Teachers as researchers

I’ve just finished reading an interesting post called The role of research in TEFL by Peter Pun and I thought I’d publish my take on it.

Well, I’ve always felt that TEFL research has to be carried out by teachers themselves if it is to be useful since it is the teachers who have a direct access to students/language learners, not the academics in their ivory towers. And the learners (or their knowledge/skills) are ultimately the subjects of such research, right?

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I thought how wonderful it would be to become part of an online community of English teachers-researchers, who would regularly discuss questions/problems and back up their assertions with evidence from their own research.

I’m not talking about some longitudinal studies which take years to complete. I’m talking about short-term experiments that could spice up our teaching practice and make it more informed. For example, there has been some research supporting the assertion that memorizing words from alphabetical bilingual lists is not very effective. Yet, I dare say that many of us still use this method of revising vocabulary because, for some reason, we think it works under the given circumstances, i.e. in our educational contexts. So knowing about a research is one thing, the actual practice is another issue. This discrepancy sometimes results in bad conscience, which we usually kill as soon as we see our students’ outstanding test scores. Anyway, what if we tried to prove ourselves that there really are better ways of learning vocabulary (or maybe that there aren’t)? Would it make us do things differently?

Here’s my suggestion for a simple experiment. In your class, make two groups of students (A and B) of approximately the same learning potential. All A-students will be asked to revise a vocabulary set in a traditional way, i.e. from an alphabetical list consisting of English words and their L1 equivalents. All B-students will make word cards using the same list – with the English word on one side of the card and the L1 translation on the other side. Encourage them to add a definition and an example sentence too. Tell them that it’s best if they shuffle the cards from time to time during revision. Test them the following day. Record the results of their tests. If possible, don’t tell them anything about your experiment (human mind is tricky and it could distort the results of your promising experiment).

Next week, do the same but all A-students will make word cards to learn from while B-students will only learn from the list (use a different set of words this time). Test them the next day and record the scores.

To make the results of your experiment more reliable, you can obviously do more rounds.

Now, you may ask what type of test you should design. I’d recommend including at least two parts – an L1>L2 translation and a gap fill – the same for both groups. You probably know where I’m headed and you may even try to predict the results. But see the results first and then draw conclusions. Your conclusions will definitely be valid because they will be about your class and about your teaching context. Another teacher, from a totally different teaching environment, may come up with different inferences but that’s OK. Like you, this teacher will then adjust his/her methods based on the needs of his/her own students.

Also, you can do a little survey too. Ask your students what they think – what method of learning vocabulary felt more useful and why? Learning more about the test subjects, i.e. our language learners, is, in my view, an inevitable part of any TEFL research.

Have fun and let me know if you try this. Any potential problems you see in the design of the experiment? Any ideas for other experiments?

Why not to present at a conference

A few months ago, I was asked to present at a conference I’ve been regularly attending for some years now. For the first time in my life, I should add. Not that I hadn’t played with the idea before; I love sharing my ideas and I have my own blog, so presenting ideas to an audience in the flesh should not be a big deal, I’d thought. However, to cut it short, I refused in the end.

Here are five excuses I made to myself. Note: Now that I think about it, some of the excuses were latent in my subconscious mind at the time of my decision and they didn’t surface until recently.

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😦 The offer didn’t come at the right time. It was back in May when I was dealing with some problems at work and my teaching enthusiasm had slightly faded. However, if I had given it a try, such a big challenge would have pushed me forward and, most importantly, it would have given me a big dose of enthusiasm, which I clearly needed. 

😦 It was too far out of my comfort zone, mainly because it was the first time. But, as a teacher I admire said to me, there always has to be a first time. Plus I know all too well that staying in one’s comfort zone isn’t always to the good. 

