Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

As I find myself moving more towards management, training and materials writing, my choices at a conference involve fewer practical classroom ideas, but there will always be some! Here are a few I picked up at this year’s IATEFL conference.

My classroom

A classroom I’ve studied in

Grammar in the context of task: what, how and why? (Jane Willis)

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about task-based learning over the last six months or so, following on from doing the Coursera ‘Teaching EFL/ESL Reading: A Task-Based Approach’ MOOC, so I was eager to see Jane Willis talking about how to deal with language within this approach. She worked through an abbreviated version of a task cycle with us, which went something like this:

  • How do YOU feel about storms? Think of 2-3 phrases to describe one experience you’ve had.
  • Was it a positive or negative experience? Weigh it up with your partner, then report back to the group.
  • Think about what causes thunderstorms. How would you explain thunder to a child?
  • Read a discussion between two people about their experiences of storms, and an article about how thunderstorms happen.

At this point Jane gave us a whole range of tasks which we could do with the two texts. For example:

  • Compare your/your partner’s reactions to the reactions of Rachael and Eric. Do you have anything in common with them?
  • What about places you/they like to be during a storm?
  • Create diagrams to illustrate the text. Compare them to the original diagrams which appeared with the text.
  • Read and adapt your diagrams to better illustrate this text, to make it more accessible for younger readers.

Once you’ve dealt with meaning, you can then begin to focus on form. Jane’s framework shows the two stages, meaning in green, form in red:

You can plan to focus on form before the lesson, not just base it on student mistakes. To generate additional lexis that could be used as input material, google ‘How do you feel about storms?‘, and gather phrases into a brainstorm. There are a lot of aspects of grammar which you could focus on, for example:

  • Grammar of structure
    • clauses: noun + verb + ?
    • the noun group e.g. electric current
    • order of adjectives
    • adverbial phrases in a clause
    • verb phrases (e.g. question forms)

‘I go north bus week’ could be grammared/oriented in various ways as ‘pointers’ to show time, place and identity, using points from the list above. The actual sentence from the conversation on the handout was ‘I was just, erm, going up north in a bus to Durham last week.’ Other possible areas to focus on include:

  • Text-building devices
    • articles
    • logical connectors
    • reference chains
  • Pattern grammar
    • lexical phrases
    • syntactic frames with common words e.g. At the end of the day

These areas are all drawn from Rules, Patterns and Words [affiliate link] by Dave Willis. I know that my grouping here doesn’t reflect the book properly, as it was hard for me to keep up!

Here are some ideas for activities:

  • Consciousness-raising activities
    • Identify and classify ways of expressing
      • Reactions to storms
      • Location
      • Quantity
      • Movement
    • Identify + classify structural features
      • Verb/noun phrases
      • Adverbials (ending in-ly)
      • Phrases with common words(e.g. be/being, in)
    • Hypothesis building and checking e.g. is as long as like if?
    • Compare structures between languages

You can get at the verb phrases by looking for items like -ly or through the grammar of orientation. Use the word as ‘bait’ e.g. use the word ‘I’ to find all the expressions of opinion. To get at clauses, focus on as, when, what, or sentences with two verbs. [Using a word as bait was probably my favourite idea from the entire conference!] These can then be turned into specific form-focussed activities, for example:

  • For the conversation:
    • Listen/read to find 9 phrases describing reactions to storms. How might you classify them? e.g. They’re fine as long as…
    • Find 7 phrases with words ending in -ly. Say them out loud. Where does the main stress fall?
    • Find 5 phrases with be and being. What verbs do they often follow?
    • Find all phrases beginning with I. Which ones are typical of spontaneous speech?
  • For the more scientific text:
    • Label your diagrams. Adapt phrases from the text.
    • Find 7 phrases denoting movement and classify them.
    • Find 7 phrases denoting change of state.
    • How many phrases are about temperature?
    • How many phrases are about size?
    • Put these into two structural categories: sound wave, water vapour, warm air, electrical charge. Find more to add to your list, including longer ones. (n+n, adj+n)
    • What rises? sinks? bumps into? fills up with? occurs? Revises noun groups and adds verbs.

Jane suggested focussing more on noun groups in the scientific text, and said that comparing the way these noun groups work in L1 could be beneficial. You can also tell students beforehand that they’re going to test each other on the specified area: this makes them read much more carefully.

In the workshop, Jane asked us to identify some of the features above in the text, and plan scaffolding tasks for the learners. Every group came up with something very different, all in just five minutes. The workshop made me feel much more confident about the range of ways you can exploit a single text, and how quick and easy it can be to put together a series of scaffolded tasks for learners to work with.

The final stage was reporting back to the whole class. Some groups did it orally, and others made notes on a Post-it. By planning to report, you repeat the task, and sort your language out a bit more, especially if you do the report in writing.

Ultimately, as Jane says, the goal of task-based language teaching is exposure, use, motivation and engagement, with lots of doable, engaging tasks, prompting lots of language use.

If you’d like to find out more about TBLT, you could try the #tbltchat hashtag on Twitter, or contact Jane directly through her website.

You can find more information about consciousness-raising activities and how to select language for a focus on form on Jane Willis’s website.

ELT and social justice: opportunities in a time of chaos (JJ Wilson)

JJ is a coursebook writer and blogger, and he writes fiction about social justice issues. You can watch his full plenary or read my summary below. There’s also an interview with JJ recorded after his plenary.

