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NILE MAPDLE MAT: Materials Development module (week three)

This is my second NILE MA module, Materials Development for Language Education, abbreviated to MAT. I have previously complete the Trainer Development module. You can see my related blog posts here.

Here are various bits and pieces from week two of the course, things whic h I wanted to remember, notes I’ve made while reading, and on-going tasks we’ve been asked to provide. The notes are there for me and they don’t cover every section of the course, but you may find something useful in there, or something you’d like to investigate further. Please note: this is not intended as a subsistute for doing this reading or this course yourself – it’s very subjective and based on my interests adn the things which stood out to me. Any one section from it could easily be a post in itself, but I want to keep it all together, and you don’t want me to share hundreds of posts 😉 I’ll post one of these in each of the three weeks of the online course. Here are the posts for week one and week two.

Unit 5: Exploiting texts

  1. If you need a text (written or spoken) for your materials, where do you usually look, or do you write your own?

It’s a mix. I’ve learnt that it can often be faster to write my own text if I have a very specific idea about the type of information or language I want to be in it, rather than going down a rabbit hole. Otherwise, the majority of the texts come from the internet now, but the exact source depends on the learners.

2. What factors do you consider when choosing a text?

Learner interests and needs, linguistic complexity, cultural context, engagement, how much modification it might need, how much planning time I have, what kind of activities might work well with the text…

3. What are the pros and cons of writing your own texts?

Pros:

  • You can include the language you want.
  • You can direct the topic and content to what you need / what learners are interested in.
  • Personalisation is easy – sharing information about the teacher, or including references to learners or local culture.

Cons:

  • Language level can be challenging to maintain.
  • It’s easy to get carried away.
  • It can take a long time.

4. How do you feel about using authentic texts in the context you write for?

They can be very useful, depending on the learners’ needs. But copyright can be a pain! I’m quite used to adapting activities and texts if necessary (though thereby reducing the authenticity), so it’s fine.

5. How do you feel about the reading and listening activities in a coursebook you know well?

The reading and listening activities in Project 1 4th edition, which I’ve been using this year, were sometimes way above the level of the learners I was working with, and only the strongest learners could understand them. The listening was often very fast and contained a lot of information close together. The Mut and Millie stories worked really well – there was enough time to process the information and it was spaced out. We skipped the majority of the end of unit extra reading and listening because the students were quite demotivated by how hard they found it.

Text and task authenticity in the EFL classroom

These are my notes based on the article of this name in ELT Journal Volume 55/4, October 2001, pp. 347-353, by William Guariento and John Morley.

Authentic texts

Reasons to use them:

  • Helping learners improve their “receptive competence in the target language” (p347)
  • “To bridge the gap between classroom knowledge and ‘a student’s capacity to participate in real world events’ (Wilkins 1976: 79)” (p347)
  • Maintaining or increasing students’ motivation, because they’re interacting with ‘real’ language. (p347)

[This need to bridge the gap is an important one to fill, since many coursebook texts are still quite divorced from examples of real-world texts, particularly regarding listening. That’s why workshops like this one are needed!]

It is generally possible to select texts that will stretch the learner in terms both of skills development and of the quantity and range of new language.

Guariento and Morley (2001: 348)

They describe the fact that this is possible at post-intermediate level, but that at lower levels, learners may feel frustrated, confused and demotivated using authentic materials unless there is very careful selection of the text and tasks. (p348) However, it can be challenge to “seamlessly” execute simplification of texts, for a range of reasons (p348):

  • Technical and sub-technical words are removed from writing, therefore removing clues to context.
  • Listening texts are shortened and redundant features which could provide useful repetition are removed.
  • “The co-ordination of natural speech gives way to subordination” [I think this means that where two speakers might work together to arrive at meaning, it becomes more like two monologues slotting into one another, with little repetition or overlap – a pattern of question > answer > question > answer for example. Please correct me if I’m wrong!]

Partial comprehension of text is no longer considered to be necessary problematic, since this is something which occurs in real life.

Guariento and Morley (2001: 348)

The emphasis can shift to helping students to develop “effective compensatory strategies for extracting the information they need from difficult authentic texts” and to “make the most of their partial comprehension”. (Guariento and Morley (2001: 348).

[I agree with this – I think one of the most useful things we can for our students is help them to learn to deal with the fact that they will be unlikely to understand everything they read or hear. Especially at lower levels, this can make some learners feel quite stressed, and can be demotivating. If we help them to focus on what they can understand, and what they can do with that knowledge, it can be a real confidence boost.]

The text can stay the same, but the task can change. Having said that, we might want to consider how much comprehensible input learners therefore have exposure too, how authentic the tasks are which we ask them to do, and therefore how authentic their responses are. (p349)

[For me, this is a very important area to consider. We want to help learners to realise that they can work with real-life texts, but if those texts are always going to be above their heads, they need to very resilient. Therefore, we need to work with a mixed diet of authentic and simplified texts, with the balance between the two varying by level. We should use at least some authentic texts, even with low-level learners, to given them that connection to the real-world that makes them feel like what they’re learning is real language, but without overwhelming them with how much they can’t understand yet. By providing simple, achievable tasks to go with the authentic materials, we can aim to give them that sense of achievement.]

Task authenticity

Guariento and Morley identify “four broad schools of thought regarding task authenticity” (p349):

  • Authenticity through a genuine purpose (p349-350)
    Is there real communication for a genuine purpose? Is the focus on meaning?
  • Authenticity through real world targets (p350)
    Does it have a clear relationship with real world needs, for example buying a train ticket or taking lecture notes?
  • Authenticity through classroom interaction (p350)
    “Breen (1985) argues that the most authentic activities exploit the potential authenticity of the learning situation.” For example, discussing the usefulness and appropriateness of teacher feedback or of different homework tasks.
  • Authenticity through engagement (p350-351)
    Is the student engaged by the topic and the task? Do they understand its relevance and purpose? Did the students have any say in the selection of the task?

They acknowledge that these four schools of thought might not have much in common at first glance, but that it might be possible to “devise learning situations in which the four can operate in conjunction” (p351)

Authenticity and task difficulty

Skehan (1998) identified the elements of task difficulty as:

  • Complexity of the language
  • Cognitive load
  • Performance conditions [which I think means how the task is actually set up e.g. interaction pattern, scaffolding etc.] (p351)

They list a range of ways in which even relatively simple tasks can still be authentic, and therefore used with low-level students (p351-352):

  • Playing bingo
  • Remembering items from a picture
  • Playing verbal hide and seek
  • Finding the odd word out of a series
  • Surveys
  • Buying a train ticket
  • Ordering a coffee
  • Booking a hotel room
  • Asking for directions
  • Completing questionnaires or surveys, including as part of course evaluation

One common theme of many of these is a game-like quality. They mention Willis (1996) as a “useful source of genuinely communicative activities which can be used with beginners and young learners”.

Conclusion

The separation between text and task maintained thus far is a rather artificial one; in the real world, language input and language output usually occur as part of an integrated process of communication.

Guariento and Morley (2001: 352)

Integrating input and output, reception and production, mirrors real world communicative purposes, and therefore moves towards authenticity. (p352)

Issues in materials for developing receptive skills

These are my responses to questions we were asked.

  1. Why do we use listening and reading texts in class? Try to think of several reasons.
  • To engage learners.
  • To provide exposure to language input.
  • To develop reading / listening skills.
  • To act as model texts for students’ speaking / writing production.
  • To stimulate discussion.
  • To introduce different viewpoints into the classroom.

2. Do you think we can really teach reading and listening, or only give practice? Why?

I think it’s possible to teach students to become better readers and listeners. We can develop their knowledge of skills and strategies for approaching reading and listening texts, and increase their tolerance of situations when they don’t understand every word. We also need to show learners how to get huge amounts of exposure and practice themselves – with that kind of practice, they are likely to acquire the language much faster.

3. What are some of the differences between working on reading and listening in class?

Reading allows students to go back over the text, whereas listening is ephemeral. Students can read at their own speed, whereas they have to listen at the speakers’ speed. In reading (what Cauldwell calls) the sight substance remains constant regardless of the context, whereas the sound substance can be different depending on a huge variety of different factors, many of which students are generally unaware of. In reading, it’s easier for learners to answer questions without fully understanding what they are, lifting stretches of text from the original, whereas with listening this is generally more challenging.

4. Do you use literature in your materials or classes? Why or why not?

Very rarely, not least because for the last few years I’ve only had one group a week and have had a coursebook to work with! When I taught a lot more, I’ve used Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes, Good Omens, and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It took a while to create the materials, but the students generally enjoyed the results and found them to be motivating and engaging.

My beliefs about using texts and developing reading and listening skills

These are some of my own beliefs about materials for developing reading and listening skills. The ‘But…?’ part is possible arguments others might have against these beliefs, not necessarily reflecting what I think. I haven’t included the counter-arguments as that would make it very long! [Note: I’m very sleepy right now, so not sure how coherent these are!]

  • The meaning of texts should be focussed on as a priority, before they are used for language work.
    Why? We process the world by seeking meaning. If we skip this step in materials, learners will be trying to find the meaning anyway, so won’t be concentrating on any other tasks we might give them.
    What does it entail? Having meaning-focussed activities before any language work.
    But…? I don’t think you can argue with this!
  • We should teach listening and reading, not just test them.
    Why? Exposure is not enough to improve listening and reading skills. Learners need to know about strategies they can use to improve their comprehension, and to reflect on what went wrong if they didn’t fully understand a text.
    What does it entail? Inclusion of activities focussing on listening and reading sub-skills, such as micro-listening, or understanding discourse markers and how they can help you navigate a text. There should also be opportunities for developing metacognition, and for learners to share strategies they used to understand – not just what was the answer, but how did you work it out. This should also build confidence, as learners realise that it is possible to improve their skills, and they are not just a ‘bad’ listener/reader.
    But…? How do you decide what sub-skills to focus on for each text? Different learners will be at different stages of reading/listening development – how do you cater for these different levels? Are some of these skills transferable from L1, so do we need to spend time teaching them?
  • There should be a range of different types of text and activities.
    Why? Because this is what learners will encounter in the real world. They need strategies to deal with different text types. This is also more likely to keep learners engaged.
    What does it entail? Different genres, different voices/accents/dialects/ages, different layouts, different lengths. Varied activities include confidence-building activities, comprehension activities, skills training, authentic tasks which reflect the real world.
    But…? How do you decide what to prioritise? Should all activities be authentic? There is a limited amount of space in materials, so how can you provide extensive listening/reading practice too?
  • We should respect copyright when selecting texts.
    Why? It takes a long time and a lot of effort to produce materials. We are also demonstrating ethical and legal behaviour to our students. It’s also a legal requirement in many places.
    What does it entail? Being aware of local copyright law, especially regarding educational fair use. Getting permission to use texts, preferably before you create the materials which go with them. Perhaps creating our own texts from scratch, for example by recording friends and family, with the necessary permissions from them to share those texts more widely (though issues of audio quality may come in at that point).
    But…? What if we don’t have the money to pay copyright fees? Should texts be free for educational use?

Reading and listening activity types

We were give some interesting links to help us to find other ways of working with texts. A few activities which were new to me and I particularly liked included:

  • Reduction: Turn a poem into an advertising slogan.
  • Interpretation: What questions would you wish to ask the author?
  • Creating text: Use the same title, but write a new text.
  • Analysis: Work out the ratio of one-word verbs to two-word verbs.
  • Analysis: List at the words to do with (the sea, movement, ecology, etc) in this text.

Listening comprehension

As optional further study, we were given this 5-minute video to watch about listening comprehension:

It’s a useful brief introduction to how listening comprehension works, including the concepts of bottom-up v. top-down processing and the idea of schema, if you’re not already familiar with them.

Text-driven approach

[I came back to this once I’d finished unit 8, as I felt like I couldn’t fit everything in during the week. I managed it in the end, but definitely felt better for deciding to leave this until later!]

These are my notes based on the section ‘A text-driven approach to materials development’ in the chapter ‘Develoing principled frameworks for materials development’ by Tomlinson on pages 99-114 of the second edition of Developing Materials for Language Teaching (2013, Bloomsbury) [Amazon affiliate link] Note: I highly recommend you read this yourself if you can, as my notes below are very opinionated and you may want to see the original first! In my week two post, I shared a table summarising the stages of this approach, though it seems to only have six stages, whereas the chapter describes eight, and they seem slightly different.

Tomlinson says that he found his text-driven approach “helped writers (mainly teachers with little previous experience of materials development) not only to write principled and coherent materials quickly, effectively and consistently but also to articulate and develop their own theories of language learning and language teaching at the same time” (p100)

Stage 1: Text collection

Find texts “with the potential for engagement”.

By engagement, I mean a willing investment of energy and attention in experiencing the text in such a way as to achieve interaction between the text and the senses, feelings, views and intuitions of the reader/listener.

Tomlinson (2013: 100)

The aim is to “achieve the affective impact and the deep processing which can facilitate language acquisition.” (p100)

[This sounds all well and good to me, but seems to put a lot of pressure on the person sourcing texts to find something which seems transcendent in some way, as well as on the materials writer not to mess that up!]

There is a caveat that reflects my point somewhat:

Obviously, such texts cannot be easily found and certainly cannot be found quickly in order to illustrate teaching points. […] It is much easier and much more useful to build up a library of potentially engaging texts and then to let the texts eventually selected for target levels determine the teaching points.

Tomlinson (2013: 100)

The library development stage is ongoing and context free. Its purpose is to create a resource with the potential for subsequent matching to particular contexts of learning.

Tomlinson (2013: 100)

[Still not 100% convinced by this idea. I think we inevitably keep texts which we think might be potentially interesting at some point in the future, but you’d still need a massive bank covering a wide range of different contexts / topics / text types etc. to draw on if you want to narrow it down at the next stage. Of course, all of this also assumes you can get the permission to use the text from the copyright holder!]

Stage 2: Text selection

Select from your library: one text for a lesson, or a number of texts for a set of materials / textbook. Because the materials are text-driven, Tomlinson emphasises that this should be criterion-referenced. He lists a possible set of criteria on p101.

[While the criteria look like they could be very useful, it does seem very ambitious that he would only use a text which had achieved a 4 on all of the twelve areas. Again, it feels unlikely that you’d find many texts which managed that, if you’re working as an individual. Maybe if you’re part of a large group you might find some texts like this?]

One note which he makes is:

Usefulness for teaching a particular language feature is a dangerous criterion as this can tempt writers into the selection of texts which do not engage the learners and which, therefore, do not help them to achieve durable learning of the teaching point.

Tomlinson (2013: 101)

He also highlights that even on EAP and ESP courses, we should include some variety of materials, not just focussed on the subject matter – he mentions the example of including poetry on courses for pilots, and for diplomats. (p102) He comes back to the importance of affect, and avoiding having learners whose brains are “focused narrowly on […] low level linguistic de-coding”, saying that “This means that the learners are not using their whole minds, that a multiplicity of neural connections are not being fired and that meaningful and durable learning is not taking place.” (p102)

He advocates the use of literature:

[not the “classics of the literary canon, but] well-written texts which narrate, describe, argue or evoke in ways which encourage the reader to respond in personal and multidimensional ways, and which leave gaps for the reader to fill in

Tomlinson (2013: 102)

I find the following suggestion to be very narrow and to limit the learners’ possible uses of and exposure to English, linked also to my agreement with Gadd in unit 6 below, even though it is for the well-meaning reason that the aim isn’t to engage all learners with one text, but to engage most of them in a class and all of them over a course.

The best way I have found of achieving this is to make sure that many (but not all) of the texts relate to the basic universal themes of birth, growing up, going to school, starting a career, falling in love, getting married and dying (though this is a taboo topic in some countries).

Tomlinson (2013: 102)

While I believe this could potentially be a fruitful approach in a short course or a single set of materials, I don’t see how this could work long-term over a number of years to create a fully-rounded English language user.

Stage 3: Text experience

Experience the text (read/listen to it) again to reflect on your experience with it and “try to work out what was happening in your mind during it.” (p102) If you can’t re-engage, perhaps choose different materials.

[This is the point at which I got particularly frustrated with reading this chapter. It all sounds lovely, but really not practical at all!]

Stage 4: Readiness activities

Come up with activities which “get the learners ready for the reading experience.” (p103)

You are aiming at helping the learners to achieve the mental readiness which readers take to L1 texts and to inhibit the word fixation and apprehension which L2 readers typically take to texts (Tomlinson, 2000b).

Tomlinson (2013: 103)

The aim is to get learners to think, to “open and activate their minds”. (p103) He lists a variety of ways to do this, which seem like fairly standard pre-reading activities to me, with the possible exception of mime, which I’m not sure I could persuade the majority of my students to engage in.

The important point is that the lesson starts in the learners’ minds and not in the text and that the activities help the learners to gain a personal experience of the text which connects it to their lives.

Tomlinson (2013: 103)

OK, that wording is quite interesting – to some extent, it echoes the questions Why should they care? which I’ve previously written about.

Stage 5: Experiential activities

These are activities which are designed to help the learners to represent the text in their minds as they read it or listen to it and to do so in multidimensional ways which facilitate personal engagement.

Tomlinson (2013: 103)

The activities should be mental, “contributing to the representation of the text.” There should be no writing or discussion, as this risks interrupting the processing of the text or making it more difficult to process it. Examples given include:

  • “visualise a politician as they read about him, using inner speech to give their responses to provocative points in the text”
  • “trying to follow a description of a journey on a mental map”
  • “thinking of examples from their own lives to illustrate or contradict points made in a text” (all p103)

The activities can either be given through concise instructions just before reading/listening as part of a more participatory approach, with learners contributing to the text. For example, the teacher reads the text, pauses, and learners shout out predictions of the next work or phrase; a similar approach with dictation (especially for poems) – write, pause, compare next line; the teacher stops before the end of a text and the learners write the endings (all p104 – there are more there)

[There are some interesting ideas here, and ones which I haven’t seen before, but I’m not sure how well they’d work with some text types. I can see them connected to literature, and some more story-like non-fiction, for example descriptions of processes, but not with texts which don’t follow that kind of story structure.]

Stage 6: Intake response activities

These are activities which help the learners to develop and articulate what they have taken in from the text.

Tomlinson (2013: 104)

Learners reflect on the mental representation they created in stage 5, rather than returning to the text. These activities don’t test comprehension.

[Learners] cannot be wrong because they are not being asked about the text but about their personal representation of it. However, it is possible that their representation is only partial (or even superficial) and the process of sharing it with others can help to extend and deepen it.

Tomlinson (2013: 104)

Suggestions include visualising, drawing or miming what they remember, summarising the text to somebody who hasn’t read it, or asking clarifying questions to somebody who knows the text well. (p105)

[I think you’d really have to manage learners’ expectations throughout this whole process. They’d need to know why they were doing all of this, why it will benefit them, and why they haven’t paid any attention to the language in the text yet. That could say something about the general way in which we use and approach texts in the classroom, but it also seems to me a question of efficiency. If you only have 90 minutes in a lesson, this seems like a lot of time with not much happening – there haven’t been any opportunities for upgraded language by this stage in the lesson, for example. It could work well as a one-off, but I’m really not sure about it as the basis for a series of materials.]

Stage 7: Development activities

‘These are activities which provide opportunities for meaningful languag eproduction based on the learners’ representations of the text’ (Tomlinson, 1999c, p. 63)

Tomlinson (2013: 105)

Examples given include writing part 2 of a story when they’ve heard part 1, rewriting a location-based story so it’s set in their own town, or creating a new advertisement based on one they’ve seen.

[These activities seem quite engaging and reflect task-based approaches quite closely, as the focus is on meaning, but learners have the opportunity to draw on the source text if they want to. However, it relies on teachers noticing opportunities to input new language, and learners being able to draw new language from texts and each other, rather than only sticking to what they know already.]

Stage 8: Input response activities

Learners return to the text, doing closer study which helps them “to make discoveries about the purposes of the language of the text.” (p105)

Interpretation tasks

Learners consider the author’s intentions, and develop critical and creative thinking skills. (p105) On p105-106, Tomlinson gives the following examples:

  • Deep questions
  • Debates about issues in the text
  • Critical reviews of the text for a journal
  • Interviews with the characters
  • Interviews with the author

[Most of these seem to imply that learners have a relatively high level of L2, or conduct these activities in L1. They would need a lot of scaffolding to be able to participate in many of these tasks, though I don’t deny that they could be engaging and fruitful with the right teachers and students.]

Awareness tasks

Learners might improve their awareness of:

  • language use
  • communication strategies
  • genre characteristics
  • text-type features (all p106)

They look both at this text and other, equivalent texts for their research.

The important point is that evidence is providing in a text which the learners have already experienced holistically and then they are helped to make focused discoveries through discrete attention to a specified feature of the text. That way they invest cognitive and affective energy and attention in the learning process and they are likely to increase their readiness for acquisition (Pienemann, 1985; Tomlinson, 1994b, 2013)

Tomlinson (2013: 106)

Tomlinson suggests that learners can revise the product of stage 7, based on the findings of stage 8. [Definite TBL influences here.]

Using the framework

Tomlinson says you can use it flexibly, though some stages probably need to precede others. You don’t need to use all of the stages, and you can decide on the weighting of the stages based on learners’ needs.

It is useful, though, for the materials developer to include all the stages in the actual course materials so that the teachers (and possibly the learners) can make decisions for themselves about which stages to use and what sequence to use them in.

Tomlinson (2013: 107)

Tomlinson describes using it to quickly create materials for a cover lesson, and to help teachers to produce an effective unit of material. [I wonder whether he’s used it to create whole coursebooks or even series of books.]

The sequence of activities on p107-109 for a 90-minute lesson based on a poem about an old lady are quite nice, and I could see myself picking and choosing from them for a one-off lesson. The news articles / online example on p111-114 also seems interesting for self-access or independent study, or for some kind of longer project with learners on an intensive course – it looks engaging and motivating, but again you’d need to justify it to the learners and train them in this approach. Still not convinced this approach is useful for larger materials writing projects though…

Unit 6: Affective factors in materials

These are my ideas to start the unit.

  1. What do you understand by ‘affect’ in language teaching?

These are the emotional and human factors which can influence learning, for example whether a learner is feeling stressed, excited, bored, hungry, cold, etc. When they are dealing with too many of these issues at once, it makes it harder for them to learn (their affective filter is up). Some aspects of affect can help learning though, for example if they are motivated, they will be likely to study for long and take more in.

2. Why is affect so important? Can you think of any personal anecdotes that illustrate this?

Because it takes up space in our brain and influences our attitudes to learning.

For example, right now I’m really tired and struggling to concentrate because I was very hot last night and didn’t sleep well (the heatwave has arrived in the UK!) This means that I’m not really sure how much I’ll retain from what I’ve done today on the course, and I’ve skipped some of the more cognitively challenging parts like reading a chapter from a methodology book. I’m aiming to come back to them when I’m feeling more awake!

3. What is the materials writer’s role in regard to affect?

A writer needs to consider what kind of support/scaffolding learners might need to complete tasks, reducing the likelihood of learners feeling stressed or anxious. They need to include activities which encourage learners to reflect on their learning, boosting their confidence and making plans for their future learning, again reducing stress levels and helping learners to feel they have some kind of control over what they’re doing. Writers also need to include good quality teacher’s notes, so that the teacher feels prepared and knows how to deal with different issues, and is also slightly less likely to feel stressed going into the lesson and transfer this to learners.

4. How affectively engaging do you think most of the materials used for your context are?

It depends on how well we’ve chosen our coursebooks! Generally I think they are quite engaging and encourage personal responses, but to some extent that’s due to how we train our teachers to use the materials. As a rule, materials are becoming more intrinsically engaging, at least as far as I can remember.

5. Do you know anything about gamification? If so, what do you think of the concept?

Yes, I’ve read a fair amount about it and attended conference talks connected to it. I think it’s one possible tool we can use to engage learners, and it can work really well for some learners, but it depends very much on the way it is used. If it creates a lot of extra work for the teacher or the students, or if it is just used for the sake of it, it’s not worth it. But if it’s incorporated in a principled way, it can prove very motivating.

6. Note down three elements of successful speaking materials and three elements of successful writing materials.

Successful speaking materials:

  • Promote extensive speaking, not just short answers.
  • Engage the learners and make them want to speak, not just do it because the teacher told them to.
  • Provide support for the learners, for example planning time, reflection on their performance, etc.

Successful writing materials:

  • Have a clear audience and communicative purpose.
  • Provide support for learners, for example through genre analysis or providing a model.
  • Incorporate achievable tasks for all learners, not just the strongest/most confident in the group.

A definition of affect

Aspects of emotion, feeling, mood or attitude which condition behaviour.

Arnold and Brown, 1999. Affect in Languag Learning. CUP

Humanising the Coursebook

We read an interesting article by Brian Tomlinson from the September 2001 HLT Mag. No notes, as I could highlight the Word document 🙂 Reminds me that I should go back and look at my copy of Humanising your Coursebook by Mario Rinvolucri [Amazon affiliate link / BEBC non-affiliate link]

Gamification in education

I’ve read and heard a bit about gamification already, but it was interesting to explore it in a little more depth and think about how I might want to incorporate it into my own materials.

This was a fun introduction to different kinds of reward (2 minutes), focussing on piqueing interest rather than extrinsic rewards:

This TEDx talk by Gavin Pouliot had some interesting ideas:

  • Include different levels of choice: legendary is the highest level he mentioned.
  • Personalise learning: let learners be whoever they want.
  • Let students make their own world, for example through a digital portfolio.
  • Allowing cooperation and competition, though not assuming all learners want to work in the same way. For example, giving XP for completing certain tasks.
  • Gamificiation requires teachers to really know their learners and requires learners to know what works for them.
  • Allow learners to retry when needed to build mastery and competence, not just rushing them on to the next thing.
  • Assessment can be done in different ways, for example through badges.
  • Be clear where pathways/skills lead so students know why they’re doing activities.

This infographic provides a particularly useful summary, including this clear definition of gamification:

The use of game design elements in non-game contexts.

The key elements of gaming which the infographic suggests we could use for educational purposes include (please look at the infographic for full information – this is just a quick reference for me!):

  • Progression
    • Levels
    • Points
  • Investment (pride in your work)
    • Achievements (public recognition)
    • Appointments (challenges)
    • Collaboration
    • Epic meaning (sublime or transcendent)
    • Virality (involve others)
  • Cascading information (unlocking more)
    • Bonuses
    • Countdown
    • Discovery
    • Loss aversion (avoid losing what you’ve gained)
    • Infinite play
    • Synthesis (multiple skills needed)

This article from TESOL by Deborah Healey mentions lots of game mechanics which could be useful. These ones extend the list above:

  • Behavioral momentum (tendency to keep doing something you’re already doing)
  • Ownership (publishing work, autonomy/learner choice)
  • Blissful productivity (we like working hard and feeling productive)

We were also given a one-hour webinar by Elena Peresada on how gamification works, which is worth watching for all of the examples of gamification Elena has used in her lessons (the first few minutes are missing):

She talks about game components as the first level of gamification:

  • XP points
  • Leaderboard (can be divided into smaller segments so it’s not just bottom v. top, for example going up through ranks)
  • Badges
  • Progress bar
  • Goal
  • Avatar
  • Levels

Class Dojo can be a useful tool for this, but you can’t divide your leaderboard into segments.

Learners became more engaged, nobody was a loser, and learners started to ask for extra assignments to keep up with their classmates and get more XP. However, it was short-term motivation and the learners focussed on points, not English, with some learners cheating to get more points. There is purely a focus on extrinsic motivation, so it doesn’t work in the long term. It’s therefore important to move to higher levels of gamification.

The second level is game mechanics:

  • Meaningful choices
  • Tries and fails

When you play a video/real-life game, this is what keeps you going. These make gamification different to school. For example, we don’t read instructions before we start a video game: we start and see what happens. At around 20 minutes, Elena gives an example of a haunted house game she used with her students. Learners could remember a lot of vocabulary after the game because they were emotionally engaged. They repeat the activity multiple times willingly.

She uses a framework of different activities with different point values, where learners can decide what they want to do – this can be as simple as allocating point values to activities you are already using.

You can turn activities into games by adding small mechanics to them, for example Find Someone Who becomes a game if there is a goal and a time limit [though I’d be wary of the competition element that might generate].

The third level is dynamics, often through storytelling:

  • Emotions
  • Narrative

One way to create a narrative is through a simple framework, like this:

Empire, Friends, and Reddit: Once upon a time there was a lonely orphan..
 Who was friends with two social outcasts...
 The trio lived happily until the evil...
 Tried to take over...
 The
 Muggle/ Gotham Galactic
 The
 The
 Middle
 The
 Pride
 Wizard
 City
 Empire Xingdom Earth Jungle
 Lands
 Worlds
 Thankfully [hero] defeats [villain] with a...
 AND EVERYONE
 LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER.
 pleated jeans
Every epic movie.
Original by Pleated Jeans (though I can’t find the link!)

Elena uses a lot of RPGs in her lessons – I’ve seen examples of her talking about this at IATEFL, and they seem great! Her learners are very engaged and talk a lot in lessons. These are examples of the games Elena and Studycraft have produced (site is in Russian).

She recommends exploring https://yukaichou.com/ for more information. He has a framework called Octalysis covering many different elements of gamification.

Speaking and writing materials

We were asked to look at supplementary materials to see how writing and speaking are dealt with and answer a range of questions.

For speaking, I thought it might be interesting to look at materials I’ve previously posted on my blog. I chose something from 2011 for working on FCE Speaking part 3 (in the old version of the exam – can’t remember if it’s still the same part!) The activity was designed to practise the format of that part of the exam, encourage students to converse rather than monologue (though I don’t seem to have explained how that aim should be met), and practise holiday-related language. As written, it is product oriented, because there is no explicit strategy development – I may have included it in the lesson, but I didn’t in the blogpost – it’s a long time ago and I don’t remember! (Note to self: include strategy development in activites you post on your blog, where relevant!) Possible ideas for strategies which could be explicitly practised would include turn-taking strategies, interrupting, and asking follow-up questions. I also didn’t explicitly mention what preparation they had for the practice tasks, though I suppose by creating the pictures themselves they at least had some level of input into the task, thinking about the language they might use to describe this kind of picture. Overall, the activity is fine, but the teacher’s notes could be a lot more useful!

