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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Collaborative crossword

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This is a quick post to share another no-prep activity suitable for vocabulary revision and speaking practice.

Ask your students to choose a word that has a certain number of letters. The length of the word depends on how much time you have; if you only have, say, 10 minutes, a six-letter word will do. If you have more time to spare, the words can be longer. If possible, every student should have a word with the same number of letters. However, fast finishers can try to play with longer words while weaker students might want to opt for shorter ones.

Ask students to write the selected word like this:

Výstřižek

Students work in pairs and they should not show the words to each other. Ask them to take a vocabulary list/set you need them to revise. Student A picks a random word from the list and defines it to Student B. If the word fits into Student B’s ‘crossword’, they write it down like this:

Výstřižek1

Then it’s Student B’s turn to define a random word from the same list. This goes on until one of the students completes the crossword (or until everybody finishes).

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The game gets harder towards the end because not every word fits in the remaining bits of the crossword.

Both students are involved and they are speaking all the time. They keep their eyes on the vocabulary list constantly scanning it up and down in an attempt to find the word their partner is currently describing or looking for a suitable word to describe.

The activity is a nice warm-up or a filler. It can be done with single vocabulary items or longer chunks of language. What I find particularly beneficial is that the learners encounter an expression several times – they hear the definition, then they see the word in the list or in their mind’s eye, they pronounce it and finally, they write it down if their partner confirms they’re right.

 

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The recommended dose of vocab

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When I work with texts in class, I usually like it when my students take something away. What I mean by this is that apart from some food for thought, I like them to leave the classroom with a bunch of new lexical items. I call this “a recommended dose of vocab”.

When I use coursebooks, not much work is left for me as a teacher – the texts and vocabulary have already been carefully selected by the authors. I don’t have a problem with that, but I’ve recently been quite keen on working with my own texts. I mostly find these on the internet – in online newspapers, journals, and magazines. I look for texts that are not too difficult form my B1-B2 students, but sometimes I need to abridge them anyway. I also like to create glossaries or just highlight some of the words which I think are worth our attention.

I normally choose such words based on my hunches and my knowledge of a particular group of students. In fact, the background of my students is never a complete mystery to me because Czech learners of English create a sort of homogeneous mass. This means that generally, their knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, and topics is not highly diverse and thus it is quite predictable. Although my students’ levels of proficiency may range from B1 to C1 in the same grade/group, there are hardly any surprises for me. In other words, after 25 years of experience in teaching, I can predict all the potential strengths and weaknesses of any Czech student. Once I estimate a student’s level, I can also estimate what words he or she will be familiar with. This skill of mine is not some kind of superpower – I simply know what has been covered in their previous courses, which is one of the advantages of a national curriculum.

pills-3151089_960_720The above hypothesis is tested whenever an exchange student joins a group of Czech learners of English. As their educational and cultural backgrounds are very different, their knowledge, or a lack thereof, differs a lot in many ways. This means that, for example, they opt for ‘different’ grammar and vocabulary, and they struggle with different aspects of pronunciation.

I’ve recently discovered a couple of tools which enable me to create glossaries or word lists based on objective factors – not just my hunches (thanks, Nathan). The Text Analyzer, for instance, determines the approximate level of proficiency that the text is suitable for and then generates a suggested vocabulary list. What’s more, it can also create definitions for the selected words. The Online Graded Text Editor helps you create your own wordlist from a text based on a level you choose. So, for example, if you, like me, mostly use the CEFR guideline to describe achievements of your learners, you select an appropriate CEFR level and the program will make a list of vocabulary items out of that level. In other words, if I was preparing a text for a group of B2 students, I would click on the drop-down menu and select the B2 level. The tool would then produce a list of words out of level B2.

As I thought it would come in handy to be able to quickly generate a list of useful words for my students to take away from the lesson, I decided to experiment with the tools a bit in class. I’d found an authentic text about a specific topic which I first ran through the CEFR Vocabulary Profiler. The text was labeled as level B1 text. Only 4% of the words were B2 vocabulary items and there were no words out of level B2. This surprised me a bit and proved that my hunches about the level of a text are not reliable. I tried a different wordlist on The Online Graded Text Editor – Cambridge KET PET FCE – and selected the PET level (this is the level the students I work with usually aim at). The tool then generated a list of items out of the level.

I explained to my students how I had obtained the list. I asked them to find and highlight the words in the text. I asked them to guess the meanings from the context and co-text. Then we translated the words and they recorded them in a chart. We paid attention to the most immediate collocates too.

I know that some people might criticize this approach because I actually spoonfed the students with teacher-generated content. Still, I think it’s better than blindly follow the coursebook. The teacher knows her students better than the coursebook does after all. Having said that, I think it’s useful to also ask the learners what they consider useful. The trouble is that shifting the responsibility on to the learners can get a little chaotic if it’s done right in class because each and every one will probably come up with different suggestions. Thus I find it helpful if my students leave the classroom with something tangible – with a dose of vocabulary offered by the teacher. Whether they take it in or not is up to them.

 

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When the key is wrong


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I like coursebooks with answer keys. I like them because they save time and they make me feel safe. Wait! I know I should be able to answer every single reading comprehension question or grammar point problem correctly, without hesitation. I also know that as part of the planning stage, I should complete all the tasks and exercises myself before I ask my students to do them in class. Except that I sometimes don’t.

