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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Justifying my teaching principles

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I had one of those great days at school today. It was the kind of day when at one point, things click into place.

Yesterday, we practiced a controlled speaking activity, namely making a complaint at the hotel. Students had rehearsed the dialogue in pairs when I asked some people to perform it in front of the class. To add a little bit of challenge, I asked two random students – not the ones that had practiced the dialogue together. Although this group is normally exceptionally articulate, I had to conclude that in this case, they were not as fluent as they should be. After this feedback, one of the students asked if the reason why they were not so fluent might be that they didn’t get enough language drill in class. I reminded him that they had studied the functional language beforehand and had plenty of practice. Unfortunately, at this point, the lesson was almost over so I didn’t have time to further elaborate on this.

Today, I felt a strong urge to come back to his question. Despite my concerns that I might end up on thin ice, I explained that research into SLA suggests that people learn languages best when they learn them implicitly, i.e. unconsciously. I explained the difference between explicit and implicit and gave them a few examples. I told them that language drills would probably fall into the explicit instruction category. I added that I had nothing against drills and that that they can be useful. However, I expressed my belief that as for the speaking activity we had done, drilling would not be the ultimate solution. At the same time, I admitted to myself that I should probably include more opportunities for my students to practice this type of spoken interaction.

Coincidentally, we have an exchange student from Brazil who attends some of the English lessons with this group. We normally speak English in class but today, we had a short conversation in Czech. To my (and my students’) utter amazement, she understood everything I said and responded promptly and fluently. I didn’t even have to slow down or repeat myself. This is absolutely amazing because she has only been exposed to Czech for eight months!

questions-2110967_960_720I obviously asked her how she thought she had managed to learn the language so quickly. She told us that she had done so by lots of practice. She added that she felt that everything I had said about implicit learning is right. Then she explained what she meant; her host ‘mother’ doesn’t speak a word of English or Portuguese, so they can only communicate in Czech at home. The girl is by no means an average L2 learner; she is highly motivated and judging by how fluent she is in English, has a high aptitude for learning languages. By the way, I once tried to teach some Czech to a well-educated Australian and he could probably attest to the fact that Czech is a terribly difficult language to learn, particularly through deliberate study. The thing is that once you try to understand the grammar, you immediately lose patience. It’s simply too much to grasp.

To be completely honest, I was a little worried yesterday because I thought that maybe the rest of the class shared the student’s concerns about the lack of drill. So I obviously felt relieved today, especially when I saw many students nodding in agreement while I talked about SLA research and even more so when the exchange student chipped in and shared her experience. Also, for a fleeting moment, I felt eternally grateful to Geoff Jordan and his indomitable perseverance to keep us teachers informed. But I also felt deeply grateful to the student who said he lacked drill because he gave me a rare opportunity to justify my teaching principles in front of the whole class.

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Learning vocabulary in another language

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Learning vocabulary in another language by Prof. Paul Nation was one of the books I’d chosen to read for my final exam at university. I’m not sure why I went for this particular publication because if I remember correctly, it has 400 pages or so and there were much shorter books on the compulsory reading list. However, once I started reading, I soon discovered it was a teacher-friendly page-turner. Even back then I appreciated the fact that it was a combination of teaching tips and research findings. I remember that after reading it, I felt a strong urge to conduct all sorts of experiments with my classes, which I actually did. For example, I tested my students’ vocabulary sizes and I also tried out lots of activities from the book, such as the read and look up technique.

Fast-forward to today. I’ve recently had one of those deja vu moments as I watched YouTube videos of Paul Nation’s presentations. First of all, Paul Nation speaks as clearly and effectively as he writes. Once again I realized how perfectly feasible his techniques are in my teaching environment. Also, it was kind of liberating to hear that he shamelessly and repeatedly uses the terms native-speaker – now that it’s almost heresy in some contexts. To give an example, he mentions that an average native speaker’s size of vocabulary is about 20,000 words or that many non-native speakers of English and some native speakers read at speeds which are well below 300 words per minute.

nature-3333116_960_720Listening to Paul Nation is music to my ears. Literally. Not only did I fall in love with his accent (especially with the way he pronounces the word ‘texts’), but his talks appease my guilty conscience. Last week, for example, I showed my class a video called The Giving Tree. I knew it was a bit too easy for this particular group and there was practically no vocabulary take-away. But I wanted to show it so badly because this bitter-sweet story just perfectly fitted into the topic we were focusing on. Now I know that it’s OK to give students an easy listening because providing students with large quantities of easy material is good for practicing their fluency.

