Tag Archives: efl

More ice breakers for the ELT classroom

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For many of us it’s that time of year again when we are about to start new classes. Learning a foreign language can be stressful, so we want our students to feel at ease with each other, and with us. But how to break the ice? As a follow up to a previous post, Breaking the Ice, I’ve collected together even more ideas.

Activities for students to find out more about each other

As I mentioned in my previous post, it is important to be sensitive about these kinds of activities, because with a new class, some students may not want to share too much. One way round this is to always let them select what topics they are happy to talk about.
Perhaps the best known ice breaker in ELT is Find Someone Who (described in my previous blog post). A variation on this, which gives the students more topic control, is to give each student a card and ask them to write 5 facts about themselves that they think others in the class will probably not know. For example, my Grandfather was born in Estonia, my favourite ice cream flavour is pistachio etc. Divide the class into two teams, and then collect in the cards. Pick a card from Team A, and read out the clues, one by one. Team B try to guess the person in as few clues as possible.

Or let students choose the questions they want to answer. Start the activity by getting students to write at least two getting to know you type questions onto post it notes. For example, What is your favourite way to waste time? What are you going to do this weekend? What’s the best/worst thing about your job/school? Put all the post it notes onto the board, and let students come up and select one they would like to answer. They then stick the post it note to themselves and mingle asking and answering. Answering the same question more than once is likely to encourage fuller and more fluent answers each time, but whenever they are tired of answering the same question they can come back and choose a different question, or even write their own if nothing appeals.

Or let students find out about you instead. There are some ideas in the previous post, here, but you can also just give them, say, ten minutes, to ask anything they want to (you don’t have to answer). When the ten minutes is up, they have to write down what they found out. This gives you a good idea of how strong their listening and writing skills are.

Activities to just have fun

I would probably avoid anything too individually competitive with a new class, to avoid potential embarrassment, but co-operative activities can work extremely well to start the bonding process.

A simple activity is to give each student a piece of a jigsaw as they come into the room (you can easily make your own simple jigsaw with an image stuck onto card). Once they are seated, explain that they need to work together to complete the jigsaw. There are just two rules- all discussion must be in English, and only the person holding each piece can put it in the jigsaw. Once they have finished, you can then do something with the completed image- perhaps they write a description of the scene, or roleplay a discussion between two characters in the image.

Another fun activity is to put students into groups of about four and give each group the same newspaper (free newspapers from public transport are good for this). Then ask the students to find and give you different bits of the newspaper, which you have previously selected. For example, an advert for shampoo, an article about a new shopping centre. They should take in in turns to find the section (with help from their team-mates) and then rip it out and bring it to you. (Make sure that nothing you ask for is printed on the back of something else you listed).

Or you could try a teacherless task. All these ideas would work well with adults or upper secondary students. For further ideas try this post from Svetlana Kandybovich and Walton Burn’s new e-book, 50 activities for the first day of school.

 

 

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In praise of praise?

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.

 

Further reading

http://www.learningspy.co.uk/behaviour/praise-counterproductive/

http://geoffpetty.com/for-teachers/feedback-and-questions/

http://www.interventioncentral.org/behavioral-interventions/motivation/teacher-praise-efficient-tool-motivate-students

 

 

 

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How a book changed my life

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By Ildar Sagdejev (Specious) (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A free downloadable lesson, based on a video from StoryCorps, which tells the true story of Storm Reyes, who grew up poor in a migrant camp in Washington State.   Students start by watching the video without sound, which encourages them to make predictions, which they then check on a second viewing. There is then some further comprehension and discussion, before an activity which helps students to develop their listening skills by focusing on the weak forms that are so difficult to hear.

Finally there is a focus on opinion or comment adverbs, before a speaking activity to round up the lesson, about the topic of books and reading.

The lesson would be suitable from B1  upwards.

Download lesson plan PDF here: ELT Resourceful – How a book changed my life

Look here for more free downloadable lessons

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A favourite speaking activity

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© Copyright Zorba the Geek and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.

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.

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All about writing activities

This week has been all about writing activities, with a webinar for British Council Teaching English, and the publication of my ebook for English Language Teacher 2 Writer, on How to Write Writing Activities.

As part of publicising the webinar, the British Council shared an old post, about Process Writing, which, to be honest, I’d even forgotten I’d written. And, there’s some good stuff in there, if I do say so myself.

So, as it’s a writing activities week, I thought I’d round up all the old posts on writing and put them in one place.

Real World Writing Activities

Using a Genre Approach to Writing

Process Writing: Mixing it Up

Collaborative Writing Activities

Just Write: Short, Inspiring Activities to get Students Writing

Responding to Students’ Writing

 

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Motivation

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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&gt; via <a href=”http://compfight.com”>Compfight</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

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What are reading skills? –They’re not (only) what you think

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When we talk about reading skills, what usually comes to mind? Prediction, reading for gist, reading for specific information and skimming and scanning?

If you’ll forgive the clickbait style title of this post (I couldn’t resist), the fact is that there’s a lot more to the skill of reading than this.

Let’s start by looking at these commonly referred to skills, and then look at what else we could (and should) be teaching our students.

