Homophones – pain in the neck?

Recently it has come to my attention that I tend to misspell certain words. Such a discovery may not seem particularly groundbreaking since everybody errs. What does bother me a bit though is that these misspellings often pass unnoticed (by me as well as my spellchecker). I’m specifically talking about homophones, i.e. words having the same pronunciation but different meanings. Although for some reason, it’s unlikely that I will confuse mourning with morning, chances are that I will use brake instead of break without realizing that there’s something wrong with my sentence. I mean, I obviously know the difference between the two expressions but I confuse them nevertheless. Other words I tend to ball up are basic words such as heel vs heal, knew vs. new. Believe it or not, I even caught myself using no instead of know once or twice. And yes, once vs one’s can be tricky too. Well, it seems that the more notorious the word is, the higher probability there is that I will mess things up. Also, short words tend to be trickier since generally, you automatically pay more attention when producing more complex language. This implies (to me) that as I write, I actually hear the words in my head. Funnily enough, once I’m using a more complex expression, which I’m not 100% sure how to pronounce, I hear myself spelling it in my mind (the Czech way though).

Anyway, I’ve recently learned that as far as homophones are concerned, a difference in spelling doesn’t always indicate a difference of origin. As a rule of thumb, dictionaries treat homophones as different words simply because they are spelt differently. So a traditional dictionary will not give you a clue as to whether the words are historically of the same origin. But if you dig deep enough, you’ll find out that for example flower and flour have much more in common than you would expect. So, a crazy question occurred to me: is this type of ancient knowledge somehow ingrained in our brains? Well, my hypothesis is a bit flawed, at least in my case, because I’m not a native speaker of English. But still, maybe one of my genes was inherited from someone whose mother tongue was English indeed. Shakespeare maybe? Who knows? One thing is certain, language and brains are amazing entities. At the same time, I think it’s not really surprising that the brain, having to constantly make millions of decisions at every point of our lives, occasionally chooses the wrong option out of the two available in its inventory – and opts for no instead of know. It’s not a tragedy after all; unless this misstep influences our future in some way, everything is fine (apart from the fact that we made idiots of ourselves).

But here’s the thing. While I sometimes err when it comes to homophones, my students don’t as often as one might suppose. They throw around all sorts of other spelling mistakes, particularly typos are their favourites, and they like to coin new words too. But homophones? No, that’s not a big problem. There’s this idea at the back of my mind, I must have heard it somewhere, so correct me if I’m wrong, that native speakers tend to make homophone errors more often than L2 learners do. So my hypothesis is (and maybe somebody out there has already tested this) that the more frequently you are exposed to a language, the better you get at it but at the same time, you become more susceptible to committing a homophone error in writing. It seems that when your level of L2 is not high enough, which is the case of some of my students, your brain really needs to focus on in what is happening and is less prone to making careless mistakes of this sort. I mean, when producing and essay, my students probably think twice before engraving their words in stone (at least in the ideal world scenario), so these slips will not happen as often. They simply want to get things right and thus play it safe. So confusing weak with week is most likely off the table because they are familiar with both words but don’t use them too automatically yet. On the other hand, they might not even ‘consider’ confusing words such as wright vs right, simply because they are NOT familiar with the former. However, when they have enough knowledge, they might do so as a result of trying to use a rule in a context where it does not belong (overgeneralization error).

To conclude on a happier note, homophones are not just a pain in the neck. They can be fun since they are used to create puns, which is a feature I like to use in my lessons.

What about you and homophones?

Teaching by principles

pexels-photo-203237

With some extra time on my hands, I’ve been re-reading a publication I once needed for my MA studies called Teaching by Principles by Douglas Brown (3rd edition), which, as the blurb states, offers a comprehensive survey of practical language teaching options.

In Chapter 4 of his book, Brown investigates 12 foundational teaching principles, or elements, which he considers to be at the core of language pedagogy. As I write, I’ll try to make occasional references to my previous post, i.e. to Ellis’s  Principles of Instructed Language Learning, because I’d like to see how much (if at all) these two systems overlap. And, as you read, you can determine the extent to which the principles are applied in your own teaching.

Cognitive principles: 

Principle 1: Automaticity

According to Brown, it is clear that small children learn languages without thinking about them – they learn them automatically. Thus overanalyzing an L2 and thinking too much about its forms is not the best way of learning it. To the contrary, this approach tends to impede the process of graduation to automaticity in an L2 classroom.

I associate this principle with Ellis’s Principle 4: Instruction needs to be predominantly directed at developing implicit knowledge of the L2 while not neglecting explicit knowledge. Implicit knowledge is procedural, is held unconsciously and develops naturally out of meaning-focused communication.

Principle 2: Meaningful learning

Brown maintains that rote-learning, i.e. taking in isolated bits and pieces of information that are not connected with existing cognitive structures, has little chance of creating long-term retention. Thus, when in the classroom, it is necessary to make meaningful associations between existing knowledge and new material.

