colleague of mine has a very weak student in class and she’s worried that he might fail his final English exam, which he’s taking in May. Now and then, during our regular coffee chats, she comes up with a little rant. Last time she looked really frustrated when she told me that the student, who should by now be somewhere around the B1-B2 level, can’t use basic grammatical structures correctly. I should stress that my friend does her best to help this particular student and she has spent lots of extra hours with him after school explaining stuff.

Nevertheless, she is desperate that, for example, the student uses the present simple tense when talking about past events. So instead of saying: The other day I went to Prague … he says: The other day I go to Prague …. I couldn’t but agree that this could be a real problem during his state exam, but then I thought of the last conference I went to, and I remembered Piotr Steinbrich’s plenary speech, in which he mentioned the fact that although the present simple is considered one of the most basic grammatical structures, i.e. A1 structures as described by CEFR, it can actually indicate a fairly advanced level of English when it’s used for talking about past events. So in an attempt to console my friend, I told her humorously that during the actual exam we can pretend that the student uses the structures on purpose.

My colleague smiled faintly but immediately went on to tell me another example of the student’s ignorance. “Just imagine, I asked him something about dinner and he started describing his typical lunch at the school canteen. I couldn’t believe my ears!” I sympathised with her but then I remembered another conference, particularly Nikki Fořtová’s workshop, during which she talked about differences in lexis across various cultures. She told us, for example, that *pond* is not what Czech people think it is and that *dinner* may actually be *lunch* in a particular cultural context. So again, I tried to lift my friend’s spirits by telling her that if this happens, we can pretend that the boy is actually on topic.

Now, this chat I had with my friend got me thinking. We have all sorts of errors, such as typos, slips of the tongue, errors related to interlanguage, random errors, systematic errors, etc. But sometimes students use structures which may be correct under certain circumstances but as their regular teacher you know that they use them because they can’t use the ones you expect them to use. I mean, the student mentioned above does not know that dinner may be lunch or that present simple can be used for past events. He simply messes things up and his teacher knows it because otherwise he makes mistakes which imply that his level is not that high. The question is whether and/or how to penalise those errors in disguise.

I face a similar dilemma when teaching reported speech or the past perfect tense. The rules are not always clear-cut and as a fairly advanced user of English I know that it’s not always necessary or even desirable to use a more complex structure, simply because it’s not natural.

The obvious conclusion is that as long as the student is understood, everything’s fine. On the other hand, our students are required to take exams which are designed to test their level of proficiency, and we teachers need to take this into consideration when assessing a student’s performance. On a more learner-centred note, maybe we shouldn’t be afraid to push our students to acquire the more complex structures, even though we know they will easily do without them, because without this extended linguistic knowledge they might not be able to come back to the simple structures and use the language naturally. I might be completely wrong but that’s how I feel it being an L2 learner myself.

Shadow-reading experiment

I’ve recently done some research into shadow-reading and at some point I promised myself that I’d soon experiment with it a bit in the classroom. I was curious to see what this technique, which I had never heard before, looked like in practice, and I wondered what benefits there were related to this method.

Let me briefly describe what we did in class earlier today:

1)  Ss listened to a short recording, following the transcript silently. This helped them understand the gist of the text as well as see how the text was chunked.
2) I played the recording again and asked Ss to read along with the speaker. However, they could only mouth the words silently.
3) I played the recording for the third time; this time Ss were asked to read along with the speaker, quietly.
4) Finally, Ss read the text along with the speaker at a normal volume, trying as much as possible to mimic their intonation, stress and pronunciation. I turned the volume of the recording up and down at this stage, and at some point I even switched the sound off completely.

As this was only a singular trial, I can’t draw any definite conclusions as to the benefits of this procedure. However, I noticed a few interesting things. Apart from the fact that all the students were fully engaged in the activity, there were some directly observable learning outcomes.

The enormous differences between English and Czech, especially those related to suprasegmantal features of pronunciation, make it very difficult for Czech learners to learn to speak this L2. First of all, we normally speak with a rather flat intonation, which may sound impolite, even rude, to other speakers of English. Worse still, what we say may easily be misunderstood and misinterpreted. In addition, Czech has fixed stress – the lexical stress almost always comes on the first syllable of a word. In English, unfortunately, the position of stress in a word is variable and thus less predictable; it must be memorised as part of the pronunciation of a particular lexical item. Then there is sentence stress, i.e. patterns that apply at a higher level than the individual word. Furthermore, whereas English is a stressed-timed language, Czech is a syllable-timed one. This means that, unlike in English, every syllable is perceived as taking up approximately the same amount of time. The situation is only complicated by the fact that in English, vowel reduction may occur when a vowel changes from a stressed to an unstressed position.

