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.

 

 

 

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How much better?

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Whenever I feel like scolding my students for something trivial they’ve done, I always remind myself that I’m probably looking at a future Nobel Prize winner or a well-known writer. I imagine that each of those naughty little creatures is a potentially famous figure that may change the world. Or, even worse, one day, they might become teachers themselves and they may end up sitting next to me in the staffroom. You never know.

When I started teaching many years ago, generally, the quality of English teaching was desperate. After the Velvet Revolution and the fall of communism, English teachers were in demand so everybody with some knowledge of English (by some I mean very, very little) could deliver English lessons. I’m not saying there were no highly qualified English teachers around at that time but in some cases, to put it bluntly, the teacher was only a few coursebook units ahead of their students.

These days, it’s almost the same but for a very different reason. The quality of English teaching has improved tremendously. The thing is that although we teachers always have a head start, with all the technology and social media available, our students will easily catch up and they will always be on our tails.

I sometimes wonder how much ‘better’ the teacher must be in order to do his or her job well. By better, I mean more proficient and knowledgeable. Deep down I know it’s a pretty useless question because it’s not feasible to measure how much ahead of their students one actually is. You can test your proficiency level or your vocabulary size, yes, but that doesn’t tell you much really. Even if your scores are higher, there will always be stuff your students are better at than you are. So, generally speaking, are they better or are you? And how much better and for how long?

One way or another, the fact that we are more knowledgeable than your students should not make us feel superior (don’t forget about the Nobel Prize winners!). However, it can help us feel more confident. And confidence is one of the prerequisites of being a good teacher, I think. That’s why we should never stop learning if we want to be ahead of the game. It looks selfish but it isn’t at all because as we get better and more proficient, our students do too – either because we pull them or because they push us towards greater achievements.

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Gossip and fake news

little-boy-3332111_1280.jpgThis is a quick post to share an activity I did with a couple of classes last week. It is useful if you have some of the following objectives:

Your learners

  • can re-tell a simple or familiar story using their own words.
  • can paraphrase simply when they don’t know the correct word or phrase.
  • can re-tell the main points of an extended story in their own words.
  • can compare and contrast two versions of the same story.

I had my own secret agenda too: Through this activity, I wanted to demonstrate how gossip (and or fake news) is created.

Choose a simple story or a text which contains a reasonable amount of facts (numbers, times, names, etc.) and which takes at least one minute to read (the length will vary depending on the level of your students). You can tell your own story but you should have it written down for later reference. I chose a text from a random coursebook which a particular group was not familiar with.

Divide the class into groups of 3. Give each student in the group a number (1, 2 or 3). Ask all 2s and 3s to leave the classroom. Make sure they are not eavesdropping behind the door. 🙂 Read the text to 1s. Ask them to listen carefully.

Call all the 2s back to the room. Ask 1s to re-tell the story they’ve just heard. When everybody finishes, call 3s back to the room and ask them to join their teams. Now, 3s are listening to 2s, taking notes. Make sure that 1s aren’t helping in any way at this point. When everybody is done, ask the groups to look at their notes and discuss them briefly. Finally, read the original story again and ask the groups to compare their notes with what they hear.

In the end, I got the groups to express how accurate their story was in comparison to mine. (Not so) surprisingly, most of them said that their story was only 50-70 % accurate (even less!). We discussed the whys and then I asked who they think was ‘to blame’ for the fact that some of the information had got lost along the way or been altered – wittingly or unwittingly. I was pleased to see that they did not blame one another; instead, they willingly and proudly took the blame for any loss and/or distortion of information. Eventually, I asked why they thought we had done the activity. With more advanced classes, we touched upon media awareness. With younger kids, we just mentioned that this is how gossip and rumors come into existence and that we should be careful when we present information which we have obtained from external sources.

I’d like to add that the activity can be adjusted to your group’s needs in that you can choose a text with vocabulary and grammar you feel need to be revised, but this was not my primary goal.

 

 

 

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Does stress affect learning and memory?

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A large number of studies has been conducted to better understand how stress affects learning and memory. The effects of stress were found to be complex, though, with stress having both enhancing and impairing effects on memory, depending on the specific memory process or stage that is affected by stress and the activity profile of major physiological stress response systems. (Vogel and Schwabe, 2016)

This week I had a rare opportunity to deliver a lesson during which the students felt under a bit of stress. I suppose it sounds a bit odd. However, this was neither the type of stress which is life-threatening, longlasting, repeated or even caused deliberately but rather a temporary rush of adrenalin which you get in the anticipation of something ‘dangerous’. I’d compare it to the feeling I used to have when on December 6, I waited for St. Nicolas and his two companions (the Angel and the Devil) to come and knock at our door. At some point in my life, when I was very small, this experience did feel almost life-threatening since the Devil might have put me in his huge, filthy sack and taken me to Hell with him. Later on, when I got a little older, the whole festival felt somewhat offensive and embarrassing. I knew the Devil was not real but he (or she) was there ready to rattle his chains, stick out his tongue at me and make all sorts of ridiculous threats. So I understand that this week, some students might have felt a little uncomfortable and some might have felt a little stressed in the situation I’m going to describe.

