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! 

Reverse!

Yesterday I stumbled upon a blog post by Willy Cardoso, published on the British Council Teaching English blog. In his post, the author argues that learners’ writings are one of the best raw materials any teacher can have. I totally agree with this, but what really resonated with me was the following tip he shares: “Start a new unit from the last page!” 

How come this had never dawned on me before? Such a simple, clever idea… I’d always believed that the pure version of teaching unplugged needs a lot of courage and experience on the teacher’s part. Also, if the teacher’s hands are tied by the administrators’ restrictions and requirements, experimenting becomes much more difficult. Willy Cardoso’s approach, though, looks less daunting and does not violate any of the following key principles of the Dogme teaching

  • Interactivity: the most direct route to learning is to be found in the interactivity between teachers and students and amongst the students themselves.
  • Engagement: students are most engaged by content they have created themselves
  • Dialogic processes: learning is social and dialogic, where knowledge is co-constructed
  • Scaffolded conversations: learning takes place through conversations, where the learner and teacher co-construct the knowledge and skills
  • Emergence: language and grammar emerge from the learning process. This is seen as distinct from the ‘acquisition’ of language.
  • Affordances: the teacher’s role is to optimize language learning affordances through directing attention to emergent language.
  • Voice: the learner’s voice is given recognition along with the learner’s beliefs and knowledge.
  • Empowerment: students and teachers are empowered by freeing the classroom of published materials and textbooks.
  • Relevance: materials (e.g. texts, audios and videos) should have relevance for the learners
  • Critical use: teachers and students should use published materials and textbooks in a critical way that recognizes their cultural and ideological biases.


Even if you have to follow a syllabus (because your students are required to become familiar with a certain number of specific grammatical structures/vocabulary/topics/whatever), you can use this approach without failing to fulfil the red tape requirements. Even if you and your colleagues are expected to create a syllabus based on the coursebook you use throughout the course, you can teach dogme-ish and still be sure that the administrators won’t find anything wrong with your suspiciously-looking methods. 

Now I’d like to ask myself a question: How can I go about it in my teaching context? I’m looking at the coursebook I use with my pre-intermediate students. Unit 1 covers the following 1) topics: personality, teenage challenges, music, hobbies, 2) language items: present simple vs. present continuous, verb patterns (verb + infinitive/-ing form), 3) functions: exchanging opinions (about hobbies, likes/dislikes), and finally, 4) a writing task: a personal profile. 
So, let’s say that I’ll ask my Ss to write a personal profile first. I’ll see what my Ss already know and what areas they find problematic. Some of the problematic areas will probably overlap with the content of the current unit, so I’ll make sure they will gradually be covered in detail. For instance, it’s likely that I’ll find out that my Ss don’t need to practise present simple because they can use it confidently. Maybe they only struggle with some specific aspects; they, for example, err when making questions and/or they keep forgetting to add an -s with the third person singular verb. So I will focus on this a bit. Based on my experience, Czech learners can form the present continuous, but they tend to overuse it, so I might want to include some extra practice if necessary. In other words, I’ll work on emergent problems plus I’ll feed Ss the language items that pop up along the way. 
The truth is, however, that some language structures will have to be forced on Ss. For example, there is a list of about 30 verbs in Unit 1 whose patterns Ss need to be able to use at some point. It’s unlikely that all those patterns will emerge naturally as we speak about personality traits, hobbies, etc. What could I do then? I could obviously use the texts from the coursebook or I can create my own personal profile and deliberately include all those verbs my Ss need to acquire. The latter approach will undoubtedly be far more natural and relevant, as well as more interactive and dialogic. 
All in all, I’m convinced that this selective approach will give me more time to cover things which are engaging – those things which I feel I have little time for. However, I believe there’s no need to avoid the textbook completely. In the first unit there are nice texts which I know my students love to work on, such as a personality quiz or an article called What does your musical taste say about you? But again, I’ll already know how much time to spend on these sections. I will be able to get rid of the redundant stuff which I now feel obliged to go through, no matter how much of it my Ss actually know already. Having said that, I will finally end up with more time on my hands, which I could use more effectively. 
I think it might be a good idea to apply a cyclic approach here – to start with the last page of the unit, work on the emergent language/problematic areas and then come back to the last page again and get Ss to write an upgraded version of the same written assignment. It might be very interesting to compare both versions and see all the progress Ss have made since the starting point. Now that I think about it, it seems I’m up to a little experiment …  

Dream Reader

This post is not about books or extensive reading, as the title and the image might imply. It is about another useful teaching/learning resource I’ve recently learned about and used in class. 
 
