Better be preparred than sorry

So, we are currently finding ourselves in the post-covid situation. Well, whether it’s really post covid is a question I’d rather avoid elaborating on. One way or another, we are back at school having regular face-to-face lessons and it seems things have truly come back to normal at school. By normal I mean we are in the actual classrooms doing the things we used to do. But normal doesn’t necessarily mean the same.

Truth be told, last year around this time, we also felt things were getting back to normal. Except they weren’t. Schools were closed again. With this in mind, I can’t help constantly feeling on my toes. The other day I even caught myself looking at my timetable, drafting a potential Zoom schedule from my classes. In other words, I was considering all the possible combinations for the ever-dreaded scenario – the lockdown.

Not only that, I’ve been intentionally training my classes, especially the new ones, to navigate themselves in the online platform that we were using during the last lockdown. Ironically, although we spent quite a long period of time in the online realm, I’ve come to the conclusion that people (me included) tend to forget soon and quickly. For example, when I wanted to design a quick online activity for my classes back in September, for a moment, I was struggling to remember how things worked. For that reason, I thought students may have the same problem.

What I’m trying to say is that I decided to keep one foot in the online environment in case things went south again. So, we do tests on mobile devices rather than on paper. Some homework is online too. This blended approach has some advantages as well as disadvantages but overall, I’d say that there are more pros than cons. As always, it’s the notorious internet connection that makes our lives difficult. But so far, we’ve always figured things out. If, for instance, a student doesn’t have a phone at all (yes, there are some who don’t), they can borrow my laptop.

On a more positive note, one of the major advantages is that the feedback is instant. Also, in order to work properly, the quizzes need to be designed immaculately. So I tend to put a lot of thought into the actual design, especially into the decisions regarding what I want to test. As a result, not only do I feel more content and in control but I think the students feel the same way. The younger students told me explicitly that they actually like this approach. I mean, they are at school and they are allowed to touch their phones! Wow!

There’s one thing I’m still on the fence about – does this type of online testing allow for cheating? I obviously monitor the class all the time but I know there are ways to outsmart the teacher, so to speak. Students can make print screens and they can easily share their answers via some messaging platforms. They might google answers as well. Anyway, I’m aware of all these potentialities but I’ve actually never seen anyone cheating so far. So, fingers crossed for us.

Having said that, that doesn’t mean I’m some kind of an extremist as far as technology is concerned. I’m well aware of the fact that mobile technologies, and especially social media, can be truly damaging if not used wisely. But as I said earlier, we need to be prepared for the worst scenario. If students are stranded at home again, they will be forced to use mobile technologies no matter what we think about their negative effects. 

Store, bookmark, catalogue!

Although I like change and variety, I’m also drawn to perfection. This may seem like a great combination of personality traits, especially for a(n English) teacher, but it is a source of conflict too.

You know… I’ve always dreamt of colour-coded folders in which teaching materials would be neatly organized based on specific categories (year, level, skill, etc.). And then, before each lesson, I’d just run my finger over the spines of the files and I’d fish out the handout I needed.

Unfortunately, this strategy has never quite worked out for me. The thing is that first of all, there are simply too many categories that overlap and intersect so grouping and cataloguing become confusing. It may be feasible for someone but for me, it’s only a source of additional stress because, well, the result is never perfect. Also, I feel that maintaining such a system would be quite time-consuming since the materials go out of date too soon and if you want to move with the times, so to speak, they constantly need to be updated. And although specific types of materials, such as grammar sheets, don’t necessarily expire that quickly, the way I approach teaching grammar is constantly evolving so they may also become quite redundant at some point. However, the main reason I’ve given up on this ‘ideal’ way of storing materials is that these days, it’s simply futile to do so. Why? Because the Internet itself is a great catalogue where you can access everything quickly and easily without making too much mess on your desk.

Just think of all the fellow teachers out there who, now and then, recommend something one simply can’t resist trying out in class so there is no time (or no desire) left to keep doing the same old tricks. Also, the students will never be the same; their skills and needs are evolving too. While one group might have been quite happy with an activity handout five years ago, this year, another group at an allegedly same level may find it totally inappropriate. Plus, I sometimes feel like a cheater when introducing the same activity over and over again.

Anyway, the past couple of years have shown me that having stacks of paper folders and laminated cards is a touch obsolete and those materials I had collected over time were actually pretty useless during the pandemic. I do admit, though, that such a collection can be a source of inspiration and a backbone of your course, even during a remote teaching period, but I personally didn’t use them much, mainly because I couldn’t be bothered to bring them home from my office. 

So, as a result, instead of sticking to the safe old tricks, I had to widen my horizons. There was no other way. I had to step out of my comfort zone (oh, how I hate this phrase!) – I had to visit new websites and download new apps.

