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.

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.

The genie is out again

As you might have noticed, I’ve lately been fairly productive here on my blog and I do apologize for the influx of posts to those who consider daily blogging a bit too much for their taste (there’s even a new word for such a ‘diagnosis’, according to David Crystal). Well, there’s always the option of unfollowing, muting or ignoring (or whatever the possibilities are). But if you’ve chosen to bear with me nevertheless, thank you. 🙂

Although blogging feels so good these days, even therapeutic, I find my current spurt of energy rather ironic because it was not so long ago that I shared my feelings regarding a lack of zeal. In that older post, I complained said that I had lost enthusiasm for social media and particularly blogging. Was it blogger burnout? Either way, life is a rollercoaster.

Since then, things have improved massively. It’s no surprise, though, because it’s the summer holidays, right? However, I still remember how I felt back then – as if there was nothing more to share with the world. I felt like things were happening but for some reason, there was no space for reflection (and so nothing to write about). Maybe it was because my working memory was overloaded with all the weird stuff going on around me. And maybe that’s why I couldn’t tap into my reflective capacity. In hindsight, I would say that I was running on autopilot, at least most of the time – as though I wasn’t even fully conscious of what I was doing and why. So perhaps, I needed to save all the creative powers for the actual job that had to be done, i.e. teaching online, and there was no inspiration left for reflecting on my teaching and blogging.

After all, asynchronous lessons had to be created and although I found the process quite enjoyable, it took a lot of my time and energy. In addition to that, obviously, synchronous lessons had to be delivered as well, but not many of us had actually received much proper training on how to go about it successfully. There were so many new skills to acquire on the fly. What is more, you can be a teacher genius but your experience is mainly derived from being in the actual classroom. So let’s face it, even though some of that experience can come in handy in online teaching, most of the time, you are in the dark (myself at any rate).

Also, I remember that back then, I knew there were people out there who were more knowledgeable and had more experience with the virtual environment and I suspected that what teachers needed most was useful tips and advice on how to handle the new situation rather than somebody whining about how uncomfortable they felt with this or that. But maybe I’m wrong and people would have related. It’s just water under the bridge anyway …

So, most of the time I kept myself busy exploring ELT websites and online materials that fellow teachers were busily sharing and recommending, which, in the end, was what helped me most at that time. It was a period of consumption of practical ideas which had to be put into practice immediately – with little time to gauge and/or reflect on their efficacy. Life happened, as they say, and we simply complied without questioning too much, I guess.

But now, at last, it’s time to stop and contemplate for a bit. I feel that at the moment, emotions, as well as newly formed beliefs, need to be scrutinized before new input can be taken in. Luckily, it seems that all the previously suppressed reflective powers are back, ready to serve me again. The bottle was opened and the genie can get out.

Lost zeal?

This blog has been around for quite some time now. It’s an inseparable part of me; it’s an extension of my teacher self. But over the past few months, it’s become a bit more external, so to speak. It’s something out there, something I’m aware of but something I think of less and less. The thing is that I’ve always been considered a prolific blogger. When I was given that label some years ago, I happily accepted it. And most of the time, I lived up to it without having to try too hard. However, this year, there were long stretches of silence from me. It’s even occurred to me a few times this year that since I have not enough content to write about, I’ll quit ‚officially’. Some bloggers disappeared into thin air quite inconspicuously while others did say their goodbye out loud and wound up their endeavour for good. But I think comebacks are ridiculous. And I knew that at some point I would feel the need to come back. So what’s the point?

The question that really bothers me though is why I’ve lost my zeal? This year (as of today) I have only produced 15 posts, which is the fewest of all times (just for the sake of comparison, in 2014 I wrote 96!). Well, we could blame it on the pandemic. Wait! Last year, I published 22 posts and there was no such thing as COVID-19. So apparently, my motivation to write started decreasing before 2020, regardless of the external factors. On the face of it, it seems I’ve figured things out as a teacher and tried everything out so I have nothing new to share. But, as we all know, 2020 has tested us, teachers, more than enough so saying that there was nothing new would sound absolutely implausible.

One way or the other, the good news is that I don’t feel I’ve lost my enthusiasm for the teaching profession itself. Well, maybe I’m not as passionate as I used to be a few years back but this may well be to the good. Having passion is useful but it may also be rather overwhelming – for the teacher as well as the students. So I think that in a way, I have settled and calmed down as a teacher over the past couple of years, which I consider to be a positive sign. This may (or may not) be reflected in the amount of content I publish on my blog.

Anyway, I hope I’ll be able to be in the physical classroom more than I was in 2020 because it’s the place where the most amazing things worth sharing happen.

Embracing uncertainty

OK. It’s been a week since I wrote my last post and I must say things have changed a lot. Well, actually, things haven’t changed at all, at least not to the better. Still, I feel my perspective has shifted a great deal.

It’s unbelievable how flexible a human being can be, especially in times of despair. People can bear a lot of load. And the more of it they carry, the lighter the burden from previous days seems in comparison to what they are struggling with at the minute.

