Click here to go to my latest blog post for the British Council Teaching English site, with lots of getting to know you activities for new classes, or more established ones.
Click here to go to my latest blog post for the British Council Teaching English site, with lots of getting to know you activities for new classes, or more established ones.
As you may have noticed, my posts have been a little thin on the ground lately. I’m planning to remedy this when the project I’m working on slows down enough for me to catch my breath!
In the meantime, here are some posts I’ve written for my British Council blog:
Many teachers produce their own materials, either from necessity or to provide something more tailored to the needs of their students. However, writing materials for a whole lesson, which really engage the learners and focus effectively on language, is quite a challenge. Teachers learn through experience, but are rarely given much support or training in this area.
In this session, given at IATEFL 2014, and recorded earlier for the British Council Seminar Series, I looked at a simple recipe or template (based on Hutchinson and Waters 1987) for producing complete lessons, and considered a variety of do’s and don’ts taken from my experience as a professional materials writer. There are plenty of practical examples and tips, as well as mini tasks to try.
Click the picture for the link to the recording (also including an interesting presentation non using corpora in the classroom, by Adam Kilgarriff).
The handout with a summary of the main points, and the links, is available below as a PDF.
One of the often used arguments against published coursebooks is that the texts, especially at lower levels, tend to have been specially written. When I first started writing coursebooks I was very keen to use authentic texts, and, indeed, the first edition of IELTS Foundation is full of them.
There are plenty of points in favour of using authentic texts. Firstly, the enormous sense of satisfaction to be gained from being able to read something designed for a native speaker. It’s no coincidence that the language learning app, Duolingo, encourages me in my learning by announcing, ‘You can now read 96.7% of all real Portuguese articles’ (though I doubt that very much!). Finding that they are able to read an authentic text may also encourage the learner to read more extensively outside of the classroom, which has to be a good thing.
It’s also important that students are exposed to different genres of texts, and, especially for the teacher creating materials for their own class, authentic texts provide a relatively easy way to bring something up to date and topical into the classroom. They can provide us with the opportunity to look at the same topic reported in different ways, or give students a starting point from which to follow the news topic as it unfolds, in their own time.
However, in recent years I have been moving away from using unadapted authentic texts. The most obvious problem is the level of the language. When I was first trained, we were taught, ‘grade the task not the text’, but, while this is usually possible, I’m no longer sure that it’s always in the students’ best interests.
Taking this kind of approach is intended to help students develop strategies to deal with texts where a lot of the language is unknown. There is certainly a value in this, but is it as valuable as giving them a text from which they can get so much more? Hu and Nation (2000) concluded that most learners needed to comprehend 98% of words in a text in order to gain ‘adequate comprehension’
Personally, I think there’s still a value in a text pitched slightly higher than that, especially if we give the learners support, but without a doubt, if the level is pitched too high, class time will just be taken up with explaining tens of words which, in all probability, the learners will not learn and may never need to use again.
But aren’t graded texts dull and decontextualized? Won’t they give students a false sense of security, and fail to prepare them for real world reading?
Or is there a middle way?
I think there is, and that it is based around a proper respect for genre. I now unashamedly write a lot of texts for my coursebooks. Unashamedly, because I think that, as a writer, my writing skills are often just as good as someone writing for the Daily Telegraph etc, and, therefore, my texts are, in their own way, just as authentic.
So before writing a text, I look for samples of the kind of genre I’d like to write (this often gives me ideas about the topic as well, but the genre is most important). Then I look to see how these texts are structured, how formal the language is, what kind of structures appear (making sure that these are the structures I’d like to pull out to work on in the grammar section of the lesson) and what kind of vocabulary is in there.
I might run the texts through something like the Oxford 3000 textchecker to see what level the vocabulary is at, and think about how I could replace some of it, or use something like https://readability-score.com/ to see how complex the syntax is, which I might be able to simplify without affecting the style too much. I then use all this information to write my own text, at a more appropriate level and length, using grammar structures and vocabulary which are true to the spirit of the original sources, but which will be of use productively to the students.
Regular readers will know how I love a middle way!
I’ll be speaking about this and other tips for teachers wanting to write their own materials for the British Council Seminar Series in the next couple of weeks.
Firstly in London on 4th March. Tickets available here (free)
And then in Belfast on the 11th March, which will also be live streamed (also both free). Sign up here.
The inspiration for the recent #eltchat on lesson planning came largely from @michaelegriffin’s post 29 statements about lesson plans. It seems that people have strong views about lesson planning, with some advocating a pure ‘jungle path’ approach (to use Jim Scrivener’s term) and others seeing benefits in planning, though not necessarily in following a plan rigidly.
