Category Archives: Teaching methodology

Adapting ELT resources for ESOL

With thanks to @senicko and #eltpics

I was really sorry to miss the recent Twitter chat under #ukesolchat , not least because it’s a pet topic of mine! It looks to have been an interesting discussion, and there were plenty of different views aired. However, I don’t think anyone really made much of a case for using coursebooks, and I think there is often a rather knee-jerk reaction against using them in ESOL contexts. I hasten to say that this wasn’t apparent in this chat, but it is a common perception.

As you may know, a large part of my ‘job’ these days involves writing coursebooks, so I admit to a bias. But my convictions don’t come from this, but from 10 years teaching ESOL in an FE College, and a further three years training ESOL teachers from a wide variety of contexts, at Warwick University.

I would never argue that an ELT coursebook should form the syllabus for an ESOL course. It’s obvious that some of the material will be unsuitable or inappropriate, and many good points on this were made in the twitter discussion I mentioned. A lot of coursebooks (and I’ve written some) are specifically designed to be ‘aspirational’, which means they refer to foreign holidays, the latest technology and so on. There may be culturally inappropriate topics, such as dating or divorce. There will probably be topics about family, childhood or home, which may bring up painful issues for refugees. There may be (who am I kidding, there will be) an assumption that the learners’ literacy skills are at the same level as their listening and speaking skills. There will probably be an emphasis on grammar rather than functions (which is one of the reasons I agree with @SamShep when he says that older coursebooks are often better for ESOL)

So, no, I wouldn’t suggest taking a coursebook and using it willy-nilly (and that goes for any context).

But, …there will also be a lot of activities that will work perfectly well just as they are, and/or that can be adapted. Coursebook writers generally have a lot of experience, and can write materials which work, and which have been through a long process of being written and rewritten after feedback from editors and often focus groups of teachers as well.

Writing all your own materials is very time-consuming, it can lead to a lack of variety, and it isn’t that easy. In my experience, a lot of ESOL teachers (present company probably excepted) have not had much training in either language awareness or materials development (a point also made in the discussion), and they may well struggle to produce materials which are pitched at the right level, deal with language accurately and clearly, and which flow well. I have observed a lot of teachers using a series of unconnected worksheets printed from websites, or authentic articles which are waded through slowly and painfully. Using a coursebook as a basis can be a good way of learning to produce your own materials, as you see how activities can be sequenced effectively. It’s certainly how I learnt.

Specific ideas for adapting ELT materials for ESOL

The first point being, if an activity is really unsuitable, obviously, do something else instead!

But if it has potential..

Reading/listening

  • If your students have low levels of literacy, but better listening skills, then why not read a text aloud to them instead of making them read it?  You should be able to significantly aid understanding through intonation, mime, quick comprehension checks and so on.
  • Differentiate texts by setting different questions (the more closed, the easier), or use them as a dictation and remove more words/chunks for more confident learners.
  • Replace unsuitable texts with something more appropriate, but which covers similar vocabulary/functions. For example a text about dangerous sports which highlights ‘Have you ever?’ could be replaced by you telling the students about something unusual you have done, that is still within their experience. This means you can probably still use the follow-up activities.
  • Use the recordings to work on decoding skills, rather than just comprehension questions.  This can be a stepping stone to work on more challenging authentic listenings and videos.
  • Let students look at the transcript while they’re listening. This can be really helpful in raising awareness of the sound-spelling relationships in English, and it’s something you usually can’t do with authentic material.

Language focus

  • Use the grammar exercises selectively, when students have demonstrated a need for a particular language point to provide practice, rather than feeling you need to work through the grammar syllabus.
  • Make good use of functional language, as this is often far more relevant for ESOL students than it is for the majority of the book’s target users, living in a non-English speaking community.

Speaking/writing

  • Use the communication activities/tasks as the basis for a Language Experience Approach activity, where students work together to create a text about the activity they have carried out. This text can then be used as the basis for future work.
  • ESOL students may be less likely to need academic style essays (though some will of course), but there are usually plenty of practical writing activities. For example, in any PET level  coursebooks, students will learn how to write emails to friends with a variety of functions- apologising, thanking, inviting. And why assume that ESOL students don’t want to write creatively?

So, while recognising all the drawbacks of the ELT coursebook in an ESOL context (or rather different ESOL contexts), can I make a plea not to chuck out the baby with the bath-water?

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Teaching methodology

Do something different with the coursebook listening

When teachers talk about ‘doing a listening’, what they usually mean is that they will set the scene, pre-teach as (and if ) necessary, then set some questions before pressing play.

This kind of teaching routine can work very well, and I’ve certainly written plenty of listening sections following that kind of format.

However, in the spirit of John Fanselow, I also believe that it is always a good idea to question such routines, and consider how we could do things differently.

Listening from the middle

In this article (thank you to Frances Eales for drawing it to my attention), John Madden explains how, rather than playing a recording from the beginning, students can benefit from starting in the middle. In real life we often start listening in the middle of a conversation, or when we turn on the radio or TV in the middle of a programme. Starting in the middle helps learners to develop the confidence and skills to deal with this.

Madden starts by discussing times when learners have ‘started in the middle’ in real life and then plays a section from the middle of the recording. Learners tune in as best they can, then discuss with a partner what they understood, and what they think might have been said before they started listening. They can then listen to the entire recording to check their predictions.

Pausing and predicting

Rather than always beginning by asking students to predict the content of a recording, another way of encouraging prediction might be to pause the recording while playing and ask for predictions.

There are several ways I can think of to do this:

1. If the recording is a dialogue, stop the recording after each utterance by person A, and ask students to either say, or write down what they think person B might say. They can then continue listening to check their ideas.

