Let it be(e)!

One of the things I’ve always liked to have in my life is control. It sounds a bit authoritarian but I believe it’s one of the basic human desires no matter what anybody says. This has also long been one of my deep-seated convictions about teaching and classroom management. So, as a teacher, I like to have the upper hand in class, too. Not that I crave power because I like the feel of it, it just feels safer to hold the reins and be in charge. To be more precise, deep down I believe things go more smoothly and effectively, i.e. students learn more when there is an order as opposed to chaos.

When I was younger, I often lost ground when things slipped out of control in class, especially with younger kids. Consequently, I would feel really bad about myself. In my book, it was always my fault. Luckily, it’s much better now because a) I’m more experienced so I don’t often let things go out of control – simply by taking precautions, b) if it does happen, though, I have some strategies and coping mechanisms to handle the situation, and c) I’ve come to realize that after all, losing control may not always be a bad thing. I’ve learned it the hard way, though…

I’ve learned there are many situations when things can’t be controlled. And you have to accept it. When a bee flies into the classroom, there’s not much you can do to stop the disorder and confusion immediately. People feel threatened in such situations. It’s their basic instinct to start screaming and jumping around like crazy. Well, you, the one in charge, can kill the bee (which I’d rather not do) or let it out (which I always opt for), but this intervention takes time. Needless to say, by the time you handle the situation, the class has already fallen apart and you’ll need a lot of energy to restore some kind of ‘law and order’. When your student gets so sick that you need to call an ambulance in the middle of your class, you can bet your bottom dollar that you will never be able to resume the lesson. It’s so strange, you know … when the sick student is safe and in good hands of the paramedics, your teacher-self automatically wants to pick up where they left off because you feel you owe the other students. But it’s not possible and it’s actually insane to think you can simply rewind and start over. And let’s face it, it’s you who desperately needs the restoration, not the students.

It may sound too harsh but apart from being a control freak, I also like to mentally abuse myself. When I feel things have slipped out of control, I always ask myself: What would people think if they suddenly entered the classroom? What would they see? Chaos. Mayhem. Havoc. They’d simply see the opposite of what a normal lesson should look like and I’d probably have to explain myself, which automatically adds to my dissatisfaction with myself as a teacher.

But sometimes I’m kind to myself, which is happening more and more these days, so when things slip out of control (because kids are having too much fun during an activity or something has just upset them), I force myself to stop and quietly observe. In other words, I do not jump up and interfere right away as my true nature dictates to me, but I take a step back, metaphorically and literally speaking. And sometimes things settle down after a while without the slightest intervention of mine. The chaos in front of me gradually reshapes and remoulds itself into something perfectly harmonious. It’s just a bit noisier. Sometimes I realize that things are actually perfectly fine even though at first sight, they may look a bit disorganized. And oftentimes it is not chaos at all; I just see it that way because I’m such a despot.

This is not to say that I believe that all of a sudden, things can go all liberal. What I’m saying is that it’s often the teacher’s (read: me) focus and perspective that need to change. And although there has been a lot of self-flagellation in this post, I still believe I’m a good teacher and particularly my classroom management skills are my strongest suit. I just think that I could be happier and more content if I just let it be. 🙂

Better be preparred than sorry

So, we are currently finding ourselves in the post-covid situation. Well, whether it’s really post covid is a question I’d rather avoid elaborating on. One way or another, we are back at school having regular face-to-face lessons and it seems things have truly come back to normal at school. By normal I mean we are in the actual classrooms doing the things we used to do. But normal doesn’t necessarily mean the same.

Truth be told, last year around this time, we also felt things were getting back to normal. Except they weren’t. Schools were closed again. With this in mind, I can’t help constantly feeling on my toes. The other day I even caught myself looking at my timetable, drafting a potential Zoom schedule from my classes. In other words, I was considering all the possible combinations for the ever-dreaded scenario – the lockdown.

Not only that, I’ve been intentionally training my classes, especially the new ones, to navigate themselves in the online platform that we were using during the last lockdown. Ironically, although we spent quite a long period of time in the online realm, I’ve come to the conclusion that people (me included) tend to forget soon and quickly. For example, when I wanted to design a quick online activity for my classes back in September, for a moment, I was struggling to remember how things worked. For that reason, I thought students may have the same problem.