😦 The talk was supposed to be at a conference which I had attended regularly for a couple of years. They say that ‘no one is a prophet in his own land’so perhaps I was worried that some attendee’s ideas wouldn’t be taken seriously. The truth is that being a regular teacher and a conference attendee is a bonus because you know who you are talking to and what the people want. Moreover, the people there are very friendly and I’m sure they would have accepted me without reservations. 

😦 Why would anybody be interested in a talk given by some non-native teacher of English if there are much bigger names on the program? Well, I personally choose workshops based on the content, not the mother tongue of the presenter, so why the hell did this idea come to mind at all? 

😦 What on earth would I actually talk about? Should it be a topic I’m interested in (Dogme, corpora, for instance) or should it be something which is generally popular with conference attendees (useful tips for lessons and no-prep activities, for example)? In fact, if I had researched a little, I’m sure I’d have finally discovered a nice overlap. I do share tips and activities on my blog after all, so I’d surely have found some useful and intriguing stuff to share with the folks there. 

Well, I hope this write-up will give me some courage to overcome my fears. 🙂

What about you? Do you have a similar experience?

Luckily and fortunately

img_20160730_181215Yesterday, I was having a beer with friends when they started discussing the difference between luckily and fortunately. After a while, they turned to me and asked me if I could explain the difference. I  told them, rather hesitantly, that there is no difference except the degree of formality; I said I wouldn’t use luckily in a very formal context. I could see my friends’ doubtful expressions. They weren’t convinced by my explanation at all and they insisted that the words had different connotations.

My friends’ stubbornness made me do a little research the next day; I consulted several of my favourite online sources and here’s what I’ve found:

  1. bilingual dictionary entry (translation from L2) > L1: luckily – naštěstí, fortunately – naštěstí (pro koho = for whom). At first sight, the words have identical meanings. The only difference is that fortunately can be followed by an object (And luckily cannot? We’ll see.).
  2. monolingual online dictionary entry: luckily – by good luck; fortunately, fortunately sentence modifier, it is fortunate that; luckily. Again, judging by the definitions, the words are near synonyms. 
  3. thesaurus entry: fortunately > the first synonym is luckily, but for luckily, the first synonym offered is happily, the next two are fortuitously and fortunately. The same happens to their antonyms: unfortunately – the synonyms are unluckily, sadly and regrettably, but for unluckily, the synonyms offered are in the following order: regrettably, sadly, lamentably and unfortunately. I don’t know what to infer from this finding, but judging by some example sentences, it seems to me that luckily is used when you feel happy (and relieved) about the consequences of an event, for example, but when using fortunately, you feel more relieved than happy. Just a thought.
  4. corpus (British National Corpus): fortunately has 1609 hits while luckily only has 669 occurrences. We say fortunately for + object (130 cooccurrences > 8%) and fortunately is followed by a comma (584 occurrences > 36%). Luckily is also followed by a comma (198 > 29%) and we say luckily for + object (55 > 8%). This is the first tiny discrepancy between the bilingual dictionary and corpora (see above). COCA also shows more hits for fortunately (7608) than for luckily (2999). So, as far as frequency is concerned, fortunately is more frequent than luckily, but the two words behave similarly in a sentence, i.e they can be followed by a comma or the preposition for. Both are most likely to be preceded by a period.
  5. Longman Communication 3000 represents the core of the English language and shows students of English which words are the most important for them to learn and study in order to communicate effectively in both speech and writing. So, when deciding which word to teach first, it’s good to check this list out. As mentioned above, according to BNC, fortunately is far more frequent in written English than luckily. Surprisinglyfortunately is not listed in Longman Communication 3000 but luckily is (but only in spoken English). From a pragmatic teacher’s point of view, luck and lucky are two of the top 2000 words of spoken English (S2) plus they are much easier to learn, remember and pronounce than fortune or fortunate so I’d definitely teach them first.
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    Figure 1

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    Figure 2

6. A quick look at the Online Etymology Dictionary can be interesting as well. Luckily is a slightly older term than fortunately and their origins differ. While fortune is derived from Latin and French, luck is probably of early Middle Dutch origin. However, both words refer to what happens by chance and it seems that both had originally something to do with money.