2. Stop the recording about halfway through, and ask students to either continue the conversation they have been listening to, or, if a monologue, to write down what they think the person will say in the rest of the talk.  This could work very well with a well-signposted monologue of the kind found in more academic English

Pausing and focusing on language

These activities would work better after using the comprehension activities in the coursebook, as a way of encouraging students to notice certain aspects of language. For more on this kind of bottom up activity, you might like to read John Field, and my article on Decoding Skills

1. Having previously picked out some useful expressions from the listening, pause the recording halfway through the expression, and ask students try and complete it from memory.

E.g. I had to learn the poem……by heart.

2. Using only a short part of the recording, pause at the end of each sentence or longer phrase, and ask students to write down what they hear. This can work really well for identifying students’ difficulties in decoding connected speech.

3. Pause the recording after referring expressions and ask students to identify what they refer to.

E.g. Albert Einstein is widely considered to be a genius. However, his education did not start off so well (pause-who does his refer to?). He didn’t learn to speak fluently until six or seven and one of his teacher wrote on his school report (pause-who does his refer to?) ‘He will never amount to anything.’, meaning he would never be successful. How wrong he was! (pause- who does he refer to?)

[extract taken from New Total English Intermediate]

Focusing on strategies

Rather than providing a follow-up related to the content of the text, you could carry out a protocol activity. After carrying out your comprehension activity, play the recording again and ask students to write down (in L1 if lower level students), as far as they can remember, what they were thinking at each point of the listening. What exactly did they understand or not understand, what strategies did they use, did they switch off (when and why?). This can then become the basis of a fruitful class discussion about how to listen.

To finish, you might like to watch this short (7 minute) TED talk by Julian Treasure, on How to listen better. It isn’t specifically about ELT listening, but it’s an inspiring reminder of how doing things differently can indeed lead to something exceptional.

[ted id=1200]

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Exploiting authentic recordings and videos, Listening, Teaching methodology

Developing complexity through a focus on form

In a recent IELTS exam, I had to assess someone who lived locally, with a British passport. I’m not sure if she could have been called a native speaker, but I’m pretty sure that most people meeting her would have made that assumption. She had a local accent, and her language was pretty fluent. It was also mostly accurate. However, what was missing was complexity.

There was a lot of repetition, using the same simple phrases again and again. She tended to use mostly present tenses and simple linkers, such as and, but and because. Overall there was a tendency to avoid more complex sentence structures. She produced language confidently and with ease, didn’t make many mistakes, but still couldn’t be said, I thought, to be producing a ‘full range of structures’ or to be using vocabulary ‘with full flexibility and precision ’.

If we focus solely on achieving communication, some students will stay stuck at a certain level of complexity. Therefore we also need to provide opportunities for students to focus on form.

In his article, Accuracy, fluency and complexity (2000), Scott Thornbury looks at the traditional PPP (presentation-practice-production) model and makes the point that complexity was supposed to be targeted in the first presentation stage. Students have their attention drawn to a particular language point, and then get the opportunity to use it.

Thornbury says that there is ‘a growing belief that restructuring is more likely to occur during practice activities.’ Instinctively, this feels right to me. I think those ‘aha’ moments definitely tend to occur more when students are actually doing something with the language. However, I also like the way that Jack C Richards puts it in Moving Beyond the Plateau:

‘For learners’ linguistic systems to take on new and more complex linguistic items, the restructuring, or reorganization, of mental representations is required, as well as opportunities to practice these new forms (the output hypothesis). Ways of increasing the opportunities for restructuring to take place can occur at three different stages during an activity: prior to the activity, during the activity, or after completing an activity.’

 So, what can we do at each of these stages to help learners restructure and complexify language?

 Prior to the activity

While I think that students have to be interacting with language in some way in order to restructure, I don’t think that they necessarily always have to be using it themselves. What about:

Concept checking

Sometimes seen as a weird and unnecessary hoop that trainers make you jump through on the CELTA, to be abandoned as soon as possible afterwards, concept checking can actually often be a source of those ‘aha’ moments.

A concept question tries to pin down the main concept behind a piece of language and check it. So, for example, ‘used to’. The dictionary definition (Macmillan Advanced) is ‘Used for saying what was true or what happened regularly in the past, especially when you want to emphasize that this is not true or does not happen now.’ So, the concept questions  for ‘I used to enjoy gardening’ could be..

–          Did you enjoy gardening once or regularly?- regularly

–          Do you still enjoy gardening now? – No

[Traditionally they are used in the first part of a PPP lesson, but you can, of course, use concept questions at any stage of the lesson, not just the beginning]

Giving a model

Before students carry out a speaking task, it can be helpful for them to listen to more competent speakers (whether you or a recording) carrying out the same or a similar task. You can then draw attention to some useful language they can add to their store. You could ask them to listen and pick out specific items, or they could choose for themselves. There are plenty of ways of getting students to ‘notice’ language (see this post on noticing in reading )

Planning time

Research shows that planning time will tend to increase the complexity of language used. It may give students time to dredge up language that they do know, but that isn’t yet in their easy to reach store of language. Or they may learn from each other in the planning process, or you can feed in language they could use.

During an activity

Some years ago I was teaching a class in Brazil, using Headway Upper Intermediate. There was an article about holiday disasters, which included a story about an overbooked flight. According to the story, passengers had had to run around the plane and the first ones to get round got the seats. I decided to set up a role-play around an overbooked flight. The idea was for students to come up with a good story as to why they had to get a seat, and persuade the cabin crew. Instead, the students set up a bank of chairs and started running!

The point being, if achieving the task becomes too important, language will fly out of the window (especially with teenagers).

