When there’s almost no sand left


Each school year works like an hourglass. When there’s no sand left, there’s no sand left. If you want to go on, you need to turn it over.

This metaphorical sand obviously stands for time, i.e. 10 months here in my teaching context, but also for energy and motivation. It’s as if students (as well as teachers) constantly keep an eye on the hourglass and when there’s only a little sand left, everybody starts switching off. The process of switching off is clearly intensified by the rising temperatures. In the middle of June, it can be over 30 degrees here in the Czech Republic – outside as well as inside – so there’s no point in doing some ‘serious’ teaching and learning anymore. Summer is in the air and you can do very little about it since it seems that from now on, the student’s brain refuses to absorb new stuff. Besides, grades have been sorted out so you can’t make the horse drink anymore.

Still, you are at school and you are the teacher and your job is to do something relatively meaningful. But is there anything meaningful you can do at school apart from teaching and learning? Well, it’s a perfect time for the teacher and the students to chill out together. At last, you can introduce silly games and fun into the classroom without feeling guilty. However, you may find out that language games only work with young learners at this time of year. So, while you can play Battleships or Naughts and Crosses with 12-year-olds, the 17-years olds may appear a little fed up with anything teacher-generated which, in addition, they only see as teaching in disguise.

I’ve always thought we English teachers are a bit better off than the rest of the subject teachers in this respect because we have movies and songs – two things that almost everybody loves. So, at this time of year, we can easily switch roles and let our students entertain themselves. I ask them to bring movies or TV shows in English which they like and we watch them with English subtitles. I like to hope that there is still some learning involved but there are no specific tasks or goals written down – we just sit and watch. I’ve come to realize that this is extraordinarily liberating for me as a teacher – to have no goals, aims, lesson plans, agenda, whatever. I just am in the classroom and engage in something very natural that people normally do together in their free time.

Sometimes students bring films I know, such as the Harry Potter series, of which we watched three parts with one class over the previous week. Sometimes I learn about new stuff, such as the Young Sheldon series, which is a great hit here it seems, or this amazing animated movie called Coco, which I will definitely recommend to my ten-year-old son.

We sometimes just sing along with YouTube videos and I’m grateful to my students as I can add some new hits to my Spotify playlist.

I mean, it’s great that we can finally chill out a bit together. If somebody wants to read their favourite book, I let them do it. The only condition is that all smartphones must be switched off because smartphones and headphones drag people away from now and here.

Anyway, that’s how things are at the moment but I think that I’ll soon be looking forward to things starting over again.

Translation – enough or not enough of it in the L2 classroom?

Teaching students with whom I share the same L1 (Czech) has some advantages, the biggest of which is the fact that we can engage in L1>L2 and L2>L1 translation. Although translation may still connote the old Grammar Translation Method, I feel it is no longer a pedagogical crime in the CLT context, especially if the teacher focuses on learners’ ability to use the language rather than on their ability to analyze it. I personally try to make valuable use of translation to sort out some classroom teaching and learning issues. 

IMG_20180524_100621Here’s an example of an activity I’ve recently been doing with my classes when practising various grammar points. On the left is a classic exercise from a workbook where students complete the gaps using the passive voice structure. Obviously, filling in such an exercise can be helpful but it’s not enough for them in order to fully grasp the passive voice and its use. So, after we check the answers, I ask them to work in pairs. Student A closes the book. Student B reads the first line in Czech. Student A listens and translates the line back into English. Student B checks Student A’s translation. The Czech>English translation should be as close to the original as possible. However, at the same time, I ask students to use ‘nice’ and natural Czech structures during the English>Czech translation stage. I always remind them of Google Translate and that I don’t want them to sound like it (even though I must admit it’s getting better and better). So not only do students practise some tricky grammatical structures but they also develop a sense of what a good translation entails, i.e. that sometimes it’s not possible to translate everything word by word and literally.

Sometimes I ask students to work with unknown (or newish) texts and translate simultaneously. One student reads an English text line by line, while the other student translates straight into Czech. This works best in groups of three. The third student can be the WRITER – he or she can record the Czech version on a piece of paper and then the group translates the whole thing back into English. This is a real challenge but quite fun too.

When I ask students which part is more difficult, the answers differ but I often hear that the English>Czech translation is a bit trickier. I think it’s because translation activities are not often included into (my) English lessons. I myself feel a deficit in this respect. It can take me ages to come up with an accurate L2>L1 translation of a word or a phrase. What’s worse, although I do have a vague idea of what the phrase means, I sometimes don’t know what the accurate translation is. Again, I think it’s the CLT approach to blame here; it’s pretty superficial and creates the illusion that it’s enough to use L2 fluently, which, to a certain degree, is true, but sometimes accuracy is equally important.