My conclusion is this: both luckily and fortunately are very useful words. Based o the corpora findings, fortunately is more frequent in written English while luckily is more natural is spoken English (see Figures 1 and 2). However, based on the sample sentences, they can be used interchangeably in most contexts.

What do you do when you’re asked about a linguistic problem like this and you’re not sure what the answer is? Do you rely on your hunch or do you research like I did?

Creative lazybones?

I’ve always seen myself as a creative type of person (and teacher). And I’ve always considered creativity a virtue. Another trait I’ve always admired is diligence. I see hard-working people as consistent, thorough, conscientious, and systematic. Let’s face the fact, though; I’m pretty lazy and my inventiveness and creativity spring from pure indolence.

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That’s probably why I hate reading recipes, manuals, and teacher’s books. That’s why I hate writing (and reading) detailed lesson plans. That’s why I’m so attracted to Dogme teaching.

If I ever come across a fifty-tips-for-your-English-lessons type of publication, I usually rejoice at first. However, I’ll most likely put it away soon. These books look like cookbooks and that’s why so many people love them, I guess. They are so neat and well-arranged. Everything is in the right place and category. The reality is, however, that if you want to find something quickly, you never do because as if by magic, it suddenly disappears from your sight. If you do find what you need in the end, it’s often too late. Or you stumble upon it by chance; when you don’t need it at all. You say: How cool! I’m going to use this. In effect, you never do because you forget as soon as you utter the pledge.

Rather than grappling with these ‘cookbooks’, I much prefer reading blogs which share tips for lessons. But once the post starts with a long introduction stating the level, timing, aims, etc., I soon simmer down.

Apart from being somewhat impatient, I’m becoming slightly grumpy. I’ve recently come to a conclusion that teacher’s books are getting more and more confusing these days. For example, it bugs me enormously when the transcripts are in one section but the key is in a different part of the book. Only an idiot keeps flipping through the book feverishly in an attempt to find the answer to a disputable question, often as late as in the actual lesson. Well, I suppose the authors count on the fact that teachers spend hours preparing for their lessons so they have plenty of time to get familiar with the structure of the teacher’s book. Obviously, there are no surprises for well-prepared teachers. Did I mention that I sometimes underestimate the difficulty of an exercise and thus I have to consult the key right in front of my students? Humiliating, isn’t it?

Now that I’m looking at what I’ve written, I seem to be a truly complicated person. But here’s the point of the post: I like to shape my own ideas to avoid all the trouble related to ready-made content. It doesn’t mean that I don’t get inspired by other teachers and professionals out there. However, if I use some of their ideas, they must be adaptable to various levels, ages, and teaching contexts. Otherwise, I can’t be bothered. Sorry. I’m too lazy  creative, you know…. 🙂

 

Decision trees

I’m sure you work with family trees in your English classes. But have you heard of decision trees?

A decision tree is a graph that uses a branching method to illustrate every possible outcome of a decision. Decision trees can be drawn by hand or created with a graphics program or specialized software. Informally, decision trees are useful for focusing discussion when a group must make a decision.

As an English teacher, I find them particularly useful for practicing various grammar points, such conditionals and time clauses. They can be personalized easily and they are accessible to students who prefer visuals when learning grammar.

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In class, explain what a decision tree is. Show Ss a model. Then ask them to create their own graph. You can ask a question about their future studies (like I did) or any question concerning the future. Decision trees obviously work best with dilemmas.

  • Will you go to the party you’ve been invited to?
  • Will you tell your best friend that you lied to her?
  • Will you cheat during an important exam?

This is how you can exploit a decision tree from a grammatical point of view:

Zero conditional:

If you go to university, you get a Bachelor’s or a Master’s degree. If you get an MA, you can get a job or a Ph.D.