We need to find a balance between base-line communicating (with whatever means possible) and being too focused on form, so that we are not genuinely communicating at all.

Performance

Introducing an element of performance can help with this. If students know that they will have to make a short presentation on their discussion, for example, this can help to focus them more on the actual language they are using. Similarly, recording the discussion for later review, can also help to keep some focus on form, without taking away the genuine need to communicate.

Repetition

We also know that repeating a task usually results in a higher level of complexity, as students become more confident with the material. Obviously we need to find ways of providing an opportunity to repeat the task in a way which makes some communicative sense- e.g. having a different audience the second time.

After an activity

This can be the very best time to focus on form, as it means that the task can’t have been compromised by too much emphasis on the language used.

Using a model

Instead of listening to a model before carrying out a task, students could listen to a model after they have done the task and notice any language that was similar to what they used, or that they could have used but didn’t. This can be particularly motivating as an interim stage before students are asked to repeat the task.

Self-noticing and reformulation

If the speech has been recorded, students can be asked to transcribe a short section of their speech (1-2 minutes). They can make any changes they wish before handing it in to the teacher. This in itself will be a valuable awareness-raising activity.

Step two, however, is for the teacher to then reformulate what each student has written, as appropriate. The student can then compare their version with the teachers’ version, providing another noticing opportunity.

If you have a large class, you could do this with 1 or 2 anonymous examples (different people each time), and look at them with the whole class.

Consciousness-raising tasks

If students are all tending to make the same kind of errors (such as problems with articles), you could note down a range of examples and give them to the students to both correct and agree on the rules.

Traditional practice activities

In the PPP model, these come before ‘production’, but there is no reason why these can’t come at the end of the lesson, after the speaking, as a way of helping to consolidate language which may or may not have been used during the speaking task.

Feedback

You can, of course, note down errors and examples of good language (to develop complexity, not just accuracy) while the task is taking place and carry out a feedback slot at the end of the class where you put these on the board and elicit corrections.

Alternatively, you could develop some peer feedback tools. Someone in the group can take the role of listening and making notes, or you could record the discussions (quite easy in these days of mobile phones). Students can then look for examples of particular language forms or particular speech acts (such as ways of encouraging others to continue). Because this is potentially quite exposing for group members, it is generally better to focus on finding good examples, rather than finding mistakes.

I strongly believe that if all we do is provide learners with opportunities to communicate, we are doing them a disservice. Our job has to be to help them to communicate more effectively, which, I would argue, involves a focus on form, at whatever stage(s) of the lesson that might be.


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Filed under IELTS, Speaking, Teaching methodology

The Silent Way, Suggestopaedia, TPR and other ‘designer’ methods: what are they and what can we learn from them?

In the 70s there was a positive rash of so-called designer methods for learning language. The first part of our #ELTChat on 12th September 2012 at 12pm was mainly concerned with clarifying exactly what some of these methods involved. For the sake of clarity I have prepared a brief overview of what I understand about each method. There then follows a summary of the discussion and finally a set of links to articles and videos about these different methods.

Theory of learning Theory of language Teaching method
The Silent Way Learning is facilitated if the learner discovers or problem solves. Students work co-operatively and independently from teacher. Very structural- language is taught in ‘building blocks’..but syllabus is determined by what learners need to communicate. Teacher should be as silent as possible, modelling items just once. Language is learnt inductively
Total Physical Response (TPR) Learners will learn better if stress to produce language is reduced.Learners, like children, learn from responding to verbal stimulus. Also structural. Mainly uses imperative ‘’everyday conversations are highly abstract and disconnected; therefore to understand them requires a rather advanced internalisation of the target language.’ Asher Not clear how TPR used at advanced levels. Teachers role not so much to teach as provide opportunities for learning.But very teacher directed- even when learners interact with each other, usually the teacher who directs.
Community language Learning Not behavioural but holistic. Teacher and learners involved in ‘an interaction in which both experience a sense of their wholeness.’ Curran Language is communication. Not structural, but based on learning how to communicate what you want to say. Learners learn through interaction with each other and the teacher. They attempt communication and the teacher helps them to say what they want to say (using translation as necessary)
Suggestopaedia People remember best and are most influenced by material coming from an authoritative source. Anxiety should be lowered through comfortable chairs, baroque music etc Language is gradually acquired. No correction. The teacher starts by introducing the grammar and lexis ‘in a playful manner’, then reads the text while the students follow or just relax and listen. Students then use the language in fun and/or undirected ways. 

Comments on the Silent Way

@Mo_Americanoid kicked off the discussion by suggesting that ‘those trends helped deviate the focus from the teacher to the Ss. Silent can be handy in some specific situations..especially in multi-lingual classes where students will take control of their learning at their own pace.’ @teflerinha agreed, saying silent way probably most influential of these in my teaching because of emphasis on getting ls to do stuff.’ @jankenb said ‘Silent way is ideal for Ss who are reluctant to speak in class. It allows for interactivity in group setting.’ @rliberni said I still use some silent way type things when drilling or s’times presenting new language.’

@worldteacher had worked at a school based on Silent Way, but found it  ‘no good for me, I’m afraid!’ She had also tried learning Japanese that way, but never felt confident about the pronunciation.

@Shaunwilden hadn’t ‘done’ Silent way, but was a big fan of using Cuisenaire rods- and so was @rliberni (and me, @teflerinha).

@ELTExperience made the point that children learn by imitating parents and that they wouldn’t learn to speak if parents were silent. @teflerinha commented that the Silent Way involved ‘having to work stuff out- so kind of discovery approach (but can b 2 unguided 4 me)’ and @ELTExperience responded ‘I suppose a balance can be struck between SW and more guided forms of teaching tho.’