During shadow reading, all the above features of English pronunciation were practised. I should point out that regardless of age, Czech learners often find it slightly embarrassing to imitate English intonation, probably because it moves up and down in such a funny way. When shadow-reading, however, they seemed to feel more comfortable, perhaps due to the fact that they all spoke at once, so their imperfections and/or exaggerations were less audible. Nevertheless, I could hear each and every student quite clearly whenever I focused a bit. Also, they had to get the stress and rhythm right, including all the reduced syllables, if they wanted to keep up with the speaker. The fact that they could not stop whenever they made a mistake made their speech more rhythmical, as well as cohesive. The recording they heard in the background helped them stress the correct words and syllables, so it finally almost turned into a chant.

Based on my observations, apart from practising supersegmental features of English pronunciation, the students also learnt to pronounce a few separate, tricky words (refugees, heroine, to name some). In the follow-up lesson, I’d like to give them a test to see if they can read the text as fluently as they did last time (I’m going to concentrate on suprasegmental features again), plus I’d also like to get them to write the tricky words to see whether this technique has had some influence of their spelling skills. Finally (or alternatively), I’d like to give them a short vocabulary test to find out if having encountered certain lexical items in context multiple times has helped them remember them. In other words, I’d like to see whether the technique was beneficial for their L2 acquisition as opposed to conscious learning.

I had learnt that there is also a karaoke version of the shadow reading technique. So in today’s lesson, as a bonus activity, I chose a popular English song for children with a wordy lyric. We followed the same procedure described above, but this time with a fun tweak; in the end I asked the kids to take out their mobile phones and record their voices as they were singing. Normally, this would be a problem and nobody would agree to sing aloud in front of their peers, but as each and every student felt kind of camouflaged among the singing crowd, they didn’t find it embarrassing to perform publicly. Then I asked them to listen to their recordings and it was rewarding for me to see them burst into genuine laughter once they heard the outcomes.

On the NEST vs. NNEST issue

When this happened for the first time, I thought it was pretty insignificant. I pondered for a while and then let go of the thought immediately. When it happened for the second time, I realised it was worth a mention here on my blog.
Scene 1: 
I’m sitting in the classroom, cooperating with Margaret, a lady from the UK (a native speaker of English). We’re working on a task Daniele, the presenter of the workshop we are participating in, has just asked us to complete. We’re looking at a list of some vocabulary items when Margaret mentions that she’s really enjoying the day here at the conference. Later on I ask her about her background and she briefly explains that she used to be a primary teacher in the UK. Now she’s retired and she’s been travelling a bit around the world and she’s having a great time. She’s come to the Czech Republic to visit her son – a teacher trainer based in Brno. Suddenly, Daniele, whose name and surname definitely sound English to me, utters a Czech male name with such a perfect pronunciation that it occurs to me that her L1 might actually be Czech. I’ve noticed that it is particularly people’s names, as well as, say, names of Czech places that reveal your true identity when you pronounce them in front of a Czech audience. Anyway, I mention to Margaret in passing that Daniele is one of my favourite presenters and I wonder whether she’s a native speaker of English. Margaret stops to think for a second and then she says: “Well, I really don’t know but she sounds English to me”. And then she adds: “And Paula, the presenter I saw before, sounded English to me too.” I’m a bit surprised because I know Paula is Czech and although her English is flawless, it’s definitely her L2.
Scene 2: 
I’m sitting in the classroom listening to Nick, a very friendly-looking native speaker of English, who’s giving a presentation on a brand new, bottom-up, approach to teaching listening and reading. At some point he asks if there are any native speakers present in the classroom. I think he wants to explain how difficult it is for NSs, let alone NNSs, to understand spoken English and he wants somebody to confirm his assertion. One guy puts up his hand – it’s James. Nick nods and then he looks at David, a nice guy I saw presenting at conferences in the past too, and, a little puzzled, asks: “And you? You are a native speaker, too, aren’t you?” David shakes his head – he’s actually Dutch. “Really?? I thought you were a native speaker”, adds Nick a little doubtfully. His puzzlement doesn’t surprise me because I heard David speak on many occasions before and he sounded perfectly native-like. But I’m a NNEST, so you can trick me easily, you know. 
And that’s the point. Being a native speaker of Czech, I’m convinced that I can tell with an absolute certainty whether somebody’s Czech is their L1 or L2, and I was really surprised to see that native speakers of English can’t. This is truly intriguing. Although both Nick and Margaret came from totally different environments, they had something in common; Nick probably works with teachers all around the world, so he may have adjusted to all sorts of accents which he accepts as fully-fledged varieties of English. Margaret loves travelling, so like Nick, she may have stopped distinguishing between ‘real’ English and other Englishes long ago. 
So it made me wonder why there’s so much the fuss about NESTs and NNESTs because apparently, even NESTs can’t tell the difference between native and non-native Englishes. It really makes no difference what Daniele’s, Paula’s or David’s linguistic backgrounds are – one of their parents may be a native speaker after all, or they might have spent most of their lives in an English speaking country. Or maybe they managed to acquire English in such a way that nobody can say if it’s actually their L1 or L2. Thus it’s clear that it is the outcome, i.e. your linguistic ability (plus teaching qualifications) that makes you a good teacher, not your history, i.e. the place of your birth or the data recorded in your passport. 
Note: the storied above are real stories, both of which happened quite recently, and the names of the people mentioned are real too (even though I admit I might have played with the spelling a bit).  

