When you’re preparing a lesson you probably give a lot of thought to the tasks and exercises you plan to include. But how much thought do you give to what happens (or should happen) between the exercises? In my latest post for the British Council Teaching English blog, I consider the importance of feedback and look at some different ways to do it.
How much do you praise students? Are you one of those teachers who automatically responds ‘good’ to any utterance, even if it’s actually hopelessly wrong or impossible to follow? Or do you believe in only praising very infrequently if at all, so that any praise is really valued? Probably, like me, you’re somewhere in the middle.
But have you actually made conscious decisions about how much praise to give, what kind of praise to give and when?
Most people are aware that praise which is perceived as not really having been earned, could have a negative effect. If it’s just a reflex, students will cease to really listen to it. There is also some evidence that too much praise can ‘convey a message of low expectations’ for low achievers, and even make stronger students less willing to take risks
So praise does have to be genuine, and it’s also important to think about what and how we praise. General praise (e.g. good job, well done) is, according to many researchers (Brophy, 1981; Gable et al. 2009; Hattie & Timperley 2007; Kalis, Vannest, & Parker 2007; Lannie, & McCurdy, 2007; Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2005- cited in Burnett and Mandel) not very effective. That makes sense to me because I think we all need to know what exactly we have done well, if we are to learn from the praise.
Most researchers agree that praise aimed at the students’ work is likely to be more effective than praise aimed at the student’s ability. So, saying ‘you are very good at spelling’ is not as effective as saying, ‘You worked hard and learnt all ten spellings really well,’ One reason for this is because students may come to believe that they cannot change what they are naturally good (or not good) at. It also means that those students who are not naturally good at something are unlikely to receive much praise, which is demotivating. (That said, if a student is actually very capable but lacks self-confidence, it can be helpful to praise their ability.)
The important thing, I would suggest, is that praise is specific, and a form of feedback, rather than a way of being ‘nice’. Geoff Petty, a UK based teacher trainer in mainstream education (not ELT) talks about ‘medal and mission’ feedback.
A ‘medal’ is specific information about what a student has done well. So, in a writing task, for example, you might say ‘You have a very clear introduction and conclusion.’. A ‘mission’ is a specific piece of feedback about something that the student needs to improve. For example, ‘you need to make sure that each paragraph has one main idea’
There is, of course, much more to ‘medal and mission’ than just praise, but thinking of praise in terms of medals for specific achievements is helpful I think.
However, and it’s a big however, some researchers have found that praise of any sort can have at best a neutral effect, and at worst a negative effect. Various pieces of research quoted in this article concluded that praise had very little positive effect and Skipper and Douglas found that praising ability actually had a negative effect (while praising effort had no effect at all).
My gut feeling and experience (as a learner and teacher) still tells me that specific and carefully thought out praise does have a positive effect on most students. So, what do you think? Is it different for different students? Does it make a difference what kind of praise it is, or when or how it is given? Comments very welcome.
This is the third (very belated) part in a series on oral correction. In the first part, I wrote about the importance of correction, and in the second about when to correct, so in this post I’d like to concentrate on the actual process of how to correct.
Let’s start by looking at immediate correction, while the student is speaking. The pros and cons of doing this are discussed here, but assuming that you have made the decision to correct immediately (and not just reformulate), how can you best go about it?
Most teachers would agree that it is usually best to try and elicit a correction from the student. The argument is that this will involve them in deeper mental processing than if the teacher simply provides the correct language. Some might argue that this is too difficult for the students, but I’d say that if they can’t attempt a correction even with help, then there probably isn’t much point in making the correction as it is likely to be something beyond their current level of competence.
But no-one can correct themselves if they don’t know what the problem is. Take this (fictional) example:
Student: I want to heat it.
Student: Sorry, I want to heating it.
Student: Er, I want heat it?
Teacher: No, you want to EAT it!
So, the first thing to consider is how you are going to help the student realise where the problem lies.
In the case above, the teacher could do a number of things:
Indicate where the problem is by simply saying ‘pronunciation?’
Ask a question to show the possible confusion- You want to make it hot?
Repeat the sentence, stressing ‘heat’ in a questioning way.
