Argumentative discussions

20160427_104752The other day I was teaching a rather big group of students. I normally teach half of the class, but my colleague was absent so both groups were combined for that double lesson. When this happens, I usually ask students to work individually on some ‘quiet’ task, such as reading or grammar. Occasionally, we do some listening or watch something English-related on YouTube. These activities are convenient because everybody shuts up and focuses on the task. For apparent reasons, we rarely do speaking or any group activities because, to my taste, they are too chaotic and loud with such a large group.

However, last time, full of enthusiasm after the finals our students had successfully managed the previous week, I felt like trying something more courageous – a speaking activity with a class of 28 students.

One of the expected outcomes stated in the national curriculum our students need to achieve before their final exam in English is being able to summarize a conversation. This is not easy and they often struggle or fail completely. Thus, I decided to enable my students to practise this tricky skill a bit during the following activity:

I divided the class into groups of 4 – two pairs sitting around the desk facing each other. I gave each group this template, which they placed in the middle of the desk:

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I explained that during the forthcoming discussion based on some controversial statements, Student 1 will have to start with some for arguments, Student 2 will be against the statement, Student 3  will be  the moderator asking questions and taking notes for the final summary, and Student 4 will be neutral (they can say practically anything). In the first round, students could choose the position of the template above and this determined their roles. In the next round, the template was turned around clockwise so that each student had  a new role.

For this activity, you’ll need to find some suitable controversial statements. Alternatively, you can write your own statements on the board. I always wrote one at a time, i.e. before each round, and I invented them on the spot. This was advantageous because the content was tailor-made to fit the needs of that particular class.

Each round took a couple of minutes – I monitored the class and when the conversation faded, I gave a clear signal that I was going to stop it (I waved the class book above my head while walking around the classroom). Then I asked each moderator to give me a brief summary of their conversation (5 -7 sentences at the most). Prior to the summary, they had to tell me if they had come to a conclusion/agreement. If not, they had to add why. I should stress that the students (especially the for and against ones) only had to stick to their roles at the beginning of the discussion. They were allowed to change their mind once they felt the arguments of others were persuasive enough.

 

Sometimes I wish to be an ice queen

When I was a teenage student, we had this teacher. Most of us hated her because we were scared as hell in her lessons. The girls would never dare to wear bold makeup because if they had, she would have sent them to the sink immediately. Even the worst rascals were relatively well-prepared for her lessons since being examined by this teacher and not knowing the answers was deeply humiliating. The best strategy for us students was to have our hands up all the time; otherwise, it was best to shut up and make ourselves invisible.

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I remember the very first grade I got from her – it was an F. I cried like a child for almost an hour. She had no mercy. Needless to say, from then on, I never got an F from her again. I would easily get up at 4 in the morning to revise when I knew I might be examined on that day.

When I look back, when the picture is already blurred, I see things slightly differently. Although she was a complete ice queen, she wasn’t a bad teacher. What I admire now is that she knew exactly what she wanted and that she clearly had no doubts about her methods and approaches. Anyway, I can’t blame her for wanting us to pay attention and learn the facts. I can’t look down on her just because she didn’t seem to want to be friends with us students, nor did she wish to be our facilitator – a fancy term used a lot these days. One thing is certain, she knew what to do to stay sane.

During the school year, we rarely wrote written test; it was always oral examination – usually just twice per term . What did that mean? Well, it meant no extra work for her, i.e. grading papers till late at night (there were more than 30 students in our class back then). Anyway, she still managed to kill two birds with one stone. For one, she had free evenings to read her favorite books. For two, as you couldn’t hear a pin drop in her lesson and everybody was scared as hell all the time, we really paid attention during the examination. Thus, we were all involved and learned a lot from our peers.

Another thing that I appreciate now is that she made us use the textbook. Although she explained the basic facts in the lesson, we always had to read the corresponding chapters at home – we even had to study all the captions below the pictures. This is a skill many students lack these days, I’m afraid. They like to get everything on a silver plate; on the spot, preferably wrapped in a fun package. They are not used to making the extra effort.

