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The learning process as I see it

Geoff Jordan recently relaunched his blog with a new tagline:

Screen shot of the tag line of Geoff's blog: What do you think you're doing? A critique of ELT teacher trainers

At the end of the post ‘Teacher Trainers in ELT‘, he posed the following five questions:

  1. What is your view of the English language? How do you transmit this view to teachers?
  2. How do you think people learn an L2? How do you explain language learning to teachers?
  3. What types of syllabus do you discuss with teachers? Which type do you recommend to them?
  4. What materials do you recommend?
  5. What methodological principles do you discuss with teachers? Which do you recommend to them?

In this blog post I am going to attempt to answer these questions.

The learning process

I have recently started to visualise the learning process using the fingers on one hand, like this:

(thumb) 1. You don’t know it exists. (index finger) 2. You know it exists, but you don’t really understand it. You can use/do it successfully 10-20% of the time, but you need a lot of support/input. (middle finger) 3. You have a 50/50 chance of being able to use/do it successfully. You still need help and support at times, or to be reminded of it, but you’re improving. (ring finger) 4. You have an 80-90% chance of using/doing it successfully. Most problems are slips, and if somebody reminds you, you can correct yourself. (little finger) 5. It’s automatic. You don’t have to think about it any more. It can be hard to believe that you ever didn’t know this.

I think the learning process is the same regardless of what skill it is you’re learning, whether that be English, how to teach, or how to tie your shoelaces. Sometimes you can skip through stages 2-4 pretty quickly, and sometimes you get stuck at one of those stages for a long time without feeling any progress. However, with perseverance, motivation, practice and time you can get to stage 5 with anything you truly want to learn. Support, guidance and input can help you get there faster, but none of them are essential, not even for getting from stage 1 to 2: if you pay attention to the world around you, you can notice the existence of things yourself.

Of course ‘English’ and ‘how to teach’ are both huge concepts, and should be broken down into many smaller concepts. The degree to which you break them down when using this metaphor is entirely up to you, dependent on who you are talking to and why. Below are a few examples.

Learning how to teach

On a CELTA course, you are working with a truly pre-service trainee, somebody who has never been in a classroom before. You have four weeks/120 hours to introduce them to the basics of being an English language teacher. By the end of the course, here are some of the areas I would expect a straight Pass candidate to be at stage 3 in:

  • Giving clear instructions.
  • Monitoring for task completion, and adjusting tasks accordingly.
  • Including peer checks consistently between individual and open class work.
  • Clarifying the meaning of new vocabulary/terminology efficiently and concisely.

In contrast, I would expect a teacher with some prior experience before the course to be at at least stage 2 in all of the above areas when they join the course, or even stage 3, and at stage 4 by the end of the course. Realistically, on a pre-service course with only six hours of teaching, six of observation, and 120 of input, I think it’s very difficult to reach stage 5 in any of these areas if you’re starting from scratch, though some Pass A candidates may manage it in some areas.

Working with early career teachers over the course or a year or two, as I do most of the time in my Director of Studies role, it is possible to break things down more and focus on components that could make up each area above. Take ‘giving clear instructions’ for example. Individual components might be:

  • Getting and maintaining attention while giving instructions.
  • Showing the materials to be worked with to help students follow what you’re saying/doing.
  • Working through an example for unfamiliar task types.
  • Getting a student/pair/group to work through an example in open class.
  • Checking instructions.

By the end of their first year, I would expect teachers at our school to be at stage 4 or 5 in all of the above areas.

There are also areas which they are unlikely to have come across or which were only mentioned in passing on their pre-service course, and I would expect them to be at stage 2 or 3 after their first year with us, and 3 or 4 after their second. These might include:

  • Teaching 121 students in a way that differs from their approach to group classes.
  • Conducting a needs analysis and acting on it.
  • Managing a classroom of teen students.
  • Assessing learner progress within levels that they are familiar with.
  • Varying the pacing of a young learner lesson to keep students engaged throughout.

As far as I’m concerned, all of the examples above are connected to the skill of teaching in general, and would be equally applicable to an EFL teacher, a Maths teacher and a History teacher.

Learning a language

When it comes to learning any language, I think the five stages are the same. As I learn other languages and notice my own learning process, I can feel myself going through the stages for different aspects of the language.

Here are some examples of elements from English grammar:

  • Knowing when to use third person -s.
  • Choosing between the present simple and the present continuous.
  • Selecting the correct article in a given context.

And from Polish grammar:

  • Knowing whether a noun is masculine (animate or inanimate), feminine or neutral.
  • Associating case endings with prepositions.
  • Deciding whether an action is seen as complete or incomplete (perfective or imperfective), and choosing the correct verb form.