The chat (05/06/13) started with two main questions posed by @shaunwilden: Is planning the same as preparedness and do we need to plan at all?
Is planning the same as preparedness?
This thread was referring to a recent talk by Underhill and Maley at IATEFL
The summary of the talk: Teacher training has tended to focus on technical preparation, yet teachers often find themselves unprepared for the human unpredictability of real lessons. This workshop aims to open up discussion on the moment-by-moment improvisation which is at the heart of teaching, and to suggest ways of developing ‘preparedness’ for the unpredictable.
@teflerinha suggested that both preparation and preparedness were important, and @efl101 wondered if planning became preparedness with experience, and similarly @josayers commented that ‘planning some lessons moves us towards being more prepared for all lessons.’
Is planning something newer teachers need to do more than experienced teachers?
There was certainly something of a consensus that newer teachers needed to spend longer planning. For example @ OUPELTGlobal ‘When I was starting my career planning helped. With experience, I needed less planning.’
However, several people also felt that getting trainee teachers to plan in detail could be counter-productive. @harrisonmike commented ‘over planning can make you less prepared ‘it isn’t going as I planned PANIC’’ and that it was a problem that ‘minute by minute planning is indoctrinated in ITT.’ @Shaunwilden agreed that ‘training courses make teachers overplan to be honest ‘ and that ‘overplanning makes one less prepared and less flexible.’
On the other hand, @teflerinha pointed out that ‘planning in ITT serves a different function than planning in real life.’ ‘planning makes you think things through.’ And @shaunwilden added ‘It’s a way of showing a trainee can analyse language, has taken on board input etc.’ And @teflerinha again ‘To get teachers/trainees to think about why they are planning each stage and how it relates to the whole- and for observers to see that thinking.’
Many people felt it was a process novice teachers had to go through. For example, @OUPELTGlobal said ‘Yes, have to admit that all the planning I did helped in later years, but it didn’t feel great at the time.’ And @pjgallantry ‘you’ve got to know the ‘rules’ of a lesson, before you can bend/break them – hence why Lesson planning is important for new Ts..’
There was also a brief discussion about the value of scripting instructions. It was agreed that this can easily be taken too far (@efl101 had seen 5 hour lesson plan completely scripted), but that it could be useful for inexperienced teachers with lower levels (@harrisonmike)
@hartle said, as a very experienced teacher, ‘My plans maybe 5 lines, but still there, as a basis.’
Does writing a plan mean you have to follow it?
@jo_cummins: said ‘I always make a lesson plan. I don’t always follow it. I often don’t even look at it.’ This seemed to be an important point, that it might be the process of writing the lesson plan that was important, rather than having it as a crutch in the lesson, which might well end up going in a very different direction, in response to the students.
@shaunwilden gave an example of how aims and objectives might change, ‘e.g.you started thinking you were going to introduce language, and then on planning realise it’s more review.’
@OUPELTGlobal asked ‘@OUPELTGlobal: Does planning inhibit sts from “interrupting” the teacher? going off the plan?’
And @jo_sayers made the point that ‘predicting actual learning is much harder than we think and we are often wildly optimistic.’
@teflerinha responded ‘Totally agree, but still useful to have an idea what we’d like to achieve, and then be flexible..’
@pjgallantry added ‘you always have to factor in ‘Factor X’ into a LP – anything from Ss being unhappy over st to teacher having a screaming headache’
@TeacherAlan1 raised an important point, asking ‘Is anyone required to show their lesson plans to admin? Or require your teachers to show them to you? This might easily influence how much teachers feel they have to follow their plans.
But @michaelegriffin made the point ‘My current thought is that lesson plans only get in the way if we let them. Ss don’t feel blocked unless T blocks.’
Can students tell (or do they care) if you have a lesson plan?
@colm_smyth ‘I guess students can tell by structure of teacher’s board work, teacher’s composure and activity transition’
@michaelegriffin ‘I think teachers sense if a teacher is prepared and that may be based on having a lesson plan’
@rliberni ‘Do ss know when things are unplanned (as opposed to unstructured)? I think they probably do’
What about planning a series of lessons?
@teflerinha commented ‘What I really DON’T like is planning a series of lessons in advance, or using last year’s because can’t respond 2 what happens’
@oupeltglobal replied ‘I agree with that. Teacher should react to the students they have – different sts & different plans’
And @cioccas ‘Can’t plan far in advance when you’re constantly changing to meet changing needs in the class.’
