Are we done with paper dictionaries?

When you enter our living space on the second floor of our family house, you’ll find yourself in the kitchen. Apart from the usual electrical appliances, there are five huge dictionaries sitting on a shelf near the window. You may be wondering why I keep them on display in the kitchen. Well, it’s because that’s where my small working space is (and because they are so big that they don’t fit in any cabinet), but also because seeing them there kind of makes me feel proud. Whenever a visitor enters the kitchen, they can immediately tell that I am someone involved in the English language. And judging by the sizes and amount of the books it’s almost certain that I am an English teacher. Add to that that on top of the pile of dictionaries there is a pair of reading glasses and I am made once and for all.

Anyway, the emotion stemming from other people’s assumptions about me owning five huge paper dictionaries tells me that it feels good to be an English teacher. Some may say that the teaching profession is not prestigious enough to feel that way but I’ve never suffered from an inferiority complex. I reckon it may be because I’m an ENGLISH teacher at a SECONDARY level of education. Or maybe it’s because I respect the ELT community myself and I simply believe we are worth it. We are good folks, we English teachers are.

So, my collection of dictionaries is, to a certain extent, a reflection of what I do but most importantly, what I like doing. The trouble is that now, they are a mere decoration and to be completely honest, I can’t even remember the last time I opened any of them.

Here’s the thing … back at uni they told us that real books were always more reliable than online sources. This was also true of dictionaries. They advised us to own at least one big monolingual dictionary to be considered proper English majors. So I own five now (two of them are bilingual dictionaries). By the way, I used to have even more of them but since some of them were duplicates, I donated them at some point.

So why is it that their primary function is to collect dust? Well, the reason is obvious. While at uni they could tell us that online resources may be second-class, the truth is they these days, they are more practical, up-to-date and quicker to work with than my ‘proper’ dictionaries. Plus, I don’t think they are deficient anyway and I have proof of that. I sometimes like to conduct a little experiment: I compare a paper dictionary entry with the entry available online (oh, that’s when and only when I actually open the dictionaries, nerdy me). Take the word putz around, for example. While it takes me a few seconds to find the meaning of the verb online, it takes me considerably more time to find it in my paper dictionaries (because even though flipping through the thin pages may feel good, it *is* simply more time-consuming). And guess what … my oldest dictionary doesn’t even list the entry. And while my more recent monolingual dictionaries do contain the expression and explain it in about the same way the online dictionary does, the amount of detail provided by the paper dictionary is obviously incomparable to the amount of information available online.

For example, what my paper dictionary doesn’t tell me is the fact that since 1800, the use of the noun putz has been on the increase. While one of the more modern dictionaries does mention what putz means in vulgar slang, the other one only says it means a stupid person. So, come to think about it, if you want to have a complete understanding of a word (and be really safe), you do need several paper dictionaries. Or you can just go online and have it all.

This brings me to a more serious matter; I have clearly demonstrated that I can make do without paper dictionaries. And so can my students. But here’s the thing … during their final state exam in English here in the Czech Republic, they are only allowed to use paper dictionaries. These are bilingual and of a small size. While the stronger students do not usually need those at all (they would probably be much better off with a more advanced, monolingual version anyway), the weaker students are totally lost when using them. For example, the Czech word svést (svézt) can either be translated into English as seduce or give a lift. So, in the worst-case scenario (and this really happened), the student may produce a sentence like: I can seduce you if you want instead of I can give you a lift if you want. My point is that the exam setting doesn’t reflect the real-life situation. In other words, students rarely use paper dictionaries (and thus can’t really work with them) but are encouraged to use them during their final exam when everything is at stake.

So, as a teacher I have several options; I can teach my students how to deal with the exam situation without a dictionary or I can prepare them for the fact that they may not be able to find what they want in the dictionary available (the latter option is, in fact, the same as the former one). So, during the production stages, I urge them to circumvent any unknown language item by using synonyms or replacing the item with what they already know. This, in my view, is a far more valuable strategy under the given circumstances than looking for a translation that may finally turn out to be totally inappropriate for a particular context.