As I see it, this is in compliance with Ellis’s Principle 2: Instruction needs to ensure that learners focus predominantly on meaning. I also see a connection with Principle 4 (see above). 

Principle 3: The anticipation of reward

Brown argues that human beings are universally driven to act by the anticipation of some sort of tangible or intangible reward. Thus an optimal degree of praise and encouragement or appropriate grades and scores are desirable.

Principle 4: Intrinsic motivation

However, the most powerful rewards are those that are intrinsically motivated within the learner. Brown adds that if all learners were intrinsically motivated to perform all classroom tasks, we might not even need teachers.

Principle 5: Strategic investment

Teaching methods, textbooks, and grammatical paradigms are no longer in the center of attention. It is the methods that the learner employs to internalize and to perform in the language that are important too. After all, successful mastery of L2 will be due to a learner’s own personal investment of time, effort, and attention to L2.

To my mind, principles 3, 4 and 5 to some extent overlap with Ellis’s Principle 9: Instruction needs to take account of individual differences in learners. 

Principle 6: Autonomy

Successful mastery of L2 will depend on learner’s autonomous ability to continue their journey to success beyond the classroom and the teacher.

This principle to a large extent links to Ellis’s Principle 6: Successful instructed language learning requires extensive L2 input. As I wrote in my previous post, it’s virtually impossible to provide L2 learners with a sufficient amount of input in the classroom so students’ autonomy seems to be the only way leading to ultimate success.

Socioaffective principles: 

Principle 7: Language ego

As human beings learn to use an L2, they also develop a new mode of thinking, feeling, and acting – a second identity. Their new ‘language ego’ can feel fragile, silly and sometimes humiliated when lacking words or suitable grammar structures. Thus it is necessary to overtly display a supportive attitude to your students.

I’d link this principle to Ellis’s Principle 5: Instruction needs to take into account the learner’s ‘built-in syllabus’. I personally try to achieve this by tolerating the learners’ temporary ‘flaws’ and by giving them plenty of opportunities to succeed. Also, there’s a  similarity to  Principle 9: Instruction needs to take account of individual differences in learners.

Principle 8: Willingness to communicate

Successful learners are willing to communicate, which results in the generation of both output (from the learner) and input (to the learner).

What immediately comes to mind is Ellis’s Principle 7: Successful instructed language learning also requires opportunities for output. As you aren’t likely to get output from stressed students, for example, you should make sure that the learning conditions and atmosphere in the classroom are favorable to spontaneous communication. Brown’s Principle 8 may also relate to  Ellis’s Principle 8: The opportunity to interact in the L2 is central to developing L2 proficiency and Principle 9: Instruction needs to take account of individual differences in learners.

Principle 9: The language-culture connection

Whenever you teach a language, you also teach a complex system of cultural customs, values, and ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. This can be a source of valuable language input and a powerful tool for adjustment in new cultures. However, Brown advises us to be sensitive if some students appear discouraged.

Again, here I can sense a connection with Ellis’s Principle 6: Successful instructed language learning requires extensive L2 input. I’d add that culture is inherently present in any language and you can’t separate language from culture if you want to communicate in the target language successfully. I think I clearly demonstrated this in one of my previous posts, where I contrasted phrases ‘I’m good’ and ‘I’m fine’. 

Linguistic principles: 

Principle 10: The Native language effect

The native language of learners strongly influences the acquisition of the target language system. Brown advises teachers to regard errors as important windows to their underlying system and provide appropriate feedback on them. What also helps students to minimalize interference errors is thinking in the L2 instead of resorting to translation as they comprehend and produce language.

Here I see a connection with Ellis’s Principle 9: Instruction needs to take account of individual differences in learners. If you teach a mixed nationality class, you’ll probably have to treat diverse types of errors. I wrote about the native language effect here and here on my blog. 

Principle 11: Interlanguage

Just as children develop their native language in gradual, systematic stages, L2 learners, go through a systematic developmental process as they progress to full competence in L2. This means, for example, that at some point, a good deal of what an L2 learner says or comprehend may be logically correct, but from the point of view of the native speaker’s competence, it’s incorrect. Teachers should allow learners to progress through such systematic stages of acquisition. Also, when giving feedback, the teacher needs to distinguish between systematic interlanguage errors (these can be tolerated to some extent) and other errors.

Principle 11 seems to overlap with Ellis’s Principle 5: Instruction needs to take into account the learner’s ‘built-in syllabus’.  As a teacher, one can’t simply skip or hasten certain stages of the learner’s development, or eliminate systematic interlanguage errors completely. 

Principle 12: Communicative competence

Given that communicative competence is the goal of an L2 classroom, teachers should give attention to language use and not just usage, to fluency and not just accuracy. Give grammar some attention, but don’t neglect the other important components. Make sure that your students have opportunities to gain some fluency in English without having to be constantly wary of little mistakes.

