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

Archive for the ‘Assorted Thoughts’ Category

IH Academic Managers and Trainers (AMT) conference 2019

One of my two favourite conferences each year (along with IATEFL!) happened at Devonport House in Greenwich from 10th-12th January 2019. I was surprised to realise that this year’s AMT was my 6th – time flies! I’ve blogged about some of them: 2014, 2015, 2016. If you want to see photos from this year’s conference, take a look at the IH World page. You can also watch the video here:

I decided not to live tweet this time as we were given a beautiful notebook and my iPad is getting quite old and tired! Instead here’s a summary of the things from my notes which I think were most useful and/or thought-provoking.

In the classroom

Although the conference is aimed at teachers and trainers, there are always some sessions which are directly related to what happens in the classroom.

Engagement

Sarah Mercer spoke to us about the differences between motivation and engagement, and how to keep learners’ (and teachers’!) attention in a world full of distractions. She suggested looking at how video games do it, and taking some of those principles into our classrooms. We should make sure lessons are CLARA:

  • Challenging
  • Learner-centred
  • Active (what is the learner doing?)
  • Relevant/Valuable
  • Autonomy-rich

and that we incorporate GOSCH:

  • Goals (including interim goals)
  • Options
  • Surprise (through variety, promoting curiosity)
  • Challenge
  • Hooks (emotional, through storylines, and ensuring personal relevance)

Both of these acronyms incorporate the idea that in video games you can make the choices – you are the agent, not the audience – and there are easy wins at the start, with challenge building and immediate feedback throughout. Storylines in games create curiosity and there is a clear sense of progress.

I also agree with Sarah’s observation that teachers who’ve built good relationships with students have dramatically lower levels of discipline problems.

Sarah is continuing her research in the area of engagement, and I look forward to seeing more of her findings – there are certainly lots of ideas to explore here.

Assessment

Gordon Stobart has a UK state school background. He spoke to us about assessment for learning within the UK school system, and how it could be applied to language schools. A key ingredient is clear success criteria, answering the question:

What will it look like when I’ve done it?

If students don’t know that, it’s hard for them to even start working (definitely something I remember from Delta days!) Having clear success criteria means we can help students to work out which work best meets the criteria, give them guided practice to work towards achieving it, and give them clear feedback on how many of the criteria they have met and what to do to meet the others. These criteria can, of course, be negotiated with students – they don’t have to come from the teacher.

He mentioned Geoff Petty’s ideas of giving medals and missions which I like as a way of really boiling down feedback. To push higher level students, Gordon suggested missions like ‘What would you do if you only had half of this material?’ or ‘Argue the other side.’ The goal of all of this is self-regulating learners who can think for themselves.

In an aside, Gordon mentioned that he had one group who he used to jokingly start lessons with by saying ‘Previously in this course, we’ve looked at…’ in the style of a TV series. The learners said it really helped as they had often forgotten!

Autonomy

Katie Harris blogs about language learning at joy of languages. Her talk described what learning languages has taught her about teaching. I have to admit that I wasn’t sure about attending this, as I kind of felt like I’ve written about that a lot myself, but I’m glad I did. In the first half of her talk Katie covered what independent language learners like herself (and me!) do to learn, and in the second half she talked about a different way of approaching lessons that she has come up with as a result, which I definitely want to experiment with. Her suggestion is that for some or all of every class (depending on what else you have to do) you let students work on things which they are passionate about, for example TV programmes, books, or whatever else it might be. Here’s how a typical lesson might look:

  • Students share what they did and show each other the new words/grammar they found. Teacher circulates, answers questions and gives feedback.
  • Flexible productive tasks, such as mind maps, creative tasks (change the story, add a character etc), writing a diary entry from the perspective of a character, changing the language to a different register, I’m an expert on (for other learners to ask questions), etc.
  • Deal with emergent language.
  • Learner training.

The learner training is a key component, as you have to show students how to do things like access learner dictionaries and record new language. If you want to give them more structured homework, beyond just watching/reading more, you can give them questions like ‘Can you find examples of the structure XXX we studied last lesson?’ or ‘Can you find examples of new grammar which you think you’ve never seen before?’

The whole idea is that learners can follow what they are interested in, but that a qualified, professional teacher can help them get there faster than they would be able to alone. By doing this in a group with other people, they can share their interests and learn from each other.

