How much risk are you willing to take?

Whenever you ask your students to use English, you actually ask them to take risks. For many learners, speaking (or writing) in English is a real challenge. It’s as if somebody asked you to do a bungee jump saying that it’s easy because many people have already done it before. It’s as if you were asked to do karaoke – it’s basically a piece of cake but once you are not confident in singing, it can turn into a truly embarrassing experience.

Earlier today, I asked my students to read a text about a very embarrassing situation a teenage girl had experienced on her first date. My lesson objective was clearly stated: it was an authentic blog post, full of useful, informal language items I wanted my students to acquire and put in use. After some language work and follow-up practice, it was time for personalisation: I asked my students whether they had experienced a similar situation at some point in their lives. Although this is a very talkative class of 18-year-olds never afraid to express their opinions, I was suddenly faced with a complete silence. But it was not the blank stares type of silence. It was the silence complete with unspoken ideas desperately wanting to be put into words. However, after a couple of seconds, instead of answering my question, a student struck back: And you, teacher? At that moment, I realized how my students felt. I experienced the moment of hesitation they must go through on a regular basis when bombarded with all sorts of personal questions: Shall I say something or shall I pretend that I’ve nothing to add to the discussion?

I hesitated for a fraction of a second and then I decided to take the risk: Yes, I have. I actually experienced something very embarrassing.… All of a sudden, they were all on alert. The inevitable happened. Tell us about it, then, someone begged. I hesitated for another fraction of a second and then told them my story as I remembered it, making it as dramatic as possible.

I could see that their expressions had changed completely. Some of them were still processing the information they had just received; they were probably visualizing the situation and judging the degree of awkwardness. But I noticed that a couple of them were already getting ready to share their own embarrassing moments – they’d probably remembered something resembling my story, or they’d simply gained confidence to come out of hiding. And the most courageous ones finally did share their stories. And I thanked them for their bravery and support – because my story suddenly didn’t seem so embarrassing. The awkwardness had somehow been watered down, so to speak. Also, it seemed that the act of sharing our moments of embarrassment made us feel like a close-knit community for a while. But more importantly, it made our conversation genuine, real-life and meaningful; it was about us after all – not just about the language or the coursebook exercise.

It’s not easy to share something you are ashamed of, and for some students, be it the weak ones or the introverted ones, it’s often equally embarrassing to speak in front of the class, even when it’s something pretty commonplace. Having said that, if we want our students to share bits and pieces of their private lives, we need to create an environment of equity and trust. And hopefully, if the teacher takes the risk, the students are likely to follow his/her example…

Some of my nostalgic (linguistic) memories of the Netherlands

I’m finally back home from a short visit to a lovely Dutch town called Valkenswaard. My heart still aches a bit since I’m missing all the friendly people I met there – the students and teachers from six European countries that had got together to work on a music/poetry project. But I know the memories will soon fade and life will return to normal. Well, not quite, I’m afraid…. Things will never be the same.
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As a Czech tourist, when you land in Eindhoven, you immediately notice a few things. The architecture is slightly different from what you can see in a typical Czech town. The lovely traffic lights that look like children’s toys make you feel you’ve just come to see Legoland. But the main difference can’t be perceived visually – it is when you open your mouth to speak and prick up your ears to listen that you finally realize you are in the Netherlands; everybody speaks English there. Every bus driver, every shop assistant, and every waitress will reply fluently once you start asking them questions in English.

This is something you will hardly experience in the Czech Republic. In an extreme situation, once they are approached by a foreigner, people will even run away or pretend they don’t speak English. The reason is simple – generally, Czechs are not very confident in English.

So while in the Netherlands, I asked myself (and other people too) the same question over and over again: How come Dutch people are so proficient in English? I always got the same reply: we don’t dub English programs and thus we’re exposed to heaps of English from a very early age.

But I think there is another reason behind their high English proficiency. Dutch is a Germanic language and it is closely related to English and German. Dutch shares with German a similar word order, grammatical gender, and largely Germanic vocabulary, which contains the same Germanic core as German and English. Nonetheless, the fact that Russian is a Slavic language closely related to Czech didn’t help me achieve a native-like proficiency in it when I was forced to learn it back during the communist regime. Apparently, one ingredient vital for a successful acquisition of an L2 was missing – motivation.