Reverse!

Yesterday I stumbled upon a blog post by Willy Cardoso, published on the British Council Teaching English blog. In his post, the author argues that learners’ writings are one of the best raw materials any teacher can have. I totally agree with this, but what really resonated with me was the following tip he shares: “Start a new unit from the last page!” 

How come this had never dawned on me before? Such a simple, clever idea… I’d always believed that the pure version of teaching unplugged needs a lot of courage and experience on the teacher’s part. Also, if the teacher’s hands are tied by the administrators’ restrictions and requirements, experimenting becomes much more difficult. Willy Cardoso’s approach, though, looks less daunting and does not violate any of the following key principles of the Dogme teaching

  • Interactivity: the most direct route to learning is to be found in the interactivity between teachers and students and amongst the students themselves.
  • Engagement: students are most engaged by content they have created themselves
  • Dialogic processes: learning is social and dialogic, where knowledge is co-constructed
  • Scaffolded conversations: learning takes place through conversations, where the learner and teacher co-construct the knowledge and skills
  • Emergence: language and grammar emerge from the learning process. This is seen as distinct from the ‘acquisition’ of language.
  • Affordances: the teacher’s role is to optimize language learning affordances through directing attention to emergent language.
  • Voice: the learner’s voice is given recognition along with the learner’s beliefs and knowledge.
  • Empowerment: students and teachers are empowered by freeing the classroom of published materials and textbooks.
  • Relevance: materials (e.g. texts, audios and videos) should have relevance for the learners
  • Critical use: teachers and students should use published materials and textbooks in a critical way that recognizes their cultural and ideological biases.


Even if you have to follow a syllabus (because your students are required to become familiar with a certain number of specific grammatical structures/vocabulary/topics/whatever), you can use this approach without failing to fulfil the red tape requirements. Even if you and your colleagues are expected to create a syllabus based on the coursebook you use throughout the course, you can teach dogme-ish and still be sure that the administrators won’t find anything wrong with your suspiciously-looking methods. 