Katie has done a webinar for Macmillan on the same topic if you want to see her talk about these ideas for yourself – I’d recommend it. I really want to experiment with this structure with one of my groups this year who I think would really benefit from it. I’ll speak to them about it in our next lesson, and will report back if I try it out!

Determination

Chloe Pakeman-Schiavone talked about the importance of helping learners to understand the reality of learning a language, while noticing the small achievements along the way. Building determination will help them to stick at it. You can do this by:

  • setting smaller, interim goals (as Sarah Mercer mentioned above)
  • making changes in support explicit – learners don’t always notice when you reduce support, for example by them doing something alone which they needed your help with before
  • helping learners spot determination in other people
  • creating a Positivitree – Chloe’s school has one in every classroom where students can add any achievements they want to, no matter how small they may seem to other.

In the training room

Intervening

Amy Blanchard investigated the role of the trainer during teaching practice (TP) on CELTA courses. She advocated interrupting TPs early on in the course if it could be beneficial to trainees, as long as both TP students and trainees know what is happening. The areas she particularly focussed on are the ones where we often find ourselves asking questions like ‘Should I be doing this right now?’ Examples might be:

  • Positioning
  • Instructions
  • Speed of speech
  • Boardwork
  • Concept checking

The benefits are that these interventions are often far more memorable than delayed feedback, which is generally at least a couple of hours and sometimes a couple of days after the lesson (if there’s a weekend in between), that trainees get immediate answers to internal questions, that you are training not just testing, and that information is given at the point of need. Caveats are that trainee and student expectations must be very clear, it requires you to read the situation carefully (it’s not suitable for every trainee), you should only intervene in ‘little’ things not big things that could change the course of the whole lesson, and that support should be withdrawn as the course progresses, so you definitely shouldn’t be intervening in this way in the final TP, and preferably not the last few. It’s also important that all interventions are followed up on in feedback, with action points reflecting the pre-intervention situation, as trainees still need to prove that they can do these things effectively without trainer intervention. Amy got very positive feedback from trainees who she used this technique with, and even months after the course they remembered it in a positive way. This was an interesting idea, and one I’d like to explore with trainees and fellow trainers on the next course I do.

Integrating training

Chris Farrell‘s talk was fast and full on – so many ideas that I couldn’t possibly get them all down, and I will be coming back to them again and again. He was talking about the work they have done at Embassy schools to support bottom-up teacher development. Some of the areas he covered were:

  • making sure that teacher development is an ethos throughout the organisation, not a separate activity (these talks from IATEFL 2018 are related to the kind of culture change that may be required) and that everyone is clear about what this ethos means and how it is communicated
  • evaluating teacher development (see below)
  • using nudges to drive cultural change, and knowing when a nudge is not enough
  • mentoring, particularly for teachers when they join the organisation, and the training needed for mentors to be effective. Senior teachers should not be forgotten here! (Please ask Chris if you want to find out more)
  • lesson aims, success criteria and assessment: making sure we know what the teachers are teaching and they do too, and that they know how to measure whether a learner and/or a lesson has been successful or not, as well as making it as easy and convenient as possible to see the links between these things (an area that bears a LOT more exploration!)

If you don’t know what the students are supposed to be doing, how can you know what you should be doing as a teacher or an organisation?

  • reflective enquiry, with different levels depending on how serious teachers are – these vary from notes and peer observation up to full-blown action research projects, and include professional development groups

Chris also mentioned that students can self-assess their ability to use particular language using a three-point scale:

  • I know.
  • I can use.
  • I do use.

Simple, but effective!

I suspect this is the talk I will come back to most from the whole conference!

Evaluating training

Silvana Richardson talked about an idea so simple that it’s never even occurred to me before: the importance of evaluating the impact of the continuous professional development you offer, both on the teacher and on student learner. I’ve never even asked for trainees to complete a ‘happy sheet’ as Silvana called them – an immediate post-session evaluation. That’ll be changing!

She talked about five levels of evaluation based on Guskey (2000):

1. Participants' reactions, 2. Participants' learning, 3. Institution's capacity to support change, 4. Participants' use of the new knowledge, 5. Students' learning outcomes

She covered a huge range of data collection techniques. Here are just a few.