All in all, to be able to work with a dictionary effectively, some practice, as well as experience, is needed. Also, the more advanced a student is, the more they can find out and thus the more they are likely to learn. So the growth is exponential. While a beginner will probably only mess things up when working with a dictionary, a C1 learner will learn an immense amount of information by researching just one expression.

But, back to my question … are with done with paper dictionaries? Well, it depends on who is using them; they are an invaluable source of inspiration for an ELT blogger but for a regular L2 learner, they may well be a waste of money (and time).

Extensive reading practice – thoughts and insights

The other day I watched this video I had originally come across on Russ Mayne’s blog. Actually, it was Sandy Millin who had drawn my attention to it first. Long story short, the video is an interview with Sue Leather and Jez Uden, who have a new book out on the topic of Extensive Reading and Motivation.

I should kick off by saying that before I saw the interview, I had definitely been well aware of the benefits of extensive reading in L2 learning/acquisition. I think I’d even heard about the study published by Patsy Lightbown Jez mentions in the interview which concludes that after one year, a group of students who had read extensively for 30 minutes every day without any further language instruction performed just as well as the controlled group who had only learned English with their teacher for 30 minutes a day through the audio-lingual method (the first group did equally well on all standards, except for writing, which started dipping at some point).

Now, this very notion has been a source of hope as well as anxiety for me for ages and I’ve wanted to write about it many times here on my blog; the notion that L2 learners can actually learn the language on their own, outside of the classroom, and in the light of it, our job seems to be quite redundant. Luckily, at some point, Jez dispels my nagging sense of potential redundancy by urging us, sceptics, to imagine what those students taking part in the experiment could have achieved if they’d had regular tuition in addition to their extensive reading practice. So, the answer is: we probably need both to achieve the desired effect.

Anyway, a few minutes into the video, I wonder, like many times before, why on earth is extensive reading not a regular practice in my classes. The word regular is paramount here and it in fact turns out to be the biggest problem. I mean, we can’t ask our students to read fifty pages at one go once in a while and still call this practice extensive reading, can we? By definition, extensive reading means reading large amounts of stuff and doing so pretty often. In other words, students need plenty of exposure to the language for them to become fluent readers and proficient language users. But how do you achieve this?

Luckily, halfway through the video, the interviewees have answered many of my pressing questions and addressed some of my doubts. Apparently, it’s not just me who is plagued with guilt regarding the lack of extensive reading practice in their teaching context. In fact, the reasons why teachers only dabble in extensive reading but don’t really engage with it seriously are well known. And, in all honesty, it’s comforting to know that to a great degree, these reasons overlap with my own rationale.

As Jez puts it, one of the most obvious constraints standing in the way of extensive reading practice is the cost, i.e. people have to give up something to commit themselves to extensive reading. Reading for at least 30 minutes a day is a time-consuming process. Unfortunately, teachers have to follow busy curriculums and prepare students for high-stakes exams. But it’s not only teachers who have busy schedules; students have heaps of homework to do and they have to get on with their own stuff like seeing friends or attending groups or clubs. So, they need to value reading enough to be willing to sacrifice something else. Also, teachers want to feel they want to be teaching (or want to be seen teaching) but extensive reading requires teachers to step back and allow people just to sit and read, which in fact may seem to be the opposite of teaching. Add to that the fact that extensive reading is harder to test than discrete items of grammar or vocabulary, for example. When studying grammar, students can physically see that they’ve learned a grammar point very quickly whereas, with extensive reading, they don’t see the gains that easily. It’s a much subtler process. This can be a real challenge, particularly in terms of motivation, as Sue argues. Finally, not every school or institution has enough materials for extensive reading. Obviously, there are some ways to sidestep the issue; for example, I really liked the idea mentioned by Jez of students buying graded readers (one student=one book) and then swapping them within their group.