@cerirhiannon said ‘only use silent way in short bursts – find the driling too controlled and t-centred.’

@Mo_Americanoid commented ‘I know a teacher from Portugal who learned French and Italian through the Silent Way back in the 70s. She swears by it.’

Comments on Suggestopaedia

@MrChrisJWilson asked if Suggestopaedia was ‘about using the whole environment to promote language learning and reinforce the language?’ and @LizziePinard reminded us that it was the one that uses music- at a certain number of beats per minute according to @Marisa_C.  @teflerinha thought it was something to do with matching branwaves, and @LizziePinard said ‘ties in tradition to yoga and soviet psychology.’ @shaunwilden said ‘reminds me of  some AR i did many years ago-1 class with Baroque one without – proved nothing :-).’

@PatrickAndrews said ‘People keen on suggestopedia say it is very complex but seems to be about using the subconscious’. @LizziePinard pointed out that ‘the teacher is seen as an authority figure, on the theory that learners learn better from authority.’

@Raquel and @teflerinha had a short interchange about aspects we both liked, like room decoration, playful manner, using music..but also agreed that some students hate background music- perhaps because very auditory.

@Marisa_C pointed out ‘original quite focused on translation and structural grading but permutations allow for lots of creativity.’

Comments on TPR

There was a general feeling that this worked better for kids . For example, @rliberni said ‘remember them learning vocab while on a trampoline w/words in front of them!’, but people had also used the method, or elements of it, with adults. However @jankenb disagreed- saying good for all classes 0-99, except when you have 130 students!

Comments on CLL

@Cerirhiannon said ‘elements of CLL can work really well with truly mixed level (note level not ability)  classes  in a monolingual setting’

Other methods

@AlexandraKouk also mentioned grammar translation and contrastive analysis and she and @teflerinha agreed that this could be valuable for ‘noticing, analysing, drawing conclusions and implementing.’

What can we take from these methods?

@raquel_EFL said ‘when I started reading for DELTA, I realized I had used some features of these approaches/methods in my lessons.’ A lot of people agreed that they were using elements, either consciously, or because they had picked up the ideas without knowing where they had originated.

@ChrisJWilson asked about how principles could fit with methods, and @teflerinha gave the example of believing students have to notice language to learn it- which fits with Silent Way.

@esolcourses said ‘I use ideas from all of them in my teaching, although not sure how well they’d work as a ‘stand-alone’ method.’

Some specific examples: @Marisa_C -finger correction @teflerinha -and the use of gestures, taken from Silent Way, @hartle – story telling where teacher is silent indicating yes or no whilst stds ask questions. @eltexperiences – any form of slient eliciting

@hartle said ‘decorative flashcards also come from Suggestopedia and matching card games etc..’

@cerirhainnon suggested ‘ss have to programme me  (robot) to walk, but with limited verbs and preps, and lots of obtuseness from me.’, based on Silent Way/TPR. And also : ss guide blindfolded peers through maze of chairs, if they touch the chairs, go back to beginning

@hartle made the point that a lot is tied in with st expectations and context.  At uni some activities like this OK but stds must perceive it as “serious”!!

There was also a lot of discussion about the idea of ‘cherrypicking’ from the different methods, and many people made the important point that cherrypicking is all very well, but that there should be some principles behind it. There was some debate about whether the original principles of the methods should be watered down in this way, but most people seemed to agree that so long as you knew why you were doing something, it was fine to pick and choose. For example, @jankenB said ‘Not random- always well planned and understood, & flexible to teachable moments.’ And @Raquel_ELT said @Raquel_EFL: Planning is crucial.Being aware of these methods/approaches’ features, we have a bigger repertoire of solutions 2 improve.’

It was also agreed that context was important, and that different approaches would suit different students (at different times) @elleplus1 ‘You assimilate the principles then you can adapt them to different contexts.’

There was some discussion, led by @EBELT about whether there was any empirical evidence as to the effectiveness of these methods. @michaelegriffin later wrote a blog response to just this point http://eltrantsreviewsreflections.wordpress.com/researching-designer-elt-methods/

And finally, @michaelegriffin directed us to Kumaravadivelu’s ‘Beyond Methods’, which is an attempt to synthesise everything that has been learnt over the last decades http://www.yale.edu/yup/pdf/095732_front_1_2.pdf

LINKS

Silent Way

Overview of Silent Way from OneStopEnglish , with a response from a real Silent Way teacher.

http://www.onestopenglish.com/support/methodology/teaching-approaches/teaching-approaches-what-is-the-silent-way/146498.article

@Marisa_C gave us a link to this video of a Silent Way lesson http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAUJ3aubKXc&feature=youtu.be

TPR

A quite detailed overview of TPR http://www2.vobs.at/ludescher/total_physical_response.htm

@rliberni gave us this link to a video of Gunther Gerngross doing TPR with kids. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bkMQXFOqyQA&feature=youtu.be

@cicocas gave a link for a TPR based computer programme http://www.cpli.net/eslmaterials/tpresl3.html

Community Language Learning

A good overview of CLL from the BC/BBC Teaching English website http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/articles/community-language-learning

@Marisa_C gave us this video of Turkish teachers using CLL with mobile devices. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ijmOAXIF9Y&feature=youtu.be

@michaelegriffn contributed the link to this post on CLL by Kevin Giddens (of do nothing teaching fame) http://kevingiddens.posterous.com/learning-through-experience-revisiting-commun

Suggestopaedia

@Marisa_C suggested looking for Lonny Gold on YouTube e.g. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yX4JFEUgqlg

And have us the following link too http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0g6hyZqrPnY&feature=youtu.be

@cerirhiannon wrote a very readable and interesting follow-up post about her experience of learning using a suggestopaedia type approach http://cerij.wordpress.com/2012/09/12/a-learning-experiment/

After the chat, @reservopedic , who is a suggestopaedia teacher, tweeted several links on suggestopaedia http://effortlessacquisition.blogspot.co.uk/2004/03/invitation-to-suggestopedia-by.html  http://t.co/KmU4RSnU  http://www.sofiabooks.com/product_info.php?products_id=2460 and a list of tweeted do’s and don’ts.