For writing, I chose a Learn English British Council resource for B2 Upper Intermediate on writing an informal email to a friend. The activity is designed to focus on phrases which you might use in an informal email – it’s language focussed, rather than really developing writing skills. The focus with the phrases are formal v. informal, coming up with appropriate replies, and prepositions (mostly) in informal email phrases. There is no strategy development and the learners don’t actually write an email as part of the activity – instead they write a comment about the best way to stay in touch with friends you don’t see often. It is kind of a product-oriented reading activity more than a writing activity, although the main focus is on functional language. These activities could be useful language preparation for writing an email, but they would need to be supplemented by content preparation activities, and an actual writing task, along with (ideally) some writing strategy development. Examples of strategies you could include would be identifying what to reply to in an email you receive, drafting and editing an email, or checking an email for overly formal language.

My beliefs about speaking and writing materials and making materials affectively engaging

These are some of my own beliefs about materials for developing writing and speaking skills and recognising affect. The ‘But…?’ part is possible arguments others might have against these beliefs, not necessarily reflecting what I think. I haven’t included the counter-arguments as that would make it very long!

  • Speaking and writing materials should include opportunities for learners to develop their skills, not just practise them.
    Why? We need to help learners to develop strategies to become more fluent communicators, building their confidence and supporting them in producing better quality, richer speaking and writing.
    What does it entail? Including specific activities focussing on strategies such as turn-taking, interrupting, planning and editing writing, and using useful chunks of language. Also, including reflection on the success of speaking and writing to develop learners’ ability to notice what works and doesn’t in specific contexts.
    But…? How do you decide which skills should be developed in what order? How do you fit strategy work into the limited space available in published materials? How do you ensure that reflective questions home in on the most useful aspects of the strategy being developed?
  • Speaking and writing activities should be as authentic as possible, with a clear aim, audience and communicative purpose.
    Why? If learners can see the point of activities, they are more likely to be engaged by them. Changing the audience for speaking and writing changes how that speaking/writing might happen, for example, the level of formality, so we need to include this in the activity. Having a communicative purpose gives learners a reason to speak, listen, read and write, rather than just because the teacher told them to.
    What does it entail? Ensuring the aim, audience and communicative purpose are clear to the learners. These should reflect real-world tasks whenever possible, but if that’s not possible (for example in exam preparation courses), they should at least be clearly engaging for learners, thinking back to Guariento and Morley above and the four schools of thought regarding authenticity.
    But…? How do you make sure that tasks are achievable for (especially low-level) learners if they are real-world? What do you need to include in the teacher’s notes to give teachers flexibility when adapting the materials, rather than dictating how to set up the activities? How do you help teachers to personalise and localise tasks?
  • There should be an opportunity for learners to prepare the content and language of what they are going to say and write.
    Why? Their output is likely to be richer if they have had time to consider it first. It could also reduce their stress levels, and help their communication to be more fluent, especially if they’ve had the opportunity to ask about useful language.
    What does it entail? Including explicit preparation stages in materials, with a specific focus on content and on language. Making sure teachers know the usefulness and importance of these stages through including information in the teacher’s notes. This could also be tied up with strategy development, as mentioned in my first belief above. It could also include rehearsal stages, visualisation, or use of the inner voice for speaking. For writing, it might include brainstorming ideas and writing a plan.
    But…? Will learners always have preparation time when speaking or writing in the real world? If not, how will this approach prepare them to produce language when they’re put on the spot? How much does this approach balance accuracy and fluency of production?
  • Affective factors should be taken into consideration within materials.
    Why? If learners are disengaged, feeling stressed or anxious, lack confidence, or feel demotivated, learning is unlikely to take place. They are less likely to want to or be able to push themselves to speak or write, particularly at length, and may drift off when reading and listening. Learning English may feel like a chore or a stressful experience, particularly speaking/writing, and learners are likely to try to avoid it in the future.
    What does it entail? Choosing engaging topics, encouraging learners to personalise and/or localise topics when they want to, providing scaffolding and support, including opportunities for reflection on performance, introducing strategies to help learners deal with challenging situations, focussing on what learners can do/produce, and helping learners to see their strengths when speaking and writing. In materials, this can be done through carefully staged activities, the use of clear aims and reflection activities, and the inclusion of strategy training, as well as the choice of topics.
    But…? To what extent is this the materials writer’s job v. the teacher’s job? What happens if learners want to keep some kind of emotional distance in their language learning? How do we teach teachers and learners to reflect effectively on speaking and writing performance? How do we overcome the fact that many learners may be reluctant to write (or, less commonly, speak) in their language, and therefore might carry over those emotions to English?

Adapted speaking materials

I have decided to adapt the FCE speaking activity I wrote about above. My evaluation criteria are:

  1. To what extent do the materials develop the learners speaking skills?
  2. To what extent is the aim, audience and communicative purpose of the speaking activity made clear to the learners? [Note: This should potentially be 3 separate criteria as it covers 3 areas.]
  3. To what extent do the learners have the opportunity to prepare before they speak?
  4. To what extent are learners likely to be affectively engaged with the activity?

They should be graded 0-3, with 3 being the best.

Based on my criteria, this is my evaluation:

  1. Grade = 1
    There is some repetition built into the activity, but otherwise there is no skills development.
  2. Grade = 2
    The audience and communicative purpose are clear – it’s FCE speaking, so the audience would be the examiner, and the communicative purpose is to answer the two questions selected. The aim is less clear, other than repeating the activity – there’s no specific learning/skills upgrading/language upgrading aim, just getting practice.
  3. Grade = 1
    They drew the pictures, so may have thought about some of the language. There’s no specific preparation stage for either language or content.
  4. Grade = 2
    Because the learners drew the pictures, they are likely to be engaged in discussing them. However, the questions come from the teacher. Learners could also be more engaged if they knew there was a clear aim and some form of upgrading of their language, boosting their motivation.

Possible adaptations:

  • Include an aim or can do statement at the beginning of the materials, for example ‘I can interact successfully with a partner when making decisions related to holidays.’
  • Ask the learners to generate the questions discussed.
  • Include a preparation stage at the start of each activity cycle, where learners can ask for any vocabulary or phrases they might need.
  • Include a reflection stage at the end of each activity cycle, where learners reflect on their interactive communication by answering a few short questions. In the teacher’s notes, suggest ways of improving learners’ interactive communication depending on their self-assessments, for example functional language phrases which could be fed in, or the use of a visual reflection tool like conversation shapes. These act as strategy work and shift the materials to be more process-oriented.

Towards less humanistic teaching

These are my notes based on an ELT Journal article by Nick Gadd (ELT Journal, Volume 52, Issue 3, July 1998, Pages 223–234, https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/52.3.223). My partner on the course read the article this one was responding to: ‘Towards more humanistic language teaching’ by Jane Arnold (ELT Journal, Volume 52, Issue 3, July 1998, Pages 235–242, https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/52.3.235). They’re from the Point and Counterpoint section of the journal.

Gadd starts off by charting the history of the term humanism, moving from the “outwardly directed humanism of the Renaissance” to the “inward-gazing humanism of the twentieth century.” (p223) He refers to Hunter’s historical survey of how English teaching (in secondary education) has developed in England since the 1800s:

He points out that the teaching of English in schools has frequently involved three separate elements: linguistic and grammatical knowledge, aesthetic and literacy appreciation, and ethical or personal self-knowledge.

Gadd (1998: 223)

The interesting question here is:

Why is it, for example, that maths or science teachers rarely feel that they have a duty to undertake any kind of operation on their students’ feelings, or to improve their souls, in the way that many English teachers do?

Gadd (1998: 223-224)

[I wonder to what extent this is still true, with movements like mindset theory encouraging teachers to consider attitudes to learning across all subjects.]

One problematic idea connected to humanism from the early 20th century was an example Hunter/Gadd gives of “moral training designed to reform the personalities of problem populations and make them easier to control” (p224).

In TEFL, Gadd mentions Stevick (1980) as an advocate of humanism:

For Stevick, its basis is the desire of every student and every teacher to be ‘an object of primacy in a world of meaningful action’. He therefore believes it is essential for teachers to take into serious consideration what goes on inside and between their students.

Gadd (1998: 224)

Elements of Stevick’s work Gadd mentions include students developing and exercising initiative and co-operation, and increasing learner empowerment. There is also the idea of reconciling the ‘performing self’ and the ‘critical self’ [I’m not entirely sure what this means]. (p225) Some potential problems with humanistic teaching which Stevick identifies include (p225):

  • “Teachers who abdicate responsibility for structure and input, leaving it all to the initiative of their students.”
  • “Too much focus on the students’ own experiences and inner selves is unhelpful.”
  • It becomes “an excuse for the teacher to dazzle students and colleagues with their educational originality and virtuosity.” (cf. Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society)

Gadd describes Stevick as a ‘pragmatic humanist’, as opposed to a ‘romantic humanist’.

A common view is that it is the primary task of the English teacher to encourage and advance the development of the students’ inner selves, and that to this end the greater part of the work done in the language classroom should be devoted to the students’ feelings, experiences and ideas.

Gadd (1998: 225)

The teachers’ role in these cases appears to be that of a kindly confessor or therapist.

Gadd (1998: 226)

The principles of this more romantic humanism are summarised like so:

Students should draw predominantly on their own feelings, ideas, and experiences in order to learn English; some forms of expression are more genuine than others because they derive from the true inner self; English teachers should not limit themselves to language but should teach students to be better, nicer people, power in the classroom can be devolved from the teacher to the students. To sum up, this kind of teaching focuses attention on nurturing the student’s inner self.

Gadd (1998: 226)

[I think this is the problem I’ve always had with what I previously understood about humanistic approaches – it all felt overly touchy-feely and far too personal, sometimes invasively so, limiting the world down to the people in the room and their experiences, rather than reaching out into the world and learning from external sources. I’ve seen that it can be more than that, connected to dealing with issues of affect and engagement, engaging the whole person rather than students being depersonalised language learners, but it’s still something I need to learn more about to be truly comfortable with incorporating these aspects in my work and materials.]

Gadd points out that these ideas of romantic humanism are predominant in supplementary materials, rather than mainstream coursebooks or EAP/ESP texts. (p226)

Gadd’s counterarguments are (I think) strong (p227), and seem to some extent to reflect my comment above:

  • “It is based on a view of the English teacher’s role as a monitor and nurturer of the student’s inner self which, while well established, is presumptuous and of doubtful value.”
  • “It leads to the students being taught an inadequate number of registers of English, and thus hampers their progression towards independence as language users.”
  • “A focus on the inner self as a source of learning does not encourage or permit the students’ intellectual and cognitive development.”

Gadd goes on to contrast humanistic approaches with the ‘rhetorical tradition’.

They emphasized the skills needed to be an active member of a public community, rather than a mere communer with oneself, or passer-on of one’s private feelings to select individuals.

As Hunter says, it is a grave mistake to imagine that these skills, which make students active and powerful in the public sphere, are any less ‘human’ than those which focus on the private self.

Gadd (1998: 227)

It is this position [of moral and ethical surveillance] which romantic humanist teachers still desire to occupy today, hoping to shape the learner’s personality and impart values education. Leaving aside the question of what gives English teachers the right to impose their moral and ethical values on their students, it is certainly disingenuous: for while this moral training is going on, humanist educators contiune to deny their own power and claim that it is the students, not the teachers, who are in control.

Gadd (1998: 228)

[I’m very grateful to Gadd for putting into words some of the vague feelings I’ve had about this kind of teaching before!]

Other potential problems with romantic humanism:

  • It’s a product of western tradition, and therefore may not be appropriate in other cultures. (p228)
  • It results in an extremely limited used of language, focusing only on the private self. (p229)
  • It relies on a limited range of register: “friendly, informal, even intimate”. (p229)
  • They limit the learners to “being able to chat with friends and commune with themselves. They are not of much use in training students to participate in public or academic spheres.” (p229)
  • Learners may have different levels of educational experience or come from quite different cultures, meaning they cannot rely on learner-based teaching and they may get frustrated if the teacher refuses to give instruction. (p231)

[These are summarised much more concisely as just three main points in the conclusion on p232-233 of the article.]

He contrasts the process approach to writing to the genre approach, emphasising how the latter seems to have become dominant in English teaching in Australia (note: this article was written in 1996). He talks about how at lower levels, writing texts are “completely personal and based on the immediate world of the learner” but that they become more abstract at higher levels.

This is an acknowledgement that the learning process involves a movement beyond oneself […] and underlines the need for us to lay aside the notion that the purpose of speech and the written word is to express one’s inner self.

Gadd (1998: 231)

Gadd believes that he has a responsibility for more general education, not just English, partly because he teaches a lot of adult migrants who may not have had much school learning in the past.

This involves factual knowledge about the world but also intellectual skills. It involves developing the ability to reason, interpret, synthesize knowledge, evaluate and critique different points of view, and construct an argument. Little of this can be achieved if the students remain trapped within the prison of the self.

Gadd (1998: 232)

[This seems to closely reflect the modern focus on critical thinking, and higher-order thinking skills.]

He talks about an example of working on advertising, based on a humanist activity from a supplementary book, or a serious unit of work on the topic drawing on lots of different input.

At the end of this our students are gong to be able to produce much more informed opinions by drawing on knowledge outside themselves.

Gadd (1998: 232)

If our sole aim is to fill thirty minutes with uninformed talk, then it may not be necessary for them to be encumbered with much actual knowledge. If, on the other hand, we seek to educate in the much broader sense, then there are no short cuts. We have to move beyond the self, and explore the great world which lies beyond it.

Gadd (1998: 232)

[A much more erudite way of expressing what I mentioned in my earlier response to this article!]

In the conclusion, Gadd mentions that the need for teachers to understand their learners’ psychology, as advocated in Stevick’s pragmatic humanism, “enables the teacher to ensure that teaching and learning are at their most effective”. (p233). [I agree that this is useful, and that’s why I’m so interested in the work of Sarah Mercer and co.]

Unit 7: Visual design and image

Elements of design

These are my ideas of what contributes to design:

  • Colour
  • Layout
  • Font
  • Text size
  • Use of images
  • Other stylistic features such as quotes, stylised headings, etc.
  • Space (is there any?!)

The NILE list was longer (of course!) They are listed below, along with my ideas for good design criteria for each of them.

  • Headings and icons
    Consistency in the use or omission of icons
    Transparency in the meaning of icons – I shouldn’t need to look at a key to work out what they mean
    Headings should indicate the function/aim of each section
    Headings should be a different size (font?) to the main text so they clearly stand out
  • Sequencing and Numbering
    Numbering should be used for all activities
    It should follow across the whole spread, rather than restarting in each section/for each new skill – there shouldn’t be multiple Exercise 1’s on the page for example!
    The sequence of activities should be clear from the layout
  • Text
    The font should be clearly legible, preferably sans serif to help learners with SEN.
    The text size should be large enough to read easily, and suitable for the target age group of the learners (for example, senior learners may benefit from a larger font).
    The amount of text should be suitable for the level and age of the learners.
  • Colour
    SEN-friendly, with useful contrasts (for example, dark text on a light background)
    Consistency in the use of colour, for example one unit = one colour, or one type of spread = one colour (reading = green, listening = blue, etc.)
  • Page layout
    Space should be available on the page – not too cramped
    Use of columns if applicable/appropriate
    Texts clearly separated from other elements, e.g. instructions
  • Consistency
    Different pages of the same materials should clearly belong to the same resource!
    Icons, colours, use of headings, and layout should remain consistent, so I know where to find things on the page.
    When consistency is disrupted, this should be for a clear reason, for example a different kind of unit.
  • Back of book reference pages
    Should be easy to find
    Should be clearly laid out
    Audio scripts should be legible – not so tiny that you need a magnifying class!
    Activities should be clearly differentiated from information, for example in a grammar or vocabulary bank
    If applicable, an index should be included
  • Cover
    Needs to tell me the level and target audience of the materials
    Should include a short blurb telling me what’s different about these materials
    Should include information about other components of the course
    Should have the book’s name, author, publisher etc. clearly visible
    Age appropriate
  • Images
    Should be included as a resource for the materials, not just to make it look pretty
    Should appear throughout the materials, breaking up large blocks of text
    Shouldn’t appear behind texts – this makes the texts harder to read, especially for learners with SEN
    Age appropriate
    Culturally sensitive

It’s just occured to me that ‘Contents’ / ‘Scheme of work’ should be added to this list. This should be clearly laid out, with the main aims of the book in earlier columns. Page numbers should be referenced for each of the elements, not just the first page of the unit.

We were referred to this critique of a coursebook page by Jason Renshaw (I miss Jason’s blog – it was very influential on me when I was first starting out!) It demonstrates really clearly how important design can be to learning, and includes this quote:

But if you feel, as a teacher, that my analysis and objections to the layout here go beyond simple fussiness to an essential understanding of how important content and layout can be for practical classroom application as well as independent learning efficacy, you may be asking yourself how and why it happens in coursebooks.

(and then I scrolled down to the comments and realised the first one was by me, in 2011!) 🙂

Why do we use images in materials?

These are my ideas:

  • To support vocabulary learning.
  • To clarify the meaning of grammar.
  • To create/set contexts.
  • To illustrate texts.
  • To prompt discussion.
  • For prediction or summarising activities.
  • To make texts seem more realistic, for example mocking up an email.
  • As part of diagrams – to show sequences.
  • As design features, for example the icons for a chapter heading.
  • To create image-based activities, particularly for YLs, for example colour XYZ red, colour ABC blue, etc.
  • For decoration / To break up the page.

Using images in language teaching materials

We read this blogpost by John Hughes about visual literacy in the language classroom.

John starts by defining visual literacy, then describes three levels of visual literacy and how we can use them in the classroom:

  • Basic comprehension and understanding
    The image is ‘read’ and responded to: ‘What does it mean?’ Students see pictures to understand and remember words, or predict what’s in a text based on an image.
  • Critical thinking
    The image is ‘read’ and responded to: ‘Thinking beyond the frame’ Using ambiguous images, or speculating on the thoughts of people in the image, or thinking about what happens next – images like this encourage the viewer to ask questions.
  • Creative thinking
    Students ‘write’ or ‘create’ their own images: They can talk about images using Fotobabble [though the old site seems to have disappeared], create an animated movie using Dvolver, or take photos connected to the theme of the lesson.

John says that he won’t suggest that we should ‘teach’ students how to be visually literate, but that an awareness of some of these concepts can help us to exploit images in a wider range of ways, including for higher order thinking skills. [I agree with the fact that as English teachers, it isn’t our role to teach visual literacy, but that’s not to say we can’t use concepts connected to it, and introduce some of them to our students too. It’s as good a topic as any for the classroom, and useful beyond lessons too.]

Next, we listened to an interview with John to follow up on his article.

He starts by describing how much easier it is to access and produce images now, and therefore how much easier it is to exploit them in the classroom.

John describes examples of visual literacy (reading/writing images) in daily life:

  • Clicking on icons on our phones and knowing where it will take us.
  • Sharing images on social media.
  • Understanding road signs.

Some people say that it’s becoming more and more important in our daily lives. There are also new text types, like infographics, which combine texts and images in different ways. Design choices like the use of font and colour are also connected to visual literacy. Because it’s a feature of everyday life, John believes that many students arrive in our classrooms already being quite visually literate. He says that we can take advantage of students’ visual literacy skills. He also says that because it’s so important in our students’ lives, the classroom should reflect that and we should include images and video in our lessons. Having said that, there should always be a linguistic aim because we’re teaching English, not visual literacy.

Choosing interesting images, like advertising, artistic images, or an image where it isn’t clear where is was taken, they can generate discussion and engage students, apart from the critical thinking activities mentioned above.

A 30-second video with just images can be an interesting prompt too: introducing a topic, picking out images and describing them, engaging learners. It doesn’t have to be a long video to be useful.

John mentions one activity from the Hands Up Project, where Nick Bilsborough asks students to draw images and then describe them, as a simple way of encouraging students to create/write their own images. This gives them preparation time and thinking time before they speak, as they can consider what they want to say. Using images in a range of ways like this can make lessons much more memorable and motivating.

It’s important for us to consider the design of our materials, as poor design can distact learners. For example, having images with a listening or speaking activity can gives learners a way into the activity and help to set the context.

John thinks that there are very few lessons that wouldn’t include at least a little visual literacy: diagrams in EAP, charts in business English to communicate visually…

When asking students to create and share images, we need to be aware of rules connected to the images. As long as we keep the images within the classroom, we should generally be safe, but it’s important to check with parents if we want their children to take photos to share.

With technology, there are extra layers of visual literacy too – for example, thinking about virtual environments, augmented reality, or virtual reality headsets.

John tends to set creative image or video activities for homework, rather than in class, as they can be challenging to set up and be quite time-consuming. If they’re done in English, it can work well, but it often works better outsides lessons.

He mentions the Visual Arts Circle as an interesting site to explore if you want to know more about visual literacy and visual thinking.

Finally we looked at John’s ETpedia blog list of 10 visual literacy activities for language learning. I’ve never tried using memes in lessons (idea 5), though I’ve been to an interesting talk about it (here’s a version of the same talk), and seen examples of memes created by teacher trainers (go to the bottom right of the page on a computer to see more!). I also like idea 7, getting learners to guess the question from the answers in a video.

My beliefs about design and layout

These are some of my own beliefs about materials design and layout, both print and digital, and using images. The ‘But…?’ part is possible arguments others might have against these beliefs, not necessarily reflecting what I think. I haven’t included the counter-arguments as that would make it very long!

  • Layout should be easy to understand and should aid in the use of the materials.
    Why? Bad layout is distracting and frustrating, and requires extra mental effort, which could be dedicated to better teaching or learning.
    What does it entail? Clear headings, numbering which works across the spread (not multiple exercise 1’s on the same page!), images which are close to the activities they correspond to, lines to separate off different sections, boxes and columns used as appropriate, large enough gaps for completing activities, white space for thinking and processing (not having lots of things crammed on a page), icons as appropriate. This should be consistent across the materials.
    But…? What happens if you need to include a lot of information/activities on a page? How much time / money do you have to dedicate to design?
  • Materials should be SEN-friendly.
    Why? What generally helps learners with SEN often helps learners without SEN too. It creates a more inclusive learning environment.
    What does it entail? Minimal clutter, space around and between text, contrasting fonts and backgrounds (though not stark contrasts), sans serif fonts, lines and boxes to create clear divisions between parts of the text, no text directly displayed on images, minimal use of italics (bold is preferable) – I’m sure there’s a lot more I’ve forgotten!
    But…? What if this makes print materials take up much more space?
  • Images should be varied and representative.
    Why? Varied images allow for varied activities and materials. Considering representation is important, as it reduces the potential distance between learners and materials. If all of the images are stereotypical, only taken from Western culture, or only relate to middle-class lifestyles, they could create distance or dissatisfaction for learners. It also makes for a more inclusive learning environment.
    What does it entail? Drawing on diverse, age-appropriate, sources for images. Having a checklist of factors to include / check for, for example a balance of genders, cultural backgrounds, ages, body types, building and landscape types, etc.
    But…? How can you possibly include everybody in your materials?
  • Images should be exploited within materials.
    Why? Decorative images are fine, but there are so many ways in which images can be exploited to benefit the learning process. These can often be particularly motivating and engaging, as well as memorable.
    What does it entail? Including activities which exploit materials in a range of ways throughout the materials, both for more basic activities like clarifying the meaning of language, and for higher-order activities, like suggesting possible contexts for ambiguous images.
    But…? Nope, can’t think of a counter-argument.

The interpretation of illustrations in ELT materials

These are my notes based on the article of this name by Martin Hewings which originally appeared in ELT Journal Volume 45/3, July 1991, Oxford University Press, pp. 237-244. It looks at how learners from different cultures perceive illustratoins in language teaching materials. The learners in question were Vietnamese students of ESL in Britain, with the article received by the journal in August 1990. To me, it very much feels like an article of its time, and I wonder how differently the opening paragraphs would be framed it if was written today. Here’s an example:

For those learners who come from an educated, European background, divergence between how publishers and textbook writers intend illustrations to be perceived and how they are actually perceived may rarely be problematic. For those learners with a limited exposure to ‘Western’ conventions of illustration, it may present a barrier to language learning.

Hewings (1991: 237)

While I realise that not everybody has been brought up in the same illustrative tradition, I feel like the advent of the internet and the spread of various aspects of culture globally may mitigate some of this today. It’s not something I’ve ever come across, though it has to be said that the majority of my teaching has been done in Europe and/or in private language schools. The only time I think I’ve heard it might be a problem is with cultures with a different perception of time, who may not interpret a left to write timeline in the same way as I might.

Some of the problems with interpretation identified in the article included:

  • Representation of roles (p238): how people are shown in roles which are challenging to illustrate (for example, criminal, bank manager, lover). The lessons the article draws are “if students are not able to make the connection between the cues (age, dress, etc.) and the particular stereotype or role, they will get the answers wrong; and secondly, the even if they do make a connection, it may not be the connection that the teacher or materials writer intended.” (p239)
    [I feel like we have moved on a long way from the kinds of illustrations which might have appeared in materials in the 1980s, as well as the kinds of activities based on stereotypical roles described in the article, so I would hope this would no longer be a problem.]
  • Representation of situations (p239): how pictures are used to establish locations or situations, including if people are in the image too.
    [Same point as above]
  • Representation of topographical space (p240): plans or maps.
    [The question asked by researchers seems odd here – they ask which rooms are upstairs and which are downstairs, which seems designed to prompt misinterpretation when no stairs appear on the plan in question. I would sincerely hope the second example given would never appear in modern materials, not least because the question is so generic.]
  • Symbolic representations (p241): symbols, speech/thought bubbles in cartoons.
    [OK, some of these might cause problems, but many of these symbols feel fairly international now from my experience of travel. This would depend more on the learner’s world experience I think – there may be a point here for modern materials writers.]
  • Graphic representations (p242): charts, graphs, diagrams, visual organisers, tables.
    [I think learners from all cultures could potentially have problems with this – it’s not just the difference between the materials writer’s culture and the learners’. We spend a lot of time learning how to interpret this kind of representation during our schooling, particularly in maths lessons, and inevitably some people find it more challenging than others. All teachers/materials writers should bear that in mind when using this kind of illustration.]

Having disagreed with a lot of the first part of the article, the reminders in the second part are quite useful (p243). They can be summarised as:

  • Be aware of your cultural bias when interpreting an illustration.
  • Remember that not everybody sees illustrations in the same way you do.
  • Students may not have the skills to interpret an illustration in the way that is needed to complete a task. Be aware of this, and be prepared to provide extra support if necessary.
  • Problems of perception should be differentiated from problems with English language. When checking answers, check which of the two has happened. [Not the point Hewings made at all here, but the one I’ve chosen to take from it.]
  • Ask questions about the illustration itself to check interpretation, before using it to introduce the context or practise language.

Unit 8: Teacher’s notes / Trends in language materials / Course review

Teacher’s notes

These are my answers to questions we were asked.

  1. How do you use teacher’s notes in the published materials you use?

I rarely use them now when working with coursebooks. I might refer to them to double-check answers, or if I’m feeling particularly uninspired and am hoping the teacher’s notes might prompt some ideas. If it’s a new coursebook series, I might flick through the pages at the front to see if there are any useful ideas, such as a page of flashcard activities in a YL teacher’s book. I’m more likely to read teacher’s notes in supplementary materials, where the activities are often not as transparent on the page.

2. How do you think less experienced teachers use them?

It depends on whether they’ve realised/been shown that they might be useful. I’ve found teacher’s books to be quite hit and miss. As a relatively new teacher, the Straightforward Pre-Intermediate teacher’s book by Jim Scrivener was fantastic – it was full of ideas for exploiting activities, and included lots of methodology tips. English File and Speakout teacher’s book have often been quite useful in terms of potential grammar problems, cultural notes, and some ideas for extension activities or extra support. The Outcomes teacher’s books are like a mini teacher training course and are potentially very useful for new teachers. Other teacher’s notes are glorified answer keys, and not necessarily that useful.

3. What is a Teacher’s Book for? How many reasons can you think of?

  • Providing answers
  • Providing inspiration
  • Activities for extra support, fast finishers, extension activities, alternative warmers etc.
  • Identifying potential problems with activities, especially with grammar or vocabulary areas, but also with skills tasks. Even better, suggesting solutions for how to deal with them!
  • Homework ideas
  • Professional development for teachers
  • Justifying the methodology/beliefs of the materials
  • Links to other resources, e.g. extra activities in the TB / online

4. What else might a Teacher’s Book include besides notes for the teacher.

  • Supplementary activities
  • Answers
  • Tapescripts
  • An explanation of the thinking behind the book (beliefs, etc.)

5. Look at some teacher’s notes. [I chose the English File Intermediate 3rd edition Teacher’s book] What do you notice about how the instruction to teachers are written? Do you have any reactions to this? You might like to consider:

Consistency of wording? Generally quite consistent.

Sentence length? Relatively short, generally connected by ‘and’ if there are multiple clauses.

Imperatives or descriptions? Descriptions to introduce each unit, with imperatives in the activity notes themselves.

Use of metalanguage? Only metalanguage that students might be expected to know too, with the occasional word like ‘elicit’. Otherwise fairly minimal.

Layout of stages? Very clearly broken down. Each stage is a new point in the instructions.

Current trends in language teaching materials

This is a word cloud I made based on some of the comments we were shown connected to trends that various materials writers noticed:

21st~century~skills
emotional~intelligence
cross~cultural~communication
developing~the~whole~child
creativity
imagination
leadership
citizenship
higher~order~thinking~skills
problem~solving
digital~literacy
collaboration
communication
enquiry~based
multiple~literacies
visual~literacy
intercultural~awareness
lexical~phrases
discovery~learning
meaningful~visual~support
cultural~diversity
CLIL
projects
video~based~narrative
author~teams
inclusivity
adapted~for~learners~with~dyslexia
texts~only~used~for~language~focus
little~critical~reading
little~reader~response
exam~and~assessment~focus
tied~to~official~exams
measurable~progress
global~standardised~curricula
digital~practice
assessment~software
flipped~classroom
Made using http://wordclouds.co.uk based on materials from NILE

Another trend I’d add to this list is a move to include more strategy training connected to skills, particularly listening, in general English coursebooks. Pronunciation is now being treated for both listening and speaking in some materials.

If you’re interested in possible current/future trends, the closing plenary from IATEFL 2019 might make interesting watching for you, particularly Katherine Bilsborough talking about materials.

NILE MAPDLE MAT: Materials Development module (week two)

This is my second NILE MA module, Materials Development for Language Education, abbreviated to MAT. I have previously complete the Trainer Development module. You can see my related blog posts here.