I should be happy now, I guess. After all, we’re all in the same boat. But here’s my biggest concern, which for the most part comes from the realm of practicality. Although I do have enough graded readers at hand and I could easily start an extensive reading project right away, the truth is, I simply don’t know how to go about it. Here are some of the issues … Apart from the obvious wheres and whens, I feel like there always needs to be a follow-up stage after a certain amount of reading, e.g. a book. (This probably links to the teachers’ productivity issue mentioned above). What would this stage look like? I mean, do I ask students to read the same book each week or can everybody choose what they like? The latter option definitely sounds better but if they choose a plethora of different books, what happens next? Do we discuss them all? How? Does each student prepare a presentation of the book or a review? If so, will they present those orally or will I (we) read it? Such a phase may be quite time-consuming and, come to think about it, quite boring. You know, it’s undeniably a great experience to sit with a friend and chat about what we’ve recently read, and we could probably replicate this genuine process in the classroom. But …. the students are at different levels of proficiency, even though they are in the same class. Also, I normally choose to meet with friends who usually have similar tastes, but students may have totally different interests regarding genres.

The list of practical obstacles goes on and on. But what probably troubles me most is the fact that as a teacher, i.e. the coordinator of the extensive reading project, I should be a bookworm myself; I should be familiar with the books in question, even those the students would spontaneously bring to class. In other words, I feel like I’d have to be an expert in literature.

I could obviously decide on a less structured extensive reading course design; I could simply encourage my students to read as much as possible by offering them opportunities and suitable materials. Then I could just ask them what it was they’d read, tick a box and then we could go on to the next item. This happens in real life too: somebody tells you about a great book they’ve read and you go like “yeah, right, never heard of it”. But again, this raises a red flag regarding the teachers’ productivity and the measurability of the students’ progress.

To sum up, I’m all for extensive reading in L2. The trouble is that we are trying to take something very genuine (reading for pleasure) and place it in a somewhat artificial context (school). This is a hard nut to crack, in my mind (for me anyway).

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 best game ever! (How to increase student talking time)

11128056_10204932516485743_3420885650259449598_nOne of the rewards of teaching a class of 16 talented, motivated 12-year-olds is that you feel that almost every activity turns into something really valuable. Not that you don’t feel the same will other classes, it’s just that with young learners it’s somehow more tangible.

Today, a classic game-like activity – originally meant to be just a warm-up to start the class – changed itself into a complex, meaningful and authentic lesson. I deliberately said ‘changed itself’, but I should probably say ‘the students changed it so’. I had come up with an unexceptional idea, but it was them who changed it into a pure gem.

I’m sure everybody is familiar with Categories (aka The Alphabet Game). You divide your class into small groups (preferably groups of three or four). On the board, you write a few categories related to the current topic or syllabus of your course, and each student copies them on a separate piece of paper (A4). One of the team members randomly chooses a letter. Each member of the team must quickly write down a word for each of the categories that starts with that letter. The first member who has completed all the categories shouts ‘Stop’ and the other must stop writing immediately. The whole team then goes over the words together and each member gets a certain amount of points for each correct word.

Normally, it can get pretty complicated because the team members (or the teacher) often have to verify if a word actually exists, or if it’s spelt correctly. Also, the team members are competitors and they don’t want to accept each other’s answer – for obvious reasons. This time, the game took a totally different direction, though. A few minutes after the game started, while monitoring the class, I overheard a girl explaining her choice (I should stress that I hadn’t pointed out to the students that they should justify their answers). Anyway, the girl, Tereza, had chosen the word ‘doctor’ for the ‘future’ category. Normally, you would expect students to opt for spacecraft, robots, galaxy, or other words that are clearly related to the future world. But I heard her say (in English!): I chose ‘doctor’ because, in the future, I want to become a doctor. 

Now, her seemingly commonplace remark took my breath away. I stopped the activity immediately and told the students that Tereza had just inspired me and that we could make the game more interesting by adding a new aspect to it. From now on, you can choose whatever words you wish, but you will only get points from your peers if you can justify your choice. You must only speak English all the time. 