First conditional:

If I go to university, I will (might) get an MA – I’m pretty ambitious.

Second conditional:

If I didn’t go to university, I would travel around the word. This is unlikely, though, as I’m pretty ambitious.

Third conditional:

My dad didn’t go to university as he wasn’t very ambitious. If he had gone to university, he would have got an MA and he would have been promoted much earlier.

Time clauses:

  • After I graduate from high school, I will go to university. However, my friend will probably find a job straight away.
  • I hope to get a Ph.D. one day. But before I get my Ph.D., I will obviously have to get an MA.
  • As soon as I get an MA, I will travel a bit.

Decision trees can be effective springboards for speaking classes or valuable aids for writing essays. Just ask a controversial question and get the class to come to a conclusion by going through all the options. Needless to say, you need next to no prep time to make an activity/lesson based on a decision tree. You’ll only need to come up with a couple of thought-provoking question(s) – just in case. But I’m sure your students are inventive enough and always have a few dilemmas up their sleeve.

 

 

 

Helping your students succeed

img_20160730_153211In this post, I’d like to ask the reader a somewhat loaded tricky question: how do you help your students succeed in tests and exams? In your mind’s eye, tick the most appropriate answer(s):

  1. I dumb down my tests so that my students get high scores and good grades. The kids are motivated and everybody’s happy.
  2. I allow my students to cheat cooperate with their peers during exams.
  3. I show them the test beforehand.
  4. I use different ways to assess my students cause tests suck and grades are useless.
  5. Apart from teaching my students various real-life communication and learning strategies, I also familiarize them with the right test-taking tactics.

 

I’ve probably committed all of the acts above. Some of them were acts of mercy, others were rather acts of surrender. Either way, some of them were more effective than others, but only one of them has proven truly useful in my teaching and educational context – number 5. This is probably why I catch myself talking about learning and test-taking strategies explicitly more than I did in the past. I do so because I feel this approach creates a safe learning environment, where even the less talented language learners have something to hold on to.

These are three examples of what I do in my lessons:

1) After a vocabulary test, for example, I ask the most successful students to describe in detail how they revised for the test. This is very effective and motivating, especially with young learners, who love to talk about what they do. Also, this highlights their success in an  inconspicuous way. Older learners are also very happy when you notice their laboriously-made grids and charts lying on their desks. Anyway, at the end of the lesson, we always have a nice collection of inspiring ideas plus I usually throw in a couple of my own suggestions.

2) Before a revision vocabulary test, I like to ask my students to test each other in pairs. Today, they worked with their vocabulary lists at the back of their workbooks; Student A read the Czech words one by one and their partner, Student B, had to translate them into English. Once Student B couldn’t say the word in English, s/he had to write it down along with the Czech equivalent. After some time they changed roles. Each student ended up with a list of the most problematic words. As their homework assignment, they are supposed to ask a family member to test the problematic words they have written down using a similar procedure – anytime the student doesn’t know the word, they have to write it down again. The list will be shorter and shorter until they can say all the words correctly. I thought it’s a good idea to involve the student’s family in the learning process.

3) Reading comprehension exercises is something my students find particularly challenging. All those multiple choice and true/false exercises make them feel uncomfortable. So we start with short texts very early on. I insist on Ss underlining/highlighting the key words and expressions, and I always want evidence justifying their answer – whatever the answer is. Once the answer is incorrect, it’s difficult for them to find the proof and that’s the moment when they immediately realize the mistake. This procedure eliminates guessing, cheating and sloppy work in general. I usually take the time to draw grids on the board and we slowly go through all the answers and evidence together.

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I believe that my students feel safer and are more successful if I show them that I care about the way they learn. I want them to know that success doesn’t come easy and they have to do something to achieve it. But first, they need to know what to do. In other words, it’s important to provide them with a variety of learning tools and test-taking strategies.

Do you have any special strategies to help your students to succeed?