Level 1 tends to just reveal the entertainment value, but is the easiest one to collect data on, including through using ‘happy sheets’. One way to make it richer is to ask ‘How are you going to apply what you’ve learnt today?’ or ‘What are you going to do with what you’ve learnt today?’

Level 2 could be done through exit tickets for example:

  • What I didn’t know before this session.
  • What I might need support with.
  • How I feel I have progressed as a result of this session.

Level 3 needs to be done at the level of the organisation, and may require institutional change. Silvana gave the example of an altered mobile phone usage policy following a session on mobile learning when they realised that phones were banned in the classroom.

Level 4 requires time to elapse: you can’t measure impact on practice instantly, and you may need to do it at several time intervals, though sometimes we forget! Silvana’s suggestion for this was learning walks, adapted from a system used in state schools. At Bell, they choose one area to focus on (student tutorials in the example Silvana gave), do some CPD based on that area, then drop in to lots of lessons to see how that CPD is being put into action. With the student tutorials, every teacher audio recorded tutorials with student permission, chose one to focus on, completed a feedback form they’d created as a team in a CPD session, had an ‘observer’ listen to the same recording and add comments, then all of the written feedback was anonymised and compiled into a single report. The organisation (it was done across multiple schools) learnt about what was and wasn’t working from their CPD sessions, and uncovered examples of best practice that had previously gone under the radar.

Level 5 is the hardest to assess, as so many factors could contribute to students’ learning outcomes. You can look at assessment scores, retention, changes in study habits, etc, or interview students, parents, teachers or managers to see this. However, it can be hard to assess cause and effect.

Evaluating your CPD programme in a range of different ways covering as many of these levels as possible is the only real way to ensure that it’s actually doing what you want it to do.

In the manager’s office

Curiosity

Monica Green encouraged us to nurture curiosity in ourselves as managers and in our teachers, inspired by this fascinating article from the Harvard Business Review. I really like this quote she finished on:

Albert Einstein on a bike: 'I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious."

Developing everybody

Olga Connolly reminded us of the importance of making sure that senior staff get professional development relevant to their role, not just teachers. For new senior staff at BKC IH Moscow, they have a shadowing programme and five training sessions based on core responsibilities like observations and how to give training sessions. For more experienced senior staff, they meet regularly to have discussions based around a table, the headings of which are:

  • skill/are to develop
  • why is it important
  • how (action points)
  • support needed
  • feedback collection
  • time frame

Senior staff complete what they can by themselves, then Olga helps them with the parts they can’t complete, and works out with them what support and guidance she/the school needs to give them. Examples of areas to work on which her senior staff have looked at include:

  • setting priorities to give more focussed feedback
  • improving body language in promotional videos made by the school
  • improving computer skills to be able to watch webinars
  • noticing strengths and weaknesses when observing lessons in languages you don’t speak
  • increasing the number and variety of warmers in teacher training courses.

This system came about because previously Olga noticed that there was no clear system, no goal and no focus for the development of her senior staff. That’s definitely something I’ve been guilty of, both in my own development and that of the senior team I work with – we’ve just kind of muddled along, though some things have become a bit more systematic as I have built up my own experience. Clearer goals would definitely be useful, though for myself endless curiosity (see above) tends to deal with a lot of things!

Change

Ania Kolbuszewska talked to us about why change does and doesn’t work. The know-feel-do model was new to me:

  • What is the one thing you want me to know?
  • Why do you want me to do this?
  • How do you want me to act as a result?

I like how this boils down change communication to the absolute essentials. She also reminded us that communication is NOT the message sent, but the message received, and that perceptions are an image or idea based on insufficient information – the more information we give to people about a change, the fuller their picture will be. This can help to reduce the amount of fear associated with changes, including fear of:

  • loss of money
  • loss of social or network traditions
  • loss of power
  • loss of control
  • loss of status
  • loss of jobs
  • not having the competences to unlearn old habits or learn new things
  • (not) being involved in the change.

My favourite quote from her talk was by C.S. Lewis:

It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for a bird to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.