Well, times have obviously changed … but what has also changed dramatically is my attitude to teaching materials. Although the quality of the resources we use is definitely crucial, they are not (and cannot be) the part of the teaching process we spend most of our time and energy on. It’s primarily the student and our teaching skills that should take centre stage. In other words, it’s not important what kind of resources we currently own and in what form we store them, it is important to be flexible and creative when looking for suitable materials we need at a given moment. Subsequently, the same amount of creativity and flexibility will be needed when applying those materials in class. So, I believe it is the experience that we should store, catalogue or bookmark (i.e. remember), not the handouts.

Are we done with paper dictionaries?

When you enter our living space on the second floor of our family house, you’ll find yourself in the kitchen. Apart from the usual electrical appliances, there are five huge dictionaries sitting on a shelf near the window. You may be wondering why I keep them on display in the kitchen. Well, it’s because that’s where my small working space is (and because they are so big that they don’t fit in any cabinet), but also because seeing them there kind of makes me feel proud. Whenever a visitor enters the kitchen, they can immediately tell that I am someone involved in the English language. And judging by the sizes and amount of the books it’s almost certain that I am an English teacher. Add to that that on top of the pile of dictionaries there is a pair of reading glasses and I am made once and for all.

Anyway, the emotion stemming from other people’s assumptions about me owning five huge paper dictionaries tells me that it feels good to be an English teacher. Some may say that the teaching profession is not prestigious enough to feel that way but I’ve never suffered from an inferiority complex. I reckon it may be because I’m an ENGLISH teacher at a SECONDARY level of education. Or maybe it’s because I respect the ELT community myself and I simply believe we are worth it. We are good folks, we English teachers are.

So, my collection of dictionaries is, to a certain extent, a reflection of what I do but most importantly, what I like doing. The trouble is that now, they are a mere decoration and to be completely honest, I can’t even remember the last time I opened any of them.

Here’s the thing … back at uni they told us that real books were always more reliable than online sources. This was also true of dictionaries. They advised us to own at least one big monolingual dictionary to be considered proper English majors. So I own five now (two of them are bilingual dictionaries). By the way, I used to have even more of them but since some of them were duplicates, I donated them at some point.

So why is it that their primary function is to collect dust? Well, the reason is obvious. While at uni they could tell us that online resources may be second-class, the truth is they these days, they are more practical, up-to-date and quicker to work with than my ‘proper’ dictionaries. Plus, I don’t think they are deficient anyway and I have proof of that. I sometimes like to conduct a little experiment: I compare a paper dictionary entry with the entry available online (oh, that’s when and only when I actually open the dictionaries, nerdy me). Take the word putz around, for example. While it takes me a few seconds to find the meaning of the verb online, it takes me considerably more time to find it in my paper dictionaries (because even though flipping through the thin pages may feel good, it *is* simply more time-consuming). And guess what … my oldest dictionary doesn’t even list the entry. And while my more recent monolingual dictionaries do contain the expression and explain it in about the same way the online dictionary does, the amount of detail provided by the paper dictionary is obviously incomparable to the amount of information available online.

For example, what my paper dictionary doesn’t tell me is the fact that since 1800, the use of the noun putz has been on the increase. While one of the more modern dictionaries does mention what putz means in vulgar slang, the other one only says it means a stupid person. So, come to think about it, if you want to have a complete understanding of a word (and be really safe), you do need several paper dictionaries. Or you can just go online and have it all.

This brings me to a more serious matter; I have clearly demonstrated that I can make do without paper dictionaries. And so can my students. But here’s the thing … during their final state exam in English here in the Czech Republic, they are only allowed to use paper dictionaries. These are bilingual and of a small size. While the stronger students do not usually need those at all (they would probably be much better off with a more advanced, monolingual version anyway), the weaker students are totally lost when using them. For example, the Czech word svést (svézt) can either be translated into English as seduce or give a lift. So, in the worst-case scenario (and this really happened), the student may produce a sentence like: I can seduce you if you want instead of I can give you a lift if you want. My point is that the exam setting doesn’t reflect the real-life situation. In other words, students rarely use paper dictionaries (and thus can’t really work with them) but are encouraged to use them during their final exam when everything is at stake.

So, as a teacher I have several options; I can teach my students how to deal with the exam situation without a dictionary or I can prepare them for the fact that they may not be able to find what they want in the dictionary available (the latter option is, in fact, the same as the former one). So, during the production stages, I urge them to circumvent any unknown language item by using synonyms or replacing the item with what they already know. This, in my view, is a far more valuable strategy under the given circumstances than looking for a translation that may finally turn out to be totally inappropriate for a particular context.