The teaching and learning conditions at schools here in the Czech Republic (and I dare say in the rest of the world) are nothing like they used to be, say, a year ago. Apart from the physical changes (masks, disinfectants, social distancing), there are some mental obstacles we need to tackle on a daily basis. At the back of our minds, there is this omnipresent fear of something we don’t quite understand. And that’s a hell of a load.

Yet, we are getting used to the invisible enemy. At least I am.

Last week, the weather was splendid. It was as if Mother Nature wanted to make up for the mess people find themselves in right now. So it was possible to have some lessons outdoors (where no masks are needed). For example, a group of my senior students did a project about their hometown – Šternberk. I split the group into pairs and each pair worked on a different topic. Their task was to find information about some of the places of interests found in the vicinity of our school. Then we wandered around and pretended to be tour guides, meaning each pair presented their findings to the rest of the group in English. Whenever possible, they presented the information on the spot, e.g. when talking about the castle, we were literally standing in front of the sight, Later, they wrote their parts up and sent me the electronic versions so that everybody had the the whole compilation at their disposal for their final exams.

Other group did some ‘outdoor’ collaborative writing. The students were working in pairs, lying on the grass or sitting around in the sun. One group wrote a story starting When I was seven years old … The story was supposed to be written in the past tense (which was the focus of the lesson) and it had to include a moral or an interesting twist. Another group wrote collaborative essays on the topic My future is in my hands? (the question mark is important here). Again, the lesson was based around the topic of future, which we had talked about in the previous lessons. All the stories were finally written up in an electronic version for me to see before the students will present their work in class next week.

Learning outdoors is fun and honestly, it’s great to have a change of scene. However, there are some pitfalls to it too. Firstly, it can get a bit noisy from the traffic. Also, not all students are disciplined enough to be able to concentrate on the given task – there are way too many distractions. Finally, outdoor teaching is not suitable for all types of activities. In fact, unless you have a fully equipped outdoor classroom, it’s something that definitely spices up the time spent at school but it’s just a temporary measure. Not to mention the most important thing – the weather must be nice.

Today is Friday and we are not at school. In an attempt to improve the epidemic situation, The Ministry of Health advised us to stay at home till Tuesday, which is a bank holiday in the Czech Republic. Well, we’ll see what the future holds for us. Hopefully, we’ll be back at school on Tuesday, teaching face to face. Otherwise, hello, online teaching!

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.

Collective feedback on written assignments

In this post I’d like to share one of my favourite ways of giving feedback on written assignments, which I’ve been practising for some time now and which has proved really useful and effective in my teaching context. I usually do this with intermediate classes but I believe it can work with lower levels too. This method is a classic one, nothing really revolutionary, plus no technology needs to be involved. However, I can’t think of any reason why it couldn’t become high-tech.

One of the questions that may pop up immediately is: How do you know that the method is effective? I can tell quite easily; students pay attention during the feedback presentation, and they constantly ask questions, make comments and ask for clarification. And although they are not able to avoid all the discussed errors in their next written assignment, I notice that they do eschew some. This, in my view, is hard evidence that the feedback hit the right note and that they have improved.

So what do I actually do? I teach classes of 10 up to 23 students.  When I correct and grade their written assignments, I always create a ‘collective feedback’ report in which I have collected the most frequent mistakes the students made. This means that a mistake is recorded only if it’s made by at least two students. I don’t pay attention to individual or rare errors because pointing to them when giving feedback to the whole class would not be too effective and it would also become time-consuming. Moreover, although I never mention the names of the students who made particular errors, if I picked a unique error, the author might easily recognise it and feel exposed and subsequently embarrassed. It’s just safer to refer to each error as something more people struggle with.

I should mention that one of the rare positives of teaching large classes is that the more numerous the class is, the more beneficial this type of feedback generally becomes, since in a class of 23 students, each student actually learns from 22 other people. This, quite obviously, wouldn’t be possible if you teach one to one.

An example of a collective feedback report, page 2
An example of a collective feedback report, page 1

Now, I should stress that it’s absolutely necessary to give this type of feedback before handing out the corrected assignments; otherwise it would be a complete waste of time. Each student would stare at his/her own essay without paying much attention to what I say about the other errors. So, the psychological effect of handing out the assignments after the feedback conclusions are out is clear – students listen carefully in an attempt to spot their own errors among the plethora of incorrect language items produced by their peers. This is desirable because even if Student A didn’t make the same mistake Student B made, this doesn’t mean that Student B’s error is not a potential area of difficulty for Student A. Also, during the feedback time, students are trying to figure out what mark they got by ticking off and counting the mistakes that are presumably theirs. This keeps them in suspense and when they finally get the assignments back, they are ready to accept the grade without feeling too disappointed. In other words, they get mentally prepared for the outcome, which may be less painful than if you just served an E straight away.

To sum up, I believe that this method is more cognitively challenging for your students than just giving out corrected essays with individual feedback reports on them. Also, it may be motivating for the weaker learners to see that they are not the only ones who make mistakes. There’s another advantage to this approach; this kind of feedback is a great tool for monitoring the class’s progress. You can always look back at the previous reports and see what some of the recurrent problems are. Having said that, it’s highly beneficial to store all the reports, either digitally or in a paper file, because then you can compare class A with class B, for example, and see what your next steps should be in case you want to help your students make progress or avoid failure.