Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher

Posts tagged ‘speaking’

How I’m learning Russian

I’d hate to have me as a student.

I very rarely do homework, so much so that my teacher has given up setting it for me.

I cancel about one lesson in four, normally the one on a Saturday. I’ve recently moved it to a Thursday in the hope that I’ll be more likely to have time then. I have two 90-minute lessons a week, the other being on Monday. We’ve never managed to make up a missed lesson, and since I pay on a lesson-by-lesson basis, this must create quite a lot of financial uncertainty, which I feel bad about.

At times, I hijack the lesson and tell my teacher exactly what activities I want to do. The last example of this was after she used a bilingual Quizlet set to introduce clothes words to me at the end of our Monday lesson. In a very rare spurt of motivation, I had twenty minutes on Wednesday night, and ten minutes on Thursday morning during which I managed to play with the words and kind of learn about 70% of them. I started the lesson by drawing pictures of clothes all over the board and writing the words next to them.

Russian clothes on the board

This took about 20 minutes. I then asked my teacher to define words for me, which meant she had to teach me verbs like ‘wear’, ‘get dressed’ and ‘put on’, and prepositional phrases like ‘on your head’, ‘on your feet’. She then turned the tables and made me define words for her. This whole process took 90 minutes, and meant we had no time to do anything she had prepared. I wrote notes throughout, and listened to and spoke more Russian than I had in any other lesson throughout the year. She told me: “You’re ready for it now.”

I constantly make demands about what I want from my lessons. My main demand is to have my lessons entirely in Russian (or as entirely as possible for a beginner/elementary student), but this is difficult because of the above statement/belief, that you have to have a certain amount of language to be ‘ready’ to speak/listen to more. This is not a choice I have in the real world, where I have to deal with whatever is thrown at me, and the person who’s speaking to me often doesn’t know how to change their language to help me understand.

We’ve also got into the habit of speaking English in class. In an average 90-minute lesson my teacher probably speaks about 10 sentences of spontaneous Russian which are not read from a piece of paper and/or accompanied by an English translation. I speak less than this, and occasionally read new vocabulary/sentences from the page, although this is not consistent – I probably only say about 50% of the new language that is introduced to me during any one class. Both of us have spoken a bit more Russian in the last couple of lessons because I’ve made more of an effort, but it hasn’t lasted long. The rest of the lesson is in English, including chats and all grammar explanations. I rarely have to produce any Russian that isn’t part of a drill based on an exercise from a worksheet. I’m trying to speak a bit more Russian in class now, but I don’t have a lot of the classroom language I need unless I ask for it to be translated, because I’ve never heard it or been made to use it.

Most of the published materials my teacher uses are taken from a text-only coursebook, with lists of vocabulary and dialogues, or a slightly more ‘designed’ coursebook with some pictures and tables. Both of them are through the medium of English. I have no idea how you find published materials to learn Russian if you don’t already speak English (this is true of a lot of none-EFL materials). We have occasionally used a website with some very entertaining short videos telling the story of John, a Canadian visiting Russia, which is available in various languages. The videos are very short – less than a minute each – and accompanied by subtitles in Russian or other languages if you want to read them.

We have never listened to any ‘real’ Russian in class, like music or videos, or any audio designed for the classroom. All of my listening practice comes from life outside the classroom, very rarely with support from an English-speaker to help me, but English speakers normally do the work if they’re there, rather than me! That means that most of the time I’m trying to piece things together myself, using what skills I’ve picked up from learning other languages, and the pre-intermediate Czech that I know. This has, of course, got easier as the year has progressed.

I demand context, trying to move away from isolated vocabulary. I constantly ask for the prepositions and cases that go with the verbs/nouns, even though I know I won’t remember them at the moment. I try to get as much new language in sentences as possible. Having said that, I find the Quizlet sets useful for building up sets of vocabulary in topics like the body or clothes. I’m trying to get exposure to as much language as possible while I have access to somebody who can mediate it for me. During a lesson which isn’t based on materials, we fill a notebook with random notes. There’s a lot of Russian here, but it’s almost all written – there’s very little speaking, very little controlled practice, and almost no free(r) practice at all, unless I instigate it. The bit of text you can see in the top-left corner of the page is the second half of twenty minutes worth of writing I did at home to force myself to produce an extended stretch of Russian.