To be honest, I sometimes wish to be like her. She was an ‘authority figure’ with real authority and this made her life much easier, I think. Mind you, it’s not about me wanting power or something; it’s about the peace and quiet every teacher secretly longs for.

But I’ll never be like her, I guess. I’m a different person. Moreover, times have changed and sands have shifted since I was a student. These days, you can’t possibly make a 16-year-old girl remove her makeup in front of the whole class and you definitely shouldn’t laugh at a student maliciously when he or she makes a mistake or doesn’t know the answer. Nevertheless, I believe that we can still get inspired by the things such teachers did well.

Something for both introverts and extroverts

The lesson I’d like to share today is suitable for intermediate+ classes. It can be done at any time of the year – whenever you have some extra time on your hands or if you don’t feel like using a coursebook. Apart from the fact that it will provide students with some useful language input, it will also be motivating and personalized since most of the lesson revolves around your students and their personality traits.

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Speaking:

1.Put the words introvert and extrovert on the board. Ask students to share with their partners what the words mean. Get them to come up with some adjectives they think go with each concept. i.e. extroverts – outgoing, easy-going, energetic, funny, silly, etc.

2. Students then match the concepts above with the following definitions:

  • a person concerned more with practical realities than with inner thoughts and feelings
  • a person who tends to shrink from social contacts and to become preoccupied with their own thoughts

3. Students say what they think they are – extroverts or introverts? Why?

4. Students discuss the following statements. Do they think they are true of false?

  1. An extrovert gets energy from social interaction.
  2. An Introvert is afraid of speaking in public.
  3. Extroversion relates to how outgoing someone is.
  4. Introversion is the same as being shy.
  5. Extroverted people need to be the center of attention.
  6. Introverted people are worse language learners.

5. Draw attention to different forms of the words: an extrovert/introvert – extroversion/introversionextroverted/introverted.

Listening:

1. Play the following YouTube video (it’s about 15 minutes long, English subtitles are provided). Tell them that it will clarify statement 6 above. Ask students to take notes of all the things that relate to their personality.

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2. Stop the video when it’s almost finished (when Jade has left the room) and project the board on the screen so that students can easily refer to all her notes during the discussion.

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3. Ask them to work in pairs and summarize the video and how the things said relate to their own personality. Did they agree with everything Jade said? Is there anything they have objections to?

4. By this stage, they might have already come to a conclusion that nobody is a pure extrovert or an introvert. One way or another, show the following quote.

There is no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert. Such a person would be in the lunatic asylum. —Carl G. Jung

Roleplay/interaction:

If you teach a class of extroverts, this will be a fun activity. 🙂 Otherwise, you may skip it completely.

Prepare cards with various situations on them, such as at the doctor’s, on a date, at a party, a job interview, at the library, etc. Put students into pairs and get each pair to choose one situation. One of them will be a typical introvert whereas the other on will be an extrovert. Alternatively, they can be both introverts or extroverts. You can either assign the roles or students can choose. Ask them to make a role play which they will later present in front of the class. To involve the rest of the class, i.e. the listeners, you can ask them to guess who represented an introvert and who was an introvert.

At the end of the lesson, ask your students what their takeaway is. Did they find any tips useful? Has their view of the issue changed?

Homework:

If you teach (young) adults, you can ask them to take this Extroversion-Introversion Test. There are 81 questions and the test is supposed to take about 25 minutes, so it will be a great assignment for all those patient introverts. 🙂

What is difficult in training will become easy in a battle

IMG_20160312_173424Friday the 13th is dreaded by many since in Western superstition, it’s considered an unlucky day. For me, however, it has always been a lucky day, especially when important events came into play. So when taking an exam on this notorious day, I invariably did very well.