Here are various bits and pieces from week two of the course, things which I wanted to remember, notes I’ve made while reading, and on-going tasks we’ve been asked to provide. The notes are there for me and they don’t cover every section of the course, but you may find something useful in there, or something you’d like to investigate further. Please note: this is not intended as a subsistute for doing this reading or this course yourself – it’s very subjective and based on my interests adn the things which stood out to me. Any one section from it could easily be a post in itself, but I want to keep it all together, and you don’t want me to share hundreds of posts 😉 I’ll post one of these in each of the three weeks of the online course. Here is the post for week one.

Unit 3: Cognitive Demand

Interested to get some proper theory on this, as that was the topic of a recent couple of posts (one, two) on my blog 🙂

My answers to a sentence completion task:

  1. When I give my learners material that is too difficult for them, they get depressed and demotivated. Some of them give up. If I’m lucky, they ask for help, but only once they’ve already struggled for a while.
  2. When I give my learners work that is too easy, they either (a) get complacent, (b) get bored, or (c) mess about, the last one particularly so if they’re young learners or teens.
  3. Somebody once said “Every class is a mixed ability class”. My class is a mixed ability class! (Because I completely agree with that statement – not thinking about any one particular class)
  4. When it comes to working things out for themselves, most of my learners are able and willing to try, especially if they’re older. For young learners, young teens, lower levels, those with prior history of problems with education (particularly connected to dyslexia and other working memory problems), this may be more challenging though.
  5. For my learners, critical thinking is something I don’t specifically talk about – I’ve learnt more about it over the past few years, but have mostly worked with very low levels over the last couple of years, so it’s been a challenge to incorporate it.

How cognitive demand affects learners

These notes are based on videos we watched on the NILE platform.

If the cognitive demand is too high/the materials are too difficult, there are high levels of frustration which means there’s no learning and demotivation. The effects include learners speaking L1, getting anxious and stressed, a drop in confidence. With adults who are paying for their lessons, they might be particularly frustrated.

If materials are too easy, learners are not challenged or engaged. Again, they’re not learning. Sometimes it can be a confidence builder if learners feel they have achieved something, but only when used in moderation. It can seem patronising for learners, as well as boring. Parents and learners might be annoyed that they’re not learning.

In mixed-ability classes (all classes!), materials which can be used flexibly and/or which include suggestions for differentiation in the teachers’ notes can be particularly useful. Tasks which can appeal to a range of levels work well: scaffolding for lower levels, and providing extension tasks for higher levels. Tom Sarney gave the example of reading questions which start easy and get more cognitively challenging, and Carole Robinson suggested providing a glossary or images to help learners understand a text.

Materials requiring learners to work things out for themselves can be good if it provides learners with a push, but if they work things out too easily then it might not be motivating for them. Claudia Rey mentions working within the ZPD, helping learners to work things out for themselves with a little guidance. For teens, it’s helpful to push learners to work independently – this doesn’t just help them with their English, but with life skills too. Tom Sarney mentions an enquiry-based approach. Adults may be more likely to want to work independently in their studies, though we may need to give them the tools to do this.

Critical thinking is important at all age groups and levels, not least because it’s in such demand in work. The challenge is the balance between language skills and critical thinking. In some contexts, there may be resistance to critical thinking activities. Bloom’s Taxonomy can be a useful way to incorporate a range of different thinking skills. With young learners and teens, you need to develop these skills. With adults, you can consider critical thinking skills to help you make materials more interesting.

We could learn from video game designers, who need to create the correct level of challenge to keep us playing.

Questions in language learning materials

These are my ideas about characteristics of good questions in language learning materials:

  • They need to be answerable! Or lead to some form of meaningful discussion about possible answers if they’re questions which are more philosophical in nature.
  • The language of the questions should be at or below the current language level of the students.
  • The language learners need to use to answer the questions should be available to them, for example language they have previously been introduced to. If they need new language to answer the questions, it shouldn’t get in the way of smooth communication.
  • Discussion questions should motivate a genuine exchange of information, rather than being pure display questions.
  • Comprehension questions should require responses spaced throughout the text, rather than being bunched too closely together. They should also not be answered by information in the first sentence or two.
  • You should include a wide range of different types of questions.

We were asked to look at a double-page spread in a coursebook, find the questions, and identify the reasons for them.

I looked at the sample unit for the student’s book of English File Intermediate third edition on the OUP website. These are the questions I found on pp. 4-5, and the reasons I think they’re there: (Note: I only selected things which were phrased as grammatical questions – there were lots of other things for learners to do)

  1. Vocabulary: Can you think of…ONE red fruit, ONE yellow fruit, ONE green fruit? (etc. – a quiz with 6 questions)
    To engage learners in the topic.
    To assess prior knowledge.
  2. Vocabulary: Listen to these common adjectives to describe food. Do you know what they mean?
    To assess prior knowledge.
  3. Pronunciation: Look at the eight sound pictures. What are the words and sounds?
    To assess prior knowledge.
    To stimulate learnes to remember (if they’ve used a previous book in the series)
  4. Pronunciation: What part of the symbol tells you that a sound is long?
    To assess prior knowledge.
    To guide learners to notice.
    To guide them to form hypotheses.
  5. Listening and speaking: questionnaire with 5 questions (I’ll call these 5a when referring back to it)
    (before listening) To engage learners in the topic (they’re about to listen to people answer the same questions)
    (before listening) To activate schemata related to the listening they’re about to do.
    (after listening) To stimulate language use. (they answer the questions themselves)
    (after listening) To encourage personalisation.
    (after listening) What do you have in common? (I’ll call this 5b) To improve group dynamics, as learners learn more about each other and find out what they might have in common.
  6. Reading: Are the foods in the list carbohydrates or proteins?
    To assess prior knowledge.
  7. Reading: What kind of food do you think it is better to eat…for lunch if you have an important exam or meeting? (etc. – this is one of 4 endings to the question)
    To engage learners in the topic.
    To encourage personalisation.
    To stimulate language use.
    To share ideas.
    To stimulate learners to remember (vocabulary covered previously could be re-used here)
  8. Reading: Look at the title of the article. What do you think it means?
    To engage learners in the topic.
    To stimulate learners to think.
    To activate schemata related to the reading they’re about to do.
  9. Reading: Find adjectives in the article for the verbs and nouns in the list. What’s the different between the two adjectives made from stress?
    To guide learners to notice.
    To guide them to form hypotheses.
  10. Reading: Three questions following the text, for example How often do you eat chocolate? Does it make you feel happier?
    To encourage personalisation.
    To stimulate language use.
    To stimulate learners to remember (vocabulary covered previously could be re-used here)
    (final question only) To stimulate learners to think more deeply

This was an interesting process to go through!

We were referred to Bloom’s Taxonomy, Diana Freeman’s Taxonomy of Reading Comprehension Questions, and the idea of moving from conrete to abstract questions Mike Gershon as ways of checking that you have included a range of questions in your work. (Mike Gershon has a resource called ‘The Bloom Buster‘ with hundreds of question stems.)

I find Bloom’s Taxonomy to be pretty abstract, and often struggle to work out which category particular questions or activities might fall under. I feel like it could potentially be pretty overwhelming when used as a way of generating questions too, though The Bloom Buster I’ve just mentioned could be a useful tool if you’re feeling writer’s block. Diana Freeman’s taxonomy is the most useful of these categorisations for me, as it’s specifically connected to EFL, and the three main categories of content, language, and affect seem like they are the most useful way of breaking down questions I’m likely to be working with. The way they are sub-divided incorporates some of the complexity of models like Bloom’s Taxonomy, but in a way which I find to be much more accessible. Of the ones we’ve been introduced to, this is the model I’m most likely to use when checking questions/instructions I have produced or looking for inspiration for my materials. The downside is that it’s specifically aimed at reading comprehension, though I think the main categories could be adapted to other areas of materials.

Looking at the same coursebook double-page from English File as before and attempting to use Freeman’s taxonomy, I think I can see the following types of questions:

  1. (not sure – doesn’t really map onto this taxonomy – probably a Language question?)
  2. Language: Lexical
  3. Language: Form (? might not be possible to map onto this taxonomy)
  4. Language: Form (? might not be possible to map onto this taxonomy)
  5. 5a: Content: Textually explicit (if memory serves! I don’t have access to the transcript/audio now)
    5b: Affect: Personal response
  6. Language: Re-organisation (matching)
  7. Affect: Personal response
  8. Content: Inferential
  9. Language: Lexical
  10. Affect: Personal response

Based on the prompts we were given about problems with questions, these are my tips for writing good questions, some of which are still the same as when I started this section, and some of which are more specific 🙂

  • Use display questions with caution – don’t overdo them.
  • Aim to convert closed questions into open questions when appropriate, to increase thinking and language output.
  • Limit memory testing questions to testing memory! If you want to teach and you want learners to learn, use a wider range of question types.
  • Make questions specific, so it’s clear what kind of answer is appropriate.
  • Keep question wording/structure simple, so that learners have cognitive space left to give complex answers, rather than struggling to understand the question. (this refers back to the language level in my ideas)
  • Make sure that if a range of answers are possible, you don’t rely on learners getting one specific answer for the next stage of the materials. Avoid ‘guess what I’m thinking’. (this refers back to ‘make sure they are answerable’ in my ideas at the start)
  • Have a clear pedagogical purpose in mind for questions you include in materials.
  • Check that questions require genuine understanding, not just lifting of information.

Effective instructions

These are my ideas for what makes for clear instructions in materials:

  • Use imperatives.
  • Keep sentences short and language simple.
  • Have one idea per sentence in the rubric, or, if necessary two which are linked by a simple conjunction, like ‘and’.
  • Break down stages of activities into separate instructions or parts of the task as needed. (Stage instructions.)
  • Include all of the instructions that a learner would need to complete the task. Don’t leave them guessing or struggling to work out exactly what is needed. For example, tell them where to write the answers.
  • Include parameters where appropriate, for example time limits or an indication of the number of items learners should think of.
  • Wherever possible/appropriate, supplement instructions with a worked example of what learners are expected to do.
  • Design : Make sure that instructions stand out from the rest of the text.
  • Design: Avoid having instructions run over to a new line wherever possible – this can make it easier for learners with dyslexia to follow.

There were a few extra points in the materials we were given on the module, but this was a pretty good start. I’m afraid you’ll have to do the course to get the full list!

Think globally, act locally

We watched this talk by Alan Pulverness.

Before watching: When and why do you usually adapt materials?

I adapt materials all the time – I rarely use materials exactly as they are in class, even if that’s what I planned to do when I started the lesson. I adapt them for a wide range of reasons (in no particular order):

  • To be more engaging for learners (I hope!)
  • To make them longer/shorter
  • To add/decrease challenge for the learners
  • To change the presentation style, for example pulling out images to work with them separately without the text to distract the learners
  • To localise them, for example adding references to Polish culture
  • To match my teaching style
  • To change the structure of the lesson, for example reordering the stages to fit my learners’ needs more appropriately

Before watching: What kinds of adaptations do you make?

I might adapt/add to/change:

  • The layout
  • The presentation
  • The content
  • The questions asked
  • The task
  • The amount of support provided
  • The examples given
  • The language covered
  • The instructions

And probably more!

While watching: Why adapt materials?

Materials adaptation can span a range of procedures from adding carefully contextualised role plays with the objective of providing more opportunities to communicate to not finishing a pronunciation drill because of time constraints.

Islam and Mares (2003)

…to make material more suitable for the circumstances in which it is used; to compensate for any intrinsic deficiences in the materials.

McGrath (2002)

From conscious (designing extras) to less conscious (making decisions in the lessons), we all do it, to a greater or lesser extent. No coursebook is ever perfect.

What are the limits of the course book? These are possible answers according to Alan Pulverness:

  • Fail to provide: choice, variety, topicality, phonology
  • Not provide enough of: practice, assessment, productive skills work
  • Course books expected to provide: texts, language information, visuals, structure
  • Should be provided by the teacher: warm-up, presentation, practice, consolidation
  • Could be provided by the learners…

Clarke (1989) in an ELT Journal article called something like ‘Why leave it all to the teacher?’, says that the learner can play a role in adapting materials too:

  • Learner commitment: enlist them to take a fuller part in the lesson
  • Learner as materials writer and collaborator: as consolidation or extension exercises, use in revision, maybe with other groups
  • Learner as problem solver: give learners a materials design task as a problem which they can solve, for example adapting it for stronger or weaker students (not sure I agree that this is a good idea)
  • Learner as knower: put them in a position of authority for example about a particular area of language
  • Learner as evaluator and assessor: can peer review, suggest further adaptations

Alan suggested some ways that learners could adapt materials:

  • selecting texts
  • extending texts
  • creating tasks
  • constructing activities
  • constructing texts

He told us about some research by Yan (2007) published in HLT Magazine about trainee teachers and their adaptation of materials. They did this for a range of reasons:

  • Integrating traditional and communicative methods.
  • Catering for students’ needs.
  • Integrating listening and speaking skills into lessons based on reading.
  • Meeting teachers’ own preferences and needs.

Cunningsworth (1995) gives the following reasons for adapting materials in Choosing your coursebook [Amazon affiliate link / BEBC non-affiliate link]:

  • Classroom dynamics
  • Learner personalities
  • Syllabus constraints
  • Availability of resources
  • Learners’ motivations and expectations

Alan gives the following suggestions for when you might want to adapt materials:

  • To provide more systematic grammar coverage
  • To provide more practice activities
  • TO make texts more accessible
  • To provide more challenge / more support
  • To make tasks more meaningful
  • To devote more attention to phonology
  • To replace inappropaite content
  • To provide greater visual impact
  • To provide more authentic language input
  • To provide variety, topicality, engagement

Islam and Mares (2003) give these reasons for adaptation:

  • To add real choice
  • To cater for different sensory learning styles (!)
  • To provide more learner autonomy
  • To encourage greater use of Higher Order Thinking Skills (according to Bloom’s taxonomy)
  • To make language input more accessible
  • To make language input more engaging

Alan lists various problems with materials:

  • Mismatch with curriculum goals
  • The textbook as de facto syllabus
  • More material than time available
  • Dependence on technology / supplementary components
  • Written for the widest possible audience
  • Culturally inappropriate

While watching: So what can we do about it?

This was Alan Pulverness’s summary:

  • Extension: How can I augment it?
  • Modification: How can I change it?
  • Supplementation: What can I bring to it?
  • Substitution: What can I replace it with?

Alan Maley (1998) suggests the following:

  • Omission
  • Addition
  • Reduction
  • Extension
  • Rewriting/modification
  • Replacement
  • Re-ordering
  • Branching

McGrath (2002) has the following principles motivating change:

  • Localisation
  • Personalisation
  • Individualisation
  • Modernisation
  • Simplification
  • Complication
  • Variation
  • Extrapolation (taking what’s there, following the logic and adding more)

Check that your adaptations are:

  • Principled rather than ad hoc, when possible
  • Informed by evaluation
  • Responsive to learners’ needs (and wants)
  • Proactive or reactive (what fits in this situation?)

While watching: What can you adapt?

Language:

  • Instructions
  • Explanations
  • Texts
  • Exercises
  • Output

Process:

  • Classroom management
  • Modes of interaction
  • Activities
  • Tasks
  • Learning styles

Content:

  • Topics
  • Contexts
  • Cultural references

Level

  • Linguistic demands
  • Cognitive demands

Everything basically!

While watching: How do you approach materials adaptation?

Ideally, there should be some kind of flow…

  1. Textbook evaluation.
  2. Identify strengths and shortcomings.
  3. Consider principles for adaptation.
  4. Decide on specific adaptations.

While watching: Caveats

  • Don’t adapt or replace too much! Otherwise you become a materials designer [I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, but it could lead to overwork, stress, a loss of continuity, learners/stakeholders who are frustrated at wasting money on materials they never use…]
  • Make sure that adaptation is principled.
  • Avoid replacing one routine approach with another – be creative.
  • Don’t be self-indulgent – be self-critical.
  • Be congruent…

Effective adaptation is a matter of achieving ‘congruence’…The good teacher is constantly striving for ‘congruence’ among several related variables: teaching materials, methodologies, students, course objectives, the target language and its context, and the teacher’s own personality and teaching style.

McDonough and Shaw (2003)

i.e. take into account all of the variables when deciding on adapting your materials…no easy job!

Advice to a new or inexperienced teacher who is unsure how to adapt coursebooks

This is a short email I wrote as a forum task:

Dear new teacher,

You’ve been given a course book which doesn’t work for your students. What should you do? Ask yourself:

– Look at the pages. What do my learners most need to practise/learn?

– What should therefore be the main lesson aim?

– How will I prove learners have improved their performance connected to the lesson aim?

– What activities on the page could I use unaltered? What small tweaks could I make to engage, support or challenge learnes more?

– How long are those activities likely to take? What stage of the lesson are they best suited for?

– What other stages are needed to ‘glue’ the course book activities together? For example, do you need to add preparation before speaking? Or extra language clarification? Or feed in functional language before pair work? Is there anything on the page you could adapt or re-write to help with this?

– Look at your plan so far. Does the lesson flow? Is there a clear context tying activities together? How will you introduce the context? Using the coursebook, or supplementing from elsewhere?

– Look at the whole lesson. Is there enough practice of the language or skill the aim focusses on? Can you exploit the activities you’ve already selected in other ways to add practice? For example, adding post-listening activities to focus on connected speech.

– Go back to the aim. Does the plan really fulfil it? Will you definitely know that learners have improved?

– After the lesson, ask to what extent did the adaptations I made benefit my learners?

By repeating this process of experimenting and reflecting, you will get better and better at adapting coursebooks successfully. When you’re ready, you can also research the theory behind coursebook adaptation, but until then, good luck!

Sandy

Differentiated learning

In the feedback on an assignment I did, our tutor referred be to the work of Carol Ann Tomlinson on differentiation, and particularly this interview with her.

These were quotes which I found particular interesting.

Differentiated instruction assumes a more positive mindset: Let’s assume they can all do good work, and let’s attend to the ways that they need us to teach them in order to get there.

Carol Ann Tomlinson

It’s really important for kids to come together and understand and appreciate their differences, and to be willing to help one another succeed—as opposed to the cut-throat competition that sometimes goes on in schools.

Carol Ann Tomlinson

If what you differentiate is boring enough to choke a horse, you’ve just got different versions of boredom.

Carol Ann Tomlinson

These are some of the principles of differentiated learning which Carol Ann mentions:

  • Respectful tasks: “everybody’s work needs to be equally engaging, equally appealing, and equally important” with every students having to “think to do their work”.
  • Flexible grouping: systematically moving kids into different groupings, so they can see “how they can contribute in a variety of contexts”, not just arbitrary groupings or at the same skill level. Examples of grouping types given are:
    • similar readiness groups
    • varied readiness groups
    • mixed learning-profile groups
    • interest groups
    • mixed interest groups
    • student-choice groups
  • Teaching up: start with “high-end curriculum and expectations” then “differentiate to provide scaffolding, to lift the kids up”, rather than starting with “grade-level material and then dumb it down for some and raise it up for others”.
  • Ongoing assessment: “continually checking in on who’s where with the knowledge and understanding I’m trying to teach”, not just through formal quizzes and tests, but also by “systematically watching kids, taking good notes, checking work regularly and closely, and asking good questions”

I’m sure there are more! Her book The Differentiated Classroom, looks like a good place to go if you’d like to find out more [Amazon affiliate link].

Unit 4: Language input and output

Language input

How do you feel about the way grammar is dealt with in the books you use?

It’s good enough, though formulaic in many ways. Learners will only pick up the grammar when they are ready to, regardless of the order in which it’s introduced in the books, though having grammar in materials can help them with this. The rules vary in quality, truthfulness (i.e. how fully applicable they are to any example of that language point), complexity and accessibility – for example using lots of metalanguage in a book aimed at beginner 10-12 year olds. There are generally plenty of different types controlled practice, and some freer practice and/or personalisation opportunities. Over the time that I’ve been using coursebooks, I’ve noticed that it’s generally become much better contextualised, and there is a shift in some books to move slightly away from a fully traditional grammar syllabus, such as in the Outcomes books.

How do you feel about the grammar syllabus in one coursebook you use?

I don’t have any particular feelings about the grammar syllabus. If I’ve chosen to use a coursebook, it’s because I think that the grammar syllabus has the potential to work wirth my students.

Can you think of some different approaches to teaching grammar?

Task-based learning – working on grammar as the need arises.

Grammar reference tools

We looked at three different grammar reference tools which we might want to refer to when developing materials. The pros and cons are related to materials development and are my responses.

British Council – Eaquals Core Inventory for General English (2010)

Pros:

The core inventory table is available as a single page, and therefore very easy to refer to.

The appendices map a range of different areas: written and spoken text types (p36-37), functions/notions (p38), discourse features (p39), grammatical forms (p39-41), lexis (p42), topics (p42). These are all potentially useful reference points.

p43 onwards contains a comprehensive list of exponents which were considered core, and which appeared less often – this would be a great starting point for example sentences in materials. There are also some short texts showing how some features can be used in context, for example ‘describing places’ at A2 on p47.

It summarises common practice in the industry in a descriptive way, so materials created could be slotted into industry standards.

It shows the “extent of agreement between the different types of sources” and “the broad agreement” across the profession regarding consensus on when particular language points might be introduced to learners, so a materials writer would be more likely to introduce level-appropriate language points, if creating a grammar syllabus is an important factor for them in materials design. (quotes from p18)

The scenario on p14-15 shows an interesting structure for considering how to approach planning lessons and/or materials for a given situation, in this case a business meeting. There are more scenarios from p26-35. Each scenario shows an overview (what is needed to succeed in this situation) and implementation (one way in which this might be transferred to the learning process).

It is aware of its own limitations (p20), emphasising that it can act as a point of reference but that needs analysis should “give the basis for actual teaching”:

Cons:

It implies a somewhat linear study of grammar, vocabulary, topics, etc. though it does specify that “the language point appears at the level(s) at which it is considered of most relevance to the learner in the classroom.” (p11)

There is some overlap in levels. A2 covers elementary and pre-intermediate. Elementary is included in A1 and A2.

Although there is a lot of consensus in levels A1-B2, there is less consensus for C1. The consensus which does exist throughout may well have been influenced by previous editions of similar documents (such as the Threshold Level, 1976), meaning it’s potentially somewhat self-perpetuating: learners are taught those items at those levels because people have previously decided that’s what they should learn, and they decide what they should learn based on what is taught to them at those levels.

C2 is not included – consensus was only shown regarding preparation for the CPE exam. (p20)

It’s based on a range of sources, but this doesn’t included learner language (I think).

Some items appear in multiple places on the summary page on p10-11, such as collocation and colloquial language (B1, B2, C1) or leisure activities (A1, A2, B1) – this makes it seem very generic.

There are numbers throughout the list of exponents, but no clear information about what those numbers actually refer to (at least, not that I could find!)

English Grammar Profile 

Pros:

It’s very comprehensive.

It includes definitions and examples of each item to make it easy to understand what grammar feature is being referred to.

It was compiled from learner data. There are learner examples, both corrected and uncorrected, for every item. The learner examples are taken from a range of different language backgrounds, and include information about when they were collected and what level the learner was.

It can be searched and filtered by level.

It allows you to see progression across levels in terms of how a single grammatical item might be used.

The levels are colour-coded, making them easy to pick out from a longer list.

The grammar spotlight posts analyse the database in an interesting way to show what kinds of language learners are likely to use at different levels, including how this might differ depending on their language background, if relevant.

Lists can be downloaded.

It’s free!

Cons:

It could be quite overwhelming to navigate due to the amount of information included.

There’s potentially far too much information for any single level. For example, filtering by A1 gives 109 items, so it might be hard to select which could be the most useful to include in materials.

It only covers grammar items, or very fixed lexical expressions containing grammatical words, for example ‘might as well’. (The English Vocabulary Profile also exists – we’re focussing on grammar in this unit of the course though)

The data was compiled from exam scripts, so the conditions learners produced the language in was controlled. I think they may also be written scripts (though I’m happy to be corrected) so it doesn’t feature examples produced when speaking.

Global Scale of English Teacher Toolkit 

Pros:

It breaks down levels more than the CEFR does, including pre-A1. It also includes A2+, B1+ and B2+, which the other two resources we’ve looked at don’t.

It can be filtered by language skills, rather than only grammar or vocabulary.

It can be filtered for academic learners, adult learners, professional learners or young learners (6-14) for skills. Grammar and vocabulary have fewer options in this case.

The GSE allows finer grade filtering than the CEFR due to its use of numbers.

Lists can be downloaded.

There are resources linked to some of the grammar can do statements, which might provide inspiration for materials design.

Grammar can do statements come with a sample structure, examples, and related learning objectives which are functional, for example “Can form questions with ‘what’ and ‘who’ and answer them.” is connected to 20 different possible learning objectives.

It has a text analyzer you could check your writing with, which could be useful for rewriting or selecting what to include in a glossary.

Cons:

It could be quite overwhelming as there is so much possible information.

It could imply a very linear ‘first learn this, now learn this, now learn this’ approach (I’m sure there’s a proper term for this, but can’t think of it now!) which might seem somewhat mechanical.

Overall

I think if I’m writing materials for a specific level, and especially if I decide that having a grammar component is important, I would potentially use the BC/EAQUALS core profile as a starting point, then supplement it by referring to the other two databases, comparing what I found in each to help me decide on my grammar syllabus. This would obviously also be connected to a needs analysis and my own predictions of what language learners might need in given situations.

What is practice?

(My ideas)

  • Why do language learners need to practise?
    Without practice, learners will never activate their knowledge. They also need the opportunity to experiment, and to get feedback on their efforts. The more practice they do, especially if it is accompanied by useful feedback, the more likely they are to remember language they are trying to learn. Without feedback, they may remember this incorrectly though.
  • What are some elements of an effective practice task?
    It has a clear pedagogical purpose.
    It’s engaging.
    It’s motivating.
    The instructions are clear and achievable.
    It practises what it is supposed to practice. Anything else it practises is within the learner’s skillset.
    There are clear opportunities for feedback, and the feedback provided will enable learning.
  • What is the difference between an activity for practising language and testing it?
    Activities for practising language include feedback on performance, and the opportunity to repeat the activity again. Learners would ideally get support while they are completing the activity if they need it. Activities for testing language are far less likely to include feedback. Support is not available during the activity, and it’s much less likely that repetition will be built in.

Review and recycling

(My ideas)

What do we mean by recycling language?

Reusing it in different contexts within materials so learners get multiple exposures to the language. Encouraging learners to recall and reuse language in later practice activities covering a range of contexts.

What are the benefits of recycling?

  • Learners get more exposure to the language, making it more likely they will be able to recall it later.
  • Learners see the language in a range of contexts, building up their awareness of possible collocations and co-text.
  • They are able to get feedback on attempts to use the language in a range of different ways.

How do we incorporate recycling into our materials?

  • Building in a spiral syllabus.
  • Including revision activities.
  • Providing opportunities for learners to reuse language in later tasks.

[I feel like I should definitely have more ideas than this, but I’m out!]

Yep, there were a lot more ideas in the unit, though some kind of overlapped with what I said.

Quotations about teaching grammar and my reactions to them

Despite the advent of the Communicative Approach over recent years, and despite the daily evidence offered by learners that the difficulties they encounter in using another language to encode their own meanings to do with lexis and (in the spoken mode) with phonology, the dominance of grammar in teaching materials remains high, to the point of obsession.

Stranks in Tomlinson 2003 p. 329

I agree with this. Most teaching materials I’ve used seem to prioritise grammar, with the grammar syllabus forming the core of the book. There is a fair amount of discussion about this within the teaching and materials writing community as far as I’m aware, but it’s a challenge to shift away from this due to the expectations of many different stakeholders. Some minor attempts have been made, such as the local coursebook Bruno Leys spoke about at IATEFL 2021.

input + output (interaction) + affect + cognition > meaningful purposeful interaction > language acquisition

Mishan and Timmis 2015 p. 25

That seems like a reasonable sequence of events and set of parts in the formula. The challenge for a materials writer is making sure that affect, cognition and meaningful purposeful interaction are all referenced in the activities.

Many people involved in ELT – and that includes learners – have considerable difficulty accepting exercises which do not have clearly demarcated right or wrong answers. Unfortunately, however, language – and that includes grammar – is frequently not a matter of correct or incorrect, but possible or not possible.

Stranks in Tomlinson 2003 p. 337

I think some learners may have trouble with understanding that grammar is not always correct or incorrect – they struggle with the idea of language as choice. To some extent, I think this is due to them having done lots of activities in the past which are correct/incorrect, and therefore relatively easy to administer and mark. Our challenge as teachers and materials writers is to help learners to move away from this, and to feel comfortable with the uncertainty of language, while still building their confidence in their own ability to understand and produce ‘acceptable’ language in a given situation.

Why is ‘grammar’ equated so much with verbs?

Buckmaster 2001

(I’m really happy that this source exists – I’ve never seen it before. It seems to build on ideas from The English Verb by Michael Lewis, one of the books which has most influenced my thinking about language.)

Tense, aspect and voice seem to be a huge part of the way which languages carry meaning, and each language seems to have a different way of approaching their verb system to a greater or lesser extent. These systems rarely map cleanly onto each other, making it challenging to directly transfer knowledge of one language to another language. The verb system also influences the way in which we perceive actions and how they might be divided up: for example, in English we might perceive actions as factual, remote, before but connected to a later event, or in progress, whereas in Polish we might perceive actions as complete or incomplete. Because of these differences, we therefore focus a lot of our grammar teaching on verb forms to help learners to see how the languages differ. This is not true to the same extent in other areas of grammar, or it can be much easier to clarify how differences work between languages, for example in the system of comparatives, or the use of adverbs.

The exercise format should reflect the objective of the exercise […]. Worksheets which do not necessitate language production or which closely control what students produce will have at best an indirect effect on their ability to produce language fluently in less controlled situations.

McGrath 2002 p.94

To some extent this is true, but control over production can be useful in the early stages of understanding a new language point, or attempting to produce the form correctly. There should be a range of different types of practice activities, including ones which encourage learners to “produce language fluently in less controlled situations”.

Research on methodology is inconclusive, and has not shown detectable, lasting and wide-ranging effects for implicit versus explicit instruction, for inductive versus deductive learning or separated-out study of structure versus incidental focus on form during communicative activity.