Depending on the error, we can use a number of prompts to help the student self correct. Using a keyword, such as ‘pronunciation’, ‘tense’, ‘article’ and so on can be useful if the student knows the metalanguage. However, gestures can also work very well for giving the student a ‘nudge’.
Here are some useful possibilities:
Third person –s – Write an ‘S’ on the palm of your hand, so that when you open up your fingers the students can read it. In this way you can just ‘flash’ the –s whenever anyone forgets. (Be aware that in some cultures it is rude to show your palm however)
Word order– gesture with your hands swapping right over left to show that the order is different.
Missing –ly on an adverb. (E.g. a student says ‘I walk slow’) – Make an L shape with your hand (British and American teenagers sometimes use this to mean ‘Loser’ though, so use with some caution)
Tenses– pointing backwards for past, forwards for future and down for present (though a friend of mine thought that the teacher was teaching the word for table when she pointed downwards!)
Missing word- Spell out the sentence on your fingers (from right to left so that it runs the correct way for the students) and hold the finger representing the missing word, asking what word is missing.
Wrong word- Similar to missing word. Spell out the sentence or phrase, with one word for each finger and stop at the wrong word and ask them to correct it.
Contractions or linking – Again spell out the words on your fingers, then hold two (or three) together and ask students to say it again, putting them together. For example, ‘I would not have done it’ – you could hold would, not and have together to elicit ‘wouldn’t’
Contractions or short vowels sounds– You can pinch together your thumb and index finger to show either a contraction ‘I would’ – ‘I’d’ or to elicit a shorter vowel sound ‘sheep’ to ship’
If the student just can’t self-correct, and assuming you’re not asking the impossible, you then have a choice about whether to try and encourage a peer correction. I think it’s important for students not to jump in and correct each other too quickly, but it is useful if you can build a class culture where it is acceptable for students to correct each other. As Caleb Gattegno said, ‘A mistake is a gift to the class’. Knowing that they might be called upon, will keep students listening while you are working with an individual student to correct an error, and it’s likely that other students in the class will have similar difficulties, especially in a multi-lingual class. I would use this kind peer correction quite sparing though myself as the original student might start to feel too exposed. It’s a judgement the teacher needs to make, depending on the student, the error, the stage of the lesson, how long the first attempts to elicit correction have taken and so on. It might be better just to give the correction and move on.
However, in post-speaking correction, peer correction can be really useful. The classic way of doing this is to note down errors (and sometimes good examples) while the students are speaking, and then write them on the board without saying who said them. Students can then work together to correct them.
Variations include turning the activity into a grammar auction, where groups of students bid for sentences they believe are correct, or asking students to decide which sentences are correct or not before correcting as a class.
Students can also take on the ‘teacher’ role if you allocate an observer to each group doing a speaking activity. The observer should note down any errors (or examples of good language) that they hear. The group can then work on the language together as a follow up to the speaking activity.
Perhaps the key thing with all of these techniques is to remember and to help students remember that mistakes are indeed a gift. They are how the teacher can evaluate what needs teaching or reviewing, and they are often the moment when a student finally ‘gets’ something that they have never quite understood.
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:
By Jon Marks, as featured in ETp
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.
In recent blog posts I have looked at some different aspects of writing in class. Common to all of them has been the point that good preparation is key to producing a successful piece of writing.
However, there is also a lot to be said for writing completely unprepared; short, fun activities where, instead of thinking and planning carefully, students just get on with it and write. These sorts of activities can be used as a warmer, or slotted into your lesson to change the focus and pace. They encourage students to see writing as fun and help to develop creativity and confidence.
In many cases the activities can also be used as a starting point for longer writing activities, but that’s up to you.
Play students a series of short extracts of classical music, with very different moods. If you don’t have your own collection, a good way of doing this is to use the free samples you can play when deciding whether to purchase a download. Tell students each one is part of the soundtrack to a film, and ask them to write down what they imagine as they listen. Where is the film set, what characters are in the scene, what are they doing..
Similarly, play students a short part of a film (perhaps from YouTube), but only let them listen to it (not see it). Again, ask them to write down what they think is taking place and what the scene looks like. They can then see the original and make comparisons.