Today, I tried an activity which I liked a lot when I first read about it in Learning vocabulary in another language – the 4/3/2 fluency activity. It basically means that a student delivers the same talk three times under increasing time pressure. Learners work in pairs and one member of the pair speaks on a familiar topic to the other (the listener) for four minutes. Then they change partners. The speaker remains as a speaker and the listener stays as a listener. The speaker now has to give the same talk to the new partner in three minutesThe partners change again and the same talk is given for two minutes. The logic behind this is that at every level of language proficiency, learners should try to be fluent with what they already know. However, I slightly adjusted the technique and made it 3/2/1 since I thought a four-minute limit would be too much under the given circumstances. Also, my students worked in groups of three, not in pairs. Student A summarized a text in 3 minutes, Student B summed up the same text in 2 minutes and Student C in one minute. I told them that they must always say the same information, i.e. each time they had to speak a little faster to squeeze in all the facts from the given text.

eye-1132531_960_720Next time I’d like to play with reading speed. From the talks I learned that when people read, three types of action are involved – fixations on particular words, jumps (saccades) to the next item to focus on, and regressions (movements back to an item already looked at). This means that while reading the eyes do not move smoothly along a line of print, but jump from one word to another. A skilled reader reading at around 250-300 words per minute makes around 90 fixations per 100 words and around 15 regressions in every 100 fixations. Reading speed is affected by a range of factors including the purpose of the reading, and the difficulty of the text. I’m quite curious to see how many words my students can read per minute. We’ll probably use the graded readers from the school library for this. The tricky thing is that I need to select a suitable level for each student because I don’t want them to come across too many unfamiliar words. Actually, reading for fluency development should involve texts where there are no unknown words.

 

 

 

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Demotivated by the unmotivated students?

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If you ask me which is my favorite type of learner, I’ll probably answer: “the motivated one“. It doesn’t really matter what age, gender or level of proficiency I teach or how great the learner’s aptitude for learning foreign languages is. What can truly demotivate me though is an unmotivated student – especially a student who I know has a high potential but his or her classroom performance suggests something else.

Based on my experience, there are several types of students depending on the degree or type of motivation. Firstly, there are the truly motivated ones. We cherish them because they are quite rare. Teaching them is rewarding and it makes us feel worthy.

Then there are the polite ones, i.e. those who hide their lack of motivation and they successfully pretend to be engaged in our lessons. You probably won’t discover their true color (unless you openly ask them) because they constantly keep eye contact with you and they always meet your requirements. This is not a win-win situation but at least, you can do your job relatively well.

Then there are students who are motivated up to a certain degree and/or under specific circumstances; they do their job properly and participate in class only if the task will be marked or if they expect some kind of material reward. To be honest, this type of behavior gets on my nerves but it’s quite understandable if you think about it.

However, the worst case scenario is the one when the unmotivated student openly and shamelessly shows a complete lack of interest and when there’s a danger that this ‘infection’ will spread or that such an attitude will finally become a norm in a particular group. I really hate it when a student completes a task too quickly and sloppily, and then starts studying maths, for example. Even worse, some students have this habit of resting their head on the desk in order to catch up on last night’s sleep or what not. Sympathy and compassion aside, this is simply unacceptable in my educational context.

You know, I sometimes wonder why we teachers long for motivated classes. The lesson doesn’t really get shorter and the amount of lessons we teach doesn’t decrease when our students are motivated. Or does it? Anyway, you may well teach a lesson to a bunch of blank staring students and then leave the classroom and enjoy your life because you’ve earned your salary.

A quick Google search reveals that a lot has been written about the ways of motivating unmotivated students but there are next to no resources on how to simply survive the demotivated one. I’d like to read more about ways of dealing with the frustration you feel after failing to motivate a class. I’d like to be able to consciously train myself in accepting the fact that you can’t motivate every single student you come across. Correct me if I’m wrong but these strategies are not dealt with in teacher training courses either. They constantly advise us to engage in scientific research but I think we should also be trained in letting things go. I find reflective practice very useful in this respect but sometimes it’s better to be a bit zen, i.e. relaxed and not worrying about things that you cannot change.

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