Swan 2006 quoted in Mishan and Timmis 2015 p.153

This doesn’t surprise me, as it would be very difficult to tease out any of these variables in long-term research. Each of learn differently and have so many different opportunities to get input. Ultimately each person has to find what works for them, and that may be different for different people. What we really need is instructions and activities which engage learners and keep them coming back. For some learners that might be listening to somebody else explain language and processing that explanation for themselves, for others it might be picking things up as they go along. For some it might be experimenting with language in real life, for others it might be completing practice activities and getting a confidence boost when they realise they’re right. Each to their own! As materials designers, we need to include a range of activities and types of instruction to appeal to a range of learners, and to cover our bases when it comes to SLA research.

Beliefs about materials for teaching grammar or functions

These are some of my own beliefs about materials for teaching grammar or functions. The ‘But…?’ part is possible arguments others might have against these beliefs, not necessarily reflecting what I think. I haven’t included the counter-arguments as that would make it very long! The principles are numbered so I can refer back to them in the section below, rather than to imply any particular order – I think they’re all equally important.

  1. Language should be clearly contextualised, and the context should be exploited to support understanding.
    Why? Decontextualised grammar or functions involve learners trying to figure out when or where the structures might be applicable. By providing a context, you are already helping them to see how the language can be used in longer discourse, rather than only seeing individual sentences.
    What does it entail? The context needs to be understood before any study of the language can be effective. This can be done in two main ways: by providing the context, through supplying a reading or listening text, or by creating a space for the language to potentially be produced, through a speaking or writing task. In the former case, you can work with the text for comprehension, then highlight the language. In the latter, learners can focus on the task, then teachers can help them to notice gaps in their language and how to fill them. The context also shouldn’t be abandoned or lost once the language study starts – there should be references back to the context, and it should continue to be a part of the activity sequence.
    But…? How do you deal with the fact that grammar or functions can appear in a wide range of different contexts? How do you balance understanding the context and understanding the language?
  2. Learners should be engaged in the language clarification process.
    Why? I believe that learners are likely to switch off or miss key information in pure lecture-style/text input language clarification. By providing opportunities for some level of interaction, they are more likely to process the input they are being given regarding the language.
    What does it entail? This could be done at a low level by creating gaps or options in rules. At a deeper level, it can be done through more detailed guided discovery, asking questions to help learners to find the rules themselves. At the deepest level, it could be through asking learners to formulate rules for themselves, as Danny Norrington-Davies suggests in From Rules to Reasons [Amazon affiliate link / BEBC non-affiliate link].
    But…? Just because learners have participated in formulating a rule for the use of particular language, how can you guarantee that they actually know it or will remember it? If they are formulating their own rules, how do you check that the rules are ‘correct’ or applicable to other contexts? How much support do learners need to be able to create rules themselves? How do you make sure this process is engaging rather than intimidating or off-putting?
  3. There should be plenty of opportunities for learners to practise the language and to get feedback on this practice.
    Why? Without practice, input is just information. It won’t be transferred into long-term memory, nor will it become automaticized as part of the skill of understanding or using English. But practice without feedback is just testing – they need to happen together.
    What does it entail? Practice opportunities should be varied, including opportunities for a focus on different areas of the language (meaning/use, form, pronunciation), different levels of control and support (controlled, semi-controlled, freer – not necessarily in that order!), different activity types (spoken, written, games, etc.), different interaction patterns (individual, pairs, groups, teams, whole class). Obviously not all of these can be included for every grammar item or function mentioned in the materials, but there should be suggestions for how activities could be tweaked in the teacher’s notes, and a range of activities across the materials. Feedback suggestions should be built into the teacher’s notes, with ideas for how to make the most of the learning opportunities available in feedback stages, rather than simply giving information about what was and wasn’t correct and moving on.
    But…? How do you decide what practice activities to include in the main materials, what to suggest in teacher’s notes/other supplementary materials, and what to leave out? How much space and time is available in the materials to include all of these different practice opportunities?
  4. Language should be revised and recycled.
    Why? Once is never enough! Learners need multiple exposures to new language, both receptively and productively, for it to be available to them for understanding and use. Multiple exposures also mean building up a better awareness of when it is and isn’t possible/appropriate to use a given grammatical structure or functional exponent.
    What does it entail? Including opportunities for revision or recycling in materials, using a range of different techniques. Some of the ones mentioned on the course include end of unit reviews, self-assessment activities, writing personalised questions, useful language boxes, task repetition and revisiting texts.
    But…? There is a limited amount of space in materials and a lot of language ground to cover – how do you balance these two issues? Is recycling and revision the responsibility of the teacher or the materials writer, since different students will have different needs?

Evaluating digital activities

We were asked to think of a grammar or functional area that we are likely to teach or write materials for soon, find three different resources, and evaluate the activities according to the beliefs we noted.

I selected ‘English for travel’ as this is an area I’m interested in writing for, and decided to particularly focus on checking into hotels. I did a Google search for English for tourism: checking in at hotels and found three resources from different websites of varying quality and for different audiences. The numbers refer to the principles in the section above in this post.

The first resource is two gapfill pages from Learn English Feel Good, which I’ve never come across before. It’s designed for self-study, and I think it would probably be best for intermediate due to the types of phrases included. There are two pages with short gapped written conversations between a hotel clerk and a tourist. The first conversation has somebody turning up at the hotel and selecting a room during the conversation. The second conversation has somebody with a reservation who wants to see the room before they pay.

  1. Context
    The phrases are used within a conversation. There is not other support for understanding the context, for example pictures or a video.
  2. Engaged in understanding the language clarification
    Each sentence is a 3-option multiple choice activity – learners could guess if they don’t already know the phrase. There is no language clarification at all, much less any which might involve cognitive processing of the meaning of the phrases.
  3. Practice opportunities
    There is only one practice activity, and it is the same format for both conversations. Learners could do it as many times as they want to, but they would have to create their own supplementary activities, for exampe by looking at the phrases, hiding the window, and trying to write the phrases elsewhere. Learners are probably unlikely to know this kind of activity or do it if they do know it. The feedback only says whether something is right or wrong, not why, so learning is likely to be minimal – learners can just try again until they get it right, but won’t necessarily know why.
  4. Revision / recycling
    This is not present in the materials.

The second resource is a podcast from British Council Premier Skills English. It’s designed for self-study, but could be used by teachers as the basis of a lesson plan. It would probably work best for pre-intermediate and above as it’s fairly straightforward but there’s quite a lot of input. It’s the first in a series of four podcasts on the topic of English and Tourism. There is a transcript to accompany the podcast, as well as a vocabulary activity and a description of some key phrases and how they’re used, divided up to correspond with the four sections of the podcast: introductions, problems at reception, resolving problems, and costs and changes. There’s then a gapfill to practise the key phrases, a quiz, and a hotel review writing task which learners can respond to by writing in the comments.

  1. Context
    The phrases are used in a clear context: a conversation between a customer and a hotel receptionist. The conversations are somewhat buried in the rest of the podcast, but they clearly follow the football theme of the website, and listeners are likely to be familar with the format of the podcast. The context is introduced clearly, including listeners being told that the role play will be in four sections. After each section, the language is dicussed. There is a question to answer when listening to each part of the roleplay to help learners focus on comprehension. The context is very rich, and contains a lot of potentially useful language. It is referred back to in the clarification.
  2. Engaged in understanding the language clarification
    The language clarification is all described, with no pause or questions for learners to think about their own answers. Learners are passive during the language clarification process. They can hear the clarification in the podcast, read it in the transcript, and read a slightly different version of it on the webpage.
  3. Practice opportunities
    There are no practice opportunities in the podcast, and the written task of describing a hotel stay is connected to the vocabulary rather than the functional language of checking in. There are two written practice activities on the webpage. The first is a gapfill, with each sentence missing one word from each sentence, though sometimes these are functional language, and sometimes they’re vocabulary. The second is a quiz, but you could only see if it you log in. I imagine it’s possibly multiple choice, but I don’t know.
  4. Revision / recycling
    The hotel review allows revision of the vocabulary, and learners could read each others’ reviews to see the vocabulary used in multiple contexts. They could listen to the podcast or read the information as many times as they want to, but there are no opportunities for retrieval practice.

The third resource is a lesson plan from One Stop English and is available at elementary and intermediate – I looked at the elementary plan. It’s a complete lesson plan with teacher’s notes, and also covers checking in at an airport. The plan is aimed at learners who are 16+ years old and should take 90 minutes. There is a warm up to elicit vocabulary, a mime to introduce the topic and elicit more collocations, whiteboard work to focus on the vocabulary in more depth, revision of numbers, eliciting questions hotel reception staff might ask (the first stage of the actual functional language), a running dictation of a conversation / an ordering task (depending on the teacher’s choice), dialogue practice with the option of changing the dialogues, and a role play.

  1. Context
    By the time the phrases are introduced, the context of checking into a hotel is clear. They are within a short dialogue, and a sample answer is provided with a longer version of the conversation (in one of the pdfs – slightly confusingly, there are two very similar pdfs!) There’s no clear language clarification in the notes, so it’s not clear whether the context would be referred to again for this, though the dialogues are reused in stage 7.
  2. Engaged in understanding the language clarification
    Before they see the dialogue, the learners are given the opportunity to come up with their own possible questions, meaning they will be processing the meaning themselves. It’s not clear from the teacher’s notes in stage 5, but presumably the assumption is that the teacher will upgrade any language they produce to ensure that the questions are correctly formed. The ordering task involves the learners in processing the meaning, although again there doesn’t seem to be any feedback or meaning checking included in the teacher’s notes to ensure that the learners have got it right.
  3. Practice opportunities
    The main opportunity to practice comes in the dialogue (stage 7), with learners repeating the task multiple times and reducing the amount that they look at the dialogue as they go through. They also change roles. There is then a freer practice activity (stage 8) consisting of a role play with learners switching roles multiple times. To some extent the running dictation (stage 6) is also a form of practice, as they say and/or write the phrases, though if they don’t know what the phrases mean this stage may not be particularly useful in fixing the language in learners’ memory. There is an extension activity for stronger students related to including requests in the check in conversation.
  4. Revision / recycling
    There are lots of opportunities for the learners to revise the language through the task repetition in the dialogue and the role play.

Second Language Acquisition (SLA) and Materials Development (1)

These are my notes notes based on a chapter by Tomlinson (2013) in the book Applied Linguistics and Materials Development [Amazon affiliate link]. He also edited the book and it was published by Bloomsbury.

Some terms defined at the start of the chapter (p11):

  • Second language acquisition: “the process by which people acquire and/or learn any language in addition to their first language. It is also the name of the academic discipline which studies that process.”
  • Acquisition: different definitions depending on the researcher: “the informal, subconscious process of gaining a language from exposure and use”; Tomlinson (2007a, p.2) “the initial stage of gaining basic communicative competence in a language”
  • Learning: “the deliberate, conscious study of a language in order to be able to use it”
  • Development: Tomlinson (2007a, p.2) “the subsequent stage [after acquisition as defined above] of gaining the ability to use the language successfully in a wide range of media and genres for a wide variety of purposes”

Most researchers seem to agree that learning is insufficient and needs to be at least supplemented by acquisition.

Tomlinson (2013: 11)

What we know about the process of SLA

It is facilitated by (headings lifted directly from the chapter):

  • A rich and meaningful exposure to language in use
    Rich = “contains a lot of implicit information about how the language is actually used to achieve communicative effect and that it provides natural recycling of language features (Nation, 2011)” (Tomlinson, 2013: 12)
    Meaningful = “relevant to the learner and the learner is able to understand enough of it to gain meaning from it” (Tomlinson, 2013: 12)
  • Affective and cognitive engagement
    “Learners who are stimulated to laugh, smile, feel joy, feel excited and feel empathetic are much more likely to acquire communicative competence […]” (Tomlinson, 2013: 12)
    “Positive emotions seem most likely to stimulate deep processing (Craik & Lockhard, 1972) and therefore to faciliate language acquisition.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 12)
    “Negative emotions […] are much more facilitative than no emotional responses at all.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 12)
    “Self-confidence and self-esteem are also important aspects of affective engagement, as is feeling positive about the learning environment.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 12)
    “If they do [use high level mental skills], they are much more likely to achieve deep processing and to eventually acquire language and develop language skills […]” (Tomlinson, 2013: 12)
    “Put very simply, in order for learners to acquire a second language they need to think and feel in the process of acquiring it.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 12)
  • Making use of those mental resources typically used in communication in the L1
    Examples include our inner voice, visual imaging, motor imaging (“to recreate movements which are described”) – collectively “multidimensional mental representation” (Tomlinson, 2013: 13)
    “L2 learners rarely make use of these mental resources at all. [For a range of reasons, they engage in] linguistic micro-processing which takes up all the brain’s processing capacity.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 13)
    Tomlinson and Avila (2007b) has suggestions for activities to help with this.
  • Noticing how the L2 is used
    “Noticing linguistic features in the input is an important facilitator of language acquisition.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 13)
    “One way of doing this is to draw the learner’s attention to language features in use either through direction of through making the understanding of that feature important for task completion. This does not lead to instant acquisition of the feature but it does contribute to and can accelerate its eventual acquisition.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 13)
    Two approaches are suggested to help learners achieve what Pienneman (1985) calls “psychological readiness”: learners “respond personally to the content of an engaging written or spoken text and then go back to make discoveries about the form and function of a particular feature of that text” / “a form-focused approach […] in which learners first focus on the meaning of a text and later focus on the form and function of a specific linguistic feature (through instruction and or consciousness raising)” (Tomlinson, 2013: 13)
  • Being given opportunities for contextualised and purposeful communication in the L2
    Output = “producing language for communication” (Tomlinson, 2013: 14)
    “It can provide learners with contextual feedback, it helps to automatize language, it constitutes auto-input and it can elicit further comprehensible input too.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 14) [I’m not sure what ‘auto-input’ is.]
    Pushed output = “communicating something which is not easy to express” (Tomlinson, 2013: 14)
    “[Pushed output] can be particularly beneficial as it stretches the learner’s capabilities by making them make full use of their acquired language and of their strategic competence, as as providing opportunities for new but comprehensible input from their interlocutors who are helping them to negotiate meaning.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 14)
    “This would suggest that setting learners achievable communicative challenges is likely to be more useful than providing easy practice.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 14)
  • Being encouraged to interact
    “It helps to make input more comprehensible, it provides meaningful feedback and it pushes learners to modify their output.” especially when communication breaks down (Tomlinson, 2013: 14)
    “Such communication is contextualised and purposeful, it is relevant and salient, it is generally comprehensible and it promotes meta-talk about the L2.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 14)
  • Being allowed to focus on meaning
    “Learners are more likely to acquire forms if their primary focus is on meaning rather than form.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 14)
    “However it does seem that more attention to form is needed as the learner progresses to advanced levels.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 14)
    Possible approaches suggested are an “experiential approach”: “learners first experience an engaging text holistically, respond to it personally and then return to the text to focus discretely on a salient feature of language use”, what Long (1996) calls a “form-focused” approach, rather than a “forms-focused” approach (on a “predetermined, discrete form”); “language awareness approaches”: “learners first experience a form in use and are then helped to make their own discoveries about it”; “consciousness raising approaches”: “learners are guided towards finding out how a form is used” (Tomlinson, 2013: 14-15)
  • Other generally accepted features (all taken from Tomlinson, 2013: 15):
    • being relaxed
    • being motivated to participate and to learn
    • being help to develop an emerging interlanguage which gradually moves closer to the target language
    • developing hypotheses about how the language is used for communciation
    • being catered for as an individual
    • making full use of non-linguistic means of communicating
    • being ready to acquire a focused feature “which can be powerfully influenced by materials which create a need to ‘know’ a language feature in order to complete a motivating task and by materials which help learners to notice a particular feature being used” (Tomlinson, 2013: 15)
  • On the same page, Tomlinson also says there are other features which he discusses in other literature (Tomlinson 2008, 2010, 2011a):
    • Allowing for the inevitable delayed effect of instructions
    • Impact
    • Self-confidence
    • Relevance
    • Self-investment
    • Positive attitudes
    • A silent period at the beginning of instruction

SLA and published materials

So many areas to consider! In the next part of the chapter, Tomlinson analyses a number of global coursebooks to see how their practice matches up to this theory.

I found that none of the coursebooks focus on meaning, that they are all forms-focussed and that the majority of their activities are language item practice activities. Some of the coursebooks provide some opportunities for noticing and most make some attempt at personalization. None of them, however, offer a choice of content, route or activities.

Tomlinson (2013: 16)

The mismatch between SLA theory and practice is demonstrated in a number of ways on p16-17. By implication, any materials which want to match up to SLA theory should:

  • Include more use of literature
  • Use longer and more complex texts
  • Include activities which focus on use, rather than practice
  • Choose topics and activities which stimulate affective responses
  • Ask learners to think for themselves and be creative
  • Aim to vary approach, not only using conventional practice activities like T/F, matching, gap fills, sentence completion, role play, working in pairs to compare ideas
  • Recycle language in use
  • Encourage learners to speak or write at length
  • Encourage learners to interact for a communicative purpose and at length
  • Focus on form, not on forms

Some ideas for ways to vary materials from p17 which I might want to include in materials I create for this module are:

  • Visual imaging tasks
  • Inner speech tasks
  • Extensive / creative writing with an audience and a purpose
  • Tasks offering choice
  • Different versions of texts for learners to choose form
  • Thinking tasks
  • A meaning focus

On p17-18 Tomlinson lists various reasons why this mismatch between SLA theory and materials might exist, the biggest of which I think is the “massive mismatch between typical examination tasks and SLA principles”.

Unanswered questions in SLA research

One question he asked is “Is there a natural sequence in langauge acquisition?” (Tomlinson, 2013: 19) This answer appeals to me:

One plausible explanation for similarities in sequences of acquisition is offered by MacWhinney (1987; 2005). His competition model claims that what learners can pay attention to at any one time is limited and that they filter out features of language when they listen to a second language. Learners gradually get better at processing sentences and mental resources are freed up to focus on more complex features of the input. […] What is essential for communication is learned before what is perceived as redundant.”

Tomlinson, 2013: 19

Another area discussed was text enhancement (TE) “(e.g. colour coding, boldfacing, audio repetition) as a means of drawing [learners’] attention to salient features of their input”, as proposed by Sharwood Smith (1993) (Tomlinson, 2013: 19). “Lee (2007) found that only when input has been understood can learners attend to form.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 20)

I foudn it very interesting that three of the questions included in Tomlinson’s list demonstrate that three things which feature in a lot of materials and which I personally find to be useful don’t necessarily have any SLA research behind them:

  • Do controlled practice activities facilitate acquisition?
  • Does memorization facilitate language acquisition?
  • Do repetition derills facilitate language acquisition? (Tomlinson, 2013: 20)

It would seem that many coursebook procedures have become accepted as dogma to be followed, even though there is little research or even anecdotal evidence to support them.

Tomlinson, 2013: 20

Suggestions for applying SLA theory to ELT materials development

  • Task-based materials “provide the learners with a purpose and an outcome […] which can only be achieved through interaction in the L2.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 21)
  • In problem-based approaches “learners communicate with each other in order to solve a problem.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 21)

There is an example from task-based materials of instructions Tomlinson wrote for learners, where the first time they listen and visualise what they’ll do, and the second time they listen and do (making use of mental resources…)

  • Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) approaches “help learners to acquire an L2 by teaching them a subject, topic or skill they are interested in through the medium of the L2) (Tomlinson, 2013: 22)

Some examples of wording I think might be useful from CLIL instructions Tomlinson wrote:

Visualize your idea in action and talk to yourself about its potential applications.

In your group help each other to understand any ideas which were not completely clear.

Reflect on your presentation. Decide how you would make your presentation even more effective if you had to give the presentation to another company.

Tomlinson, 2013: 22-23
  • Text-driven approach (Tomlinson, 2003): “Text-driven materials are determined by potentially engaging written and/or spoken texts rather than by language teaching points. The learners’ interactions with the texts drive personal response activities, thinking activiites, communication activities, creative writing activities and language awareness activities, as well as often inviting supplementation with other locally appropriate texts.” The table below outlintes a “flexible text-driven framework” (Tomlinson, 2013: 24, based on Tomlinson and Masuhara, 2004)
(Tomlinson, 2013: 24, based on Tomlinson and Masuhara, 2004)

Overall

This was a very useful summary of SLA theory, and has really got me thinking about the materials I have created in the past and might create in the future, and how they (don’t!) match up to this theory.

My answers to some of Tomlinson’s 2013 questions

Is SLA primarily implicit or explicit?

I’ve learnt lots of languages in lots of ways, but I’ve always felt that until I was actually using the language myself and getting lots of exposure, I wasn’t making progress. In Polish, I’ve done almost no explicit study and I’ve never had lessons, but have reached B2 level over a period of 6 years. I had a largely silent period for the first year, and I have only done explicit study when I felt that I was ready to learn a particular feature, for example looking up how to form conditionals or comparatives in a grammar book. I’ve never completed a grammar exercise. In Mandarin, I’ve done only explicit study over a period of about 10 years, but can say almost nothing and am possibly at A1 level, but probably still pre-A1. Based on this experience, I would say that SLA is primarily implicit, but that explicit study can provide a boost which helps with noticing and to make leaps in progress.

Is there a natural sequence in language acquisition?

Yes, I think there is, though I really like the explanation given by MacWhinney for why this might be. Again, having learnt various different languages, I tend to find I learn different structures at similar levels. For example, comparatives and superlatives at about A2, conditionals come at B1 – though I can’t produce them until B2 and higher. This is because of their importance in what I’m trying to communicate (I don’t really need them earlier, and/or I don’t have enough other language to think of trying to build them myself). I’ve noticed a similar process in the first language acquisition of friends’ children, and in the problems learners have at different levels.

Are the factors which determine the effectiveness of language acquisition variable?

I think that individual learners will learn in different ways for a huge range of reasons, including educational background, culture and engagement. I think these factors might be variable between learners, but not within an individual learner, if that makes sense!

Does text enhancement facilitate language acquisition?

I find it quite distracting as a learner, and find it much more useful to notice features of a text myself, focussing on the areas which I feel are important for me at that point in my study, or on something which I find interesting about a text. I think it might help some learners to find their way around a text when it comes to a specific focus on the language, but I believe it’s better for learners to enhance the text themselves than for it to be provided by the writers.

Second Language Acquisition (SLA) and Materials Development (2)

These are my notes based on Tomlinson’s 2008 chapter ‘Language Acquisition and Language Learning Materials’ in English Language Learning Materials (Contiuum 2008) [Amazon affiliate link].

One of my arguments is that many ELT materials (especially global coursebooks) currently make a significant contribution to the failure of many learners of English as a second, foreign or other language to even acquire basic competence in English and to the failure of most of them to develop the ability to use it successfully. They do so by focusing on the teaching of linguistic items rather than on the provision of opportunities for acquisition and development. And they do this because that’s what teachers are expected and required to do by administrators, by parents, by publishers, and by learners too.

Tomlinson (2008: 3)

That’s quite some statement!

He goes on to share a slightly different list to the one in his later chapter (above) of what is required to facilitate language acquisition, “a rich experience of language in use” whereby:

  • “the language experience needs to be contextualized and comprehensible
  • the learner needs to be motivated, relaxed, positive and engaged
  • the language and discourse features available for potential acquisition need to be salient, meaningful and frequently encountered
  • the learner needs to achieve deep and multi-dimensional processing of the language” (Tomlinson 2008: 4)

He suggests the use of extensive reading and extensive listening to provide exposure to language.

It is my belief that helping learners to notice features of the authentic language they are exposed to can facilitate and accelerate language acquisition. […] This is particular true if the learners are stimulated and guided to make discoveries for themselves […] and to thus increase their awareness of how the target language is used to achieve fluency, accuracy, appropriacy and effect.

Tomlinson, 2008: 4

It is also my belief that helping learners to participate in meaningful communication in which they are using language to achieve intended outcomes is essential for the development of communicative competence. […] Practice activities which have been designed to give the learner frequent opportunities to get something right make very little contribution to language acquisition because they don’t add anything new and they make no contribution at all to language development because they focus on accurate outputs rather than successful outcomes. What the materials need to do is to provide lots of opportunities for the learners to actually use language to achieve intentions and lots of opportunities for them to gain feedback on the effectiveness of their attempts at communication.

Tomlinson, 2008: 5

There is a long list of conjectures Tomlinson has arrived at from his experience as a language teacher (2008: 5-6). Ones which particularly stood out to me were:

  • Learners gain from sometimes being allowed to hide and from not always being put under a spotlight. [makes me think of this]
  • Those learners who participate mentally in group activities often gain more than those participate vocally.
  • Reading should be delayed in the L2 until the learners have a sufficiently large vocabulary to be able to read experientially rather than studially and then extensive reading should be introduced before intensive reading. [Not sure I agree with this – I think that reading is one of the ways they will gain this vocabulary, and you can start with short texts. Extensive reading is definitely highly beneficial though.]
  • Learners should be encouraged and helped to represent language multi-dimensionally. [makes me think of this]

Tomlinson implies that the following are desirable for ELT materials to promote language acquisition and development (2008: 6):

  • Using different genres, text types and multimedia to provide a rich experience
  • Provide an “aesthetically positive experience” through illustration and design
  • Help learners to make discoveries for themselves
  • Help learners to become independent learners
  • Provide opportunities for extensive listening/reading
  • Help learnres to personalise and localise their language learning

Some of the problems he mentions connected to the fact that many ELT books are selected by adminstrators, and none by teachers, are (2008:7):

  • Colourful photographs in the top right-hand corner to pass the flick test
  • As many words as possible on a page “to achieve optimal coverage at an acceptable price”
  • Uniform unit length and format = makes timetabling, teacher allocation and teacher prep easier
  • Tasks replicating conventional test types = facilitates exam prep

Many of them [educational publishers] try to add as much educational value to their products as possible but for all of them the main objective it to make money. […] What this situation means for writers of commercial ELT materials is that they can at best try to achieve a compromise between their principles and the requirements of the publisher.

Tomlinson, 2008: 7

Other generalizations he makes about problems with many coursebooks are (Tomlinson, 2008: 8):

  • Underestimating learners’ language level and cognitive ability, especially the treatment of low-level English learners as intellectually low-level learners.
  • Simplifying language presentation and therefore impoverishing the learning experience.
  • Using PPP > creating an illusion of language learning, results in shallow processing [I think this might have changed a little in more modern materials, though I’m not sure processing is necessarily deeper]
  • Ensuring most activities are easily accomplished > memorisation, script repetition, simple substitution / transformation
  • Trying to teach language features during listening/reading activities, and therefore confusing language learning and skills development [again, I think this might have changed somewhat now]
  • Bland, safe, harmonious texts and activities which don’t stimulate thinking and feeling [there’s more of an attempt to include critical thinking in materials now, but I’m not sure this has moved on much beyond what Tomlinson stated]
  • “Not nearly enough experience of language in fully contextualized use”
  • Focussing on comprehension over enjoyment in listening and reading [at least, that’s how I read it…a little unclear to me!]
  • Not exploiting what’s available outside the classroom
  • Decoding OR encoding, not multidimensional activities “involving the use of the full resources of the brain”

He describes some examples of locally produced materials which he feels have been developed in more principled ways, while acknowledging the need for “due consideration being given, of course, to the face validity and conformity to market expectation which is necessary to ensure profitability”. (Tomlinson, 2008: 9)

Second Language Acquisition (SLA) and Materials Development (2)

These are my notes based on’Second language acquisition research and language-teaching materials’ by Rod Ellis (2010) in Harwood, N. (ed.) English Language Teaching Materials: Theory and Practice (CUP, 2010).

Some definitions to start (Ellis, 2010: 33):

  • An “unfocused task” elicits general samples of language use, “although it may be possible to predict a cluster of features that learners are likely to need when they perform a task.” (Ellis, 2010: 36)
  • A “focused task” elicits use of a specific linguistic feature, often a grammatical structure
  • In any task, “the primary focus must be on meaning and achieving a communicative outcome”
  • Task-supported language teaching: “focused tasks support a structural syllabus”
  • Task-based language teaching: “the syllabus is specified only in terms of the tasks to be performed”
  • “Interpretation activities”: “aim to teach grammar by inducing learners to process the target structure through input rather than by eliciting production”, with the example given of bolding a target feature in a written text
  • “Structured input activities”: “force processing of the targeted feature by requiring a response from the learner”, with the example given of choosing a picture that correctly matches a sentence learners hear
  • A “consciousness-raising (CR) task”: assisting learners to discover how a grammatical feature works for themselves, focussing on understanding rather than the ability to use it.

Despite this activity and our growing understanding about what learning an L2 entails, doubts exist as to whether the findings of SLA are sufficiently robust to warrant applications to lagnauge pedagogy. […] The fact tha tmost teacher education programs include an SLA component is testiomny to the conviction that it has relevance to language pedagogy.

Ellis, 2010: 34

SLA and “tasks”

Ellis (2003) identifies various criteria for a task of which the main ones are (quoted in Ellis, 2010: 35):

  1. There is a primary focus on meaning.
  2. The students choose the linguistic and nonlinguistic resources needed to complete the task.
  3. The task should lead to real-world processes of language use.
  4. Successful performance of the task is determined by examining whether students have achieved the intended communicative outcome.

2 cannot be met if there is a model which learners are given and they substitute items in it.

3 requires some kind of gap (information / opinion / etc.) to lead to a negotiation of meaning.

4 must be met for it to be a task, and not a “contextualised grammar activity” (Ellis, 2010: 35) – Ellis gives examples of both on p36-37.

Focused tasks are different to contextualised grammar activities because the latter specifies the target feature to be used, whereas the former doesn’t. They have two aims, to “stimulate communicative language use” and to “target the use of a particular, predetermined target feature and provide an opportunity to practice this in a communicative context”. Ellis notes that learners may not use the targeted structure in focused tasks: “success depended on whether the target structure was one that the students were already in the process of acquiring.” (Ellis, 2010: 37) A dictogloss is an example of a focused task.

The rationale for using tasks according to a number of SLA researchers is that (Ellis, 2010: 39):

  • “Learners will only succeed in developing full control over their linguistic knowlege if they experience trying to use it under real operating conditions.”
  • “True interlanguage development (i.e., the process of acquiring new linguistic knowledge and restructuring existing knowledge) can only take place when acquisition happens incidentally, as a product of the effort to communicate.”

[I’ve never experienced TBL as a learner, but I definitely feel like both of these statements are reflected in my experience of when I feel I have made the most progress as a language learner, experimenting with the language and finding out the limits of what I can produce.]

