A link to my new post for the British Council Blog, on using realia, or real, physical objects, in class. Find out why a trainee teacher brought a chicken pie and a beef pie into class…
Tag Archives: teaching
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.
Dictionary definitions of monitoring include:
To check the quality or content of something.
To keep track of systematically with a view to collecting information.
To keep close watch over; supervise.
Classroom monitoring can, I think, involve all of these aspects, and doing it well is a key teaching skill. We’ve all seen (or probably been) teachers who either breathe down students’ necks, making them desperately uncomfortable, or who wander off and start doing admin tasks at the back of the room (though the latter might just be monitoring very subtly!)
Monitoring to check the activity
As students start a task, it’s very important to check they know what they’re doing and that they are able to do it. So, although you might want to back off in order to make them feel less self-conscious, you probably need to at least subtly look around and see if people are on-task. Listen in unobtrusively, perhaps while doing those admin tasks, and make sure they’re ok. If one pair or group is uncertain about what to do, go and help them. If more than one pair or group is uncertain, I’d advise against going round and helping them all. It’ll take too long, and waste precious time for those waiting to see you. This is how I failed my O level maths (that, and too much gossiping). Just stop the activity and set it up again. And this time, check your instructions.
This kind of monitoring is simply pragmatic, and about helping things to run smoothly. It’s most important at the beginning of a task, but you can also do this kind of monitoring while a task is in progress to see if a group have finished early, if they need more support or more challenge and so on. Especially if you’re teaching young learners, you can also assess if they are starting to tire of the activity, and if you need to swiftly bring it to a close before all hell breaks loose.
Monitoring to assess language and/or skills
The other main reason for monitoring is to assess the language the students are producing (or their skills). This is vital if you want to be able to use your skills to actually help students develop. If you aren’t listening or paying attention, how can you possibly have any idea what they can do, or what they still need help with? “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Well, of course, students are still able to listen to each other, and to themselves, but I hope you get my point.
Perhaps you’ve heard about the secret handshakes that Masons are supposed to use to recognise each other? There’s a secret way that trainers who were trained up at International House (IH) can do this too….they crouch. Well, maybe not all of us, but I’ve recognised a few fellow ex-IHers this way. The idea is that by getting down on the students’ level, you’re less obtrusive and threatening. I think there’s something in this, but if students aren’t used to it, it can be a bit discombobulating for them (I knew I’d get to use that word in a blog post one day!)
It also isn’t great if you’re wearing a shortish skirt.
Being unobtrusive is important, however. You could try sitting at a short distance and looking elsewhere while your ears work overtime. If you really want to freak them out, look at one pair while listening to another, and then comment on what the second pair said. In a smallish class, it can also work quite well to sit on a chair in the middle of the room and lean forward. It signals that you’re listening, but isn’t too (literally) in your face. If students are writing, you’ll need to get closer. Try walking behind as these means they don’t have to stop what they’re doing and turn their book round to show you. It also helps to learn to read at strange angles.
Try not to get too involved with a group as this means you can’t tell what’s going on elsewhere. This can easily turn into small group teaching, while the rest of the class feel ignored, get bored, start throwing paper aeroplanes…. This (small group teaching, not throwing paper aeroplanes) might be OK in some circumstances, though. For example, with a longer project-like activity, once you are SURE everyone knows what they’re doing and can work independently.
What should you be listening for?
Obviously this depends on what the students are doing. Here are some suggestions.
Are they using the language you’ve been working on in class? Bear in mind that if they aren’t, it might be because you (or the coursebook writer) hasn’t designed the task very well.
Is the language you plan to focus on already being used naturally? If not, that will provide a ‘gap’ for you to feed language into later- as in task-based learning.
Can you identify a gap, or language they need to do the task more effectively? If so, make a note, teach it at the feedback stage, and then let them do the task again.
Grammar or vocab exercises
Monitoring should tell you which students are finding it easiest, and which are struggling. How many are struggling? (Do you need to deal with this whole class or on an individual basis?)
It’s also a great opportunity to think about who you are going to nominate at the feedback stage. You don’t want to put people on the spot [unless they really deserve it ;)] by asking for answers they don’t know. It can also be a good idea to give a weaker student a boost by nominating them when you know, from monitoring, that they’ve got the answer right.