But of course, a language is not just grammar. Learning and retaining lexical chunks is a 5-step process too, and skills and learning techniques can also be broken down:

  • Understanding the relationship between yourself and your interlocutor, and choosing appropriate forms of address or vocabulary to reflect that.
  • Not worrying about whether you understand everything in an informal conversation, but joining in when and where you can.
  • Letting yourself read for reading’s sake in your L2, not just to list the vocabulary that you encounter.

By showing teachers my breakdown of the learning process, and by encouraging them to learn languages and experience it themselves, I try to help them see that regardless of what they do in the classroom, students still need to go through the stages at their own pace. Classroom learning can speed it up in some cases, by providing input, guidance, a supportive environment, opportunities for practice and a time and space for language use, but ultimately, nobody can learn faster for their students – they have to do it themselves. This is true of any subject, not just English or languages.

Materials and more

We use coursebooks for most of the classes at out school. We aim to maximise the amount of speaking that students do through careful lesson planning, and the coursebooks we use help us to keep the range of input high across the school, by ensuring that a certain amount of content is touched on every year. I do not see a coursebook as a ‘chain‘ to be freed from, but rather as a skeleton structure to base our teaching on which forms part, though not all, of the students’ learning.

A large majority of our students join groups at the school as near or total beginners, and progress through 8 years of study culminating in them successfully passing the Cambridge First (B2) exam. A handful of them get there a little slower, repeating a level or two if they’ve really struggled. Some of them get there faster, through increased exposure outside the classroom, particularly if they are teenagers who watch a lot of English-language films/series/YouTube videos or play a lot of computer games. That’s not to say that students couldn’t all reach that level of English much more quickly and efficiently, but that requires a level of motivation, self-discipline and exposure to the language that few people have. Despite being highly motivated to learn languages myself, I have sometimes found in the past that attending regular classes was necessary to make sure that I studied in between – I didn’t need to learn much in the classes, but I did need somebody to be accountable to for my learning, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

For one-to-one and company classes, I point out to both teachers and students that despite having a coursebook, they are under no obligation to go through it from cover to cover. In fact, one of the first things we suggest teachers do with a new student/closed group is to take the contents page of the coursebook and ask students what they do and don’t want to look at, and what else they would like to do that isn’t in the book.

I regularly remind teachers that there are certain grammar points that it’s not worth getting het up about, as students will internalise them (get to stage 5) much later, even if they’re ‘taught’ much earlier by coursebooks. For Polish learners of English, all three of the grammar points I selected above fall into that category as there is no corresponding structure in Polish. It’s important for everyone to remember that teaching does not necessarily equal learning, and you never know exactly what a student will take away from a given lesson. Having said that, they should always take something away from the lesson, otherwise there was no point to them attending!

As Geoff said in another post:

[…] students don’t learn a second or foreign language by being led through the units of a coursebook like this – language learning simply doesn’t work like that.

We know that two 90-minute lessons a week alone does not create high-level users of English, and we show teachers as many ways as possible to encourage students to practise and use the language outside class. Some of these ideas include borrowing books from the school library for extensive reading, listening to podcasts for extensive listening, using websites like Quizlet and Memrise to increase vocabulary, and doing something in English for 5 minutes every day, regardless of what it is. We also encourage teachers to share their own experiences of what has and hasn’t worked for them as language learners.

Through a strong culture of professional development and a very supportive environment, I believe that we are able to provide a level of quality in lessons that would not be consistently achievable without coursebooks, as teachers are able to focus on adapting the materials for their students, rather than on finding suitable materials in the first place. They are also free to omit or replace anything in a coursebook that they feel is inappropriate or unnecessary for their students – there is absolutely no obligation to do every exercise on every page. That is more than enough challenge for early-career teachers with anywhere between 40 and 65 students on their registers covering 4 to 7 different levels, levels that they perhaps can’t confidently differentiate between until they’ve completed a year or two of teaching. (And that’s without all of the other things that first year teachers in a foreign country need to get their heads around!)

Working with teachers year-round

I endeavour to remember to remind teachers (I’d say I’m at stage 3 for this!) that if they have chosen to ‘cover’ a particular grammar point, range of vocabulary items, aspect of a skill, or language learning technique, at any given time they will probably have students at all five stages of the learning process for that thing. They need to adapt the lesson accordingly, and remember not to get frustrated if they have students at stage 1, even if they ‘did this last year’ and at stage 5, who don’t really need more input on it. This is still something I sometimes find challenging as a teacher.

Working with the same teachers consistently in collaborative planning meetings at our school, I try to put this into practice. I encourage teachers to get students to show them what they know first, rather than automatically assuming that an item needs to be presented/covered at this particular level. Examples of ways students can show their knowledge include doing a gapfill for homework before the lesson, saying all of the words in a vocabulary set as quickly as possible with their partner or completing a task at the start of the lesson. I then show teachers how to notice problems students are having and how to deal with them. I have found that monitoring for language output is an especially difficult skill for new teachers, particularly when all of the students are speaking at once and it can be a challenge to tune in to individual voices. In our collaborative planning meetings, we come up with ‘monitoring tasks’ to help the teacher direct their focus, and we anticipate areas which students might have trouble with.