There are situations when I don’t have the time or an opportunity to go over every single text or exercise in advance. For example, my students suddenly remind me that we haven’t checked the answers to a text I once assigned as homework. In such a case, I’m obviously grateful for a reliable answer key. Alternatively, the text seems too easy to me to even bother to read it. Oops. Did I really say that? My excuse is that such a text is probably not the center of my attention; it’s just a springboard for a series of follow-up activities. Or I simply assume that I remember the text from the time I last did it with another class so the answer key is there on my desk just in case.

However, answer keys are not absolutely reliable. Now and then it happens that the key says it’s option D, but 14 out of 14 students choose B. That’s clearly suspicious. Something similar happened today. I was a bit confused at first and for a while, I was bluffing; I insisted that the answer my students had come up with was not correct. However, they immediately gave me several arguments justifying the other alternative. As this is a fairly advanced group, I faltered. My students could tell I was grasping at straws and they were slowly gaining the high ground; I was in a minority and I was losing the game. Worst of all, I was starting to realize they were probably right…

Seriously, at that very point, it occurred to me that it was a great learning opportunity for all of us. I asked them to look for more evidence in the text and the discussion went on for a while. In the end, it was not just about the three options but the students were encouraged to go a little deeper and convince me that what they were saying was right. I believe that this pushed the task a little bit further towards the authentic side of the spectrum.

When I think about it, coursebooks with wrong or incomplete answer keys are actually beneficial (if you have the nerve). Flaws make them look less sterile and shallow. They enable your students to see that even coursebook writers are sometimes wrong and that the students are good enough to spot the errors. This proves beyond doubt that they have learned something. They can be proud of themselves and I am too.

 

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Is professional development in vain?

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I bet you are all enthusiastic and full of energy now that the conference season is at its peak. I bet you feel in awe of what your colleagues do in the classroom and you are eager to try out all those new ideas you took down during the workshops you’ve recently attended. But let me tell you something, professional development and teacher training are both completely futile. Or at least that’s how some of our students see it.

Earlier today I had a lesson with a group of teenage B2 students. They were preparing for a written test – an opinion essay. The topic was: Can money buy happiness? I’d brought some material which I thought would help them get a broader picture of the issue (a 12-minute TED talk video and a handout with random excerpts from online articles related to the topic). During the speaking activity, I overheard a student say that money can definitely buy happiness. He went on to explain that you can actually buy anything you want; for example, you don’t need to be talented or hard-working because you can buy a university degree. He added that there is basically no difference between someone who has obtained the degree legally and someone who has ‘bought’ it.  I chipped in and said that I disagreed. I told him that he would probably tell that one of his teachers, for instance, had once bought a degree. Now I realize that I should have used a different example, such as a doctor because what the student then said virtually spoiled my day (which by no means was his fault, of course).

Practically anybody who speaks good enough English can enter this classroom and ask us to talk about whether money can buy happiness. And I wouldn’t tell if the person’s degree is fake or real.

First of all, now that I’ve written it down it looks more cynical than it actually sounded. He didn’t sound rude or offensive to me and I actually got his point. In fact, he is a very motivated and gentle student, who always cooperates with me as well as his peers.

Still, his remark got me thinking. It occurred to me that maybe, the more effortless our teaching appears, the less professional it looks. Apparently, it doesn’t matter that the unbearable effortlessness of our teaching is a result of many years of experience, years of teacher training and further professional development, a lifelong passion for teaching and maybe a bit of talent too. It seems that our students believe that as soon as we enter the classroom, we start throwing some random stuff at them, which anybody could do for that matter.

I think the problem is the Communicative Language Teaching. I mean, CLT simply looks suspicious because the teacher does very little while the students do a lot. Consider the following activities:

You ask your students

  1. to discuss a topic in pairs or groups and then you ‘just’ go around the classroom and monitor. Later on, you ‘just’ give collected feedback to the class, but X and Y are not really paying attention because they think it doesn’t concern them – they didn’t make this particular mistake after all.
  2. to discuss something and you don’t ‘even bother to’ correct their mistakes at all.
  3. to watch a video and take notes while listening. Later on, they ‘only’ compare and discuss the notes with their partners.
  4. to read an authentic text you found on the internet (because you thought it might be interesting for your students) and discuss the questions below the text (which, obviously, you created yourself).
  5. to play a game.
  6. to brainstorm ideas and make a mind map.
  7. to do a collaborative project on a specific topic.
  8. to revise vocabulary in pairs, i.e you ask them to test each other and give each other feedback.
  9. to create their own questions for a text you later give them.
  10. to create polls and questionnaires.
  11. to take an online personality test.
  12. to make a PowerPoint presentation.

Since sometimes I tend to be hard on myself and I care about what (I think) my students assume about me as a teacher, I asked myself this: What should I do to make my teaching look ‘more professional’ in the eyes of my students? Is it possible and/or necessary at all?

I hope I will speak on behalf of many English teachers out there if I say that all the above techniques are always chosen carefully and the choices are based on the teacher’s pedagogical beliefs and scientific research into how languages are learned. But this is something our students don’t and can’t see. Should we constantly justify our choices then? Shall we tell them why we want them to do this or that? Shall we show off from time to time and prove that we know our stuff – at the expense of student talking time, for example?

Or shall we just relax and enjoy our (seemingly) effortless way of teaching?

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