Little work left for the teacher

img_20181128_122621I still haven’t found out whether grammar is the backbone of language learning or if it is overrated. One way or the other, in my teaching context, I need to teach grammar whether I like it or not. Over the years, I have presented the same grammar rules a hundred times. So if you wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me to speak about question tags, I will do so without batting an eye and then I’ll peacefully go back to sleep.

Having said that, finding new ways of presenting and practising grammar is becoming more and more difficult for me. Gap-fills, drills, multiple-choice quizzes, translation, and games seem all a bit boring after so many years of my teaching experience. So from time to time, I just crave coming up with a new technique. Here’s an activity I did with my students the other day. I found simple and useful.

The present perfect is something Czech learners often struggle with so a bit of extra grammar practice is always to the good, especially before a unit test.

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On YouTube, I found this 6-minute video tutorial on how to use the present perfect. The commentary and explanations are in Czech, but there are lots of examples in English. Their L1 equivalents are provided too. Before the lesson, I took all the Czech translations of the example sentences from the tutorial and wrote them down (see below).

I gave each student a handout with the 17 Czech sentences and asked them to translate them into English. When they finished, I simply played the video and encouraged them to make any adjustments to their original translations.

The whole activity took about 20 minutes. The students were active all the time, while me, the teacher, had an opportunity to observe how the students were doing. All the explanations in the tutorial are very clear, so in the end, there was no work left for me. I only answered some additional questions afterwards. In other words, the revision was done efficiently without me having to interrupt whatsoever. The best thing was that the students got immediate feedback. What’s more, my students left the classroom with an extra piece of material to study from for their test.

If you teach a monolingual class like me and come across a suitable grammar tutorial, why not use it this way. It’s a nice tweak to your class routine and with a little bit of preparation, you won’t need to do a lot. 😉

  1. Podívej, koupil jsem si nové auto.
  2. Já jsem svoje auto koupil v roce 2010.
  3. Už jsem s ním mluvil.
  4. Mluvil jsem s ním před 5 minutami.
  5. Letos napsal mnoho článků.
  6. Loni napsal mnoho článků.
  7. Vynalezl jsem něco zajímavého.
  8. Einstein přišel s teorií relativity. (introduce)
  9. V kolik hodin jsi ji vyzvedl?
  10. Dal jsem gól. (score)
  11. Viděl jsi včera ten sci-fi film?
  12. Ne včera ne, ale už jsem ho viděl dřív.
  13. Už jsi obědvala?
  14. Ne, neobědvala.
  15. Zatím to pro mě není moc dobrý den.
  16. V Londýně jsem byl třikrát.
  17. Do Londýna jsem jel v roce 2010.
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How to teach a 45-minute lesson totally unprepared

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You know the situation: you have to deal with something really urgent/challenging/stressful during the break and then the bell rings and you have to go and teach a lesson. You only have enough time to grab your stuff (let’s not take it to an extreme here; let’s presume that at this point you know which class you are going to teach and what materials, i.e. coursebooks, you need). You enter the classroom and…

The first thing that captures your attention upon entering the classroom is the fact that your students are conspicuously quiet, busily studying something from their workbooks. You stop and think. It suddenly dawns on you. You promised a short vocabulary test in the previous lesson. Hm. You obviously forgot about it and made no copies. You must never break your promises though. Keep pretending that everything is under your control. With a poker face, get your students to take a piece of paper each. Don’t forget it is you who is NOT prepared; your students should not bear the consequences of your mess. Thus, make the test as student-friendly as possible. Most students prefer a simple L1>L2 translation test (you dictate the Czech expressions, the students write the English equivalents). It’s not ideal, but it will do for now. Next time, you can make something more sophisticated and meaningful.

Although the test is very student-friendly, unfortunately, it’s not very teacher-friendly – this kind of format doesn’t allow you to gain time. Anyway, you can gain 5 more minutes by asking the students to do a peer correction. My students are used to this so it’s usually very quick and efficient. In the end, ask your students to put the vocabulary items into sentences/context. Alternatively, you can work on the pronunciation for a bit.