Task-supported language teaching features tasks as the final step in PPP, acting as ‘text-creation’ tasks which follow on from ‘text-manipulation’ exercises (Ellis, 2010: 39). The idea is that you move from teaching grammar explicitly (declarative knowledge) to exercises (proceduralizing the knowledge) to tasks (automatizing the knowledge through real-life communicative behaviour). The problem is it implies language learning is sequential and ignores the time-lapse involved in language acquisition. It also encourages learners to focus on form, not meaning, during the task, so it ceases to be a task in the definition Ellis gave.

Task-based language teaching

Task-based language teaching features tasks as “the organizing principle for a course” (Ellis, 2010: 40). Attention to form can be pre-emptive (asking questions about form) or reactive (corrective feedback). It can also be done through posttask activities. There are various forms in which tasks can appear (Ellis, 2010: 40-41):

  • “humanisitic exercises” (Moskowitz, 1977) [one example was given, but I’m not 100% sure what these are – I think there ones focussed on information about the people in the room]
  • “procedural syllabus” (Prabhu, 1987): ” a series of meaning-focused activities consisting of pretasks, that the teacher completed with the whole class, followed by tasks where the students worked on similar activities on their own”
  • with a “metacognitive focus for learner-training purposes”

Some of the contructs and theories TBLT draw on include (Ellis, 2010: 41):

  • Teachability (Pienemann, 1985) – whether learners are actually ready to acquire the target structure. This causes problems as learners may not be ready for the same structure at the same time, and is contrasted with following their own “internal syllabus”.
  • “Implicit knowledge”: “linguistic knowledge that is intuitive, unconscious and proceduralized” which is “acquired incidentally as a response to the frequency of sounds, syllables, and words in the input that learners are exposed to – that is, it involves associative rather than rule learning”
  • “Focus on form” (Long, 1991): requiring learners to “attend to form while they are engaged in trying to communicate”, for example proactively seeding input with the target structure, or reactively with corrective feedback)
  • Noticing (Schmidt, 1994): “acquisition takes place when learners pay conscious attention to exemplars of a linguistic form in the input”, meaning that at least some of the process of acquiring knowledge needs to be conscious.

Although there’s no guarantee that learners will do what the task designer intended: “there is no necessary relationship between task-as-workplan and task-as-process” (Seedhouse, 2005), “to some degree at least, it is possible to predict the language samples that result from particular tasks” (Ellis, 2010: 41-42).

Task design

Ellis (2003) proposes a frameowrk for “distinguishing the design features of tasks”. This is an example, accompanying a task shown in the chapter:

Ellis, 2010: 42

Some of the terms are defined as follows (Ellis, 2010: 42-43):

  • “tight” organization: it “structures the interaction that the learners will engage in”
  • split information: the participants have different information
  • required interaction: “the task cannot be performed successfully unless both students speak”
  • “convergent”: “the aim is for the students to agree on a solution to the task”
  • “closed” scope: only one correct answer

What design features of tasks are likely to be effective in promoting L2 acquisition? (Ellis, 2010: 43) – with the caveat that SLA research so far (by 2010) shows the relationship between tasks and language use, NOT language acquisition:

  • Jigsaw tasks have the “greatest psycholinguistic validity” according to Pica, Kanagy, and Falodun (1993), drawing on Long’s Interaction Hypothesis (1996): “when learners engage in the effort to negotiate meaning as a result of a breakdown in communication, their attention will be direct to linguistic forms in a way that promotes acquisition”.
  • Tasks need to be varied “so that they induce learners to attend to different aspects of language use at different times”. (based on Skehan (2001), Cognitive Approach to Language Learning)

When designed tasks, you might choose to start from (Ellis, 2010: 43-44):

  • a task function, e.g. describing a person
  • a task genre, e.g. information gap
  • a task frame, i.e. “giving consideration to a cluster of factors such as the participatory organization, skills to be practiced, timing, and teacher roles”

SLA and grammar teaching

Interpretation activities

They are a type of comprehension activity in which learners process the target structure through input. They “require learners to process the target structure in order to arrive at the meaning of the text.” (Ellis, 2010: 45) with learners creating a kind of “form-function mapping” – they can’t avoid the target structure in the activity, they have to understand it to achieve success in the activity.

Input-enrichment activities include enriched input with frequent and/or salient examples of the targeted features. There is an example on page 45. It may be a simple listening or reading text, a text with features highlighted, or a text with follow-up activities “designed to focus attention on the structure” – “questions can only be answered if the learners have successfully processed the target structure.” “Input flood” through a number of texts is needed to have a real effect on their acquisition of the target structure, but this is ineffective for some structures according to the studies Ellis quotes. (2010: 45) For this to be effective, learners need to notice the target structure, though they don’t need to be intentionally focused on it – enriched-input tasks “aim to assist noticing by increasing the salience of the target structure in the input.” Ellis contrasts this with traditional grammar activities, saying that the latter “may result in explicit knowledge rather than implicit knowledge”. The benefit of input-enrichment activities may be that they “reinforce the learning that results from a more traditional, explicitly instructional approach”. (all quotes: Ellis, 2010: 46)

Structured-input activities don’t just present enriched input (the stimulus), but provide “some instruction that forces [learners] to process it (the response)”. (Ellis, 2010: 46)

  • “The stimulus can take the form of spoken or written input.”
  • The response is generally either completely nonverbal or minimally verbal, for example T/F, tick a box, select a picture, draw a diagram, perform an action.
  • A suggested sequence is attention to meaning > notice form and function of the grammatical structure > error identification.
  • Learners should be able to “relate the input to their own lives”.
  • There should be a focus on common errors, as well as correct usage.
  • Immediate and explicit feedback on learners’ response to the input is necessary. (Ellis, 2010: 46-47)

There is an example of an activity on page 47. The grammar teaching approach is called Processing Instruction, defined by VanPatten (1996: 2) as “a type of grammar instruction whose purpose is to affect the ways in which learners attend to input data.” (Ellis, 2010: 47)

Consciousness-raising tasks

These tasks “make language itself the content by inviting learners to discover how a grammatical feature works for them”, with grammar the topic to communicate about. The focus is on developing understanding rather than noticing. (Ellis, 2010: 48)

Characteristics of CR tasks include (Ellis, 2010: 48-49):

  • An attempt to isolate a specific linguistic feature for focused attention.
  • Data to illustrate the targeted feature, and maybe an explicit rule describing or explaining the feature.
  • Intellectual effort is needed to understand the targeted feature.
  • Maybe learners need to verbalize a rule describing the structure.

Data might be (Ellis, 1997, summarised in Ellis, 2010: 49):

  1. authentic v. contrived
  2. oral v. written
  3. discrete sentences v. continuous text
  4. well-formed v. deviant sentences
  5. gap v. non-gap (i.e. each learner has all of the information, or learners have different information)

Operations learners might perform on the data could be (Ellis, 1997, summarised in Ellis, 2010: 49):

  1. identification (find the TL)
  2. judgment (is it correct? is it appropriate?)
  3. completion (complete a text)
  4. modification (e.g. replace this with this)
  5. sorting (categorising)
  6. matching
  7. rule provision (“state the rule they have discovered”)

A CR task constitutes a kind of puzzle that, when solved, enables learners to discover how a linguistic feature works.

Ellis, 2010: 49

There are examples on page 50 and on page 54.

The justification for CR tasks is that explicit knowledge is needed to help learners “notice the gap between the input and their own interlanguage” and that “learning is more significant if it involves a greater depth of processing”. (Ellis, 2010: 50) One caveat is that “learners need sufficient proficiency to talk metalinguistically about the target feature” (Ellis, 2010: 51) [though the study which lead to this conclusion had learners from mixed L1 backgrounds – I wonder whether it’s necessary if they’re allowed to discuss the language in L1?]

Other limitations are that CR tasks may not work well with young learners, learners need a certain level of metalanguage [though Danny Norrington-Davies’ approach in From Rules to Reasons may counter this somewhat – Amazon affiliate link / BEBC non-affiliate link], and they may not appeal to “learners who are less skilled at forming and testing conscious hypotheses about language”. (Ellis, 2010: 51)

Ellis offers tham as a “valuable alternative to direct explicit instruction”. (Ellis, 2010: 51) He acknowledges that they are increasingly common in materials – I think that this is true too, though I think with only limited variety regarding the data and operations mentioned above.

That’s it for week two. Next week: Units 5, 6, 7 and 8. I spent a lot of time reading articles and a day doing other work this week, so didn’t make it to unit 5 as promised last week!

NILE MAPDLE MAT: Materials Development module (week one)

This is my second NILE MA module, Materials Development for Language Education, abbreviated to MAT. I have previously complete the Trainer Development module. You can see my related blog posts here.

Here are various bits and pieces from week one of the course, things which I wanted to remember, notes I’ve made while reading, and on-going tasks we’ve been asked to provude. The notes are there for me, but you may find something useful in there, or something you’d like to investigate further. Please note: this is not intended as a subsistute for doing this reading yourself – it’s very subjective and based on my interests! I’ll post one of these in each of the three weeks of the online course.

Unit 1: Introductions

My metaphor for coursebooks is that they can be a guidebook:

  • It shows you where you can go, but you can pick and choose.
  • There are lots to choose from – different styles suit different people.
  • Some people don’t bother with them and prefer to explore by themselves.
  • People use it in different ways: some read cover to cover, some dip in at random, some know exactly what they’re looking for.
  • You can pick up all kinds of interesting or unusual ideas from it.
  • They can inspire you to want to try new things, or tell you more about places (methods) you were already familiar with.
  • It can date quite quickly!

Initial beliefs about Teaching, Learning and Materials

These are some of my own beliefs about teaching and learning materials, compiled at the start of the course. The ‘But…?’ part is possible arguments others might have against these beliefs, not necessarily reflecting what I think. I haven’t included the counter-arguments as that would make it very long!

  • Teaching and learning materials should be engaging for both learners and teachers.
    Why? If teachers or learners aren’t engaged by the materials, they won’t want to interact with them, and they are less likely to be open to learning/teaching with them.
    What does it entail? This involves having a clear and transparent aim for the use of the materials, which both learners and teachers can see will develop the English level of the learners. It also involves choosing engaging topics, with clear reasons for learners to care about the topics and the aims of the materials. Those reasons are most likely to come from helping learners to personalise the topic in some way and/or connect it to their own experience. Good design is also an important component of engagement – we have to want to pick up the materials / open the website.
    But…? Who decides what is engaging? What role does the teacher play in bringing materials to life? What about self-study materials which need to be self-mediated? What about learners/teachers who feel uncomfortable sharing personal information?
  • Materials should enhance and support the learning experience for all learners.
    Why? If they don’t do this, then they’re making our jobs harder in some way! Materials which don’t support the learning experience add unnecessary barriers for learners and teachers, and can demotivate them.
    What does it entail? A smooth User/Learner Experience (UX/LX) is important – finding your way around the materials easily and with the minimum of stress. This should be true for every learner, not just those who are neurotypical. We need to make sure as many learners as possible are catered for with our materials. This can be done through design aspects, such as our choice of fonts or spacing, as well as through the types of tasks and the options we provide within materials.
    But…? How do we know that materials which work for one learner will necessarily work for another? Is there enough space in the materials to provide the necessary support? Or enough time to create materials with this level of scaffolding? Is it the materials job to do this, or should it be the teacher’s?
  • Materials should provide opportunities for interaction.
    Why? We learn better when we are actively involved, rather than passively receiving information. We retain new knowledge for longer.
    What does it entail? This interaction could be with other people, for example sharing or explaining ideas. It could be interacting with the materials themselves, through creating our own notes (as I’m doing now!), diagrams, or summaries of the information. Each of these methods force us to process the content of the materials in some way.
    But…? What if learners don’t want to interact with others or with the materials? What if they prefer to just be ‘fed’ information? What happens if you’re working with large groups? How can you manage noise levels during social interaction, or monitor effectively online, or check that they have processed information effectively when they interact with the materials by themselves?
  • Materials should not just be about language; they should also include learner training, and, where necessary, teacher training.
    Why? We often make assumptions that learners know the best way to learn, but this is rarely true unless they are very experienced language learners, and even then they might pick up something new. Teachers also benefit from support within materials – this is a very valuable avenue of professional development.
    What does this entail? Materials should be accompanied by teacher’s notes, explaining the rationale behind methods used, and feeding in variations and extra ideas to support teachers, as well as cultural or other supporting information as appropriate. Learner training can be highlighted by feeding in ideas directly in learner materials, or via teacher’s notes, showing tips and tricks to help them become more effective language learners, and encouraging them to reflect on the learning process and what does and doesn’t work for them. This is particularly true of areas like revision and memorisation, where our instincts might run counter to what science shows are effective learning strategies.
    But…? Is it the job of materials to teach teachers? How do you decide what assumptions you should have of learners’ language learning skills or teachers’ methodology knowledge in terms of what you decide to highlight/omit?
    Note: I believe this is to some extent what Allwright (1981: 9) calls ‘guidance’ [see quotes below for full reference].

What do we want teaching materials for?

I found this quote from Allwright thought-provoking, partly because of my interest in classroom dynamics, but also because of how many people I know who think they ‘can’t’ learn languages because, I suspect, of attitudes that were ‘available to be learned’ in the classrooms they studied in:

Attitudes

It is well accepted that one of the goals of school language instruction is to improve the attitudes of speakers of different languages to one another. However seldom this may be achieved, the development of positive intercultural attitudes remains important, but it is not often discussed as part of the content of instruction. Even where attitudes are not being explicitly ‘taught’, however, they are almost certainly ‘available to be learned’ in any language classroom, from the teacher and from everyone present. They include attitudes to learning, of course, and not just language or intercultural attitudes. To summarize, anyone involved in the management of language learning has necessarily to deal with attitudes as part of what learners may learn.

Allwright, R. L. (October 1981) ‘What do we want teaching materials for?’ ELT Journal Volume 36/1, p8

Another quote from the same article:

‘What activities, or what learning tasks, will best activate the chosen processes, for what elements of content?’ A less deterministic version of this question might be ‘What activities of learning tasks will offer a wide choice of learning processes to the learner, in relation to a wide variety of content options?’ This amendment suggests, I think correctly, that we can neither predict nor determine learning processes, and therefore perhaps should not try as hard to do so as we usually do in our teaching materials.

Allwright, R. L. (October 1981) ‘What do we want teaching materials for?’ ELT Journal Volume 36/1, p9

It’s interesting that this quote is nearly 40 years old, and yet the concept of learner choice with regards to processes or content is still not really all that common within materials.

Allwright also mentions the implications for teacher training of his views of materials. Here are a couple of excerpts:

Teachers, it appears, seem to do ‘all the work’ and exhaust themselves in the process. [Allwright goes on to describe the results of this, such as failing to present the language to be learned as clearly as intended]

If, however, we entertain the possibility that teachers are not just doing ‘too much’ work, but doing work that the learners could more profitably be doing for themselves, the immediate implication for teacher-training must be that teachers need to be trained not to do so much work, and trained instead to get the learners to do more. Hence the concept of ‘learner-training’, since it is unlikely that learners will be able to share the burden without some preparation.

Teacher ‘overload’ often entails learner ‘underinvolvement’ since teachers are doing work learners could more profitably do for themselves.

‘Involvement’ means something akin to Curran’s ‘investment’ (Curran, 1972 and 1976), which suggests a deep sort of involvement, relating to the whole-person. [including decision-making and management of language learning]

Allwright, R. L. (October 1981) ‘What do we want teaching materials for?’ ELT Journal Volume 36/1, p10

I think this is a balance many teachers, particularly those new to the profession, struggle with – they feel like they need to be seen to be teaching demonstrably to meet learners’ expectations. It’s a real challenge for them to let go. This reinforces my belief above about the importance of teacher’s notes and guidance in terms of how to use materials and how to learn effectively.

He goes on to suggest how teachers can share their expertise with learners, without imposing it on them, in order to make learners more independent:

I suggest that teachers, in addition to their role as ‘activities managers’ in the classroom, need to accept the roles of:

1. ‘ideas’ people, ready with practical advice about language learning strategies and techniques, both for classroom and for outside use;

and 2. ‘rationale’ people, ready to discuss language learning and justify their opinions and advice.

Allwright, R. L. (October 1981) ‘What do we want teaching materials for?’ ELT Journal Volume 36/1, p14

For me, this demonstrates the importance of teachers being (language) learners themselves, as they can then share ideas and rationale that have worked for them. While it’s obviously possible to be an excellent language teacher without ever having learnt another language, I do think it can make a huge and very valuable difference (said as an avid language learner myself!)

This is the final sentence from the article:

The most important point for me is that materials should be related to the conception of the whole of language teaching and learning as the cooperative management of language learning.

Allwright, R. L. (October 1981) ‘What do we want teaching materials for?’ ELT Journal Volume 36/1, p16

I feel like this is far from true in most materials and most contexts – the teacher uses the book they have chosen/had chosen for them, and they manage the language learning, with learners the somewhat passive recipients of this learning management, regardless of how active they may be in a given lesson. This teacher-/materials-mediated learning may fit into a broader plan of what learners are doing to improve their language, for example through self-study, but there is rarely a connection that could be described as ‘the cooperative management of language learning’.

Why use textbooks?

Robert O’Neill wrote a (kind of) response to Allwright’s article. This is my favourite paragraph from it, particularly the third sentence and the final one.

O’Neill, Robert (January 1982) ‘Why use textbooks?’ ELT Journal Volume 36/2, p107

Even though technology has moved on a lot, and textbooks are more often than not ‘glossy, glittering products in full colour’, I think they are still good value for money and easy to use.

Further down the same page, we find:

In my opinion it is important that textbooks should be so designed and organized that a great deal of improvisation and adaptation by both teacher and class is possible.

O’Neill, Robert (January 1982) ‘Why use textbooks?’ ELT Journal Volume 36/2, p107

I’m not convinced how possible this is in the market-driven production of coursebooks which we have today, in terms of how materials writers might put products together: everything needs to have its own USP, and be seen as a complete package. Having said that, this view has implications for teacher training and learner training: both need to know how to improvise and adapt materials as appropriate to meet language learning goals. O’Neill goes on to share his own implications for teacher training:

There can be no model of an ideal teacher, or lesson, or learner (or textbook). […]

A teacher-training programme must seek not to mould all teachers according to a pre-conceived notion of what teachers should be, but must try to build on the individual and differing strengths of each teacher so as to make the maximum effective use of that teacher’s qualities.

O’Neill, Robert (January 1982) ‘Why use textbooks?’ ELT Journal Volume 36/2, p108

I think all I can say to that is: Amen!

O’Neill gives an example of a textbook unit with three different objectives designed to cater for learner choice. This is an idea I’d like to explore further, based on his statement that:

There are many ways of designing textbooks so that they can be used by a variety of learners with a variety of ultimate goals, and so they can be taught by a variety of teachers with a variety of teaching styles.

O’Neill, Robert (January 1982) ‘Why use textbooks?’ ELT Journal Volume 36/2, p108

I found myself nodding along to the final paragraph of the article. It’s over a page long, but I feel like these excerpts summarise O’Neill’s ideas:

Textbooks can at best provide only a base or a core of materials. They are a jumping-off point for teacher and class. They should not aim to be more than that. A great deal of the most important work in a class may start with the textbook but end outside it, in improvisation and adaptation, in spontaneous interaction in the lcass, and development from that interaction. Textbooks, if they are to provide anything at all, can only provide the prop or framework within which much of this activity occurs. Textbooks, like any other medium, have inherent limitations. The authors of textbooks must make it clear what those limitations are.

O’Neill, Robert (January 1982) ‘Why use textbooks?’ ELT Journal Volume 36/2, p110-111

The roles of English teachers and materials

This section is a copy of a(n over)long post I put in the forum – I doubt it makes sense without the article itself! The post was based on McGrath, I. (2013) Teaching Materials and the Role of EFL/ESL Teachers, Bloomsbury pp. 2-24

  • Which of the models (Figs. 1.1 – 1.4) best represents your relationship (and that of your learners) with materials?

I think 1.3 (pdf p17) or 1.4 (pdf p18) most closely represent my relationship with materials, depending on who I’m using them with. With adult groups, I think I’d lean more towards 1.3, with learners taking more responsibility for creating content and with less of hierarchical nature in the relationship. With teens and young learners, I suspect it’s more 1.4, with the materials taking precedence in many ways, but trying to feed in bits and pieces of the children’s lives, largely because I feel less confident teaching them – the materials may serve a little as a crutch here too. My role is to try to reduce the distance between the learners and the materials, especially with teen books (the bane of my life!)

  • How important for you are the advantages listed in Section 2.3?

As a new teacher, coursebooks were particularly useful for me, and I still find the ‘visible coherent programme of work’ (point 2) to be helpful, though I’m better able to make one of these myself now.
The time-saving element (point 1) is also very important, as it often takes much longer to create the programme of work and find the materials for it yourself than it does to riff off a coursebook.
I learnt a lot from Teacher’s Books, especially English File and Straightforward, when I was a new teacher, due to the clear methodological input in them (point 3).
I also agree with 4, 5 and 7, though I’m not so sure about point 6 in the age of the internet and (for many people, though not all) instant access to up-to-date cultural information.
I’ve found integrated resources to be useful as well, particularly photocopiable extras and suggestions for varying activities – seeing these has provided a lot of the input I’ve had in terms of my own ideas for materials design and different ideas for engaging activities for learners. As a DoS, having editable tests available has also been useful, although they often require a fair amount of work before I’m happy putting them in front of our students! Coursebook software is also very popular at our school, with the Oxford Discover Futures being the best example I’ve used so far.

  • Or are you one of McGrath’s ‘doubting voices’?

Not catering for the whole person, etc: I think this has improved over recent years, though there’s still a real need for a well-trained teacher to mediate the materials for learners and bring them to life. The arguments about catering for different needs regarding who learners are likely to interact with are also being addressed in some modern materials, though there is still a way to go. A wider range of voices can be heard, not only British, American and the occasional Australian or Irish speakers, though they are very much still in the majority: “native speaker norms continue to dominate”. One example of a new course trying to change this norm to some extent is National Geographic’s Voices, which aims to take a more global perspective. The idea of a hidden curriculum or what Jill Hadfield calls a ‘covert syllabus’ is a very interesting avenue to explore too.

Not reflective of research, etc: While there is still work to do in this area, I believe most global coursebooks are now based on corpus research, though many are still heavily influenced by the grammar syllabus. Outcomes by Walkley and Dellar is an attempt to create a more lexically-led syllabus, while still having the overt grammar syllabus many stakeholders might look for in a coursebook. The most recent studies quoted were in 2010 – I’d be interested to see how this has changed in the intervening 11 years. 
In coursebooks I’m aware of, task design has also improved, though this is again not universal. Some books still isolate grammar and present it out of context, but the vast majority of global coursebooks I’ve come across now use a reading or listening text to introduce new language points in context – they don’t always capitalise on this later in the sequence though, with the context being abandoned once rules or practice activities come into play.
The issue of misrepresentation and underrepresentation in coursebooks has also received ever more attention, though changes in global coursebooks are still somewhat glacial in pace! James Taylor and Ila Coimbra have worked on an independently produced series called Raise Up! which aims to be more representative of the real world than a typical global coursebook. I’ve also recently seen examples of other minor changes, such as a family featuring two female parents in a global teen coursebook (a Cambridge one, I think?) Gone, too, (I hope!) are the mother doing all of the housework or the female secretary supporting the male boss in images, though more diversity would still be good to see here.

Marginalise teachers, etc.: 
(pdf, p12) “If teachers hand over responsibility for decision-making to textbooks, the argument goes, this reduces their role to that of mere technicians.” – if they are passive in this, then yes, but it is up to schools, trainers, and managers to make sure that this is not the case, and that teachers are supported in finding their way around the materials, and trained in how to exploit them effectively to meet learner needs. Teachers also need to tell learners why they are making changes: as Bolitho says (pdf, p20), “learners are entitled to know why they are asked to behave in certain ways…and how they can learn most effectively.”
(pdf, p12) “There is now a real danger that it is the coursebook which determines course aims, language content and what will be assessed.” – this was certainly true at our school to a large extent, but I disagree with the wording ‘a real danger’ (note: the section on Control, pdf p22, counters this statement in a way I agree with). For our brand new teachers, this was a boon – 80% of our teachers are in the first 3 years of their teaching career, and this enables us to provide some level of standardisation across the school and maintain a high level of quality in our general English and exam classes (potentially dealing with the deficiences/limitations of new teachers). We train teachers in how to exploit the coursebook and learn more about their group students to adapt it to their needs, as well as learning to critique materials and decide what is good and bad about them (moving towards a difference perspective, reflecting the Harmer quote on p14 of the pdf of reducing “unthinking coursebook use”, as well as the final paragraph of the whole excerpt about implications for teacher education). With 121 and ESP groups we may or may not use a coursebook. Our books are chosen in a (somewhat!) principled way by an experienced senior team who know the school well, and our typical students, somewhat because we are still working on developing these principles (the section on Choice from p20-22 of the pdf is interesting regarding this) 

Unit 2: Learners and Context

The implications of context on materials

Here are three different ways in which context might vary, and my ideas about what implications this might have for a materials writer.

Socio-economic profile

  • Being ‘seen’ in the materials – not only portraying affluent people, but having a range of images shown or experiences described.
  • Realistic target uses of language, for example writing focussing on a range of different genres, not only essays (these may only be relevant for those going on to further study), or doing what Bruno Leys described in The Grammarless Syllabus and focussing on functional language exponents rather than grammar study for learners most likely to use English in vocational contexts, such as working as a mechanic.
  • Acknowledgement of challenges and affordances of people from different socio-economic backgrounds, e.g. time available for learning, money available to invest in learning/opportunities/extra materials/resources, space available for study – for example, materials which require learners to pay separately for access to audio which they then need a quite place and a strong internet connection to access may not be achievable for some learners. On the other hand, learners with a lot of time and money available may require materials which provide lots of in-built opportunities for extending their learning.

Noise tolerance

  • Having quiet/loud variants of the same activity.
  • Balancing the amount of individual and pair/group work.
  • Providing information in teacher’s notes about which activities are likely to be noisier so that teachers can warn colleagues in advance.

Teacher’s training and experience

  • The amount of guidance needed in teacher’s notes: balancing spoon-feeding with support.
  • Providing opportunities for extending/adapting/reducing materials so teachers can use them flexibly.
  • Being aware that materials are not always going to be used ‘as is’ – this may mean including information in teacher’s notes about which activities are reliant on other activities, and which can be used in a more stand-alone way or in a different order.

Considerations I need to remember when writing possible materials for students at IH Bydgoszcz

This is a selection of possible areas based on what we’ve looked at in this unit. I’d be interested to hear what you would add.

  • Age
    Will the materials be for very young learners? Young learners? Teens? Adult groups? Properly adult (i.e. 22/23+) or including older teens/university-age students too?
  • Level
    We teach everything from beginner to proficiency! Also, have students worked through our school to get to this level or have they joined the school at this level? That has implications for the ‘coverage’ of the level and how spiky their profile might be.
  • Resources
    Assuming we’re teaching face-to-face, we have projectors and access to the internet. Teachers can also write on the whiteboard to highlight things on projected materials. Learners have coursebooks, so am I writing a coursebook unit? Or supplementary materials? Or stand-alone units?
  • Time
    Courses are generally 90-minutes x 62 lessons per year, running twice a week. Materials need to comfortably fit that time, with some flexibility for teachers to choose what to use. Time for assessment and building good group dynamics also need to be built in.
  • Socio-economic profile
    As learners can afford private language school classes, they are probably in at least a middle-income bracket. Many of our learners come from families with occupations such as medicine, teaching, law or engineering featuring strongly, or families own their own businesses. Manufacturing and agriculture are also strongly represented. As far as I know, students can all afford holidays, many of them abroad and often in quite far-flung places, despite the Polish zloty being relatively weak compared to the Euro/Pound/Dollar.
    Catholicism is an important cultural influence, and caution should be exercised when dealing with potential ‘hot-button’ issues. Particularly controversial areas in Polish politics in the past few years have been abortion and LGBT rights.
  • Number in class
    Although some students have 121 classes, most students study in groups of 6-12. Materials should include opportunities to exploit the small group nature of the courses.
  • Classroom layout
    Student chairs have small desks attached which can be folded down out of the way. These can be arranged in many different ways. There is a teacher’s desk with connections for a projector, speakers and the internet – this can be move a little, but not much. There are two display boards in every classroom for student work and other important information. Materials can make use of the opportunity to reorganise the furniture, and to display information in different places in the classroom.
  • Noise tolerance
    Teachers generally expect other classes to be noisy at points and quiet at others, though occasionally parents complain if they think there is too much noise when they are listening from outside. Most activities that would be classed as noisy are possible within the school, provided they are balanced with quiet activities too.
  • Collectivism vs individualism
    Learners expect to have individual attention from the teacher, but are also happy to work in groups. Family is very important, and from my observation I believe it is the defining social unit in society. Learners who come from a family background which is considered non-traditional within Polish society may be reluctant to share this information as it can be potentially stigmatising, so this is an area to be treated with potential caution when writing materials. There is generally respect for people in positions of power, including teachers, though there may also be cynicism depending on the people involved. [Please note, these are my personal impressions and should be taken as such. These insights are very interesting and (possibly) more scientific, and seem to reflect at least some of my impressions.]
  • Learner expectations
    For YLs and teens who have come through our school, they expect engaging lessons with lots of speaking, a bit of writing, and enough of a language focus for a clear sense of progress. For adults, or teens joining our school after learning elsewhere, they tend to expect a strong grammar focus with plenty of speaking. Learners expect their teachers not to speak/know Polish, and for lessons to be completely in English, with materials fully in English to reflect that. Adult learners may expect ‘serious’ lessons, especially older learners who have been out of education for a long time. They may be reluctant to do activities which they feel are too childish or game-like.
    Most learners are quite motivated, and if they aren’t, adults tend to quit the course. Teens may be forced to continue by their parents, though thankfully they are very much in the minority. Many students come to us for 6 or more years, working towards Cambridge First or Advanced exams over a period of time. They expect to be trained to succeed in these exams, so materials need to help them achieve this goal, while also catering for the smaller number of students who don’t want to take exams.
    Learners (and parents) also expect high quality classes and to have a clear sense of progress over their time at the school. Materials need to factor in opportunities for assessment to help learners to notice this.
  • Teacher’s training and experience
    The majority of teachers at the school are within the first three years of their career, with an initial CELTA or CertTESOL certificate. Some come to the school with a little prior experience, but most may have only done a few weeks teaching, if any, before they join the school. Materials therefore need to provide guidance and support, be clear and flexible, and be accessible to early career teachers, without assuming too much prior knowledge about how they can be exploited. There is support at the school to help with this, but we also aim to make teachers as independent as possible, so materials which help with this would be a boon.

