L1 in the L2 classroom – a waste of time?

youtube-2617510_1280.jpgAfter so many years of experience in English teaching, I’m still not utterly convinced that sharing the same L1 with my students is an advantage. My doubts have been around for a long time and they probably stem from my conviction that if English is the only means of communication, students will learn best. In other words, only-English-no-Czech has mostly been my default mode of teaching. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to test my hypothesis about the effectiveness of this approach to the fullest because, with a few exceptions, I’ve always had monolingual classes and I simply had to use Czech in some situations. The thing is that if you don’t share the same L1 with your students, it’s quite natural to speak English all the time, no matter what, but I’m not that type of teacher who will only reply in English when a student stops me in the corridor and asks where the toilet is, for example.

Anyway, I imagine there are situations when the teacher can take advantage of the fact that they speak the same language as their students. I mentioned one example in my previous post; you can tell an interesting story in L1 to motivate your students to share their stories (in L1 or L2) and this way you can get a richer content to build on in L2.

Also, take listening, for example. I don’t know about your classes but normally, we watch a video clip in English and we discuss it in English. This seems to be the only logical procedure; it’s an English class after all. But if you think about it, it’s probably the least authentic option; a group of Czech students watch a clip in English (so far so good) and then they discuss it in English while their Czech teacher of English is listening and responding in English (weird). Putting aside the fact that this approach has some pedagogic values, such as that the L2 input from the listening is likely to be used as an L2 output, where on earth (other than the classroom) will such a situation occur? I mean, how often do your students go to an English speaking country to discuss English stuff with their English-speaking buddies?

I believe that in my students’ context, there are much more authentic possibilities than this:

You watch a Czech clip and then discuss it in English. I remember many occasions when I wanted or needed to tell my English speaking friend about something that had happened to me in a Czech context. It’s always a bit more challenging that retelling a story which you have come across in an English newspaper, for example, because in a way, you have to translate from L1 into L2. Since there is no L2 input to rely on, you need to search for it in your ‘language inventory’ or sometimes even coin new language. Thus, due to cultural and linguistic barriers, the output is not always as accurate as you wish it to be so lots of negotiating for meaning is likely to occur in such a situation.

You watch an English clip and then discuss it in Czech. Discussing something in Czech seems to be a waste of time at first sight but sometimes it can be very useful. If the L2 content is too complex and challenging, you may need to allow your students to switch to L1. From the pedagogical point of view, it’s quite valuable because the scope of a student’s L1 output may tell you how well they understood the L2 input. Based on my experience, some students have a lot to say but since they are not too confident when using English, they prefer to remain quiet during discussions. If you ask them to use Czech to tell you what they think, you may be surprised how much English vocabulary from the listening they know in comparison with the most enthusiastic speakers who always volunteer to respond in English.

Finally, what about watching a Czech clip and discussing it in Czech first? Well, I’ve never tried this option in class but I guess there are some benefits too, especially if it’s the first step towards something more complex. Plus it’s not really inauthentic either. I mean, I watch a Czech movie at home, discuss it with my son, sort out my ideas and then I may want to share this experience with an English speaking friend or on social media. So, why not?

Well, after so many years of experience in English teaching, I’m still not utterly convinced that sharing the same L1 with my students is an advantage, but I’m slowly getting there. 🙂

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Since the last time …

Today I’d like to share some of the interesting things that have happened in the classroom since the new school year started:

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>>> In one of the first lessons, instead of speaking English right from the start, which I normally do, I used Czech to tell a story about something that had happened to me. This was quite unusual because with (pre-)intermediate classes there’s no reason to avoid English. Well, I hadn’t planned it; I chose to go for Czech spontaneously since I thought it might motivate the students to share their own stories more enthusiastically. Actually, to be completely honest, I also broke the habit for rather selfish reasons; I’m not too confident when telling stories in English (let alone after a long break). Anyway, later on, I asked my students to share their stories either in Czech, like me, or in English. Needless to say, following my example, most of them chose to speak Czech. I was quite surprised (well, not really) that they were more open than usual. This was good because subsequently, I had a lot of content to build on.

>>> I was observed for several lessons non-stop and later, on the same day, the observer became the observee. It was not a colleague from the school but a young teacher who came to my lessons to get some formal work experience. The most interesting thing is that she is not a newbie teacher at all; she has been teaching for 6 years in the private sector of ELT. She teaches students who have not been accepted by any university and instead of taking a gap year, they attend this fairly expensive English course. Since I teach kids and teenagers in the state sector of education, we had a lot to talk about. Plus it was really refreshing to observe somebody ‘new’ and once again I realized that some people are born to be teachers, regardless of how many years of experience they have.