There’s this tradition in the Czech Republic called The last ringing of the bell. On their last day of school, before their final exams start, senior students put on various costumes and they pour into the streets to kick up a row. Making a lot of noise, they stop people and ask for money. Then they move into the school building and visit every classroom where they soil every single student who doesn’t give them any coins. They use lipsticks, styling mousse, heavy perfumes, vinegar, flour, you name it. All students are instructed to wear sensible clothes on this day (and to have a spare set of clothing, just in case). Everybody feels a mixture of love and hate in relation to this event. And it’s probably stressful for some too.

I was teaching a class of 12-year-olds when we heard the first signs of turmoil. I saw the excitement in their eyes but I repeatedly encouraged them to stay calm and seated. What’s more, I kept on presenting the present perfect vs. past simple rules. I told them jokingly that we are brave and we’ll persist. The noise got louder and quieter as the older students were popping in and out of the other classrooms. This obviously added to the thrill and intensified the students’ nervousness. Nevertheless, I patiently asked them to work on the exercises in their workbooks. We finished reading the very last sentence of the very last exercise when the villains suddenly stormed into the classroom…

I’m saying this because it occurred to me that maybe, this distracting event may have had a positive impact on the lesson and the matter I was teaching in that it made them more memorable. I wonder whether next time I see them, the students will remember what I told them in the previous lesson. In other words, I’d like to know whether this rather tricky language point will be better remembered because of the link to this somewhat stressful experience. However, the question is: did the students really pay attention? Did they notice?

One way or another, I don’t want to be over-enthusiastic about the effects of stress in education. Alan Woodruff sums up part of the article mentioned above:

The memory-enhancing effects of stress are typically limited to the stressful event: threatening a student with punishment as they learn their multiplication tables won’t help them learn any better (and might even make it worse), but it will make them remember the threat of punishment.

 

References

Vogel, S., & Schwabe, L. (2016). Learning and memory under stress: implications for the classroom. npj Science of Learning, volume1, article number: 16011 (2016)

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Measuring my students’ vocabulary size?

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Today, I asked a group of 18-year-old students to take the online Vocabulary Levels Test to measure their vocabulary size. I did this for two reasons: a) out of curiosity and b) because I assumed that the results may help me better understand my students’ abilities. As for the latter, the jury is still out.

To give my students a bit of background, I explained that the words on the test are not randomly chosen; each item represents itself, the members of its word family, and 99 other word families which are roughly equivalent in terms of difficulty and word family size. I noted that words such as workworkerworked, and working are all considered to be members of the same family. So by testing 140 words, we can roughly estimate how many unique word families are known, up to a maximum of 14,000 word families.

There are 140 questions on the test, which took my students about 30 minutes. Each word on the test is presented in a sentence which does not give any clues to the meaning. I had done the test myself and I can attest to the fact that if you don’t know a word, you will rarely guess its meaning from the given definitions. Nevertheless, I repeatedly encouraged the students to avoid guessing and I urged them to click the I don’t know option if they had no idea what the word meant.

My students’ vocabulary sizes ranged from 3,600 to 12,700. I had predicted such a wide range of results and there were practically no surprises for me; those students who I consider exceptionally proficient in English (C1 level) got the highest scores and those who struggle in class scored the lowest. This, as it seems, to a great extent demonstrates that students with a large vocabulary size are successful learners and students with a somewhat limited vocabulary face problems when learning English. Do the low-scoring students have trouble learning/acquiring vocabulary because of their lower aptitude for learning languages, which then results in them struggling to acquire other aspects of the language, such as grammar? In other words, what’s the cause and what’s the effect?

Personal conclusions and philosophy aside, I interpreted the scores carefully. Since the test is only designed to measure the written receptive vocabulary knowledge, the scores are obviously not an indication of how well someone can use a particular word in their language production or in listening comprehension. My students may recognize the word erythrocyte when they see it (not because they learned it as an L2 item but because they know it from their biology lessons) but they may not be able to pronounce it correctly. Also, knowing (or not knowing) a particular word on the test is not necessarily indicative of whether they know the other 99 words. Theoretically, a student may know all the word families from a specific frequency band but the one that is on the test.

One way or the other, according to the results, even the lowest-scoring student in this particular group is likely to be able to a) do well in conversational listening (Van Zeeland, 2010), b) engage in basic daily conversation (Adolphs and Schmitt, 2003) and c) watch and largely understand movies and television programs (Webb and Rodgers, 2009). As for reading, according to Nation (2006), 8,000–9,000 word families are necessary to be able to read widely. This is a goal worth pursuing at the moment.

 

References

Adolphs, S., & Schmitt, N. (2003). Lexical coverage of spoken discourse. Applied Linguistics, 24(4), 425–38.

Nation, I. S. P. (2006). How large a vocabulary is needed for reading and listening? The
Canadian Modern Language Review, 63, 59–82.

Van Zeeland, H. (2010). Lexical coverage and L2 listening comprehension: How much does vocabulary knowledge contribute to understanding spoken language? (Unpublished MA dissertation), University of Nottingham.