At this point, you can’t tell your students to take their coursebooks on page x because you can’t remember which page it is. You have a couple of options:

A) Ask your students to look out of the window and describe everything they can see. B) Ask them to take out their mobile phones and describe a picture they recently took. C) Ask them to tell their partners about their last/upcoming weekend.

Meanwhile, open your coursebook and try to figure out as quickly as possible which section you worked on in the previous lesson. At this point, things may a) get back on the right track or b) they may not.

In the worst-case scenario, when the students finish the assigned speaking task, do the following: Ask Anna, for example, to summarize briefly what you did in the previous lesson. Then, to be absolutely sure everybody is on the same page, metaphorically speaking, ask James to tell you which of the exercises/points you worked on he found easy/difficult? If it’s a grammar point, give the students some extra practice, such as a few sentences to translate. If it’s a reading or listening task, ask them to summarize the text in pairs. If you are an experienced teacher, you’ll certainly come up with a few more follow-up questions. If not, ask the students to create some.

Now, you can ask the students to pick up where they last left off, or, if you have already finished the whole section/unit in the book, start a new one. Fortunately, each unit/section usually starts and winds up with a speaking task. At this point, while the students are working, scan the page quickly and decide what your next steps will be. I usually manage to create something on the spot, such as slips of paper for a mingling activity. These can contain vocabulary items, questions, tasks, etc., related to the topic.

If you find this way of teaching too uncomfortable or confusing, ditch the coursebook completely at this stage. Instead, get your students to write something related to the topic. This may be the question already discussed during a speaking activity or something new. Give them a time limit (which will coincidentally equal the time you need to cover the rest of the lesson). 🙂

This may eventually be a totally rubbish lesson or it may well turn into something quite valuable. You never know. To a great extent, it depends on your teaching experience and the group you are teaching. I’d like to stress that I believe that this can happen to anybody, regardless of how well-organized they are. Don’t blame yourself too much and for too long.

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Homework or not?

back-to-school-2680730_1280.jpgHomework has been a hot issue for a number of years. The question of how much work children should be doing outside of school remains controversial. I myself have tried to answer the question Homework or not (and if so, how much)? because it affects me on two levels – as a parent and a language teacher. The truth is that if you are too strict and give your students a lot of homework, some parents will inevitably accuse you of robbing their kids of a normal childhood. On the other hand, if you are a proponent of the no-homework policy, some parents might complain about a lack of academic rigour. One way or the other, it’s simply impossible to please everyone.

What does research say on the topic of homework? According to this article, academic research on the effectiveness of homework is murky; studies have shown a spectrum of results spanning from conclusions that homework is the key to academic success to those saying homework is a waste of student time that damages home life.

In The Battle Over Homework, Harris M. Cooper determined that the average correlation between the time primary children spent on homework and achievement was around zero. Professor Robert H. Tai found no significant relationship between time spent on homework and grades but did find a positive relationship between homework and performance on standardized tests. In this paper, the authors find that homework plays an important role in student learning, especially so for students who initially perform poorly in the course.

The author of this article (in Czech) argues that homework goes against the principles of psycho-hygiene. When you come back home from school or work, you should rest and/or do the things you like. Only workaholics keep working at home. She isn’t against homework completely, though. Homework should be justified and personalized, she says.

Some people support the “10-minute rule” designed by the National PTA. It suggests that 10 minutes per a grade should be assigned (e.g., 70 minutes for 7th grade). However, there is not sufficient proof that homework is helpful for students in elementary school. Cathy Vatterott, an education professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, asks: “Does homework cause achievement, or do high achievers do more homework?”

Well, my youngest son, who is in class five at primary school, usually has little homework to do when he comes home from school. He arrives at around 2 pm, gets his books ready for the next day and is free to go about his own business. On most days, however, he has some after-school activities, but otherwise, he has plenty of free time.