All in all, to be able to work with a dictionary effectively, some practice, as well as experience, is needed. Also, the more advanced a student is, the more they can find out and thus the more they are likely to learn. So the growth is exponential. While a beginner will probably only mess things up when working with a dictionary, a C1 learner will learn an immense amount of information by researching just one expression.

But, back to my question … are with done with paper dictionaries? Well, it depends on who is using them; they are an invaluable source of inspiration for an ELT blogger but for a regular L2 learner, they may well be a waste of money (and time).

Extensive reading practice – thoughts and insights

The other day I watched this video I had originally come across on Russ Mayne’s blog. Actually, it was Sandy Millin who had drawn my attention to it first. Long story short, the video is an interview with Sue Leather and Jez Uden, who have a new book out on the topic of Extensive Reading and Motivation.

I should kick off by saying that before I saw the interview, I had definitely been well aware of the benefits of extensive reading in L2 learning/acquisition. I think I’d even heard about the study published by Patsy Lightbown Jez mentions in the interview which concludes that after one year, a group of students who had read extensively for 30 minutes every day without any further language instruction performed just as well as the controlled group who had only learned English with their teacher for 30 minutes a day through the audio-lingual method (the first group did equally well on all standards, except for writing, which started dipping at some point).

Now, this very notion has been a source of hope as well as anxiety for me for ages and I’ve wanted to write about it many times here on my blog; the notion that L2 learners can actually learn the language on their own, outside of the classroom, and in the light of it, our job seems to be quite redundant. Luckily, at some point, Jez dispels my nagging sense of potential redundancy by urging us, sceptics, to imagine what those students taking part in the experiment could have achieved if they’d had regular tuition in addition to their extensive reading practice. So, the answer is: we probably need both to achieve the desired effect.

Anyway, a few minutes into the video, I wonder, like many times before, why on earth is extensive reading not a regular practice in my classes. The word regular is paramount here and it in fact turns out to be the biggest problem. I mean, we can’t ask our students to read fifty pages at one go once in a while and still call this practice extensive reading, can we? By definition, extensive reading means reading large amounts of stuff and doing so pretty often. In other words, students need plenty of exposure to the language for them to become fluent readers and proficient language users. But how do you achieve this?

Luckily, halfway through the video, the interviewees have answered many of my pressing questions and addressed some of my doubts. Apparently, it’s not just me who is plagued with guilt regarding the lack of extensive reading practice in their teaching context. In fact, the reasons why teachers only dabble in extensive reading but don’t really engage with it seriously are well known. And, in all honesty, it’s comforting to know that to a great degree, these reasons overlap with my own rationale.

As Jez puts it, one of the most obvious constraints standing in the way of extensive reading practice is the cost, i.e. people have to give up something to commit themselves to extensive reading. Reading for at least 30 minutes a day is a time-consuming process. Unfortunately, teachers have to follow busy curriculums and prepare students for high-stakes exams. But it’s not only teachers who have busy schedules; students have heaps of homework to do and they have to get on with their own stuff like seeing friends or attending groups or clubs. So, they need to value reading enough to be willing to sacrifice something else. Also, teachers want to feel they want to be teaching (or want to be seen teaching) but extensive reading requires teachers to step back and allow people just to sit and read, which in fact may seem to be the opposite of teaching. Add to that the fact that extensive reading is harder to test than discrete items of grammar or vocabulary, for example. When studying grammar, students can physically see that they’ve learned a grammar point very quickly whereas, with extensive reading, they don’t see the gains that easily. It’s a much subtler process. This can be a real challenge, particularly in terms of motivation, as Sue argues. Finally, not every school or institution has enough materials for extensive reading. Obviously, there are some ways to sidestep the issue; for example, I really liked the idea mentioned by Jez of students buying graded readers (one student=one book) and then swapping them within their group.

I should be happy now, I guess. After all, we’re all in the same boat. But here’s my biggest concern, which for the most part comes from the realm of practicality. Although I do have enough graded readers at hand and I could easily start an extensive reading project right away, the truth is, I simply don’t know how to go about it. Here are some of the issues … Apart from the obvious wheres and whens, I feel like there always needs to be a follow-up stage after a certain amount of reading, e.g. a book. (This probably links to the teachers’ productivity issue mentioned above). What would this stage look like? I mean, do I ask students to read the same book each week or can everybody choose what they like? The latter option definitely sounds better but if they choose a plethora of different books, what happens next? Do we discuss them all? How? Does each student prepare a presentation of the book or a review? If so, will they present those orally or will I (we) read it? Such a phase may be quite time-consuming and, come to think about it, quite boring. You know, it’s undeniably a great experience to sit with a friend and chat about what we’ve recently read, and we could probably replicate this genuine process in the classroom. But …. the students are at different levels of proficiency, even though they are in the same class. Also, I normally choose to meet with friends who usually have similar tastes, but students may have totally different interests regarding genres.

