Tag Archives: mixed ability

Collaborative writing activities

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Collaborative writing

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 collaboratively

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.

Writing collaboratively

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?

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Filed under Teaching methodology, Working with groups, Writing

How we can use minimal pairs to help L2 listeners to decode what they hear.

At the weekend I was lucky enough to catch Sam Shephard’s lively session on pronunciation at the NATECLA conference in Liverpool. His session focused mostly on productive pronunciation, but as I was presenting on the same day on decoding skills for listening, I found myself thinking more about the role of pronunciation work in decoding- and specifically about minimal pairs.

When I first saw this advert for Berlitz language schools on youtube, I was struck with how clever it is.

But, apart from in this rather specific context, how important is it really that learners can understand or pronounce the difference between //θ/  / and /s /?

Minimal pairs, minimal importance?

It seems that misunderstandings in natural speech are rarely caused by the mispronunciation of one sound. Usually context gives us enough of a clue to understand what the speaker is trying to say. Adam Brown gives a good example in his 1995 article, Minimal pairs, minimal importance?:

‘Singapore is one of the busiest ports in the world. However, it is a tiny island (the size of the Isle of Man) with a population of three million. Consequently, land is at a premium, and there are no animal farms. The nearest most Singaporeans come to sheep is mutton curry. In short, if Singaporeans don’t pronounce the distinction between ship and sheep clearly, the chances of misunderstanding are minimal: they are almost certain to mean ship.’

Similarly, Jenkins (2000) found that /θ/ rarely caused misunderstandings between NNSs, and she also points out that many native speaker varieties don’t use it anyway, often using /t/ or /f/.

So should we chuck out the minimal pairs work?

Can minimal pairs help L2 listeners decode more effectively?

Well, according to John Field (2008) there is evidence that L2 listeners process in words, but that ‘many of the matches they make are rough approximations that do not correspond exactly to the sounds that the listener heard.’ In other words an inability to recognise certain phonemes is leading to learners making inaccurate guesses about words, which in turn could lead them quite seriously off track as they apply top down skills to their guesses. For example, the listener who hears ‘screams’ instead of ‘screens’ is likely to go quite a way off track.

It is certainly true that context could help here- but that is making the assumption that learners are able to use their top down skills effectively when, Field and others argue, learners who are unable to decode effectively, usually can’t hold onto enough meaning to start stringing ideas together.

So, therefore, there is certainly an argument for using some minimal pair work, especially at lower levels- though we probably do need to be quite selective about which phonemes we choose to focus on.

Functional load

Sounds that carry a high functional load are used to distinguish between a significant number of words. The opposite is sounds which carry a low functional load. For example, Brown (1995 above) says that the only minimal pairs in English for /ʃ/ and /ʒ/ are:

Confusion/Confucian, azure/Asher, mesher/measure , allusion/Aleutian, glacier/glazier

I think we can probably all agree that the likelihood of students even using most of these words is pretty low, never mind getting them confused!

Minimal pairs with a high functional load would include:

/e/ and /ae/ , /p/ and /b/, /e/ and /I/

A full list is available in Brown 1988

Individual needs

With a monolingual group, it should be fairly straightforward to find out which pairs are causing the most problems. A book like Learner English can be helpful, or simple observation. Obviously with a mixed nationality group, tricky minimal pairs are likely to vary, but there are some which seem to be difficult for speakers of many different languages, and have a high functional load, such as /e/ and /ae/ and /ae/ and /ʌ/

Activity ideas

The first point to make is that ideally, learners should be able to see the link between the minimal pair work and what they are listening to. For example, if a number of learners have heard ‘scream’ instead of ‘screen’, that would be a perfect opportunity to do some minimal pair work on /m/ and /n/.

The second point is not to overload the learners. I wouldn’t suggest working on more than one pair of sounds at a time.

The third point (made by Field) is that ideally words used should be relatively frequent and of roughly equal frequency. So bin and pin would be OK, but perhaps not blade and played.

