The Scissors Effect

post-it-notes-2836842_960_720On Saturday, I attended another IH conference in Brno, which I think is beautifully summarized in this blog post by James Egerton. A couple of people I met there wanted to know when I’m going to present again. Honestly, I think my answer was a bit evasive, but judging by the nods of agreement, it must have been entirely satisfactory, especially for those who had once presented too: “It’s very comfortable and convenient to sit back in the audience and enjoy other people’s presentations with a pleasing memory of previous success”.

However, I won’t pretend that the idea of presenting again hadn’t crossed my mind before my friends asked me about it. The trouble is that my last experience was more than gratifying. Yes, I find it troubling. The thing is that since my presentation was quite successful (judging by the feedback I got afterward), now there’s something to live up to. I’m sure that if you are a self-conscious perfectionist, like me, you probably know the feeling.

Anyway, I think it’s time to move on and start thinking about the potential whats and hows instead of making all sorts of excuses to myself. So, I guess, this post can be viewed as an unofficial conference proposal made to myself, publicly. LOL

On a more serious note, last time, the topic of my talk revolved around my favorite low-prep speaking activities. It turned out to be a relatively safe and easy start for a newbie presenter. I knew I was on the safe side because all the activities I was planning to share had been thoroughly tested in my teaching context – by myself. I also knew that ELT conference audiences are usually interested in practical activities rather than, say, academic theory. And these are the two most important points I want to stick to in the future as well.

So, here’s an idea for my future workshop:

I think it’s always immensely helpful for teachers if they can take away activities which at least temporarily bridge the proverbial gap between the fast and slow finishers. What I’m touching upon here is the so-called scissors effect. In economy, the scissors effect is what takes place when revenues and expenses move in different or diverging directions. In ELT (I might be coining a new term here), something similar happens when the most proficient students gradually get even more proficient due to their high motivation and/or great exposure to L2 outside of the classroom and the gap between them and the least proficient ones (those who don’t immerse themselves in L2 so much and/or have a lower aptitude for language learning) gradually widens, which then makes it more and more difficult for the weaker ones to keep up in class. Needless to say, this to some extent complicates your life as a teacher as well.

The issue of fast finishers is often dealt with quite superficially, I think, by simply suggesting that they should be given extra tasks to do. This, unfortunately, also means extra work for the teachers but most importantly, based on my experience with teaching teenagers, it just doesn’t work very well. If you think about it, from a psychological point of view, it’s quite logical; most fast finishers don’t want extra assignments just because they’ve done what they were supposed to do. To say the least, it’s not fair. And, by the way, allowing them to go on Facebook after they’ve finished doesn’t look like an option to me either.

So, as there are times when I really want to minimize the gap and have no time or resources to further engage the fast finishers, I resort to activities which help me solve the problem pragmatically. Here are some examples of what I have in mind:

READING: Check out this activity which I thoroughly described here on my blog. I called it a sequential reading activity. It enables slower readers to easily keep up with the faster ones since the whole text is not read at one go but is divided into smaller chunks which students read one by one. Each chunk is analyzed and discussed before the students move on to the next bit.

WRITING: Here’s an example of a simple collaborative writing activity where each student is doing something meaningful at each point but where everybody can write only as much as they manage within a certain time limit (see activity 1).

SPEAKING: One of my favorite speaking activities which I think can potentially reduce the above-mentioned gap is described here (see activity 2). As you will see, the crucial aspect of the activity is the seating arrangement as well as the overall set-up.

LISTENING: One of my favorite listening activities combined with writing is what I call Write the last word you heard. This basically means that I play the recording of a text my students are already familiar with, and at some point, I pause the audio – usually after a period or after a longer chunk of language. Students then write the last word/expression they heard. I explain the benefits of the activity in more depth here.

MISCELLANEOUS: This activity is similar to the one above except that I read the text myself and pause right before the word or expression I want my students to fill in. This auditory gap-fill is much better than a classic one because all the students are working at the same pace (it’s the teacher who actually sets the pace by reading the text). Although individual students may have different knowledge related to vocabulary, collocations, grammar structures, spelling, etc., nobody can finish the task faster than the others. It’s good to carefully (but discreetly) monitor the ‘slowest’ student in your class and adjust the pace accordingly if need be.

Well, this is just an idea which I’d like to shape and mold. We’ll see if something more complex comes out of it.

About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for almost 25 years and I still love my job. You can find out more about my passion here on my blog.
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6 Responses to The Scissors Effect

  1. Sandy Millin says:

    Yes please! Your first session was great, and starting with something familiar is the way to go to make yourself feel comfortable. As with learning any new skill, conference presenting is about getting familiar with how it all works, then pushing yourself. You’ll be great, and this list of ideas is exactly what I needed following a conversation with one of my teachers today. Thanks Hana, and see you at PARK in a few weeks I hope 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Yes, the PARK conference. I almost forgot you’re actually going to be there! Fantastic. Can’t wait to meet you again. 🙂


  2. Tesal Koksi Sangma says:

    You’re amazing, Hana. Go for it!! 👍

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dave Cleary says:

    Your first session was very well-received and I would love for you to come back again

    Liked by 1 person

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