The list of practical obstacles goes on and on. But what probably troubles me most is the fact that as a teacher, i.e. the coordinator of the extensive reading project, I should be a bookworm myself; I should be familiar with the books in question, even those the students would spontaneously bring to class. In other words, I feel like I’d have to be an expert in literature.

I could obviously decide on a less structured extensive reading course design; I could simply encourage my students to read as much as possible by offering them opportunities and suitable materials. Then I could just ask them what it was they’d read, tick a box and then we could go on to the next item. This happens in real life too: somebody tells you about a great book they’ve read and you go like “yeah, right, never heard of it”. But again, this raises a red flag regarding the teachers’ productivity and the measurability of the students’ progress.

To sum up, I’m all for extensive reading in L2. The trouble is that we are trying to take something very genuine (reading for pleasure) and place it in a somewhat artificial context (school). This is a hard nut to crack, in my mind (for me anyway).

Zoom lagging and hot correction issues

I’ve written about the challenges of remote teaching several times here on my blog. Lately, I’ve also shared my thoughts on remote formal observation and I’ve expressed my reservations about some types of feedback. Today, I’d like to touch on all the above topics once again when discussing the problems connected to ‚remote feedback ‘.

I’m not even sure whether it’s an ELT term but by remote feedback, I simply mean correction of errors during online synchronous classes. In offline lessons, we normally distinguish between hot correction and cold correction. To put it simply, in the first scenario, oral correction comes shortly after the mistake was made. In the latter case, however, there is a period of time between skill execution and feedback.

In an offline lesson, we can obviously switch between these two modes as we please. This doesn’t mean, though, that we do so in a totally random manner; the choice is usually made on efficiency grounds. So, if we want to avoid interrupting the student, for example, we wait and delay the feedback until a later stage of the lesson. We have several options here: we can either postpone the feedback till after a student has finished speaking or we can anonymize the feedback by waiting till everybody is done, which would then become generic feedback. During pair and group work, students can provide their partners with peer feedback and the best type of feedback (IMHO) is self-correction, i.e. when a student realizes the error and corrects themselves instantly.

Well, that’s all very nice. The good old classics, one could say. The problem is that during remote teaching, things get a little complicated – everything is sort of delayed. It’s not overly surprising because that’s the very nature of the digital world. So, no matter how fast our own internet connection is, there’s no guarantee that all students have the same state of the art equipment. And even if they do, there’s always this tiny little lag that makes online communication so notorious. This can obviously be pretty annoying, especially when students are performing speaking tasks. Not only does Zoom lagging slow the exchanges between the students and hinder the overall spontaneity of an activity, but it also makes hot correction almost impossible.

Now, I guess that at some point, we were all innocent enough to think that we can correct a student’s mistake straight away in a Zoom lesson. But, alas, at that very moment, our lesson turned into a chaotic bar chatter with the speakers talking over one another barely getting what their conversational partner actually meant. When we sensed this happening, we quickly paused to deal with the chaos. But the student our comment was meant for immediately paused too because, well, due to the digital and cognitive lag, they heard our remark too late and were too bewildered to make sense out of it. This resulted in a somewhat strange dialogue, interlarded with periods of awkward silence. And if we by any chance decided to take advantage of those moments of temporary quiet in an attempt to reiterate our words, surprise, surprise … the student had the very same idea. More chatter. More chaos.

You know, if we were having an ordinary phone call, all the above chaos would be quite natural. After all, we’re used to the fact that phone calls get choppy. However, the fact that we were staring at each other through the computer monitors desperately trying to get back on track every time we had got off it made the exchange even more ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong, these moments can be funny and cute, under certain circumstances, plus it wasn’t that confusing all the time. Still, I think it’s better to avoid these situations completely.

And that’s what I decided to go for … Even if the mistake was blatantly unacceptable, I never corrected the student, especially when the lesson was observed by my superiors. Having said that, I was fully aware of the potential consequences of my actions, so it was often hard to resist the temptation to show the observer that I had actually noticed the mistake. In other words, part of me felt the urge to correct in order to demonstrate my professional competence. But I didn’t in the end, mainly for the sake of the integrity of the inherently fragile lesson. However, later on, during the feedback session, I did bring up the issue to justify my decision behind not correcting. So I explained the lagging problem and all that jazz. But in the end, I felt it was not necessary because the observer fully understood the mindset behind my choices.