What I’m trying to say is that I decided to keep one foot in the online environment in case things went south again. So, we do tests on mobile devices rather than on paper. Some homework is online too. This blended approach has some advantages as well as disadvantages but overall, I’d say that there are more pros than cons. As always, it’s the notorious internet connection that makes our lives difficult. But so far, we’ve always figured things out. If, for instance, a student doesn’t have a phone at all (yes, there are some who don’t), they can borrow my laptop.

On a more positive note, one of the major advantages is that the feedback is instant. Also, in order to work properly, the quizzes need to be designed immaculately. So I tend to put a lot of thought into the actual design, especially into the decisions regarding what I want to test. As a result, not only do I feel more content and in control but I think the students feel the same way. The younger students told me explicitly that they actually like this approach. I mean, they are at school and they are allowed to touch their phones! Wow!

There’s one thing I’m still on the fence about – does this type of online testing allow for cheating? I obviously monitor the class all the time but I know there are ways to outsmart the teacher, so to speak. Students can make print screens and they can easily share their answers via some messaging platforms. They might google answers as well. Anyway, I’m aware of all these potentialities but I’ve actually never seen anyone cheating so far. So, fingers crossed for us.

Having said that, that doesn’t mean I’m some kind of an extremist as far as technology is concerned. I’m well aware of the fact that mobile technologies, and especially social media, can be truly damaging if not used wisely. But as I said earlier, we need to be prepared for the worst scenario. If students are stranded at home again, they will be forced to use mobile technologies no matter what we think about their negative effects. 

Store, bookmark, catalogue!

Although I like change and variety, I’m also drawn to perfection. This may seem like a great combination of personality traits, especially for a(n English) teacher, but it is a source of conflict too.

You know… I’ve always dreamt of colour-coded folders in which teaching materials would be neatly organized based on specific categories (year, level, skill, etc.). And then, before each lesson, I’d just run my finger over the spines of the files and I’d fish out the handout I needed.

Unfortunately, this strategy has never quite worked out for me. The thing is that first of all, there are simply too many categories that overlap and intersect so grouping and cataloguing become confusing. It may be feasible for someone but for me, it’s only a source of additional stress because, well, the result is never perfect. Also, I feel that maintaining such a system would be quite time-consuming since the materials go out of date too soon and if you want to move with the times, so to speak, they constantly need to be updated. And although specific types of materials, such as grammar sheets, don’t necessarily expire that quickly, the way I approach teaching grammar is constantly evolving so they may also become quite redundant at some point. However, the main reason I’ve given up on this ‘ideal’ way of storing materials is that these days, it’s simply futile to do so. Why? Because the Internet itself is a great catalogue where you can access everything quickly and easily without making too much mess on your desk.

Just think of all the fellow teachers out there who, now and then, recommend something one simply can’t resist trying out in class so there is no time (or no desire) left to keep doing the same old tricks. Also, the students will never be the same; their skills and needs are evolving too. While one group might have been quite happy with an activity handout five years ago, this year, another group at an allegedly same level may find it totally inappropriate. Plus, I sometimes feel like a cheater when introducing the same activity over and over again.

Anyway, the past couple of years have shown me that having stacks of paper folders and laminated cards is a touch obsolete and those materials I had collected over time were actually pretty useless during the pandemic. I do admit, though, that such a collection can be a source of inspiration and a backbone of your course, even during a remote teaching period, but I personally didn’t use them much, mainly because I couldn’t be bothered to bring them home from my office. 

So, as a result, instead of sticking to the safe old tricks, I had to widen my horizons. There was no other way. I had to step out of my comfort zone (oh, how I hate this phrase!) – I had to visit new websites and download new apps.

Well, times have obviously changed … but what has also changed dramatically is my attitude to teaching materials. Although the quality of the resources we use is definitely crucial, they are not (and cannot be) the part of the teaching process we spend most of our time and energy on. It’s primarily the student and our teaching skills that should take centre stage. In other words, it’s not important what kind of resources we currently own and in what form we store them, it is important to be flexible and creative when looking for suitable materials we need at a given moment. Subsequently, the same amount of creativity and flexibility will be needed when applying those materials in class. So, I believe it is the experience that we should store, catalogue or bookmark (i.e. remember), not the handouts.

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).

Individual feedback and birthday cards

We, teachers, are busy creatures and we dread the moment when essays to grade suddenly pile up. In my case, luckily, I’m only obliged to give students numerical grades (1-5), which obviously makes the process quicker and easier. However, like many of my colleagues, I also like to add a short verbal note that justifies my grade. This is a bit more time-consuming than just giving grades but although no two people have the same DNA, students do tend to make similar mistakes and struggle with the same language issues. So, what happens is that I grade the first essay, write a short comment and when I move on to the next piece of writing, I realize that I can actually copy and paste a line or two from the previous feedback. Logically, it gets easier and easier as I proceed.

