Grammar talk

IMG_20160410_140039As a language teacher, how much time do you spend teaching grammar explicitly? And do you ever ask your students to explain the grammar rules you taught them, as part of an oral examination, for example? If you do, why ? If not, do you think it may be of some value?

I’ll give you an example of what I mean: The underlined structure above is a question in the present simple tense. The present simple is used to express habits, general truths, repeated actions or unchanging situations. With some verbs, such as like, hate, believe, we only use the present simple. These are called stative verbs. 

A similar definition can be found in the grammar section of almost every coursebook and this is approximately what my colleagues and I expect our students to say during their final exam in English.

What I find slightly controversial though is the fact that before my students reach the final grade, which is when we start practicing this ‘grammar talk’, I rarely ask them to explain grammar rules; I only test their ability to use them. In other words, most of the time I teach communicatively, with bits and bobs of explicit grammar teaching. But explicit grammar testing? No.

So when I mention to my students that a tiny part of their final exam is such a test on grammar rules, they usually panic. And I see why. Once they are asked to explain, say, a structure in the second conditional, all you hear is some incomprehensible stuttering and jabbering. Also, some structures seem dangerously obvious. Well, children is the plural form of child, so what? They can use it correctly and they never think of it as something worth elaborating on. However, students often think it’s obvious, but once they are asked for a little bit of analysis, they realize that it’s not as clear as they thought.

Surprisingly enough, the best and most fluent learners find ‘grammar talk’ the most challenging. On the other hand, the students who have struggled through all the years of communicative language teaching suddenly have something tangible and logical to hold on to. And their theoretical knowledge of the language is often surprising.

Anyway, I don’t know whether it’s good or bad to test grammar this way. I’ve actually never questioned this method before. I’m well aware of the fact that for many learners, this type of knowledge (skills?) is totally superfluous. On the other hand, some students might want to become language teachers, translators or interpreters; others may be interested in comparative linguistics, so knowing something about the language structure may come in handy some day.

What’s more, I’ve recently come to believe that for some students, such a type of linguistic analysis may actually be helpful. They can grasp some of the areas of the language they’ve been struggling with and thus eventually become better users of the language. The connection between the logical rule and its usage simply becomes  clearer, especially for those who don’t easily pick up languages along the way. So I wonder whether I should systematically focus on this somewhat non-communicative teaching method and whether it would be worth including grammar talk in earlier stages of language learning.

 

 

Czenglish revisited

20160409_113437Almost a quarter of a century ago, I bought a book called English or Czenglish by Don Sparling. The book was first published in 1989, just before the Velvet Revolution took place in former Czechoslovakia. By the time I bought it, it had already become a must-read for Czech learners of English, especially at the tertiary level of education, and it has been one of the most popular English usage textbooks in the Czech Republic ever since. The first edition was basically a collection of sentences incorrectly translated from Czech into English by first-year English majors, and it included comments by the author plus the correct versions of the erroneous sentences.

Although I’ve gradually thrown away many of the English textbooks I once owned as a student and a newbie teacher, mostly because they became completely obsolete, I still have this book. What I’m particularly proud of is the fact that I’m the owner of a first edition copy, which, a couple of days ago, I had signed by Don Sparling himself when I met him at an ELT conference in Brno (where he used to work as the head of the English Department at Masaryk University) .

One thing that never ceases to amaze me is that after so many years of existence, the content of the book is still valid and relevant. Obviously, some might argue that unlike 25 years ago, nowadays, absolute correctness and native-likeness are not deemed vital, so such a book is somewhat redundant. However, I believe that its main value lies in the fact that it was written for a specific group of learners of English, i.e. Czechs, and it addresses one of the most problematic issues of learning a foreign language, i.e. L1 interference. Since in language classes in the Czech Republic all learners usually share the same L1, errors caused by L1 interference may easily escape everybody’s attention, and they may eventually fossilize. That’s why a book like this can be very helpful for teachers as well as learners.

20160409_113412Now that I’ve flipped through the book once again, I must shamefully admit that there are a couple of examples of Czenglish I’ve recently used – either here on my blog, when talking to people, or worse, in the classroom. Well, one never stops to learn, right? (sorry, I mean one never stops learning). 🙂 On the other hand, I swear I’ve heard native speakers use some of the Czenglish structures as well.

Anyway, here are a few sentences from the book for you to get an idea of what Czenglish is like. I’m convinced that some of the sentences will provoke a bit of disagreement discussion. The correct sentences are provided below.

