Speaking intermezzos

classroom-824120_960_720I discovered a new way of approaching reading activities by breaking longer texts down into shorter units and intertwining speaking into reading.

In previous lessons, my 17-year-olds had discussed gender inequality, which, I think, is not an exactly light topic for a group of teenagers. I felt that at some point my students had lots of opinions to share but not enough vocabulary to do so.

I was lucky and I found a collection of suitable short texts on the topic (all in one handout). I estimated the language to be near the B2 level, which is slightly above my students’ current level of proficiency. Each text is followed by a couple of questions related to the topic. So a text about female equality in Hollywood is accompanied by questions such as How do you explain this gap in pay level? or What do you think should be done to reduce the salary gap?. I liked this because the questions didn’t just check comprehension but were a valuable follow-up to the reading.

Before the lesson, I placed the texts, which I had cut up, on desks around the classroom. Then I put students in pairs and got them to silently read the texts on the desk for about two minutes. When the time was up or when their heads were up, I told them to start discussing the questions. After some time (5 minutes?) I stopped them and asked each pair to move to another desk (with a new text). The procedure continued in the same vein. I went round the classroom and monitored.

dictionary-1619740_960_720When everybody had seen all the texts, I asked the students to go back to their seats (in a horseshoe). Then I gave each student a handout with all the texts on it. I asked them to highlight 3 vocab items (something they had to look up/ weren’t sure about) in each of the texts. Then we discussed the vocabulary as a whole class.

I asked them to circle one question they had found particularly interesting during the speaking stage. We discussed those together as a class. At this point, the students had a larger active vocabulary at their disposal than before.

I think such an activity could be done with every longer text if it’s desirable. The teacher can break it down into passages and insert questions after each passage for students to discuss. I applied this method because I found the handout too long and dense; the fast finishers would soon have had nothing to do while the weaker students would have struggled for ages before they could get down to speaking. Throughout the activity, I felt that the students concentrated on reading much better due to the reasonable length of the texts and because the reading was interrupted by speaking. In other words, I found the speaking intermezzos natural and refreshing.



SWOT Analysis



I’ve recently been asked to do a SWOT analysis as part of the action plan our school is currently working on. As such analyses are usually conducted in the field of business, I was a little confused as to why we should do something like this as a state school. Nevertheless, in the end, I found it quite useful as it gave me some food for thought.

SWOT Analysis is a way of summarizing the current state of a company and helping to devise a plan for the future. It is an acronym for strength, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Strengths and weaknesses are often internal, while opportunities and threats generally relate to external factors. For this reason, SWOT is sometimes called Internal-External Analysis.

SWOT Analysis can help you uncover opportunities which can later be exploited. And by understanding the weaknesses of your business, you can manage and eliminate some of the potential threats.

As part of the analysis, it’s helpful to ask a set of specific questions. I came across this template, which I adjusted to my needs by eliminating bits which are not relevant to my context (of an English teacher currently working in the State Sector of education).

Strengths: features which allow you to operate more effectively.  Identify skills and capabilities that you have. What can you do particularly well? What do you others consider to be your strengths? What resources do you have? Is your reputation strong?

Weaknesses: areas capable of improvement. Do other (types of) schools have better results/outcomes than you? What do you do poorly? What generates low test scores and bad learning outcomes? What processes and activities can you improve?

Opportunities: any interesting trends which you can take advantage of. Where can you apply your strengths? How are your students and their needs changing? How is technology changing your work? Are there new ways of delivering instruction?

Threats: external or internal and are anything which can adversely affect your work. Are students able to meet their needs with alternative ways of language acquisition/learning? Are students’ needs changing away from your instruction?  Is new technology making your teaching obsolete? Are teachers at your school satisfied? Is new way of acquisition/learning coming? Are the results and outcomes of learning lower than the average?

stock-photo-swot-swot-analysis-text-on-colorful-wooden-cubes-307033178When looking at the questions, it’s clear that this analysis doesn’t only relate to the strengths and weaknesses of one specific school, but it encompasses a much broader spectrum of the problems our current education systems face. By answering the questions, I’d probably speak on behalf of other educators here in the Czech Republic as well as many English teachers all around the word.

Here’s my train of thought: I’d like to believe that by understanding the weaknesses, you can eliminate the threats. One of the weaknesses is low test scores and insufficient learning outcomes: What generates low test scores and bad learning outcomes? Well, scores themselves are the problem, not what causes them. The culture of testing will always produce the low vs. high dichotomy. So asking what causes bad scores is somewhat irrelevant. After all, in our success-hungry environment, we need those who score low to distinguish the successful learners from the less successful ones. When we help our students improve the scores, the test will have to be made harder next time because we need to produce the winners and the losers, don’t we?