Various methods

A link provided by @theteacherjames with some good summaries of different methods and how and why this teacher uses them http://debzif.wordpress.com/

@cioccas suggested Jason Renshaw’s site for an overview of various methods http://www.englishraven.com/methodology.html

[Apologies if I have missed anything important out- the transcript ran to 25 pages! Also if I, or we have misunderstood any of the methods discussed- feel free to comment and correct!

And please join us for #eltchat on twitter Wednesdays at 12pm and 9pm UK time. The new website address is www.eltchat.org]

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Filed under Teaching methodology

How identifying the different roles we play can help groups work better together

Who are you?

This may seem an obvious question, but now try getting a pencil and writing down ten different responses to that question before you read on….

…If you look at your list, you might have listed your gender or ethnicity, and there may be some adjectives such as kind or artistic. You’re likely to see a set of roles that you play: teacher, manager, parent, son or daughter.

We all play different roles in different groups, and the classroom is no exception.

You are likely to take on different roles within your role of being a teacher: facilitator, critic, guide… But what about the roles your students take within the group?

Group theory (see, for example, Communicating in small groups: Beebe and Masterson) divides roles into three different types:

Task roles: roles that help a group carry out a task

Some examples

Initiator- contributor: proposes new or different ideas or approaches

Information seeker: asks for facts or clarification

Opinion seeker: Asks for values and opinions

Elaborator: provides examples

Orienter: attempts to summarise and keeps the group focused on the task

Maintenance roles: roles that help the group work smoothly together

Some examples

Encourager: Offers praise and acceptance

Harmoniser: mediates disagreements

Compromiser: attempts to resolve conflicts

Individual roles: these tend to be counter-productive to the group as a whole

Some examples

Aggressor: puts other people down

Blocker: negative, stubborn and difficult

Dominator: tries to take over the group

It is tempting to use these roles to start labelling your favourite (or least favourite students), but in fact, roles change all the time, and people can play many different roles. The point of exploring different roles is not to stereotype people or make them feel they should be carrying out a particular role, but to help the members of a group or class be aware of how they are all working together, and how that interaction could be improved.

Activities to raise awareness of group roles

The first two ideas are both ways for students to track interaction within a small group. This can be very useful for getting an overview of how the group is working.

  1. Put the students into groups of five or six. One person observes while the others carry out a speaking task. The observer draws circles on a piece of paper to represent each member of the group. They then listen and draw arrows each time someone speaks.  If one person speaks directly to another, draw an arrow between them. If someone speaks to the group as a whole draw an arrow away from the group. If someone is speaking for more than a few sentences at a time more than one arrow can be drawn.

At the end of the task, the observer should feedback to the group on what they observed, and the whole group can discuss the findings:

–          What do you notice about the lines of communication?

–          Were the lines of communication an effective way of carrying out the task? Why/why not?

–          Was everyone happy with the way they participated?

–          What things could the group change in the future?

This task is taken from Conversation: Nolasco and Arthur.

2 A similar, but perhaps more entertaining idea, comes from Classroom Dynamics: Jill Hadfield. Rather than having an observer, the group has a ball of wool or string. The person starting the speaking task holds the end, and then passes the ball to the next person to speak. This continues until the task has finished (I’d suggest quite a short task!). The pattern of interaction will be very clear at the end, demonstrated by the web of wool or string. Or possibly the students will actually start to change the pattern of interaction as they see that they are either taking over a bit too much, or not contributing very much.

After this kind of activity, you could go a step further and actually start to look at the different kind of roles students are taking. This needs to be done carefully though, to avoid singling people out for criticism.

Jill Hadfield suggests two activities which could both be handled sensitively:

1 Using a self-evaluation questionnaire. There is a photocopiable one in Classroom Dynamics, which includes questions such as:

–          Did you contribute any ideas?

–          Did you encourage anyone else to contribute any ideas?

–          Is there any way you could help the discussion to go better….by making a suggestion etc.

She suggests carrying out a speaking task, then asking students to complete the questionnaire individually and privately, then carrying out a second speaking task and finally discussing if and how the second speaking task was an improvement on the first one. (From personal experience I can tell you that this process can be completely transformational.)

2 Observing group roles. In this activity, students carry out a speaking task and are observed. The observer ticks how many times various things (such as contributing an idea, interrupting, evaluating someone else’s idea, not talking in English) happen- but does not note down who did these things.  The group then looks at the results and decides which things are happening too often, and which not often enough. There isn’t necessarily a value judgement to these things. Contributing ideas is something we want to see happen, but if that’s ALL that’s happening, the group will not be working very smoothly! They then choose three things they should do more often and three things they should do less often.

Incidentally, although the observer in these tasks is not taking part, this can be a useful role for certain students. Students who tend to be very dominant can benefit from having to sit back and listen, and students who struggle to get a word in can benefit from having a clear role and being asked to feedback on what they observed.

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A new class: building a learning environment together

Many of us are starting new terms and working with new groups. We probably already know what the learners are expected to achieve in their time with us, and the pressure is on.

It’s tempting to dive straight in, but any new group will need to work through interpersonal issues before they can function effectively as a group (and as individuals within the group). We can ignore these issues, but that won’t make them go away; we’re just more likely to get our feet tangled in them, like weeds under the surface of the water.