Here’s an example from one of last week’s meetings, working with pre-intermediate students from English File Pre-Intermediate 3rd edition. I’m trying to learn more about task-based learning, and share this with teachers (again, I’m at stage 3 of this!) – this is an example of how I’ve interpreted it, using the task in the coursebook to provide scaffolding and examples of language which a teacher might listen out for during the initial attempt at the task.

Holiday speaking from English File Pre-Intermediate 3rd ed SB p13

This activity was chosen as the first speaking assessment of the year for these students. Holiday vocabulary was introduced and practised in the previous lesson. The 70-minute lesson plan that I sketched out with the teachers included the following steps (roughly!):

  • Students do tasks 6a, 6b and 6c. Monitoring task: listen for use of the past simple and whether students are actively showing interest in what their partner is saying. Make notes on a Word document.
  • If students had few problems with the past simple, display the Word document on the board, elicit corrections and reasons for why that language was incorrect/unsuitable, and supply any language students were lacking. Complete a story-based exercise from the book where they choose which form is correct. Write ten key words from the story and retell it. Monitoring task: notice problems with the past simple forms from the story (this is easier than in task 6, as there is a more limited range of forms which may come up, so teachers are more likely to spot them).
  • If students had lots of problems with the past simple, read about two people’s holidays and complete the associated tasks from the book. Use the examples taken from the text to notice the grammar rules. Complete one or both of the controlled practice exercises, depending on the students’ needs and how much they seem to understand. Work on the pronunciation of -ed endings using the coursebook, if necessary. Display the Word document, as above.
  • If students were showing interest in what their partner said without any trouble, fine. If not, introduce and drill the phrases from the green box shown above. Elicit a few other follow-up questions that could be asked or statements that could be made.
  • All students repeat task 6 as the final stage in the lesson, this time as an assessment – in theory, they should all be better this time round. I told the teachers what aspects of speaking to assess here, and gave them tips on how to assess 12 students simultaneously over the course of about 10 minutes.

This lesson plan is not perfect (no plan is). However, I am confident that the teachers will be able to teach it, and that all of the students in the classroom will learn something from the lesson. The aim of the lesson is not to ‘teach the past simple’, or talk about it, but rather to improve students’ ability to ask and answer questions about holidays they have had.

My own development

I would say that I am an intermediate to upper intermediate level teacher (if you take language levels as a guide), and a pre-intermediate to intermediate trainer (thank you to Geoff for stating that I am a ‘top teacher trainer’, but I certainly don’t believe this!), and that I still have plenty to learn. The day that I feel that I’m ‘finished’ as a teacher or a trainer is the day that I leave this career.

Even after ten years of teaching, I still don’t always feel that my students have learnt as much as they could have done in a non-coursebook lesson – both of my groups this year are non-coursebook-based, to push myself to develop in this area. I certainly know that having used coursebooks over a number of years, I have a much clearer idea of what to expect of students at different levels, and what is often far beyond their abilities. That doesn’t mean I won’t try to teach them some of those ‘higher-level’ things – that might push students from stage 1 to 2 after all, or provide the i + 1 that Krashen proposes, or help them get into Vygotsky’s ZPD, if my understanding of those concepts is correct. Rather, I don’t agonise over something ‘above their level’ if they haven’t managed to pick it up by the end of the lesson or remembered it next lesson.

Looking back at Geoff’s questions, I know next to nothing about different types of syllabus, despite having read Syllabus Design [affiliate link] as part of my Delta, and having to justify the kind of syllabus I came up with for my extended assignment. I’m not sure there is an ideal kind of syllabus anyway as learners can only learn what they’re ready to learn, and I’m unlikely to be in a position where I create an entire syllabus any time soon. I don’t feel in any way qualified to recommend a particular type of syllabus to another teacher, as I feel that teaching should be at the point of need wherever possible, despite what I said about coursebooks above.

I’m not entirely sure which methodological principles I discuss with teachers either. I’m not sure I necessarily recommend any in particular either, though you may be able to spot some that I can’t in what I’ve written above.

I know a little about second language acquisition, through theoretical modules during my university language study, reading How Languages Are Learned [affiliate link], and many many hours spent learning a range of languages myself to a greater or lesser degree of success using a wide range of techniques. I try to take that into the classroom and the training room, partly by reminding students and teachers that learning will happen when you’re ready for it, but that we can try to create the conditions for it, for example by providing more ‘hooks’ to help it stick for longer. As I mentioned above, patience, time, practice and motivation are the key ingredients.