As well as carrying out feedback on a task, or conducting an ‘error correction slot’ (where you write mistakes you heard on the board, anonymised and ask students to try and correct them), you could write down examples you heard of language which was particularly successful or useful.
Alternatively, you could choose not to feedback at that point, but to note down what you’ve learnt about their needs and plan a future lesson around them.
If they haven’t used the target language they were ‘supposed to be’ practising, you could take some examples of what they did say (which was correct), give praise for it, and then try to elicit other ways of saying it which do use the target language.
Or you could ask students to feedback on other aspects of the task- such as how well they worked together- and give them your own feedback on what you noticed.
If, on the other hand, you’ve just been filling in the register while they did the task, you can’t do any of these things…
Back in 1978 the psychologist Melissa Bowerman observed her 13 month old daughter, who was starting to talk. (Psychologists do a lot of this. In fact, I sometimes wonder if that’s the main reason they have children.) Anyway, her daughter was observed pointing at a ball, and saying ‘ball.’ She knows the word ball, you might conclude.
But then, over the next few months, the child also used the word ‘ball’ to describe a balloon, an Easter egg and even a pebble. So what exactly had she learnt? Probably that ball was something (more or less) spherical. That’s certainly part of the meaning, but we’d probably also have to add:
- You play games with it, such as tennis or football
- It doesn’t break when you throw it
- It usually bounces
- It can be between around 3 cm to about 12 cm in diameter
All these points go to make up the meaning of the word ‘ball’.
Now obviously when we teach our students new words, they probably already have the concept of ‘ball’ from their first language. However, there are plenty of cases where the semantic boundaries are blurred. Not all languages divide up the world in the same way. For example, in Polish, the word ‘buty’ doesn’t just mean boots, it also means shoes. In English, we generally use just one verb ‘to put on’ when talking about clothes and accessories, but, according to Michael Swan,
‘Japanese speakers use one verb for garments on the upper body, another for those on the lower body, yet another for garments on extremities like feet and hands, another for articles that go on the head, and another still for jewellery like earrings or a watch.’
Even if there is a direct translation, and you or your students know what it is, the word might still not be used in exactly the same way, or might have a slightly different connotation.
This is why we need concept questions.
Concept questions are something which teachers often learn about in their initial training and then promptly discard once no-one is watching. It feels ridiculous, unnatural and patronising to be asking a series of questions to which we already know the answers. Certainly, concept questions can be overdone and, particularly if they’ve been badly devised, they can be completely ridiculous.
A famous example from an International House CELTA course:
‘He didn’t know if he was coming or going.’
Was he coming?
Was he going?
Did he know?
Done judiciously and thoughtfully, however, a good set of concept questions can produce light-bulbs turning on over students’ heads all over the class, with a minimum of fuss and without lengthy and over-complex explanations.
How to create concept questions
The first thing to consider is what exactly the word or phrase means. You will probably feel you know this, but it can often really be worth looking it up in a dictionary to get all the elements of meaning (as with ball above).
So, for example, the word ‘cosy’. The Longman Exams dictionary says:
‘’A place that is cosy is small, comfortable and warm: the living room was warm and cosy.’’
So key elements would be
- Used to describe rooms
I’d also say that we could use it to describe clothes (and then small wouldn’t be part of the meaning)
So then we can think about examples that will test understanding of these key elements. These can be short and simple questions, or we can use pictures, diagrams, mime- whatever’s appropriate.
For example, you might have two pictures. One of a small cottage front room, with a fire and the other of a draughty hall in a castle. Then you can ask, Which room is cosy?
If you are cosy, are you usually warm or cold?
If you are cosy, are you comfortable or uncomfortable?
You can also use negative checking, by asking a question where the answer should be ‘no’ and then asking a follow-up question to make sure they weren’t just guessing!
Is a castle cosy? No.
What kind of house might be cosy? A small, comfortable one.
What kind of shoes might be cosy? Slippers
Personalisation can also help
Which is the cosiest room in your house? Why?
And if you think students do have a fairly good idea, try asking for more information to check.
Give me an example of an item of clothing that could be cosy? (dressing gown, sweater) And one that couldn’t be? (bikini)
Using language which is more complicated than the language you are trying to check.
If you’re cosy are you snug and secure?
Checking the situation, not the language
John’s grandma knitted him a cosy sweater for Christmas.
-Did she knit him ear-warmers?
Going too far and dealing with meanings which just confuse the issue.