With both these activities, students could then go on to use their snippets of writing as the basis for a story or film-script.
Give students a selection of pictures of people. Ask them to choose one each and write a brief description of the person (perhaps as much information as they can put down in 5 minutes). Then put them in pairs and ask them to imagine their two characters meet on a train (or anywhere else you like). They have a further 5-10 minutes to write a conversation between the two. Then take in the pairs of pictures and the dialogues and put them up on the wall, so that the pairs of people are together but the dialogues are separate. Number the dialogues and then ask the students to read them and guess which pair of pictures each dialogue refers to.
Or show students a photo of a friend of yours or a member of your family and ask them to write about who they think the person is, what they think their personality is like, how you met them etc. Then tell them the truth.
Bring in a bag with a selection of unconnected objects. Ask students to pick one out each and either and describe it in as much detail as possible (this is a great mindfulness activity), or put the students into 2s or 3s and ask them to each write a short story which involves all the objects in their group, before comparing their stories for similarities and differences.
Ask students to look around the classroom and choose any object they can see (clock, handbag, board pen). Students then write what from the viewpoint of the object. What can it see? What does it think is happening in the classroom? What else does it see during the day, or at night? What does it do all day? You could also ask students not to mention the name of the object, which then allows them to read each other’s and guess which object is being described.
Give out small 5 slips of paper to each student and ask them to write down words which they have recently learnt and want to recycle on each slip. Then put the slips into a bag and ask each student to pull out 3-5 slips (if any words are the same, one should be put back.) They then have a time-limit, say ten minutes to write a (very) short story, which uses all the words. These stories can then be read aloud (perhaps in small groups) and the others can guess what the 3-5 words were.
Tell students to write a short note to anyone in the class. Once the note is received, students read it and reply. It’s fine if some students are replying to more than one person. You have to be a bit careful about the kind of class you do this with, as you can’t possibly see what’s being written, but it can be a great warm-up for a class.
Reading and writing: Give students 5 minutes to open up the coursebook and read the first text or dialogue they see (it doesn’t matter if they only read part of it). They then have 5 minutes to write about what they read.
Show a picture of a Genie (or dress up if it takes your fancy !) and elicit what a genie does- gives three wishes. Ask students to write down their three wishes, saying why they would choose those things and how their lives would change as a result.
In all these activities, the focus is very much on fluency, rather than accuracy. Just as in a speaking activity, you could, of course, incorporate feedback in a number of ways. You could have a feedback slot at the end, where together you correct some errors you have noticed while monitoring. Or you could use the free writing as a first draft, and take a process approach. Getting students to repeat the writing task later, or on another day, would also be likely to improve accuracy.
However, the main point of these activities is really to have some fun with writing and to get students into feeling happy to just write freely.
Some teachers tend to avoid writing in class, perhaps feeling that as it is something which learners do individually and in silence, it is better done for homework.
However, when writing is done as a collaborative activity, it can have many of the same benefits of a group speaking activity:
Discussing the writing process obviously provides more opportunities for learners to interact in English, a benefit in itself.
It can also help learners to develop their communicative competence by forcing the negotiation of meaning. As learners try to express their ideas to each other, they will have to clarify, rephrase and so on. The process should also help them to actually develop their ideas.
According to Vygostsky’s theory of ZPD (zone of proximal development), working with others can provide the opportunity for learners to work at a level slightly above their usual capacity, as co-operating with others who know a little more can boost achievement.
Collaborative writing has been shown to lower anxiety and foster self-confidence, compared with completing tasks individually (Johnson and Johnson 1998)
Research by Storch, found that texts produced by pairs were shorter than those produced individually, but that they were better ‘in terms of task fulfilment, grammatical accuracy and complexity.’ It appeared that the process of working together meant that learners were giving each other useful feedback as they went along, and thereby producing more accurate and complex texts. [Incidentally, I plan to look at feedback on writing in a future post]
Collaborative writing can also be a lot of fun, and, with the growth of webtools for collaboration (not my personal expertise!), it is becoming increasingly popular.
Planning is usually an important part of a successful writing process (though ‘free’ writing has its place). Even if students are to go on to write individually, planning together can be very motivating. It tends to work best if the process is given some kind of structure, so that the group is not simply staring at a blank sheet.