There are lots of ideas for working on minimal pairs (some of which came up in Sam’s session, mentioned above)

Some different ways for learners to show they can differentiate the two sounds:

  • Put the two words in each pair on different sides of the board and learners  put up their left hand/right hand according to which they think they hear.
  • Alternatively, learners can physically move to the right or left side of the classroom.
  • Put the words on cards and learners grab the right card, either in small groups with little cards, or with big (sturdy) cards, you can haver learners line up so one from each team is in front of the board and they race to grab the right word from there.
  • For a more sedate activity, learners write down what they think they hear.
  • Learners say if the words you say are the same or different.

Obviously all the activities above can be done with a learner providing a model, but then it becomes oral work, rather than listening, and they will need help to know how to make the sounds etc.

If learners have literacy issues, the above activities could potentially be done with pictures rather than words:

 

 

And if one of the words in the pair you want to use is not very frequent (e.g. played/blade), you could still do the activity but just write the frequent word on the board and ask ‘Same or Different?’

A more contextualised task, which would make the relationship to listening clearer, might be to select a phrase or short section from something they have listened to which contains a lot of the two sounds (not necessarily in minimal pairs) and ask them to mark the two phonemes.

E.g. ‘Looking after rabbits is really easy’ might work well for /r/ and /l/.

Individualised work

Clearly working on minimal pairs is much trickier with a multi-lingual class. As mentioned earlier, there are some vowel sounds which a lot of people find tricky. Alternatively,  learners could be given different sounds to work on, according to needs. There are now quite a few websites  (for example http://www.shiporsheep.com) where learners can listen to minimal pairs, so this kind of differentiated activity could be set as homework.

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Filed under Differentiation, Exploiting authentic recordings and videos, Pronunciation

Simple ways to differentiate materials for mixed level classes

I love this picture..they’re all eggs, but just look at the variety. And it’s the same in any class.

Differentiation can be defined as:

“….identifying and addressing the different needs, interests and abilities of all learners to give them the best possible chance of achieving their learning goals.”

(Standards Unit, Improving differentiation in business education, DfES 2004)

Differentiation is a key issue in ESOL, or teaching English to students who now live in an English speaking country. This is because, in the UK at least, classes are often extremely mixed in terms of level, and students often have what is known as a ‘spiky’ profile  (they may be pretty proficient at speaking and listening, for example, but struggle with reading and writing).

In ELT, differentiation is more often referred to as ‘teaching mixed ability’ or ‘mixed levels’. But, whatever, we call, it, the fact is that no class is ever completely homogeneous, and we all need to be thinking as much as we can about how to meet the individual needs of the students.

That said, I don’t believe in providing different worksheets for all the students and getting them to work on these individually or even in pairs. Unless the class is very small, this just stretches the teacher too thin, and it is often pretty uninspiring for the students as well.

Let’s look at some ways in which we can differentiate without having to spend hours on preparation.

1 Differentiation by outcome

Some people use differentiated outcomes on their lesson plans. For example:

By the end of the lesson all students will be able to.. most will be able to..some will be able to..

This seems quite popular in ESOL, but I personally am not hugely keen on this. It is a reminder that what you are teaching is not what it being learnt. However, it is basically a deficit model.

I would argue that it is more effective (and encouraging) to help students to assess themselves against their personal standard. One way of achieving this is to move away where possible from summative assessment towards more formative assessment. This is a big talking point in British schools at the moment. Basically, this challenges the idea that the best way to test students is by comparing them with each other. This sets up an atmosphere of competition and leads lower achieving students to conclude that they are failing. It also encourages stronger students to rigidly produce only what will get them the highest mark.

Better, surely to encourage students to self assess and to set their own targets or checklists of competencies together with the teacher?

Having promised you less preparation, I have to admit that setting individual targets, does take time and effort but, provided, that a sensible approach is taken (i.e. not asking learners who barely speak English to fill in a 6 page Individual Learning Plan), it can, I think, be well worth it.