Everything that I have written here is based on my own experience as a teacher, trainer and language learner, and my (all too limited) reading. Limited as I’ve only been teaching for ten years, always in private language schools, and the resources I have access to are those at the schools I’ve worked at, those online, and those I have paid for myself. I am grateful to all of those people who are trying to share teaching research more widely, making it more accessible for people like me. At some point in the future I will probably do an MA, but that requires time and money which I don’t have at the moment. I look forward to being able to access and evaluate more of this research myself.

What I teach

I strongly believe that the most important thing I can do in a classroom is provide a supportive space for students to learn, regardless of whether they are learning a language or learning to teach.

When training on pre-service courses, my focus is on reflection: being balanced in your assessment of your own teaching, identifying areas you can continue to work on and thinking about how, and areas which are already fine that you can endeavour to repeat and build on.

When in the English classroom, my focus is on experimenting with producing and understanding the language, trying things out, and ironing out problems.

Whatever they’re learning, I try to help trainees/students to see the gaps in their knowledge, and improve their confidence with what they know. I hope that what I share with the teaching community reflects the ideas I have described here.

I would never pretend that I am teaching them teaching or teaching them English, but rather that I am one small piece in the puzzle that can help them reach their final goal. Ultimately, what they take away from my lessons is entirely dependent on what stage they are at in their learning and is up to them.

Geoff, I hope that goes some way towards answering your questions.

Stupid things I’ve done as a teacher

Well, just the one actually 🙂

I wanted to share an example of one of those things which felt really stupid and unprofessional at the time, but which over time has just come to be a good story to tell.

Me before my first lesson at the school

Me before my first lesson at the school (though not the lesson I’m writing about!)

When I was at university studying languages, I spent my third year abroad working as a British Council teaching assistant. In Paraguay, that meant working as a full-time teacher in a private language school. The school had two possible time slots for afternoon kids’ classes. I can’t remember which way round the days were, but it was something like 3:00-4:30 Monday and Wednesday and 3:30-5:00 Tuesday and Thursday.

A couple of months after I arrived I was asked to cover a kids’ class, the first time I’d taught anyone under the age of about 16 there. I was really worried about my lack of experience, and asked the head of teacher training at the school to help me. She gave me a series of activities and worksheets to fill the lesson, and explained how to set them up.

When I got into class, everything went really well. The kids were engaged, and they worked through all of the materials successfully. We got to the end of the lesson and I let them all out.

Except…

I’d made a mistake with the time, and let them out at 4:30, not 5:00 as it was supposed to be on that day! Because they’d completed everything, I didn’t check the time carefully enough and assumed it was the end of the lesson. I walked out of the classroom and realised my students were the only ones outside. I saw the security guard, who asked me what was happening, and I suddenly realised my mistake. I had to go around, gather all of the reluctant kids up, and persuade them to come back into class, while desperately trying to figure out what to do with the last 15-20 minutes of the lesson when I had no activities left. I can’t remember what solution I came up with in the end, but I do remember that I was really embarrassed!

12 years on, it mostly makes me laugh 🙂 And sympathise with teachers who get really hung up on little mistakes like that. I’m pretty sure most of the kids don’t remember that lesson, and that my confusion had no long-term impact on their ability to use English. At least, I hope not 😉

What stupid things have you done as a teacher?

Pre-conference excitement

Looking through the programme.

Highlighting all the sessions I’m interested in, knowing there are far too many.

Relishing the variety of what’s on offer.

Getting messages from people who I’ll be meeting for the first time.

Looking forward to seeing people I haven’t seen for ages.

Preparing two sessions (yes, two) 😉

Travelling.

Seeing the postcards I got printed to advertise my e-book. (Thanks for the idea Rob!)

ELT Playbook 1 postcards

Trying to finish everything at work and home ready to go.

Knowing I’ll be exhausted and exhilarated in equal measure.

Anticipating all the great ideas I’ll come back with.

Can’t wait.

Excitement about the best week of my year.

#IATEFL2018

On choosing coursebooks (badly)

In the last couple of weeks I’ve written a couple of posts about coursebooks, the first describing my requests for publishers and writers to take into account, and the second a list of questions for anybody who feels like reviewing the coursebooks they’re using so we can all make a more informed choice. I’ve also seen a few other posts that respond to our build on the points in my requests post, like this one by Julie Moore, and this one by Mura Nava. I also received a blogpost length response from Nick to those same requests. This post is partially in response to Nick’s one, and partially getting something off my chest and seeking help.

(By the way, I’d also recommend reading Nick’s post called ‘Challenging the coursebook – challenge accepted‘ and hope he’ll write part 2 at some point) 🙂

Before I continue, please remember that everything I write on this blog and in this post is not designed to reflect on my school, but only to describe my experience, one which I am pretty sure is not unique, at least in the world of private language schools.

As in my requests post, I do not intend to name specific coursebooks as I don’t believe that will help. I am sure that some of the books I am talking about work brilliantly for other teachers in other contexts, and without providing a fully contextualised review, I don’t wish to provide negative publicity for them.