This seems to encompass at leat five of Ellis’s principles: Principle 1: Instruction needs to ensure that learners develop both a rich repertoire of formulaic expressions and a rule-based competence, Principle 2: Instruction needs to ensure that learners focus predominantly on meaning, Principle 3: Instruction needs to ensure that learners also focus on form, Principle 4: Instruction needs to be predominantly directed at developing implicit knowledge of the L2 while not neglecting explicit knowledge and Principle 8: The opportunity to interact in the L2 is central to developing L2 proficiency.

Although the authors complement one another, Brown’s perspective seems to me more general and encompasses a slightly larger spectrum of (language) pedagogy. The connections I made between the two sets of principles were based solely on intuition and others may see it differently.

 

 

The Ten Commandments of Successful Language Instruction

stock-photo-child-with-rucksack-standing-on-a-stack-of-books-64626691Throughout 2016, I’ve read a lot about how much the current ELT practice flies in the face of SLA research findings. I usually dismiss these assumptions straight away – probably because personally, I’ve never felt too guilty as an ELT practitioner. I mean, I think I know something about the contribution of the SLA research to developments in TESOL over the last five decades, and I do my best not to be blind to it. Although in my teaching context, which I would describe as standardized education (meaning standardized level, pace, and path of learning), my hands are tied to a certain extent, I don’t despair.

The other day, I came across this article by Rod Ellis called Principles of Instructed Language Learning, in which he shares a set of generalizations which, he believes, might serve as the basis for language teacher education. When reading the text, I lit up. It’s not all that bad after all given the limitations I have to deal with on a daily basis, of which the lack of time is the worst of all shortcomings. I can conclude now that there’s not a single principle I would consciously ignore.

Principle 1: Instruction needs to ensure that learners develop both a rich repertoire of formulaic expressions and a rule-based competence. 

Although I don’t avoid the focus-on-forms approach, I believe that my instruction is not exclusively directed at developing rule-based competence through the systematic teaching of pre-selected structures. My students would probably confirm (with a slight sneer on their face) that I’m moderately obsessed with grammar and totally obsessed with formulaic chunks.

Principle 2: Instruction needs to ensure that learners focus predominantly on meaning. 

I’m well aware of the fact that to meet this principle, task-based approach to language teaching is one of the prerequisites. Also, it is important that instruction provides opportunities for learners to focus on semantic meaning (meanings of lexical items or of specific grammatical structures) as well as pragmatic meaning (the highly contextualized meanings that arise in acts of communication) and, as Ellis argues, it is pragmatic meaning that is crucial to language learning. Although I do try to incorporate communicative tasks into my lessons whenever possible, I’d say that TBL approach is something I still tend to circumvent. Why? It’s a question for another post.

Principle 3: Instruction needs to ensure that learners also focus on form. 

This, among other things, involves a response to the errors each learner makes. In my context, I often practice this through collected feedback, i.e. feedback I give a group of students on selected linguistic issues I spot in their writing/speaking. I like this approach as it’s individualized and emergent.

Principle 4: Instruction needs to be predominantly directed at developing implicit knowledge of the L2 while not neglecting explicit knowledge. 

Ellis argues that instruction needs to be directed at developing both implicit and explicit knowledge, giving priority to the former (because we don’t know how easily/if at all explicit knowledge can be converted into implicit knowledge). While the benefits of explicit knowledge are somewhat controversial, there is a consensus among researchers that learners need the opportunity to participate in communicative activities to develop implicit knowledge. Thus, communicative tasks need to play a central role in instruction directed at implicit knowledge. I can boldly claim that communicative activities have always been central to my classes. It was only recently when I started gravitating towards a slightly more focus-on-form approach as I was no longer comfortable with the zero grammar strategy.

Principle 5: Instruction needs to take into account the learner’s ‘built-in syllabus’. 

One way to do this is to ensure that learners are developmentally ready to acquire a specific target feature. Like the zero grammar approach, this is not very feasible in my teaching context. There is a national curriculum I need to follow plus I’m also required to assess my students formally. So I give those students who struggle with specific linguistic features other opportunities to succeed (little tasks, extra projects, etc.) since I know most of them will finally catch up on all the required skills and knowledge.

Principle 6: Successful instructed language learning requires extensive L2 input.

This is a real stumbling block. With three or four 45-minute lessons a week you’d have to be a magician if you wanted to help your students march out of the classroom with native-like proficiency.  So I assume it’s more about showing them how to make it on their own – about giving tips for online places to go, books to read, methods to apply, etc. Because if you are supposed to a) give them tasks, b) present lots of chunks of language and some grammar, c) provide opportunities for meaningful communication, then there’s not much time left for extensive input while in class. Fortunately, these days it is practically impossible to avoid English in everyday life so most students will probably manage quite well when left to their own devices.