Are students able to meet their needs with alternative ways of language acquisition/learning? Are students’ needs changing away from your instruction? Yes, they are, but I wouldn’t see this as a threat. Our school is not a business and there are no real competitors out there. Our job is to help our students and wish them all the best no matter what. Anyway, it seems we language teachers are no longer capable to fully satisfying our students’ needs the way it worked in the past, so if they learn the language outside the classroom – through extensive reading, watching movies, listening to songs, using apps, traveling – we should be happy. So our biggest competitor is the autonomous learner, who, at the same time, is our partner and ally. The more autonomous the student, the less work we have but the more content we should feel as teachers.

Are there new ways of delivering instruction? Well, yes, there are (Dogme teaching, CLIL, TBL, to name a few that come to mind) but our hands are often tied by those who encourage us to do these SWOT analyses. We can’t change the way we deliver instruction before we change the way we are supposed to measure the outcomes.

How are your students and their needs changing? How is technology changing your work? Access to technology, I believe, is one of the biggest opportunities to be exploited. Technology enables learners to acquire L2 like never before. I’m not talking about high-tech, though. I don’t think it’s necessary for schools to invest in new technologies and buy expensive devices. It would suffice to learn how to exploit what they currently have at their disposal. But it is the qualified teacher whose job is to decide what technology to use and how, not the Apple Inc.

Is new technology making your teaching obsolete? I remember this issue was hotly debated after the plenary talk by Sugata Mitra at the IATEFL Harrogate conference a couple of years ago. As indicated in the previous paragraph, I don’t think technology can make teaching obsolete. Teachers should try to exploit the accessible and affordable technology to the full, keeping the basic principles of SLA research in mind. Someone ignorant of the way languages are learned can have the best technology at their disposal, but this doesn’t mean they will deliver good lessons. This applies to students themselves as well – if they have no idea how to self-study, they’ll only waste their precious time.

When writing up this post, it occurred to me that a SWOT analysis may also be conducted on a more personal level, as part of a teacher’s self-evaluation routine. Evaluating the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats individual teachers see in everyday teaching reality may provide useful information and valuable data for the education system as a whole. Well, it seems there’s some food for thought for another post.

Form vs. meaning

checklist-1919292_960_720I’ve recently caught myself doing something very strange while teaching; throughout the lesson, in my mind’s eye, I check if the activity we are doing is predominantly focused on meaning or is more towards the grammar end of the spectrum. In other words, I’m the observer of my own lesson and I mentally tick off boxes as it proceeds. I think the reason behind my somewhat obsessive behavior is my previous posts on teaching principles.

Over years I’ve noticed that young learners will do whatever you want them to do if it’s interesting enough and fun. So if you start analyzing grammar in a humorous way, for example, they will listen. And they may even remember something from your talk. Still, most of them will be the happiest once you leave the domain of grammar and let them chatter away freely.

In September, I got a new group of teenagers. Since then I’ve already had plenty of time and opportunities to notice some of their strengths as well as weaknesses. They are hardworking, enthusiastic, and cooperate very well with me and one another. They have a decent knowledge of grammar (probably because their instruction was predominantly grammar focused in the past), but they aren’t very confident in speaking. They do chatter away happily when in pairs or groups, but sharing ideas in front of the whole class is a bit of a problem, especially if it is to be a coherent monolog.

I feel my job now is to non-violently lead them from the grammar end of the spectrum towards the other end, so to speak. But I don’t think I can achieve this abruptly – by abandoning grammar totally, for example. This would probably make them feel very unsafe and frustrated.

So first, I usually provide them with some solid base they can build on – vocabulary as well grammar – and then we gradually leave the ‘safe ground’ and start focusing on meaning and free practice.

Last time we talked about quantifiers. Most of the students were already familiar with this topic from their previous courses so I gave them a simple handout (see below) and threw them in at the deep end. I made the handout myself so that I was absolutely sure that there was only one answer correct (I gathered that at this stage, coming across exceptions would probably cause confusion, which I really wanted to avoid). I asked the students to complete the gaps and to consider the incorrect alternatives as well. I thought that by being able to decide which answer is correct and why the others are not, they would be able to fully grasp the grammar.

Circle the correct answer. There’s only one correct answer for each sentence. 