All education begins with what we bring to the classroom.

Compliant students answer the teacher’s questions. Engaged students ask their own.

He told us about Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed [affiliate link], a book which he found very influential because it gave him the language and theory to talk about his teaching. Freire taught English to illiterate peasant farmers in the north-east of Brazil in 1950s. He taught with what they brought to class, and was imprisoned for his troubles. One of the things Freire was interested in was praxis: the act of putting theory into action. He also talked about the idea of the teacher as a co-learner.

Social justice is culturally specific, constantly changing, and affects all areas of human life. It is “a world which affords individuals and groups fair treatment and an impartial share of the benefits of society”. But what does social justice have to do with ELT? It depends on your view of the educator’s role in society. If you think they can change things, then it’s something we should be addressing in our classrooms. JJ went on to suggest a range of ways we could do this:

  • Draw a quick picture to illustrate an issue you feel passionate about, then discuss it.
  • Use images to connect students to other areas and issues. One example of suitable images is Reuters classrooms from around the world. The Washington Post has separate images with captions. You can supplement this with a globe to help students see where the images are from. In a world with Google Maps, I think a globe is still a useful tool – it’s much easier to see relationships when the whole world is in front of you in 3D.
    • Talk about the images using statements starting ‘I wonder…’
    • Turn the ‘I wonder…’ statements into questions and categorise them e.g. materials, classrooms
    • Each category is colour-coded. One group discusses each colour, then they work with one person from each group to pool their ideas.
    • Finally, they talk about their ideal classroom.
  • Use poetry:
    • Read and repeat, with students copying each line.
    • Read a poem, then write your own version of it.

I am from the immensity of the world.

  • Use drama. This is based on Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, and his book Games for actors and non-actors [affiliate link], which JJ recommends as a source for these activities. It encourages the audience to come up with the resolution of the story. He invented ‘spectactors’ and ‘gamesercises’.
  • Use social justice projects, like Nick Bilbrough’s Hands Up Project.
  • Use visits. A child once asked their teacher ‘Where does the trash go?’ The teacher took the class to a landfill. As a result, the class started a recycling project which continues today.
  • Use stories. Despite all the technology we have, stories are the thing that lasts – they are as old as mankind. Use stories of ordinary people doing great things to bring social justice into your classroom and show resilience. Why do we need stories of rich white people saving the world, when there are so many stories of people saving themselves? I like this story of the junk orchestra in Paraguay.

If you’re interested in finding out more about social justice and how to incorporate it in your classroom, you might want to join IATEFL’s Global Issues Special Interest Group.

Blogposts following JJ’s plenary:

Creating challenge for the teenage classroom (Niki Joseph)

Teens are surrounded by the concept of challenge, in advertising, on social media and more. They expect it. Everybody can achieve an instagram challenge like these, especially teenagers! How can we bring these ideas into the classroom? Some audience suggestions:

  • Choose a word of the day, they make a picture to share and illustrate it.
  • Post an image of a new word everyday for 10 days and tag 10 people to do the same (though be aware of online safety)
  • Post a picture to illustrate the next unit of the book.

Encourage students to discuss challenge. For example, show them three photos: a chess game, a snowboarder and a teen doing a presentation. Ask them which photo best represents challenge and which one they would find most challenging. Is challenge something you only want to engage in if you’re interested in it? If you care about it? Moments of challenge need to be achievable and can involve reflection and creativity.

Try a KWL chart: I know, I want to know, I learned. Students fill in the first two columns before an activity, and the last one afterwards. This helps them to notice what they got out of it.

Another way to approach photos is with the Visible Thinking see-think-wonder routine. Once students have used this a few times, they’ll always have it in reserve if they’re asked to talk about a picture, particularly useful for exam candidates. Jo Budden also suggests using the routine kind of in reverse: one student looks at a picture and describes it using STW, and the other should try to find the same image using Google.

Ask students to describe a photo or experience in a single word. For further challenge, add parameters e.g. choose 3-syllable words, a food, words starting with B to describe X. To follow up, find somebody whose word begins with same letter or categorise the words.

Fast finishers who have nothing to do can cause classroom management problems. A fast finisher folder can be really useful: fill it with lots of extra activities: grammar, vocab, creative writing activities etc. It could also be an online folder. Students should know that they can start anytime, but they finish when the class resumes. The answers should be in the folder too, so that students can self-correct. I’m never sure about whether this kind of thing will actually work. I suppose it might if you’re doing lots of long tasks, but for the bitesize activities I often use, fast finishers are more usefully occupied in tasks which don’t require them to look elsewhere, for example remember a sentence from an exercise, turn over your book and write it out from memory.

Niki suggested include taking a sentence from an exercise and creating a context for it (much more useful!), encourage students to replace words with other possible ones, e.g. nouns for nouns, adjectives for adjectives, or rewrite the sentence so it begins with another word, in this case ‘cycling’. They could also rephrase it to make it more emphatic. For pronunciation: say it as many different ways as you can, for example in a tired, excited, angry…way.

After the presentation, Sarah Priestley shared this link:

Tweets from other sessions

(though you might have to ask David exactly how it works!)

These tweets are from a session by Anna Young on adapting writing tasks from coursebooks:

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