2. Differentiation by teaching method

The activities we choose to use can also differentiate well. An activity which involves active learning and group or pair work is likely to differentiate more effectively because

–          Students can work at their own level.

–          Students can support each other and learn from each other.

Most of us have experimented with putting stronger students with weaker ones and, it has to be said, the results can vary quite a bit. Sometimes it works really well. The stronger student consolidates their knowledge by explaining to the weaker student and the weaker student feels supported.

Sometimes, however, the stronger student dominates or resents the role and/or the weaker student feels embarrassed or says nothing.

Mixing things up so that the same pairings aren’t used all the time certainly helps, but there are also some techniques you can use, such as Scribe, which I first saw in Jill Hadfield’s excellent book, Classroom Dynamics. When carrying out a small group discussion, appoint a scribe, or note taker for the group. They should only listen and take notes. After the discussion, they will feed back to the whole class.

If the strongest student is the scribe, this will prevent them from dominating, but still give them an important role and a chance to shine at the end. If a weaker student takes this role, the pressure is taken off them to produce language spontaneously, but they can prepare something to say at the end, which will provide a sense of achievement.

Questioning techniques can also be modified to provide better differentiation. Give students enough time and space to answer and nominate, by asking the question before you name the student, so it doesn’t always fall back to stronger students. Consider how easy the question is and don’t choose students who can’t answer. Use monitoring while students are working in pairs or groups to identify who can answer which question.

Ask different types of questions. A useful model is Bloom’s mastery and developmental tasks (Bloom’s taxonomy) Mastery tasks can be mastered by all learners, they are straightforward- you might ask a learner to describe something or define something. A developmental task is more stretching and requires a deep understanding. These kinds of questions might ask the students to judge or critically appraise for example.

3 Differentiation by task.

And finally, most tasks can be designed to provide either extra support, or extension to challenge more able students. This doesn’t have to mean completely new activities, just a tweak here and there.

The table below gives some examples:

Activity Type Extension activities Support strategies
Reading Select 3 new items of vocabulary, look them up in their dictionaries and write them up on the board, with definitions.Write 3 questions about the text. These can then be given to another early finisher to answer and then passed back to the original student for marking. Pre-teach vocabulary students will need to do the task and leave it on the board.Activate their previous knowledge of the topic before reading.Give students the answers in a jumbled order, with a few distractors.Make open questions multiple choice.

Break the text into sections with questions after each section and give the option of only reading 1 or 2 sections.

 

Listening When students listen for the second time to confirm their answers, give some optional extra questions as well.When taking answers on a true/false activity, ask why/why not? Pre-teach vocabulary and activate knowledge as above.Give students a chance to discuss answers before feeding back to the class. Monitor and play again if necessary.Give students the tapescript on second listening.In a gap-fill, provide some of the words needed.

 

Writing Make use of creative tasks that students can do at their own level.Use a correction code to give students a chance to self correct.Increase the word limit. Give a model or example before they start writing.Correct the draft with the student or in pairs before rewriting.Reduce the word limit.
Speaking Ask students to justify their opinionsPair higher level students together so they can really stretch themselves. Give students time to rehearse or plan their ideas.Pair weak and strong together.Elicit and practise the language they will be using beforehand

And, going back to the second point,  we can also aid differentiation by providing tasks with more open outcomes, so that students can do the same task, but each at their own level of ability.

Obviously none of these ideas is going to provide every student in the class with a 1-2-1 tailor-made course. However, I do think they can go some way towards helping to address the different needs, interests and abilities of the learners.

Please feel free to comment and add your own ideas. All gratefully received!

If you found this post useful, why not check out my e-book, The CELTA Teaching Compendium, a quick easy reference to all the teaching skills required for CELTA. 

http://the-round.com/resource/the-celta-compendium/

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Filed under Differentiation