Now, considering the fact that the Netherlands has a tradition of learning languages and almost 90% of the population can easily converse in English, it’s obvious that the L2 proficiency of their English teachers reflects the situation. I met a Dutch (as well as a German and a Belgian) teacher of English, whose L2 proficiency was absolutely stunning. Had I not known what their nationalities were, I wouldn’t have guessed they were non-native speakers of English. The NNEST vs. NEST dichotomy suddenly seemed useless and redundant. If I had ever doubted that non-native speakers of English can achieve native-like proficiency, this was the final proof that they can.

But I also met a German teacher of geography and a Belgian music teacher whose fluency in spoken English (and several other languages) was equally astounding. I remember a few occasions in the past when my English had been described as flawless but honestly, now I think people were only trying to be nice to me; most of the time in the Netherlands I felt humbled. In spite of this, I’m immensely thankful for this experience.

If only I could spend more time at the school – observe lessons, talk to the teachers, students, and other members of the staff. I would like to get under the surface and find out if their approaches to learning and methods of teaching English are very different from what we do here. I’d like to interview more people in the streets and pubs; I’d love to ask about their motivation and general attitudes to foreign languages….

Stressing out about stress

I can’t remember how many times I’ve told my students that stress – the emphasis placed on the sound or syllable spoken most forcefully in a word or phrase – is a very important aspect of spoken English. I tell them that although this linguistic feature may seem trivial to native speakers of Czech, it can be a matter of communicative survival in English. The trouble is that Czech has a fixed stress, meaning that its position can be predicted by a simple rule, i.e. it almost always comes on the first syllable. It’s not a big issue if you place the stress elsewhere – you will likely be understood, provided you get other aspects of pronunciation right.

My students often struggle with sentence stress – the stress placed on words within sentences – and I wrote about ways of handling it here. They also find it difficult to deal with lexical stress – the stress placed on syllables within words. There are two notorious words I repeatedly correct – hotel and event. It doesn’t matter how many times I model the pronunciation; in most cases my students will get it wrong the next time again. There are obvious reasons for this: as already mentioned above, it’s natural for my students to speak stressing the first syllables in words. Moreover, despite the fact that in written Czech the word for hotel is identical to its English counterpart, we pronounce it slightly differently, i.e. we place the stress on the first syllable.

Now, my students are not the only ones who sometimes struggle with this aspect of spoken English. I remember at least two occasions when my message seemed totally unintelligible to my Australian friend, just because I placed the word stress incorrectly. For example, I remember that my friend looked really puzzled when I told him about the problem with mosquitoes. I pronounced it [ˈmɒskitəʊs] instead of [məˈskiːtəʊs]. I had to repeat the word several times and even describe the insect before my friend got the meaning. I was pretty frustrated because to my Czech ear, the difference is not so dramatic, and if I heard the word pronounced in different ways, I think I would always understand. By the way, this is one of the dangers of monolingual classes taught by a teacher speaking the same L1 – we understand one another and easily ignore things that seem unimportant to us. 

Another communication breakdown happened when I used the word teetotaller. I said [ˈtiːtəʊtlə] instead of [tiːˈtəʊtlə]. Neither repeating the word nor raising a glass of beer helped my friend to get the meaning. I had to spell the word (which got me into even more trouble, as you can imagine)! I know that this isn’t a very frequent word but this situation clearly demonstrates what an important role word stress can play.  

I’m really happy I experienced those two communicative failures since I can share these stories with my students; I can show them what pitfalls there are waiting outside the safe L2 classroom. 

Challenging one of my personal myths …

If you have been a teacher for some time now, there are probably certain principles you strongly believe in. It is possible that you consider some approaches better than others. For example, you might believe that communicative language teaching is better than the grammar translation method. Or, and this is my case, you may believe that certain seating arrangements work better for your classes than other alternatives.

I’ve always felt a strong dislike of teaching language classes in the traditional classroom layout – straight rows facing the front of the classroom. Ironically, although this straight row arrangement has been widely criticized, mostly because it is said to inhibit experimentation in the classroom, it still predominates in most educational settings. It is not surprising that the majority of classrooms in the school where I work are arranged this way.