Post lesson planning
@efl101 asked ‘how often do you analyse/review plan after lesson 2 compare what actually happened and why and what u can learn etc?
@shaunwilden answered: ‘I did in my first few years as a teacher but then sort of fell out of the habit of noting it down’ and @hartle ‘when I 1st started teaching I did a lot. Now, I analyse what happens in class more, interactions between stds, successes.’
@efl101 responded ‘same but think it would be interesting to see if there are patterns etc. but time often prevents proper reflection’
And a great point to conclude from @mstrep: ‘Good planning makes a good teacher. Ability to improvise and adaptability make a great one’.
Other useful links
@pjgallantry shared a great visual representation of all the factors which contribute to teacher’s input, students’ input and output.
He also referred to The Secret DOS ‘s excellent recent post on lesson planning, The map is not the territory, which I won’t summarise here, but which is well worth reading.
@muranava referred us to this post by Willy Cardoso
Another relevant post is Steve Brown’s A case for anti-planning.
Dale Coulter’s post on lesson skeletons and retrospective planning
Scott Thornbury and other luminaries on the IDTI blog on How important is lesson planning?
And (if I may) my post ‘What’s the point of planning?’
Finally, @michaelegriffin gave us this link to Tessa Woodward’s book on planning lessons and courses, which he says ‘I did not enjoyed this book the first 3 times I looked at it but now love it’
As we saw in the last post, all ‘real life’ writing is embedded in a social situation: we write for a specific purpose and audience. We can, of course, also do this in the classroom, but often we are engaged more in rehearsing skills that can later be applied outside the class.
However, the genre approach to writing still places a lot of emphasis on the context and purpose for which the writing is produced. By genre we mean different types of writing such as narrative, report, informal letter and so on. Each of these has quite specific features in terms of organisation and language, and the genre approach usually takes a model and gets the students to analyse these features, before producing something similar.
This approach undoubtedly has its roots in the product approach. A typical product writing lesson might involve:
1 Reading and analysing a model
2 Controlled writing, such as writing individual sentences using a substitution table
3 Freer or guided writing (such as using notes given to construct one or two of the paragraphs in a letter -the rest being already given)
4 Free writing of a parallel text.
In the same way, however, that there is a big difference between PPP (presentation, practice, production) and more modern paradigms, such as Scott Thornbury’s awareness, appropriation and autonomy , there is actually the same kind of difference between product writing and genre-based approaches.
Thornbury’s ‘awareness’ is about giving students the opportunity to notice features of language, rather than having language presented to them on a plate. In writing, as in speaking, this is about exposing learners to features of written language and setting tasks which will help them to notice the salient features.
‘Appropriation’ is about making something your own; not just repeating patterns but actually assimilating the new language into your personal store. Thornbury makes a memorable contrast between controlled practice and ‘practised control’. The difference he says is that in the latter, the students are working on controlling the language, rather than the teacher trying to control what language the students can use. This can obviously apply just as well to writing as to speaking.
‘Autonomy’ is about using the language ‘under real operating conditions.’ When looking at writing, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the writing has to have a ‘real’ audience (though it can), but that the learners have complete control over the message they want to convey. They aren’t just reproducing a model.
At the top of the post is an example from Real Life Advanced (an upper secondary coursebook) of how I have tried to take a genre approach to writing. It’s is very easily generalizable to any genre of writing or level.
1 Through a lead-in discussion and a few questions, students first deal with the meaning of the text. It’s a travel anecdote or narrative.
2 Next the learners look at how the text is structured. This follows Labov’s Standard Western Narrative, and is a useful little structure to learn as a lot of different kinds of narratives (such as excuses, examples of past experience you might give at a job interview and so on will follow the same basic stages)
There are also some questions about the tenses used. This is something which students focused on earlier in the unit, so, as well as fleshing out the narrative structure, it acts as a review.
3 Then we start to ‘unpack’ some of the language in the text. ( Incidentally, I would highly recommend Scott Thornbury’s video on ‘unpacking a text’) Here we’re focusing on adverbs. Students compare the examples of adverbs they can find in the text with the rules and examples in the box.
4 The next exercise is intended to give students the opportunity to get some control over the language, putting the rules into action. They aren’t just drilling correct sentences; they’re having to think about how to use the language correctly and appropriately.
5 The learners then prepare to write their own story. They are encouraged to use the same structure, but the content is personal to them and their experiences or knowledge. You may notice that there are prompt questions referring to colours and adjectives used to describe the background, and to what the characters say. These points again refer back to previous activities in the unit (on adjectives and verbs of speaking – mumbled, whispered), providing the opportunity, or ‘nudge’, for students to use this language again in a different context.