A corridor between two long bookshelves filled with coursebooks

Image taken by @michaelegriffin, from ELTpics under a Creative Commons 3.0 licence

I am currently working as a Director of Studies at a private language school, and as such one of my responsibilities is to have the final say in the selection of coursebooks for our school. I inherited a system of levels with books attached to them, about half of which have stayed the same since I started three years ago, with the occasional change of edition as particular books stop being sold in Poland.

Selecting adult books hasn’t really been a problem for me: the majority of my teaching experience is with adults, I have used a very wide range of coursebooks designed for adults, and I have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t. I also strongly believe that there are a lot of very good quality adult coursebooks out there, many of which already meet half or more of the requests on my previous list. This means I have a wide range of books to choose from. Adult students who are studying with us are unlikely to be studying elsewhere at the same time, so I have free reign, and can choose whatever I think might be best.

I haven’t needed to choose books for our young learners (aged 7-10) because the series we use is very well thought out, and has a kind of timeless quality that doesn’t really date. The only time we need to change it is when a new edition comes out and the old one is no longer available for our students. Again, students at this age are unlikely to be studying elsewhere, so I don’t need to worry that they will have seen the book elsewhere. The one exception to this was the highest level, which seemed to throw all the challenging grammar normally found in two levels at the students: fine for a strong class, but very challenging for a weak class. When one teacher used it in my second year, we had to adapt it quite a lot and remove at least two of the grammar points. We’ve now chosen a different book to replace it, but haven’t had a group to try it out with yet, so I can’t judge that decision yet.

Teen books, however, are an entirely different question. They are the bane of my life. I can’t count the number of hours I’ve spent thinking about them, but I do know it is FAR TOO MANY. Here’s why…

In my first year at the school, we were using a series that was already 5 years old, and is now 7 years old, for four of the seven teen levels we have for 11-15 year olds. That means that somebody who became a teenager when the series came out would now be in their early 20s. As we all know, teen culture moves incredibly fast, and while there is no way that coursebooks and publishers could possibly keep up with those changes, I did feel it was time for something more modern. The series worked quite well in terms of language input, and in fact has now become the benchmark by which we judge other books we are considering. However, I don’t really remember my 13-15 year old students ever being engaged by the reading or listening texts, or the writing tasks, or possibly the speaking tasks, regardless of what I did to set them up. Of course, that may well be my fault, not the book’s, but you’d think that at least one or two things would grab them. It could also be my faulty memory, or the fact that in a group of teens nobody wants to be different by showing interest in something the others don’t seem interested in. Many possible reasons, but I don’t think an out-of-date book helped.

To help me choose a replacement, I asked around for recommendations of good series both on social media and when meeting colleagues. The most oft-repeated recommendation was used in a lot of local schools, so I couldn’t choose it. Another one wasn’t available in Poland if I remember rightly. We got sample copies of as many books as possible, and I also spent a long time at publishers’ stands at the various conferences I went to that year, asking about every book that seem relevant. With the help of my senior team, we tried to draw up a checklist of features we were looking for. I know that such lists appear in methodology books sometimes, but they all seem very general, and we wanted something that worked in our context. Here are a few of our requirements:

  • Available in Poland.
  • Age appropriate for 11-15 year olds (many are 9-12ish or 13-16ish – it’s hard to cover the full range)
  • Attractive to look at, so students actually want to open it.
  • Covering a similar range of language to the series we had previously used.
  • Providing a logical progression through the book and through the series.
  • Clear grammar explanations.
  • Including freer practice activities for new grammar (something we often had to add to the previous series).
  • With an interesting range of topics.
  • Lots of opportunities for speaking.
  • A workbook that supplements the student’s book.
  • Has a teacher’s book with extra activities if possible.

There were more, but I’m at home in the evening right now and I can’t remember them off the top of my head! By this stage, we had a very short list of books – definitely two, maybe even three. We showed them to students in class, and to teachers who’d have to work with them, and got feedback. None were particularly any better than any of the others. Quite late in the game we found out about another series, and didn’t manage to get as much feedback on that one. However, it was by the same publisher as the series we used to use, and seemed to cover most of the same ground. The video content seemed particularly interesting and engaging, and was something quite different to any of the others books. In the end, we went with that series.

So in my second year, we had a new series of books covering the same four levels, 3-6. We also had a new book from a different series covering level 2. That one worked pretty well, but about 15 lessons into the year, it was apparent that although the topics in the main series were engaging, the videos worked really well with most groups, and the language covered similar ground to the old series, it just wasn’t doing what it need to do, and was in fact going to cause us more problems than it solved.