In a central work on group dynamics in the classroom, Schmuck and Schmuck [no, it isn’t just you that finds their names amusing  :)], observe:

‘ Our research has shown that classroom groups with supportive friendship patterns enhance academic learning, while more hostile classroom environments reduce learning…informal group processes in the classroom can, and do, make a difference in the accomplishment of the formal goals of the school.’

So, what can we do to encourage more supportive patterns?

Getting to know you activities

First of all, pay more than lip-service to the ‘getting to know you’ activities. Language learning is a high risk activity in terms of losing face and the student surrounded by unfamiliar faces is likely to either withdraw or ‘act-out’ as a way of controlling the environment.

Names

It seems obvious, but make sure that everyone knows everyone else’s names. Rather than putting pressure on them to learn them, try a discussion activity about names. Some possible questions:

–          How did you get your name? Were you named for someone else? Who/why?

–          Does your name have a meaning?

–          Do you have a nickname (you are willing to share)? How did you get it? Who uses it?

–          Do you or other people shorten your name in any way? How do you feel about either the shortened name or the full name? (Many people feel they are going to be told off when someone uses their full name)

–          Do you like your name? Why/why not?

–          What would you like to be called in class?

This can be done in small groups, which either swap around, or feedback to the main group.

It goes without saying that you need to learn your student’ names as quickly as possible. A few tips:

–          Write down the names in the same layout as the students are seated (i.e. in a horseshoe) and refer to it often in the first class or so.

–          Use their names as much as possible to begin with.

–          When students are working on something mentally go round and test yourself on the names. Ask anyone you can’t remember to remind you (better now than in a month’s time)

–          Make a note next to each name of a distinguishing feature (e.g. curly hair).But be careful with this one….don’t write anything you wouldn’t want the student to see!

Find someone who…

This is a very well-known activity in some circles, so apologies if it’s too obvious, but it does work brilliantly. This is a variation which doesn’t require you to know anything about the students prior to the class, and ensures that students are comfortable about what is revealed (which can sometimes be a problem when this activity is done on CELTA courses, based on application forms!)

Put students into small groups (3-4) and ask them to think of three things to tell the other group members about themselves, which they are pretty sure will be new information.  They should take it in turns to give a piece of information, and the others should comment on it. Model this if necessary. While they are carrying out the activity, monitor and note down one fact about each student that you overhear.

Then dictate the facts to the class. E.g. Find someone who…

…has just been to Sweden on holiday.

…used to live in another country

Students will already know some of these from their small group work, but they can then mingle and ask others in the class, ‘Have you just been to Sweden?’ etc.  (no pointing at the sheet allowed)

Guess who?

This works better with groups which have worked together a little before. Each group member writes 2-3 sentences about themselves (anything they want to share). These are collected in and read aloud (by you or the students) and everyone writes down who they think each one refers to before the answers are revealed at the end.

An alternative is for 1 of 3 pieces of information to be a lie. In this version, we don’t have to guess who, but guess which piece of information is untrue.

Creating a sense of group identity

As well as getting to know each other better, we can also focus on creating a positive group identity.

Class Yearbook or Photo Album

Over the course of the year, a scrapbook (or the digital equivalent) is gradually built up by members of the class. You could begin with photos and a short bio about each member, then add updates as often as you and the class wish. This could cover what has been learnt, any social activities or trips, creative writing or articles, whatever seems appropriate.

At the end of the year, contact details could be added for those that wish to keep in touch if the group is breaking up, and maybe include a letter from the teacher about the experience of teaching the group.

Class history

(this idea comes from the wonderful Classroom Dynamics- Jill Hadfield)

Exactly how you do this will depend on the age range of your students. The idea is for each student to research a different year or other short period of time in the past and find out what everyone in the class did or was doing at that time.

After a mingle activity where they interview each other, the information can be put together on a time–line.  This is a great activity for working together and getting to know each other (not to mention using past tenses)

In my next post I plan to look at some activities for developing the class’s awareness of how groups work together and how they, individually, are contributing to the group. Feel free to sign up to be sent this post by email- button on the right.

 

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What’s the point of planning?

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.’’


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Using a teacherless task to develop student interaction

The first teacherless task I ever came across was in the first edition of Headway Upper Intermediate. Students were given the scenario of a murder mystery and each given a card with a different piece of information. They had to work together to solve the mystery, without any teacher intervention, obviously using only English.

The activity always went brilliantly and produced a lot of language. It was, of course, a task-based lesson, devised before TBL became a mainstream idea. Later, thanks to Simon Marshall, a long time colleague and friend of Mario Rinvolucri, I discovered that the teacherless task was something Mario was writing about in the late seventies. So, once again, there’s no such thing as a new idea.

What defines a teacherless task, however, is that it is always a problem-solving exercise where the students have to work together in order to solve it.

In Teacherless Tasks (sadly out of print), Rinvolucri specifies three different types of these tasks:

–          The students are given a logic puzzle in which the sentences describing the situation are divided up between them. They need to memorise their piece of information, then put the information together in order to solve the puzzle.

–          The students are each given a sentence from more than one short anecdote. They need to memorise their sentence then find the others who have the same anecdote as them before finally putting the sentences in order. They then need to prepare to tell the story fluently before being put into new pairs or small groups to share their stories.

–          The class is split in two. One half has the scenario of a typical lateral thinking logic puzzle. For example, Romeo and Juliet are found dead on the floor, amidst a small puddle of water and some broken glass. What happened?  The other half of the class has a clue each. For example, Romeo and Juliet are quite small. The questioners ask those with clues any questions they like and anyone whose clue helps can answer the question. (Incidentally, if you don’t know this puzzle, the answer is that Romeo and Juliet are goldfish and the cat knocked over their bowl)

I included a teacherless task like this in Premium B1, together with an exercise on ‘managing’ a conversation. See below if you want to try it out. There are j-pegs from the Students’ Book and Teachers’ Book.