My Russian notebook

In some classes, I give my teacher English sentence after sentence I’ve tried to say in Russian during that week, but didn’t know, ask her to translate them, then fail to learn them. This week we have a week off school and I’ve finally had time to dedicate to Russian. I’ve copied out the sentences onto cards (made from A4 pieces of paper cut into 16 rectangles, yellow because it’s a happy colour!), with pictures on the other side as prompts. There’s a huge backlog, and I have no idea how long it’ll take to actually learn them.

Sentence cards

Sentence cards with pictures

My teacher has a degree in teaching Russian. She is a native speaker of the language, who also speaks very good English and knows bits of other languages, so can occasionally tell me when grammar is similar to other languages I speak. She is a lovely person to put up with me. She puts a lot of time and effort into preparing lessons and materials. Here’s an example of a summary of tenses she made:

Russian tense summary

She’s also started making Quizlet sets for me after I showed her the site and she realised that it motivated me! I copy the sets she’s made and get rid of the English if I can, trying to make things Russian only. When I got ill and was given a special diet, she translated the sheet I was given by the doctor and made me a list of all of the food in Russian and English, with pictures for things I might not know. When I found out just before a lesson that my grandad had been taken into hospital, she took me for a walk in the park and we chatted, then wouldn’t let me pay for the lesson.

The last lesson we had was at my flat, and she decided to try something different. We labelled everything in my kitchen that I didn’t know the names of already. I’d been meaning to do this for ages but hadn’t got round to it. We did this entirely in English, with me asking ‘How do you say…?’ in English. I was never forced to use Russian, and I forgot to try. I could have practised using the words in sentences and spelling them – although I can read Russian confidently now, I still have no idea how to say a lot of the letters. We could also have played a describing game again, but I didn’t think about that until I was writing this.

Russian has taken over my kitchen!

Russian has taken over my fridge!

When I have time, normally in three- to four-hour blocks about every six weeks, I transfer the language in my class notebook to a vocabulary notebook, organised by topic. This is the first time I’ve tried this approach, and I mostly use it as a dictionary. Copying the words/phrases helps me to recognise them, but I haven’t really used the notebook to learn.

My vocabulary notebook - pictures

With pictures and colours where possible…

My vocabulary notebook - English

…with English where it’s not. (or when I run out of motivation)

My vocabulary notebook - mix of pictures and English

With colour-coding to show grammar patterns

I also use index cards to write out grammar and some vocabulary sets, particularly those connected to time. I try to have as little English as possible on the cards, and use regular layout and colour-coding to help me reduce the need for English. If there is English, I often write it in tiny letters that are difficult to see – I want Russian to be the first thing I see when I look at the cards.

Russian index cards

Verb conjugation, time and reflexives

Index cards everywhere! Time time time...

Time index cards, showing colour-coding

I then blu-tack them all over my flat. (Blu-tack is the one thing that I always take with me when I move to a new place!)

Index cards everywhere!

Cards start on the cupboard I look at when I’m getting ready in the morning/doing my physio exercises

On the front door

They graduate to the inside of my front door when I think I know them. (Loosely arranged by grammar point, e.g. verbs at the top, and with the really easy stuff at the bottom)

Surrounded with postcards to be more interesting!

Surrounding them with postcards makes me more likely to look at them (maybe…)

This is what my desk looks like in the process:

My desk when I'm studying Russian

 

Some conclusions

  • Both the teacher and the student(s) need to have a lot of willpower to conduct the lesson entirely in the target language.
  • The student also needs to be given the classroom language they need to be able to operate in the target language.
  • The teacher needs to be flexible, to respond to the language that the student needs, the time they have available, and the mood they are in.
  • The student needs to make an effort to study what has been learnt in class.
  • Language should be introduced in context, rather than as isolated items. It should be learnt as chunks to start with, then pulled apart for grammar later.
  • Seeing language once is not enough. Students need to manipulate it, play with it, say it, use it, in class to help them remember it.
  • The student needs exposure to real language in the classroom environment to prepare them for what they will encounter outside the classroom.

Some methodological terms which I can hear you shouting at me

Comprehensible input

Lexical approach

Repetition

Dogme

What did I forget?

What’s next?

March and April have been pretty busy, both personally and professionally. They came not long after I’d finished Delta, and this week off has been a great opportunity to catch up and get a handle on a lot of things. Most of the things you can see in the photos in this post were written out in a one-day marathon study session. Three days later I had another whole day of study, which meant I finally finished copying everything out and caught up. This is something I want to avoid in the future!