Principle 7: Successful instructed language learning also requires opportunities for output.

While I’m somewhat concerned about the previous principle, I’m very confident about number 7 – simply because I know my students produce a lot of language in the classroom. As I said, my students come with bits and pieces they pick outside of school, which we can then work with and elaborate on.

Principle 8: The opportunity to interact in the L2 is central to developing L2 proficiency.

Ellis maintains that we can achieve this by a) creating contexts of language use where students have a reason to attend to language, b) providing opportunities for learners to use the language to express their own personal meanings, c) helping students to participate in language-related activities that are beyond their current level of proficiency and c) offering a full range of contexts that cater for a ‘full performance’ in the language. The last one is something I feel I need to focus on a bit more. I suspect that it is closely related to TBL, which, as stated above, I need to apply more in my teaching.

Principle 9: Instruction needs to take account of individual differences in learners.

This is a problematic one, especially in a standardized teaching context, as discussed above. However, I can still do (and I think I do) a lot as a teacher: pair/group students up in a manner that fosters cooperation, find ways to motivate weaker/slower students (especially intrinsically) and find as many opportunities leading to success as possible.

Principle 10: In assessing learners’ L2 proficiency, it is important to examine free as well as controlled production

At times it seems that it’s much easier to assess controlled production. However, I’ve recently come across many poorly designed tests, which, for example, accept one correct answer for each question when there are more appropriate alternatives. One may argue that it opens some space for discussion, but I think that at the same time, it discredits the test itself. Assessing free practice is primarily about acknowledging the fact that the student managed to get the message across. In such a case, he or she always deserves a decent grade regardless of grammatical mistakes, for example.

What about your instruction? Is it based on solid research or folksy wisdom? 🙂

Uncovering linguistic layers

From time to time a student composing an essay asks: “Shall I write in the street or on the street?”  As I don’t want to disturb the others by long lectures on prepositions, I usually say: “You can use both. Just choose”. I know it’s not quite accurate but I don’t think it’s a big deal either, at least at lower levels of proficiency.

As far as I remember, the way I learned this piece of lexicogrammar at school was something along the lines: in the street is mainly used in British English and be on the street(s) means be homeless. Let’s have a closer look.

First of all, it seems that there is some difference between the phrase including a singular noun (street) and the phrase including a plural form of the noun.

Regarding the phrases including the singular form of the noun, in the street, according to the first graph below, was more frequent till about 1980 but then on the street, which, by the way, was almost non-existent back in 1800, started winning the race. I learned this by checking out Google Ngram Viewer (thanks, Sandy Millin, for sharing this). Anyway, after a rather sharp decline around 1945, a sudden increase in the use of on the street can be seen, precisely around 1965. One wonders why; has the issue of homelessness become more pressing recently ?

vystrizek

Now, looking at the phrase including the plural form of the noun, I can see that in the streets has consistently been more frequent than one the streets. Like on the street, on the streets was almost non-existent in 1800 (see the second graph 2 below).

vystrizek2

If you look at some concordance lines of the chunk on the street(s), you will discover that, indeed, it is often related to homelessness.

  • She spends several years on the streets.
  • To fear being thrown on the street?
  • The average person on the street are not scientists
  • She was better off on the streets.
  • Will they sleep on the streets tonight?
  • A young girl who lives on the streets.

Things shift a bit if you add a little function word, though. If you search the phrase in the streets *of*, the most frequent right collocates are usually (and quite obviously) places/towns. The same happens with on the streets *of*. When studying the concordance lines, I didn’t discover any difference in connotation between these two chunks other than the number of hits per million. The chunk on the streets *of* is more frequent than in the streets *of*.

vystrizek4vystrizek5

What is interesting though is that the preposition *of* strips the phrase on the streets of its exclusivity related to the connotation of homelessness. In other words, it seems to me that it brings closer the connotations of in the streets and on the streets, i.e. the preposition simply doesn’t matter anymore.

I can’t help feeling that I’m only moving on the surface of the problem and that there’s much more behind it. Some of my conclusions may even be inaccurate and incomplete. Still, it’s a great adventure to slowly uncover the linguistic layers. What’s more, I’m learning a lot along the way.

Disappointed

Apparently, my blog has recently turned into a diary where I’ve been recording and sharing some of my corpora-related observations.

Here’s another anecdote in the series of posts: Yesterday, in class, we dealt with adjectives of feeling and emotions and the prepositions they take, such as angry with, depressed about, proud of, etcetera. As you know, some adjectives are quite tricky since they can take more than one preposition while the meaning stays roughly the same. One of the notorious ‘troublemakers’ is, for example, the word disappointed. 

20160812_095526

I mentioned to my class that this adjective is usually followed by with, by or in. One of my students curiously searched the internet to finally confirm my conclusion. He came up with this page, which explains the slight shifts in meaning when different prepositions are used.