 

A lesson based on Facebook content – pros and cons

I don’t know about you but I’ve had my periods on and off Facebook; I even used to hate so much that I wanted to deactivate my account. But now I’d say I’m on good terms with it, mainly because it can be a great source of teaching ideas. I use an idea from FB at least once a week in the classroom. This is usually a warm-up or a filler. However, I’ve also been able to create a complete lesson based on a set of ideas I came across on FB.

I recently started teaching an intermediate class (18-year-olds) for which I have no coursebook. This class is called Skills and it’s mainly content-based, which basically means I don’t teach grammar at all explicitly. Instead, we discuss various topics – usually fact-related. So far, we’ve covered the Czech Republic and Prague. The next topic is the EU, which is obviously a topic most teenage students could easily live without. There’s one issue, though, which is closely linked to the topic of the European Union and which my students usually find quite thought-provoking – immigration. So I searched through FB to find something interesting to engage my students and give them some food for thought.

Below is a plan I made.

Note: if you bear with me till the end of the post, I’ll share some potential pitfalls related to teaching a lesson based on Facebook content.

Pre-reading activity

  • Make a list of 10 European countries which you think have the strongest economies.
  • Where do you think the majority of immigrants come from in these countries?

Reading

Read the abstract from this article. Compare the information it provides with your answers to the Qs above:

Here’s the text (a shortened, printed version will be given to Ss): Did you know that Polish people represent the highest percentage of the foreign-born population in Norway? Or that the largest proportion of immigrants to the Republic of Ireland hail from the UK?

These maps, created by Jakub Marian, a Czech linguist, mathematician, and artist, are based on a 2015 study by the United Nations on international migration. They show European migration split into various numbers:

  1. Number of foreign-born people as a percentage of the total population

The population with the highest percentage of foreign-born people is Luxembourg (45.9%), followed by Switzerland (29.6%), Sweden (18.5%), Austria (17.4%), Estonia (15.8%) and Germany (14.5%). The UK comes in at 13.4%. Marian then mapped which countries have been most affected by the European migration crisis. Austria and Sweden were the only European countries to register an above 1% increase in their foreign-born populations as percentage of the total, while Germany showed a less than 1% increase.

  1. Where do the majority of immigrants come from?

The highest proportion of immigrants to the UK in 2015 hailed from India; for Norway, it’s Poland; and for Austria and Switzerland, it’s neighboring Germany. Most of the Republic of Ireland’s foreign-born population comes from the UK. France, Spain and Portugal’s immigrants come from further south (Algeria, Morocco and Angola respectively). For Greece and Macedonia, FYR, it’s Albanians. Poland and the Czech Republic saw the most immigrants from the Ukraine. In many eastern European countries, Russia has provided the most immigrants.

  1. How that number has changed in the past five years

For instance, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, and Norway, which showed the highest percentage of foreign-born people compared to overall population, also saw the highest increases in immigrant populations between 2010 and 2015. The UK and Finland followed close behind. The countries with the largest migrant populations settling elsewhere were Poland, Serbia, Germany, and Romania.

After reading:

Display the following four maps on the screen one by one. Ask Ss to explain what they can see (preferably in pairs first). Note: The maps relate to the text above. As Ss have copies of the text in front of them, they can easily refer to them if necessary.

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source

 

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source

 

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Speaking: 

Look at this picture and briefly describe it in pairs.

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Listening and reading: 

Some reports say that there’s been a huge rise in racism after Brexit. Here’s a video which presents 5 ways you can combat it.

Watch the video.

There are some comments below the video. Look at some of them and decide which are racist and which of them are anti-racist?

