Mistakes trainees make in CELTA TP (teaching practice)*

*or “5 things no CELTA trainer ever said but which they see on every course!”

Albert Einstein, with 'I didn't say that' in meme font

Please don’t do these things! Read on to find out what to replace them with and why.

Spend 10 minutes lecturing students about grammar

That’s definitely not how we learn grammar: by listening to somebody else tell us about it for ten minutes, often in confusing, over-complicated language, with only minimal examples. Also, the students have probably heard versions of the lecture before. The problem isn’t whether they can understand your lecture and explain the rules to somebody else, it’s whether they can actually use the language.

Instead of lecturing, get the students doing a task showing whether they can use the grammar as soon as possible.

If you’re not confident with this area of grammar, the task might be asking them to match rules to examples, with all of the examples taken from a clear context introduced earlier in the lesson. Often this is what a grammar box does in a coursebook (a light version of guided discovery), if you’re using one. Focus on the form, drill pronunciation, and give them controlled and freer practice activities. This is called present-practice-produce or PPP. While it’s not always the most efficient way of teaching language, students can still benefit providing they get enough practice and feedback on their performance.

If you’re a little confident, get students to start with an activity where they have to produce this specific language point. A controlled practice exercise can be turned into a mini test (in a test-teach-test or TTT model), which you can use to find out which parts of the grammar the students are having problems with. Check carefully whether the exercise tests their knowledge of meaning or form, and consider how you can test their pronunciation too. One activity I like is to give them a couple of minutes to say all of the sentences as quickly as possible in pairs. Don’t put them on the spot in open class to do this as that might put them off English for life if they struggle! Once you’ve gathered information about what they can and can’t do, fill in the gaps with your teaching, for example, by revising the negative form only because they’re already OK with the positive form. Test them again at the end of the lesson. This is a good approach because it allows you to target your teaching to the problems they have, instead of the broad brush approach of TTT.

If you’re very confident, give them a fully communicative speaking or writing activity which might lead them to using the target language of your lesson – you can adapt this from a freer practice exercise in the coursebook. An easy example would be having students tell each other a story at the beginning of a lesson on past tenses. You can find out the range of tenses they’re using (only past simple and past continuous? only present tenses?), as well as spot problems with form and pronunciation of the language you’d like to focus on. Then choose one or two grammar (or lexis or pronunciation or discourse) areas to focus on in your teaching to upgrade their language. Give them more opportunities to practice, perhaps with controlled practice, but most importantly with another speaking or writing activity where the focus is on communication, not accuracy of language, but where they can use the definitely use the target language. This is called task-based learning (or TBL), and is a useful approach because the focus is primarily on communication using all of the language resources at students’ disposal, not only using the specific target language the teacher has chosen for today.

Present all vocabulary items separately before students do their first vocabulary exercise

This might feel like you’re being helpful, but it removes all of the challenge from the vocabulary exercise, generally takes a long time, and reduces the opportunities students have to struggle a little, make mistakes, and get feedback – where the real learning happens. If we’re not struggling, we’re not learning.

Instead, let the students have a go at the exercise first. If they work alone, give them a chance to compare in pairs before you check their answers with them. Make sure you have analysed the meaning, form and pronunciation of all of the words in your lesson plan, just in case, but you don’t need to go over all of them with the students, only the problem words.

Even better, let the students work in pairs to do the exercise. That way, they can support each other with questions they find challenging and learn from each other. You can also hear them pronouncing the words. When monitoring during the activity, you can identify which words you need to check the meaning of more carefully and which ones you need to drill.

This might mean you go from looking at the meaning, form and pronunciation of eight words, to the meaning of two, the pronunciation of four, and checking the spelling of two other problem words. As you can imagine, this will take a lot less time, and students will be more engaged because it’s only dealing with their problems, instead of going over ground they’ve already covered before. It also means more time for the all important practice and feedback on it.