One issue was that the lowest book, the one we were using for level 3, was actually easier than the level 2 book (from a different series) at times, and there didn’t seem to be a real level 3 book in their series: I’d made the mistake of looking at the CEFR level on the back and the language covered and thinking it was OK, without doing an in-depth analysis of it and comparing the two books carefully enough. Another was that the reading and listening texts were in general far too easy for our students, and didn’t seem to challenge them at all, while the videos were much harder. Vocabulary sets were almost completely without challenge, with students only really not knowing one or two items in any given list. These are all things we could work around, but they meant a lot of extra work for our senior staff in particular, supporting brand new teachers with adapting the book for their students to maintain the quality lessons we pride ourselves on. Another, much larger, problem was that while the books covered the same grammar points as the previous series, they actually stopped at unit 8, where the old series had had 12 units in each book, meaning a lot of key language was missing if you looked at the equivalent adult levels. This was particularly important for any of our students who might be old to change to adult groups in the following year and resulted in us having to rewrite the syllabus for the rest of the year for four levels, supplementing the book with a lot of other materials to make sure everything was covered that we needed to include. Again, this was a considerable amount of work, multiplied by four to cover all of the levels.

All of these things meant we couldn’t use this series again this year, so we went back to the drawing board, with a much longer list of criteria this time round. Some of the things we added were:

  • Long enough for a 124-hour course.
  • Doesn’t require too much supplementing.
  • Covers all of the ‘main’ grammar points at the equivalent adult level, so if students are moving into adult classes they haven’t missed anything major.
  • Challenging reading and listening texts.

Learning from our experience in the previous year, we checked the grammar points much more carefully. We also tried to be more systematic in getting feedback from students on the books, and had teachers do trial lessons with some of the books we were considering. However, as it was quite late in the year, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to do this: we were starting to wind up lessons with end-of-year revision, tests, etc. The list of books was also pretty similar to the one we’d ended up with at the end of my first year.

Part one of the resulting decision was to use more of the level 2 series for levels 3 and 4 – we’d originally decided against these as they actually felt like level 3.5 and 4.5 to us. At this point in the year, we’re now finding that is true: the harder language points are coming in, and some students are really struggling with them. Apart from that, a lack of ready-made extension activities, and a rather pointless teacher’s book (basically a glorified answer key), the series generally seems to be working quite well and we will probably continue with it next year, trying to re-pace the year to leave more time for the more challenging language in the second half of the books. Unfortunately, I can’t remember how consistent I was with checking which books were used in local secondary schools, and have discovered that a few of our students use the same book (or, worse, the book they used last year!) at school, so will have to check that again with the rep to see whether this is feasible. If too many of our students use it, we’ll have to choose something else, regardless of how good it is.

Decision part two was to use a new series for levels 5, 6 and 7. Level 7 had previously used an adult book which required a fair amount of adaptation, but was the only thing we could really find for their level, so the chance to use a teen book seemed too good to miss. The series was only published three years ago, and I am very sad to say it’s probably one of the frustrating coursebooks I’ve ever had. I’m lucky that I don’t have to teach from it, but I have had to provide a lot of support in planning from it, and listen to all of my poor staff who have had the misfortune of using it. Needless to say, we will not be using this series next year. It was the source of at least three of the requests on my list, including the first two regarding out-of-context items and exam tasks. And who’s to blame for this book selection? Ultimately, me. I am the most qualified and most experienced person on our team, and even though we looked at the books together, the final decision was mine. We chose it because the levels seemed to match up to our requirements, it covered the range of grammar points we required, the topics were interesting and varied, it was professionally presented with interesting images and engaging video content, and I am sure there were other reasons too. Listening lessons are particularly frustrating, as they are often ‘exam-style’ tasks containing 8 short extracts, only one or two of which may be related to the topic of the unit, making it very difficult to raise students’ interest in them. I somehow managed to completely miss that every last skills activity was an ‘exam task’, and the ones I did notice seemed at first glance to match up to Cambridge Main Suite exams, though it has subsequently turned out that they are in fact task types from a wide range of different exams, none of which are explicitly stated. Vocabulary pages are overwhelming for students, consisting as they do of three controlled practice exercises, each with 6-10 items and no other help beyond the questions in the exercise itself. If you’re really lucky one or two of the items may have appeared earlier in the unit or elsewhere on the page, but this is rare. Vocabulary is completely test-focussed, with no explicit input or freer practice activities. Most importantly, the amount of work it takes to put together a single lesson from it, particular anything that concerns teaching language, is completely unjustifiable in our very busy school for our busy, mostly newly-qualified teachers, and the senior team who support them. To top it all, a few students have told us they’re using the book at school, which I someone didn’t find out from the rep (more than likely, that’s my fault as I probably didn’t ask).

So now we’re starting to make decisions about the books for my fourth year, and I’m hoping these are books which stick so I don’t have to revisit this in another year (pretty please!) Here are some of the criteria I’ll be adding to the ever-growing list:

  • Presents and practises grammar and vocabulary items in a clear context.
  • Provides repeated opportunities to activate the grammar or a limited set of vocabulary items.
  • Contains skills activities which are not purely exam-focussed, and which it is possible to engage students in.
  • Is possible to consistently plan a 90-minute lesson from in less than 90 minutes, without requiring entire new sets of materials to be made.
  • Is not used in local secondary schools.