A few days ago, on his A new day, a new thingblog, David Harbinson shared a newly learned thing that had come to him via Mike Griffin’s blog. If you go to Mike’s blog, which I did today, you’ll find an interview with Neil Millington, a university teacher based in Japan, who, six months ago, co-set a website for English learners called DreamReader.net.  
After reading David’s post, nosey me immediately went to the website to see what it’s like. It reminded me of another website I like and use – News in Levels – so I decided to experiment with it a bit in the following lesson. This was on Friday and it was supposed to be a small class of only 10 students. Due to a flu epidemic, though, only 4 students finally turned up for that particular lesson, so the conditions were much more convenient for a language experiment I was up to. It turned out that four was actually a perfect number (but I believe it could work well with larger classes too). So, I’d like to tell you what I did with the website. Spoiler: it went really well. 
My students were pre-intermediate language learners aged 16 (3 boys and 1 girl). The lesson was in the morning and it was 45 minutes long. There are five categories on the site: Easy English, Interesting English, Fun English, Practical English and Academic English. For starters, I chose Fun English. I selected two audios which I thought everybody would be interested in: Minecraft – a PC game everybody knows and plays (or played in the past) and The Simpsons – an animated comedy TV show that is hugely popular over here in the Czech Republic. My plan was to exploit the two short texts to the full.
I projected the web page on the screen. I gave students some brief background information about what I was doing and why, we did some brainstorming, and I started with the first recording. I played the audio and asked Ss to answer the four simple questions that accompany the transcript (note: I had scrolled down the page so that Ss could not see the transcript while listening). The questions are very easy to answer; they serve as an introduction to the topic rather than as a listening/reading comprehension exercise. This is only to the good because it doesn’t put too much stress on Ss during the first encounter with the text. Then we checked the answers quickly as a class. I played the audio again; this time I let the kids follow the transcript. After that we looked at some useful expressions, especially collocations, and put them on the board. I removed the text and got Ss to retell (in pairs) what it said, in their own words, using the chunks on the board. I did the same with The Simpsons. 
I moved on to the next stage. I’m a big fan of Paul Nation’s Learning Vocabulary in Another Language and I love using some of the activities he suggests in this thick volume. So I projected the first text (Minecraft) on the screen again. I asked Ss to work in pairs. One student was sitting so that he faced the screen, the other one right opposite her partner. The one facing the screen was asked to read the text in this way: Look at the text and remember as much as possible (the amount doesn’t really matter – it can be two words up to a whole sentence). Then look at you partner and reproduce the bit you’ve just memorised. Then look at the screen again, memorise the next bit and tell your partner. Do the same with the rest of the text. It doesn’t matter if you only manage to memorise one word, but you must not look at the text and speak at the same time. You can only speak when you are looking at your partner. It is best if you only manage to move your eyes. Try not to move your head too much – it makes reading more difficult. 
This activity is called read-and-look-up and its value lies in the fact that the reader has to carry the words, phrases, or even sentences in his mind. The connection is not from the text to mouth but from text to brain, and then from brain to mouth (see this pdf for further info). 
 

The Ss then changed roles and worked the same way with the other text (The Simpsons). The final stage was something that I’d never done before but that I’d always wanted to try – simultaneous interpretation.  I asked the Ss to work as a class (which was actually a group of 4). The Ss were sitting in a circle, facing each other. I played the audio and asked them to take turns to translate the speech as the audio played. I only paused the audio when I wanted another student to take over. As the students were already familiar with the text, it made things much easier for them. However, I believe this technique helped them make more new brain connections because once again, they received language input which they had to retain in their memory for a short moment before letting it out – this time in their mother tongue. So it offered Ss an opportunity to work with L1 in a meaningful way. Needless to say, it was fun! 

I believe I managed to exploit the two short text/audios in a very effective way. Also, I gave my students a useful tip for an online resource which they can explore and use on their own. I wish there were more handy websites like this one. Hats off to those who take the time to create them and offer them for free!