I’ve always preferred the horseshoe arrangement, mainly because I believe that it’s best for both student-student and student-teacher interaction. I like it when I can face all my students and I like the space this type of layout provides. But more importantly, I think it’s good when students can see one another’s faces (and mouths) all the time. This is particularly important in a language classroom, where people listen and talk to each other most of the time. In fact, whenever I had to teach in a room where this arrangement wasn’t possible, I felt extremely uncomfortable.

But some time ago I became a student again and I started attending seminars and workshops, where both types of layouts were common. Suddenly, seen from the student perspective, the one I disliked as a teacher didn’t seem much worse than the one I preferred. On the contrary, I remember occasions when I felt physical and psychological discomfort when sitting in the horseshoe arrangement; either because I had chosen an inconvenient spot – one of those places where I was forced to keep my head and neck in a very unhealthy position when looking at the board – or because the room was jam-packed with people and I felt I had lost my personal space – the intimate zone reserved for close friends and family members.

Back to my teaching context, though. I teach in a small room which can accommodate up to 22 people. The size of the room allows you to make a horseshoe out of 8 double desks at the most. However, as I started teaching slightly larger classes back in September, and I didn’t really want to move into a different room, I simply brought three more desks and created an additional, smaller horseshoe inside the big one. As you can see below, although it looked pretty cosy and learner-friendly, it was crammed with quite a few students. This realization, as well as my personal experience, nudged me into a small experiment.

Before …

One day, before the first group entered the room, I had changed the current layout to the traditional one (see below). As it is quite a small room, the change didn’t look too dramatic to me, but I felt that at least I had created some space around each desk. Nevertheless, it was interesting to observe my students’ first reactions to the tweak. I had to smile when I overheard some of the comments the kids uttered upon entering the classroom: “What? ” Oh no! ” What’s this supposed to be? ” “Oh dear!” “This is terrible!” Some just looked puzzled thinking that this was only a mistake which was going to be fixed as soon as their lesson started.

After

The whole point of the post will be revealed soon. I obviously might have changed the layout right after having heard the initial negative reactions, but I decided to wait for a couple of more lessons and enjoy all the psychological impact this alternation had on my students. I want to stress that all my students are in their teens, which means that their negative reactions may only be a type of adolescent rebellion. Anyway, after the second lesson spent in the ‘new’ room, when they seemed to have adjusted to the change a bit, I asked each group the following question: I know you said you felt discomfort when you entered the room for the first time, but I’d like to ask you to share with me some potential advantages this seating arrangement might bring. 

I was really surprised at some of their ideas. Although some students still kept the defensive pose, others had already changed their mind. Well, actually, it’s not that bad. I’m enjoying it after all.

Here are some of the perks they eventually came up with. The tongue-in-the-cheek ones are indicated with a smiley face.

1) I can hear my partner better during the speaking activities, probably due to the fact that our personal space is not invaded from all directions.
2) I don’t have to look at other people’s faces 🙂 My personal note: I believe that some students might also find it embarrassing to be constantly observed by their peers.
3) At least it doesn’t feel like the awful evening language course we attend. 🙂
4) My neck doesn’t hurt anymore.
5) I can rest my arm on the radiator, which I couldn’t before. 🙂
6) The teacher can’t spot the mobile phones hidden under the desks. 🙂
7) We can concentrate better.
8) Swinging on chairs is safer now. 🙂

The most obvious conclusion is that most people resist change and they don’t hesitate to express the resistance as soon as they are confronted with something new. But once they adjust to the new thing, they may discover that it’s not that bad in the end. It’s possible that sooner or later they will want to come back to the old and traditional, or maybe they’ll want to move one step forward. I myself made a step forward when I tried something I had always been reluctant to do. I should add that from a technical point of view, there are some advantages to this seating arrangement, such as the fact that the students can easily and smoothly change partners without even having to stand up. But this is for another post.

…and this is probably a parody of my post :-))

 

Google Fight

A couple of days ago I came across a post by Svetlana Kandybovich, in which she shares some great ideas for using Google in an L2 classroom. One of the tips I particularly liked was Googlefighta website that allows users to compare the number of search results returned by Google for two given queries. 

