Does technology make learning and teaching easier?

As a teacher, I’m on a constant lookout for ways of helping my students to improve their level of English, especially at the time when they (think they) are plateauing, which is at around CEFR B1/B2 level. However, this sometimes proves to be quite challenging. The thing is … how can you measurably achieve improvement in language learning?

Let’s take writing, for example. Writing is a skill where the measurability of progress is relatively achievable, especially with all the tech tools available these days. For instance, during the online teaching period, I was able to run my students’ electronic versions of their writings through various text analysing tools, which in the pre-covid times was off the table since they would ususally submit the handwritten versions. Anyway, it turned out that my senior students, regardless of my preconceptions of their writing abilities, had invariably reached the B2+ level, according to this GSE text analyser. So although some students’ writings were clearly better than others, they were all labelled as B2+. This was actually great news because, in my teaching context, the students only aim to achieve level B1/B2, i.e. this level is sufficient for them to pass their state exam in English.

I must admit, though, that the uniform results made me a bit suspicious so for the sake of comparison, I decided to run some other texts through the same profiler; I took an excerpt from my own blog and excerpts from two other blog posts written by native speakers and/or professional bloggers. To make my investigation even more thorough, I looked for samples of writing by examinees aspiring to the C2 level. In addition, I used an academic text. Finally, I chose two pieces of texts written by renowned novelists. To my utter surprise, all the samples were labelled as B2+.

To a layperson, it may seem strange that no matter who the author was, the majority of the words used in those texts were the A1 words. For example, my best student’s essay comprised 57 per cent of words at A1. Compared to the renowned novelist, the ratio was not very different (see below).

My student

A famous novelist

One of the obvious conclusions may be that to come off as a decent writer you just need to throw in lots of A1 words plus a sprinkle of C2 expressions (and some in between these two levels, of course). In this regard, my student did really well and as far as the choice of vocabulary is concerned, there is not much he could do to make his writing look better. Obviously, next time, he could look for synonyms to replace some of the lower-level expressions, plus he could add a few C2 words into the mix, but will this make his essays better? And what does ‘better’ even mean? Does it mean more readable, more complex or more concise? And what do we want to achieve in the first place when we are talking about improving our students’ level of proficiency? Is it our job to spoon feed our students with low-frequency expressions in order to move them up the imaginary ladder? Or is it something else?

You know, the problem with the CEFR scale is that it is linear. Plus, we (and our students) naturally desire to constantly move upwards. A C1 language user is deemed attractive in the eyes of an A2 user, not the other way around. But is a C2 essay better than a B2 one? In the same vein, I could ask if being able to speak at the C1 level is better than being able to hold a conversation at the B2 level. The answer is obvious: it depends on the situation. A lower-level student can make do with what they know and they can convey their message just fine. All things considered, I believe it is not necessarily wise to ceaselessly push our students up towards the highest levels of proficiency. They might get the impression that once they reach the C2 level, they will have achieved the ultimate goal and that’s that. But is it really the terminus? I mean, you can feel stuck on the intermediate plateau for years and still be learning tons of new things. There are loads of language items you can work on incorporating into your language toolkit. And apart from vocabulary and grammar, you can keep refining other language areas and skills.

I do admit my theory has one flaw; I’m only discussing productive skills. Obviously, an L2 student’s productive skills will always be at a lower level than their receptive skills. In other words, in any language, even your mother tongue, you usually understand more than you can actually say/write. So I’m not saying it’s not worth constantly investing your (the student’s) time and energy into enlarging their vocabulary because, to put it simply, knowing more high-level words is useful because you understand more, learn more and can consequently produce more. Based on my experience, from the B2 level onwards, it mainly boils down to the range and amount of vocabulary you know. There aren’t many grammatical structures that will puzzle you or impede your understanding of a text at this level. But not knowing more than 2% of the words in a text you are trying to understand can prove tricky.

So what are some of the ways to help our students navigate the journey? As an L2 learner myself, I find the English Vocabulary Profile Online handy. Personally, I only focus on the C1-C2 words, especially phrases, and in my mind’s eye, I sort them out into three categories: the ones I know and use, the ones I know passively but don’t know properly, and the ones I don’t know. This is a great way to revise and/or fill in the gaps in my knowledge. There’s a similar tool – The English Grammar Profile -which I also sometimes use, but mainly as a teacher. And I advise my students to explore it as well, especially if they need to prepare for an exam because this is a more focused way of studying than, say, watching and listening to random stuff.

Apparently, learning and teaching a foreign language are both equally challenging and complex processes. We all know that. Technology is great but it doesn’t always make things easier. The more advances there are, the more questions emerge – for the teacher as well for the learner (for me anyway). Add to that the plethora of research findings about how languages are best taught and you may end up pretty frustrated, right? Well, let’s take one step at a time. By researching, doing, and reflecting on the doing (in the form of this post, for example), I’ve taken that one little step. We’ll see what the next one will be.

Defossilization of our teaching habits

There are many articles about fossilized grammar errors, fossilization of errors, dealing with fossilized errors, overcoming fossilized errors, arresting fossilization, etc. But there aren’t many on the topic of fossilized teaching practices. In L2 learning, fossilization refers to the process in which incorrect language becomes a habit and cannot easily be corrected. Although language fossilization has a rather negative connotation, especially among us English teachers, by now we’ve accepted the inevitable; we know all too well that fossilization is unavoidable to a great extent. Still, we never cease to look for ways to help our learners deal with fossilized language.

One of the ways is prevention. For example, if you teach real beginners, you can focus on accuracy from the very start and nip each problem in the bud. However, you should still keep in mind that students follow a non-linear learning trajectory towards the aquisition of the L2 and sometimes they will keep making the same mistakes regardless of your efforts. So you need to be patient. One way or another, fossilization can only be fixed when attention is drawn to the issue. That is to say, learners need to become aware of the problem to have the capacity to correct it.

The same as fossilized language, fossilized teaching practices are difficult to fix. The main reason is that for the most part, they are invisible to the eye of the performer. Thus they first need to come under the spotlight to be confronted. But if it is us teachers who help our students to see and overcome fossilized errors (because they can’t do so themselves), who will help us to fix our fossilized teaching practices?

I would argue that we, teaching practitioners, also follow a specific, non-linear trajectory when developing professionally. At the beginning of our careers, we know nothing. They did tell us something in methodology courses but the truth is, the reality shock is overwhelming. Later on, throughout our professional lives, we’ll keep making the same mistakes over and over again until somebody points to them or until the circumstances (lessons that simply don’t work) force us to change some of the things we do. It is only then that we spiral up to the next level.

On a more practical note, here are some of the ways of putting ourselves in the limelight: we can record a lesson of ours and watch it, we can ask a colleague to come and observe us in action, or ask for feedback from our students. These methods may be really painful at first. It is indeed agonizing for our egos to hear that what we’ve been doing for years and years simply doesn’t work the way we thought it did. But they say that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional and recognition and acceptance of a problem is the first step towards solving it. Alternatively, to circumvent the pain but still learn and evolve, we can go to ELT conferences and read books and blogs about reflective practices. Or we can blog about our own teaching experience. Putting ourselves out there like this will help us shine a bright light on some of the areas of our teaching practices, which, in result, will become less ossified.

In conclusion, we must constantly question what we do in the classroom. Asking questions and looking for answers is the best way to potentially defossilize our undesirable teaching habits.

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.

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 …