I would say that there’s nothing wrong with the above approach. After all, people have written about comment banks, use them successfully and as it turns out, you can download them easily from the internet. Surprisingly, you can also purchase them. Who says you can’t buy happiness? 😉

So, there’s no doubt that comment banks and related apps are there to help teachers. I suppose they may be equally useful as other online tools, such as Google autocomplete, which, similarly to comment bank apps, performs a prediction of possible search queries and shows a drop-down list of related words and phrases and thus makes it faster for you to complete searches that you’re beginning to type. Or, take Grammarly, for example, which instantly gives you feedback on how your writing may sound to others, e. g. accusatory, friendly, formal, appreciative, etc.

But apart from saving the teacher’s time, comment banks can also help to accurately describe the problems a particular student should fix or they can lift the student’s spirits effectively by listing their strengths.

So far so good. Well, here’s the issue I have with comment banks – free or paid: they are pre-generated and although they are to a great degree tailor-made to meet each student’s needs, they still lack in uniqueness. And to be completely fair … so does my copy-and-paste strategy mentioned above.

Now, I may be splitting hairs here but let me explain what’s really bugging me: I guess I simply fear the moment when two students come together, look at each other’s feedback and find out that I used identical words to assess their work. I’m particularly talking about students who take schoolwork seriously and put in a lot of effort. What if they think that it was me who didn’t make enough effort?

It’s the same with birthdays cards – you can buy some lovely cards from a stationer but I always hesitate before picking one; what if the birthday person gets two identical cards? Or what if they already got this one last year? It’s always safer to make a card with your own hands, out of ordinary file paper, and give it a personal touch, isn’t it? It may be more time consuming and quite a challenge to come up with something unique but it may well be much easier – especially if you know the person really well. Then the words write themselves, so to speak.

Now, the sceptical reader may object … and what about grades? How unique are they? Not at all, I admit. Nothing can be more unfair than this type of summative assessment. If five people in my class may get grade 1, this doesn’t mean their essays are equally good. Also, I doubt that those five students will ever scrutinize what is behind that grade. They will probably accept it and happily move on. Will they learn much? I’m not sure. Complacency may be the enemy of progress.

Luckily, if one feels too guilty about grades, comment banks or any pre-generated type of feedback, there are other ways of evaluating students’ written work in time-constrained situations. I sometimes like to provide a class with generic feedback, which I wrote about some time ago here on my blog. This also brings me to the topic of peer review/assessment, which has been repeatedly discussed on two of my favourite blogs (Vedrana’s and Paul’s) and I strongly recommend reading them (if you haven’t already).

Well, I’ll sign off here and leave the reader with some food for thought. Or maybe there’s nothing to think about. Either way, thank you for stopping by and reading.

Some of the less visible forms of pressure

It all started on 13 March 2020, when full-time education in elementary, secondary and tertiary educational facilities was cancelled here in the Czech Republic. Everything turned upside down and life became surreal. And that was when our egos started suffering …

From that day on, we teachers had to look at our own faces, listen to our own voices and endure being constantly observed by others in a totally new environment – online.

You are probably aware that there’s a psychological reason behind why we hate looking at photographs of ourselves. I think we’ve all been there; when we see a photo of ourselves, for some reason, we start focusing on the bits of the image we don’t like and overall, we look older, uglier and fatter than we normally feel. On the other hand, our friends always look amazing in photos, so we don’t understand why they cringe too when it’s just us who looks terrible.

Similarly, we don’t particularly enjoy listening to our own voices. They sound so different, almost alien. It can’t be us speaking.

And I doubt there are many people out there who like being observed doing stuff in a situation that is new to them, let alone formally.

Yet, these are some of the things we‘ve had to get used to doing. In other words, we‘ve had to become desensitised to constantly seeing our faces on the screens, hearing our voices and being observed by our students (most of them invisible), or even by our bosses sometimes. 

How did we get used to it all then? Well, we had no choice. We had to do the things regardless of how we felt about them. At first, it was tough. I think it’s similar to publishing your first blog post. You put yourself out there and wait. If the feedback is positive, you obviously want to do it again. If the feedback you receive is negative, you always have the option to stand down. The worst thing, I believe, is no response. And this is how I often felt when teaching online – in a void. Like I didn’t know where I had come from and where I was headed. Like a lonely child staring at the ceiling of her bedroom.