Clearly this kind of approach can be used for any kind of text. The key stages are:
1 Read the ‘model’ for meaning first, don’t just see it as a model, but as a piece of communication.
2 Focus on the organisation. Different genres of texts have different organising principles. Research or think about how this genre of writing usually starts and finishes. Is the content in any particular order? For example, an IELTS Part 1 Writing Task, describing a graph, usually begins by stating what the graph shows, then may provide an overview before detailing the key pieces of information (or the overview may come at the end). You could get students to look at examples and draw flow charts of how they perceive the organisation.
3 ‘Unpack’ the language. You can choose some language which seems particularly relevant to the task or you might use corpora to identify language on which to focus. Putting several texts of the genre you want your students to learn to write into a text based concordance, such as that at www.lextutor.ca should give you some useful information about the kind of language students could usefully be encouraged to notice.
4 Provide practice to help students gain more control of the language
5 Help students to put together what they have noticed to help them write their own text. Make sure that the text is more than just reproducing a model, ideally that it has some personal meaning. For example, in the IELTS text type mentioned above, perhaps they could write up the results of their own surveys?
Planning has been on my mind a bit recently. Not long ago I had to produce a full lesson plan for the first time in ages (a British Council Inspection). It took almost as long to write as the lesson (a 3 hour lesson) took to teach. If you’re curious, or fancy trying out a lesson from my secondary course book, Real Life, the plan (Lesson_Plan_RRoberts-10-7-12-Adv) and the materials are here. Real Life Advanced Page 1.1 Real Life Advanced Page 1 Real Life Advanced Page 2 Real Life Advanced Page 3
What’s the point in spending nearly three hours on a lesson plan? Surely, that’s just a colossal waste of time? Well, actually I think there was a point. This was an inspection in which someone who had never seen me or the class before was going to parachute in and make an assessment (it’s another argument whether that’s an effective way to assess learning and teaching). Given the circumstances, I needed to show the inspector not just what was happening in the twenty minutes they were in the class, but that I had an overview of what we were trying to achieve, and that the decisions I had made were based on sound underpinnings. In other words, that I knew what I was doing, and more importantly, why I was doing it.
Now, I should say right now that I am not and never have been in favour of teaching the plan rather than the students. A good plan is simply that- a plan. And plans can and should be changed according to circumstances. If you planned a surprise party for your partner and no-one else turned up to wait for the guest of honour, would you still jump out from behind that sofa?! On the other hand, if you didn’t plan anything at all for that special birthday, but just decided to go with the flow, you might have a great time, or you might have a very disgruntled partner.
So I nearly always have a plan when I walk into the classroom, though it may well be more of the back of an envelope type than the full plan described.
After twenty years in the classroom, I don’t feel the need to write a full plan, not because I don’t think I need a plan but because most of it is in my head. Tessa Woodward has a great way of describing this: Fluent speakers are fluent because they are able to string together chunks of pre-prepared language, providing what Thornbury refers to as ‘islands of reliability’. Woodward makes the point that more experienced teachers also have practised sequences or chunks that they know how to string together to make a lesson. This doesn’t mean that every lesson should be the same, but that we are automatically able to do a lot in the classroom without having to consider each action too carefully. It’s the same as learning to drive. At first you can’t think how you are ever going to manage to slow down, change through the gears, signal and look in the mirror at the same time, but soon it’s second nature.
[Having said that, it isn’t a great idea to get so comfortable with your routines that you aren’t even aware of driving, and neither should we get too comfortable with our teaching routines.]
When I first started teaching I did use to spend a LOT of time planning, and as a CELTA, and DELTA tutor, I would positively encourage teachers to do the same, within reason. It’s going through that process that helps you to start to put these chunks together (CELTA), and pull them apart and consider exactly why you’re doing everything (DELTA).
There was an interesting exchange about planning recently on Tony Gurr’s excellent blog . I’ll let you check it out the debate for yourself, but the quote that stuck for me [i.e. agreed with my point of view ;) ] came from Brad Patterson, who said:
‘’I have to admit that most of my lesson planning is in my head – don’t think I’ve written one down on paper for 15 years. But the planning I do in my head is still influenced by the planning I had to do on paper in the past. In my head, I can still hear the voice of my dip tutors asking me to think about why I’m planning on doing something, what the students will learn/practice – getting me to focus on objectives (or learning outcomes) rather than just on activities. Hated having to write out lesson plans at the time, but looking back I’m glad I did.’’