Prediction

Students are very often encouraged to use the title of the text, or any accompanying pictures to make predictions about the content. There are good reasons for teaching students to do this; the idea is to activate whatever students may already know about the topic and help them to start creating a context. Without context, comprehension is much harder. Think about those moments when you turn on the radio and have no idea for a few moments what is being discussed. It only starts to make sense once you realise what the basic topic is.

Reading for gist

This doesn’t mean telling the students , ‘read the text to get a general idea of what it’s about’. That is never a very helpful task because it doesn’t give the students any reason to read, or any orientation to the topic or context. A gist question should mean that the students have to read the whole text, though not necessarily very thoroughly, in order to answer the question. For example, students might choose which title or picture most closely matches the content of the text. The idea is for students to get an overview of the text, which can help them when they return to the text to find more detailed information.

Reading for specific information

In contrast, reading for specific information means setting questions or a task which require the students to read the text much more carefully. This isn’t really a skill so much as a way of testing comprehension.

Skimming and scanning

These two words sound nice together, and make a memorable pair, but most people are a little vague about what they actually mean. Skimming has some crossover with reading for gist, because they are both about getting an overview. However, I would suggest that skimming and scanning are more properly called strategies rather than skills. They were originally both methods of speed reading. Skimming strategies are often taught as part of EAP (English for Academic Purposes) because these students have to read a great deal of content in English. So students may be taught, for example, to read just the first line of every paragraph, as this is often the topic sentence, which contains the main idea of the paragraph.

Scanning is a way of reading text quickly by only looking for specific bits of information, and not reading everything. For example, looking at the index or contents page of a book to find a specific topic you’re interested in, or picking out the figures in a text to see what the results of a piece of research were.  Again, this strategy can be particularly useful in academic contexts.

Understanding that we read different texts in different ways, using different strategies, is very important for learners. The way we read a novel on the beach is very different from the way we read a legal contract. We probably read the novel much faster, with more of a skimming/gist approach, whereas we are likely to read the contract carefully and slowly, checking that we understand the details. Students reading in a second language often fail to transfer these different ways of reading across from their first language.

Teaching reading skills

However, while looking at different ways of reading, and different reasons for reading,  is important, to what extent are these traditional reading activities actually helping students to read more effectively or fluently? Aren’t we mostly just giving them practice and/or checking their comprehension?

A reading lesson usually goes something like this:

  1. Set the scene/pre-teach vocab/elicit predictions.
  2. Read for gist (hopefully by setting a suitable gist question)
  3. Read again to answer for detailed comprehension questions.
  4. Discuss the content/focus on language in the text.

By encouraging students to predict and to read for gist first, we are perhaps helping them to develop their top-down skills- using context and their previous knowledge to make sense of what they are reading. However, there is a lot more to the reading skill than this.

According to Grabe and Stoller (2011:23) in each and every two seconds of reading fluent readers:

‘1 focus on and access 8-10 word meanings

2 parse a clause for information and form a meaning unit

3 figure out how to connect a new meaning unit into the growing text model

4 check interpretation of the information according to their purposes, feelings, attitudes and background expectations as needed

5 monitor their comprehension, make appropriate inferences, shift strategies and repair misunderstanding, as needed.

6 resolve ambiguities, address difficulties and critique text information, as needed.’

Fluent reading means that readers must be able to carry out all of these reading comprehension processes simultaneously and very quickly.  Just like driving a car, some of the processes taking place simultaneously must be automatized. If the reader is struggling to decode the words, or understand how the words fit into the sentence, or how the sentence fits into the discourse as a whole, their working memory will become overloaded, and they won’t be able to hold onto the overall meaning of the text.

So helping students to develop their reading skills must, I believe, include specific and conscious work on bottom up or decoding skills as well as top down skills, such as predicting.

Decoding skills

Whereas top down skills start from the reader and what the reader already knows or understands, bottom up or decoding skills start from the text. At the lowest level, students need to recognise alphabetic letters and then the words formed from these letters. Clearly, recognising and understanding written words is a key part of reading, even though we would usually deal with it under the heading of vocabulary. According to Paul Nation, in order to understand a written text without any assistance, students need to comprehend 98% of the words. So, if we want to work on developing reading skills (rather than using the text as a way of introducing new language) it is important that students aren’t getting stuck on too many unknown words.

Assuming that students recognise and understand enough of the vocabulary, the next layer of difficulty comes in putting those words together, understanding sentences, how those sentences fit together, and how what we are reading links with what we’ve already read. This is an area where there is huge potential to help students, and yet, outside academic reading courses, it is rarely a focus.

This is why I was so excited to work on Oxford University Press’s new series, Navigate. In this series, there is a clear syllabus and focus on these kinds of decoding skills. At lower levels, this might be understanding conjunctions or pronoun reference. At higher levels, we also focus on understanding complex sentences, ellipsis, paraphrasing and so on.

If we don’t focus on these kinds of skills, we are only teaching students part of what they need to know in order to improve their reading skills, and most of our focus is on testing comprehension rather than teaching.

Other posts on reading:

Learning vocabulary through reading

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

Developing meaning-building skills in reading

Repeated reading- some activities to build reading fluency

Listening while reading: can it actually help develop reading skills?

What kind of reading tasks might be worthwhile?

Creating effective reading tasks

Should we pre-teach vocabulary before reading, and if so how?

 

 

 

 

 

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