In terms of getting ideas, I love this activity from Learner based Teaching. Students are preparing to write about a topic they know a lot about, such as a hobby or their job. They write the topic at the top of a piece of paper, then, sitting in a circle, the pieces of paper are passed round clockwise. Students have to read each topic and add a question about it, making sure that they don’t duplicate any questions. When the paper comes back to its original author, they then have to write a text which answers ALL the questions, organised in a logical way. The texts are then displayed with the questions and see how they question was answered, asking for clarification if necessary.
One of my favourite activities for collaboratively planning academic type essays is to start by brainstorming the topic onto a mind-map on the board, or use a mind-mapping tool. For example, in describing a festival in your country, you might have sections for dress, food, music and so on.
Then stick a Cuisenaire rod of a different colour onto each section of the mind-map. Of course, you could use coloured strips of paper, but I like Cuisenaire rods… Next, put the students into smallish groups and give each group a set of rods in the same colours. They can then use the rods to decide or to order and arrange the topics within the essay. It’s a simple idea, but there is something about the tactile nature of the rods that seems to help with planning. It’s also concrete, rather than abstract.
The first activity that came to my mind when thinking about collaborative writing was the time-honoured circle writing activity. One student writes a line, then passes it on to another who writes the next line and so on. I have to admit that I am not actually very keen on this activity. It can have some amusing outcomes, but I wonder what exactly the students are learning, as the process rarely produces a coherent or cohesive outcome.
One activity of this sort that I do like, however, is Genre Circle Writing, which I originally found in The Minimax Teacher. This works beautifully with more advanced learners who have been learning about the features of different genres. Start by brainstorming different types of narrative genres, such as news article, romance, conversation, fairytale, sci-fi. Ask each student to choose a genre they would like to write in and ask them to think about the features of their genre, e.g. typical vocabulary and fixed expressions, register, word and sentence length. Put the students into groups of 5-6, then ask each of the to write the first paragraph of a narrative in their genre. After an agreed time limit they pass the papers clockwise, read the new story and write the next paragraph, but in their own genre, rather than following the original genre. Continue until the story reaches its originator, who writes the concluding paragraph. Some of the stories can then be read aloud and the students listening have to say what genre they think each paragraph is. These texts won’t be any more coherent than the usual circle writing texts, but they are really good for raising awareness of genre.
Jigsaw writing is another way of structuring collaborative writing, so that the process is clearly defined. This works well with picture stories or cartoon strips. Put students into small groups and give each group one or two pictures from the sequence. They have to write a paragraph describing what is happening or happened in their picture(s), and should have a copy each. [Incidentally, make sure everyone is using the same tense. ]Then regroup the students into larger groups so that there is someone in each group who has written about each of the pictures, and ask them to decide on the correct order of the pictures and make any changes necessary to turn their paragraphs into a coherent whole. Students can then read and compare the different versions.
If students are quite used to working together, and don’t need quite so much structure, adding an element of competition can provide some fun and motivation. This activity also comes from Learner-based Teaching. Ask the class to choose a current event or issue. Then put them into small groups (3-4) and ask them to write a short article about it together. They should try to make the article as informative as possible. Once the groups have finished the articles are passed around. Each group should look for pieces of information or facts which their group did not remember. Students can then vote for the most informative (and best written) text
What other collaborative writing activities have you used successfully?
For the New Year I wanted to collect together some of the blog posts which have either inspired my posts over the last year, or that would be great follow up reading. In a few weeks, I will celebrate my first blog birthday, so this post is both a bouquet in the sense of a collection of different blooms, and a big THANK YOU bouquet to all my fellow bloggers and tweeters who have made this such a fun and inspiring year!
I have used the same categories as my blog posts to organise these links, so that the connections are as clear as possible.
A thoughtful and well-informed blog, Luiz Otavio’s ELT Page has a subtitle of ‘thinking beyond the doing’; in other words he’s interested in why we do things, not just in what we do. This post is great at unpicking the process in planning a lesson with a grammar focus.