For those who’ve been wondering, I have repeatedly considered ditching coursebooks entirely, but that would create even more work, copyright concerns, and many other issues that I really do not have the time to deal with. It’s not going to happen any time soon, so instead we’re starting the selection process much earlier this year, and we’re going to be teaching multiple lessons from any book we consider. I’ll be checking with all of the reps for a full list of books used in local schools. We’ll go over all of the points in the checklist above with a fine-tooth comb. I know we won’t find anything that’s perfect, because nothing is, but if we can find something at least half-way decent, that doesn’t make me want to tear my hair out every time I look at it or hear its name, then I will be satisfied.

All recommendations and advice will be most gratefully accepted. Thank you for your patience!

Why won’t they speak?!

Following on from Monday’s lesson, I deliberately made sure that my intermediate class today would have lots of opportunities to speak, starting immediately with the first activity. I hoped this would make a difference to the atmosphere in the room, and briefly, it did. After a while though, regardless of what I tried to do to get a response, it seemed that nobody wanted to say anything. I’d done everything ‘right’: put them in pairs, given them thinking time, played music (at their request) so they weren’t speaking into silence, suggested possible answers (yes, no, maybe for some questions), given them chance to make decisions (do you want to listen to anything again, or shall we move on?) and was generally greeted with silence, increasingly so as the lesson progressed. There were only 6 students, we’ve been working together since the end of September, and they seem to be quieter and quieter rather than more confident as the year goes on. They get on well with each other, and have been happy to speak to everyone else in class when we do mingling activities. I’d spoken to each of them individually during tutorials before our winter holiday in February, and talked about reasons to speak more and what might be stopping them. I know that none of them are particularly introverted in Polish and have regularly heard them conversing without any problems, even with people they don’t know. So what was stopping them?

I decided to ‘pause’ the lesson as we didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. On the board I wrote a long list of possible reasons that could be stopping them from speaking, then stood in front of it and told them about my experience of learning Polish. I didn’t speak at all really during my first year, once I’d realised that I was mixing Czech, Russian and Polish and people couldn’t understand me. The turning point came when I went for a flamenco weekend. When people asked me conversational questions, I had two choices: ignore them and stay silent, or try to reply. Because I felt comfortable, I tried to reply, and this made me realise people could understand me, which was the kick-start I needed to start speaking. I haven’t really looked back since. I asked the students to look at the list of reasons on the board and write as many of them as necessary on paper I gave them, or any other reasons they may have for being reluctant to speak. Here are some of them (I probably had about 15 in all, but don’t remember them all now):

  • I don’t know enough words.
  • I’m worried about my grammar.
  • I’m worried about my pronunciation.
  • I’m not interested in the topics.
  • I don’t have enough time to think.
  • It’s too quiet in here.
  • Sandy scares me – she puts too much pressure on us.
  • I don’t have any ideas.

A couple of students mentioned being tired, and one said ‘Just a bad day’. Afterwards I asked them if they’d be comfortable sharing their feelings with their classmates. They agreed, so I put them in a circle and left the room, telling them they could choose whether to speak Polish or English, and suggesting they respond to each other, not just listing their ideas, telling each other whether they feel the same. They opted to have the discussion in Polish, and exchanged a little, though it was mostly monologuing. I could hear some of it from outside, but the background music and my intermediate Polish meant I couldn’t catch all of it.

When I returned to the room, I then spoke to them in my best Polish, saying something along the lines of ‘Language is communication. You’re here because you want to speak more, but if you come and sit in silence, then it’s just grammar, and you can do that at home. I’m making a lot of mistakes right now, but you can understand me, right? Grammar is not the important thing, communication is.’ I then switched into English and said that I’m tired too, and while I can try to give all 7 of us energy, it’s hard work and I need them to help me. I also explained a bit about the process of learning, going from knowing nothing to things being automatic, saying that some bits of their English are already automatic, things like using ‘I’ in the first person, or being able to spell ‘good’ or ‘bad’ without thinking about it. To help them make more things automatic, I need to be able to hear them so I can correct them if necessary, and they need to practise more.

We spent the last few minutes coming up with either/or debate topics, like cats or dogs, winter or summer, PC or PS…which they wrote all over the board. They will be the topics for a speaking assessment we’ll do next lesson, when I’ll see whether they can use the phrases for giving examples and expressing your opinion which were the actual topic of today’s lesson, as well as monitoring their interactive communication. They’ve got five days to think about what we discussed, practice the phrases and mentally prepare themselves for the assessment – I told them what it would involve and what they’d be marked on. I’ll be interested to see if any of this makes a difference…

At the end of the lesson, one of the students checked a bit of extra homework she’d done, and stayed for longer than the rest. I asked her if she thought this kind of discussion was useful, and she said she hoped it would help. She mentioned that at school, sitting in silence and listening to the teacher is considered respectful, and at uni you sit in silence because you’re taking notes, and you work out how to understand them later, so this is quite different for her now she’s an adult. As well as contained this idea to make me think, it was also the longest stretch of English I’ve heard from her all year. As I keep telling all of them, they’re much better than they think they are!