All in all, this is another illustration of the wide gap between online and offline teaching. Although I admit they can be both equally efficient in some regard, in a remote lesson, there are too many restrictions – the hot correction case being just one of the problems. On the other hand, this little analysis of mine has shown me that delayed feedback may always be the better option, even in the offline teaching environment. In other words, the online environment has shed light on some of the issues related to immediate oral correction. What I’m implying here is that if we hope for our students to become highly competent English speakers and, most importantly, if we want to create a natural learning environment in the L2 classroom, we may want to stop clinging to accuracy because, firstly, this approach impedes genuine communication and secondly, it is plain rude to interrupt and correct people when they are trying to get a message across. 🙂

Individual feedback and birthday cards

We, teachers, are busy creatures and we dread the moment when essays to grade suddenly pile up. In my case, luckily, I’m only obliged to give students numerical grades (1-5), which obviously makes the process quicker and easier. However, like many of my colleagues, I also like to add a short verbal note that justifies my grade. This is a bit more time-consuming than just giving grades but although no two people have the same DNA, students do tend to make similar mistakes and struggle with the same language issues. So, what happens is that I grade the first essay, write a short comment and when I move on to the next piece of writing, I realize that I can actually copy and paste a line or two from the previous feedback. Logically, it gets easier and easier as I proceed.

I would say that there’s nothing wrong with the above approach. After all, people have written about comment banks, use them successfully and as it turns out, you can download them easily from the internet. Surprisingly, you can also purchase them. Who says you can’t buy happiness? 😉

So, there’s no doubt that comment banks and related apps are there to help teachers. I suppose they may be equally useful as other online tools, such as Google autocomplete, which, similarly to comment bank apps, performs a prediction of possible search queries and shows a drop-down list of related words and phrases and thus makes it faster for you to complete searches that you’re beginning to type. Or, take Grammarly, for example, which instantly gives you feedback on how your writing may sound to others, e. g. accusatory, friendly, formal, appreciative, etc.

But apart from saving the teacher’s time, comment banks can also help to accurately describe the problems a particular student should fix or they can lift the student’s spirits effectively by listing their strengths.

So far so good. Well, here’s the issue I have with comment banks – free or paid: they are pre-generated and although they are to a great degree tailor-made to meet each student’s needs, they still lack in uniqueness. And to be completely fair … so does my copy-and-paste strategy mentioned above.

Now, I may be splitting hairs here but let me explain what’s really bugging me: I guess I simply fear the moment when two students come together, look at each other’s feedback and find out that I used identical words to assess their work. I’m particularly talking about students who take schoolwork seriously and put in a lot of effort. What if they think that it was me who didn’t make enough effort?

It’s the same with birthdays cards – you can buy some lovely cards from a stationer but I always hesitate before picking one; what if the birthday person gets two identical cards? Or what if they already got this one last year? It’s always safer to make a card with your own hands, out of ordinary file paper, and give it a personal touch, isn’t it? It may be more time consuming and quite a challenge to come up with something unique but it may well be much easier – especially if you know the person really well. Then the words write themselves, so to speak.

Now, the sceptical reader may object … and what about grades? How unique are they? Not at all, I admit. Nothing can be more unfair than this type of summative assessment. If five people in my class may get grade 1, this doesn’t mean their essays are equally good. Also, I doubt that those five students will ever scrutinize what is behind that grade. They will probably accept it and happily move on. Will they learn much? I’m not sure. Complacency may be the enemy of progress.

Luckily, if one feels too guilty about grades, comment banks or any pre-generated type of feedback, there are other ways of evaluating students’ written work in time-constrained situations. I sometimes like to provide a class with generic feedback, which I wrote about some time ago here on my blog. This also brings me to the topic of peer review/assessment, which has been repeatedly discussed on two of my favourite blogs (Vedrana’s and Paul’s) and I strongly recommend reading them (if you haven’t already).

Well, I’ll sign off here and leave the reader with some food for thought. Or maybe there’s nothing to think about. Either way, thank you for stopping by and reading.

Some of the less visible forms of pressure

It all started on 13 March 2020, when full-time education in elementary, secondary and tertiary educational facilities was cancelled here in the Czech Republic. Everything turned upside down and life became surreal. And that was when our egos started suffering …

From that day on, we teachers had to look at our own faces, listen to our own voices and endure being constantly observed by others in a totally new environment – online.

You are probably aware that there’s a psychological reason behind why we hate looking at photographs of ourselves. I think we’ve all been there; when we see a photo of ourselves, for some reason, we start focusing on the bits of the image we don’t like and overall, we look older, uglier and fatter than we normally feel. On the other hand, our friends always look amazing in photos, so we don’t understand why they cringe too when it’s just us who looks terrible.