  1. According to his opinion, it was John’s fault. 
  2. Teachers in Czechoslovakia teach 19 hours a week. 
  3. We live in a rather large family house. 
  4. In that moment, I couldn’t say a word.
  5. I must say it was wonderful of him to help me.
  6. We are four.
  7. I watched the others not to miss anything.
  8. He knows nothing about England nor the English.
  9. He was there only three hours.
  10. I like nature.

 


 

  1. According to him, it was John’s fault. 
  2. Teachers in Czechoslovakia teach 19 classes/lessons a week. 
  3. We live in a rather large old house.
  4. At that moment, I couldn’t say a word.
  5. It was really wonderful of him to help me.
  6. There are four of us.
  7. I watched the others so as/in order not to miss anything. 
  8. He knows nothing about England or the English. 
  9. He was only there three hours. 
  10. I like the out-of-doors. 

 

 

 

As simple as that!

20160325_173133Every teacher would probably agree that there are classes which are easier to teach and those which are pretty challenging. Also, based on my experience, there’s at least one class each term that you get as a reward, so to speak. This is the type of class you can’t wait to teach, and whatever you prepare for them always works. Moreover, they’re grateful for every extra activity and the more creative and unusual it is the better. And even if you come unprepared (yes, this may happen to teachers), it’s never a disaster because the students will always help you.

I have such a class too. It’s a class I’ve written many posts about. It’s a class which, each and every day, reassures me that my work is worthwhile. They surprise me, they motivate me, they inspire me…

Today, I had a plan to follow with this class. However, I suddenly remembered that a student had wanted to play some YouTube videos about the environment so I had no choice but to abandon my original plan. I didn’t know what exactly the videos were about, but I trusted the student and let him take control.

20160325_172536To cut a long story short, if you ever want to build a lesson around the topic of environment, play the videos called Nature is speaking my student suggested. Personally, I’ve never seen anything more powerful related to the topic. The visual aspect is simply stunning. Languagewise, the videos are suitable across levels since you can switch on the English subtitles. As far as the content is concerned, it will definitely strike a chord. But the best thing about the videos is that they are narrated by movie stars like Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Harrison Ford, Edward Norton, Penelope Cruz, Reese Withersoon, etc. So, for starters, you can ask your students to turn around while listening for the first time and guess whose voice it is.

Anyway, this is what we did today: we watched three of the videos in a row (Julia Roberts as Mother Nature, Harrison Ford as The Oceans and Kevin Spacey as The Rainforests). After that I paired the students up and asked them to make similar speeches. They could choose what they wanted to be, e.g. The Mountains, The Air, etc. Then they presented the speech in front of the class (each was about one minute long).

I was impressed by the way they delivered their speeches. I should stress that the actors sound very dramatic – almost threatening or revengeful – because each video is a kind of warning: If you don’t stop destroying me (nature, oceans, rainforests), you will finally distroy yourselves! The students managed to sound equally dramatic.

Finally, we watched some more videos and voted for the best in the series (Julia Roberts and Harrison Ford won!).

There are also some Behind the scenes videos which I encouraged students to watch at home.

As simple as that!

 

Formal observation – change in approach

IMG_20160324_113709I’m doing another round of formal observations and I’ve decided to change my approach a little bit this time. Well, I’d say my decision is not really a conscious one; it’s actually a result of my previous experience and my mixed feelings towards formal observation in general.

I’m the kind of person who benefits from any kind of criticism and I rarely make the same mistake when my attention has been drawn to it. Metaphorically speaking, explicit ‘correction’ always works best for me, no matter how unpleasant it is and how much I grumble at first.

That’s probably why I was rather harsh when I did my first round of observations. I would write down every detail of the lesson and I would be quite open during the feedback sessions – I would offer loads of tips and advice, and I would explain explicitly why I thought something might (not) be effective. These, for me, were pretty difficult conversations, and I’m convinced that I hurt people’s feelings on a couple of occasions. Simply put, despite my attempts to sound diplomatic, I ended up being too blunt anyway. I fear that not only is bluntness not the best approach during feedback sessions, there’s always the danger that the observer may be completely wrong when judging advising the observee.