I have therefore decided that in May I am going to try something (new) for thirty days and study Russian for 10 minutes every day. This could include any of the following activities:

  • Using my sentence cards, where I try to remember them/write them out
  • Reading my index cards out loud
  • Testing myself using my vocabulary notebook
  • Playing on Quizlet
  • Reading one of the free magazines/newspapers I’ve collected – highlighting the words I can understand
  • Watching a YouTube video in Russian, like Cheburashka or Russian Winnie the Pooh
  • Listening to a song and reading the lyrics (I need suggestions for this)
  • Writing a short text in Russian, including to Ann (who I wrote one short email to last time she suggested this!)
  • Recording myself speaking, then listening back and correcting it

Any other ten-minute activities I could try? I’ll let you know how it goes at the end of the month!

Update: here’s part two of the post, showing what I did over the following few weeks.

Drawing dictations

I have no idea who I stole this idea from, but it worked really well so I’m going to share it here!

I used it with elementary students. They had done this exercise for homework:

We checked the answers in class, and they were fine, but I wanted them to really notice the language. One student drew a picture for each idea in the text, numbering them from 1 to 10 to help her. (She was early and this was a way to help her before the other students arrived!) These are the final five pictures:

Drawing dictation images

She’s a much better artist than me! By the time she had finished, the rest of the class had arrived. They used the pictures to reconstruct the text on the board. It’s a small group, so using the board enables them to easily change their mind about the text. Students could also use mini whiteboards, tablets/phones, or good old-fashioned pen and paper!

Reconstructing the drawing dictationOnce they were happy with their version of the text, they compared it to the original and asked me questions about differences they didn’t understand, particularly why ‘three-month-old’ had no ‘s’. They spoke a mix of English and Russian, and were engaged and motivated, arguing about whose memory of the text was better.

How to challenge yourself

Challenge considered

This was a lesson plan in the form of a presentation I put together for the weekly 90-minute English Speaking Club at IH Sevastopol. The notes for the plan are visible when you download the presentation (in the notes pane, normally found under the slides):

Here is the SMART goals jigsaw reading (jigsaw reading is where you divide a text into sections. Student A reads part A, B reads part B, C reads C and so on. They don’t see the other parts. They then work together, with or without the text, to build the meaning of the whole by sharing information from their own parts.):

There are also tapescripts to accompany the two videos, which could be mined for language if you choose (that wasn’t the purpose of this club):

It was the first topic for the speaking club for 2014, and hopefully we’ll revisit the goals the students set for themselves later in the year. Unfortunately I was ill, but my colleague taught it and said it went well. Let me know what you think!

FCE Speaking part 3 and the L1

My FCE students sounded really stilted when they tried to do this speaking part 3 in class today (taken from the FCE Gold Plus student’s book, page 87). If you don’t know FCE, this part involves looking at 5-8 pictures and answering a question about them, then coming to some kind of decision.

20140127-220445.jpg
There were three of them, and despite having phrases for turn-taking and ideas on the topic, they struggled to talk for three minutes, and sounded incredibly unnatural, with long pauses while they tried to work out what to say.
I described interactive communication and how people work together to come to a decision, and suggested they watch out for it in the next film/TV show they watch in English. Then we talked about how they do it in Russian. I then had a brainwave: why not get them to do the task in Russian first?
So that’s what they did, and wow! What a difference! They were talking over each other, finishing each other’s sentences, asking for opinions, and most importantly moving from one picture to the next quickly and efficiently. (Although I don’t speak Russian, a lot of the words for the electrical appliances they were discussing were similar enough to English for me to notice that!) In English, they’d taken a minute to discuss a single picture, and they should have done about three in that time!
We talked about how they had spoken in Russian, and I mentioned how they had helped each other to build the conversation. We then repeated the task one final time in English, and it was a huge improvement on their first attempt, with them carrying over a lot of the interaction from their Russian conversation. Of course, it helped that it was the third time they’d done the task too!
Definitely something I’ll try again.

Christmas activities

Here is the collection of Christmas activities which I presented at the International House Sevastopol seminar on Saturday December 21st 2013.

Some of the activities are available on the web, some I have created, and some are versions of time-honoured none-Christmas EFL activities adapted to the festive season. If there’s no link, click on the picture within the presentation and it should take you to the activity. Hopefully the slides are self-explanatory, but if not, feel free to leave me a comment.

In addition, here are some photos from Christmas 2010 which my family gave me permission to take and share. I talked about one of them using fotobabble.

