A link to my latest British Council blog, with one of my favourite speaking activities. It’s a favourite because a) it’s really flexible and can be done with any level and at any stage of the course (though it works particularly well for a first lesson or a cover lesson), b) it takes very little or even no preparation if you’re good at thinking on your feet, and c) students always enjoy it.
Category Archives: Working with groups
How can we motivate our students, and ourselves? In my latest blog post for British Council Teaching English, I look at what motivates me, and how that might relate to more general theories of motivation.
Read the post here.
Photo Credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/23743320@N03/5799251814/”>Sangudo</a> via <a href=”http://compfight.com”>Compfight</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a>
Click here to go to my latest blog post for the British Council Teaching English site, with lots of getting to know you activities for new classes, or more established ones.
The video is designed to show us what it’s like to live with sensory over-sensitivity. Not everyone on the autistic spectrum will experience this to this degree, or even at all, but it does give a sobering insight into the difficulties that some people face.
It is estimated that about 1 in a 100 people are on the autistic spectrum so the chances are very good that some of your students are, whether you, or even they know it or not. In fact, because it’s a spectrum we are actually ALL on the autistic spectrum, it’s just a question of how pronounced those features are.
If you work with people with more severe forms of autism you probably already know plenty about how to support them , but many, often highly intelligent, people have traits of ASD without ever realising it. What they do realise is that life, and by extension learning in a classroom setting, is just that bit harder for them.
I’m by no means an expert on all of this, but since my son was diagnosed a few years back, my awareness has grown significantly and I realise how under-prepared/informed I think many language teachers are (me included). Looking back, I can remember quite a few students that I would now recognise as probably having been on the autistic spectrum, and I now know that there are a lot of things I could have handled differently and more successfully.
There are three main areas where people with Aspergers or high functioning autism (not the same thing, technically, but similar) have difficulty :
- Being very literal. They may have difficulty in understanding jokes, metaphor or sarcasm. Generally speaking, these are things that most foreign language learners have problems with in a second language, but if you have Aspergers, you may also feel like that in your first language.
- It can be hard for them to tell if someone is affectionately teasing, or being nasty, partly because of the being literal, but also because they may find it hard to read facial expressions of tone of voice.
- Turn-taking and spotting when someone has lost interest can also cause difficulties.
So, if you have a student who easily takes offence or gets upset, for example, it might be worth considering whether what was said might have been mis-interpreted in this way. You could also try being more careful in your use of metaphor etc.
Turn-taking skills can be taught and practised- and most students can benefit from this, so no need to single anyone out. You could try some of the ideas in Jill Hadfield’s excellent book, Classroom Dynamics, such as passing round a ball of wool so that you can see the pattern of interaction in wool at the end of a conversation, or allowing the person to simply listen and take notes before feedback to the whole class at the end.
- Many people with Aspergers have difficulty in starting conversations or interactions with others, or in sustaining them by asking questions.
- They may find others unpredictable and confusing, leading to withdrawing and preferring to work alone.
I think as a language teacher, we need to respect that some students, whether with ASD or not, may sometimes prefer to work alone. People on the spectrum can often be very sensitive to noise as well, and this combined with the unpredictability of others’ behaviour can be absolutely exhausting. So, despite what you may have learned on your CELTA course😉 , don’t force people to work with others.
When you do ask them to work in pairs or groups, think about how you can structure the task to make it more predictable and less overwhelming. For example, getting the group to make a list of five points, or ranking things in order of preference etc makes the task more concrete and manageable. It’s also good for everyone else, and having a clear outcome tends to produce a better quality of interaction.
Make sure that your instructions are absolutely crystal clear, and only give one instruction at a time. Again, this is useful for everyone, but people with ASD can find it particularly difficult to hold more than one instruction in their head at a time.
Because the world can be confusing and overwhelming, people with ASD often like to stick to routines. Again, this is generally good practice with all classes, especially young learners, but you might like to remember that changing the routine radically might have a negative impact on someone on the spectrum.