Webb, S., & Rodgers, M. P. H. (2009). The lexical coverage of movies. Applied Linguistics, 30, 407–42.

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Learners do not need what we teach them

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My 10-year old son has recently been asking me lots of questions about English words. Before you jump to a sweeping conclusion, I need to add that his genuine interest does not stem from the fact that he is a nerd who constantly craves knowledge but from the fact that he enjoys playing mobile games on his tablet and to be able to succeed, he needs to understand what the game says.

Here are some of the words he has inquired about so far: orb, sling, well-rounded, hasty, spark (v., 4860), clam, shrimp (n., 4187), alpaca, swarm, bumblebee, looker, rad, rascal, exhausted, shy (j., 4455), and photon.

Even at first glimpse, the items above are not some of the most frequent words in English, at least from the perspective of an L2 learner. I must admit that I didn’t know all the words from the list, particularly the meanings my son was interested in. The reason behind my lack of knowledge can be that a) I’m not into mobile games and b) some of the words or their meanings are rather rare.

Indeed, only the highlighted words can be found in the list of the top 5,000 words/lemmas. This list, created from the 450 million word Corpus of Contemporary American English, contains the lemma and part of speech for the top 5,000 words in American English. What’s more, none of the above-mentioned items is in the Longman Communication 3000 –  a list of the 3000 most frequent words in both spoken and written English.

IMG_20180429_092938It crossed my mind that this situation illustrates the fact that although L2 learners should be taught/ learn frequent words, this does not mean that these are the items they will need at the given moment. The thing is that my son does not use English outside the classroom yet, except for the case I mentioned. This, I’m afraid, is true for many of my students. Their only authentic type of encounter with the language is through mobile games (sometimes through traveling, films, and books). This may result in a somewhat strange scenario: our students do not need what we teach them, but at the same time we simply know nothing or very little about the things they need.

On the bright side, my son and I have had some very nice discussions about the English language. For example, he found it surprising that the word well-rounded has two different meanings – one referring to body size and one referring to skills. And we just couldn’t really figure out if the bee in the game got its name because it’s plump or fully developed in all aspects (or both). Also, when he first asked me about the word sling, what first came to mind was a flexible strap or belt used in the form of a loop to support or raise someone’s injured hand. So we needed to look at the game together for me to realize that it was actually something very different. In other words, I give him raw tips which he then sorts out and refines according to the given context. This means that in reality, he’s learning more. The good news is that he’s learning more based on what he needs.

I wonder how this personalized, tailor-made approach could be transferred into an L2 classroom. It occurred to me that maybe a part of the lesson could be devoted to students asking questions about the things they do in their free time and need help with. But then, once one student asks about his or her stuff, is it relevant to the others? Would they be interested? And, more importantly, would I be able to help at all? Considering the fact that we don’t know answers to all questions, isn’t it too risky for the teacher to give their students so much freedom? 😉

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Teaching a class of 30+ students

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This week, I’ve been teaching a class of 30+ students. It’s an exceptional situation since normally I teach a class of 16. This ’emergency’ has arisen due to a school trip to France; the number of students in two classes decreased so dramatically that owing to economic and technical reasons, they have been joined for this week. One of my colleagues pointed out rather maliciously: At least you’ll know what it is like to teach large classes. Fair enough. However, it’s all complicated by the fact that this 30+ class is in effect a combination of three different groups. So, although the students are of approximately the same age, for their English lessons, they use three different syllabi.

From the perspective of a control freak, it’s been a mess so far. I would have appreciated a coursebook but I have none for one of the three groups and the other two groups use two different publications. Also, the topics don’t overlap at all at the moment so I had to look for a common theme. So, back on Sunday, I went to Tesco and bought two cheap DVDs. On Monday, I asked the students to pick the one they’d like to see (they chose The American President, 1995) and we watched the movie in English with Czech subtitles. Before that, I handed out film review templates and told the class that after we finish watching the movie, I’d like them to write a short review. Authentic tasks. Bingo.

For today, I made a quiz about the movie plot. The students’ task was to find bits of information that were incorrect. I hoped that this would help them with the review because, despite the fact that it was a romantic drama, the plot was somewhat complicated. Since the movie is about an American president who fell in love with an environmental lobbyist, I thought the next step could be some facts about the USA and the political system (I guess I wanted to make things a little bit more sophisticated). So I had prepared another quiz. We watched a YouTube video and checked the answers. Then I dictated more facts about the USA and the students took notes while listening to me.

So far so good. Why? Because no speaking has taken place yet. The students have either listened to, read or written something. Once I asked them to share their notes in pairs, problems emerged. First of all, there was too much noise. I wouldn’t have really cared but the students could barely hear each other. As for monitoring, it was like running a half marathon. Actually, it was more like hurdling. Did I mention that the seating arrangement sucked? Unsurprisingly, the very front rows were empty while the very back ones were crammed with students who had probably chosen to sit there in the hope that they would make themselves invisible.

Still, I think we’d done quite well so far. The kids were actually better than I had expected so I didn’t feel too exhausted or frustrated afterward. I’m sure that if I had to teach large groups on a regular basis I’d eventually find some suitable methods to manage the class.

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