Similarly, we don’t particularly enjoy listening to our own voices. They sound so different, almost alien. It can’t be us speaking.

And I doubt there are many people out there who like being observed doing stuff in a situation that is new to them, let alone formally.

Yet, these are some of the things we‘ve had to get used to doing. In other words, we‘ve had to become desensitised to constantly seeing our faces on the screens, hearing our voices and being observed by our students (most of them invisible), or even by our bosses sometimes. 

How did we get used to it all then? Well, we had no choice. We had to do the things regardless of how we felt about them. At first, it was tough. I think it’s similar to publishing your first blog post. You put yourself out there and wait. If the feedback is positive, you obviously want to do it again. If the feedback you receive is negative, you always have the option to stand down. The worst thing, I believe, is no response. And this is how I often felt when teaching online – in a void. Like I didn’t know where I had come from and where I was headed. Like a lonely child staring at the ceiling of her bedroom.

However, unlike an unsuccessful blogger, who can always quit, we couldn’t just stop teaching online. We had to keep going no matter what. So, at first, we cringed every time we saw that strange face on the screen or heard that uncanny voice. But after some time, we somehow stopped fussing about our self-images. We started focusing on other things – the more important things. After all, we needed to make our lessons work, and that required a lot of energy and cognitive capacity. So in the end, we didn’t give a damn about what we looked like that particular morning or how awkward our voice sounded in a video we had created.

We’ve learned an important lesson: that undue awareness of oneself often stands in the way of success. There’s no point in worrying about the things you can’t change (the sound of our voice) but there’s a lot we can do to improve the things we’re not happy about (our classroom management skills in a remote lesson).

Postface:

The way I use the we pronoun may feel a bit patronizing in the sense that I believe we all felt the same way. But I know not everybody is so self-conscious. By we I actually mostly mean I but I’m inviting everybody who finds this topic relatable to include themselves in the we. Also, I’m aware that there were other professions in which people had to endure much more stress (nurses, doctors, police officers, firefighters, shop assistants, etc.). My point is that there are many forms of psychological pressure which may be less visible but equally annoying and damaging to a fragile soul.

Does technology make learning and teaching easier?

As a teacher, I’m on a constant lookout for ways of helping my students to improve their level of English, especially at the time when they (think they) are plateauing, which is at around CEFR B1/B2 level. However, this sometimes proves to be quite challenging. The thing is … how can you measurably achieve improvement in language learning?

Let’s take writing, for example. Writing is a skill where the measurability of progress is relatively achievable, especially with all the tech tools available these days. For instance, during the online teaching period, I was able to run my students’ electronic versions of their writings through various text analysing tools, which in the pre-covid times was off the table since they would ususally submit the handwritten versions. Anyway, it turned out that my senior students, regardless of my preconceptions of their writing abilities, had invariably reached the B2+ level, according to this GSE text analyser. So although some students’ writings were clearly better than others, they were all labelled as B2+. This was actually great news because, in my teaching context, the students only aim to achieve level B1/B2, i.e. this level is sufficient for them to pass their state exam in English.

I must admit, though, that the uniform results made me a bit suspicious so for the sake of comparison, I decided to run some other texts through the same profiler; I took an excerpt from my own blog and excerpts from two other blog posts written by native speakers and/or professional bloggers. To make my investigation even more thorough, I looked for samples of writing by examinees aspiring to the C2 level. In addition, I used an academic text. Finally, I chose two pieces of texts written by renowned novelists. To my utter surprise, all the samples were labelled as B2+.

To a layperson, it may seem strange that no matter who the author was, the majority of the words used in those texts were the A1 words. For example, my best student’s essay comprised 57 per cent of words at A1. Compared to the renowned novelist, the ratio was not very different (see below).

My student

A famous novelist

One of the obvious conclusions may be that to come off as a decent writer you just need to throw in lots of A1 words plus a sprinkle of C2 expressions (and some in between these two levels, of course). In this regard, my student did really well and as far as the choice of vocabulary is concerned, there is not much he could do to make his writing look better. Obviously, next time, he could look for synonyms to replace some of the lower-level expressions, plus he could add a few C2 words into the mix, but will this make his essays better? And what does ‘better’ even mean? Does it mean more readable, more complex or more concise? And what do we want to achieve in the first place when we are talking about improving our students’ level of proficiency? Is it our job to spoon feed our students with low-frequency expressions in order to move them up the imaginary ladder? Or is it something else?