That’s why I’ve decided:

  1. to relax and take it easy. My train of thought is that if I enjoy the lesson, I’ll see it in a better light.
  2. to be as unbiased as possible. This means blending with the class and observing without any assumptions and presuppositions. In other words, I’ll take off the what-i-think-is-good sunglasses and I’ll put on the what-the-teacher-knows-is-good-for-this-particular-class dioptric glasses.
  3. to always have two sheets paper – the official box-ticking form and my personal, off-the-record sheet which I fill with loads of notes (hopefully, nonjudgmental observations).
  4. to share tips for improvements (from my personal sheet) only if I’m asked for them directly. If I’m not asked, I will forever hold my peace.
  5. to try really hard to look at the lesson from various angles if I can’t help feeling that it was not very good. There are always little gems hiding somewhere, waiting to be uncovered.

I agree with Zhenya Polosatova when she says in her post that it’s important to ask yourself a few questions before you start any potentially difficult conversation (and I’m sure feedback sessions can be difficult for both parties). For me, the most relevant questions in such a situation would be:

  1. Based on what I know about this person and our relationship, what can I realistically hope to achieve by having the conversation? (change/progress/improvement or indifference/hostility/anger/frustration?)
  2. What is my “secret agenda” or “hidden hope” for this conversation? (change/progress/improvement or proving myself and my colleague that I’m more knowledgeable/experienced?).

By the way, after my first observation this term, I was directly asked for some tips and advice, even though this was the same teacher who hadn’t taken my first attempt at explicit feedback very well in the past. We both have come a long way since then, I assume. 🙂

Anonymous world

IMG_20160327_182013If you’re looking for a nice and neat lesson idea, I strongly recommend that you go to a different blog today. Because this is definitely not the type of post you’re looking for. Warning! This post might even turn out a little depressing in the end.

A couple of weeks ago, a secondary school English teacher collapsed after one of her lessons and she was taken to hospital, where she eventually died. This happened after she had been consistently bullied by a group of her teenage students.

Not only was she threatened physically and mentally for several months, but all the bullying was recorded on mobile phones and the videos were uploaded on YouTube for everybody to watch. Of course, I’ve never seen them and I’m never going to, but based on what I’ve heard from friends and read in the papers, they must be horrific.

As Tesal K. Sangma points out in his recent post,

Another thing I’ve often come across anywhere I go is the law that protects students – physically, mentally, emotionally, etc. No one ever talks about protecting the teacher. If students can be bullied, teachers can be bullied too.

The above case is on the severe side of the bullying spectrum. But I believe there are other, ‘softer’ ways of bullying. I’ve deliberately put softer in inverted commas because 1) softer can’t possibly collocate with bullying and 2) because even though they may appear softer or harmless to some, they can be equally devastating in the end.

I was shocked when I first discovered that there is an option that allows anonymous posting on Facebook. For example, and this is quite popular in the Czech Republic these days, a student sets up a Facebook group where other students (or basically anybody) can post virtually anything totally anonymously.

So these days, most secondary schools have their anonymous FB pages where the students share their ‘deepest confessions’, mostly about the teachers and administrators, of course, but also about other students and stuff.

As it’s recently become part of my newly assigned job to look into problems connected with cyberbullying, I occasionally check out some of the pages, ours included. Some of the posts are quite funny and clever, but I’m sad to say that many of them are just offensive rubbish. Also, there are posts which may seem innocent to an outsider, but which are pretty insulting if you are somehow involved, i.e if they are about you or somebody you know.

Now, lots of questions pop into my head.

  1. What does it say about the state of education? What makes our students say nasty things about us teachers/administrators anonymously? Does it mean that there is not enough space provided for them to say things out loud? Of course, if your school is not too big and you know most of the students well, you can tell who posts what. So it also makes me wonder if the students realize this and if they are fully aware of the consequences of their actions. What kind of atmosphere does it create? Hateful, negative, tense? I mean, you can feel that the tension is there, but you can’t prove it so there is no way to solve it through communication.
  2. What does it say about the legal system? Why is something like anonymous posting allowed at all? For economic reasons? For various platforms to attract more users (customers)? Because I can’t find any sensible reason for anonymous posting on social media, at least in a democratic society, and I would personally ban it out of hand. Is my reasoning totally preposterous?
  3. What does it say about our society in general? Why don’t people feel more compassion towards each other? Where does all the hate/indifference/negativity stem from? Where did we go wrong as parents and teachers?
  4. And finally, what should we do as teachers and/or parents? Monitor these things silently but stay alert all the time? Ignore them completely? And if we ignore them, will they disappear or become even worse? Should we be selective, i.e. if something appears really threatening, should we step in somehow? Or should we see these things as an inevitable aspect of our profession and believe that the kids will finally grow up and regret the nasty thing they once did? Could we possibly take them as learning opportunities?

If you happen to have answers to any of my questions, please share them with me. I’d like to know what you think.