Lights on a garden tree Snow on Christmas Day! Barrel organ as part of Christmas fundraising Christmas fundraising Christmas fundraising Red phone boxes in the snow Stuffing the turkey Pigs in blankets Part-cooked turkey Table set with crackers Table set with crackers Turkey in the oven Fully-cooked turkey Ready to pull crackers Eating Christmas dinner, wearing cracker hats Christmas pudding in the microwave Pouring brandy on the Christmas pudding The Christmas pudding on fire (honest!) The Christmas pudding on fire (honest!) Evening meal of Christmas cake and leftovers... Christmas cake IMG_4106

I realise that this is a bit late for many of you, but you can save it for next year :)

Itchy feet

A few days ago I shared a lesson plan which Claire Hart created based on a recording I did about Moving to Sevastopol.

Now Lizzie Pinard has got in on the act, and created another set of materials based on the same recording. You can find the post she wrote about how she will use the materials on her excellent blog, as well as the materials themselves (scroll down to number 3: Itchy Feet).

I hope you find them useful!

Another gratuitous picture of Sevastopol, this time at Chersonesus

Another gratuitous picture of Sevastopol, this time at Chersonesus

What were you doing at 10 last night?

What were you doing?
What were you doing?
What were you doing
At 10 last night?

I was sitting on the sofa.
I was sitting on the sofa.
I was sitting on the sofa
At 10 last night.

What were you doing?
What were you doing?
What were you doing
At 10 last night?

I was watching the TV.
I was watching the TV.
I was watching the TV
At 10 last night.

What were you doing?
What were you doing?
What were you doing
At 10 last night?

I was listening to music.
I was listening to music.
I was listening to music
At 10 last night.

What were you doing?
What were you doing?
What were you doing
At 10 last night?

I was looking at the sea.
I was looking at the sea.
I was looking at the sea
At 10 last night.

The entrance to Balaklava bay

What were you doing?
What were you doing?
What were you doing
At 10 last night?

I was on vkontakte.*
I was on vkontakte.
I was on vkontakte
At 10 last night.

What were you doing?
What were you doing?
What were you doing
At 10 last night?

I wasn’t doing anything.
I wasn’t doing anything.
I wasn’t doing anything
At 10 last night!

I made up this chant, inspired by Jane Harding da Rosa, to help my pre-intermediate students with the concept of past continuous to talk about ongoing events at a fixed point in the past. I had a few ideas for verses and they added more.

We also tried a variant where they asked:

What was she doing?**
What was she doing?
What was she doing
At 10 last night.

The verse was about a particular student, and the others had to choose a possible answer. For example:

She was listening to music.
She was listening to music.
She was listening to music
At 10 last night.

…to which the student who was being discussed had to respond with either:

Yes, I was. Yes, I was.
Yes, I was. You’re right.

OR

No, I wasn’t. No, I wasn’t.
No, I wasn’t. You’re wrong.
(followed by a verse of them saying what they really were doing)

Through the chant, the students had practice with the positive, negative, question, and short forms of the past continuous. It is also designed to help them with the rhythms of English, as they struggle with listening, especially with weak forms (something I identified using this post-listening reflection questionnaire from Mat Smith’s blog). They responded really well, and a week later were chanting it when they came into class. I tried it with my teens too, and they didn’t get it at all!

So, what were YOU doing at 10 last night?

*Vkontakte is a Russian equivalent of facebook, which is very popular among my students.

** Or ‘he’, of course!

Questions students have

About two months ago, my intermediate class put together a video to help students coming to International House Newcastle, by answering some of the questions they thought new students might have. This was the result:

To get to the final product, this is what happened:

  • The students talked to each other about what questions they had before they came to the school and in the first couple of weeks, as well as how they tried to find out the answers.
  • They wrote their questions on small pieces of paper – one question per piece of paper – and stuck them to two whiteboards.
  • I divided the class in half. Each group had one whiteboard. They had to divide the questions into categories of their own choosing.
  • They then compared the categories they had with the other group, merged any which were the same, and moved round any which were different.
  • This resulted, quite conveniently, in 5 categories, which was exactly how many pairs there were.
  • With their partner, students selected the most important/interesting questions from their category, so that they had 3-4 questions per pair.
  • They came up with possible answers themselves, supplemented with information from the internet and from me. They decided how they would turn their questions/answers into video form.
  • The pairs took turns going into an empty classroom with my digital camera and mini tripod to make their section of the video. After each, we transferred it to my computer so I could start editing while the next pair filmed.
  • By the end of a two-hour lesson every pair had finished filming. As each pair finished, they came and told me what they wanted me to do in terms of the editing. They also found any pictures that they wanted to add to the video.
  • At home, I spent quite a few hours editing the video, then sent it to my students for approval and to see if there was anything else that needed changing. I made the necessary changes and then reuploaded it to vimeo, which I think is a lot better than YouTube for things like this because it feels more intuitive, and the advertising is more subtle.
  • Hopefully it will appear on the school website somewhere soon ;)

Short answers for agreeing and disagreeing

Students often ask me about the difference between ‘either’ and ‘neither’ and it normally results in me drawing a table on the board. I finally put this into a document and thought I would share it in case anyone else finds it useful.