 

Disappointed by usually indicates that somebody has done something specific to cause you to be disappointed.

Disappointed with implies that the cause of the disappointment was something basic about the nature or attributes of the thing.

Disappointed in usually indicates a deeper level of disappointment with the nature of somebody or something, or repeated problems with them, and often indicates that the speaker has lost faith in someone’s ability to do what’s expected of them.

Although the author did his/her best to help the puzzled learner, it’s still a bit complicated, at least for a B1/B2 learner of English. So I’ve tried to figure it out for myself by looking at sets of concordance lines in BNC. Here are the most frequent collocates of the phrase disappointed + by/with/in (from the perspective of the MI index):

1) One can be disappointed by (the) lack of sth., failure, response, elections, results, decision 

2) One can be disappointed with results, players, performance, result, (the) lack of sth., decision, way

3) One can be disappointed in one’s expectation, love, (not) having …, me, you, him, her …

A closer scrutiny of the concordance lines prompts the following conclusion:

  • No1 > some external factor/situation caused my feelings of disappointment.
  • No2 > I’m not happy with the quality/state of something. Note: It seems that no1 and no2 can be used interchangeably with certain collocates with the meanings remaining very close.
  • No3 > a way to express disillusion or reproach.

 

 

The precious language outcome

IMG_20151002_220221Like every weekend this school year, I’m busy correcting a set of my students’ written assignments right now. When planning the senior class course back in August, I thought it would be a good idea to have the students write a lot and often. Based on my experience, students tend to grumble when they are required to produce something longer now and then. However, once the writing practice becomes regular, they get used to it and they finally start to like it (and, believe it or not, ultimately, you may even start enjoying all the correcting too).

Each Monday, before handing out the corrected essays, I give my students collected feedback. I put a couple of the recurrent errors on the board and provide quick explanations. Most of the time, they nod in agreement: “This is so obvious! Why on earth is she telling us? I’d never make such a silly mistake, would I?” But sometimes, I can spot a sign of surprise in their eyes: “Oh dear, she must be talking about my essay now!”.

Every Monday, when sharing the collected feedback, I say something along the lines: “Remember? Last Monday we talked about the difference between other and another. Yet, some of you got it wrong again. We also discussed the difference between it’s and its, still, many of you used these words incorrectly again.” I try not to be harsh. I hope I always say the words with an understanding smile. I want my students to know that I don’t judge them; I want to reassure them that these things just happen. But I also want to let them know that there’s still a lot to learn and refine, especially through writing and language production in general.

One would think that the above examples are the easiest things for your students to grasp and internalize. One would suppose that B1/B2 students can’t possibly get the possessive its wrong. But they do. Over and over again. No matter how often I tell my students that they should keep articles in mind, they will rarely use them correctly if they are not ready yet. It’s a never-ending story; I correct their essays, give them extensive feedback, revise the rules for using articles but whack! – next time they make the same mistakes or invent even more bizzare examples of language use.

But I don’t despair because it’s their mistakes and their language outcome – something I try to value despite all the imperfections. I will gently keep reminding them of the little flaws as long as they need it. And I believe that they’ll finally get it. Some of them will get it tomorrow, others will need more time. Anyway, I can see they get a little better with each new essay. They are more confident and more eager to get it right this time. I know new problems will always come up along the way, but I would never be able to find out about the potential problems without having them constantly produce something genuine, something of their own.

Go light!

feather (4)Everybody would probably agree that material light or material free lessons often turn out to be the best ones. I don’t know why it is so but I suspect that the feeling of not being pressed by the material one has (decided) to cover in the lesson is what makes this type of teaching so fresh and satisfying for both the teacher and the student. Maybe it feels so fresh to me because I don’t teach unplugged on a daily basis, so it’s a nice tweak to my regular teaching techniques. And my students can obviously sense the freshness too.

I’d say that any material – provided it’s in the centre of the teacher’s attention – can be a hindrance rather than an aid. The material lying there on your desk ready to be used diverts your attention from your students – it makes you constantly think of the timing and it often forces you to interrupt your students in the middle of an exciting, fruitful activity – just because you have another fabulous plan (read: material) up your sleeve.

The truth is that you can design a successful lesson in less than a couple of minutes and all you and your students need is paper and pen. This is something I did earlier this week and I’d like to share my little success here on my blog.

Czech students of all ages and levels generally struggle with determiners. Articles are undoubtedly the most notorious linguistic troublemakers belonging to this group. However, I don’t really panic if my students use them incorrectly because I consider this type of error just a cosmetic imperfection, so to speak (with some exceptions, of course).

However, quantifiers, for example, can be more important for the intelligibility of the message and/or they can completely change the meaning of it if used incorrectly. For instance, the difference between a few and few is not trivial. Yet, my students keep messing these two up. For some reason, they also struggle with each (of us/person)every (one of us, person) and all (of us/people/of the people). No matter how many exercises and gap fills we have done and how much extra homework I have assigned, they keep making the same errors.