Earlier today, I got hold of the results of the written part of the final state exam my senior students took last week. It was a two-part piece of writing consisting of a 150-word magazine article (a film review) and a 70-word informal e-mail. All students in the Czech Republic wrote the same composition, which was later corrected by specially trained English teachers all over the country . I’m happy to announce that in my class, all the students passed the exam with flying colors – a couple of them even achieved the maximum score and the lowest score was 88.8%, which is still grade A. In other classes, the results were equally astonishing.

This is not the first time it has happened. Our students generally do very well on the final exam. I should stress that the papers are not corrected by me or my colleagues. Every year, the writings are sent to CERMAT (an organization appointed by the Ministry of Education), which hires secondary English teachers for this rather strenuous job. There are two teachers at our school who have contracts with CERMAT, but they never get the compositions of our own students. Nevertheless, since they correct papers from other schools, we can compare the quality of students’ writing across various types of secondary schools.

Although we have no doubts regarding fair play, the curious thing is that the students with the lowest scores (88.8%) are those who would generally pass their mock exams with much lower scores – usually 60-70%. This makes me wonder …..

1) Are we too strict when grading our own students’ writing? Well, I don’t think so. Students at our institution are supposed to graduate at a B1 level, but this is a bar too low for them. Many of them actually achieve a B2 level. In my view, our students are bound to be more proficient than students from other (types of) secondary schools, for example, the vocational ones, where the focus is on practical experience.

2) Are the teachers from other (types of) schools less demanding than we are, then? Might be. One’s demands are always relative to the quality of writing they encounter as regular teachers. This is regardless of the fact that CERMAT trains their people so that they are as objective as possible. But teachers aren’t robots, are they?

3) Do we challenge and stress out our students too much during their studies? Well, there is a saying: What is difficult in training will become easy in a battle. If you revealed how easy the exam is right at the beginning, some students might get the feeling there’s no need to work hard. And this, by no means, is what we want to happen; we want them to believe that there’s always a lot to improve.

I’m convinced that this is the best scenario. A bit of suspense constantly encourages our students to work on their language skills. In the end, they get a sweet reward, which, however, comes from an outer source, not from us. This, I guess, makes it even sweeter and more valuable.

 

A few tips for using conversation questions

Some of my students are really keen on conversation classes. When I ask them what they’d like to do next time, they often say: “Let’s do speaking!”

Luckily, there are plenty of websites which offer ideas for interesting speaking activities. I’ve recently discovered this page, which has sets of questions for ESL conversation classes suitable for low-intermediate to advanced ESL students. One of the handy things is that you can easily eliminate difficult or unsuitable questions before you print them out; by clicking on the question you don’t like, it will automatically be deleted from the future pdf document.

However, the easiest way to work with this website is to project the content on the screen. It’s quick, more ecological and you can work with the questions in a different way than when you have the printed version. This is what I do.

Personalization: Unless I need to discuss a specific topic, I project the home page and I ask students which topic they would like to discuss. I believe this makes the lesson more personalized because it gives students some control over the content of the class.

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The surprise element: The whole class then has to vote on the same topic. I find out how many questions there are in the set they’ve picked. It’s usually about 20 questions. Simply projecting the set and asking students to discuss all the questions one by one would be too long and rather boring. So I usually spice it up by asking each pair to agree on, say, 5 random numbers (before they actually see the questions, though!). Then I show all the set, but they can only discuss those questions they’ve agreed on.

Language work: It would be a pity to leave it like this because the questions contain lots of useful grammar and vocabulary, some of which is already highlighted by the authors.

Last time, my students chose the topic of Dating. This short extract shows that there’s a lot worth noticing.

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What can you do then? I suppose it all comes down to the level you teach and the needs of your students (my group was around B1).