Now I’d like to ask myself a question: How can I go about it in my teaching context? I’m looking at the coursebook I use with my pre-intermediate students. Unit 1 covers the following 1) topics: personality, teenage challenges, music, hobbies, 2) language items: present simple vs. present continuous, verb patterns (verb + infinitive/-ing form), 3) functions: exchanging opinions (about hobbies, likes/dislikes), and finally, 4) a writing task: a personal profile. 
So, let’s say that I’ll ask my Ss to write a personal profile first. I’ll see what my Ss already know and what areas they find problematic. Some of the problematic areas will probably overlap with the content of the current unit, so I’ll make sure they will gradually be covered in detail. For instance, it’s likely that I’ll find out that my Ss don’t need to practise present simple because they can use it confidently. Maybe they only struggle with some specific aspects; they, for example, err when making questions and/or they keep forgetting to add an -s with the third person singular verb. So I will focus on this a bit. Based on my experience, Czech learners can form the present continuous, but they tend to overuse it, so I might want to include some extra practice if necessary. In other words, I’ll work on emergent problems plus I’ll feed Ss the language items that pop up along the way. 
The truth is, however, that some language structures will have to be forced on Ss. For example, there is a list of about 30 verbs in Unit 1 whose patterns Ss need to be able to use at some point. It’s unlikely that all those patterns will emerge naturally as we speak about personality traits, hobbies, etc. What could I do then? I could obviously use the texts from the coursebook or I can create my own personal profile and deliberately include all those verbs my Ss need to acquire. The latter approach will undoubtedly be far more natural and relevant, as well as more interactive and dialogic. 
All in all, I’m convinced that this selective approach will give me more time to cover things which are engaging – those things which I feel I have little time for. However, I believe there’s no need to avoid the textbook completely. In the first unit there are nice texts which I know my students love to work on, such as a personality quiz or an article called What does your musical taste say about you? But again, I’ll already know how much time to spend on these sections. I will be able to get rid of the redundant stuff which I now feel obliged to go through, no matter how much of it my Ss actually know already. Having said that, I will finally end up with more time on my hands, which I could use more effectively. 
I think it might be a good idea to apply a cyclic approach here – to start with the last page of the unit, work on the emergent language/problematic areas and then come back to the last page again and get Ss to write an upgraded version of the same written assignment. It might be very interesting to compare both versions and see all the progress Ss have made since the starting point. Now that I think about it, it seems I’m up to a little experiment …  

Dream Reader

This post is not about books or extensive reading, as the title and the image might imply. It is about another useful teaching/learning resource I’ve recently learned about and used in class. 
 
A few days ago, on his A new day, a new thingblog, David Harbinson shared a newly learned thing that had come to him via Mike Griffin’s blog. If you go to Mike’s blog, which I did today, you’ll find an interview with Neil Millington, a university teacher based in Japan, who, six months ago, co-set a website for English learners called DreamReader.net.  
After reading David’s post, nosey me immediately went to the website to see what it’s like. It reminded me of another website I like and use – News in Levels – so I decided to experiment with it a bit in the following lesson. This was on Friday and it was supposed to be a small class of only 10 students. Due to a flu epidemic, though, only 4 students finally turned up for that particular lesson, so the conditions were much more convenient for a language experiment I was up to. It turned out that four was actually a perfect number (but I believe it could work well with larger classes too). So, I’d like to tell you what I did with the website. Spoiler: it went really well. 
My students were pre-intermediate language learners aged 16 (3 boys and 1 girl). The lesson was in the morning and it was 45 minutes long. There are five categories on the site: Easy English, Interesting English, Fun English, Practical English and Academic English. For starters, I chose Fun English. I selected two audios which I thought everybody would be interested in: Minecraft – a PC game everybody knows and plays (or played in the past) and The Simpsons – an animated comedy TV show that is hugely popular over here in the Czech Republic. My plan was to exploit the two short texts to the full.
I projected the web page on the screen. I gave students some brief background information about what I was doing and why, we did some brainstorming, and I started with the first recording. I played the audio and asked Ss to answer the four simple questions that accompany the transcript (note: I had scrolled down the page so that Ss could not see the transcript while listening). The questions are very easy to answer; they serve as an introduction to the topic rather than as a listening/reading comprehension exercise. This is only to the good because it doesn’t put too much stress on Ss during the first encounter with the text. Then we checked the answers quickly as a class. I played the audio again; this time I let the kids follow the transcript. After that we looked at some useful expressions, especially collocations, and put them on the board. I removed the text and got Ss to retell (in pairs) what it said, in their own words, using the chunks on the board. I did the same with The Simpsons. 
I moved on to the next stage. I’m a big fan of Paul Nation’s Learning Vocabulary in Another Language and I love using some of the activities he suggests in this thick volume. So I projected the first text (Minecraft) on the screen again. I asked Ss to work in pairs. One student was sitting so that he faced the screen, the other one right opposite her partner. The one facing the screen was asked to read the text in this way: Look at the text and remember as much as possible (the amount doesn’t really matter – it can be two words up to a whole sentence). Then look at you partner and reproduce the bit you’ve just memorised. Then look at the screen again, memorise the next bit and tell your partner. Do the same with the rest of the text. It doesn’t matter if you only manage to memorise one word, but you must not look at the text and speak at the same time. You can only speak when you are looking at your partner. It is best if you only manage to move your eyes. Try not to move your head too much – it makes reading more difficult. 
This activity is called read-and-look-up and its value lies in the fact that the reader has to carry the words, phrases, or even sentences in his mind. The connection is not from the text to mouth but from text to brain, and then from brain to mouth (see this pdf for further info). 
 