Then a miracle happened. From then on, the students seemed less restricted by their vocabulary repertoire. At times, they chose crazy, seemingly inappropriate words for the categories. The crazier the words, though, the more effort they had to put into the justification stage. The student talk time increased dramatically because, all at once, they felt they needed to explain each of their choices, even the most obvious ones, such as I have ‘dog’ for the ‘animals’ category because …  Also, they were suddenly more tolerant and supportive of each other, and everybody was nodding in agreement all the time, even in cases I would have rejected out of hand.

It’s not always ideal if a warm-up activity extends across the whole lesson, but I couldn’t help letting it last for longer than originally planned. I did so because the students were fully engaged and creative, they were using the target language, thinking critically, revising vocabulary, and they were supportive of each other. I’m fully aware of the fact that it was not a sign of decent classroom management skills when all of a sudden, I interrupted the activity and changed the existing rules. But I just grabbed the opportunity and I didn’t regret it later on.

When the lesson was over, I thanked the students for having turned the lesson into such a meaningful activity. Upon leaving, one of the boys remarked enthusiastically, in English: This was the best game ever! 

Technology attacks

I had this feeling that apart from the fact that I was probably the only English teacher registered on Blogger, I was also the last person in the world who didn’t have a smartphone. The truth is that I had been thinking of getting one for ages, but at the same time, I had deliberately resisted the change. The thing is that I have a tendency to get addicted to gadgets of all sorts. I already had a laptop and an i-pad, after all, so I knew that when one of these were within easy reach, I couldn’t resist the temptation to constantly check e-mails, all the social media notifications, latest blog posts, etc. I realized all too well that having a smartphone meant having it at my disposal all the time, which, in consequence, meant I would constantly be tapping the shiny screen.

But I don’t live in a vacuum and I know I have to adjust from time to time. I remember that whenever I was about to take a picture with my good, old phone, my students would smile understandingly and they would automatically offer their phones. They didn’t want to believe that my Nokia was actually quite good at taking photos. Anyway, I always kindly refused their generosity and stubbornly used my old buddy.

But it’s not just my students who make me reconsider my attitudes. I remember an occasion when Shaun Wilden asked us participants of his workshop at IH Brno to take out our phones. I looked around and saw the embarrassed expressions on some teachers’ faces. Shaun reacted promptly, saying: “Don’t be ashamed. It doesn’t matter what type of phone you have. By the way, I know that teachers typically have the worst phones in the world”.

As I had used my phone in the lessons on a regular basis, for example, to take pictures of the board or to make videos of parts of the lessons, my students immediately noticed and appreciated the upgrade. The first picture I took with my smartphone in class was a drawing one of my students had done on the board (see above). I was so excited about the fact that a student had taken the effort to draw such a beautiful scribble that I wanted to share it. And I did. And I immediately realized the power of this cool mobile device.

Some say progress is optional, but I think it’s inevitable. It’s not about feeling concerned about the type of phone you have; it’s about keeping up with people around you – in this case, your students. Also, having a smartphone myself, I’ll be able to get familiar with all the yet unexplored ways of learning English. Take Instagram, for example; by using English hashtags and comments, your students can interact with people all around the world and practice the language in a meaningful, authentic way. The possibilities technology offers are infinite. Let’s start exploring …

How much risk are you willing to take?

Whenever you ask your students to use English, you actually ask them to take risks. For many learners, speaking (or writing) in English is a real challenge. It’s as if somebody asked you to do a bungee jump saying that it’s easy because many people have already done it before. It’s as if you were asked to do karaoke – it’s basically a piece of cake but once you are not confident in singing, it can turn into a truly embarrassing experience.