Earlier this week, I suddenly felt desperate about my Ss’ inability to grasp determiners, so before the lesson, I quickly scribbled the following 10 sentences.

  1. Every Czech person should be able to speak some English.
  2. Few people like poetry.
  3. Most Czechs are fat.
  4. Every student should read a few books a year.
  5. Some people in the class are very talented.
  6. It’s better to have no siblings.
  7. All teenagers should get a little pocket money.
  8. Pupils should get little homework at school.
  9. Each of us can achieve anything in life.
  10. There isn’t much to do here in Šternberk.

I decided to go really light and although I felt the temptation to give students printed copies, I finally did not type the statements. Instead, I divided the class into A students and B students and I dictated the sentences one by one – the A students recorded all the odd number statements and the B students took down the even number statements. This shortened the writing stage, but at the same time, it made the students concentrate much more than if they just had to look at a handout. An A student then got into a pair with a B student and they shared their statements. Their task was to say if they agree or not and why.

I was surprised how lively the discussion got in a matter of seconds and what great ideas Ss kept coming up with. They were discussing commonplace statements, after all, which I had created in only five minutes. I don’t really know why some conversation activities go well and why some topics are totally uninteresting for my students. After so many years of experience, I can never quite estimate in advance whether Ss will like the topic or not.

Nevertheless, I stopped the chatter after about 15 minutes and we went through all the statements together. Each time, I asked one student to express his/her opinion and the others could react briefly. This was also interesting and more useful language as well as new ideas were generated throughout this stage.

Finally, we focused on the determiners a bit. I got Ss to change the determiners to make sentences that would express their real opinion, e.g. It’s better to have a few/many/some siblings. Some/many Czechs are fat.

I should stress that although the activity was originally designed and tailor made for a group of 18-year-old B1/B2 students, and it was supposed to last up to 10 minutes at the most, I also did it with two lower level classes later on, despite the fact that according to the syllabus, we were not supposed to ‘be doing’ determiners. Obviously, the groups came up with different language outputs, made different errors and expressed different ideas, but the activity worked equally well in all groups.

This brings me to a thought that it’s perfectly possible and pretty easy to design meaningful material light activities/lessons which are adaptable, versatile, recyclable and save the teacher a lot of time and energy. And I believe it’s worth putting some effort into such activities.

The real level of language proficiency

100420153730Every teacher would probably agree that the classroom should be a safe environment free of stress and anxiety. A lot has been written about ways of minimizing stress that interferes with learning. However, I believe that our attempts to keep stress at a zero level can sometimes be counter-productive.

A long, challenging week of the final state examinations is finally over in the school where I work, and I can announce with a great relief that none of our students failed the English part. My colleague and I examined 34 students in five days. During their oral English exam, the students were supposed to react to the examiner’s questions promptly, and they were expected to speak fluently and elaborately on various topics ranging from very personal ones to factual ones. We had to make sure that each performance was exactly 15 minutes long, which added to the stressfulness of the experience. I was the assessor, whose job was to listen carefully, note down errors as well as positive points, and grade each performance. My colleague, their English teacher, read the instructions, asked the questions and reacted to the examinee’s answers. We only had five minutes to agree on the final score before it was the next student’s turn.

It was obviously very stressful – both for us and the students. Unfortunately, this is the type of  situation you can never really prepare your students for. You can provide them with all the language input and the content they need to pass the exam, but you can never rehearse for the actual performance in advance simply because there is one aspect that you can’t simulate – stress. This, however, is one of the variables that have a huge impact on the quality of the student’s performance.

Under stress, your B2 students suddenly and miraculously turn into A2 learners – they make errors they never made in a relaxed atmosphere of the language classroom, where they cheerfully chattered about the burning problems of today’s world. During their final exam, students repeat the same low-level words again and again because they can’t remember the synonyms they are expected to use at their current level. They can’t remember the word ‘equipment’, for example, so they keep saying ‘things’ throughout the exam, which drives the examiner – their English teacher – crazy. Now and then, a fairly advanced student forgets to add an -s to the third person singular verbs but keeps using advanced fillers and linking devices, which proves his real level of proficiency. Unfortunately, points will finally have to be subtracted for these little failures, no matter how sorry you feel for your students and how well you know what they can actually do.

But what is the real level of proficiency? Is is what you can do in a relaxed atmosphere of an L2 classroom or is it the way you perform during a stressful situation? One way or the other, I believe there’s a certain core – the knowledge nobody can take away from you; the facts, data and skills resistant to any level of stress. Just above the core, there’s another layer, which, under certain circumstances, can be very unstable and vulnerable. This layer of knowledge needs to be consolidated before it becomes part of the safe and stable core.