The Ss then changed roles and worked the same way with the other text (The Simpsons). The final stage was something that I’d never done before but that I’d always wanted to try – simultaneous interpretation.  I asked the Ss to work as a class (which was actually a group of 4). The Ss were sitting in a circle, facing each other. I played the audio and asked them to take turns to translate the speech as the audio played. I only paused the audio when I wanted another student to take over. As the students were already familiar with the text, it made things much easier for them. However, I believe this technique helped them make more new brain connections because once again, they received language input which they had to retain in their memory for a short moment before letting it out – this time in their mother tongue. So it offered Ss an opportunity to work with L1 in a meaningful way. Needless to say, it was fun! 

I believe I managed to exploit the two short text/audios in a very effective way. Also, I gave my students a useful tip for an online resource which they can explore and use on their own. I wish there were more handy websites like this one. Hats off to those who take the time to create them and offer them for free! 

 

Behind the scenes

The other day I posted a couple of photos to the #eltpics Facebook group. I had taken the pics during a workshop called Design Your Ideal Coursebook. From the images one can tell that it was a truly enjoyable experience and that doing workshops is great fun. Let’s look behind the scenes, though. 
At first I should confess that I originally wanted to write a different post – about how much trouble I had had planning this particular workshop. However, I eventually stopped babbling about how desperate I felt and instead I decided to wait and see how the workshop actually turns out. The truth is, though, that this post is going to be a rant anyway.
Here’s the story: each year, a number of subject teachers at our school are ordered asked to come up with an idea for a workshop. The summary of the workshop is displayed on a huge board opposite the entrance gate. Students then choose workshops, mostly based on the content, and sign up for them. However, I believe there are other criteria students consider when opting for a particular workshop, such as the teacher’s popularity. Here comes the first flaw – there are more workshops than necessary and thus some of them end up being empty or with just a couple of names on the list. The reader might object that this approach is fine because thus students have a greater choice of topics. The trouble is, though, that the teachers who didn’t succeed in attracting a satisfactory number of students take it as a failure or blame themselves (or somebody else does so) for not having tried hard enough. 

Anyway, I passed the first checkpoint by managing to ‘gain’ 13 participants. They were a mixture of 12 and 13 year olds, and I knew they were a creative and motivated bunch of English learners, so I was really happy. The empty workshops were finally cancelled and the teachers were asked to assist their colleagues. 
 
As I already mentioned above, it really worried me that until the last moment I didn’t have a very detailed plan of what the workshop should look like. I had a rough idea of what I wanted to do with the students but there was no particular order, sequence or any sign of clear structure whatsoever. So I brainstormed in bed, took notes on the bus, drew doodles in the kitchen, created mind maps; I even used the post-it notes technique Joanna Malefaki describes in her post. But I was hopeless. It was not just one lesson or a double lesson, or even a string of separate lessons to be thought through; the project had to be designed so that it covered a period of five lessons in which I had to provide my students with content that was interesting, engaging, cohesive, meaningful, and cross-curricular. Having said that, you can imagine that teachers are not exactly over the moon when the day finally comes. The preparation stage is time-consuming, and the overall experience is emotionally challenging. 
The night before the workshop I gave up. I had lots of random ideas, I knew how I would start but I decided to leave the rest up to serendipity. In was in the title after all: Design your ideal coursebook. How could I prepare every detail in advance? It wouldn’t have been their ideal coursebook if I had planned too much. I know it sounds like an alibi but I just had to look at things rationally once I felt lost. 
 
Needless to say, my creative gang were absolutely amazing and the workshop went really well. In the morning we looked at some old coursebooks and we discussed what was good and what was not so good. Later on we compared those ancient publications with modern coursebooks and argued what had improved over time. We also carried out a small survey outside the school, and analysed and presented the results. Based on the discussions and the results of the survey the students then agreed on the content and the title of their Ideal Coursebook. I asked them to work in pairs – each pair was responsible for one unit of the book – but they also had to keep the integrity of the book in mind and cooperate as a team. 
To cut it short, it was a lovely morning and we had a great time but I shouldn’t forget to mention one more drawback. After the workshop finished, all the teams gathered in the gym for the final presentation. Each team then presented the outcomes of their learning in the form of posters, projects, role plays, etc. This was a great show and lots of fun, except that there was a committee that was supposed to vote for the best three presentations. In fact, you could spend all day preparing for the five-minute presentation, and do nothing else, and your team might well win the first prize. Or you could spend one hour working on a super poster and then put your feet up on the wall and listen to a guided relaxation – and your team might still win. Or your team could work non-stop and engage in lots of interesting activities and then prepare a nice presentation but they may still end up ‘medal-less’. I ask: How can you assess the process only based on the outcome? 
 