To be completely frank, if my son wasn’t currently preparing for a high stakes entrance exam, I would be absolutely happy with his school’s policy. So it probably all boils down to what the parents expect of education and what they want for their children.

Ambitions aside, as a parent as well as a teacher I believe that homework could and should be one of the ways to engage families in learning. After all, the word homework implies that the tasks assigned at school should be done at home, not during the breaks between classes, which, based on my experience, is often the case. The quality is more important than quantity here. In other words, less is often more. In my opinion, it’s good to give students a bit of homework regularly so that their parents get a gist of what their kids are currently working on at school. Also, students should know why they are assigned a particular assignment. If they see no point and purpose in what they are doing, they will merely copy their homework from their classmates, with absolutely no remorse. Some of the purposes of homework could be practicepreparationextension, or integration of skills and concepts.

What do you think?

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Czechs don’t speak English but Esperanto

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Earlier today, a friend of mine sent me a link to this video (don’t click the link if you don’t speak Czech) and asked me what I think. In the interview, Milan Šácha, a Czech teacher of English, shares his personal beliefs about the best way to teach English. He also describes what he does in his private courses.

It’s undoubtedly a very interesting talk. For many reasons. While I agree with many of the things mentioned in the video, I very strongly disagree with some points. Also, I don’t really mind when people implicitly promote their products (courses, books, etc.) but it usually makes me sit up and take notice when people do so by publicly claiming that others do the same thing badly.

Anyway, since the video is all in Czech, I decided to give a free translation for those who haven’t had the opportunity to learn this amazing language. 🙂 Here are some of the highlights of the interview.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Czechs don’t speak English but a type of universal Esperanto.

They can’t learn English properly because they learn from global coursebooks. This is bad so the guy decided to write his own coursebook.

Situation is one of the six words which constitute the whole vocabulary of the Czech population (along with opinion, problem, advantage, and pity). The guest goes on to give a few funny examples of how people use the words in sentences, such as It’s a big pity. 

It’s not just Czechs who speak bad English, it’s pretty much the same everywhere – with the exception of Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Scotland (a joke). These countries have a higher level of L2 proficiency due to the fact that their native languages are similar to English and that they use subtitles in movies. The long tradition of dubbing in the Czech Republic has been detrimental to our English proficiency.

These days, people who come to his courses are aware of the fact that they can’t speak good English. In the past, people were convinced that they could speak English well. However, these people were hopeless; when he wanted them to translate something, they did very badly. For example, sometimes he wants a Czech person to translate Jak to funguje? (How does it work?), but they come up with Function it how?

The presenter argues that when visiting Indonesia, she managed with the Sometimes sunny phrase. The guy replies that you can make do with this phrase all around the world. But he is a demanding teacher. When his customer’s goal is to merely communicate in English, he sends them away. He teaches real English, not simple English.

The presenter asks what the most common mistakes are. According to the guest, it would probably be wonder or wish as in I wish I didn’t have to go there.

Another question the presenter asks is what spoils our English and makes it so unelegant. The guest maintains that people go to school and learn English for 20 years through grammar explanations and then all of a sudden, they come across real English. These people are desperate and often blame themselves for their inability to speak this real English but it’s not their fault. There are no materials to learn from.

According to the guest, the trick is to find a good teacher. Globally produced coursebooks, such as Headway and Project English, are terrible. They are boring. School principals buy them because they don’t understand the problem. Moreover, there are many bad teachers. Not all teachers are bad though. There are good teachers too but their hands are tied. They get caught in a vicious circle; the coursebooks are supposed to help students to get ready for their exams and the exams are designed to be in alignment with the coursebooks. Many people make money out of this system, but he’s fine with that. What he doesn’t understand is that oftentimes the exams don’t test English but logic.

