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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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Filed under classroom ideas, Materials development, Uncategorized, Writing

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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Filed under motivation, Uncategorized, Working with groups

Realia

@janetbianchi for eltpics.

@janetbianchi for eltpics.

A link to my new post for the British Council Blog, on using realia, or real, physical objects, in class. Find out why a trainee teacher brought a chicken pie and a beef pie into class…

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Filed under classroom ideas, Different ways to use a coursebook, Planning, Teaching methodology

Authentic or graded? Is there a middle way?

2576372736_04fe9e4026_o (1)One of the often used arguments against published coursebooks is that the texts, especially at lower levels, tend to have been specially written. When I first started writing coursebooks I was very keen to use authentic texts, and, indeed, the first edition of IELTS Foundation is full of them.

There are plenty of points in favour of using authentic texts. Firstly, the enormous sense of satisfaction to be gained from being able to read something designed for a native speaker. It’s no coincidence that the language learning app, Duolingo, encourages me in my learning by announcing, ‘You can now read 96.7% of all real Portuguese articles’ (though I doubt that very much!). Finding that they are able to read an authentic text may also encourage the learner to read more extensively outside of the classroom, which has to be a good thing.

It’s also important that students are exposed to different genres of texts, and, especially for the teacher creating materials for their own class, authentic texts provide a relatively easy way to bring something up to date and topical into the classroom. They can provide us with the opportunity to look at the same topic reported in different ways, or give students a starting point from which to follow the news topic as it unfolds, in their own time.

However, in recent years I have been moving away from using unadapted authentic texts. The most obvious problem is the level of the language. When I was first trained, we were taught, ‘grade the task not the text’, but, while this is usually possible, I’m no longer sure that it’s always in the students’ best interests.

Taking this kind of approach is intended to help students develop strategies to deal with texts where a lot of the language is unknown. There is certainly a value in this, but is it as valuable as giving them a text from which they can get so much more? Hu and Nation (2000) concluded that most learners needed to comprehend 98% of words in a text in order to gain ‘adequate comprehension’

Personally, I think there’s still a value in a text pitched slightly higher than that, especially if we give the learners support, but without a doubt, if the level is pitched too high, class time will just be taken up with explaining tens of words which, in all probability, the learners will not learn and may never need to use again.

But aren’t graded texts dull and decontextualized? Won’t they give students a false sense of security, and fail to prepare them for real world reading?

Or is there a middle way?

I think there is, and that it is based around a proper respect for genre. I now unashamedly write a lot of texts for my coursebooks. Unashamedly, because I think that, as a writer, my writing skills are often just as good as someone writing for the Daily Telegraph etc, and, therefore, my texts are, in their own way, just as authentic.

So before writing a text, I look for samples of the kind of genre I’d like to write (this often gives me ideas about the topic as well, but the genre is most important). Then I look to see how these texts are structured, how formal the language is, what kind of structures appear (making sure that these are the structures I’d like to pull out to work on in the grammar section of the lesson) and what kind of vocabulary is in there.

I might run the texts through something like the Oxford 3000 textchecker to see what level the vocabulary is at, and think about how I could replace some of it, or use something like https://readability-score.com/ to see how complex the syntax is, which I might be able to simplify without affecting the style too much. I then use all this information to write my own text, at a more appropriate level and length, using grammar structures and vocabulary which are true to the spirit of the original sources, but which will be of use productively to the students.

Regular readers will know how I love a middle way!

I’ll be speaking about this and other tips for teachers wanting to write their own materials for the British Council Seminar Series in the next couple of weeks.

Firstly in London on 4th March. Tickets available here (free)

And then in Belfast on the 11th March, which will also be live streamed (also both free). Sign up here.

 

 

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Filed under Discourse, Exploiting authentic reading materials, Materials development, Planning, Vocabulary

Monitoring class activities

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Photo Credit: madabandon via Compfight cc

 

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.

How?

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.

Speaking tasks

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.

After monitoring

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…

 

 

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Filed under Differentiation, Teaching methodology, Working with groups

A short guide to concept checking vocabulary

Photo Credit: sukigirl74 via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: sukigirl74 via Compfight cc

Back in 1978 the psychologist Melissa Bowerman observed her 13 month old daughter, who was starting to talk. (Psychologists do a lot of this. In fact, I sometimes wonder if that’s the main reason they have children.) Anyway, her daughter was observed pointing at a ball, and saying ‘ball.’  She knows the word ball, you might conclude.