Read every question from a comprehension exercise aloud before you start the activity

While it’s great that students are aware of the questions before they do the reading/listening activity, this means students are listening to you for a long time. If you’re displaying the activity too, they’re trying to read and listen at the same time, which we normally do at different speeds. While this can help some students, for others it will interrupt their processing and make it harder. If you’re not displaying the questions, the students are trying to work out how much attention they should be paying – should they answer the questions? Remember them? Or what? If you ask students to read out each comprehension question, you’re generally putting them on the spot (they’ve rarely rehearsed) asking them to pronounce things that were meant to be read not spoken, and possibly are quite challenging. Other students are struggling to understand what they’re hearing, and again possibly getting distracted by the written form of the questions.

Instead, if it’s questions for a listening activity, give students 1-2 minutes (depending on how many questions there are) to read the questions in silence. You can give them a little task if you like e.g. underline any words which you’re not sure about. I don’t tend to do this though, as I’ve either already taught them a challenging word or two from the questions, or they’ll ask me themselves if they don’t know it and I’ve built up a relationship of trust and asking questions openly. It might also be worth highlighting the pronunciation of one or two words with strange sound-spelling relationships, such as queue, to prepare learners to notice it in the audio. Then ask learners if they’re ready to listen and play the audio.

If it’s a reading, it’s generally enough to highlight one or two words students might not understand in the questions, trying to elicit the meaning where possible rather than just telling the students. Then let them do the reading – they don’t necessarily need separate time to read all of the questions first.

Drill all the answers

After a reading or listening activity, you don’t need to drill the correct answers as students are answering the questions. It shifts the focus of the stage from ensuring that students all have the correct answers and know why they’re correct, to a pronunciation drill. If they’ve already got an answer with a similar meaning, they’re likely to start doubting themselves. They might not want to volunteer an answer if they’re worried about pronunciation. It can particularly confuse students when you shift back and forth between asking for an answer, drilling a version of it, asking for the next answer, drilling it, etc. as they don’t know what to focus on: the answers or the correct pronunciation?

Instead, make sure the students have all of the correct answers first. Here are a few ways to do this (some of them are Zoom-specific):

  • Teacher nominates students for verbal feedback (what we most commonly see, but this can take a long time and be very teacher-centred)
  • Students nominate each other.
  • All students answer the question verbally. (works well for short answers e.g. a, b)
  • Thumbs up/down if you agree with my answer.
  • Reveal the answers on PowerPoint from behind boxes – one at a time / all at once
  • Move pictures or words to provide visual support to oral feedback.
  • Type on the screen to provide visual support to oral feedback.
  • One student reads out all of the answers, the others say if there are any problems.
  • Display the answers with a couple of mistakes. Students have to find them.
  • Zoom: Type in the chat box – everybody types the same answer at the same time, controlled by the teacher.
  • Zoom: Type in the chat box – 1 student types each answer, e.g. Student A types 1, B types 2, C types 3, etc.
  • Zoom: Use the stamp function in annotate to tick/cross statements. (tell them it’s under ‘view options’ – only on computers, not phones)
  • Zoom: Get students to send answers only to you in the chat using the private message function.
  • Zoom: Students type all the answers, but don’t press enter until you tell them to (especially good for two or three short answers)
  • Zoom: Write longer answers in Google Docs/Padlet, preferably while doing the activity rather than afterwards.

If there were any major pronunciation problems which really impeded communication, make a note of them and go back to them once the students have all of the correct answers. If they didn’t impede communication, it’s OK not to worry about them.

The teacher must be in complete control of everything the students say and do throughout the lesson

This includes but is not limited to:

  • Lead ins which are a question and answer session between the teacher and the whole class, with only one student speaking at any one time
  • Long teacher-centred grammar presentations
  • A complete lack of pairwork or groupwork, only whole class, teacher-mediated activities
  • Feedback stages which consist of the teacher nominating each student in turn to basically repeat when they just said during pairwork

While each of these activities may (very!) occasionally be useful, if you never give the students any space or freedom to experiment with the language during the lesson, they won’t learn. Again, if we’re not struggling, we’re not learning. If you try to make sure that everything they ever produce is perfect, some students will shut down completely and stop trying to communicate. If you fully dominate the lesson, the pace often drops, students lose engagement and (particularly with kids and young learners) you start to have problems with classroom management as students don’t want to be there. I once heard this salient reminder from a feedback session (substituting my name for the person concerned): “Remember, Sandy, it’s not the Sandy show. You’re there to help the students, not do the work for them.”