The presenter seems to acknowledge the fact that global coursebooks are bad by implying that a Czech learns English in a different way than an Austrian after all. The guest nods in agreement. He adds that Murphy’s grammar books and books by Michael Swan are good. However, they are global too and thus don’t meet the needs of Czech learners.

This guy doesn’t teach beginners. Having said that, he’s aware that it’s difficult to unteach and unlearn fossilized errors his more advanced learners have collected over the past twenty years of crappy teaching. It takes a lot of energy and determination on the learner’s part. But if they are unwilling to change, he sends them away. He wants to teach nice English. Then the presenter shows a video in which a leading politician speaks with a heavy Czech accent. The presenter asks the guest how he would help such a student. He responds that he would probably refuse to teach him because it would be difficult to fix his terrible accent. He adds that it doesn’t matter anyway because these people (read: politicians) probably have different priorities than have a decent accent.

They come back to the subject of bad coursebooks. Isn’t it an alibi for the teachers? Isn’t it the teacher, rather than the coursebook, who teaches the language? Or, is it really impossible, even for an excellent teacher, to teach with a crappy coursebook? > No! It’s not possible to teach well with a bad coursebook. You would have to make your own materials but this may be a problem because the curriculum may not allow it. If you try anyway, you might have a problem with the administrators or the parents. They will criticize you for not helping their kids to pass their exams (because they couldn’t tell the difference between despite and ?). The guy has friends at primary and secondary schools who do their best but again, their hands are tied. He sympathises with them because, honestly, if you put him in front of a bunch of teenagers, some of them would inevitably get into real trouble.

The presenter then poses a critical question: how does he do it then? Isn’t it a hopeless situation? Well, he is not part of the system so unfortunately, he can’t change a thing. But he is lucky because he only teaches highly motivated learners. He wouldn’t have the nerve to teach otherwise. He teaches groups of 10 students tops, which is a perfect number. He says that 15 would be too many.

He argues that there are two myths: 1) that native speakers are the best teachers and 2) that 1-2-1 teaching is the best. Re point 2, although it sounds logical, teaching 1-2-1 is not necessary because all Czechs make the same mistakes. So teaching a group of 100 Czechs is more efficient than explaining the same thing 100x to 100 individual students.

What does he actually do in his lessons? He speaks for 45 minutes – he tells stories, for example. Then the students work in pairs and do a speaking task for the next 45 minutes. He can assign any topic and the students confidently discuss it. Any newcomers always have to adjust to the routines of the existing group. This saves him a lot of time and energy. The class actually shapes the new member in a desirable way, i.e. if a student comes unprepared, the others will show they don’t like it. The teacher listens, monitors and takes notes. Then he sends them the recording of the lesson. They appreciate the fact that they can listen to the whole thing again because they are usually tired and sleepy while in the lesson so afterwards they barely remember they were present.

Re native speakers, the guest asks the presenter a tricky question: Would you be able to teach Czech to foreigners? She resolutely says no. The conclusion seems to be that since neither the presenter nor the guest know the rules of the Czech language, and thus wouldn’t be able to teach it to foreigners, native speakers can’t teach English either. The best teacher is someone who learned the L2.

The guest admits that in the first five years, he taught English badly. He used coursebooks and presented to his students the bits he found interesting. After he got some valuable advice from an outer source, he changed his teaching style completely – he started speaking English in the lessons. He got some very positive reactions. Then he kept refining his methods for the next 5-10 years. For example, he discovered the best lesson starter (a translation exercise).

When the presenter asked whether his method is teachable, he resolutely replies that it isn’t. Actually, some of his former students teach but he doesn’t have any reports on how they are doing. When asked if he knows what he’s doing, he says that it’s mostly intuitive but yes, he knows what he’s doing.

So, how different is his coursebook from other coursebooks? Well, the main difference is that there’s real English and real Czech in it. We Czechs allegedly like vocabulary lists. But a foreign language is best learned through context and collocations, he argues.

Are certificates useless? He admits he doesn’t know. But he insists that most exams don’t test real English. By the way, he isn’t familiar with the CEFR scale.