>>> I stole an activity from somebody outside the ELT field and it worked really well in my own teaching context. I had collected some of my son’s toys and little things I have at home, such as shells and buttons, and I used them in class for different types of activities. Once students were supposed to imagine that these were really expensive items and they had to invent stories about what made them so valuable. The students were really creative and the warm-up finally evolved into a nice discussion.

>>> Earlier today I took advantage of an authentic situation to help my senior students to practice speaking, namely the Interaction part of their final English exam. I told them my colleague, four students from our school and I were planning to travel to Luxembourg next month (and this is true). Unfortunately, the bus arrives at 3 am so we need to find a place to stay for a couple of hours. I showed them the website of the hostel my Luxembourgish colleague has recommended to me. I put them in pairs (one of them was supposed to be me and the other one was the receptionist) and asked them to make a reservation at that particular hostel considering all the pro and cons. I told them this would really help me to figure things out in this tricky situation.

>>>

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Thinking about the first week of classes

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The long, hot vacation is slowly coming to an end. On Monday, after two months of deep relaxation, I’m going back to work again. The first week is just teachers without students so I have plenty of some time to get ready for the hustle and bustle of the ‘real’ school life.

The other day I read an interesting post by Anne Hendler about her first week at school and I really liked the questions she posed. This is what she wrote:

I spent quite a bit of time thinking about how to plan the first week of classes. What if my students had done nothing at all in English for the month? Here are some questions I asked myself:

  1. How can I help my students feel comfortable in the classroom after such a long break?
  2. How can I help my students reactivate their English?
  3. Which activities will give my students confidence?
  4. Which activities will give my students a sense of achievement?
  5. What things should I avoid?
  6. How do I plan the first class back?

I think we teachers should have a similar list of questions to ponder at the end of every longer break. For starters, I decided to steal Anne’s and answer them here on my blog.

  1. How can I help my students feel comfortable in the classroom after such a long break?

As a student, I was always eager to start school again in September. The vacation was fabulous but it got a tad boring towards the end. Plus I always looked forward to the brand new start and buying new notebooks and crayons felt extraordinarily satisfying at this point. Also, this was the time of new resolutions and goal-setting. It’s the same now that I’m a teacher but I know not all students feel the same way. And even if they did feel relatively comfortable, the start is never quite easy. It’s actually a bit of a shock if you think about it; the kids need to change their daily routines completely: they have to get up earlier and suddenly, they may not have the time or opportunity for the things they enjoyed doing during the summer. This is likely to make them feel tired and demotivated at the end of the very first day at school.

So are there any positives to being back at school? Well, it’s the friends. They love them. They never have enough of them. So, we should probably cunningly take advantage of this. I know it sounds pretty obvious but I think it pays off if you allow the kids to enjoy the first lessons surrounded by their friends. Ask them to chat about their holidays and summer experiences. Get them to share photos from the places they visited.

Also, take advantage of the resolutions some of your students have made. Look to the future but be positive. Don’t put them off by the prospect of their final exams, for example (this is a mental note to myself!).

     2. How can I help my students reactivate their English?

Well, by letting them talk, you will see what they know and what they might have forgotten. I know that a couple of my students visited English-speaking countries during the summer vacation and some even attended courses where they worked hard on their English. Others, having plenty of time on their hands, played computer games and watched English movies so their English may be better than you expect. They may have forgotten all the grammar and vocabulary you ‘taught’ them from the coursebook but that will soon be reactivated. So, no worries (another mental note to myself!)

     3. Which activities will give my students confidence?

Activities which will allow them to express themselves freely. I don’t think it’s a good idea to correct explicitly on the very first day (even week) of school since it could kill their confidence immediately. So, all sorts of discussions or sharing stuff in pairs/groups will probably do just fine. This, to a great extent, should be voluntary though because not every student is a keen conversationalist.

     4. Which activities will give my students a sense of achievement?

Anything that doesn’t kill their confidence. I believe that the feeling that they can use and share what they learned in the summer will be invigorating for everybody. Don’t expect too much and try to concentrate on the message, not the language (I know how difficult that is for a language teacher but do try). Anyway, there’s no rush – the ‘teaching’ on your agenda can be done later.

     5. What things should I avoid?

Explicit correction, formal assessment, reminding the students of their past failures (‘Oh, I remember this grammar point was a big problem.’), threatening with exams, too much input, complicated activities, and, quite ironically, too much energy and enthusiasm from the teacher. Don’t let things become overwhelming right from the start (the last mental note to myself!).