  • Great video! Unfortunately, this only proves that Government and law are not working as if there’d be stricter rules out there for things like domestic abuse and racism, we would be able to fight them.
  • Been a huge rise in Media propaganda about racism after Brexit – as if wanting to be in control of your own home is wrong.
  • (reply to number 2): Stop invading and bombing other countries stop lecturing and stop imposing sanctions economics/etc on other countries if you do that you can control your shit as much as you like but until then…..
  • And sadly enough not even one of the victims in the video is white L That is racism in itself…
  • It’s such a shame this video only has 527k views. Yet, a cat licking a bowl of milk gets 34 million!

Writing and speaking:

Ss write their own comments (on a piece of paper) and then share the comments in class.

 

Possible dangers one should take into account when doing a lesson like this:

  • vulgar language in the authentic content (comments)
  • unsubstantiated and inaccurate information
  • the content of your lesson can disappear before you teach it, i.e. the authors can delete it for some reason
  • grammatical and spelling mistakes in authentic texts

I’d recommend telling your students about all the possible dangers related to an authentic content of this sort. Let them know that they can’t trust anything that they see without verifying the information. Facebook posts are supposed to shock people – make them cry, laugh or rage. As far as grammatical accuracy is concerned, tell them that this is what authentic language looks like – even though there are mistakes, they can still learn a lot from them. And some mistakes are not even mistakes but just varieties of English.

 

Grab the word

Those who regularly attend conferences know that the positive vibe one experiences there is highly addictive. I suppose that like drugs, the relaxed learning atmosphere affects the central nervous systems of the attendees and causes changes in their behavior and their mindsets. It surely does since grown-up people are willing to sit on the floor and play like kids!

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So a few days ago, like every year around this time, I went to the IH Brno conference, where I attended several workshops. As usual, they were all excellent, but there were a couple of things that stood out for me.

In this post, I’d like to share an activity I liked so much that I decided to put it to the test first thing in the morning on Monday. The activity was originally shared by Ben Herbert (in the photo) and I chose the next-to-no-prep version. It comes in handy if you want your students to practice listening as well as vocabulary (and more).

This is what I did with my 14-year-olds:

I brought a few blank sheets of paper and a CD player with me to the lesson.

I quickly cut up the paper into small cards (I did this while students were doing some pair work). I put students into groups of 3-4 and I gave each group a set of the blank cards (around 15, I guess). I chose a text called The Silk Road, which my students had already seen in the previous lesson. As I had found it pretty challenging, I thought it would be a good idea to recycle it once more.

I asked each member of the group to take a pen and then I dictated some target vocabulary from the text, which the students put on the cards. I found this stage really valuable because a few students had trouble writing some of the words correctly, which consequently made them negotiate a bit in groups. Anyway, they cooperated nicely and managed to complete the first task successfully.

The groups were then asked to spread the word cards on their desks face up. I played the recording and each time the students heard one of the words, one of them (the fastest one) grabbed it. The student with the biggest number of cards was the winner. As a follow-up activity, I asked the students to place the words face down in a pile and they took turns to describe the words.

Here are some points I’d like to highlight now.

I remember very clearly that when I did the activity with my Student hat on, I used a lot of prediction (even though we didn’t know the text in advance). In other words, I simply guessed what word will come next (lexical priming comes to mind now). During the activity in the classroom, I observed my students and I noticed that some of them, like me, grabbed the word a millisecond before they actually heard it. This may have been due to the fact that they were already familiar with the text, but as I had tried it out myself before, I can claim that this type of prediction takes place even with unfamiliar texts (of course it does!).

Anyways, I think this activity is perfect for recycling texts your students find boring or long. The gamelike element makes it more exciting and you can bet that your students will fully concentrate on the task. I should mention that in the beginning, my students got too exhilarated and thus a bit loud. However, they soon realized that they must concentrate and be quiet.

There’s one tweak I’d like to include next time – I’d like to include two or three distractors (i.e. words that are NOT in the text) because it’s best if more that one word is left on the desk when the activity is almost over.

Needless to say, you can store the words in a box and use them again for revision or other vocabulary games.

Well, I’m loving this activity! 🙂