By the way, if you’re interested in change management, I’d highly recommend reading Who Moved My Cheese? by Dr. Spencer Johnson [Amazon affiliate link]. I read it when I was in my teens, and it’s always shaped how I think about change and how to respond to it. It’ll take you all of about an hour to read and will give you a whole new vocabulary 🙂

Evaluation

Giovanni Licata and Lucie Cotterill reminded us that when evaluating courses, we shouldn’t rely on immediate post-course evaluation by students, as this often focuses on the entertainment/ performance value of the course, but try to investigate the longer-term effects on learning. We should also move away from star ratings – as they said, some of the ‘best’ restaurants in the world, and McDonalds, have very similar star ratings, and yet they’re doing very different things! One model you could use is KISS:

  • Keep (what are you doing to keep doing?)
  • Improve (what do you need to improve?)
  • Start (what are you going to start doing?)
  • Stop (what are you going to stop doing?)

In general

Communicating more effectively

Loraine Kennedy did a three-hour workshop entitled ‘The Craft of Conversations’ to kick the conference off. Among other things, she talked about developing emotional intelligence, coaching v. mentoring, and giving and receiving feedback, both positive and negative.

Here are five questions she asked us at one point which you might like to answer:

  • Why is emotional intelligence important in dealing with difficult people and situations?
  • Think about someone you think has high emotional intelligence. Why do you think this is?
  • “Know thyself.” Why is this important before judging others?
  • What can you do deepen you own self awareness?
  • What can you and your team at work do together to increase emotional intelligence?

She reminded us of our own role in any communication:

Your behaviour will influence the way the situation develops.

If you have a problem, you are both part of the problem and part of the solution.

The latter can be particularly hard to remember!

1. Description (what happened?), 2. Feelings (What were you thinking and feeling?), 3. Evaluation (What was good and bad about the experience?), 4. Analysis (What sense can you make of the situation?), 5. Conclusion (What else could you have done?), 6. Action plan (If it arose again, what would you do?)

Shared by http://www.researchgate.net under a CC 4.0 license

We practised using the Gibbs reflective cycle (shown above), as well as focusing on listening and asking questions, and not giving advice. I found this process particularly useful, as it made me realise that an unsuccessful and very negative interaction I had in my first year as a DoS probably came about because I was making statements and telling the teacher about a problem situation, rather than asking questions and helping them to describe the situation themselves.

At every AMT conference, there’s at least one idea which I’ve been struggling with in my own head for a while, and then somebody gives you the answer. In this case, it was Loraine’s guidelines for a complaint conversation:

  1. Prepare, prepare, prepare! Get as much information as possible, including more feedback from the complainant. Write a list of relevant questions.
  2. Explain the reason for the meeting, e.g. student feedback.
  3. Meet in the right place, and make it as comfortable as possible. Do not rush the meeting.
  4. State your position ‘on side with the teacher’, and remind them about confidentiality (yours and theirs). Remind them of the need to agree a way forward together.
  5. Ask the teacher to talk about the class and the students. Any issues?
  6. Outline the feedback received.
  7. Invite comment and discussion. Expect anger, embarrassment, denial.
  8. Listen and use exploratory questions.
  9. Support the teacher. Empathise.
  10. Reaffirm that a way forward needs to be found. Stay focused on this.
  11. It is better if the teacher finds the way forward, but be prepared to offer suggestions. (‘Way forward’ suggests that it is negotiable, it may have various steps, and the person the complaint is about is involved in working it out. ‘Solution’ suggests that there is one answer, and you may go into the conversation thinking that you know what it is.)
  12. Agree on action, and a time to follow-up.

The most important thing to remember is that a complaint must always be responded to, including if the response is that you do not believe that the complaint requires anything to be changed. Loraine also reminded us that if we have more teacher to student feedback, we may avoid complaints in the first place! If you want Loraine to help you out with management training, coaching, and teacher development, you can find out more information on her consultancy work on her website.

In a related talk, Lisa Phillips also talked about the importance of emotional and social intelligence, and making sure we:

  • Pay attention
  • Anticipate situations (both positive and negative)
  • Explain, don’t blame
  • Accept criticism
  • Remember about how contagious emotions are
  • Are human!

Questions I want to keep asking myself

What does success look like in this situation? How will I know when I’ve achieved it? How will my learners/teachers know when they’ve achieved it?

Are we doing enough teacher-student feedback? Are we doing it in the right way?

How can we promote curiosity, not just in learners, but in teachers, trainers and managers too?