Cultural appropriacy

‘PARSNIP’ topics are often considered taboo. We were asked to consider whether these topics are appropriate or taboo in the culture we work in. These are my answers for Poland.

  • Politics
    You’d really have to know your group, as politics can be very divisive and controversial in Poland, especially since 2015 or so. As mentioned above, issues such as the politics of abortion and LGBT rights are particularly divisive.
  • Alcohol
    This should be fine, though portrayals of drunk characters may not be.
  • Religion
    Poland is very strongly Catholic, and many issues are tied into religion. Questioning faith or the church would be very controversial. I would generally avoid this topic, unless it was a group I knew well and they specifically asked to be able to talk about it.
  • Sex
    Because of religion as well as the politics of abortion, I think this would be a topic to avoid.
  • Narcotics
    I don’t think I’ve ever come across any particular issues with this, but I’d avoid it as it may trigger religious or political topics.
  • Isms (such as communism or atheism)
    Both communism and atheism are probably topics to avoid, not least because of Poland’s difficult history. However, with a group you knew well who had asked to talk about them, they could be discussed civilly and safely.
  • Pork
    This is Poland’s national meat 😉 so it wouldn’t cause any issues.

Beliefs regarding vocabulary in materials

These are some of my own beliefs about vocabulary in materials at this point in the course. The ‘But…?’ part is possible arguments others might have against these beliefs, not necessarily reflecting what I think. I haven’t included the counter-arguments as that would make it very long!

  • Learners need to be exposed to the same vocabulary in context and in a range of different ways.
    Why? Context aids both understanding and retention. A range of contexts helps learners to see the spread of where the vocabulary can and can’t be used. It also provides exposure to a range of typical co-text – other vocabulary and grammar which typically co-occur with the target items. Fluent language use requires collocational awareness, which cannot be developed if words only appear in isolation.
    What does it entail? Providing repeated encounters with the vocabulary within the materials, for example in a reading/listening text, in vocabulary focussed activities (such as matching definitions), and in models for speaking/writing activities. Highlighting co-text and context and drawing attention to collocations.
    But…? There’s a limited amount of space in materials and a large vocabulary load: how do you decide what takes precedence? How do you ensure that all vocabulary is encountered sufficiently without contrivance?
  • Vocabulary work should provide opportunities for learners to use the vocabulary actively.
    Why? Learners need to experiment with the language and get feedback on how successfully they’ve used it, for example whether they have chosen the correct vocabulary item for a given situation. Saying vocabulary enables them to practise the pronunciation, and writing it, to practise the form.
    What does it entail? Including activities such as opportunities for personalisation, categorisation, and speaking and/or writing using the new vocabulary.
    But…? We need to be clear whether vocabulary is introduced for receptive or productive use. There’s a large vocabulary load, and it’s difficult to provide opportunities to use all vocabulary actively. Learners may be reluctant to experiment with new vocabulary, particularly if they don’t feel confident about it, and may stick with vocabulary they already feel comfortable using.
  • A key component of learning vocabulary is memorisation.
    Why? If we don’t remember the word/chunk, we can’t use it! A larger ‘in-built’ vocabulary store allows more fluent use of English across all areas: reading, listening, writing and speaking.
    What does it entail? Including memorisation stages in the activity sequence, and showing learners why these are useful and how they can work with the same techniques themselves. Including spaced repetition, and requiring learners to attempt to retrieve vocabulary from their memory rather than the teacher/materials always supplying the vocabulary for activities.
    But…? We have translation software and dictionaries, so we don’t necessarily need to memorise vocabulary – we can look it up when we need it. Some people find it difficult to memorise language particularly if they have problems associated with their working memory, and others find it boring or demotivating.

How are materials evaluated at IH Bydgoszcz

We mainly evaluate materials when we look at the spread of coursebooks we use each year to help us decide what was (un)successful, what we want to keep and what we want to replace for the following year – this is ‘pre-use’. We also evaluate potential new materials to use at the school – ‘post-use’. We only do informal evaluation ‘in-use’, listening to teacher and learner comments about what they (don’t) like about books and considering how our use of them may need to change based on teacher/student needs as we go through the year – this is particularly possible if the senior team are teaching from the books themselves. These are some of the ways we evaluate materials:

  • Flick test
    First impressions of the book, including whether teachers/students are likely to want to pick it up, density of information on the page/throughout the book, general impressions of the design (for example, does it look old-fashioned?)
    + Provides a quick way to remember which book is which!
    – Very superficial.
    – Publishers expect this and might put the ‘shiny things’ in the top right corner to appeal to those flicking through.
  • Teacher questionnaire
    For books we’ve used previously, we have a short questionnaire for teachers based on various aspects of the book, including usability, general suitability for their groups, topics, engagement, level of challenge, grammar and vocabulary covered, skills work, whether they would want to use it again.
    + Gives teachers a say in the materials evaluation process.
    + They have first-hand experience of using the materials with students, so their opinions are valuable.
    + It tells us what teachers are looking for in coursebooks in general, informing our decisions about which ones to adopt.
    + Getting a range of opinions about the same books can tell us how they suit different teaching styles / groups.
    – It’s not obligatory, so we only get a few responses.
    – It can take teachers a while to complete.
    – It’s very subjective.
    – Teachers haven’t been trained to complete such questionnaires, and may only have limited awareness of what makes good or bad materials, especially if they haven’t been teaching for long and have little to compare their current coursebooks to.
    – The questions were created by me based on previous experience, without necessarily having a grounding in theory.
  • Trialling materials in class.
    Some teachers might volunteer to test out a lesson or two from a coursebook we’re considering using.
    + We can see how it might work in practice, including possible student responses.
    + It’s practical, using the materials rather than just discussing them.
    – It’s only a snapshot – sometimes one lesson has been fine, but the book as a whole has not worked for our school/ teachers/ students.
  • Student feedback
    Either based only on the book students have been using, or showing them a range of possible books for their level.
    + They’re the end users of the book, so they should have a say in what materials are chosen.
    + Students who have learnt English for a while have quite a good idea of what might be a good/bad English coursebook would be for them.
    + When they can compare books, students can be very responsible and offer considered and useful insights into the materials which teachers/ managers may not have seen.
    – Some students don’t take it seriously.
    – Students don’t necessarily have anything to compare the materials to, and they don’t have training in recognising good/bad materials.
    – It can be very subjective.
    – It can be quite superficial: for example, the design or the topics can influence them, without regard for the quality of the language work.
  • Comparative evaluation
    This is largely connected to the language and skills syllabus, looking at how the coursebook fits into our overall selection of coursebooks, what the progression is from one level or age group to the next is, and whether there is the coverage of language we’d like.
    + This helps us to provide some level of standardisation across the school, and maintains our sense of progression.
    + As it’s partly based on a list of grammar items compiled a few years ago, there is consistency from year to year.
    + We have practice at doing this now, so compare a wide range of different factors, for example: language clarification, topics, skills coverage, flow of units, length of units, and many others.
    – There’s a risk of trying to find a book which is the same as ones we’ve previously used – we may be less likely to take a risk.
    – We may end up focussing too much on the grammar syllabus, without considering other areas as much.

Materials and culture

I’ve put this paragraph here because I need to think about it – definitely requires some more processing before I can fully take it in I think!

Pulverness, A. and Tomlinson, B. (2013) ‘Materials for Cultural Awareness’, page 446, in Tomlinson, B. (ed) (2013) Developing Materials for Language Teaching, pp. 443-459

Another interesting quote from the same chapter:

As readers, we should always be ‘suspicious’ of texts and prepared to challenge or interrogate them. However, in the foreign language classroom, texts are customarily treated as unproblematic, as if their authority need never be questioned. Learners, who may be quite critical readers in their mother tongues, are textually infantilized by the vast majority of course materials and classroom approaches.

Pulverness, A. and Tomlinson, B. (2013) ‘Materials for Cultural Awareness’, page 451, in Tomlinson, B. (ed) (2013) Developing Materials for Language Teaching, pp. 443-459 (my emphasis)

This sentence is part of a section on ‘Critical Language Awareness (CLA)’, the idea that “language is always value-laden and that texts are never neutral” (ibid.) This is not something I’ve ever considered before, though I’m not really sure how you would go about remedying this in mainstream materials production, or even in the small amount of materials I’ll be creating for my MAT assignment. I wonder whether the increased inclusion of critical thinking tasks is enough, though ones I remember seeing don’t necessarily ‘challenge or interrogate’ texts in the materials. This is what they go on to suggest as a possible solution:

Pulverness, A. and Tomlinson, B. (2013) ‘Materials for Cultural Awareness’, page 451, in Tomlinson, B. (ed) (2013) Developing Materials for Language Teaching, pp. 443-459 (my emphasis)

I think some of the questions they mention are reflective of some of the critical thinking tasks now included – I wonder how they would rewrite the chapter if they published it today?

Evaluation of materials

These notes are based on chapter 3 of McGrath (2002) Materials Evaluation and Design for Language Teaching, looking at close evaluation when choosing a coursebook. They are my summary of the main points of the chapter to refer to when writing my MAT assignments, so there’s not much commentary.

The first section concerns using a checklist. The examples of published checklists include the following variants in design:

  • Rating systems
    Value x Merit = Product (from Tucker (1975: 360-1)): Value rated 0-5, Merit 0-4
    Weight / Rating: Ratings 4-0
    Rating and comments: Ratings = Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent (1-4)
    Yes / No / Comment
    Tick boxes (next to some quite long questions, not always with yes/no answers!)
    Yes / Partly / No: scored as 2, 1, 0 respectively
  • Categories
    Pronunciation Criteria (3) / Grammar Criteria (4) / Content Criteria (3) / General Criteria (8)
    General (4) / Speech (4) / Grammar (3)
    Factual Details (16) / Factors (17)
    No categories – only 3 long questions
    Language content (5) / Skills (6) / Topic (7) / Methodology (7) – though somewhat misleading as the questions are long and often cover multiple areas
    Does the book suit your students? (10) / Does the book suit the teacher? (10) / Dose the book suit the syllabus and the examination? (10)
  • Criteria expressed as:
    Noun phrases of 3-7 words
    Statements of around 10 words
    Nouns, occasionally with adjectives (max. 4 words)
    Yes/No questions, all at least 10 words long
    Yes/No questions, sometimes followed by information questions, all at least 5 words, but averaging at least 10
    Yes/No questions, varying in length from 4 to about 20 words

Potential problems with textbook evaluations based on checklists (based on McGrath, 2002):

  • If you decide to have a specific number of items in each category (like the final one which has 10 questions in each), you may exclude important information or include trival questions to make up the number. (p42)
  • Weighting is complicated – it’s important to ensure that different items are weighted appropriately. (p42) This is especially important as weighting can help you to differentiate between materials which may seem to have a similar number of strengths and weaknesses. (p52)
  • Having the same kind of response to every question might not be appropriate – some may lend themselves to a score, others to a comment for example. (p42)
  • It’s important to only have one focus per question. (p42)
  • You need to consider the difference between answers of ‘No’ and ‘Not applicable’, especially if connected to weighting. Do you ignore statements which are ‘Not applicable’? What does this do to your total scores if you have them? (p42-43)
  • Transparency of criteria (p44) – “certain concepts […] may be unfamiliar to or only partially understood by potential teacher-users. (= you very much need to be aware of the target user your checklist)
  • Criteria date – they need to “reflect new insights into language description, theories of learning and teaching and changes in society.” (p47)
  • Evaluation is values laden. (p48)
  • The conflicts “between breadth and depth, between informativity and economy, between the needs of the evaluator and the needs of the checklist designer – if these are different people, and between the forces of conservatism and innovation.” (p48)
  • Making a final decision can still be difficult, as you might struggle to “reconcile strengths and weaknesses in the same textbook” (p53)
  • You have to ensure validity and reliability, perhaps through arriving at a consensus for criteria (inc. involving end users) for validity, and carefully briefing evaluators for reliability. (p53)
  • They can “encourage rather superficial judgements.” (p54)

McGrath (2002: 43) comments that while published checklists “vary considerably in their scope, form, detailed criteria and the terms used to describe criteria”, most make reference to:

McGrath (2002) Materials Evaluation and Design for Language Teaching, p43

Specific areas which criteria might I might want to include when compiling my own list, in no particular order and taken from throughout the chapter:

  • Representation: gender, disability, ethnicity etc.
  • Learner training
  • Purposeful communication (key word!)
  • Rehearsing for real-world target language use
  • “Opportunities to express their own meanings in their own words” (p46)
  • Balance between meaning/use and form
  • Inclusion of pronunciation work
  • Varieties of English represented
  • Authenticity of language
  • Opportunities for assessment

This sums up some of what I’ve written about elsewhere in this post:

The reality is that evaluation is value laden, and this will be less of a problem if evaluators (1) look critically at the criteria formulated by others; (2) are aware of their own values; and (3) in specifying criteria for use by others, investigate and take the values of the ultimate users into account.

McGrath (2002) Materials Evaluation and Design for Language Teaching, p48

McGrath describes some of the potential conflicts inherent in creating evaluation checklists:

McGrath (2002) Materials Evaluation and Design for Language Teaching, p48

The challenge is to “minimise the chance of decisions being taken on the basis of individual subjective judgement.” (p48)

When deciding how to format a checklist, McGrath mentions the following (p48-):

  • Including a summary of basics about the book at the top. (e.g. title, publisher etc.)
  • Decide between (a combination of?) open-ended questions and questions/statements/prompts requiring a tick/score: the latter allows easier comparison and can be completed faster, the former adds information
  • Consider the order of categories / criteria, including whether any overlap
  • Rating, weighting and scoring:
    Rating is often 3-5 points – picking 4 means the evaluator has to make a decision.
    Weighting could be scored, or a system like A / B / N – absolutely essential, beneficial / preferred, not applicable (Skierso, 1991), rated as 4 / 2 / 0 if a numerical score is needed
    Score = R(ating) x W(eighting) (p50)

Improving your evaluation:

  • McGrath advises piloting a checklist if at all possible (p51), preferably against both a familiar and an unfamiliar book.
  • Daoud and Celce-Murvia (1979) suggest group evaluation, by three experienced teachers. (p52 of McGrath), thus creating discussion, a more thorough examination, and shared responsibility.
  • Teachers may need time to understand the checklist, especially important if different teachers have the responsibility for evaluating different materials. Some kind of practice (standardisation?) would be useful by working through a familar book and “checking that all would make similar judgements about its key features”. (p52)
  • In addition to using a checklist, do an in-depth analysis of one or two units, along with analysing some specific features, for example the treament of a particular grammatical feature (Cunningsworth 1995 in McGrath 2002: 54). This “affords an insight into the view of language learning on which the materials are based” (McGrath 2002: 54). However, this can create a lot of demands on the evaluator, requiring a lot of effort and analytical expertise. (p55)
McGrath (2002) Materials Evaluation and Design for Language Teaching, p56

That’s it for week one. Next week: Units 3, 4 and 5.

The last lesson with beginners: a super simple speaking activity

Here’s an activity I did in the final lesson with my beginner 10-12 year olds today.

First, we each drew 2 animals, 2 people and a room:

Then I put some possible questions and answers into the chat:

Then I put the students into breakout rooms for 10 minutes with a partner to ask and answer questions. They enjoyed it so much, they repeated it with another partner.

Super simple, super effective, and practices those tricky question structures. And it shows them just how long they can speak in English for after only 9 months!

Reported speech practice/revision online using Jamboard

This is a super quick activity I suggested to a teacher last week which I haven’t tried out, so please do let me know if it works! I also haven’t created an example because I’m feeling lazy today, so I hope it makes sense; let me know if you need one to help you understand how to set up the activity.

We were talking about how to practise reported speech patterns in a fun way when you can’t play Chinese whispers/telephone, which I think would be pretty hard to transfer online (I’m happy to be corrected if you’ve made this work somehow).

It goes like this:

  • Set up a Jamboard with a 5 or 6 stickies of direct speech, all in the same colour. This could be before the lesson (easier to ensure all patterns you want to include are covered), during the lesson (using real things students have said so potentially more motivating) or in a follow-up lesson (using real things from a previous lesson and ensuring all patterns are covered – win-win!). Duplicate the frame so that different pairs/groups can work on the same set of sentences simultaneously. Put a different number in the corner of each frame for ease of reference.
  • In the lesson, demonstrate the activity on frame 1 (your frame!) Choose one of the direct speech quotes. Ask students to help you change it to reported speech – type this version onto a sticky, choose a different colour to the original speech, and move it on top of the direct speech. It’s important that students can’t see the direct speech any more once they’ve written their original version.
  • Share the link, telling students which frame they should work on. With their partner(s), they write reported speech versions of all of the quotes, hiding the direct speech with their new versions.
  • To extend the activity/For fast finishers, add an extra stage (or two or three) where students look at the reported speech and try to reproduce the direct speech. They can compare their version of the direct speech to the original version to see what problems they had with tense shifts etc. They can do this flip-flop for as long as you think it will be useful / to give slower finishers more time to complete the activity.

I think the most important thing to point out in any activity incorporating reported speech is that while there are some common patterns, it’s not an exact science. There may be multiple possible versions of the reported speech depending on what the imagined speaker is trying to emphasise when they reproduce the speech.

Interactive grammar activities for C2 students (guest post)

I saw Fari Greenaway presenting activities to use with proficiency students at the IH Online conference in May 2019.  Since it’s hard to find good ideas to use with such high-level students, I asked her if she’d mind sharing them with the readers of this blog.  Many of them can be adapted for other levels too. Thank you for agreeing, Fari! (Yep, this post has been a while in arriving! It was also written before any of this COVID malarky happened, hence the fact that online teaching isn’t mentioned, though most of the activities should be pretty easy to adapt online.)

My experience with teaching C2 Proficiency classes is that the materials tend to be very dense and lack communicative or interactive ideas. As a result, teaching C2 often means creating your own activities. I’d like to share some of the activities I use in class.

As with all students C2 level learners can gain from the benefits of interactive work: helping memory, promoting practice and providing motivation by making lessons more fun.

Presentation

Extreme adjective mingle

1) List adjectives and their extreme versions on the board ask students to match the two, e.g.:

hot                                                       exhausted

cold                                                     boiling

tired                                                    furious

interesting                                          starving

angry                                                  freezing

hungry                                               fascinating

2) Elicit the differences between the two lists (the extreme adjectives on the right are non-gradable and take different adverbs – you may want to go through some examples)

3) Give each student a regular adjective on a card and ask them to write a statement on the card with the adjective e.g.: “It’s hot in here”

4) Students should mingle and read their sentences to each other, the listener should answer with the extreme adjective in the correct intonation e.g.. “Hot? It’s boiling!”

Here’s a ready-made extreme adjective activity to give you an idea, but I prefer that the students make their own sentences https://www.eslprintables.com/grammar_worksheets/adjectives/Extreme_adjective_mingling_act_607982/ (retrieved on 15/05/19)

Peer teaching memory test

If your book comes with grammar explanations that you like to use or think are useful: give students a set (short) amount of time to read the information. Ask them to close their books and reconstruct as much they can of the text / rules whilst speaking with their partner.

Reported speech and reporting verbs

  • Students brainstorm reporting verbs.
  • Display a list of reporting verbs on the board and ask students to work together to organise them into groups according to the structure that follows them, this can be done with the verbs written on cards or on a board (ideally an IWB). There is a good table at: https://de.scribd.com/document/136102001/Reporting-Verbs-Table-pdf (retrieved 15/05/19).
  • Check as a class.
  • Give each student a reporting verb and ask them to come up with a sentence that illustrates that verb but doesn’t use it (in direct speech) e.g.: you give them a card saying “apologise” and they write “I’m sorry for being late”.
  • Students mingle and say their sentences to each other.
  • Put students into small groups, they should now report on what the other students in the group said using the structures revised previously, e.g.: She apologised for being late.

Passive/Causative structures

The TV show How it’s made is great for passive and causative structures.

  • Choose a video to show e.g.: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K1VfdXmqjN8 and then ask students to recall.
  • Ask some introductory questions about the topic, e.g.: in this case: Have you ever tried Japanese noodles? How are they different from Chinese noodles etc…
  • Watch the video and ask students to make notes on what they see.
  • Elicit the structures used in the video, e.g.: “This factory was formed in…” “433 tonnes will be used every year.”
  • Display key words and ask students to reconstruct the procedure, speaking in pairs.
  • Feedback as a class.
  • Students work in pairs to write about the manufacturing process of the product of their choice.

This is also a great video for ellipsis and provides lots of vocabulary and examples of collocations.

Practise

Jigsaw activities

  • Choose a fairly long grammar practice activity (I use activities from Destination C1 and C2) [Amazon affiliate link]
  • Make two copies of it and complete half of the answers on each page i.e. the odd numbers on one page and the evens on another. Label the pages “Student A” and “Student B”. Sit students in A/B pairs and ask them to tell each other what they think is the correct answer
  • They should help each other to find the answer by giving leading responses rather than giving them the correct answer immediately if they get it wrong.

Grass skirts (a race!)

  • Copy sentence transformations and cut them into fringed tear off strips.
  • Tape the pages to the board or door so that students can tear off one transformation at a time.
  • Put students into pairs or small groups.
  • One student from each group at a time should come and tear off a strip from their page (you may want to mark the pages with team names or letters) and take it back to their team.
  • When they have agreed on an answer they write it on the paper and show it to you. If it is correct they tear off the next strip and repeat. If not, they go back to their group and try again.
  • The winning group is the one which finishes their sentences correctly first

Revise

Peer teaching

  • Put students into pairs or small groups.
  • Write structures you have covered and would like to revise on cards for students to randomly select.
  • Supply students with reference material to research their structure.
  • Give students 15 minutes to prepare a short presentation for the rest of the group: it must be presented without prompts, they must provide examples and other students should make notes.

Structure bingo

Create a short grid of structures you would like to revise and a list of 6 topics on the board. Students roll a dice to select the topic and try to be the first to correctly get bingo whilst discussing their topic.

Phrasal verbs / verbs with dependent prepositions

  • With a reading text from the book, do the reading in class or for homework.
  • Give students a list of verbs to find and to underline which preposition they go with.
  • List the prepositions on the board for students to complete with the correct preposition (books closed!)
  • Display gapped sentences on the board or around the room.

Recommended resources

Total English Advanced: Teacher’s Resource Book, Pearson Longman, 2007. Will Moreton [Amazon affiliate link]

Destination C1 and C2 Grammar and Vocabulary, Macmillan, 2008. Malcolm Mann and Steve Taylore-Knowles [Amazon affiliate link]

Devilish Dilemmas game [Amazon affiliate link]

Bio

Fari likes baking.

Other than that she is a linguistics graduate, DELTA qualified and DELTA tutor. She has written numerous EFL articles for different journals and has written teaching material for Edelvives. Fari has spoken has spoken at a variety of provincial, national and international conferences and is a great believer in promoting learner autonomy.

Breaking down an activity into stages

This post is based on emails I exchanged with one of my colleagues last week. He gave me permission to turn them into a blogpost – thank you!

The lesson was revision of superlatives with elementary 10-13 year olds. They had 8 prompts like this: young / person / my family. For each prompt, students needed to individually create a statement, some true, some false. This was very challenging for most of the students in the group, despite the teacher demonstrating it to them first. Only two students out of eight were able to complete the task as it was originally planned. The others ended up writing only true sentences. The teacher emailed me afterwards to find out how to do the task differently next time. The rest of the post is a slightly edited version of my reply (I’m happy to be corrected on my understanding of cognitive load!)

Especially at this level, it’s important to think about the cognitive load you’re putting onto students, and how many levels they need to complete the task on at the same time.

“Cognitive load” relates to the amount of information that working memory can hold at one time. Sweller said that, since working memory has a limited capacity, instructional methods should avoid overloading it with additional activities that don’t directly contribute to learning.

Mind Tools – Cognitive Load Theory (accessed 5th April 2021)

For example, in this task students need to:

  1. work out what the prompts are/mean (i.e. what does the teacher want from me)
  2. create a superlative sentence (a new grammar structure they’ve only just encountered)
  3. decide whether to make it true or false
  4. add the information – either true or false

…so they’re dealing with the task on 4 different levels. It’s an achievable task if you break up each of those levels so students are attacking them separately. This helps students by staging the task for them carefully, enabling them to successfully complete something quite complicated. You can think of this as providing scaffolding or a staircase to help the students reach the high point of the final goal. For example:

  1. Have 2 or 3 examples completed already for reference, refer them to the references to show how the prompt turns into the superlative
  2. Do 1 or 2 of them in the chat box so all of them complete it, then they complete all of them as stems only + feedback
  3. Write T or F next to each piece of information with parameters e.g. 3 x T, 3 x F – check afterwards – have you got three T? three F?
  4. Add the true/false information depending on what letter they wrote before

Alternatively you can remove/change some of the levels – this reduces cognitive load and takes less time in the lesson. You can think of this as students joining the staircase at a higher point, so they’re already closer to the final goal. Any of the levels can be removed:

  1. Don’t use the prompts – make it free choice with a sentence stem e.g. The _______ in my ________ is….
    make it a gapfill e.g. The _______ (tall) person in my family is… (requires careful instruction checking so they don’t fill in the end of the sentence yet!)
  2. Supply the completed stem for them to just understand and complete with information (shift from a form focus to a purely meaning focus, but you don’t know if they actually understood how to form the grammar – you can get around this by asking them to write 2-3 of their own examples at the end)
  3. and 4. Do what you did in the lesson and take away the true/false element.
Image by Vicky Loras from ELTpics, under a Creative Commons 2.0 license

Mind Tools theorises this process like this:

Reduce the Problem Space

The “problem space” is the gap between the current situation and the desired goal. If this is too large, people’s working memory becomes overloaded.

This often happens with complex problems, where the learner needs to work backwards from the goal to the present state. Doing this requires him to hold a lot of information in his working memory at once. Focusing on the goal also takes attention away from the information being learned, which makes learning less effective.

A better approach is to break the problem down into parts. This reduces the problem space and lightens the cognitive load, making learning more effective.

Other methods of reducing the problem space include providing worked examples and presenting problems with partial solutions for the learner to complete. These approaches are particularly useful, because they demonstrate strong problem-solving strategies in practice.

Mind Tools – Cognitive Load Theory (accessed 5th April 2021)

If you’re interested in reading more about how to break down a task and provide scaffolding to help learners complete it, take a look at my idea for a scaffolding continuum.

Technology tools for teaching beginners online

I’m a huge fan of Quizlet and use it in almost every lesson (here’s how), but recently I’ve been experimenting with a few other authoring tools (ones where you can make your own content) with my 10-12 year old beginners. I find that once they know how to use the tool this is the easiest way to create student-centred activities, because they don’t need my help to generate new prompts or to keep the activity going, and a lot of the tools are fairly intuitive so they don’t need too much explanation to understand how to use them. The ultimate sign of a good technology tool with this age group is when they ask to continue playing – how often do you hear your young/teen students ask for more drilling? Or more spelling practice? Or more time to speak to their partners? With these tools they do!

Wheel Decide allows you to create spinning wheels with text. I made one with a set of sentences based on Project 1 Unit 3. Each sentence had one, two, or three words inside * *. The students had to write their own version of the sentence in a Google Doc changing the words in the stars. For example, they see My monster has got *three arms*. and they change it to My monster has got two wings.

Wheel Decide spinning wheel with 12 sentences on it

Class Tools has a huge range of different adaptable templates. I used the Vortex template to create a categorisation game where students decided if verb phrases went with I/you/we/they or he/she/it, to help them get exposure to the third person -s endings. If you want to create your own, make sure you type the link somewhere else and check it opens before you close your beautiful creation because otherwise you probably won’t be able to get it back!

Flippity has a range of templates based on Google spreadsheets which are easy to adapt. The randomiser creates a kind of slot machine. I used something simliar to this as a prompt for drilling daily routine with times in a more student-centred way, but the randomiser tool is much easier to use – go to Flippity for a demo and full instructions.

I know I’m late to the Wordwall party, but I’ve definitely arrived now! I’ve found lots of resources which created by other teachers based on the book I’m using (see the list below). My favourite game is another categorisation one, based on daily routine phrases. It was originally made as a ‘group sort’ task, similar to the vortex above, but you have the option of making it into ‘whack a mole’ which I think is potentially more memorable. Students have to hit the moles which are ‘have’ and avoid the ones which are ‘go’. Each level has more moles. I haven’t actually tried this with my students yet, but I’m sure they’ll like it.

Here is a (view-only) full list of all of the online resources I’ve found or created to use with OUP’s Project 1 4th edition book. If you have suggestions for other specific resources for this book which I could add or simple authoring tools I should try with my students, please leave them in the comments below. I’ll be teaching this group until June 2021, so the list will continue to evolve between now and then.

Queer as folklore

This is a lesson plan I put together about 18 months ago for a Proficiency group I was working with, so it’s designed for the face-to-face classroom but I think it would work well online too. I wanted to create something we could use as a reading assessment, hence the inclusion of marks for the reading questions. It’s based on selections from an authentic text from the BBC detailing various unusual traditions from England. It’s been sitting on my desktop since then waiting to go on my blog, and in the spirit of preparing for the new year, I present it for your use and enjoyment.

The lesson plan (also in the notes under the first slide when you download it) goes like this:

Lesson plan

Display slide 1

What does the badge mean? And the title of the article?

“There’s nowt so queer as folk” is a saying loosely translated as “there’s nothing as strange as people”. It’s said to emphasise the strange behaviour of people.

In the article, it shows that these English customs are strange (queer) but traditional (folklore)

Do you know any strange English or Polish customs? – quick discussions

Slide 2: look at the pictures. What’s happening? Why? Make predictions. Give them at least 3 minutes to do this to ensure they are actually creative and don’t just give up!

Have the four articles printed out. Gist = match pictures to articles. Look at rest of presentation to check (pictures follow articles)

Reading CA (continuous assessment): Answer the questions on slide 11. (Total = 12 marks) They mark it themselves (switch papers?) by checking answers on slide 12. Collect the answers for Sandy to check and put on computer. [Fast finishers = reread the articles to check answers, then again to see what language you can steal. What tenses do they use? What interesting phrasing could you steal? etc.]