     6. How do I plan the first class back?

As simple and effective as possible. As I said, it should be about sharing experiences and adjusting to all sorts of upcoming changes. I will definitely ask students to talk about the photos they took with their smartphones during the holidays. I may also get them to write a list of place they visited, people they met, things they learned, etc. As for productive skills, I don’t think I will include a longer piece of writing in the very first lesson because it involves quite a lot of mental effort, especially after such a long break. I mean, although they may have had opportunities to practice listening and speaking on holidays, I don’t think they did a lot of writing. And we don’t want to put them off right at the beginning, right? By the way, I need to adjust as well so don’t expect too much planning from me either.  🙂

 

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Presentation skills and my pet peeves

white-board-593370_1280.jpgI’ve been thinking about presentation skills a lot recently – not because I’m planning to become a full-time TED talk presenter but because last academic year, I attended quite a few presentations, mainly outside the ELT world.

During that time, I came to several conclusions, some of which will probably sound a bit biased and may be slightly discouraging for anyone considering presenting. So I apologise in advance.

First of all, I strongly believe that presentation skills can be refined (with time, help and experience). However, I’m not sure whether they can be learned from scratch. If you think about it, some people are so natural while others try so painfully hard (and I can always tell they do) but oftentimes, the more they try the more they put their foot in it.

For example, one of my pet peeves is when the presenter starts with a loooong introduction. When you are attending the tenth presentation with the same 20 people in the audience and the presenter wants everybody to introduce themselves (again!), it’s a nightmare. I know, I know… this is good for the presenter in order to settle in, create a rapport with the audience and to get everyone’s attention but is it always good for the listeners?

All in all, my attention needs to be captured by the subject itself, not by information about when the next coffee break will be (well, this can actually be useful if you are a coffee addict, like me). I remember a wonderful presentation where the speaker barely introduced himself (probably because he didn’t want to waste time and because he suspected we all knew him and his work anyway) and dived right in. He didn’t seem to care that people were still entering the room (running late); he just kept on talking about his subject, greeting all the late-comers patiently with a nod and a smile. For the next five hours, oh my, this guy knew exactly what he was talking about and at 5pm, I still didn’t want to go home (in spite of the fact that it was sweltering in the room). By the way, he was wearing a T-shirt and casual shorts (I think) so as far as clothes are concerned, I don’t think they matter too much. 🙂

Another pet hate of mine is all sorts of cliches and the annoying jargon (this applies to Czech, not English) which people from certain fields (e. g. psychology) keep on auto-repeat, such as ‘Am I making sense?’, ‘Is it clear if I put it this way?’. I mean, what do they expect you to say? ‘No, I have no idea what you are talking about here.’ I’m wondering if these redundant phrases are opportunities for questions from the audience. I know that people (the listeners as well as the speaker) need time to breathe in. Unfortunately, this strategy doesn’t really work for me. It actually gets on my nerves. My problem, you may say. Oh, and it’s quite unfortunate when, at the end of the talk (especially if it has been a boring talk or if people really need to go home), the presenter suddenly says ‘OK, now it’s time for your questions’. Don’t you dare to ask one! That lady in the audience may well kill you. 🙂 I think it’s best when questions are asked spontaneously and answered as they arise.

As for humour and jokes, well, they are obviously important too. However, I’ve experienced a talk with the Trumpish type of humour. So, there’s a fine line between a sense of humour and offence and some people will be better off if they avoid ‘jokes’ completely …

Finally, I hate it when the presenter is dishonest with the audience. If he or she makes a mistake and then tries to cover it with words and little lies. It makes me feel embarrassed. Secondhand embarrassment is an issue indeed. Anyway, I think it requires a lot of professionalism to be able to handle failure in front of an audience. It’s nothing for big egos. Big egos can’t make mistakes. 🙂

I think there’s one thing that can be learned before your very first presentation: every presenter should learn to value the audience’s time. They should start and finish on time. Also, they should give them a break (or breaks, depending on the length of the presentation).

P.S.: Oh, and I think you should read Zhenya’s post. 🙂

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Habit is stronger than motivation

IMG_20180714_083533When I was a student, our class teacher once told us that it’s possible to exercise willpower. Go to a candy shop, she said, admire all the wonderful ice cream they sell and then leave without having some. Back then, it sounded like an interesting personal experiment but, to be honest, I’ve never had the willpower to try it.

Despite this little failure of mine, I’d describe myself as a strong-willed person. At least that’s what my mother says. However, I’m well aware of the fact that there are limits to my willpower since it is linked to control and exercising control requires a lot of energy. Eventually, it can be very exhausting and one simply gets tired of it, especially when they lose motivation.