Earlier today, I asked my students to read a text about a very embarrassing situation a teenage girl had experienced on her first date. My lesson objective was clearly stated: it was an authentic blog post, full of useful, informal language items I wanted my students to acquire and put in use. After some language work and follow-up practice, it was time for personalisation: I asked my students whether they had experienced a similar situation at some point in their lives. Although this is a very talkative class of 18-year-olds never afraid to express their opinions, I was suddenly faced with a complete silence. But it was not the blank stares type of silence. It was the silence complete with unspoken ideas desperately wanting to be put into words. However, after a couple of seconds, instead of answering my question, a student struck back: And you, teacher? At that moment, I realized how my students felt. I experienced the moment of hesitation they must go through on a regular basis when bombarded with all sorts of personal questions: Shall I say something or shall I pretend that I’ve nothing to add to the discussion?

I hesitated for a fraction of a second and then I decided to take the risk: Yes, I have. I actually experienced something very embarrassing.… All of a sudden, they were all on alert. The inevitable happened. Tell us about it, then, someone begged. I hesitated for another fraction of a second and then told them my story as I remembered it, making it as dramatic as possible.

I could see that their expressions had changed completely. Some of them were still processing the information they had just received; they were probably visualizing the situation and judging the degree of awkwardness. But I noticed that a couple of them were already getting ready to share their own embarrassing moments – they’d probably remembered something resembling my story, or they’d simply gained confidence to come out of hiding. And the most courageous ones finally did share their stories. And I thanked them for their bravery and support – because my story suddenly didn’t seem so embarrassing. The awkwardness had somehow been watered down, so to speak. Also, it seemed that the act of sharing our moments of embarrassment made us feel like a close-knit community for a while. But more importantly, it made our conversation genuine, real-life and meaningful; it was about us after all – not just about the language or the coursebook exercise.

It’s not easy to share something you are ashamed of, and for some students, be it the weak ones or the introverted ones, it’s often equally embarrassing to speak in front of the class, even when it’s something pretty commonplace. Having said that, if we want our students to share bits and pieces of their private lives, we need to create an environment of equity and trust. And hopefully, if the teacher takes the risk, the students are likely to follow his/her example…

Stressing out about stress

I can’t remember how many times I’ve told my students that stress – the emphasis placed on the sound or syllable spoken most forcefully in a word or phrase – is a very important aspect of spoken English. I tell them that although this linguistic feature may seem trivial to native speakers of Czech, it can be a matter of communicative survival in English. The trouble is that Czech has a fixed stress, meaning that its position can be predicted by a simple rule, i.e. it almost always comes on the first syllable. It’s not a big issue if you place the stress elsewhere – you will likely be understood, provided you get other aspects of pronunciation right.

My students often struggle with sentence stress – the stress placed on words within sentences – and I wrote about ways of handling it here. They also find it difficult to deal with lexical stress – the stress placed on syllables within words. There are two notorious words I repeatedly correct – hotel and event. It doesn’t matter how many times I model the pronunciation; in most cases my students will get it wrong the next time again. There are obvious reasons for this: as already mentioned above, it’s natural for my students to speak stressing the first syllables in words. Moreover, despite the fact that in written Czech the word for hotel is identical to its English counterpart, we pronounce it slightly differently, i.e. we place the stress on the first syllable.

Now, my students are not the only ones who sometimes struggle with this aspect of spoken English. I remember at least two occasions when my message seemed totally unintelligible to my Australian friend, just because I placed the word stress incorrectly. For example, I remember that my friend looked really puzzled when I told him about the problem with mosquitoes. I pronounced it [ˈmɒskitəʊs] instead of [məˈskiːtəʊs]. I had to repeat the word several times and even describe the insect before my friend got the meaning. I was pretty frustrated because to my Czech ear, the difference is not so dramatic, and if I heard the word pronounced in different ways, I think I would always understand. By the way, this is one of the dangers of monolingual classes taught by a teacher speaking the same L1 – we understand one another and easily ignore things that seem unimportant to us. 

Another communication breakdown happened when I used the word teetotaller. I said [ˈtiːtəʊtlə] instead of [tiːˈtəʊtlə]. Neither repeating the word nor raising a glass of beer helped my friend to get the meaning. I had to spell the word (which got me into even more trouble, as you can imagine)! I know that this isn’t a very frequent word but this situation clearly demonstrates what an important role word stress can play.  