  • You can draw attention to useful collocations and chunks of language:

on a date, go dutch, at the same time, bad dating experiences, double date, group date, do most of the talking

  • You can highlight all sorts of grammatic features:

modal verbs (should pay), question forms (do you think), tenses (you have heard), verb patterns (like to talk), conditionals (is it okay if …)

  • But most importantly, the questions will become a springboard for lots of emergent language. You can bet that your students will soon divert from the original grammar structures of the questions and as soon as they delve deep into the conversation, they’ll start experimenting (and making some precious mistakes). The more interesting the topic, the more likely this is going to happen.
  • Later on, you can copy the set into a Word document and leave out the words you want to focus on. You can prepare this cloze test very quickly while students are working in pairs. Such an exercise will be based on your students’ immediate needs, which is what a classic, ready made gap fill from a coursebook can’t possibly offer.
    • Who ­­­___ pay on a date? What do you think about___ dutch?
    • Is it okay to date ___ people at the same time?
    • Do you have any bad dating ___ you would like to share? If not, maybe you have heard about ___ from your friends?
    • Have you ever been on a____ date or group date? How was it?
    • Do you like to talk a lot? Are you quiet ___ you meet first someone? Is it okay if one ___ does most of the talking?

What I also like to do is to connect two seemingly unrelated topics. So although last time I wanted to give my students some control over the content of the lesson, I also needed to come back to the topic we had discussed previously. In other words, to meet the aims of the lesson, I needed to make a sensible connection between the topic of Books & Reading and Dating. So I simply asked my students how these two topics relate to each other. I gave them an example first and asked them to come up with as many ideas as possible. This is what they thought:

  1. You can meet your future partner at a library. 
  2. If you like the same books, you have a lot to talk about on a date. 
  3. A book can be a wonderful present for your date. 
  4. You can read books to each other. 
  5. You can get inspired and write a love poem. 
  6. You can learn about dating tips in a book/magazine.
  7. You can go to the movies for a date because you both like the book the film is based on.

The leisurely pace of language learning

20160429_120829_000The other day I had an informal chat with my boss. We talked about the syllabus, lesson planning, coursebooks, and stuff. At some point, she asked me whether I really thought that doing 5 units from a 10-unit coursebook per an academic year is enough. In other words, she felt that, perhaps, we should challenge our students more and demand higher in terms of quantity.

Before I go on, let me explain how it works at our school. The four-year programme for secondary students encompasses 2 levels of a certain five-level English course for teenagers. We skip the elementary stage completely. In years 1 and 2, we use a pre-intermediate coursebook and in years 3 and 4, we use an intermediate coursebook of the same series. One unit usually consists of 7 sections, i.e. approximately 8 pages of grammar, vocabulary, reading, interaction, etc., plus a couple of extra revision pages. So, in one academic year, we are supposed to cover about 60 pages in total.

I suspect many are gritting their teeth now. What on earth does a number of pages have to do with learning a foreign language? Well, let’s be honest, that’s what it’s still like in the state-controlled sector of education. It’s not just about skills, abilities, and outcomes; it’s primarily about measurable stuff, e.g. scores and quantities.

Obviously, we all know that the amount of pages done over a certain period of time does not necessarily determine the quality of teaching, let alone learning. In other words, the more pages covered does not always equal a higher level of language proficiency. Quite to the contrary, I would say. Based on my experience, the more hurried the instruction is, the more superficial the outcomes are bound to be. So although coursebooks are widely criticized these days, I believe that the coursebook itself is not the problem – it’s the amount of the (coursebook) content artificially squeezed in the syllabus that can, in effect, cause a lot of trouble in the end. 

20160428_105005So, during our chat, I assured my boss that we English teachers in our department are completely satisfied with the leisurely pace and the reasonable amount of the coursebook content we are supposed to cover over an academic year. At the same time, I expressed my hope that no students will be deprived of the learning opportunities they deserve and are ready for. The teacher can always go beyond the scope of the prescribed curriculum if they feel it’s desirable. And that’s exactly what we do with talented classes. Having said that, nobody will be too stressed out just because there’s too much to cover.

I should add that our students usually end up B1-B2 (some even C1) depending on their learning aptitude, autonomy, and motivation. That is to say that they reach different levels of proficiency despite the fact that they all use the same coursebook. So what’s the fuss?