Taking a slightly different tack, this is a blog post about one teacher’s (Mike Griffin) development in terms of planning, looking with great insight at the balance between ‘fun’ and learning and the impact of finding out about the dogme approach. In his blog, ELT Rants, REviews and Reflections, Mike always gives us plenty to think about.
This post by Hugh Dellar on the Curse of Creativity, caused a lot of controversy (no doubt entirely intentional), but I really liked the way Hugh focused on the need to consider more than whether something is a fun or creative activity, and how creativity, while an important element, should not be the tail that wags the planning dog.
I’m not a big fan of FE jargon- when I first started at an FE College in the late 90s, I managed to sit through a management meeting and understand virtually nothing because of the sheer number of impenetrable acronyms. So SMART targets isn’t something I personally find vvery helpful, and neither does Tony Gurr: Why SMART Goals are just plain dumb.
Although Adrian Underhill is of course synonymous with pronunciation, I only came across his blog quite recently. Thoroughly recommended for both theory and practical ideas.
Alex Grevett, aka @breathyvowel, doesn’t just write about pronunciation, but his blog features a number of interesting posts writing about the pronunciation based courses he runs. This is the most recent.
David Petrie’s TEFLgeek is a favourite blog of mine, with lots of solid methodology and practical ideas. I particularly recommend ‘Is reading aloud, allowed?’
One of the things I really like about @pterolaur’s (Laura Phelps) blog, The Daily Ptefldactyl, is the descriptions of what is happening in her classroom. This post describes a lesson in which one of her teacher mentees in Borneo experimented with kind of ‘silent way’ approach.
As we saw in the last post, all ‘real life’ writing is embedded in a social situation: we write for a specific purpose and audience. We can, of course, also do this in the classroom, but often we are engaged more in rehearsing skills that can later be applied outside the class.
However, the genre approach to writing still places a lot of emphasis on the context and purpose for which the writing is produced. By genre we mean different types of writing such as narrative, report, informal letter and so on. Each of these has quite specific features in terms of organisation and language, and the genre approach usually takes a model and gets the students to analyse these features, before producing something similar.
This approach undoubtedly has its roots in the product approach. A typical product writing lesson might involve:
1 Reading and analysing a model
2 Controlled writing, such as writing individual sentences using a substitution table
3 Freer or guided writing (such as using notes given to construct one or two of the paragraphs in a letter -the rest being already given)
4 Free writing of a parallel text.
In the same way, however, that there is a big difference between PPP (presentation, practice, production) and more modern paradigms, such as Scott Thornbury’s awareness, appropriation and autonomy , there is actually the same kind of difference between product writing and genre-based approaches.
Thornbury’s ‘awareness’ is about giving students the opportunity to notice features of language, rather than having language presented to them on a plate. In writing, as in speaking, this is about exposing learners to features of written language and setting tasks which will help them to notice the salient features.
‘Appropriation’ is about making something your own; not just repeating patterns but actually assimilating the new language into your personal store. Thornbury makes a memorable contrast between controlled practice and ‘practised control’. The difference he says is that in the latter, the students are working on controlling the language, rather than the teacher trying to control what language the students can use. This can obviously apply just as well to writing as to speaking.
‘Autonomy’ is about using the language ‘under real operating conditions.’ When looking at writing, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the writing has to have a ‘real’ audience (though it can), but that the learners have complete control over the message they want to convey. They aren’t just reproducing a model.
At the top of the post is an example from Real Life Advanced (an upper secondary coursebook) of how I have tried to take a genre approach to writing. It’s is very easily generalizable to any genre of writing or level.
1 Through a lead-in discussion and a few questions, students first deal with the meaning of the text. It’s a travel anecdote or narrative.
2 Next the learners look at how the text is structured. This follows Labov’s Standard Western Narrative, and is a useful little structure to learn as a lot of different kinds of narratives (such as excuses, examples of past experience you might give at a job interview and so on will follow the same basic stages)
There are also some questions about the tenses used. This is something which students focused on earlier in the unit, so, as well as fleshing out the narrative structure, it acts as a review.
3 Then we start to ‘unpack’ some of the language in the text. ( Incidentally, I would highly recommend Scott Thornbury’s video on ‘unpacking a text’) Here we’re focusing on adverbs. Students compare the examples of adverbs they can find in the text with the rules and examples in the box.