This tool is generally used for entertainment; you type two keywords and click on the ‘Fight’ button. The winner is the one which gets the biggest number of results on Google. So, I originally planned to use the tool in class for fun too, as a warm-up after Easter holidays, but at the same time, I secretly hoped for a sudden influx of sophisticated ideas related to language learning.

What obviously first came to mind was the concept of word frequency. It occurred to me that my students would find it interesting to see the differences in frequency counts of two words belonging to the same category/lexical set. To spice the activity up, we played a bidding game – each student made a bid on one of the words before I displayed  the actual results on the screen. So, for example, we found out that cat got more hits than dog. Those who had voted for cat won a point. But you can go further with this; you can develop this somewhat meaningless game into a useful linguistic exercise. If you check Longman Communication 3000, you’ll see that both cat (as a noun) and dog (as a noun) are in the list of the 3000 most frequent words in both spoken and written English, but dog is a bit more frequent in written English than cat. If you’re brave enough to play with corpora a bit, you can go to COCA, where the word cat gets 17, 284 hits, while the word dog gets 40, 020 hits. Now, you can ask your students why they think it is so. Why the different results? Is it because there are more cats than dogs or vice versa? Does the word dog have only one meaning? Is it always a noun? What about cat? Does the fact that Google doesn’t sort out words according to parts of speech influence the frequency counts? Are the words displayed plural, singular or both? What about various abbreviations and acronyms?

The exact numbers are not terribly important, but through these activities, you can develop in your students the ability to notice some very important aspects of lexis. This can be a nice lead-in to some dictionary work. I personally like working with a paper edition of Dictionary of Contemporary English because the meanings of words are listed in order of frequency, i. e. the most common meaning is shown first. The 3000 most common words in English are printed in red letters, which shows which are the most important words to learn/know. This is a very important piece of information some dictionaries neglect, and as a result, students can’t work with it.

I was very pleased with my students because they asked me some interesting questions during today’s lesson; for example, they asked me to type in pairs such as colour/color, favourite/favorite because they wanted to see which spelling was more frequent. Once again, it was interesting to think about the why. This pushed the discussion into a different dimension. Ironically, here in the Czech Republic we like to say and believe that we teach British English, using coursebooks published in the UK, yet from the global perspective, the American way of spelling of certain words seems to be more common. This finding may subsequently lead to an interesting debate about the role of English in today’s changing world. Some other words my students were interested in were: football/soccer, black/white, film/movie, cinema/theatre, etc.

 

Making lessons authentic via the use of corpora

In one of my previous posts, I talked about a simple way of using corpora in class. I truly believe that a corpus can be a handy tool for any language learner, but the size of a corpus, as well as its layout, usually appears daunting at first glance, especially to less proficient learners of English. There’s no need to ask your students to laboriously analyse L2 data from a huge corpus when they still struggle with the language itself. In other words, as corpora are collections of authentic language, I estimate that an average A2 learner will find the enormous amount of data and the level of the language somewhat off-putting. From a teacher’s point of view, one of the prerequisites of a successful corpus-based lesson is its simplicity; it’s sufficient to show one simple, practical thing at a go.

Let me give you an example. My intermediate students (B1-B2) need to practise various written genres. Last time they were asked to write a formal letter as a reply to a job advertisement. I normally stick to a very commonplace procedure: I collect the assignments and correct and grade them at home, using various colour codes and abbreviations. I select the most recurring errors from all the essays, and afterwards I give my students detailed feedback (I wrote about it in detail here). However, I’m convinced there is more you can do for your students’ language progress.

Here are a couple of excerpts from a student’s writing I’ve just corrected:

Dear Sir or Madam,

I am writting to apply for the post of a part-time job, which I saw on a billboard next to the hospital. 

………. I consider myself to be accommodating, hard-working and I am good in talking and playing with children. 

……. I am enclosing my CV.
……. I look forward to hearing from you. 