The teacherless task can really help to develop interaction between the students in the following ways:

–          Each person only has a small part of the information, so everyone has to work together to solve the problem.

–          Every piece of information is essential, so everyone has to join in.

–          Fitting the information together is a complex process, so the students have to listen to each other much more carefully than they might usually do.

–          If students cannot understand each other they are forced to ask for clarification rather than relying on the teacher to ‘interpret’.

–          It is highly motivating, providing a genuine reason to communicate.

–          You often find that students who have previously been quiet come to the fore, as this task requires different skills, such as logical thinking.

–          Solving the puzzle brings a sense of achievement and encourages greater group cohesion- it’s a kind of team building exercise!

The focus is primarily on communication. However, you can start by looking at the kind of interactional language they might need, as in the example from Premium above. You can also note down any errors and carry out some feedback at the end- making sure that you do focus on their achievements as well.

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Drilling-based activities: preparation light, student generated ways to build fluency. What’s not to like?

Drilling

Drilling has certainly fallen out of favour in recent years. Strongly associated with the behaviourist approach it is often seen as non-communicative, boring, patronising…. A recent ELTChat on the subject brought up all the negatives, but also provided a long list of positive reasons for drilling. For example:

  • Building confidence
  • Helping learners get their tongues round new words
  • Picking up pace and getting students’ attention
  • Developing ability to produce (and understand) connected speech

And perhaps the key reason, for me at any rate: drilling or repetition is an important step towards fluency. Especially at lower levels, it is quite natural to rehearse (at least mentally) before tackling a speaking situation.  Repeating something helps us to ‘notice’ what we are repeating and assimilate it into our store of language. The ELTChat I referred to concentrated mostly on drilling words or single chunks. There are plenty of benefits to this, but in this post I want to concentrate on some techniques which are probably even more out of favour: drilling and repeating dialogues and narratives.

Dialogue builds

I did my CELTA so long ago that it wasn’t even called that then (!). It was also at IH in Cairo, which I rather suspect was a little behind the times in terms of materials. The result was that my initial training centred around the coursebook series Streamlines and Strategies. Lots of drilling and repetition.

One of the first techniques I learnt was a dialogue build. For the uninitiated, it goes like this: Set up the situation, using a photo (or in pre-IWB days two stick figures on the board). Elicit where the characters are, who they are, what’s happening and so on. This is often a service encounter (e.g. in a café), but can be anything you like.

Then you elicit the dialogue from the students, line by line. As you accept each line, you help learners correct it if necessary and then model the final version, with appropriate connected speech and intonation, getting the students to repeat it. You DON’T write the dialogue on the board, but do indicate where each line starts and who is speaking. You might also add question marks or little visual clues. As you go through the dialogue you keep returning to the start, getting students to keep repeating the dialogue, and thus memorising it. You can do this whole class, or divide the class into the number of characters or ask individuals to do each line. It’s good to have a bit of variety here.

Once the class knows the dialogue by heart, they can practise a little more in pairs, changing roles. You can also have a bit of fun with it by getting one of the characters to change their answers, so that the first person has to react spontaneously. (Good idea to model what to do first with lower level learners) Finally, you can elicit the dialogue once more, writing it onto the board so that the students have a clear written version. Alternatively, you could get students to come up and write it on the board, giving scope for some work on correcting spellings, missing articles and so on.

A dialogue build is a great technique to have up your sleeve for a last minute cover lesson. It’s obviously most appropriate for lower level learners, but could be done with more advanced students if the chunks of language elicited were more demanding. At the end of it, the students have memorised a whole set of (hopefully useful) chunks of language and can produce them fluently at will. Fluent speakers are essentially those who have enough chunks of language that they can stick together to keep going, so teaching chunks in this way is a real help.

It’s also an excellent activity to do with learners with low levels of literacy. I can’t understand why it isn’t an ESOL staple. You don’t need any equipment except a board and pens (great for those community halls), it doesn’t rely at all on reading and writing, it can be adapted for specific situations that learners might have to deal with (ringing for a doctor’s appointment, for example) and once it’s elicited onto the board it provides a copying activity where the meaning is already very clear (and was indeed student generated).

Alternative versions

Instead of eliciting the whole dialogue, you could give them one half or the dialogue (i.e. all that one person says) and elicit the missing responses. Then proceed as above. A good alternative for learners who can read quite well, is to start by writing the elicited dialogue onto the board. Drill as a class, making sure you are giving a good model of natural pronunciation, then ask learners to practise it in pairs. As they are practising, gradually wipe off words and lines from the dialogue. As it disappears, they have to remember more and more. Finally you can re-elicit it onto the board or get them to write it down on the board, or in pairs on paper. This could work equally well with a narrative.

Another old, but great, idea comes from Mario Rinvolucri’s book, Dictation. In this activity, you do the repeating (at least to start with) and the students listen and mime the actions. It works really well with younger learners, but if you have a lively class, adults could enjoy it too. Here’s the text (slightly adapted)

You’re standing in front of the Coke machine. Put your hand in your back pocket. Take out three 50p coins. Put them in one by one. You hear the machine click. Choose your drink and press the button. You hear a terrible groan from the machine. Clunk! A can drops down. Pick it up. Open the can. It squirts Coke in your face. Take a tissue out of your pocket. Rub your eye. Lick your lips. Take a sip. Burp!