4 The next exercise is intended to give students the opportunity to get some control over the language, putting the rules into action. They aren’t just drilling correct sentences; they’re having to think about how to use the language correctly and appropriately.
5 The learners then prepare to write their own story. They are encouraged to use the same structure, but the content is personal to them and their experiences or knowledge. You may notice that there are prompt questions referring to colours and adjectives used to describe the background, and to what the characters say. These points again refer back to previous activities in the unit (on adjectives and verbs of speaking – mumbled, whispered), providing the opportunity, or ‘nudge’, for students to use this language again in a different context.
Clearly this kind of approach can be used for any kind of text. The key stages are:
1 Read the ‘model’ for meaning first, don’t just see it as a model, but as a piece of communication.
2 Focus on the organisation. Different genres of texts have different organising principles. Research or think about how this genre of writing usually starts and finishes. Is the content in any particular order? For example, an IELTS Part 1 Writing Task, describing a graph, usually begins by stating what the graph shows, then may provide an overview before detailing the key pieces of information (or the overview may come at the end). You could get students to look at examples and draw flow charts of how they perceive the organisation.
3 ‘Unpack’ the language. You can choose some language which seems particularly relevant to the task or you might use corpora to identify language on which to focus. Putting several texts of the genre you want your students to learn to write into a text based concordance, such as that at www.lextutor.ca should give you some useful information about the kind of language students could usefully be encouraged to notice.
4 Provide practice to help students gain more control of the language
5 Help students to put together what they have noticed to help them write their own text. Make sure that the text is more than just reproducing a model, ideally that it has some personal meaning. For example, in the IELTS text type mentioned above, perhaps they could write up the results of their own surveys?
Mindfulness is a term that is becoming increasingly familiar to many people, but it is still not that clear to many, I think, what exactly it means. Mindfulness isn’t about drifting off into your inner world; it’s more about being fully conscious, really aware of what we’re doing and feeling, right now.
Most of us spend most of our time only dimly aware of what’s happening for us right now. We are usually too busy making future plans, worrying about stuff, remembering things and reacting to situations based on what we think we’ve learnt in the past. Our mind is crowded out with all sorts of stuff.
However, mindfulness isn’t about having an empty mind; it’s about being focused.
Why mindfulness for teachers?
For many people, myself included, one of the great attractions of teaching is that it can be so absorbing that I often find myself in a state of what Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’. When we are totally present in the classroom (or anywhere else), time goes very quickly and we are really in a state of heightened awareness, feeling alert and alive. Communication flows easily between us and others and everyone seems to be really focused on the experience of learning. This is a very enjoyable form of mindfulness, and it can be encouraged by developing our own mindfulness practice outside the classroom.
Mindfulness , flow, feeling connected is not so much something that we have to acquire, as something which is always there, but that we tend to be very good at blocking out through anxiety, fear, anger, mind-chatter, judgements and so on.
The more we practice mindfulness, the easier it is to connect to that peaceful place when we’re under pressure, students are playing up, the lesson plan isn’t working and so on.
Mindfulness helps us to be able to respond to a difficult situation calmly, rather than a knee-jerk reaction of feeling angry with ourselves or the students, or feeling that we’re not good enough or whatever our particular ‘favourite’ reaction might be.
Rather than feeling exhausted and drained at the end of a class, we’ll feel energised and alive (and so will the students).
Techniques to develop mindfulness
A key personal discovery is how important it is to start the day right. That doesn’t mean you can’t get things back on track, but it seems to really help to start by getting into the right frame of mind. How you do this is a matter of individual choice, of course: meditation, a brisk walk taking full notice of nature around you or simply setting your intention for the day- reminding yourself to stay in touch with what’s actually happening, take proper breaks, eat well, or to be kinder to yourself etc.
Whenever you remember (and don’t beat yourself up for forgetting, because you will most of the time), check in with what’s actually happening, and how you are feeling. When those feelings are negative, don’t deny or suppress them- just notice them and accept them (rather than telling yourself you shouldn’t feel that way), and most of the time they’ll just fade away. When they don’t, you can put them to one side until later and then try a bit of pillow bashing, talking stuff through, writing it all down and so on. But remember that your thoughts aren’t necessarily true- they’re just thoughts. This may help you not to get too caught up in the drama of it all.