For starters, you can teach your students a very simple thing – how to check the frequency of certain phrases and how to look for alternatives. As you can see, my student had decided to use Dear Sir or Madam at the beginning of the letter. This is fine, but I can ask the class if they are familiar with other ways of addressing people in formal correspondence. Let’s first look at the student’s choice, namely at how frequent it is in comparison with other possibilities. Dear Sir or Madam got 7 hits in the British National Corpus.

I remember that when I was an intermediate learner myself, we were taught that we can also use a plural form, Dear Sirs or Madams. Let’s check what the BNC has to say …

The empty result may imply that this way of greeting people is pretty unnatural. When checking out other possibilities, you’ll come across an option that is more frequent than the other two above – Dear Sir/Madam (26 hits). However, although the corpus shows that this way of addressing people is quite common, it doesn’t say if it’s always the best option. It turns out that under certain circumstances, it is safer to opt for a different greeting.

Let’s have a look at another chunk from the student’s writing I find worth focusing on a bit: I am writing to [apply for]. Now, I’d zoom in on I am writing to …  The first question I would ask my students is: Apart from apply, what other verbs can follow? You can find out by looking at the right collocation candidates. You’ll get the following examples:

I am writing to confirm
I am writing to express….¨
I am writing to inform
I am writing to thank ….
I am writing to offer ….

You might want to work with the above chunks and ask your students to complete them with their own answers. What do we normally confirm/express? What preposition do we typically use with thank/inform? What can you offer? Alternatively or additionally, you can check the corpus again; by clicking on a few example sentences you can see what other users of English opted for.

There’s one more thing I’d definitely elaborate on in a follow-up lesson and that is the phrase: I consider myself …. You can let your student figure out for themselves that it’s possible to say I consider myself to be [adjective/noun] or just I consider myself [adjective/noun]. I believe that their own discovery will make the structures more memorable than if they just saw them in a grammar table in their coursebook. Encourage your students to only focus on the red parts of the sentences and their immediate surroundings. Although there are tons of other things you can do with the sample sentences, this is, for the time being, just enough for an intermediate learner of English.

What comes to mind now is a personalised speaking activity. What qualities would you ascribe to you/your friends/other members of your family? I consider myself/my best friend/my brother …

The activities I describe above constitute the base of a very authentic lesson, which draws on students’ own written production, as well as examples of writing of other users of English. Such a lesson elaborates on what students already know, plus it demonstrates how to work with a very useful online tool.

Apart from corpora, there are other tools that work in the same vein, such as FrazeIt, Just The Word, or Netspeak, which are probably more user-friendly since you don’t need to register for them. Needless to say, Google is the easiest and most accessible web-based tool for working with authentic language, and it comes in handy when one needs to look up something really quickly.

How others see it now

The other day, my 18-year-old son said the following momentous sentence: “If something is not on Wikipedia, it’s not important and thus I’m not going to waste time searching for it elsewhere”.

Let me explain the context first: my son got an F after he had refused to complete one of his History homework assignments. The task was simple: find some information about a particular locally important figure. The figure was probably so unimportant that the name was virtually unsearchable online. Anyway, I thought he could have done more to successfully complete the task, and I asked him if he didn’t mind having had his overall score lowered; I knew this small incident might influence his final grade. Well, all I got was the above memorable answer.

You can imagine how angry I was at first about his rather naive perspective on the credibility of certain Internet sources. But also, to me his behaviour indicated laziness, reluctance, and arrogance – all the possible negative approaches to learning in one. I obviously knew about my teenage son’s overall pragmatic view on life, but this was simply too much. I started explaining how tough his time at university might be some day; he won’t be allowed to cite Wikipedia as a credible source once he does some serious research. What will he do then? The trouble is that like most of his peers, he’s not used to going to the library to look for learning materials. Why bother when all (he thinks) he needs is just one click?

But then I calmed down and tried to look at the situation through his pragmatic eyes for a while. Why should he waste time learning things that are not important for him when there is so much information out there. By the way, he will probably never need to have a perfect command of the world’s history as he’s doing well in science and he’s definitely planning to go this way. However, and I tried to explain this to him, certain skills, such as the ability to search for rare data, are transferable, and if he learns how to look for seemingly unsearchable information now, his life will be much easier in the future.