What do you put on a tea-pot to keep the tea warm? – A tea-cosy (see picture above)
Incidentally, some people believe that you should never use the target language in a concept question. As we have seen, this isn’t the case when dealing with vocabulary, though it may apply to grammatical structures…
It’s going to rain.
Is the weather going to be bad?
When to concept check
Although we refer to it as concept checking, it’s much more than just checking understanding; it’s actually at the heart of teaching. It’s about finding out what students do and don’t understand and helping them to ‘get’ the concept.
That said, you do need to use it fairly sparingly, and most of all wisely. Part of being a teacher (and the hardest thing to teach someone) is knowing just how much clarification students need, and giving it to them in just the right amounts, at just the right moments.
I have called this post responding to writing, rather than error correction on writing, as I believe that there is a lot more to responding to written work than simply correcting errors.
To begin with, it is very important to respond to the content of the writing as well as the form. Otherwise we risk being like this teacher:
When we assess a piece of writing there are various questions we could ask:
- Is the content interesting and/or appropriate to the task?
- Is there a clear sense of audience (who the writer is writing to or for) and is this reflected in the language chosen?
- Are the ideas well organised? Is there a sense of ‘flow’?
- Does the writer use paragraphs and connectives well to help get their message across?
- Does the writer use a good range of vocabulary in an appropriate and flexible way?
- Can the writer structure sentences accurately, and with variety and flexibility?
- Is spelling and punctuation accurate, adding to clarity?
It is, I think, important that we look at the questions further up the list, as well as picking out discrete errors with word choice, agreement, spelling and so on. Equally, it is important that learners are thinking about all of these areas as they write and rewrite.
Yet most feedback from teachers still tends to focus on error correction. Why? Could it be that it is actually a lot easier for teachers to give feedback in this way?
When students give peer feedback on each other’s work there is also a strong tendency to concentrate on discrete items, such as grammar and spelling, rather than looking at the whole. I suspect that this is both because it is easier, and because this is what has been modelled time and time again by teachers.
In fact, some would argue that focusing on these discrete items (by teachers or students) is not only just part of the whole picture, but may even be pretty much a waste of time. Truscott famously argued that ‘grammar correction has no place in writing courses and should be abandoned’
Of course, other academics, such as Ferris (2006) disagree, but it is true to say that no-one (as far as I know) has yet come up with any hard evidence that grammar correction makes any dramatic difference. This post by Jeff McQuillan, on The Backseat Linguist reviews several studies which purported to show the positive impact of correction and concludes that, considering the huge amount of time and effort expended, the difference made was not really very significant. McQuillan also cites a study showing (no surprise here) that extensive reading had a much more noticeable beneficial effect.
Personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with using a correction code to mark work from time to time. It can be a helpful way of focusing on accuracy, and perhaps has the added benefit of encouraging learners to proof-read their work more carefully.
However, I also think it shouldn’t become the default position when responding to students’ work.
In some very interesting comments on my post about process writing, Simon Marshall and Brian Morrison (@ButeBob) make alternative suggestions:
- Using the Microsoft comments function to rewrite a small section of the text in a more fluent and/or appropriate way.
- Focusing on what is successful about the writing- such as more complex or sophisticated language.
- Pushing/encouraging students to try and make ‘safe’ language a little more sophisticated.
To these I would add:
- Where possible, conferencing with students about their writing, rather than (or as well as) giving written feedback. This makes it easier (and actually less time consuming) to explain why something is wrong and what could be used instead.
- If conferencing isn’t possible, try using the comments function not to reformulate, but to provide metalinguistic comments- explaining as you would face to face. You are unlikely to have time to do this in detail for all your students, but even selecting a few key aspects to comment on could be very helpful.
- Reformulating (as Simon suggests), rather than correcting. As well as using the comments box, you could reformulate a certain section of each essay, such as the introduction in an IELTS Part 1 essay. Or you could choose an essay (perhaps from a previous group, and anonymous) and rewrite the whole thing, asking students to then make comparisons between the two versions.
- Deciding (perhaps with the students) whether to focus on paragraphing, linking, vocabulary, grammar, accuracy, range etc, rather than trying to cover everything.
- Correcting grammar mistakes or using a correction code, but choosing to focus on just ONE area (such as articles). This should help to make the point more salient, and thus students should notice and retain more.