You know, the problem with the CEFR scale is that it is linear. Plus, we (and our students) naturally desire to constantly move upwards. A C1 language user is deemed attractive in the eyes of an A2 user, not the other way around. But is a C2 essay better than a B2 one? In the same vein, I could ask if being able to speak at the C1 level is better than being able to hold a conversation at the B2 level. The answer is obvious: it depends on the situation. A lower-level student can make do with what they know and they can convey their message just fine. All things considered, I believe it is not necessarily wise to ceaselessly push our students up towards the highest levels of proficiency. They might get the impression that once they reach the C2 level, they will have achieved the ultimate goal and that’s that. But is it really the terminus? I mean, you can feel stuck on the intermediate plateau for years and still be learning tons of new things. There are loads of language items you can work on incorporating into your language toolkit. And apart from vocabulary and grammar, you can keep refining other language areas and skills.

I do admit my theory has one flaw; I’m only discussing productive skills. Obviously, an L2 student’s productive skills will always be at a lower level than their receptive skills. In other words, in any language, even your mother tongue, you usually understand more than you can actually say/write. So I’m not saying it’s not worth constantly investing your (the student’s) time and energy into enlarging their vocabulary because, to put it simply, knowing more high-level words is useful because you understand more, learn more and can consequently produce more. Based on my experience, from the B2 level onwards, it mainly boils down to the range and amount of vocabulary you know. There aren’t many grammatical structures that will puzzle you or impede your understanding of a text at this level. But not knowing more than 2% of the words in a text you are trying to understand can prove tricky.

So what are some of the ways to help our students navigate the journey? As an L2 learner myself, I find the English Vocabulary Profile Online handy. Personally, I only focus on the C1-C2 words, especially phrases, and in my mind’s eye, I sort them out into three categories: the ones I know and use, the ones I know passively but don’t know properly, and the ones I don’t know. This is a great way to revise and/or fill in the gaps in my knowledge. There’s a similar tool – The English Grammar Profile -which I also sometimes use, but mainly as a teacher. And I advise my students to explore it as well, especially if they need to prepare for an exam because this is a more focused way of studying than, say, watching and listening to random stuff.

Apparently, learning and teaching a foreign language are both equally challenging and complex processes. We all know that. Technology is great but it doesn’t always make things easier. The more advances there are, the more questions emerge – for the teacher as well for the learner (for me anyway). Add to that the plethora of research findings about how languages are best taught and you may end up pretty frustrated, right? Well, let’s take one step at a time. By researching, doing, and reflecting on the doing (in the form of this post, for example), I’ve taken that one little step. We’ll see what the next one will be.

Online class observation insights

Throughout my teaching career, I have been formally observed or have observed my colleagues on many occasions. However, during the online teaching period, I only had one formal observation. In this post, I’d like to describe the experience and explore the question of whether online class observation is different from the ‘real thing’, i.e. face-to-face observation, at least from the point of view of the observee.

Now, the observer (the principal of our school) told me far in advance that I could choose the lesson I wanted her to see. It was not a hard choice; my only selection criterion was this: do the students voluntarily turn on their cameras? There were only two groups where I knew for sure that this wouldn’t be an issue so I chose the older students – simply because it was more convenient time-wise.

I should say that in my online lessons, I typically experimented a lot; I would try out new apps, websites, approaches to presenting content and materials, etc. The question I asked myself before the observed lesson was Do I want to experiment or do I want to play it safe this time? I opted for the latter because a) I didn’t want things to go wrong (they always do when technology is involved) and b) I didn’t want to give an impression of someone who is trying too hard to impress. Technology was intrinsically embedded in the lesson anyway (it was a Zoom lesson after all), so I didn’t want to impose more unnecessary pressure on me and the students just to prove that I’m tech-savvy.

Of course, I didn’t go completely conservative, either. I used breakout rooms, for example, because that’s what I would always do in my Zoom lessons and that’s what my students were used to. However, right from the start, I was aware of one potential problem: what do you do with the extra member – the observer? When dividing the participants into groups, anyone, including the extra member, is automatically or manually sent to one breakout room and unlike the host, they can’t just wander about popping into the other rooms. Obviously, it would have made no sense for the observer to linger in the main room where nothing was happening in the meantime. To deal with this, as soon as I sent her to a particular room, I joined the group myself and stayed there for the whole activity. Yes, the other students were left to their own devices, but it was the better option; it would feel strange to leave the group while the principal was still present. Obviously, I could have moved her manually each time I wanted to join a different group. But it didn’t occur to me back then since I had a lot on my plate already. So it was after a new activity was introduced when she was asked to join another group. In the end, she had seen four different groups, which was perfectly fine for the sake of demonstration. Also, I should stress that prior to this, she had not been particularly experienced in using breakout rooms, so she seemed genuinely pleased to see how the whole thing actually worked.