 
My colleagues and I had protested against this summative type of assessment of something that should not be judged and measured this way before. How can you assess a biology workshop alongside with a German language one anyway? Last year my team won and the members were on cloud nine when they got some sweets, but I felt sorry for the kids who had been working hard for the previous 4 hours and ended up empty-handed. This year my team didn’t win and again, I felt upset about the fact that they had been judged and assessed this way. Why do I always feel the bitter-sweet taste at the back of my tongue?  I would like to enjoy the experience to the fullest but somehow I can’t … 

Using self-made videos in class

I’d like to share a nice way of working with videos in the L2 classroom. You can obviously ask your students to watch a video on YouTube, for example, but it’s more creative, motivating and fun to make your own video in class and work with it later on. So, last Thursday we recorded a role play of a story called The Tailor of Swaffham we had previously read in the coursebook. The kids I worked with were a group of 12-year-olds. We did a couple of rehearsals and in the end we shot the final version, let’s call it Take 1, which was about 4 minutes long. I used my low-tech Nokia phone so the quality of the video was not exactly stunning, but it was OK for the purpose of the activity. 
At home I uploaded the video to my private YouTube channel. In the next lesson, I played the video back and I asked my students the following questions. 
1) What did you like about the video – the acting, camera, sound, etc?
2) Is there anything we should work on? 
The students came up with lots of interesting ideas for improvement, such as:  
  • There were too many characters involved at the beginning of the play and thus the scene looked crowded and messy. We should do something about the arrangement. 
  • We should speak up next time or we should get closer to the camera. Or the camera should get closer to the actors. 
  • Although the sound was ok, sometimes it was difficult to understand – we should speak more slowly and clearly. 
  • Some actors made mistakes in pronunciation (once upon a time, busy) – we should practise the lines, focusing on the difficult areas. 
  • To improve the sound, we should also reduce the background noise (bags falling, kids whispering and giggling). 
  • The camera moved around too fast at times and thus the picture was blurred. 
We put the points on the board one by one. The discussion was obviously all in English (the language the kids used was a bit less complex though). The aim of the discussion was 1) to practise specific language points and 2) to find as many ways of improving our video as possible. We were planning to do Take 2 (which we finally did) and we wanted to make it better than Take 1. So while recording the follow-up version, we kept all the above mentioned problems in mind. Eventually, we felt that the outcome was far better than the first version, but we’ll see when we watch Take 2 together next time we meet. And as good things come in threes, I hope to do Take 3!

A little rant

It distresses me that by writing this post I might make some people annoyed. That’s why I’d like to reassure the reader in advance that it is not my intention – this post is not aimed at specific people. Please, don’t take any of this personally.

It’s that I just noticed something. Maybe it’s always been around and it’s recently become salient for me, for god-knows-what reasons. Maybe it’s actually me who takes things personally. The trouble is that everywhere I look I come across a mention or a plethora of mentions of a certain internationally recognised teaching qualification. I don’t mean the type of posts or articles where the author looks at things with a critical eye and questions the current status quo. I’m talking about the type of discourse which people use to promote something they deem good. I’d like to stress that I can fully understand why teachers, who I respect and admire, are proud to have achieved this particular qualification. I’m convinced that the experience was challenging and beneficial. What bugs me then?

I remember I first heard of this highly rewarded qualification at the start of my MA programme a couple of years ago. During the introductory speech the DoS said in passing: “Yes, and by the way, I shouldn’t forget to mention that your two-year intensive course leading to an MA degree will actually be less valued than the four-week X course.” Although I was a little surprised by his rather cruel off-topic remark, I didn’t actually care very much because I was thrilled to be taking part in a programme of my dreams, and nothing else mattered to me then. Anyway, I didn’t even know what course he was talking about.