How much am I taking what I know about what works as a language learner into the classroom? Do I really give them what I know works for me and a lot of other people?

How can we make our mentoring scheme as effective as possible?

What questions am I asking? Am I asking enough of them or jumping in with advice instead? Are they clear enough?

Am I really listening?

What am I doing to make sure I reduce how much of the problem I am in any given situation?

How can we evaluate what we’re doing more effectively?

2018 Self-reflection challenge

Happy New Year!

I like a bit of reflection to end one year and start the next. This year’s is brought to you courtesy of the This is Evil blog, via Emma Johnston who did it first. Here are the questions:

As I only spend a few hours a week in the classroom I’ll change some of them to other areas of my teaching-related career.

Day 1: your favourite activity from 2018

Teaching people how to use Quizlet Live. It’s quick and easy to set up, and students and teachers get really engaged.

I taught a group of elementary men from Yemen in the summer – normally at the end of the lesson they were out of the room like a shot. On the day when I showed them Quizlet Live ten minutes before the end of the lesson, they were still there ten minutes after the lesson finished and hadn’t noticed it was time to go because they were so engaged in the game.

Day 2: most memorable story from 2018

Lots of great memories, but this one was particularly fun…

Presenting at the IATEFL online conference for early career teachers, working with Ruth to talk about how to approach lesson planning. We spent 10 minutes describing our own lesson planning, then 50 answering questions from all over the world. It was an adrenaline rush and I loved it – we could have continued for much longer, except I had to teach and my students were knocking on the door! 🙂 If you’re an IATEFL member, you can watch the recording in the webinars section of the members’ area. If you’re not, why not join?

Sandy and Ruth IATEFL web conference screenshot

Day 3: the best piece of advice you were given in 2018

When you self-publish, create a paperback as well as an ebook. Thanks Dorothy Zemach!

Day 4: the moment in 2018 you felt proud as a trainer

When two teachers who I’d worked with on a technology course at York Associates in the summer took what they’d learnt from me and turned it into their own presentation for their colleagues in Serbia.

Day 5: your favourite memory as a student

Performing in our flamenco concert in June. It was third time lucky, as I missed the first year due to having a sprained ankle, and the second year due to illness on the day. It was so much fun and I’m really hoping I make it to this year’s one!

Day 6: the funniest story from 2018

Erm…not sure.

Day 7: your favourite coursebook in 2018

I don’t really use coursebooks that much, but I really like how useful the Outcomes teacher’s books are, especially if the teacher who’s using them doesn’t have much training.

Day 8: a new idea you implemented in 2018

We introduced mentoring at our school this year. Every teacher has been assigned a mentor who they meet for 30 minutes a week. The system was worked out with the help of the senior team at my school, and we have some second year teachers who are also volunteering as mentors. I’m really pleased with how it’s going so far and we’ve had some great feedback. We’ve also got quite a few ideas for how to improve it next year.

Day 9: your favourite teaching aid in 2018

Quizlet – games, printable flashcards, self-study at home, Quizlet Live…

Day 10: the best joke you’ve heard in 2018

Not a joke, but something else that makes me laugh. I love the ‘Role call’ videos featuring on James Corden’s show. Here’s a recent one of him doing musicals with Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda:

Day 11: the moment in 2018 when you felt proud of your student

When Emma got the results she wanted in her Delta 🙂

Day 12: your favourite teaching website in 2018

Probably Hana Ticha’s blog – so many ideas and things to think about!

Day 13: the person who inspired you in 2018

Phil Longwell. Read his blog to find out why. Inspired by Phil, and other educators who are talking about mental health, we have started to make changes to how we provide support at our school, and we are already seeing the results. Some examples include the mentoring mentioned above, a specific session focussed on wellbeing in our induction week, and a generally open atmosphere where we make it clear that mental health is just as important as physical health.

Day 14: the moment in 2018 you realised WHY you’re doing your job

Seeing teachers from our school feeling confident enough to share what they’ve learnt with the wider teaching community, through online conferences (IH  – Emma, Ruth; IATEFL – Ruth and me), the IH Journal (Helen, Amy), and their own blogs (Emma, Ruth).

Day 15: your greatest challenge in 2018

My health, as always.

Day 16: your strongest point as a teacher

Networking. Drawing on the knowledge of the amazing teaching community that I’m part of, both online and off.