  1. I’ve got ….. friends. (some_any_a little_much)
  2. Have you got …. pets? (some­­_any_a little­_much)
  3. There isn’t ….. milk in the fridge. (any_many_a few­_some)
  4. There are ….. supermarkets in the town. (any_ a few_a little_much)
  5. I’ve got …. money. (much_a little_many_a few)
  6. I had …. problems at school. (a little_a lot of_any_much)
  7. Why do you have so …. mess in your room?! (some_much_many_a few)
  8. It’s a boring town. There isn’t …. to do here. (many_some_much_a few)
  9. We have so …. great teachers at school! (much_a little_many_any)
  10. There are …. good night clubs. (a little_any_some_much)

Then I elicited the rules and put them on the board. At this stage, the students looked happy and content because they had something tangible to hold on tho. This was only the first stage, though. Knowing the rules doesn’t mean one can apply them in meaningful communication. On the screen, I projected the following statements.

  1. Few people like poetry.
  2. Many Czechs are fat.
  3. A lot of students in this class listen to classical music.
  4. Some people in the class are very good at sports.
  5. It’s better to have no brothers or sisters.
  6. Teenagers shouldn’t get any pocket money.
  7. Pupils should get little homework at school.
  8. There isn’t much to do here in Šternberk.
  9. A few people in the class love maths.
  10. There’s a little pollution here in Šternberk.

I paired the students up and asked them to discuss the statements (agree-disagree). At this stage, in order to be able to complete the task, the students needed to understand the meaning of the sentences and the quantifiers themselves – not just how they work from a grammatical point of view. However, that was not the main goal; the main goal of this activity was to get students speaking. In some cases, they were forced to substitute the qualifiers, particularly if they wanted to disagree with a statement. The exercise was tailor-made to this particular group of students so I hoped they’d find it engaging. And they did. From my perspective, we had a lovely, meaningful, personalized discussion at the end of the lesson and I could happily tick off one of the boxes in my mind’s eye.

I’d like to add that with a different class, I might switch the order of the two activities and the timing would also be different. But with this class, I felt it would work best this way.

Teaching by principles


With some extra time on my hands, I’ve been re-reading a publication I once needed for my MA studies called Teaching by Principles by Douglas Brown (3rd edition), which, as the blurb states, offers a comprehensive survey of practical language teaching options.

In Chapter 4 of his book, Brown investigates 12 foundational teaching principles, or elements, which he considers to be at the core of language pedagogy. As I write, I’ll try to make occasional references to my previous post, i.e. to Ellis’s  Principles of Instructed Language Learning, because I’d like to see how much (if at all) these two systems overlap. And, as you read, you can determine the extent to which the principles are applied in your own teaching.

Cognitive principles: 

Principle 1: Automaticity

According to Brown, it is clear that small children learn languages without thinking about them – they learn them automatically. Thus overanalyzing an L2 and thinking too much about its forms is not the best way of learning it. To the contrary, this approach tends to impede the process of graduation to automaticity in an L2 classroom.

I associate this principle with Ellis’s Principle 4: Instruction needs to be predominantly directed at developing implicit knowledge of the L2 while not neglecting explicit knowledge. Implicit knowledge is procedural, is held unconsciously and develops naturally out of meaning-focused communication.

Principle 2: Meaningful learning

Brown maintains that rote-learning, i.e. taking in isolated bits and pieces of information that are not connected with existing cognitive structures, has little chance of creating long-term retention. Thus, when in the classroom, it is necessary to make meaningful associations between existing knowledge and new material.

As I see it, this is in compliance with Ellis’s Principle 2: Instruction needs to ensure that learners focus predominantly on meaning. I also see a connection with Principle 4 (see above). 

Principle 3: The anticipation of reward

Brown argues that human beings are universally driven to act by the anticipation of some sort of tangible or intangible reward. Thus an optimal degree of praise and encouragement or appropriate grades and scores are desirable.

Principle 4: Intrinsic motivation

However, the most powerful rewards are those that are intrinsically motivated within the learner. Brown adds that if all learners were intrinsically motivated to perform all classroom tasks, we might not even need teachers.

Principle 5: Strategic investment

Teaching methods, textbooks, and grammatical paradigms are no longer in the center of attention. It is the methods that the learner employs to internalize and to perform in the language that are important too. After all, successful mastery of L2 will be due to a learner’s own personal investment of time, effort, and attention to L2.

To my mind, principles 3, 4 and 5 to some extent overlap with Ellis’s Principle 9: Instruction needs to take account of individual differences in learners. 