Instead, hand over control to the students as much as possible. Set up pair and group work and monitor from the sidelines, being prepared to help when needed. Do this right from the start of the lesson, and take yourself out of the question. Find other ways to work with grammar (see the first point above). Vary your feedback stages so they’re not as teacher-centred. Let them decide how long activities should take, or choose which game you’re going to play (if they already know a couple). Give them opportunities to make the lessons and the language their own.

(A tiny bit of theory)

If CELTA trainers never tell their trainees to do these things, why do they happen on so many courses? I think I’ve seen all five of these things on every course I’ve done!

My feeling is that the apprenticeship of observation has a lot to do with it. This is a term coined by Dan Lortie in 1975 describing the fact that we spend many hours in classrooms as students and therefore form very fixed pre-conceptions of what a teacher should do and be. For many trainees, CELTA is the first time they’ve encountered a student-centred approach to teacher, where the aim is to set up the conditions for students to learn and facilitate activities and practice, rather than lecture them and control everything. When planning a lesson and not sure what to do, trainees are unlikely to remember a minute or two the couple of hours or so of a demo lesson or an observation showing them how we’d suggest they do a particular activity, especially if the trainee doesn’t really believe this is the ‘correct’ way to teach. Instead they fall back on ‘tried and tested’ methods of teacher control, lecturing, and reading aloud and nothing much changes until they get trainer feedback.

I know some trainers try to combat this by doing an early session on the course encouraging trainees to think about what being a good teacher actually means and how we learn both inside and outside the classroom. This helps trainees to uncover their beliefs and begin to question them straight away. I’d be interested to know what other ideas people have for resolving this issue, or at least bringing it to light as quickly as possible.

4 thoughts on “Mistakes trainees make in CELTA TP (teaching practice)*

  1. Great post, Sandy & you’ve brought up a lot of issues which can occur with Lortie’s explanation for why they happen.
    One way we’ve found of helping trainees accept & remember student-centred focus is to change the ‘hours of observation’, especially on Day One – we’ve timetabled the observations into bite-sized chunk – 20 minute Vocab demo on Day One, 40 minute Skills demo on Day Two and a 40 minute Language Focus lesson on Day 4/5/6. The demos also follow the order of methodology etc. on the timetable and are kept to the length we expect the trainees to teach for the initial stages of the course. We used to allow 60 minutes for skills/language demos but questioned why should we tutors have an hour if the trainees were only timetabled for 40 minutes!
    Our DVD observations are always guided & the tutor will pause the video occasionally for a discussion. Apart from keeping everyone awake, it helps check trainees’ understanding etc.
    I know that I keep banging on about our Flipped CELTA at the University of Hawai’i, but freeing up the time by discontinuing input sessions – usually around 3 hours – and putting them online for homework/home studies – meant that the tutors had 3 extra hours face-to-face time for the important issue of planning & materials development as well as rehearsals (without tutor present). Of course, when there were problems with misunderstandings/ misinterpretations of student-centred methodology, we slotted in what we referred to as “Repair Sessions” which were short workshops as needed with the current group.
    I’m dying to get back to face-to-face as I know that’s where my strength lies & we were so buoyed up by the Flipped courses and how that had a ripple on effect in so many ways, the most notable being that the trainees did most of their planning with the whole group during the day & slept an average of 6 hours per night, so no droopy trainees trying to focus in input sessions, etc.

    Like

    1. Hi Judith,
      Thanks for sharing that. I’d love to hear more about how you run your flipped course. I know IH London have done something similar. Let me know if you fancy writing a blogpost about it.
      It seems to me that a flipped course would still work fantastically well online. What is it about face-to-face that you think makes the difference?
      Sandy

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.