Colouful speech bubbles

Discussing it with my colleagues afterwards, one suggested that it could also be because we’re at (I hope!) the tail end of winter, a lot of students have been ill recently, it’s still dark and pretty cold, and maybe that’s tipping over into a relative lack of enthusiasm in the classroom – it’s definitely reduced as the year has progressed. Another said it could be a good idea to ask them to have discussions in Polish first, then in English, which I’m certainly going to try. I’ve only ever used that strategy once or twice, and it’s always worked before. She also suggested getting them to set goals, even if it’s just ‘I’ll answer three questions in class before Easter.’ That fits in quite nicely with the topic of our next lesson.

Do you have any other thoughts or suggestions on this? I’m not sure I’ve ever had a class quite this silent before!

Not my best lesson (paragraph blogging)

Yesterday my intermediate lesson was meh. Nobody really spoke in the first 40 minutes or so (of 90), despite my best efforts. Another teacher came in to tell the group about our school quiz on Friday and commented on how un-energetic they were. They were playing on Quizlet, using various different functions they hadn’t really explored before. I wanted them to use it in class in the hope that they would then go back to it at home. Quizlet Live normally gets them fired up, but while generally engaged, there didn’t seem to be much energy to carry over into the next activities. Levels of energy increased slightly for some students when they realised they could beat me on the ‘Match’ mode with the set we were using, and three of them even signed up for Quizlet so it would remember their score. This was revision with some vocabulary they’d struggled with last week, so when we moved onto some new vocab, they weren’t really feeling it. We did have some speaking in between which was more engaging and was a good change of pace. The last few minutes was some rushed grammar which we needed to look at (they don’t use it, and I’m trying to expand their range and awareness of what they could use), but didn’t have time to do justice to. All in all, I wasn’t that pleased with the lesson, though I know they all took something away from it. The quiet activities did benefit the more introverted students, who I try to cater for much more in my lessons now, but don’t always succeed with, but there was a general apathy throughout. At some point in the last few months, one of my colleagues mentioned that if she didn’t get her group talking in the first 5-10 minutes she found it really hard to get them talking later in the lesson, and I think this was one of the issues here. Another problem was that I taught my plan, which had too much in it because I wanted to revise from last week and add new language I know they need. There wasn’t enough breathing space in the lesson, and nowhere near enough opportunities to practise all of the new language.

I’ve written this to show that even after nearly 10 years of teaching, considerable amounts of professional development, becoming a Director of Studies, teacher trainer and materials writer, it’s still possible to teach some pretty rubbish lessons! It’s just that now I have a better idea of why they didn’t work as well as I wanted them to, and they happen much less frequently 🙂 What was the last ‘not my best lesson’ which you taught?

Four images of Sandy in class - two giving instructions, one with a hand up for silence, and one writing on the board

Not this lesson, but another one with the same group which went much better 🙂

The times they are a-changing

Over the last two days I have had the immense pleasure of watching a large number of fascinating talks by women as part of Rob Howard’s EFLtalks event ‘Inspiring Women of ELT’. He put it together to celebrate last week’s International Women’s Day.

Inspiring Women of ELT bannerEvery talk was 10 slides, presented in 10 minutes. The women who presented them came from all over the world, and all over the ELT profession. They talked about a wide range of topics, directly related to gender, like how we should be monitoring and becoming more aware of how we treat both boys and girls in the classroom (Carol Read); tangentially related, about female role models (Valeria Benevola França); and unrelated, like my own talk introducing ELT Playbook 1.  All of the recordings will be made available over the next week or so, and I’ll add links as they become available.

It was a fabulous event, and I’m hugely grateful to Rob for organising it and inviting me to be part of such a wonderful line-up.

The other talk I watched today was by the equally inspiring Phil Longwell. Following his own history with poor mental health and how it has affected his career, he is now doing research into other ELT professionals’ experiences of mental health, both positive and negative. This shows, unsurprisingly, that mental health issues are common in our profession, but he was also able to talk about solutions and coping strategies which respondents have to deal with these problems. It was the first talk in the International House Wellbeing Season. You can watch the recording here.

Both of these events show that we are starting to talk more about the issues that stop us all from progressing as a profession, and as a species. We all need to be aware of differences, and of how our actions can both help and hinder those who are different to us. We also need to know that we are more similar than we think we are.

I hope these initiatives aren’t needed soon, but while they are, well done to Rob, EFLtalks, Phil, IH, and all of the women who spoke this weekend!

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