Vocab: choose two words or phrases from each article to add to their word cards. Encourage them to choose things they might use again! Each pair should select, then work with another pair to reselect, then as a class (pyramid discussion). Make sure they use dictionaries (www.oald8.com) when writing out definitions!

Show pictures on slide 13. Tell partner what’s happening in the pictures now that you know from reading. Can you use any of the new vocab?

Slide 14: Work in pairs. Create your own strange tradition. Use the guidelines to help. Afterwards they read each others (gallery) and decide which one they would like to watch as a tourist.

I wonder how many of these traditions still happened in 2020? What unusual traditions exist where you are?

Colour-coding grammar

I had a 25-minute grammar tutorial with a teenage student who struggled with forms of the present simple. this piece of paper was the result of the that. I can’t remember the exact question I started with, but the sentences are from her and my lives, and are variations on the same basic structure, colour-coded as we went along so she could see what the patterns are in the grammar. The yellow was used to show that the auxiliary is the same in both questions and negatives.

Do you use similar techniques to help students to understand grammar?

Making the most of Quizlet

Quizlet is easily my favourite teaching tool – I use it in almost every lesson. It’s the only website that I pay for, and for the amount I use it and the number of classes I have, it’s definitely worth it for me. Nikki Fortova introduced me to it years ago and I’ve never looked back – thanks Nikki!

At first glance, it’s a simple flashcard tool, but the real reason I go on about it all the time is because of its versatility. I also like the fact that you don’t need an account to play the games, so students don’t need to log in to use it. If you do create an account, it allows you to create your own content, remembers the sets you’ve used, and displays your scores on leaderboards.

If you’ve never used it before, I recommend you pause in your reading, and go and try it out. Should you so choose, you can learn/revise some teaching terminology at the same time by choosing a set from my Delta class. Try out all of the different functions for a minute or two each, and hopefully you’ll feel yourself learning 🙂

Apart from using the functions as is, there are many different ways you can exploit them. Each section below gives you a link to the Quizlet introduction to that function, along with a series of ideas for exploiting it. These were written for the online classroom, but most of them work in the face-to-face classroom too. Remember to demonstrate what you want the students to do before you set them off by themselves.

Activities by Quizlet function 

Flashcards

You display a flashcard and…

  • …elicit the word/phrase verbally.
  • …students write word/phrase in chat.
  • …elicit a definition/example sentence.
  • …drill pronunciation.
  • …(for sentence halves) elicit the other half of the sentence.

Match

Students play alone. They can call out their times or not (up to them!), or write their times in the chatbox. (I often use this as a way of introducing a vocabulary set and seeing how comfortable students are with it before we do any exercises in the book.)

Learn/Spell/Write

Students play alone in main class.

Students play in pairs/groups with screen share in BOR [breakout rooms].

You display to the whole class and elicit answers. (I generally only use them this way if I’m introducing the words for the first time)

Test

Students do a test alone online.

You display the test and students write the answers in their notebooks.

Gravity

You display the game in the main room and type as students call out answers.

One student screen shares in BOR while others call out answers. (I’ll have played it as a whole class at least a couple of times before students work in pairs so they understand how it works.)

Type most of the word, but miss a letter/make a spelling error. Students say what the missing letter is/correct the spelling. (Thanks Mollie!)

Live: Teams mode (minimum 4 players)

Two tips:

  • You have to identify yourself as a teacher in your settings to get Live to show. You don’t need a paid account to do this.
  • If a student signs in with a stupid name, click their name to remove them – they’ll have to enter a new one to rejoin. If they’re going to BOR for Live, it’s better to ask them to use their real names

Keep students in the main room calling over each other, or assign them to BOR before you start the game. Give them functional language to play in English e.g. I haven’t got it. What’s this? I don’t know this one.

Review problem vocab after the game has finished by clicking through the flashcards which appear.

Play to 11. Teams stop when they get to 11 points, so that everyone gets a chance.

Live: Individual mode (minimum 2 players)

Play to 11 works especially well here.

Print

Set the options to small flashcards, double-sided printing. It will display a list of flashcards in a grid layout.

Show all of the pictures. Students write the words in the chat.

Show some of the pictures. Students write/say what’s missing.

Show some of the pictures. Minimise the screen. Students write what they saw.

(for sets with a sentence half in the term/definition e.g. I like going / to the cinema on Saturdays.) Students have 3 minutes to write the other half of as many sentences as possible.

Screenshot from the list of vocab/phrases in print view (small flashcards, double-sided) into another doc so you don’t have to type them all again, then: 

  • Students see the list of words and define them for each other.
  • Students write as many example sentences as they can.
  • Students contextualise phrases – step 1: what’s the conversation/text that this phrase originally appeared in? Step 2: remove the phrase, give the text to another group, they remember what the phrase is.
  • Students use as many words/phrases as possible in a story.

If you’re in a classroom, these activities from Leo Selivan show other ways of exploiting the Print function.

And then…?

After playing a Quizlet game or three, get students to write as many words/phrases/sentences as they can remember in the chat.

Any game which involves remembering/writing in notebooks from above can be paired with a trip to BOR so students can compare their answers with each other.

Tips for making a useful Quizlet set

  • Include lots of information in the title, so it doesn’t matter what people search for e.g.
    Word building – prefixes and suffixes which add meaning (English File Upper Int 3rd ed SB p163 Unit 9B)
    Name of section from book, book (+ edition), page, unit
    [This is a personal bugbear of mine – I get so frustrated when I do a search for a really popular book and can’t find a Quizlet set because the title is unclear. Please make me happy!]
  • You don’t have to start from scratch! Use the search to find existing sets, then copy and customise them. [This is where clear set names are vital!]
  • Include images whenever relevant – these really help students to remember the language.
  • Include a definition if the picture alone is ambiguous/no picture is possible.
  • Include gapped example sentences, where the gap matches the term as exactly as possible (sometimes tenses/articles make the gap and the term different).
  • Highlight collocations whenever possible, especially for higher levels.
  • Use bold or colours to pick out key features of a sentence if relevant. Italics changes the shape of the word, so isn’t great for learners with dyslexia. (I think these might be in the paid accounts only)
  • Remember that Quizlet is useful for grammar too, not just vocabulary. There are some examples of grammar sets for beginners in this class.

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/ is a good place to find definitions/example sentences if your book doesn’t help or you’re producing your own sets.

How many words should I include in a set?

I tend to go for smallest possible coherent set. For example, if a word bank page has three different sets of vocabulary on it, I’ll make separate Quizlet sets for each of them, then make a fourth set combining them all together.

  • Combine sets together, e.g. all of the language for one unit, all of the examples of one grammar point (maybe you had + – ? as separate sets). Here’s how.
  • Combine units together ready for a unit test.
  • Combine everything in the whole book together for bumper revision.

Here’s an example class for English File Upper Intermediate 3rd edition which my colleague Sarah and I compiled a couple of years ago which hopefully embodies all of these principles! You can see all of my classes here. Thanks very much to colleagues, friends and strangers who have added to these sets!

Note: I have no idea how copyright works with Quizlet sets, but if publishers made high-enough-quality Quizlet sets to go with their books I’d be very, very happy. That’s another reason why I think it’s so important to put the book title into the name of the set – I wasn’t the person who originally compiled that list!

Over to you

Do you use Quizlet?

What tips do you have for other teachers?

Which functions do your students most enjoy? Mine love Match, Live (in the classroom mostly), and Gravity (when I’m typing!)

How else can you use Quizlet?

Please share in the comments below!

Practising irregular plurals: a drawing activity

Teaching complete beginner teens (well, 10-12 year olds) online is…a challenge. We had three lessons in the classroom before lockdown started again. We started with f2f, online, f2f, online, f2f, online, and now it’s all online.

I end up speaking lots of Polish to help the students work out how to use the technology and help them to chat to each other. That’s fine because life is stressful enough at the moment without stressing me and the students out over only communicating in a language they have almost no knowledge of so far. But of course, I want to maximise their English use. It can be a real challenge to set up a truly communicative activity when the sum total of student’s knowledge of the language is pretty much the 106 terms in this Quizlet set!

Here’s an activity I experimented with last week to practise irregular plurals and There’s a/an… / There are….

Step 1: students copy the following onto a full page in their notebooks.

Step 2: Dictate a list of sentences in a random order. It’s important that each sentence can be drawn, that there is one sentence/picture per box, and that the pictures can be in any box – they shouldn’t be drawn in sequence in 1, then 2, then 3. Here’s what my table looked like after these two sentences:

  • There are three women.
  • There’s a child.

I checked students were drawing in separate boxes after the first one or two pictures by getting students to show me their notebooks, then told them it was a secret after that.

This full list of sentences (dictated at random) resulted in the table below:

  • There’s a man.
  • There are two men.
  • There’s a woman.
  • There are three women.
  • There’s a child.
  • There are three children.
  • There’s a person.
  • There are eight people.

Step 3: I said a student’s name and a sentence about my table e.g. Franek, there’s a man in 8. Franek (not my real student!) looked at his table and gave one of two possible answers:

  • Yes, there’s a man in 8.
  • No, there’s a man in 6. OR No, there are three women in 8.

If we had the same thing in our boxes I ticked it.

Next students were meant to go into breakout rooms and work together to play the same game, but they were a bit unclear about how to do this.

Having the demo first was meant to clarify the task, but I made it too complicated by using a question form the first couple of times (Is there…?). There were two main problems with this: they don’t know any question forms and I wasn’t clear about what I wanted them to do as a result. We got there in the end with some Polish translation. This is a reminder to plan my language use very carefully with beginners, and include each structure I plan to use in my lesson plan. It would also have been useful to display a sample version of the conversation I wanted them to have before I started step 3. I did write the example conversation in the chat box eventually, but only after they’d stumbled over it for a bit!

I originally planned the activity for 10 minutes, but that was very over-optimistic – it actually took about 30 minutes, about 10 for drawing and 20 for speaking. I’m not sure it 100% worked because of the wonky set-up. But anyway, they got some practice, and it could be adapted for other language. This was also probably the most communicative activity we’ve managed so far – definitely still need to work on increasing speaking beyond drills with this group!

Let me know if you use this activity and whether it works any better with your students, especially if you try it with beginners!

Picture prepositions

I created this diagram today when helping a teacher work out how to clarify prepositions connected to describing pictures in English File Intermediate Plus, and thought it was worth sharing.

Can you match them?

  1. in the top left-hand corner
  2. on the right
  3. on top
  4. in the background / in the distance (happy to accept suggestions to differentiate these more clearly!)
  5. in the bottom left-hand corner
  6. at the bottom
  7. in the bottom right-hand corner
  8. in the centre / in the middle
  9. in the foreground
  10. at the top
  11. in the top right-hand corner
  12. on the left

Hope you find it useful!

A-B-C-D-E-F-no!

One of the early lessons with any group of beginners is the alphabet one. You know, the one where you teach them the song and they recite it back to you beautifully…

…but forever afterwards they have to go through the whole alphabet to work out what letter they need next, and there’s a bit of a mush in the middle because L-M-N-O-P is too fast and they can’t hear it.

That one.

I can’t remember the last time I taught that one.

Instead, I approach it as an exercise in de-confusing, not with the aim of teaching the alphabet, but of teaching the letters, so that students can spell and understand spellings. Today with my beginner teens it worked better than ever before, in part because they were teens and in part because we were on Zoom 🙂

Caveat: there are only 4 students, and I speak enough Polish to be able to justify what I’m doing with them sometimes.

I started by showing them the alphabet in the book. Cue rolling eyes and one kid saying ‘No’ loudly and repeatedly. Another kid started to immediately recite the song, so I got them to try that first. Two knew the song perfectly, one had the L-M-N-O-P problem, and the fourth one is generally pretty shy and said she didn’t know it at all.

I told them that was great because now I knew what was a problem. One of them said “No problem!”, so I asked them to write ‘A’ in the chatbox. Cue a series of E’s and I’s. “Not E, A.” I I I E E. “Not I, A.” Eventually we got there. I could then explain that for the rest of the lesson we’d be working on groups of letters and helping them to remember what the difference is. I already had the first group (A-E-I-Y) written in black on a mini whiteboard.

I pointed to each letter and elicited it, writing some prompts in green next to the letter to help them remember. For these four letters the prompts I normally use are:

  • A a (b c)
  • E eeeeeeeee [but drawn linked together, coupled with me ‘pulling’ the sound out of my mouth]
  • I like dogs [or in a classroom I’ll stand very straight and indicate my whole body, as in ‘I’, which compares to…]
  • Y Why? [or stand with my arms in a Y shape to compare to I]

We then worked out how these letters might be written in Polish ‘spelling’, and I wrote it in red on the board, something like this:

  • A /ei/
  • E /i/
  • I /ai/
  • Y /uaj/

They copied the black letters, green reminders, and red sounding out into their notebooks. I asked any student who had finished and was waiting to spell their first name, and helped them with the problem letters.

We then played a game in the chatbox where I said one of the four letters and they wrote it, then they took turns being the teaching and calling out a letter.

With revision of 1-100 and a homework check, that took the first half of the lesson. I wasn’t sure how interested they’d be when we came back after break and repeated the process with other sets of letters:

  • G-J-H
  • C-S
  • K-Q
  • U-V-W
  • X-Z
  • O
  • R

…but they absolutely loved it. This is mostly because they started racing each other to be the first person to get it right in the chat box, with no prompting from me. Then they started racing to show me what they’d written in their notebooks, to the extent that by the time we got to the final board (shown below), they wanted to copy the black letters immediately. Then when I was writing the red they were saying ‘Pani pisze’ (Miss is writing!) and were poised and ready to go as soon as I held up the board.

The whole lesson was very entertaining, and they really loved challenging each other on the particularly confusing combinations which they knew their classmates would get wrong because they were rushing. This forced them to think a little more.

I’m pretty confident that in Thursday’s lesson they’ll remember most of the letters because they know we’ll play the letter race game again, and they know I’m going to ask them to spell their names so they’ll practice that too.

The best kind of lesson: minimal planning, just enough variety to keep them engaged, lots of practice, driven by students, fun, and memorable for a long time!

Professional Development beyond CELTA (guest post)

When a Twitter account called What they don’t teach you on CELTA started to pop up on my stream I was intrigued. Looking at their tweets, it seemed they were trying to fill the gap in post-CELTA development that I’m hoping ELT Playbook 1 also helps with. This is one of my main areas of interest for all the reasons Chris Russell describes below, so I was very pleased when he agreed to share the story behind the site and the Twitter account with us. Thanks Chris!

As for many of us, lockdown has been a strange time for me. Along with some colleagues, I’ve spent most of it furloughed and with a desire to do something productive with all that time on my hands. Fortunately, my colleague Stephen, an experienced teacher, teacher trainer and examiner, identified a problem waiting to be solved.

He got a few of us together on Zoom and asked us to think back to our early days of teaching, and all those moments we cringe at: the overly-ambitious lesson plan; the activities that fell flat; the grammar explanations that confused more than helped. CELTA and equivalents are great courses, but there’s only so much that’s possible within the confines of a month-long course. They should be one of the first steps on a journey in learning to teach, but for many it seems that their professional development doesn’t progress much after it.

As we thought of those moments, we wondered if there was a way of others finding a kind of shortcut. Especially those not lucky enough to work in a school with a supportive manager and opportunities for professional development. For teachers who have some experience, but aren’t ready to be thinking about doing a Delta or Master’s yet. We toyed with a couple of names, but ultimately settled on What they don’t teach you on the CELTA.

The name is a little tongue-in-cheek, and not intended as a criticism of CELTA per se, but an acknowledgment of its limitations. It can’t teach you everything. Cambridge are quite open about this: it falls under the ‘foundation to developing’ stage of their teaching framework, rather than ‘proficient’ or ‘expert’. We also noted the number of job opportunities that simply require a CELTA-qualified candidate, without asking for relevant experience or offering sufficient support to newly-qualified teachers, perpetuating the myth that CELTA is the final destination, rather than a first step, in ELT.

So, with our combined experience as teachers, teacher trainers, DoSes and language learners, we got writing, trying to help others benefit from our experience. We thought about what we wish someone had told us in our first years in the classroom, from the websites we now can’t imagine living without to knowing how to deal with classroom cliques. We’ve also thought about the things we do in class now, almost as second nature, like correcting students effectively and dealing with being observed. We don’t intend to imply that none of what we discuss is actually covered on any CELTA courses! However, expecting trainees to retain all that knowledge from such an intensive course doesn’t seem realistic, and so we hope some reinforcement will prove useful.

We know there are lots of other resources out there, but we don’t feel there are enough aimed at this audience – likely time-poor (planning and teaching 25 hours is a very tough ask at first!) and in need of a bit of guidance. The industry churns out lots of CELTA graduates, but how many really last in ELT? I’ve seen some have an initial unfulfilling year and never return – could some more support and development have helped them have a better time and retained them? Those staffroom tears and breakdowns that I’m sure many of us have seen really shouldn’t be the norm. I’ve also seen plenty of teachers with many years of experience, but whose teaching ability seems to have stagnated early, doing a disservice to their students and perhaps limiting their job satisfaction.

A blog certainly won’t solve all those issues but we hope to provide some help as well as to start a conversation around this issue within the industry. If nothing else, writing it has helped us reflect on our journeys within ELT and been a mixture of interesting and cathartic, emphasising the good that can come out of blogging and reflection – another important tool in professional development!

Chris Russell is a CELTA- and Delta-qualified English language teacher who has been working in ELT for 8 years in the UK, Spain and Poland. He recently took on the role of school director at Alba English in Edinburgh. He blogs with some colleagues at https://notoncelta.com and tweets at @ChrisRussellELT.

Fortune teller decision maker (IH TOC 12)

It was the 12th IH Teachers Online Conference (TOC) on Friday 22nd May 2020. Nearly 40 people presented for 15 minutes each on the theme of online teaching.

For my presentation, I decided to go for something low-tech that you could still do online, and what’s better than making a fortune teller. It’s a very simple origami project, one I think most of us have probably made in the past. Here’s a video of how to make one:

 

My decision maker

As a lot of us are working on our mental health while we deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, my fortune teller was a way to choose your response to different people in different situations. The three sets of choices are:

Who are you talking to?

  • your boss
  • your colleague
  • your student
  • a parent

What are you talking about?

  • an activity you tried
  • how you feel
  • your plans tonight
  • something you’ve read
  • the news
  • IH TOC 😉
  • your lesson
  • your day

What do you say in that situation?

  • I give up!
  • I need chocolate!
  • Thank you!
  • That’s great!
  • Tell me more.
  • Help!
  • What should I do?
  • (Don’t say anything…take a deep breath!)

Other ways to use them

You could also use fortune tellers for:

  • predictions
  • practising spellings
  • practising lexical sets
  • question forms
  • making decisions in a role play
  • choosing with activity/game you’ll do next

And they’re not just for children: you can use them with teens and adults too with the right topics. Most people like to make things 🙂

What else could you use them for? Have you tried them out with your students?

Here’s the video if you want to watch the whole presentation:

Adding movement to online lessons (guest post)

My friend Olga Stolbova posted these suggestions on facebook a couple of days ago, and agreed to share them on my blog. Thanks Olga!

Some simple tips on how to add more movement to your online classes. These are some of the things I do and they work for kids and adults.

1. What do you have in your fridge?

For lower levels

Ask your student/s to stand up, go to his/her fridge and remember 5-7 things that they have have in their fridge, allow 1-2 minutes. Then they return to their online classroom and tell you what they have.

For upper levels

Ask the students to check their fridge and tell you what they may be running out of and what they need to buy, ask them to check their fridge and make a list using the words for packaging ( cans/ pack, carton, bottle etc.)

To make it more interactive

Write a list of words that you think a student may have in his/her fridge, and the student/students make predictions about their teachers’ fridge. Set a time limit of 30 seconds – 1 min depending on their level, then you read the items from your list and the students go to the fridge and check. Take turns. It can be done in different formats. If you have a 121 class, then it is teacher-student; if you are teaching a small group, students can work in pairs or you can do it as group. You can use different questions depending on their level. For lower level students you can just read the list, for slightly higher levels you can use: Do you have any bread? Is there any… in your fridge? Is there a bottle of milk in your fridge? To focus on containers you can ask clarifying questions for the second round. e.g. Do you have a carton of milk or a bottle of milk in your fridge?

2. Can you name all the green/pink/blue/white objects in your bedroom/kitchen/living-room?

Students need to walk to their room and check the objects. You may ask them to take pictures of all green/pink/blue etc. objects and send them to you, though make sure you have parents’ permission for them to do this.
You may either set a time limit or ask them to take pictures of limited number of things, e.g. Take pictures of 4 green things in your flat)

3. How many rectangular/oval/triangular objects do you have in your flat/room/kitchen?

(This idea is from Lisa Margolina. Thanks a lot!)

Students are given some time to walk around and take pictures of all/some shapes at home, similar to the one with colours. They may not know the name of the objects, so you can help them with that when they show the object to you or send you a picture of it (with permission), or you can ask them to use an online dictionary to find the name. Set a clear time limit for that one.

4. What can you see from your window?

A student is given 1 min to go to the window and describe what he/she can see outside. If the window is far from the computer, allow 1 min for the task and make them remember/note down 4-5 things. Then they can tell the rest of the class what they can see. Then you may ask several students to compare it with their view. Encourage them to find more than 5 differences. Again, this can be done teacher-student, student-student, teacher-students.

5. Where’s the mirror?

Make 2 lists of 5 objects each: 5 pieces of furniture and 5 objects, e.g. list 1: a pillow, a vase, a mirror, a cat, keys. List 2: a desk, a bookcase, a bedside table, a bed, a windowsill. One student shows his list to the rest of the class. The students and the teacher make predictions about where the objects are. Those who guess correctly, get one point for each correct answer, and the objects are crossed out from the list. Take turns.

Olga Stolbova

Olga Stolbova is a freelance teacher and a teacher trainer, based in Sevastopol, Crimea.

She has taught English in the USA, China, the Czech Republic, Vietnam, Russia and Ukraine and has run more than 30 CELTA courses around the world.

She loves teaching, travelling and coffee.

If you’d like more ideas for teaching on Zoom, including how to incorporate movement into lessons, read Ideas for adapting group lessons to working on Zoom.

Richer Speaking: how to get more out of speaking activities (IH Barcelona conference 2020)

On 8th February 2020, I had the pleasure of presenting at the IH Barcelona 2020 conference. I shared 4 activities from Richer Speaking, my ebook of 16 ways to get more out of the speaking activities you do in class with minimal extra preparation. 

To find the full details of the richer activities, plus another 12 ways to extend speaking activities, get your copy of Richer Speaking from Smashwords or Amazon [affiliate links]. It costs around $1/€1, so shouldn’t break the bank! As always, I don’t claim that these ideas are original, but it’s handy to have them in one place and see how they can be applied to specific activities.

If you’d like more reflection activities, you can find all the links to buy ELT Playbook 1 at eltplaybook.wordpress.com. There’s a 10% discount until 29th February 2020 if you buy it via Smashwords [affiliate link] using the code WG94S.

Here are my slides:

 

I did a version of this presentation in July 2019 which I’ve fully written out here.

Thank you to those who attended my talk, and I’d be really interested to hear from you if you try out any of these activities in your classroom. And don’t forget to get your copy of Richer Speaking from Smashwords or Amazon [affiliate links]!

A no-prep workshop*

*or at least, very very low prep!
Thursday night: nobody had suggested any queries or problems for our one-to-one troubleshooting session tomorrow. What should we do instead? There wasn’t really time for me to prep anything else, and Ididn’t know what to pick anyway. Cue a quick email:

Please think about 2 things you’re proud of in your lessons (group or 121), and 2 questions you most want answered. We’ll use that as the basis for the session tomorrow.

At the start of the 60-minute session I spread out a pile of A4 scrap paper on the floor. Everybody took a piece, folded it in half, and wrote two questions they had, one on each half. They put them on the floor for later.
They then took another piece, folded it again, and wrote the two things they were proud of. This took a lot longer, and I had to point out that ‘proud of’ doesn’t have to mean finished or perfect, just something you’ve worked at and know you’ve improved. We got there in the end! It reminded me of Sarah Mercer’s IATEFL plenary, when she told us to spot our strengths, the inspiration for the strength spotting task in the Teacher Health and Wellbeing section of ELT Playbook 1.
Everybody mingled, chatting to everybody else, holding up their strengths in front of them, including me. We talked about why we chose them, what we’d done to work on them, and asked each other questions. That took about 10-15 minutes.
I asked for a show of hands to see if any of the strengths matched any of the questions. Only 3 or 4 of the 20 teachers put their hands up, so I changed my mind about the next step.
Instead of pairing people off, I ended up putting them in groups of 4 or 5. They had about 15-20 minutes. This time they all read out their questions in their group, then chose which ones to discuss and offer answers to in a free discussion.
Meanwhile, I took photos of all of their questions and wrote them into a single list. It was an excellent indication of the range of concerns that our teachers have, from classroom management and better pacing to more effective listening lessons and challenging students more. This is a great starting point for deciding the topics of our upcoming workshops.
At the end I asked for another show of hands: who’s learnt something today that will help them with their teaching? Every hand went up.
The feedback was very positive. Teachers said they particularly enjoyed the small group work and the freestyle nature of the session. It worked well at this point in the year as everyone is settled and feels comfortable as a group. Definitely a format I’ll use again!

Not bad for one quick email 🙂

Bridging the gap between classroom and real-world listening (remote workshop)

This is the post to accompany my first ever online workshop, where I was in Poland and presenting to rooms of people in British Council schools in Rabat and Casablanca. It was an interesting hybrid of a webinar and a workshop, and definitely something I’d like to do again.

The presentation was a (very slight) reworking of my Transitioning Listening talk, which I last shared on this blog in November 2017. The full version of the original talk presented at IATEFL 2014, including all of the audio, is also available on my blog. Here are the slides from this time around:

This is the lovely poster that Helen Chapman made to advertise it (thanks for organising this Helen!)

Poster for talk with short blurb about me and the session

In its current iteration, the talk is mostly influenced by John Field’s Listening in the Language Classroom (2008) which I read for my Delta. The main change is in my inclusion of Richard Cauldwell’s books, Phonology for Listening: Teaching the stream of speech (2013) and A Syllabus for Listening: Decoding (2018) in the further reading links. They are very readable and have continued to help me develop my ideas of what it means to teach listening in the classroom, not just test it. I’m not sure how much my presentation reflects Cauldwell’s ideas, though I mentioned the idea of greenhouse, garden and jungle speech. I’ll probably rework the presentation more next time around once I’ve finished reading A Syllabus for Listening: Decoding, which I’m currently about half-way through.

If you’d like to buy any of the books mentioned in the talk, here are some affiliate links which will get me a few pennies if you use them 🙂

What do you do to help your students improve their listening skills and prepare them for real-world listening?

Hollywood meets an old people’s home

In a collaborative planning meeting today, we came up with a plan for a speaking lesson based around a single activity from Speakout Intermediate called ‘My life in film’. The image below is taken from the 1st edition, and we were working with the 2nd edition.

A film strip with five boxes: Early days, then, later, a big decision, now

The groups we were planning for have a mix of ages from 16 to 60+, so we thought of a tweak to level the playing field and make sure everybody was starting from the same point. Here’s how the lesson goes:

Guided visualisation

Students close their eyes, and the teacher says something along these lines, pausing at appropriate points for students to think:

You’re 80 years old and you’re in an old people’s home. Look around you. What can you see? How do you feel right now? Go out of the room and down the corridor. Where are you going? Who is walking past you? Where are you going?

It’s time for lunch. What are you eating? What can you smell? What can you hear?

You get some visitors. Who are they? How do you know them? How long have you known them for? What do you talk about? How do you feel about their visit?

After a suitable pause, students tell a partner what they experienced in the old people’s home. As feedback, elicit a couple of general impressions from the visualisation – don’t ask students to repeat whole chunks of what they experienced, as the pace will probably drop and others won’t be particularly interested.

Setting up the situation

Tell students that a film director has come to the old people’s home. They want to choose somebody’s story to turn into a film.

Display the film strip from Speakout and elicit ideas for how to complete it for you (the teacher) – demonstrate just taking notes.

Planning time

Give students about 5 minutes to make notes in their own film strips, including asking you for extra vocabulary. They can be as true or as creative as they like.

Getting into role

As a class, brainstorm one or two ideas of questions/comments directors could use to find out more from the old people in the home and to respond to the stories they hear. For example: ‘That can’t be true!’ ‘What happened after that?’ Students think of more ideas in pairs. As feedback, get them to (simultaneously) write the ideas on the board or use something like mentimeter to submit them electronically.

Pitching ideas

Arrange students into a ladder, with two lines of chairs facing each other. One line will be the directors, the other the old people.

The old people have 3-5 minutes to talk about their lives, while the directors listen and ask questions to find out more.

After each turn, directors move along one seat. The old people stay seated as it’s harder for them to be mobile!

The teacher sits either beyond one row or at the end of the ladder and takes notes on what they are – we are using this activity as a speaking assessment, and this gives the teacher lots of chances/time to listen to the students.

Making a choice

The directors listen to three old people, then choose the person whose story they’d most like to film and write their name on a piece of paper in secret.

Directors and old people switch roles and the pitches and choice stages are repeated.

Off to Hollywood!

Students discuss in new pairs which stories they particularly enjoyed listening to and why. Meanwhile, the teacher looks at all of the names, then declares whose stories will be filmed as a way of feeding back on the content of what the students have said.

For language feedback, the teacher can share some of the great language they heard, and/or highlight some problem areas for students to work on.

If you try this activity out, I’d love to know whether your students get into it. It’s always fun to plan things like this, but I don’t get to use them myself very often!

Stopped teaching? Don’t stop developing!

In April 2019, Rob Howard edited an edition of the free online teachers’ magazine Humanising Language Teaching. He pulled together various members of the Independent Authors and Publishers group to fill an edition of the magazine with articles from across the world of EFL, including teaching, materials writing, and teacher training.

It is a with great pleasure that I introduce this edition of HLT Magazine. As the organizer of the INDEPENDENT AUTHORS & PUBLISHERS, I have the honor of working with some of the biggest names in self-publishing and this like-minded group of individuals has come together for the third year to help spread the word and give new authors and publishers a voice in the everchanging arena of ELT books, training and “socialpreneurs” that will surely make up a big part of the future of ELT.