Well, it’s not exactly fortunate that willpower is so closely connected to motivation in my case. Neither is it encouraging for me to know that once my motivation is gone, my willpower will inevitably fail me too. But I think there is hope. I want to believe. :–)

This summer I’ve been thinking about motivation and willpower intensely. It all began when I started to work out and adjusted my diet a great deal. I dare say that these are two areas which require a lot of motivation and mental energy at the start and a lot of self-discipline later on. Anyway, over the past few weeks, I’ve slowly come to realize that I’m creating various habits: of having a certain type of breakfast in the morning (whereas during the school year, I don’t have breakfast until I get to work and sometimes I don’t have breakfast at all), or of jumping in the pool and swimming for at least 30 minutes (whereas I drive to work on school days and walking is the only physical activity I do).

I cherish these little habits and do my best to strengthen them – by not breaking them. Although for many people habits don’t only have positive connotations (there are bad habits, annoying habits, unfortunate habits, nasty habits, dangerous habits), and they can be boring and repetitive, I believe habits can be very useful because once we manage to condition our bodies and/or minds to expect something at a certain time of day/week/month, or under certain circumstances, we are likely to stick to these habits no matter how strong-willed or motivated we are. This doesn’t mean our lives will become boring; ‘in between’ our usual habits, we can be creative and innovative. In fact, our hands will be less tied once we surrender to the positive habits we have created.

Where am I headed with all this? Well, simply put, next school year, I might want to experiment with some useful, sustainable habits in the classroom. If motivation and willpower are not 100% reliable, habits may well replace them, especially when we are tired and demotivated and feel like giving up. In short, I’d like to focus on the following areas, listed in no particular order:

  1. seating arrangement
  2. warm-ups and wind-ups
  3. board work
  4. use of L1 vs. L2
  5. use of coursebook vs. tailormade, ‘homemade’ activities
  6. types of assessment
  7. testing (time, length,…)
  8. language drills

The list lacks detail at this stage, but I have something in mind already and I hope more stuff will emerge soon. The simple logic behind it is this: try something new with a specific class and if you think it could be useful, consciously turn it into a routine. Stick to it and don’t let anything or anybody break the habit for long enough to prove it’s something truly valuable. Later, provided it is feasible, you can transfer it into a different classroom environment.

Any other thoughts on what areas of ‘classroom life’ can be built around useful, sustainable habits?

 

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My major confidence boosters

IMG_20180702_172836-EFFECTSI’ve recently been thinking about the importance of confidence for one’s well-being, especially in relation to one’s professional life.

The definition of confidence is the quality of being certain of your abilities or of having trust in people, plans, or the future. I’d say that feeling confident means being in harmony. It makes you feel calm, reasonable, and generally less vulnerable because you are not haunted by the fear that somebody or something may suddenly ‘attack’ your fragile self.

I think I am a confident person and many would say I have always been. But I realize there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance and yes, I’d say I used to be a bit arrogant as a newbie teacher. In hindsight, I thought I knew more than I actually did. Since then, I haven’t changed a lot on the outside in this respect. I probably appear to be the same person. However, deep down I know that the quality of my confidence has changed dramatically. It’s been transformed and refined and it’s influenced how I feel and who I am to myself.

I’d like to say that I’ve worked hard and consciously on my confidence but it’s mostly been an automatic process. Below are some of the components which, I believe, have contributed to my current state of well-being.

Age

It goes without saying that many young people think they are much smarter than their tutors/teachers/parents. I wasn’t different. So it makes me smile whenever I come across an over-confident young teacher of English. You’ll recognize him or her immediately; such a teacher usually speaks very quickly, almost unintelligibly (probably because they’ve just returned from a long trip across North America and they want everybody to know). They are absorbed in what they do rather than what their students do or should do. They don’t need to follow lesson plans because they can make a lesson on the spot. If they do plan, they plan far too much for one lesson. As a result, things get a little chaotic.

Experience 

Well, you gradually come to realize that planning is handy. That sometimes less is better than more. That speaking slowly and intelligibly doesn’t make you look less proficient. That focusing on your students is more beneficial than listening to (and secretly admiring) your wonderful, fluent English (which makes you feel so good because it temporarily gives you the aura of superiority). However, you’ll soon discover that rather than needing a superstar to look up to, your students crave structure and clarity in order to learn. And this is what you need to learn.

Language proficiency

Having said that, your English obviously should be good. Students will spot your weaknesses regardless of their level of proficiency. And let’s be honest, it’s pretty embarrassing if a teacher makes basic errors over and over again. So, again, you will have to learn. Non-stop. Forever. It’s only logical if you realize that a new generation of students comes each and every year. So you’d better keep up with these students because they will always be more knowledgeable in some areas of the language. This may appear daunting at first but in fact, it’s quite motivating.