It turned out that some of the knowledge and skills we expected during the examination were still in the unstable state, even though we believed that the students had already mastered them perfectly before. The question is whether (and how) we can find out what our students can really do. Can we find out in the rather unnatural (or inauthentic) setting of the L2 classroom at all?

Dictation – yes/no/why/how?

0The other day I read Scott Thornbury’s post D is for Dictation. Following the example set by the author, I decided to ponder the value of this popular classroom activity.

There must be something magical about dictation because it was one of the most frequent activities we did in Czech lessons during my formal education, and it still holds true nowadays. The thing is that my mother tongue is a very complicated language and it takes Czech kids ages to learn the rules of its written form. The only advantage is that unlike English, Czech is written as it is heard (with some exceptions, such as words with final voiced consonants, which are sometimes uttered voicelessly). Czech pupils start writing short dictations as soon as they start using a pen – around the age of 6-7 – and judging by the unflagging popularity of this classroom activity, it must be regarded one of the best ways of learning the language.

I’m not sure whether I use dictation for the same reasons why primary teachers over here use it to teach Czech, but I’m convinced that there is a place for dictation in an L2 classroom and that incorporating it into classes is beneficial in terms of language acquisition.

As my primary goal is to teach my students to communicate in English, I find it important to turn dictation into a communicative activity. Can I achieve this? What is a communicative activity at all? This is a question I already considered here and here. Anyway, I mainly use dictation to recycle written texts or audio recordings. My favourite activity is Write the last word you heard. This basically means that I play a recording my students are already familiar with, and at some point I stop the audio – usually where there is a full stop or after longer chunks of language. As the title of the activity implies, students write the last word they heard.

I believe that this procedure turns the dictation into a meaningful listening task; students are exposed to whole chunks/sentences, and they need to pay attention to the context, otherwise they won’t be able to pinpoint the last word. What’s more, while listening, they are forced to ‘replay’ bits and pieces of the text in the heads and they make quick, little choices before they finally zoom in on the word they are looking for. If possible, I deliberately select words that need to be practised – either because they were encountered in the previous lesson for the first time or because of their tricky spelling.

My students like this type of activity because it’s not too challenging – they don’t have to write long stretches of text, which is something they’re used to doing in Czech lessons. Nevertheless, you can obviously ask them to write more than just the last word. You can either ask them to write the first word, which will encourage them to hold each chunk in their memory for a while, or they can write as much as they manage within the time limit between the pauses. Alternatively, to give your learners more freedom, you can allow them to choose words they want to jot down. Later on, you can elaborate on this activity; your students can reconstruct the whole recording/text by completing the bits they’ve recorded. This resembles dictogloss – a classroom activity where learners are required to reconstruct a short text by listening and noting down the key words.

I believe that dictation plays a specific role in an L2 classroom, but it shouldn’t be overused – students need to be exposed to other forms of language practice after all. First of all, the teacher needs to get it clear why s/he wants to use it – is it to practise spelling, vocabulary, listening or something else? Is there a better, a more effective and a more communicative way of practising these language areas/skills or is dictation the right option? These are the decisions that must be made during the planning stage.

Intermediate plateau – everyday struggles

As a language teacher I often deal with problems other subject teachers can easily ignore. Some of these problems are easy to handle, others are quite persistent. One of my greatest concerns at the moment is the difficulty a group of my students is having in making a transition from the intermediate to the upper-intermediate level of proficiency. I strongly believe these students have a cognitive capacity to reach a higher level, so I wonder why they feel they’re stuck. The fact that I have attended workshops and webinars to be better able to deal with the problem hasn’t helped a lot. Having read papers and articles related to this issue has been highly beneficial for me as a teacher, but it doesn’t prevent my students from struggling. The trouble is that my knowing about the problem is not the only prerequisite for finding a solution to it. It must be the students who realize that this struggle is an inevitable part of the learning process and that they need to persist in learning, even though they feel they’re not making the same leaps in progress that they used to make in the earlier stages of learning the language.