First read the text right through, just to orientate students. Then read again and elicit a movement for each line. Get all the students doing it. Then read a third time with all the students doing all the movements.  You can make this stage fast as possible if you want a bit of fun. Then give the students a version of the text with most of it missing. They have to work together to recreate the text.

This is a form of dictogloss, but the difference is that doing the actions should help them to remember what’s missing. If they get stuck, get them to do the actions and try and remember that way. This is the stage at which they should be drilling the language themselves, as they try to recall it. You can obviously differentiate this activity by giving less of the text to more able students and vice versa. Finally you get the whole class to carry out the actions while saying the text (from memory).

All of these ideas are extremely preparation-light and student generated. They provide a way to help learners appropriate new chunks of language to their store, and the challenge of memorisation also provides interest and stimulation. Maybe it’s time for a revival?

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Filed under Differentiation, Pronunciation, Speaking, Teaching methodology

A lesson from my great grandfather’s ELT coursebook: extensive reading and vocabulary

The pictures show my great grandfather, who was a teacher of English as Foreign Language in Geneva at the turn of the last century, and one of the ELT Books he wrote (this is a second edition in 1901). So you see, teaching and writing ELT materials must be genetic!

The book is a collection of stories in English, which he used to teach. In the foreword he writes (in French):

 The author uses this book as follows:  he reads the stories phrase by phrase, the pupils translate without seeing the book.  Afterwards, they read the stories and tell them in English.  For the next lesson the students study and tell the stories; the teacher tells them in French.  If you want to make the students’ task easier, you can question them.  When you attack the longer passages in the stories, let them translate for themselves before you give them the exact translation.

 Note, however, that the stories should not be studied in depth before the lesson.  It is enough to go over the vocabulary.  This method gives students confidence in their own abilities, gives them the facility to understand and to speak, and teaches them a lot of words, idioms and phrases in an enjoyable way.

 It’s interesting to see an example of the (in)famous Grammar Translation method, but what really caught my eye was the emphasis on vocabulary, rather than grammar, and the idea that reading leads to learning ‘a lot of words, phrases and idioms in an enjoyable way.’

Just lately I have been doing some reading on the subject of extensive reading (ER), inspired by seeing Philip Prowse at the Brasshouse Conference the other week, and also Jez Uden’s great presentation on the British Council seminar series.

There seems to be a lot of evidence that ER does help with developing all aspects of language, including speaking. Perhaps the most research has been done into how ER can help to develop vocabulary. Most people would agree that we learn vocabulary through being repeatedly exposed to it in meaningful contexts, and it is difficult (and probably uninspiring) for lessons or coursebooks to recycle vocabulary 10-20 times. If we read extensively, however, we will be exposed to frequent items many times.

There is also evidence to suggest (Pigada and Schmitt 2006) that being exposed to lexis in this way also helps learners to acquire more about a word or phrase than just its meaning (i.e. exactly how it is used, its grammar and its spelling).

Michael Hoey talks about ‘lexical priming’, the idea that learners store lexical items in the context in which they have encountered them, so that with repeated exposure we are confident about using them in frequently used chunks. (Leo Selivan has a great post on this here)

However, there is also evidence that (unsurprisingly when you think about it) learners need to do an awful lot of reading in order to meet most words and phrases enough times to acquire them.

One solution is simplified readers, with their limited number of words. These can also be more motivating, as it is suggested that anything above 10% of unknown words will be demotivating for a reader. (Of course, it also depends if the readers are intrinsically interesting).

Another solution is what is known as ‘narrow reading’. The idea here is that rather than reading widely, learners read narrowly- around the same topic. In this way  they will keep coming across the same lexical items. In How to Teach Vocabulary, Scott Thornbury suggests one way of doing this by asking learners to follow a particular news story on different websites, or over a period of time. They can then report back to other class members on the news story they chose (thus using the vocabulary).

However, there is still the issue of whether students will necessarily ‘notice’ the vocabulary, even with repeated exposure. As Huljstin says:

‘Incidental acquisition-through-reading is a slow and error-prone process with small vocabulary gains (Laufer, 2005; Nation, 2001; Read, 2004; Brown, Waring & Donkaewbua, 2008). Readers do not always notice unfamiliar words when reading a text. If they do, guessing the meaning is not always possible. Moreover, many people possess poor inferencing skills..’

It seems to me that, while we probably don’t want students reading word by word with dictionaries in hand, there is probably a benefit in having some intentional vocabulary learning as well as incidental learning. There is certainly some evidence that a combination of the two leads to the greatest gain in vocabulary acquisition.

So perhaps we could ask learners to carry out some of the following follow up activities after reading, rather than asking comprehension questions- or for the dreaded book report?

  •  Ask students to choose a number of words and phrases from what they have read which they think are related to the topic. They could then work with these in different ways (categorising according to part of speech, or by meaning, using them to write or speak about the topic etc)
  • Ask students to select a number of lexical items they didn’t know but think they might find useful. Then ask them to look them up in a good learner dictionary and find out how frequent they are, and based on that choose 6-7 to consciously learn.
  • Ask students to note down any new words that they noticed were repeated a number of times in the text. They can then decide if they think these words were repeated because they related to the topic, or if they are in fact high frequency words.
  • If learners have been reading the same text, you could go through it and select some common collocational phrases (such as those listed on Leo Selivan’s blog) and give them the beginning of each phrase to complete. They could either check their ideas in the text itself (obviously with a page or line reference), or use an online corpus tool like Netspeak.

Essentially these are all ways of making language noticeable or salient to learners, which should go hand in hand with all the benefits of simply reading, or as one of my favourite acronyms for extensive reading has it- DEAR (drop everything and read).

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Filed under Exploiting authentic reading materials, Teaching methodology, Vocabulary