After my graduation, a brand new horizons opened for me; I met lots of wonderful people (my precious PLN) and I started learning from them. However, I also realised that the DoS was right. You know, I can’t help feeling excluded at times. I mean, when I’m going through the topics of an upcoming ELT-related Twitter chat and see that one, or even two, of them are directly related to the highly rewarded teaching qualification, I can’t but feel discouraged. How am I going to contribute to the discussion if the topic wins? I’ll be automatically excluded. It would be similar to suggest a topic in which people would be asked to discuss the following question: What are the benefits of using Headway? Why did I choose it and how do I work with it in class? Pardon? I don’t use Headway! How on earth can I discuss the topic? And are Headway users a special group?

This reminds me that I once came across a remark that you can never provide truly valuable feedback on an observed lesson unless you hold a certain certificate and not another. Wow. This has really stuck with me. At times it feels like there are two groups out there – the one which consists of the said certificate holders and the other one including those who did a different teaching qualification. It’s Us and the Others.

I felt a similar controversy when people discussed what blog creation tool is best to use. The discussion eventually narrowed down to two tools. It’s quite obvious that you can only say which of the two options is better if you try both of them. Otherwise you can only say what is good for you. If you like something, for whatever reason, you obviously tend to promote it and recommend it. This is absolutely fine. But once you start feeling that you are attracted to one option just because it’s been chosen by the majority out there, you should become alert. Why do you feel like that?

My point is that any type of discourse can become inherently biased. Moreover, by promoting something we like as the only and the best option we may be actually promoting somebody’s profitable business. And those owning the business must be rubbing their hands together. Because honestly, the things I’ve discussed in my post are profitable businesses and I believe that’s how they should be looked at.

 

Collective feedback on written assignments

In this post I’d like to share one of my favourite ways of giving feedback on written assignments, which I’ve been practising for some time now and which has proved really useful and effective in my teaching context. I usually do this with intermediate classes but I believe it can work with lower levels too. This method is a classic one, nothing really revolutionary, plus no technology needs to be involved. However, I can’t think of any reason why it couldn’t become high-tech.

One of the questions that may pop up immediately is: How do you know that the method is effective? I can tell quite easily; students pay attention during the feedback presentation, and they constantly ask questions, make comments and ask for clarification. And although they are not able to avoid all the discussed errors in their next written assignment, I notice that they do eschew some. This, in my view, is hard evidence that the feedback hit the right note and that they have improved.

So what do I actually do? I teach classes of 10 up to 23 students.  When I correct and grade their written assignments, I always create a ‘collective feedback’ report in which I have collected the most frequent mistakes the students made. This means that a mistake is recorded only if it’s made by at least two students. I don’t pay attention to individual or rare errors because pointing to them when giving feedback to the whole class would not be too effective and it would also become time-consuming. Moreover, although I never mention the names of the students who made particular errors, if I picked a unique error, the author might easily recognise it and feel exposed and subsequently embarrassed. It’s just safer to refer to each error as something more people struggle with.

I should mention that one of the rare positives of teaching large classes is that the more numerous the class is, the more beneficial this type of feedback generally becomes, since in a class of 23 students, each student actually learns from 22 other people. This, quite obviously, wouldn’t be possible if you teach one to one.

An example of a collective feedback report, page 2
An example of a collective feedback report, page 1

Now, I should stress that it’s absolutely necessary to give this type of feedback before handing out the corrected assignments; otherwise it would be a complete waste of time. Each student would stare at his/her own essay without paying much attention to what I say about the other errors. So, the psychological effect of handing out the assignments after the feedback conclusions are out is clear – students listen carefully in an attempt to spot their own errors among the plethora of incorrect language items produced by their peers. This is desirable because even if Student A didn’t make the same mistake Student B made, this doesn’t mean that Student B’s error is not a potential area of difficulty for Student A. Also, during the feedback time, students are trying to figure out what mark they got by ticking off and counting the mistakes that are presumably theirs. This keeps them in suspense and when they finally get the assignments back, they are ready to accept the grade without feeling too disappointed. In other words, they get mentally prepared for the outcome, which may be less painful than if you just served an E straight away.

To sum up, I believe that this method is more cognitively challenging for your students than just giving out corrected essays with individual feedback reports on them. Also, it may be motivating for the weaker learners to see that they are not the only ones who make mistakes. There’s another advantage to this approach; this kind of feedback is a great tool for monitoring the class’s progress. You can always look back at the previous reports and see what some of the recurrent problems are. Having said that, it’s highly beneficial to store all the reports, either digitally or in a paper file, because then you can compare class A with class B, for example, and see what your next steps should be in case you want to help your students make progress or avoid failure.