What I appreciated most was the fact that after a short pep talk at the beginning of the lesson she switched off her camera and stayed invisible and muted for the rest of the lesson (except for a few minutes at the end of the class when she said s few nice words and a goodbye). So, we were all aware that she was there all along, but her presence wasn’t disruptive in any way. This may seem quite surprising because normally, muted microphones and switched off cameras are a nightmare and such a type of ‘silent participation’ is usually pretty maddening. But now that I think about it, being invisible and inaudible is not a problem at all once you are the observer. On the contrary, I believe it would have been awkward for her to be ‘displayed’ on the screen all the time. It might have also been unpleasant for the students (don’t forget, she is the principal!).

Anyway, I was pleased that the students behaved quite naturally and participated actively although I hadn’t told them in advance that the lesson will be observed. Actually, I only told them a few seconds before I invited the principal into the main room. The reason why I had deliberately withheld the information from my students until the very last minute was that I didn’t want them to feel nervous long before the actual thing, plus I suspected some of them might choose to skip the lesson. It wouldn’t be too surprising; as we all know, back then, it was perfectly feasible to stay away from school with all the potentially plausible excuses at hand that simply had to be accepted. Ultimately, what can you do if a student’s internet connection isn’t working that day? Not much really.

In the end, I got some really nice feedback from the principal, which was truly satisfying, especially under the given circumstances.

In conclusion, online observation doesn’t necessarily have to feel very different from face-to-face formal observation. In fact, it can even be less daunting in some regards. First of all, your 3d presence has shrunk into a 2d space, so to speak. This may pose some disadvantages but eventually, all you have to worry about is your voice, facial expressions and a few classroom management skills. Also, you can’t control what’s happening in your students’ homes but you have some unique options for how to discipline them, for example. All in all, once you have got the knack of how things work in a specific online environment, you can become more confident and feel less nervous than you normally would when observed traditionally, i.e. in the classroom.

The genie is out again

As you might have noticed, I’ve lately been fairly productive here on my blog and I do apologize for the influx of posts to those who consider daily blogging a bit too much for their taste (there’s even a new word for such a ‘diagnosis’, according to David Crystal). Well, there’s always the option of unfollowing, muting or ignoring (or whatever the possibilities are). But if you’ve chosen to bear with me nevertheless, thank you. 🙂

Although blogging feels so good these days, even therapeutic, I find my current spurt of energy rather ironic because it was not so long ago that I shared my feelings regarding a lack of zeal. In that older post, I complained said that I had lost enthusiasm for social media and particularly blogging. Was it blogger burnout? Either way, life is a rollercoaster.

Since then, things have improved massively. It’s no surprise, though, because it’s the summer holidays, right? However, I still remember how I felt back then – as if there was nothing more to share with the world. I felt like things were happening but for some reason, there was no space for reflection (and so nothing to write about). Maybe it was because my working memory was overloaded with all the weird stuff going on around me. And maybe that’s why I couldn’t tap into my reflective capacity. In hindsight, I would say that I was running on autopilot, at least most of the time – as though I wasn’t even fully conscious of what I was doing and why. So perhaps, I needed to save all the creative powers for the actual job that had to be done, i.e. teaching online, and there was no inspiration left for reflecting on my teaching and blogging.

After all, asynchronous lessons had to be created and although I found the process quite enjoyable, it took a lot of my time and energy. In addition to that, obviously, synchronous lessons had to be delivered as well, but not many of us had actually received much proper training on how to go about it successfully. There were so many new skills to acquire on the fly. What is more, you can be a teacher genius but your experience is mainly derived from being in the actual classroom. So let’s face it, even though some of that experience can come in handy in online teaching, most of the time, you are in the dark (myself at any rate).

Also, I remember that back then, I knew there were people out there who were more knowledgeable and had more experience with the virtual environment and I suspected that what teachers needed most was useful tips and advice on how to handle the new situation rather than somebody whining about how uncomfortable they felt with this or that. But maybe I’m wrong and people would have related. It’s just water under the bridge anyway …

So, most of the time I kept myself busy exploring ELT websites and online materials that fellow teachers were busily sharing and recommending, which, in the end, was what helped me most at that time. It was a period of consumption of practical ideas which had to be put into practice immediately – with little time to gauge and/or reflect on their efficacy. Life happened, as they say, and we simply complied without questioning too much, I guess.

But now, at last, it’s time to stop and contemplate for a bit. I feel that at the moment, emotions, as well as newly formed beliefs, need to be scrutinized before new input can be taken in. Luckily, it seems that all the previously suppressed reflective powers are back, ready to serve me again. The bottle was opened and the genie can get out.