Principle 6: Autonomy

Successful mastery of L2 will depend on learner’s autonomous ability to continue their journey to success beyond the classroom and the teacher.

This principle to a large extent links to Ellis’s Principle 6: Successful instructed language learning requires extensive L2 input. As I wrote in my previous post, it’s virtually impossible to provide L2 learners with a sufficient amount of input in the classroom so students’ autonomy seems to be the only way leading to ultimate success.

Socioaffective principles: 

Principle 7: Language ego

As human beings learn to use an L2, they also develop a new mode of thinking, feeling, and acting – a second identity. Their new ‘language ego’ can feel fragile, silly and sometimes humiliated when lacking words or suitable grammar structures. Thus it is necessary to overtly display a supportive attitude to your students.

I’d link this principle to Ellis’s Principle 5: Instruction needs to take into account the learner’s ‘built-in syllabus’. I personally try to achieve this by tolerating the learners’ temporary ‘flaws’ and by giving them plenty of opportunities to succeed. Also, there’s a  similarity to  Principle 9: Instruction needs to take account of individual differences in learners.

Principle 8: Willingness to communicate

Successful learners are willing to communicate, which results in the generation of both output (from the learner) and input (to the learner).

What immediately comes to mind is Ellis’s Principle 7: Successful instructed language learning also requires opportunities for output. As you aren’t likely to get output from stressed students, for example, you should make sure that the learning conditions and atmosphere in the classroom are favorable to spontaneous communication. Brown’s Principle 8 may also relate to  Ellis’s Principle 8: The opportunity to interact in the L2 is central to developing L2 proficiency and Principle 9: Instruction needs to take account of individual differences in learners.

Principle 9: The language-culture connection

Whenever you teach a language, you also teach a complex system of cultural customs, values, and ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. This can be a source of valuable language input and a powerful tool for adjustment in new cultures. However, Brown advises us to be sensitive if some students appear discouraged.

Again, here I can sense a connection with Ellis’s Principle 6: Successful instructed language learning requires extensive L2 input. I’d add that culture is inherently present in any language and you can’t separate language from culture if you want to communicate in the target language successfully. I think I clearly demonstrated this in one of my previous posts, where I contrasted phrases ‘I’m good’ and ‘I’m fine’. 

Linguistic principles: 

Principle 10: The Native language effect

The native language of learners strongly influences the acquisition of the target language system. Brown advises teachers to regard errors as important windows to their underlying system and provide appropriate feedback on them. What also helps students to minimalize interference errors is thinking in the L2 instead of resorting to translation as they comprehend and produce language.

Here I see a connection with Ellis’s Principle 9: Instruction needs to take account of individual differences in learners. If you teach a mixed nationality class, you’ll probably have to treat diverse types of errors. I wrote about the native language effect here and here on my blog. 

Principle 11: Interlanguage

Just as children develop their native language in gradual, systematic stages, L2 learners, go through a systematic developmental process as they progress to full competence in L2. This means, for example, that at some point, a good deal of what an L2 learner says or comprehend may be logically correct, but from the point of view of the native speaker’s competence, it’s incorrect. Teachers should allow learners to progress through such systematic stages of acquisition. Also, when giving feedback, the teacher needs to distinguish between systematic interlanguage errors (these can be tolerated to some extent) and other errors.

Principle 11 seems to overlap with Ellis’s Principle 5: Instruction needs to take into account the learner’s ‘built-in syllabus’.  As a teacher, one can’t simply skip or hasten certain stages of the learner’s development, or eliminate systematic interlanguage errors completely. 

Principle 12: Communicative competence

Given that communicative competence is the goal of an L2 classroom, teachers should give attention to language use and not just usage, to fluency and not just accuracy. Give grammar some attention, but don’t neglect the other important components. Make sure that your students have opportunities to gain some fluency in English without having to be constantly wary of little mistakes.

This seems to encompass at leat five of Ellis’s principles: Principle 1: Instruction needs to ensure that learners develop both a rich repertoire of formulaic expressions and a rule-based competence, Principle 2: Instruction needs to ensure that learners focus predominantly on meaning, Principle 3: Instruction needs to ensure that learners also focus on form, Principle 4: Instruction needs to be predominantly directed at developing implicit knowledge of the L2 while not neglecting explicit knowledge and Principle 8: The opportunity to interact in the L2 is central to developing L2 proficiency.

Although the authors complement one another, Brown’s perspective seems to me more general and encompasses a slightly larger spectrum of (language) pedagogy. The connections I made between the two sets of principles were based solely on intuition and others may see it differently.