Just a tribute …

This post is about an English teacher who’s never followed fashion trends but who’s always been in. No, I’m obviously not talking about clothes here on a blog that is mostly related to ELT stuff. I’m describing the way this teacher teaches English. I’ve actually had an opportunity to observe his methods over a long period of time. At first, he was my English teacher at high school, later on he became my boss and my teacher trainer (though an unofficial one), and now he prepares my son for the FCE exam. 
Although I’ve experienced a great deal of his teaching only vicariously, I can claim that he is one of the most intuitive teachers I’ve ever met. When I was in his class as a student, I didn’t really pay attention to what he did as a teacher but still, some things stuck in my mind. Already back then I noticed things other teachers didn’t do. For example, he had those small cards that he kept looking at throughout the lesson. The cards were always the same – the same colour, the same size (about 10×15 cm), the same material, and I think they had thin, colourful lines on them. Back then I thought of them as notes; in retrospect I realize that they were actually concise lesson plans
He made us learn vocabulary systematically but in a meaningful way (in chunks, to use modern terminology). Most importantly, he wanted us to absorb vocabulary in manageable doses. I was quite good at English so I obviously couldn’t be bothered to revise for vocabulary tests. When I got a B in a test though, I felt aggravated and I protested wildly (not really) because I thought that it was OK to use a Go with me instead of Come along with me (my goodness, I can’t believe I still remember this language point!). He, very patiently, said something along these lines: “Your phrase is fine and you will be understood if you use it but if you don’t expand your vocabulary you’ll soon get stuck.” (on the intermediate plateau, I should add now).
One of his virtues was impartiality. He was always fair to all students. I still remember an argument I overheard during the final Maturita examination – one of the examiners was questioning his decision concerning a student’s score in the oral part of the exam. She maintained that it was not fair to give Student X an A because she was worse than Student Y, who had also got an A. My teacher tried to convince her though that it wasn’t fair to compare those two students – Student Y was brilliant at English and didn’t have to try really hard to achieve such a high grade, but Student X made a lot of effort to succeed, even though she didn’t use such a great variety of vocabulary items and grammar structures as Student Y. I was impressed with his attempt at what now we might call formative assessment.
Although he was a really serious guy, and rather conservative, he wasn’t afraid to experiment now and then. For example, he once made the whole class (of 32 students!) meditate. I still remember the beginning of the guided relaxation: Clasp your hands. Clasp was one of the words that were new to me, and this technique helped me remember it instantly and for good. I suspect he might have been researching some unusual methods and techniques, such as Suggestopedia, or maybe it was just an activity he had come across somewhere and liked so much that he decided to try it out with his students. One way or another, it definitely spiced up the lesson.
When he later became my boss, he gave me lots of valuable feedback on my lessons, which he occasionally came to observe, mainly at the start of my career. I admit that at that time I considered the way he provided feedback a little patronizing. Now I realize it was due to my inability to accept anything but positive feedback. However, many years later, when he observed another lesson of mine, he said how much I had developed as a teacher. I believe I managed to improve my teaching partly because I had followed his advice. 
Another thing I remember is that he would lend out graded readers and encourage his students to read as much as possible outside regular classes. He asked me to do the same in my lessons. I considered this a bit of a nuisance because the paper work, i.e. keeping track of who’s borrowed/returned what, kept me from doing more ‘important’ stuff. Plus it drove me crazy when some of the books got lost. However, he introduced the principles of extensive reading long before I fully realized its benefits for language learning/acquisition
At the moment he’s helping my 16-year-old son to prepare for the FCE exam, so I can peek into his lessons again, though just in the metaphorical sense of the word. Judging by what my son tells me, I couldn’t wish for a better teacher. When I look at the vocabulary lists he creates and photocopies for his students, I can’t but think of the lexical approach. Also, I like the fact that he doesn’t hesitate to reject an essay that I would normally deem acceptable in my teaching context. His approach is good because it challenges students and makes them think about possible ways of improving their writing skills. The truth is that he makes his students a little upset too, but not too upset to become frustrated. He actually practises Demand High, and I dare say he does so absolutely intuitively and naturally.  
What I most appreciate and admire about this particular teacher is the fact that he’s been consistent throughout his teaching career. He’s been immune to all the lures and fashionable trends, but he’s always been able to pick what’s good for his students and I’m bound to say that his teaching has always been learner-centred.