- Using models to help students learn about the different features of different genres, so that they can start to use them themselves (this fits in with McQuillan’s point about extensive reading)
And finally, bear in mind that in all likelihood, different approaches and methods will suit different learners, so it may be a good idea to provide a variety of ways of responding and correcting.
As the name suggests, process writing is an approach to writing which focuses on the process rather than the end product. The argument goes that, just as writers in the ‘real’ world go through a process of editing and revising what they write, so should our students.
The typical structure for a process writing lesson might be:
1 Brainstorming ideas.
2 Plan the structure of the writing
3 Write first draft
4 Get feedback on first draft from teacher or peers (or self-evaluation)
5 Write second draft (and third if appropriate after feedback)
I think there is a lot to be said for taking a process approach to writing:
Generally speaking, whatever colour ink we use and whatever correction code we use, we often might as well have not bothered marking written work. No-one reads what we’ve written on their essays. At best, they look to see how much we’ve written, and they might glance at any final comment.
For most students, once something has been written and handed in, it’s over: out of sight, out of mind. One of the great things about taking a process approach is that feedback doesn’t come at the end. It’s an intrinsic part of the writing process, and as such, there is a much better chance of some of it actually being taken on board.
Peer feedback is often used in a process approach, and that can be great both for developing students’ ability to criticise constructively and for giving a genuine sense that the learner is writing for an audience.
Students also develop their ability to self-evaluate, which is something they can go on to use independently. It chimes with that crucial part of being a good teacher- making yourself redundant.
Just as in speaking, repeating a task gives more opportunities to notice and appropriate new language. Through a process of drafting and redrafting, it is that much more likely that language will be acquired.
However, there are also some issues with process writing (at least if done in the traditional way outlined above):
Not all students (indeed not many at all in my experience) are very keen on brainstorming, planning, drafting and redrafting their work. An awful lot seem to want to chuck something down on paper and hand it over for you to sort out. Now, of course, part of our job is to encourage them to take more responsibility for learning, but it is nonetheless a downside that it’s such an uphill struggle (is that a mixed metaphor?)
Even if your students are enthusiastic, going through the process cycle is necessarily very time-consuming. There is also the question of how you manage to give detailed feedback on several drafts and actually get anything else done. It may work well in a pre-sessional context, with small groups and 5 hours of tuition a day, but maybe not so well in 2 x 90m a week or less.
Peer feedback can help with the time issue, but research shows that students tend to concentrate almost exclusively on lower order feedback, or focusing on surface errors like spelling and grammar. It’s hard to get students to be able to give feedback on content or organisation or discourse level stuff.
And last, but not least, traditional process writing doesn’t take account of the fact that the actual process of writing has changed dramatically since the advent of technology. People simply don’t write drafts in the same way anymore. See this interesting article from the Guardian, ‘Has Microsoft Word affected the way we work?’
Equally, tools such as spell check and grammar check have completely changed how writers deal with surface errors.
So, given the positives and the drawbacks of the process approach, what can we take from it, and how might we mix it up?
Keep it small scale
Process writing doesn’t have to be carried out on 250 word plus essays. You could focus on just a paragraph. This will make the stages move along more quickly, allows you to really drill down into the details, such as using a an effective topic sentence and giving reasons and examples, and the perfect paragraph produced can then be used as a model for further writing.
Change the staging
You don’t have to start with brainstorming ideas and planning. You could incorporate a feedback and redrafting stage into a lesson which takes a genre approach, or you could just get students writing straightaway (more ideas on this next post), and then get them to look again at what they’ve written and make changes.
More imaginative brainstorming and planning
Getting ideas and planning is a key part of successful writing, but how can we make it seem less of a chore?
Brainstorming an essay using a mindmap on the board is not a new idea, but try blu-tacking a Cuisenaire rod of a different colour to each bubble of the map. Then give groups a set of rods in the same colours and ask them to use the rods to make a visual plan of the essay. Somehow adding a visual and physical element to structuring the essay seems to engage many students more.
Or try moving from speaking to writing to get ideas. For example, if you want students to write a letter of complaint, try roleplaying a complaint first, or if it’s an informal letter, try it as a phonecall first. This should help learners to anticipate what their audience will want to know or how they might react, which should help with making the writing as effective as possible.