On a more positive note, he sounds pretty optimistic when speaking about the young generation. They have amazing opportunities. Still, he can sometimes hear terrible English from youngsters. Not in his courses, from other classrooms. Because he mainly teaches talented kids.

What about technology? He’s quite sceptical because you must primarily use the language and practice speaking.

In his courses, I suppose. 🙂

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The one who …

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I wonder whether you can guess what the expressions (above and below) refer to:

  • the experienced one
  • the one who leads the way
  • Mrs Smart
  • the peacemaker 
  • a teacher with nice style
  • very good teacher
  • the best English teacher ever
  • the sun
  • the nice one
  • the most enthusiastic person in this classroom
  • the one who always shows another perspective
  • helping hand
  • the shiny idealist
  • the practical philosopher

Yes, this is feedback I got from my students the other day.

I had learned about The One Who activity a while ago and I thought it would be nice to try it out before Christmas with one of the teenage groups I teach. And this is the result, which literally made me cry.

It’s super easy. Plus no preparation is needed. You can use it, like me, as a way of boosting a positive atmosphere in the classroom, or for language practice purposes, e.g. when practising relative clauses, superlatives, adjectives for personal features, etc. You just give each student as many blank cards as there are people in the class minus one, i.e. they are not going to write a note to themselves. However, they can and should write a note to their teacher too. The teacher will also write a note to every student. I did it with a group of fourteen 16-year old students (2 people were missing but we made cards for them too), but if you teach a group of 30+ students, it will probably not be manageable right on the spot. In such a case, they may work on it at home. I bet they will enjoy this unusual homework assignment. 🙂

Anyway, once you decide to introduce this activity, you should be 100% sure that it’s a ‘healthy classroom’ with a friendly atmosphere and that there is a positive student-teacher relationship. It’s not recommended for very young children, though, who might not be able to distinguish between what is positive and not so positive. Also, they might not be able to work with concepts of personal features yet. A friend of mine, an elementary teacher, has done the activity with very young kids but she monitored all the time and even read the cards secretly to prevent somebody from feeling offended. When she came across an inappropriate comment, she just discarded it and replaced with a note of hers. I believe that this way of ‘cheating’ is acceptable and necessary if you want to build a friendly atmosphere and avoid conflicts. Plus she learned a lot about the relationships without anybody feeling hurt. This would not be possible with teenagers though. Rather than having to cheat like this, ditch the activity completely.

So, there’s one rule you need to stress in advance – the comments should only be positive. In other words, each and every student should try to find something nice no matter what. It’s not acceptable to leave the card empty either – this may be as offensive as a negative comment.

The students will read the cards at home, in privacy, so they can fully enjoy the impact of all the positivity. Also, reading the cards in the class may result in some embarrassment (not everybody wants the others to see them cry). You can come back to it in the next lesson and discuss how they felt during the activity and when reading the comments. Avoid comparing and picking your favourite comments (even though you certainly will have some, like me). As far as error correction is concerned, be careful. Generalize if you need to work on some language points. Don’t point to specific mistakes and specific people. It may spoil the whole thing.

Good luck! 🙂

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The second time around

img-20181011-wa0000I’m happy to announce that I have been asked to present at a conference (as you may already know from my Facebook post). I don’t know how this is usually done, i.e. whether people take the initiative and send a proposal or just wait to be addressed. The truth is that I would never have the courage. In some areas of my life, I simply prefer to wait for things to happen. So, I’m grateful someone has been more proactive than me. 🙂

My workshop will be about blogging and the topic was suggested to me. I immediately liked the idea because blogging is something I know a lot about. This is not to say I’m some kind of blogging expert but I just do it a lot. Anyway, I hope that since this will be the second time around it will be a bit easier.

I’ve started working on the draft and I’m enjoying it. That’s a good sign. I’d like the talk to be interactive as I believe people at conferences like to be engaged and I’m not into long monologues myself. Also, I don’t want it to be too me-centred.