(You can download it by clicking ‘slideshare’ and logging in – it’s free to create an account, and you can link via facebook if you want to.)

Let me know if there’s anything you think I should add/change to improve it.

Small talk

My Advanced level students are very good about talking about ‘topics’ like the environment or health but sometimes struggle to strike up conversation with native speakers in a natural way. I decided to teach them about small talk, but couldn’t find a handy lesson anywhere so made my own. :)

Before the students came into class I pushed all the tables back and put some party music on. As they walked through the door I asked them to put their bags on the tables and write their names on the board (we had some new students joining the class). I then gave them a card from a tin my friend gave me for my birthday (Thanks Kim!):

best_ever_dinner_party_ice_breakers

and said “Talk”. [This combatted my common problem of confusing the students with complicated instructions...even after working on it during Delta!] The cards had questions like “What’s your favourite holiday destination?” “What do you normally do at the weekend?”

Once all of the students had arrived and they’d chatted for about five minutes I switched off the music and the light, which stopped the conversations quickly. I switched the light on again ;) and asked them how comfortable they felt speaking to people they didn’t really know in their own language and in English. Understandably, they said it was more difficult in English.

I elicited the term ‘small talk’ and asked them to discuss the first four questions on the sheet below. For every activity during the lesson they had to work with someone they hadn’t spoken to previously during the lesson. I left the tables at the side of the room throughout, so students perched on desks and moved around a lot.

(You can download it by clicking ‘slideshare’ and logging in – it’s free to create an account, and you can link via facebook if you want to.)

Students then completed the second task (You’re now going to read about…) by looking at five short texts stuck around the room. They are on the first two pages of this document. I adapted them from the Wikipedia entry about small talk.

As they finished reading, the students compared the things which they found interesting or surprising, and talked about whether small talk operates in the same way or a different way in their culture, for example, whether the same topics are considered taboo.

The students stood in a straight line across the classroom. I stood about 1.5m from each student in turn and asked them to move towards me until they were at a comfortable distance away from me for a conversation. We talked a bit about personal space and how, for the Brazilian students especially, this could often be quite different in different cultures. We also talked about how normal it is to touch other people when you’re talking to them, and how this differs when you know them or not. One of the Brazilian students was surprised that an English person wouldn’t normally touch the other person, for example on the arm, while speaking to them.

I divided the class into A, B and C groups and gave them each one section from the next three pages of the second document above, which were adapted from Wikihow. They read their section, helped each other with vocabulary and tried to summarise the ideas. They then regrouped so that the new groups had representatives from A, B and C. The students shared the tips they had read about and talked about whether they are useful or not.

Talking about the tips

Talking about the tips

Students then thought of two or three opening gambits and wrote them in the last section of the first worksheet. Taking those, they made small talk for the last 25 minutes of the 2-hour lesson at what I told them was probably the most boring IH Newcastle party ever! That meant they needed to liven it up by meeting as many people as possible, and making sure they ended at least one conversation during the time limit – it’s often hard to know how to escape from a conversation. I also told them it was their responsibility to make sure everyone had someone to talk to – nobody could be left out at the party. I didn’t correct them or collect errors. The aim was fluency and making sure that the students would be as comfortable as possible for the other 18 hours we would spend together during the rest of the week.

Their homework was to make small talk with a random native speaker at some point during the week, then tell me about it. They had to make an effort to do this – it couldn’t just be an extension of a transactional conversation. One of the students ended up having a very interesting hour-long conversation with an old man who happened to be Jehovah’s Witness, something which my student had never heard of before (and therefore had no cultural baggage about!).

Overall, the lesson seemed to go well, and for the rest of the week whenever students had finished a task early I could ask them to make small talk. Making small talk successfully can be a difficult skill to master, but it’s an important one, and one which I don’t think we examine enough in the classroom. It’s important for students to be able to start and end conversations themselves, as we tend to control any small talk that happens in the room. I’m looking forward to hearing about the small talk experiences of the rest of my class!

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