Change who gives feedback and how they give it
As well as the teacher or a partner, experiment with some different models. For example, a recent twitter discussion with @cerirhiannon started me thinking about using ‘carousels’. Put the students into small groups and pass round a piece of written work done by someone in the group (anonymous if preferred). Each group has to give a comment on an aspect which has not been covered by a previous group before passing the work onto the next group. This could be a good way of encouraging students to look beyond surface errors as discussed earlier.
Emphasize the audience
Learners are more likely to want to plan and draft if there is a real reason for writing the best possible text that they can. So using a real life context, such as those discussed in this recent post , can provide some genuine motivation.
Use technology more
Students may not have access to computers in class, but they probably will at home, so you can ask them to consciously use the correction features to make changes, and underline spelling or syntax that the computer has highlighted that they aren’t sure how to correct. You can then focus on these areas in class or individually.
Online corpora, or even google, can also be useful tools for students to check their intuitions about collocations. See this article for more indepth discussion of this.
Add a sense of humour
The notion of process writing can be terribly earnest. You could work on the skills of correcting and redrafting by giving learners, for example, the worst job application letter in the world and asking them to rewrite it so that the person has at least SOME chance of being invited for interview.
Or give learners some real examples of writing from young native speakers. For example http://www.esher.surrey.sch.uk/Default.asp?page=172 and ask them to correct, revise and redraft.
While the traditional staging of a process writing lesson may be something you don’t want to do all the time, the principles behind it are something which could be used effectively in any lesson with a writing focus. You just need to mix it up a little.
‘We don’t just ‘read’ and ‘write’: we always read and write something for a particular purpose, in a particular way, in a particular time and place.’
Outside the classroom, any writing our learners do will have a specific purpose and context. Inside the classroom, by definition, any writing is likely to be more simply for the sake of developing skills and language, and displaying those skills.
However, the difference between ‘real’ writing and display writing isn’t a binary distinction; it’s more of a continuum. Our job, as teachers, is to bring the two ends of the spectrum closer together, and help students to see the links.
How much do you know about the purposes for which your learners need to (or aspire to) write in English?
Obviously, if your learners are in an ESE (English-speaking environment), they are likely to have many pressing needs, such as form filling, work-related paper-work, emails, notes to school and so on. There are literally endless ways in which these learners can carry out real-world writing tasks, including writing to local papers, to their MPs and so on. Even in NESE contexts, learners may well need to use written English for work, especially with the growth of the internet and the increased tendency to communicate in writing.
For younger learners and most General English learners in NESE contexts, however, they may not have a current need to write in English at all, but it is still important for writing to be clearly contextualised, and have an audience. We don’t speak without any sense of who we are speaking to, and neither should we write in that way.
That said, I don’t believe that all classroom writing activities have to connect directly to the real world. The important thing is that the activity has a significance or personal value for the learners and that they know why they’re doing it. In the next few blog posts, I’d like to look more closely at some different ways to support learners in developing their writing skills, looking at genre-based and process-based approaches. All of these will, of course, have a purpose and an audience, but not necessarily an actual, immediate real-world one.
Writing for the public can, however, be extremely motivating. Below are some ideas to try, which would work with learners not in an ESE. Feel free to add anything else you’ve tried in the comments, it would be great to build up as long a list as possible:
- Writing to a favourite author. Many authors now have blog pages or other ways in which they can be contacted. Learners could choose their own author (which might be someone they have only read in translation), or this could be part of a class extended reading project.
- Writing a review of a product, film or book on a website. From being a rather unnatural task, writing a review is now something that many people do regularly on sites such as Amazon.
- Writing on behalf on victims of human rights abuse. Assuming this is appropriate in your context, this is a very real-world writing activity and could really make a difference in the world. See the Amnesty website where you will find sample letters and advice.
- Writing fiction for the internet. How about writing an 140 character story for Twitter [#140novel]? Or use one of the many websites where you can publish short stories, such as www.booksie.com? For younger learners, try Littlebirdtales, where learners can create a picture story which is then emailed to specific friends and family, rather than being open to the whole internet. Or, a personal favourite, www.futureme.org. On this site, people write letters to themselves to be delivered on a specific date in the future. Still a real audience….
- Comments on news articles and opinion pieces. Most newspapers now have online version where readers can comment. A particularly good source is the BBC, which asks specifically for comments in the Have your Say section. For example, this article and comments on ‘Invisibility cloaks: will we ever really have them?’