- This is sometimes characterised as lack of empathy, but I think that’s not a very useful way of putting it as, in my limited experience, people with Aspergers definitely do feel for others, they’re just not always very good at imagining how others might feel.
So role-play type activities might cause problems for some students, as this involves imagining yourself in another person’s position. This certainly isn’t true of everyone with Asperger’s, but it’s worth keeping an eye out for such difficulties, and having an alternative up your sleeve.
A couple of other points
People with Aspergers often have what are known as special interests- subjects they are fascinated by and love to talk about. While you need to set up a clear structure- as otherwise they may find it hard to judge when they have lost their classmate’s interest- allowing a bit of space for the to talk about these subjects can also be rewarding, and gives these students a chance to show off their knowledge on the area.
As mentioned before, people with Aspergers may find noise difficult, so a calm atmosphere really helps. They may also have other sensory difficulties with things such as bright lights. Obviously you don’t want to make the whole class work in silence, but it’s worth being aware that a student might be finding the atmosphere stressful so that you can change it or give them options.
Obviously if any of this is ringing bells with you in regard to a particular student I am NOT suggesting that you should be rushing in to offer a diagnosis! But you could try some of the tips and see if they have a positive effect. If nothing else, it might help you to empathise more with the student.
As I said at the beginning, I am certainly not an expert, so if anyone would like to offer any further ideas or corrections in the comments, that would be very welcome.
As you may have noticed, my posts have been a little thin on the ground lately. I’m planning to remedy this when the project I’m working on slows down enough for me to catch my breath!
In the meantime, here are some posts I’ve written for my British Council blog:
Recently listening to Cecilia Lemos’ great talk on recasting as a form of correction, and how she had decided it was not always very effective, I started thinking again about teacher echo.
Recasting is repeating an utterance which is incorrect, in the correct way, hoping that the student will notice it. As a technique, it has its roots in the ‘strong’ communicative approach, and is based on what parents tend to do with young children, as they are learning. However, there is quite a lot of evidence that students rarely do notice recasts. For example, Havranek (1999) recorded 1,700 examples of recasts and found that:
– Half the errors were committed again shortly afterwards
– Less than a third of learners even remembered the correction (and if they did, it didn’t mean that they later produced the language correctly)
– Peers did not notice the correction of others
So, if repeating an incorrect utterance correctly is probably of quite dubious benefit, why would teachers ‘echo’, or repeat correct utterances?
The most common reason given is that it provides learners with another opportunity to be exposed to the language. This comes from the same roots as the notion of recasting, and assumes that learners learn a second language in the same way as children learn their first language. But, as we have seen, learners don’t tend to notice or respond to the teacher’s repetition, even when there’s something salient in it.
The second reason teachers give for echoing is that it helps other students to hear what the first student said, as students are often prone to mumbling. This may certainly be true, but does it encourage the students to speak up and make the effort to communicate with each other? Or, rather, does it give the impression that the only communication which counts has to go through the teacher?
Which brings me to my third point (which, to be fair has never been offered to me as a reason for using echo). Habitual teacher echo massively increases the amount of teacher talking time. Now, I’m not against teacher talking time, per se. Good quality input from teachers is a wonderful resource. However, automatically repeating every utterance like a parrot is not good quality input. It just takes up valuable space and time.
And furthermore, people do not actually communicate in this way in real life, so it gives the impression that the interaction is not real in anyway, that it’s simply a mechanical exercise.
So, in answer to my own question, I would say that teacher echo is very rarely helpful, and that, while it may be a deliberately contentious over-statement, it is quite controlling and greedy. There are also a lot of much better things you could be doing to provide high quality interventions (more on this in a future post).
If you do want to see how much echoing you actually do, it’s really worth recording yourself teaching. This is pretty easy to do unobtrusively with a mobile phone, and may surprise you. It’s also likely to improve the quality of your teaching, as raising awareness is the first step towards making conscious decisions about the kind of interactions you want your class.
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…