Education (degree)

Education is not the same as degree for me. In the Czech Republic, most teachers have an MA degree but obviously, they don’t come from the same educational background. I hold an MA degree from Masaryk University, Brno, which I am extremely proud of. Moreover, I finished my studies at the time when the quality of the program was at its best (I think). While my colleagues complain that they didn’t get enough methodology courses during their studies, I had plenty. What is more, I was tutored by two great teachers, Nikki Fořtová and James Thomas (both well-known in the online environment), who provided us with the latest approaches and methods in the field of ELT. It was after I finished my studies when I joined the online community of ELT teachers, which, in return, boosted my confidence tremendously.

Having a degree (by which I mean a piece of paper and a few letters in front of your name) is very important too. I used to ‘live’ with a BA degree for many years and, to be frank, it was devastating at times. Given the fact that most teachers in the state system of education hold MA degrees, I was ‘different’ in this respect. Something was missing for me to feel completely confident. Although I did feel confident as a teacher, my ego never let me fully accept the fact that I was ‘less’ than the others. So, I’m really happy that I finally picked up where I had last left off. This contributed to my confidence like nothing else before.

Actions

This is the area which seems to be under our control to a great extent. Still, there are no actions if there are no opportunities. And although we create the seeds of our opportunities inside of us, they eventually come from the outside. I don’t even remember when and how it all started. It’s kind of blurred now. I think it was Shelly Terrell and her fantastic team of teachers who gave me the first nudge to start a blog. I should also thank Nikki Fořtová, who mentioned that there was a huge community of online teachers. And then, the first opportunities came. People responded to my posts. I was invited to write for other blogs and journals. I was invited to present at a conference and to be a conference reporter at two important events for teachers here in the Czech Republic. You know the story … If these were not the major confidence boosters then what?

Looks

Well, this looks like a paragraph from a different post, maybe even a different blog. No, I’m not starting a beauty blog. I just want to say that appearance matters. I feel much better in front of a class when I’m fit. I think I can deliver a better lesson if my clothes fit well and I’d be very nervous if I discovered that I forgot to put on my mascara. Yes, these things happen. 🙂

Anyway, what are your confidence boosters?

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Should your boss know what you do outside your working hours?

IMG_20180622_131405The other day I received a complimentary copy of the ETAS magazine, where my article was published in the Summer 2018 Special Supplement.

I’ve had a couple of my articles published elsewhere but this was the first time I’d received a hard copy. Wow! Isn’t it ironic that these days, in the electronic era, a hard copy of your achievement stands out? Also, I don’t know about you but for me, it’s a big thing to find my article in a high-quality journal which invites the submission of articles on various aspects of language teaching and methodology, lesson ideas, surveys of teaching materials, and reports that address language issues in Switzerland or beyond Swiss borders.

Anyway, I was really proud and I wanted to scream it from the top of a mountain but I was cautious at the same time. Apart from sharing it on social media, where, ironically, I feel safer than in the offline environment, I only showed it to my family and a colleague of mine (my best friend and an English teacher too). Well, you can’t expect your family or your close friends to be completely honest with you; I mean, they will probably always be nice no matter what. However, I could tell from my friend’s expression that she was really impressed. In fact, she couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw the double page and my photo on it – the ultimate proof that it had something to do with me. “Are you kidding me?! ” she exclaimed.

IMG_20180622_131451Let’s get to the point. My friend’s positive reaction motivated me to do something really crazy. I decided to go to my boss and share my success with her. I hesitated a bit before I entered the office because, well, it felt somewhat awkward. But then I thought that as she’s an English teacher, she may be interested in what I do. But more importantly, it occurred to me that as she’s my boss, she should know what I do outside my working hours – voluntarily, enthusiastically and for free. It’s not like I’m telling her I’ve won a game of tennis, right?

To cut it short, she was impressed too and she asked if she could make a scan of my article. And then she urged me to record my success into my CPD portfolio. This is a file where we keep track of all the activities which we do outside our compulsory agenda. I realize I haven’t done so yet because, well, it feels a bit awkward, but I may well do it when I find the courage to fully acknowledge my achievement – to myself.

I should stress that this wouldn’t be possible without Gemma Lunn. I’d like to thank her once again for offering me the opportunity to write an article for ETAS Journal and for helping me to refine the text. It’s a bit more challenging to write for a peer-reviewed magazine that for, say, your blog. 🙂

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