Every so often (decide when in advance), take a few minutes to just breathe and become aware. I like to go for a short walk outside.
There are several excellent books on developing mindfulness which I would recommend for developing your own practice:
Any of these books will guide you through exercises designed to help build your inner resilience, dissipate stress, help you to be in the ‘flow’, help you deal with difficult situations and students and generally greatly improve your quality of life.
In my next post, I’d like to look at how you can encourage mindfulness from your students- in ways that won’t feel too different from what you already do, but that may make a difference to the quality of learning.
This statement jumped out at me recently, from an excellent post by Robin Walker on Pronunciation for YLs. He was reporting from a talk by Catherine Walter at IATEFL 2008, and reading this (perhaps surprising) statement sent me off to find her original research.
In her article Phonology in second language reading: not an optional extra, Walter questions the idea that the skill of reading is something which needs to be taught to second language learners. She argues that successful L1 readers already possess the cognitive skills needed to build a mental structure or representation, which is, in fact, what we mean by ‘comprehension.’ According to Walter, comprehension isn’t actually a linguistic skill, so it’s fruitless to talk about transferring it from L1 to L2.
So why are some learners competent at reading in L1, but struggle with reading in L2? Obviously, lack of linguistic knowledge plays a part. Fascinatingly, though, Walter cites a study (Robertson et al 2000)* which used MRI scanning to show that sentence comprehension and comprehension of a text as a whole take place on different sides of the brain.
Walter doesn’t mention this, but, of course, there has been a lot of speculation about left brain and right brain thinking. Interestingly, sentence level comprehension, or decoding, used the left frontal lobe (associated with analytical, logical processing) and text comprehension uses the right frontal lobe (associated with intuition).
So a learner may have effective (non-linguistic) comprehension skills, and even be able to decode L2 sentences, but still struggle. Why?
According to Walter, it may be to do with how we use our working memories. Part of the working memory is something called the phonological loop:
‘a short-term memory mechanism that stores information in phonological form and automatically rehearses that information by unconscious sub- vocalisation.’ (Walter 2008)
In other words, as we listen, we automatically ‘record’ the last two seconds of what we hear in the memory, like a little Dictaphone. It’s why we can repeat back what we have just heard, even if we weren’t really listening properly to the speaker.
There is also evidence that we do exactly the same thing as we read- that we also sub-vocalise and record the sound of what we are reading. We don’t see it, we hear it. At least, this is true for those of us with L1s that are alphabetic (there is some evidence that learners with non-alphabetic L1s, may use more visual representations).
However, if our phonological representations of what we have just read are unreliable, we may find it difficult to associate these sounds with meanings, and thus find it difficult to keep meaning in our short term memory. This, in turn, will make it harder for us to carry out meaning building processes on the text as a whole.
Walter’s research in this paper concludes that unless learners are also poor at comprehension in L1, we would be better off teaching them to improve how they ‘mentally represent spoken language’ than teaching comprehension skills.
As much exposure as possible to the spoken language- so lots of listening and watching videos in English.
Listening while reading – hearing the spoken version while reading a text. This could mean using sub-titles, or following a transcript while listening, or listening to an audio version of a written text while reading. I would suggest that these don’t have to be instead of our usual listening or reading activities (I’m not quite ready to throw out more traditional reading and listening procedures), but as a follow up.
And finally, explicit focus on features of pronunciation, such as minimal pairs work , and focus on word stress and on how words change in the stream of speech . This kind of work will help learners to develop a more reliable repertoire of L2 sounds, which, Walter suggests, could also help them to hold what they are reading more efficiently in their short term memory, which in turn will greatly help with building up the meaning of the text.
And even if this isn’t the case, it will certainly help with developing fluency in speaking and confidence in listening, so what have we got to lose?
* Robertson, D. A., Gernsbacher, M. A., Guidotti, S. J., Robertson, R. R. W., Irwin, W.,Mock, B. J., et al. (2000). Functional neuroanatomy of the cognitive process of mapping during discourse comprehension.
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