I’m following the debate related to the issue of technology in the classroom closely and attentively. For example, I’m a big fan of Shelly Terrell, a strong and passionate proponent of technology and innovation in teaching. I also like to visit Steve Wheeler‘s blog, where he gives highly plausible reasons why technology and innovation are inevitable in education. On the other hand, I really liked this post by Anthony Gaughan, in which the author shares some of his scepticism regarding innovation.

There’s something to both opposing views. Now, all one needs is to be critical; the biggest danger lies in the fact that some voices are louder than others. Also, it’s important not to get enchanted by something just because the majority out there claim that it’s the best solution to our problems.

Preferences, approaches and aspirations

The oth71be3-mc5a02bdorter day I went over to Steve Wheeler’s blog and watched a short interview recorded at the INTED 2015 conference in Madrid, Spain. I highly recommend watching the video, in which Steve talks about the importance of technology in education. The progressive, yet moderate view on technology resonates with me but what really struck a chord with me was the following line: Every student has different preferences, approaches and aspirations. Nothing new under the sun, right? Yet, it got me thinking and inspired me to write this post. When I heard the line, I immediately thought of learning styles and the heated debate they have recently inspired, and I realised that it’s much better to think of students’ differences in terms of their preferences, approaches and aspirations than in terms of the looked-down-on learning styles, which, to me, represent a rather narrow perspective. However, as you’ll see, it’d probably be more comfortable and easier to deal with just seven learning styles than with a plethora of different preferences, approaches and aspirations.

It’s obvious that each and every student wants a different thing – hence the different preferences. When learning English, one student prefers grammar tables; another favours picking up the language through reading books. You don’t need to prove this scientifically because you can tell what your students want – they show you, implicitly or explicitly, or they just tell you if you ask. Also, it’s beyond doubt that each and every student deals with school work in a different way. You can observe this directly, provided you give your students some choice and control over their learning approaches. For example, some like learning vocabulary by underlining words and recording them in their notebooks; others use apps on mobile phones to memorise and revise lexical items. As for aspirations, it’s unlikely that you’ll find two students who aspire for the very same thing. Few students will do without English when they leave school, but there might be some in the end. Maybe they’ll need German or Russian instead – not English. Not all students will need to be able to speak the language at a high level; some will get by with passive knowledge of vocabulary since they won’t use the language to communicate orally. For instance, they will only read texts for academic purposes. Others won’t have to do a lot of writing, so they won’t have to panic about spelling and linking words a big deal.

Now, if you take into account that there are at least 3 constants – preferences, approaches and aspirations, which, by the way, can be highly variable – and you have a class of, say, 25 students, then it’s really difficult to adjust your teaching to satisfy every student’s needs. You’d have to have an inventory of up to 25 times 3 different teaching approaches/methods/techniques/styles/magic tricks, which you obviously can’t perform all at once. i e. in one lesson. Plus you would sometimes have to be a fortune teller to be able to tell what exactly you students want on a particular day, in a particular lesson.

What is the solution, then? Individualisation? Yes, but there are 25 individuals with various preferences, approaches and aspirations in your class, remember? Personalisation? Yes, but there are 25 persons sitting in front of you ready to start talking about what concerns them. Making your teaching learner-centred? Absolutely! However, there are 25 learners to be focused on. Give them tasks to complete? Yes, but what if they prefer to absorb knowledge through listening and taking notes, and it bugs them when they are forced to learn through completing inauthentic tasks. Dogme? Well, yes, but imagine how much variety would suddenly emerge at one point if you were really liberal; would you be able to handle it? Let them use technology then? Good idea but there are some who prefer to see things on paper and they hate looking at the computer screen. The matter is complicated by the fact that I, too, have my preferences, approaches and aspirations, and beliefs.

I’m not exactly pessimistic but whenever I enter the classroom and see those 25 little heads, I can’t help feeling I’m not doing enough – I can never do enough. What is my role as a teacher then? Mind you, this is not a philosophical question; this is a question I ask as a practitioner with some experience in the classroom and I bit of theoretical knowledge. Can we do anything at all or would the whole system of schooling have to change completely, as some argue? Before this happens, I guess I’ll just be there for my students trying to do what I believe is best for them …