Although I’m truly enjoying the process, I realize the topic is actually a bit tricky. The thing is that I don’t expect many people, i.e conference attendees, to have extensive experience in blogging. I suppose that if I come across and bloggers at all, they will be in a minority. I mean, people certainly read blogs but I’m not convinced they are keen on hearing all the details from behind the scenes of blogging.

Well, my intention is not to spoil the story by writing up this post. I just wish to sort out my ideas and maybe I’m hoping to hear some feedback and advice from you, readers (and bloggers combined with conference presenters).

Here are some of the questions I’d like to address in my workshop:

  1. What is a blog?
  2. What does the etymology dictionary say?
  3. What blogs (educational or other) do you read? What topics do you read about?
  4. Why do people read ELT blogs? Isn’t the Teacher’s Book enough? 🙂
  5. Have you ever kept a diary? Why (not)?
  6. Why should you never start a bog (in English or your mother tongue)?
  7. Do you know any Czech teachers of English who blog?
  8. Why should you start your own blog (if we discard all the cons)? 🙂
  9. How did I start my blog then?
  10. Examples of blogs and posts that might be useful for a Czech teacher
  11. Where to start a blog?
  12. What about your students and blogging?
  13. Time for a little experiment …

I’ve recently learned how to use Socrative.com, which I’d like to use to find out about my audience’s teaching background and context. This will hopefully be much quicker and more effective than asking everybody to introduce themselves one by one.

So, wish me good luck. 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

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The absence of something

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In my previous post, I mentioned that I had completed a four-semester course in prevention of drug abuse at schools. One of the things that has stuck with me is that it’s very hard to notice the absence of something. For instance, if a student suddenly starts misbehaving, your attention is immediately drawn to it. You may find out that the student’s misbehaviour has deeper roots and you start acting in one way or another. You may try to talk to the student, give them advice, point them to a specialist, etc. However, in a group of boisterous teenagers, you may fail to notice that one of them is quieter than usual. In other words, the absence of misbehaviour of one particular student is harder to clock. If you think about it, this absence may, in the end, indicate something much more serious than if the majority of the class are mere troublemakers.

paper-109277_1280I realize I myself tend to overlook something in class just because I’m forced to focus on the salient aspects of what’s happening there. Somebody’s missing homework immediately captures my attention. Then, in an attempt to fix a thing which is deemed unacceptable, I may easily miss something equally undesirable going on right under my nose (for example that the rest of the class have their homework just because they copied it from one another during the break).

Even in a communicative language classroom, it’s likely that at some point, you’ll create an environment in which you’ll miss important things. For example, during a mingling activity, you may be under the impression that everything’s perfect. The kids chat and laugh and thus you believe they are learning. Running dictations are certainly fun but do all students benefit from them? What about slower or introverted kids? However, this doesn’t only apply to language teaching. My ten-year-old son once told me that it distracts him a lot when his classmates shout ‘finished’ one by one when they solve a math problem. He needs more time and the fact that the others start shouting prevents him from concentrating. Does his teacher notice this? My other son told me that in PE lessons, he used to be the one to be picked last by the team captains. He gradually got used to it. Did the teacher?

Another thing I learned during the course was that even the nicest kids can be the worst bullies. What’s more, even the worst forms of bullying can easily go undetected because the whole group has already accepted and complies to the norms of the bullies so to an outsider, everything may appear in order at first sight. It’only when you go deeper and start looking for things which are out of your sight, i.e. which are absent, that you realize something’s not quite right.

Ironically, we, teachers, are sometimes as cruel as the kids – without even realizing it. When dividing the class into two teams, it’s us who ask two students to pick their team members and we do it again and again even though we know the same kids will be ‘picked’ last. We prevent kids from concentrating in the name of communicativeness. We fail to notice things because, for some reason, they are not salient to our mind. Or is it because it’s sometimes convenient and more comfortable for us to leave things as they are?

 

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