Day 17: most motivational idea/quotation/picture in 2018

I curated the IATEFL blog until August 2018. Reading all of the stories of how IATEFL has helped teachers from around the world is truly motivational.

Day 18: 3 reasons why you became a teacher

  • To help other people.
  • To explore.
  • To learn.

Day 19: your favourite teaching application in 2018

The new ‘word’ function on the BYU corpus pages.

BYU corpus word feature screenshot

Day 20: a piece of advice you would give to a rookie teacher

Ask for help!

(and buy my book) 🙂

Day 21: the best CPD book you read in 2018

I’m re-reading The English Verb by Michael Lewis [affiliate link – but it’s super expensive 😦 ], which is probably the book that has most influenced the way I think about English. I’m trying to work out how to convey the way he describes language to students and teachers in a succinct and accessible way (watch this space).

Day 22: your greatest frustration in 2018

That people don’t read adverts properly when they apply for jobs, or do and ignore the requirements stated. You’re wasting your time and mine.

Day 23: one thing you want non-teachers to understand

Just because you grow up speaking a language, doesn’t mean you can automatically teach it. You still need to learn how to be a teacher, work hard at it, and continually develop. Pay for good quality, trained, professional teachers, not just the cheapest person who happens to have the ‘right’ passport – all of us will benefit, and you’ll get your money’s worth.

Day 24: your most memorable teaching experiment in 2018

Teaching Polish to our teachers. Although I started with a few lessons in 2017, 2018 is when I’ve realised that I can do it, even as an intermediate learner myself. It’s so much fun, and I can sneak in some teacher training by modelling activities too 🙂

Day 25: your personal success in 2018

Launching ELT Playbook 1, my self-published ebook aimed at helping new teachers. I’m really pleased with the reception it’s got, and am looking forward to finishing the next one in the series.

ELT Playbook 1 cover

Day 26: one thing you plan to change in 2019

An ongoing project: my ability to completely switch off – much improved, but not there yet.

Day 27: your greatest discovery in 2018

That I should stop saying ‘I don’t have time’ and instead say ‘I have prioritised my time differently.’ We probably have time to do everything we might want to, but we don’t always make time for it. Life is about choices, and sometimes we choose (not) to do something at a particular time – how we prioritise the things we do is our responsibility, not some abstract thing from outside us.

Also, how much better I feel when I have proper time off, prioritising it over other things. I did know this before, but had forgotten. By the way, thanks to Neil for making sure the CELTA course I did in the summer had lots of space in it for time off and reflection, and for reminding me how much I enjoy riding a bike!

Day 28: which superpower would make you a Super-DoS

Staying calm all the time in all situations. I’m better at it than I used to be, but it still needs work!

Day 29: one area to improve in your teaching in 2019

Reusing language that has come up in class, not just recording it. The recording part has improved massively over the last couple of years, but I need to follow through better.

Day 30: how do you plan to start your first lesson in 2019

By teaching our teachers vocabulary to name places in a town in Polish. And the second lesson will be introducing a Proficiency group to the joys of pantomimes.

Day 31: the most important thing you want to remember tomorrow

To go to my physio appointment at the right time – changes in routine are confusing!

Time travelling

Here are different challenges I’ve completed in previous years if you fancy writing something similar but this one doesn’t appeal:

  • 2013 – WordPress automatic stats
  • 2014 – the ups and downs of the year
  • 2015 – 30 questions to ask yourself
  • 2016 – things I’ve enjoyed this year
  • 2017 – 17 things I’ve learnt in 2017

It’s been fascinating reading back through them and remembering the bad times and the good.

Here’s to a peaceful and prosperous 2019!

360 degree CPD (TeachingEnglish blog associates)

I’m very proud to be one of the TeachingEnglish associates, a group of wonderful English teachers from around the world. Each month a series of topics is posted on the blogs section of the British Council TeachingEnglish site, which everyone is invited to write about, including you! Anyone is welcome to join in. If you haven’t tried blogging before, why not give it a go? To inspire you, the associates offer their takes on the topics.

Teaching English Associates names word cloud

My most recent contribution is about combining being part of the online community (if you want to) and reflecting on what’s happening in your classroom. What do you think? Is it key to be part of an online community to develop professionally as a teacher nowadays?

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!

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