However, unlike an unsuccessful blogger, who can always quit, we couldn’t just stop teaching online. We had to keep going no matter what. So, at first, we cringed every time we saw that strange face on the screen or heard that uncanny voice. But after some time, we somehow stopped fussing about our self-images. We started focusing on other things – the more important things. After all, we needed to make our lessons work, and that required a lot of energy and cognitive capacity. So in the end, we didn’t give a damn about what we looked like that particular morning or how awkward our voice sounded in a video we had created.

We’ve learned an important lesson: that undue awareness of oneself often stands in the way of success. There’s no point in worrying about the things you can’t change (the sound of our voice) but there’s a lot we can do to improve the things we’re not happy about (our classroom management skills in a remote lesson).

Postface:

The way I use the we pronoun may feel a bit patronizing in the sense that I believe we all felt the same way. But I know not everybody is so self-conscious. By we I actually mostly mean I but I’m inviting everybody who finds this topic relatable to include themselves in the we. Also, I’m aware that there were other professions in which people had to endure much more stress (nurses, doctors, police officers, firefighters, shop assistants, etc.). My point is that there are many forms of psychological pressure which may be less visible but equally annoying and damaging to a fragile soul.

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.

Is there a way to turn haters into lovers?

I’ve never had a student who would openly say that they hate my subject. Not right to my face anyway. I remember a few who did say they didn’t like English, though. These were either the students who I had just started teaching, so they had had some previous (presumably bad) experience, or those who I had been teaching myself for a while (and thus I felt it was me to blame for their lack of enthusiasm).

Needless to say, one should always be wary of taking things too personally. Let’s not bash ourselves too much about things we can’t control. Instead, let’s stop and carefully analyse all the possible reasons why students may actually dislike English classes in general. Here’s a list I’ve compiled for myself and those potentially interested.

  1. Some students simply find the lessons boring, no matter what; for the most part, they can’t relate to the topics typically covered in English courses.
  2. They reckon it’s not a serious subject with all those silly games and fun activities.
  3. They feel like English classes are a waste of time; after all, they can learn English from movies, video games and YouTube.
  4. They dread failure; they are anxious about tests and other high-stakes events which can spoil the joy of learning virtually anything.
  5. Although they don’t mind listening and reading, they hate performing in class. It is the productive skills, i.e. speaking and writing, which they find extremely threatening.
  6. They hate being constantly in the limelight; they find it particularly uncomfortable to expose their feelings and personal views.
  7. English classes may be hard to swallow for individualists who need their own pace and who feel the others are just holding them back (including the teacher). They may also feel the teacher’s methods are not suitable for them, e.g. they find the communicative approach to teaching an L2 totally off.
  8. Related to the previous point, they don’t enjoy pair/group work; they feel like they can’t learn much from their peers so they don’t see the point in collaboration of any sort.
  9. They hate being taught/told what they (think) they already know, i.e. they don’t see the value in recycling the language over and over again.
  10. They feel the lack of some sort of tangibility and immediate achievement; the outcomes and success may often feel elusive throughout the process of L2 acquisition, especially when they hit the plateau stage.
  11. They don’t feel comfortable in a particular group. They feel their level of English is not high enough in comparison with others or they feel other types of peer pressure.
  12. The lessons are potentially challenging for highly sensitive students who crave structure and certainty. Successful mastery of English is preceded by a long journey with lots of unpredictability along the way. It’s a highly individual process, too. Nothing can be fully granted to anybody at any stage. In other words, you can never promise that if a student does X, they will automatically achieve Y. Inevitably, this can be off-putting for some.

There’s a high probability that by reading the list, you’ll actually get to the bottom of the problem. For me, part of the mystery has been solved: it’s not just the teacher to blame in the end. Let’s stop trying to please everybody at all costs. As teachers, we can indeed adjust a few things here and there, but there are some issues that are too complex for us to fix for good, no matter how competent and professional we are. Sometimes, all we need to do is to accept the fact that each student is an individual coming from a different background. What I’m saying here is that there will always be some students who hate English. What is more important is that there will certainly be a few that will love our subject, and these are the ones we should focus on primarily because you know what, the ‘lovers’ may eventually pass some of their enthusiasm on to the ‘haters’. Also, and most importantly, by finding out what is actually so loveable about our classes we can eventually find solutions to some of the problems mentioned above.

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.