But then, over the next few months, the child also used the word ‘ball’ to describe a balloon, an Easter egg and even a pebble. So what exactly had she learnt? Probably that ball was something (more or less) spherical. That’s certainly part of the meaning, but we’d probably also have to add:

  • You play games with it, such as tennis or football
  • It doesn’t break when you throw it
  • It usually bounces
  • It can be between around 3 cm to about 12 cm in diameter

All these points go to make up the meaning of the word ‘ball’.

Now obviously when we teach our students new words, they probably already have the concept of ‘ball’ from their first language. However, there are plenty of cases where the semantic boundaries are blurred. Not all languages divide up the world in the same way. For example, in Polish, the word ‘buty’ doesn’t just mean boots, it also means shoes. In English, we generally use just one verb ‘to put on’ when talking about clothes and accessories, but, according to Michael Swan,

‘Japanese speakers use one verb for garments on the upper body, another for those on the lower body, yet another for garments on extremities like feet and hands, another for articles that go on the head, and another still for jewellery like earrings or a watch.’

Even if there is a direct translation, and you or your students know what it is, the word might still not be used in exactly the same way, or might have a slightly different connotation.

This is why we need concept questions.

Concept questions are something which teachers often learn about in their initial training and then promptly discard once no-one is watching. It feels ridiculous, unnatural and patronising to be asking a series of questions to which we already know the answers. Certainly, concept questions can be overdone and, particularly if they’ve been badly devised, they can be completely ridiculous.

A famous example from an International House CELTA course:

‘He didn’t know if he was coming or going.’

Was he coming?

Was he going?

Did he know?

Done judiciously and thoughtfully, however, a good set of concept questions can produce light-bulbs turning on over students’ heads all over the class, with a minimum of fuss and without lengthy and over-complex explanations.

How to create concept questions

The first thing to consider is what exactly the word or phrase means. You will probably feel you know this, but it can often really be worth looking it up in a dictionary to get all the elements of meaning (as with ball above).

So, for example, the word ‘cosy’. The Longman Exams dictionary says:

‘’A place that is cosy is small, comfortable and warm: the living room was warm and cosy.’’

So key elements would be

  • Small
  • Comfortable
  • Warm
  • Used to describe rooms

I’d also say that we could use it to describe clothes (and then small wouldn’t be part of the meaning)

So then we can think about examples that will test understanding of these key elements. These can be short and simple questions, or we can use pictures, diagrams, mime- whatever’s  appropriate.

For example, you might have two pictures. One of a small cottage front room, with a fire and the other of a draughty hall in a castle. Then you can ask, Which room is cosy?

Or..

If you are cosy, are you usually warm or cold?

If you are cosy, are you comfortable or uncomfortable?

You can also use negative checking, by asking a question where the answer should be ‘no’ and then asking a follow-up question to make sure they weren’t just guessing!

Is a castle cosy? No.

What kind of house might be cosy? A small, comfortable one.

What kind of shoes might be cosy? Slippers

Personalisation can also help

Which is the cosiest room in your house? Why?

And if you think students do have a fairly good idea, try asking for more information to check.

Give me an example of an item of clothing that could be cosy? (dressing gown, sweater) And one that couldn’t be? (bikini)

Common pitfalls

 Using language which is more complicated than the language you are trying to check.

If you’re cosy are you snug and secure?

Checking the situation, not the language

John’s grandma knitted him a cosy sweater for Christmas.

-Did she knit him ear-warmers?

Going too far and dealing with meanings which just confuse the issue.

What do you put on a tea-pot to keep the tea warm? – A tea-cosy (see picture above)

Incidentally, some people believe that you should never use the target language in a concept question.  As we have seen, this isn’t the case when dealing with vocabulary, though it may apply to grammatical structures…

It’s going to rain.

Is the weather going to be bad?

When to concept check

Although we refer to it as concept checking, it’s much more than just checking understanding; it’s actually at the heart of teaching. It’s about finding out what students do and don’t understand and helping them to ‘get’ the concept.

That said, you do need to use it fairly sparingly, and most of all wisely. Part of being a teacher (and the hardest thing to teach someone) is knowing just how much clarification students need, and giving it to them in just the right amounts, at just the right moments.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Teaching methodology, Vocabulary

Responding to students’ writing

Photo Credit: cabbit via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: cabbit via Compfight cc

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

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.

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