I’m really happy I experienced those two communicative failures since I can share these stories with my students; I can show them what pitfalls there are waiting outside the safe L2 classroom. 

Making lessons authentic via the use of corpora

In one of my previous posts, I talked about a simple way of using corpora in class. I truly believe that a corpus can be a handy tool for any language learner, but the size of a corpus, as well as its layout, usually appears daunting at first glance, especially to less proficient learners of English. There’s no need to ask your students to laboriously analyse L2 data from a huge corpus when they still struggle with the language itself. In other words, as corpora are collections of authentic language, I estimate that an average A2 learner will find the enormous amount of data and the level of the language somewhat off-putting. From a teacher’s point of view, one of the prerequisites of a successful corpus-based lesson is its simplicity; it’s sufficient to show one simple, practical thing at a go.

Let me give you an example. My intermediate students (B1-B2) need to practise various written genres. Last time they were asked to write a formal letter as a reply to a job advertisement. I normally stick to a very commonplace procedure: I collect the assignments and correct and grade them at home, using various colour codes and abbreviations. I select the most recurring errors from all the essays, and afterwards I give my students detailed feedback (I wrote about it in detail here). However, I’m convinced there is more you can do for your students’ language progress.

Here are a couple of excerpts from a student’s writing I’ve just corrected:

Dear Sir or Madam,

I am writting to apply for the post of a part-time job, which I saw on a billboard next to the hospital. 

………. I consider myself to be accommodating, hard-working and I am good in talking and playing with children. 

……. I am enclosing my CV.
……. I look forward to hearing from you. 

For starters, you can teach your students a very simple thing – how to check the frequency of certain phrases and how to look for alternatives. As you can see, my student had decided to use Dear Sir or Madam at the beginning of the letter. This is fine, but I can ask the class if they are familiar with other ways of addressing people in formal correspondence. Let’s first look at the student’s choice, namely at how frequent it is in comparison with other possibilities. Dear Sir or Madam got 7 hits in the British National Corpus.

I remember that when I was an intermediate learner myself, we were taught that we can also use a plural form, Dear Sirs or Madams. Let’s check what the BNC has to say …

The empty result may imply that this way of greeting people is pretty unnatural. When checking out other possibilities, you’ll come across an option that is more frequent than the other two above – Dear Sir/Madam (26 hits). However, although the corpus shows that this way of addressing people is quite common, it doesn’t say if it’s always the best option. It turns out that under certain circumstances, it is safer to opt for a different greeting.

Let’s have a look at another chunk from the student’s writing I find worth focusing on a bit: I am writing to [apply for]. Now, I’d zoom in on I am writing to …  The first question I would ask my students is: Apart from apply, what other verbs can follow? You can find out by looking at the right collocation candidates. You’ll get the following examples:

I am writing to confirm
I am writing to express….¨
I am writing to inform
I am writing to thank ….
I am writing to offer ….

You might want to work with the above chunks and ask your students to complete them with their own answers. What do we normally confirm/express? What preposition do we typically use with thank/inform? What can you offer? Alternatively or additionally, you can check the corpus again; by clicking on a few example sentences you can see what other users of English opted for.

There’s one more thing I’d definitely elaborate on in a follow-up lesson and that is the phrase: I consider myself …. You can let your student figure out for themselves that it’s possible to say I consider myself to be [adjective/noun] or just I consider myself [adjective/noun]. I believe that their own discovery will make the structures more memorable than if they just saw them in a grammar table in their coursebook. Encourage your students to only focus on the red parts of the sentences and their immediate surroundings. Although there are tons of other things you can do with the sample sentences, this is, for the time being, just enough for an intermediate learner of English.

What comes to mind now is a personalised speaking activity. What qualities would you ascribe to you/your friends/other members of your family? I consider myself/my best friend/my brother …

The activities I describe above constitute the base of a very authentic lesson, which draws on students’ own written production, as well as examples of writing of other users of English. Such a lesson elaborates on what students already know, plus it demonstrates how to work with a very useful online tool.