It’s not easy for me to infect my students with this optimistic prospect though. The problem is that if you feel you’re hopeless at something, it’s difficult for you to accept the fact that it may change someday just because other people tell you it will. You need to let this purely cognitive fact enter your emotional sphere to be able to deal with the situation. So students must experience the obstacles first and then start to believe that it’s in their power to overcome them. It also helps when they see others who have already achieved the goal. 
I’ve come across this interesting article describing the difficulties related to the problem of the intermediate plateau. This is how Jack C. Richards describes the features related to the phenomenon in his Moving Beyond the Plateau.
1) There is a gap between receptive and productive competence.
  • While learners’ receptive competence continues to develop, their productive competence remains relatively static.
  • Language items that learners recognize and understand in the input they hear do not pass into their productive competence.
2) Fluency may have progressed at the expense of complexity.
  • Learners’ language may be both relatively fluent and accurate but shows little evidence of appropriate grammatical development.
  • Complexity of learners’ language does not match their proficiency level.
3) Learners have a limited vocabulary range. 
  • Learners’ vocabulary development is still at the 3,000-word level.
  • Learners lack knowledge of collocational patterns.
4) Language production may be adequate but often lacks the characteristics of natural speech. 
  • Learners’ spoken English may be accurate and fluent but not always sound natural.
  • Learners’ spoken English lacks appropriate use of chunks and formulaic utterances.
5) There are persistent, fossilized language errors.
  • Errors of both grammar and pronunciation have become permanent features of learners’ speech.
  • Errors persist despite advances in learners’ communicative skills.
These are some of the problems I observe in my intermediate class. First of all, my students understand more than they can actually produce. This is fine until they fully realize this gap and start feeling frustrated. “I have learned English for so long but I feel I’m not progressing any more”, you sometimes hear them say. They do very well in listening and reading comprehension exercises but they still struggle with speaking and writing. It may sound a little confusing but sometimes they don’t even realize that they actually struggle. Most of them are (or consider themselves) quite fluent and the minor mistakes they make keep escaping their attention until they get some kind of explicit feedback. Also, it is when they take part in an authentic conversation, while abroad and chatting with foreigners in English, when they realize that something is not quite right. They often report back that their English is not as good and natural as they thought it was. This is most evident when they meet their Swedish friends, for example. The truth is that students from northern European countries generally speak excellent English, and they don’t seem to get stuck on the intermediate plateau (maybe they do but much earlier, i.e. at a lower age). My colleagues and I like discussing the cause of this huge difference, but this is a topic for another post. This following table illustrates the situation (note: the report focuses on a different age group but it’s not totally off topic).
The EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI) is a report which attempts to rank countries by the average level of English skills amongst adults. This figure shows the 2011 results, but our position hasn’t changed a lot since. As I see it, the whole country is stuck on the intermediate plateau, i.e. moderate proficiency. 
 
Let’s get back to my teenage students now. I’ve observed that although they can easily ignore or trivialize the flaws in their speaking performance, they are willing to admit that writing is a skill they really need to improve. This is easier for them to acknowledge, probably because they struggle with writing in their native language too. I constantly reassure them that practice makes perfect, but also that they need lots of input before they can come up with some decent output. However, whenever I ask them to underline useful phrases, collocations, or linking words in a text, for example, I can see their reluctant expressions which implicitly say: Why should I underline this? I already know the words. It takes a lot of time to convince them that they won’t be able to use a particular collocation or a formulaic chunk of language if it’s not part of their productive inventory, even though they may already be familiar with its separate constituents. I remind them of the fact that they will probably tend to find the easiest way out; they will simply rely on what they already know, and thus their writing will lack the complexity which can be observed at higher levels of proficiency. 
At this stage, my students have mastered all the basic grammatical structures, but they still find it difficult to use them naturally and correctly. In my intermediate class, it’s not unusual to hear a fairly good student utter he don’t go or if people wouldn’t produce pollution they would …Vocabulary is another huge problem. Even if the students focused on and dutifully recorded every word or collocation they encounter in the coursebooks and texts we use (which they obviously don’t), this wouldn’t be enough; their vocabulary wouldn’t increase quickly enough to make them feel they’re progressing noticeably. Obviously, there are students who immerse themselves in English outside their regular classes; some play PC games, and they communicate in English with people from all over the world on a daily basis. Others watch films in English and listen to authentic podcasts which they choose based on their interests. Not only does their vocabulary increase dramatically but I’ve noticed that they gradually gain the characteristics of natural speech. There are a few avid readers too, which is great for language acquisition, especially for vocabulary extension. These are the students who will soon leave the intermediate plateau without even noticing any struggle. 
I believe that most of the responsibility lies with the students themselves, and the teacher’s job is to 1) motivate, 2) provide guidance, and 3) give plenty of feedback in order to prevent persistent errors from fossilizing. Fossilization is particularly dangerous in monolingual L1 classes. I can see the despair in my students’ eyes whenever I draw their attention to a basic grammar error they’ve just made. “Damn it! I’m so stupid! Did I really say this?” Yes, they did say it but since we share the same L1, we all understand one another’s distorted language, which becomes a problem. 
To sum up, the key is to constantly push students towards a higher goal. It’s vital not to let them remain complacent and lazy, which is, quite understandably, the most natural and desirable state for many of them. At this stage Demand High is the best approach I can think of. The students can communicate quite well, so it’s hard to persuade them to put more effort into conscious learning. Also, I believe it’s good to praise them for their achievements but at the same time it’s necessary to remind them that they’re capable of more. But most importantly, it’s good to provide lots of input and examples of language that is slightly above their level of proficiency. They will see that this is not the terminal station; they’ll realize there’s still a lot to achieve and if it’s done in small steps, the goal is definitely manageable.