Apart from corpora, there are other tools that work in the same vein, such as FrazeIt, Just The Word, or Netspeak, which are probably more user-friendly since you don’t need to register for them. Needless to say, Google is the easiest and most accessible web-based tool for working with authentic language, and it comes in handy when one needs to look up something really quickly.

Preferences, approaches and aspirations

The oth71be3-mc5a02bdorter day I went over to Steve Wheeler’s blog and watched a short interview recorded at the INTED 2015 conference in Madrid, Spain. I highly recommend watching the video, in which Steve talks about the importance of technology in education. The progressive, yet moderate view on technology resonates with me but what really struck a chord with me was the following line: Every student has different preferences, approaches and aspirations. Nothing new under the sun, right? Yet, it got me thinking and inspired me to write this post. When I heard the line, I immediately thought of learning styles and the heated debate they have recently inspired, and I realised that it’s much better to think of students’ differences in terms of their preferences, approaches and aspirations than in terms of the looked-down-on learning styles, which, to me, represent a rather narrow perspective. However, as you’ll see, it’d probably be more comfortable and easier to deal with just seven learning styles than with a plethora of different preferences, approaches and aspirations.

It’s obvious that each and every student wants a different thing – hence the different preferences. When learning English, one student prefers grammar tables; another favours picking up the language through reading books. You don’t need to prove this scientifically because you can tell what your students want – they show you, implicitly or explicitly, or they just tell you if you ask. Also, it’s beyond doubt that each and every student deals with school work in a different way. You can observe this directly, provided you give your students some choice and control over their learning approaches. For example, some like learning vocabulary by underlining words and recording them in their notebooks; others use apps on mobile phones to memorise and revise lexical items. As for aspirations, it’s unlikely that you’ll find two students who aspire for the very same thing. Few students will do without English when they leave school, but there might be some in the end. Maybe they’ll need German or Russian instead – not English. Not all students will need to be able to speak the language at a high level; some will get by with passive knowledge of vocabulary since they won’t use the language to communicate orally. For instance, they will only read texts for academic purposes. Others won’t have to do a lot of writing, so they won’t have to panic about spelling and linking words a big deal.

Now, if you take into account that there are at least 3 constants – preferences, approaches and aspirations, which, by the way, can be highly variable – and you have a class of, say, 25 students, then it’s really difficult to adjust your teaching to satisfy every student’s needs. You’d have to have an inventory of up to 25 times 3 different teaching approaches/methods/techniques/styles/magic tricks, which you obviously can’t perform all at once. i e. in one lesson. Plus you would sometimes have to be a fortune teller to be able to tell what exactly you students want on a particular day, in a particular lesson.

What is the solution, then? Individualisation? Yes, but there are 25 individuals with various preferences, approaches and aspirations in your class, remember? Personalisation? Yes, but there are 25 persons sitting in front of you ready to start talking about what concerns them. Making your teaching learner-centred? Absolutely! However, there are 25 learners to be focused on. Give them tasks to complete? Yes, but what if they prefer to absorb knowledge through listening and taking notes, and it bugs them when they are forced to learn through completing inauthentic tasks. Dogme? Well, yes, but imagine how much variety would suddenly emerge at one point if you were really liberal; would you be able to handle it? Let them use technology then? Good idea but there are some who prefer to see things on paper and they hate looking at the computer screen. The matter is complicated by the fact that I, too, have my preferences, approaches and aspirations, and beliefs.

I’m not exactly pessimistic but whenever I enter the classroom and see those 25 little heads, I can’t help feeling I’m not doing enough – I can never do enough. What is my role as a teacher then? Mind you, this is not a philosophical question; this is a question I ask as a practitioner with some experience in the classroom and I bit of theoretical knowledge. Can we do anything at all or would the whole system of schooling have to change completely, as some argue? Before this happens, I guess I’ll just be there for my students trying to do what I believe is best for them …