My own article, Stopped teaching? Don’t stop developing contained a selection of ideas for trainers, managers and materials writers to continue developing their craft. Here’s the opening paragraph:

There is a lot of information out there for teachers who want to continue to develop professionally, and there are a couple of other articles in this magazine about it too. However, there is nowhere near as much information about how to keep developing if you are still involved in language teaching but not in the classroom every day, for example working in academic management, training teachers, or writing materials. Although you can continue to use many of the methods recommended for teachers, such as writing a reflective journal, it can be difficult to know where to find specific resources relevant to these career paths. This article aims to remedy that.

You can see the full contents page here – there’s plenty of good stuff to read in there!

I’m in IA&P because of my books Richer Speaking and ELT Playbook 1/Teacher TrainingClick on the links to find out more and learn how to buy them. Right now, I’m also working with Freeed to find 30 people who will win copies of ELT Playbook 1. The competition closes on September 30th 2019.

ELT Playbook 1 cover

Science and diversity lesson plan

This was a lesson I did with my Proficiency group towards the end of the last academic year. It’s inspired by a podcast episode and general discussions about science and diversity, particularly the number of women who leave science at various points. The PowerPoint shows the structure of the lesson:

And here are the reading texts – I did it as a jigsaw, with each student having one person to read about.

The part of the lesson the students responded best to was sharing their drawings of four different people for the first activity. After they’d shared them, I asked how many were male and how many were female, and whether that surprised them at all. Considering we had a female scientist as one of the students in the group, only one picture out of twenty showed a woman! The statistics also prompted a lot of discussion.

As a mini language focus, we looked at how the four different biographies were structured in an attempt for me to figure out how to get more discourse in my lessons. Here’s what I said:

  • Peggy Whitson: almost every sentence has a background > result/event structure.
  • Marie Tharp: there’s a lot of potentially emotive emphatic language like controversial, dismissed, painstakingly etc.
  • Wanda Diaz-Merced: a straightforward narrative in order of events.
  • Quarraisha Abdool Karim: a list of some of her achievements.

Discourse is not something I know much about, so please feel free to give me more technical information about this! Based on this, students could choose a female scientist to write their own biography about, using one of these structures as a possible framework.

We only spent a very brief time on the final activity about possible solutions as the plan actually took nearly two whole lessons.

I’d be interested to know how it goes down with your students if you choose to use it, and what you would add or change.

Activities with purpose – how I build self-esteem in upper secondary learners (guest post)

I’ve always found it easier to work with adults than teens, so at conferences I often look for sessions which have ideas for improving what happens in the teenage classroom. At IATEFL 2019 in Liverpool, Sofia Leone presented activities to build teen self-esteem, inspired by her work as a language coach. Here she shares two of them, and I hope you’ll find them as interesting as I did!

For the past eight years I have worked closely with secondary learners in southern Italy. It was clear from day one that the only way I could make a career in EFL work for me was if I could make it meaningful. After numerous conversations with teens over the years, it is apparent that many of them are missing supportive teachers at secondary school who give them space to express themselves. I realised that the reason teenagers have always enjoyed themselves in my classroom is that I give them a gift they don’t often get at school: a chance to be heard.

My coaching journey started a few summers ago when I started researching the role of a coach in sport and how those skills could be transferred to the EFL classroom. What started as a hobby (and a lifetime obsession with Rocky!) turned into a learning development project and is now my career as an EFL teacher, materials developer and qualified life coach for young people.

When I talk about my great passion for working with teenagers, I often get very strange reactions from stressed out teachers who are tired of trying to get teens on their side. They ask me how I do it and the answer is always the same: I give young people permission. Permission to express themselves in a supportive environment. Permission to discuss the topics they feel strongly about. Permission to make mistakes and learn from them. This permission empowers the teens which, in turn, leads to increased self-esteem.

I combine a supportive classroom space with a variety of materials which I have branded Activities with Purpose (AWP). These are activities which I develop and use throughout the year with a strong focus on self-improvement, self-exploration, resilience and building self-esteem in young people.

Class cone

An activity that I love kicking off the academic year with is one of my Activities with Purpose entitled class cone. This came about after my first lesson last September with an upper secondary group preparing for the Cambridge Advanced exam. I genuinely love spending my life with young people, but I will admit, it is always nerve-racking walking into a classroom of 14 brand new faces on the first day of term. I had started the lesson with a simple get to know you mingle and as I came over to Vincenzo and his partner to listen in he turned to me (in perfect English) and said:

“Sofia, can I ask you a question? Why do we do the same activities every year? It’s just so boring.”

Ask the teens to be honest - they're actually honest (meme photo of woman with hand on head)

I could have taken offence at his honesty, but I thought it was a fantastic and accurate insight and I later thanked him for inspiring this activity!

At the start of the lesson, students are given a blank scoop of ice cream and I give them time to think about their perfect English class (pace, teacher, amount of homework, activities etc). They then take their time to draw and colour their ideal class. The students then mingle and share their ideas with each other and this gives me the chance to listen to everyone’s requests. I take in everyone’s scoops and make a nice wall display without saying too much about the activity. The best part of this is the challenge that you can then set yourself: to try and fulfil as many of the requests as possible without making it too obvious. The teens want personal topics? I can easily make lessons about sport and nightlife. They want time to dedicate to their passions? We can dedicate a whole lesson to “my passion” presentations and learn from each other in the process.

This worked incredibly well for me this year and on the last day of term I gave my students back their scoops and asked them to write me a letter answering this simple question:

Did I meet your expectations?

This may seem like a simple activity, but a teenager who feels listened to will give you so much more than one who is told what and how to learn.

Me, My Selfie and I

Another AWP which I’ve developed sheds a positive light on something which is often branded superficial and detrimental: selfies. I ask students to take out their phones (brownie points with teens!) and find a selfie they don’t mind showing to their classmates. The students mingle and ask each other questions about where they were and how they felt on that day etc. The students then get a chance to see my not so typical (hey, I’m not 17) selfie.

A selfie of Sofia, with the adjectives determined, motivated, loyal, resilient, written around it

I model four positive adjectives which I would use to describe myself and I then ask students to take some time out to reflect and do the same. Once the students have got at least four adjectives I show them my selfie poem and I ask them to create theirs.

I am proud of all I've done // Even though there have been some // days when I felt I couldn't do it // but no matter what I will never quit

Some students will jump at the chance to try writing a rhyming poem in English and others will need a helping hand. I always tell them that copying the first two lines is a good start. This activity can then lead on to a mingle activity or an even longer poem. Some of my students this year wrote longer poems and asked if they could present their selfie poems to the class! What started as a mini poem ended up as a class celebration of our wins and I feel that the learners had a real chance to show that selfies can be meaningful when given the chance.

Maria Francesca’s beautiful poem which she then presented

Why is building self-esteem important?

The real question should be, why is it not important? I love building up teenagers, but I am also an EFL teacher at the end of the day with deadlines and exam courses to follow. I therefore understand the pressure to ‘fit it all in’. I do, however, believe that by supporting teens to help develop their strengths and cultivate new habits, I am in fact helping to create the right environment for solid language acquisition to take place. By bringing the teens’ lives to the classroom, I bring the classroom to life and my students’ feedback and exam results are testament to the power of active listening and positivity.

I can’t wait for you to try out these activities and watch your teenage classroom vibe go from good to amazing!


Sofia Leone has worked in southern Italy for the past 8 years and is dedicated to helping young people achieve their potential both inside and outside the language classroom. She is a British Council teacher and qualified life coach for young people and her mission is to incorporate meaningful life coaching activities into the upper secondary classroom.
For more information you can visit her website:  www.fiercelifecoaching-awp.com

ELT Playbook Teacher Training e-books

ELT Playbook Teacher Training is now available as an ebook via Amazon and Smashwords (affiliate links). It’s currently retailing for around £7.50/$8.99 on both platforms.

The 30 tasks in the book are in 6 different categories and are designed to help teacher trainers reflect on their practice (please ignore the ‘coming soon’!):

ELT Playbook Teacher Training cover and topic areas: what is training, planning training, observation: written feedback, observation: spoken feedback, workshops and input, other aspects

Don’t forget that you can earn badges for your CV/blog/etc. if you share your responses to the tasks using the #ELTplaybook hashtags across social media.

You can also buy the book as a paperback from Amazon and Book Depository.

For teachers

If you’re still in the classroom, you might also be interested in ELT Playbook 1, 30 tasks particularly designed for early-career teachers, but useful to anyone I hope!

ELT Playbook 1 cover

These are the 6 categories for the tasks:

ELT Playbook 1 cover and topic areas: back to basics, examining language, upgrading skills, being creative, exploring your context, teacher health and wellbeing

…and the badges:

ELT Playbook 1 all badges preview small

Buy it at Smashwords, Amazon and Book Depository (affiliate links).

Find out more at eltplaybook.wordpress.com.

Please tell everyone you know! 🙂

What I learnt at the ETAI 40th anniversary conference

On 3rd and 4th July 2019 I attended the English Teachers’ Association of Israel (ETAI) international conference. They were celebrating their 40th anniversary, so there were a few special events. This included a musical celebration hosted by Leo Selivan and Jane Cohen, which I really enjoyed. Attendees were mostly from Israel, but Poland, Serbia, Greece, Austria, and other countries were also represented. I learnt a lot about how the Israeli school system works, and particularly the shift to try to get more speaking in the classroom, hence my own session on Richer Speaking.

Ideas from the conference

Penny Ur has written A guide to talking which is a useful beginner’s guide for getting more speaking in your classroom, including a selection of ready-to-use activities.

There are resources available for 7th grade students to help teachers get their students comfortable with speaking (aged around 12). Let’s Talk includes games to teach the language of basic role plays. We were shown these by Rachelle Borenstein and Renee Binyamini.

Early on in her courses, Timna Hurwich asks her students to discuss the Einstein quote below and answer the questions ‘When is a mistake good?’ ‘When is a mistake bad?’

I happened to see the same quote in this street art two days before this conference presentation!

Mitzi Geffen said “There is no glue on the bottom of your shoes!” which I think is a great way to remind teachers to move around the classroom, or ‘circulate and facilitate’ as she put it.

She shared how she helps reluctant students get over their fear of speaking in an achievable way, in this case when she wanted them to talk about a project they had done at home.

  • Step 1: each person stands at the front and says “My name is [Sandy] and my project is about [Einstein].” Everybody claps. They sit down again. When they’ve all done that, Mitzi points out that they all spoke and nothing bad happened!
  • Step 2: in the next lesson, other students have to ask questions about the project. They can use the questions they based their project research on. As everybody has the same questions, it’s easy to be successful, and takes the pressure off the presenter to work out what to say next.

Mitzi also suggested a really simple structure for brainstorming ideas for a debate, using the phrases “Yes, and…” or “Yes, but…” Anybody can add an idea. For example:

  • Chocolate is really delicious.
  • Yes, but it’s unhealthy if you eat too much.
  • Yes, and you can get fat.
  • Yes, but you can exercise more.
  • Yes, but exercise makes you tired.
  • etc.

Marta Bujakowska woke us up with a series of lively activities, including a conditional chain of actions, and countable/uncountable conversations. I’ve asked her to write a guest post so won’t say any more here!

James Kennard suggested we rethink some of the terminology connected to leadership and management. He emphasises that we often talk about them both like they should be part of the same job, but that the role is almost always given the title ‘manager’, unless you’re in a political party! Would it make a difference if we changed the terminology? He tried it at his school and it didn’t change much, but still something to think about. He also believes that ‘focus’ is a better word than ‘vision’ when it comes to describing your priorities as an organisation. Leaders need to identify the focus of the organisation and articulate it to others, so that members of the organisation can make the right decisions every time, in line with this focus.

Books as bridges: why representation matters

The two talks given by Anne Sibley O’Brien were probably the most influential for me. She was born in the United States, but when she was 7 her family moved to Korea, and she grew up there. You can read more about her story in the interview Naomi Epstein did with her. Her background has led Anne to work in diversity education, and she is the author and illustrator of various children’s books. She talked about the development of our identities, including racial identities, bias, and contact theory. Her perspective is unusual as she grew up with a minority identity, but a privileged one. We all have a mixture of identities, and generally some of them fall into majority and some into minority categories.

We learn who we are by the mirrors that are held up to us and what is made salient to us.

For Anne, she was constantly told that she was American and white, but her Korean friends were never told they were Korean, thus emphasising her difference. Majority identities are taken for granted because they are ‘normal’ and they end up disappearing. Minority identities are highlighted and everything you do becomes tied to that identity.

For example, consider being the only girl in a football team, versus being a boy in the same team. The fact of being a boy is unlikely to be commented on in this case, whereas being a girl will probably always be commented on. Members of a majority identity stop seeing what is actually there or can never see it, whereas members of a minority identities can often say quite incisive things about the majority identity because they have to be aware of the other side too, not just their own. For example, white Americans often don’t see how race affects the everyday lives of non-whites.

Children already notice racial and cultural differences from a very young age – I think Anne said that it’s around 6 months old. They get their attitudes about race from community norms, more than from parental norms (consider the analogy of accents and where children pick them up from) and from their environment, including who visits their house and what is and isn’t talked about. Three year olds already know that we don’t talk about skin colour. Consider when you’re describing pictures in a book to a child: you would probably say that it’s a blue ball, or a yellow car, but you’re unlikely to say it’s a brown or a pink baby. This is an example of our silence when it comes to race.

We all see the world through lenses, but we’re often not aware of what we see.

Our brain uses cognitive processes to make it easier for us to deal with the world. It sorts things in an unbiased way all the time, for example familiar/unfamiliar, same/different, like me/not like me, etc. This sorting initially does not contain judgement, but then we layer associations onto the categories, which can add bias. For example, same = good, different = bad.

The brain creates bias based on what it’s fed. If it only sees ‘white’, it will create white bias, but by making conscious decisions about what we feed our brains, we can change the bias. We all carry bias, but if we don’t understand this, how can we help others? If you’d like to find out more about your own biases, Anne recommends projectimplicit.net.

We can also help children by referencing people they know and books they have read to start a discussion about race, instead of staying silent.

Aren’t we amazingly different? Look how we’re the same!

As we get to know each other, it can reduce prejudice and inter-group anxiety. This is known as contact theory. Anne has worked on something called The Storybook Project (?), where children and their teachers looked at 1 book a week for 6 weeks showing positive interactions between people of different races, followed by a short discussion of how much fun the children are having in the book. They found this made a difference to how children felt about interacting with people from the groups represented.

She also works on the diversebookfinder.org website to help people think about who is represented in the books they use, and how. Are there interactions between two named characters of different races? Are they positive?

Her two latest books I’m New Here and Someone New [Amazon affiliate links] tell the same story of three children arriving at a new school (one Guatamalan, one Korean, one Somali) from the perspective of the children themselves in the first book, and from the perspective of the other children in the class who don’t know how to react in the second book. I will definitely be getting copies of these!

Thank you to everyone at ETAI for organising the conference, and especially to Naomi Epstein and Leo Selivan who encouraged me to attend. As you can see, I had a really good time!

Richer Speaking: how to get more out of speaking activities (ETAI 2019)

On 4th July 2019, I had the privilege of presenting at the English Teachers Association of Israel (ETAI) 40th anniversary international conference. Here is a summary of my talk:

Richer Speaking: how to get more out of speaking activities

This session will demonstrate a range of low-preparation ways to adapt speaking activities that appear in coursebooks and other materials, based on my self-published book ‘Richer Speaking. These adaptations are aimed at helping students to speak comfortably for longer and produce higher quality language while minimising the effort for you!

To find the full details of the richer activities, plus another 12 ways to extend speaking activities, get your copy of Richer Speaking from Smashwords or Amazon [affiliate links]. It costs around $1/€1, so shouldn’t break the bank! As always, I don’t claim that these ideas are original, but it’s handy to have them in one place and see how they can be applied to specific activities.

Richer Speaking cover

What do I want to know?

Original activity

Tell your partner about you.

Richer activity

Before speaking, come up with three questions you want to know the answers to. Pool the questions with a partner and add two more to your list. Tell your partner about you. If your partner gets stuck, ask one of your questions.

Feedback stage

Did you find out what you wanted to know?

Rationale

This gives students a real reason to listen, and helps them come up with ideas for their own speaking turn too. It also helps to create more of a conversation instead of two monologues.

Language challenge

Original activity

Any list of conversation questions.

Richer activity

Answer the conversation questions. Afterwards, list the language you used (either in English or your own language). For example:

  • Grammar: tenses, sentence structures (conditionals? relative clauses? etc.), modal verbs…
  • Vocabulary: phrases, collocations, key words…
  • Pronunciation: intonation, stress for emphasis…

Consider what other language you could use. Look at your notebook or coursebook to help you. Change partners and repeat the activity.

Feedback stage

Did you use all of the language on your longer list?

Rationale

This challenges students to use a wider range of language and adds a reason for them to repeat the same speaking activity. It can be particularly good for exam students who need to show off the range of language they know.

Who am I?

Original activity

A role play. In the session I used one from Now You’re Talking! 2 by Rivka Lichtner (A.E.L. Publications, 2018) where an Israeli teenager sees an American celebrity on the street. The teenager thinks the celebrity looks familiar and tries to speak to them, while the celebrity is on holiday and wants to hide their identity. [I love this idea!]

Richer activity

Create a mini biography for a teenager or celebrity in this situation. Here are some ideas:

  • Celebrity: Who are you? Where are you from? Why are you visiting Israel? Why are you hiding?
  • Teen: Who are you? Who do you think the celebrity is? Why do you want to talk to them?
  • Both: How do you feel right now? Why? What did you do before the conversation? What are your plans later?

Optionally, exchange biographies with another student. Read your biography, then put it away. Meet as many celebrities/teens as you can in the time limit.

Feedback stage

Teens: Did you find out who the celebrities were?

Celebrities: Did you hide successfully?

Rationale

By giving students time to prepare before they speak, they can get into the role more fully and the role play should be much more interesting for them. Adding dimensions such as feelings and how this conversation fits into the character’s whole day can make it feel more realistic and part of a larger story.

Not me, you!

Original activity

Talking about why two cartoons are funny. Again, the cartoons in my session were taken from from Now You’re Talking! 2.

Richer activity

For 1 minute, think of as many reasons as you can for why these cartoons are funny. Choose an object with your partner (for example, a pen or a coin). List ways that you can pass a conversation over to a partner. For example:

  • What do you think?
  • Do you agree?
  • How about…?
  • I really don’t think…, but maybe you do?

Have a conversation with your partner. Every time you pass the conversation to them, give them the object. When the teacher says stop, you shouldn’t be holding your object! Don’t be the last person speaking!

Feedback stage

Who is holding the object?

Rationale

Because students don’t want to lose the game, they push themselves to find something else to say to be able to hand over the conversation to their partners. This extends the conversation and gives them turn-taking practice.

Reflection

ELT Playbook 1 cover

To finish off the session, we used these reflection questions based loosely on ‘Supporting students in speaking tasks’, an activity from ELT Playbook 1.

  • Choose 2-3 speaking activities you’ve done in the last school year. Could you adapt them using these ideas?
  • Do you often include stages like these? Why (not)?
  • What other support do/could you give your students to help them:
    • prepare to speak?
    • speak for longer?
    • repeat activities in a varied way?
    • have a clear reason to listen?

If you’d like more reflection activities like this, you can find all the links to buy ELT Playbook 1 at eltplaybook.wordpress.com. There’s a 10% discount until 31st July 2019 if you buy it via Smashwords [affiliate link] using the code YM64U.

Thank you to those who attended my talk, and I’d be really interested to hear from you if you try out any of these activities in your classroom. And don’t forget to get your copy of Richer Speaking from Smashwords or Amazon [affiliate links]!

Questions to ask when planning post-activity feedback stages

I recently observed a teacher who wants to work on the feedback stages of her lesson, making sure that she is as responsive as possible to the needs of her learners and helping her as part of her DipTESOL studies. Most of the reading and methodology we’ve found about feedback has been connected to error correction and upgrading language. We haven’t been able to find very much about feedback on content and skills work and how to do it effectively. Please share if you can recommend anything!

In our post-observation discussion, one thing we discussed was the pacing of feedback, and that not everyone was fully involved in feedback stages. Feedback also didn’t really feed into later stages of the lesson. We identified that this was partly because the method of post-activity feedback chosen didn’t always appropriately match the activity itself – something neither of us have been specifically trained in. As a result, we came up with a series of questions to use to help her (and me!) when planning a lesson to work out how to get the most out of post-activity feedback.

  1. What is the purpose of the task?
    For example:
    Is it comprehension of specific information?
    Brainstorming ideas for a storytelling activity?
  2. How can you most efficiently find out whether the purpose of the task has been achieved in the lesson?
    For example:
    By looking at students’ books while monitoring.
    By students putting their ideas onto mini whiteboards, then walking around and looking at other people’s ideas.
  3. What is the feedback stage actually for?
    For example:
    To make sure the students know the correct answers. To get a general idea of how well students have initially understand what they listened to.
    To steal ideas from other students ready to use later in the lesson.
  4. Where is the learning happening? For who? How many students are actively involved in this?
    For example:
    In pairs, students don’t just say what’s correct, but why, referring back to the text/transcript. If they’re not sure about something they circle it. The teacher monitors and notices what is circled to deal with in the next stage of the lesson.
    You ask them to add ideas from other people to their whiteboards.

What other questions would you suggest? Would you use them in this order? Would you edit/remove any?

Listening attentively

Still my favourite listening picture…

For example, in the lesson I observed there was rather a long listening task where students had to fill in a table with 4 rows and columns about the problems presenters had had during their presentations. Students checked their answers in pairs, then some of them wrote up the notes onto the whiteboard. Of the eight students in the class, four were writing up answers and the others were watching. In the peer check, one student who has general problems with listening comprehension had struggled a little with some of the points in the listening, but most were fine. It took a relatively long time (3-4 minutes) and once it was confirmed that the answers were correct, they were rubbed off the board.

Using the questions above, how would you approach the feedback from the activity in your lesson? How could it feed into later stages of the lesson to develop the students’ listening skills beyond pure comprehension?

Exploiting your materials with minimal preparation (IH TOC 2019)

Every May, International House World Organisation runs their Teachers’ Online Conference (TOC) event. This is a day or two of short talks on a huge range of topics presented by teachers from across the IH network. They are recorded and you can still watch talks from previous years. I’ll add the recordings from this year once they’re available (in the next week or so).

This year, the event happened on Friday May 17th. My presentation was designed to help you reduce your planning time, but still teach an effective lesson. It’s based around adapting a double-page coursebook spread to maximise the usefulness for my students while not adding huge amounts of planning/materials creation to my day.

If you want more minimal preparation ideas for exploiting a coursebook, here are 101 of them (approximately!)

Here are links to the rest of the  English language online conference and the Modern Languages conference.

Planning questions

The questions I suggested you could use when thinking about planning are:

INSTEAD OF

  • How can we do these pages?

ASK YOURSELF

  1. What do my students need the most?
  2. What do they already know?
  3. How much time do they need to bridge the gap?
  4. How can I maximise engagement?
  5. What can the book support the students in?
  6. What’s missing? What do I need to add/change?
  7. How much variety is needed? How can I add it?

Another possible set of questions I’ve come up with in the last couple of days is:

  1. What do my students want to know (how to do)?
  2. What aspects of that language/skill/function etc. do they already know? How will I find that out in the lesson if I’m not sure?
  3. How can I help them bridge the gap between what they can already do and what they want/need to do? What problems might they have with this language/skill/function? What can they/I do about them? (Is there something in the book that already deals with this? Do I need to add/change something?)
  4. How can I check/make sure students realise they’ve improved?

I’d be interested to know what happens if you try out either of these sets of questions as a planning approach as they’re a reflection of what I think I do when I approach planning, and I’ve only written them down this week!

Elementary functions lesson

Speakout Elementary Students’ Book, Frances Eales and Steve Oakes, Pearson Longman, pp.92-93

These are my notes for the Speakout Elementary coursebook spread above, which I used to generate the questions. You can see me voicing them and adding extra detail in the recording of my session.

“Teaches itself” – Everything is here – could work through page from start to finish, and SS would learn. But book-bound, little variety and most importantly… probably too long – potentially 2-3 hours of lessons here if you really exploit it. Start with timing – 90-minute lesson, take away warmer/homework check = 70 minutes-ish left over.

Need to prioritise. What’s main aim? What’s most useful to my students? Unlikely to have time to do justice to both function and telling a story so pick one to really work with in depth. Ask students which one in previous lesson? At elementary = aim should be building confidence, rather than rushing through and ‘finishing’ everything. Repetition, practice, chances to use the language.

So I choose apologies (I think my students will be able to use this every lesson – they’re always having problems! And useful when they travel/meet new people) Stories are great too, but I’ve got to pick one – not enough time to do justice to both.

Where could you start? How can you engage them in the topic?

The image in 3A might not generate much conversation, though the story is good. Set up situation – clear context. Going into work. You had this problem from image (either cartoon or p93 pictures). What did you say to your boss? Mini roleplay – test what they already know. Start from communication rather than language (TBL) + help students to notice the gap. Tells you how much you need to teach them later.

Could also start with images from p93 – what are the problems? Who apologies? Why? Start with finding out what students already know.

Or the excuses vocab from 2A/2B if they’re a lower level and really need the help, or this could follow looking at the images if it turns out they don’t know the language – they’re producing ‘lost keys’ ‘didn’t wake up’.

> Materials needed = images scanned/photoed from your phone (with copyright information!) rather than spending time Googling other images, or the book software if you have access to it, or a quick cartoon you can draw on the board of one of the situations from the book, or you need 3A/3B from book/board. If in book, ask students to cover ex 4 onwards.

Various options for next stage: if you’re confident, you can work with student-generated language and build up dialogue with them on board, adding in phrases from 4A/4B/4C as needed – could be engaging if you can keep everyone involved, could also be very teacher-centred! Less teacher-centred = they write out their roleplay in pairs/groups and you go round feeding in language. If less confident, work through 4A/4B/4C as is. = meaning, form. Language bank gives some extra practice if needed.

BUT what’s missing? What about pron, drilling, memorisation, student confidence? Will they be able to use these phrases accurately and fluently later? This is where your time will probably go in an elementary functions lesson! What could you do that’s minimal prep here? Key word drill, deletion drill, first letter drill, remember/test/write – all useful. Decide how much needed in the lesson.

> Materials needed: book, board, choice of key words (but students can help you decide those in the lesson – better if from them!)

Lots of practice of phrases, now back to context and communication.

Show them the framework from 5A (in book/photo on board with copyright/key words written on board – up to you, but minimal prep!) – pairs think of conversations between teacher and student, practice for a couple of minutes, ask if anyone wants to perform.

Could use 5B to show who apologises to who, or could elicit from students on board – probably more engaging and creative

They come up with more conversations, perhaps in a mingle – they haven’t moved yet in the lesson! Or use 5C as is – they listen and guess = engaging, reason to listen. Feed back on what they’ve done / Language upgrades / Ask if they’ve improved their confidence.

Intermediate grammar lesson

I ran out of time to discuss this in my presentation – I wanted to show how you could use the questions generated by the elementary spread to plan with another coursebook/level. I’m imagining planning a lesson for a group of 12 students, aged 16-45, about half and half teens and adults, with a 90-minute lesson of which the first 20 minutes are revision/HW check.

Here are my answers to the seven planning questions:

  1. What do my students need the most?
    Aim is to get them using relative clauses (which I know my intermediate students don’t use from observing them in previous lessons), not learning about Che; communication key – lots of speaking.
  2. What do they already know? (in this case, at the planning stage what do I think they already know?)
    Have seen defining clauses before, but probably don’t use. Maybe first time with non-defining within our school, but teens are likely to have seen it at school fairly recently and will probably be faster.
  3. How much time do they need to bridge the gap? (in this case, what’s my prediction when I’m planning?)
    Time spent on seeing what they already know about relative clauses, and giving them plenty of time to produce their own = start planning with the end of the lesson? Adults will need more time than teens.
  4. How can I maximise engagement? (when answering this, I ended up writing out a whole plan!)
    Teen students unlikely to know about him, and I’m not sure the adults will be that interested in him either. So raising interest important (could find another person to describe, but that creates loads of work and we want minimal prep!) Right from start, get them talking about films about famous people & they could return to this at end of the lesson producing their own description of person/film for example. Should be more accessible for all ages (could be real film or one they wish existed) – so a twist on the topic.
    To segue to the reading, do a KWL chart. Or they could write 5 questions they want a film about Che to answer, rather than testing their knowledge (which I suspect most of them don’t have!) – student-generated = more interesting. Or use the photos but not the quiz? Lots of options!
    When they were talking about their own people/films, did they use relative clauses? Probably not – so point this out to them before 1d to give them a reason to pay attention. 1g is OK as text follow-up, but won’t use that many relative clauses. But you could use it as another test of whether they’re producing relative clauses, since they’ve seen examples of them now – retelling a text is a great way to see what language they already use.
    Bridge the gap by working with sentences you collected while monitoring when they were talking about their films, or predicted they’d get wrong before the lesson (this is a good approach if you’re less confident/find it difficult to hear what students say) – with relative clauses, the biggest problems are normally the form (word order, which relative pronoun to use, producing sentences like GGB is the actor who he played Che where the word the pronoun replaced isn’t removed) and the intonation difference between defining and non-defining clauses (Can they ‘hear the commas’?), so these are the things you should plan to help them with. Do memorisation work with Ex 1d to keep it in context – get students to reproduce sentences without looking (probably with some form of key word prompt), or read-remember-cover-write-check, or translate the sentence into their mother tongue then back into English with their books closed. In all cases, compare the differences between what they wrote and the original – they’ll notice the problems and you can point them out if they don’t! None of these ideas require extra prep! Keep the grammar bank in reserve if they really need extra form help, but you’ll lose the context of Che/famous people here.
    For pron work, they read all of the sentences in 1d in pairs as quickly as possible, though without worrying about the pron of words like Che, Bernal and Rosario! You can get them to write he or it above the sentences to make it easier. Do an open class drill of any sentences that cause problems, including pointing out the commas and the difference that makes to intonation if they had trouble with it.
    Another possible activity for practice: students write out a sentences from 1d, but separated (The photo is probably one of the best known photos in the world. It was taken in 1960.) on scrap paper, then test each other by mingling with one piece of paper each and asking their partner to recombine them verbally. You don’t need to prep this – it’s a challenge to work out how to separate the sentences and students will learn from this, also chance to mingle and move around. This activity can take quite a long time though, so decide in the lesson whether it’s needed and have your scrap paper ready. No point spending ages prepping it yourself if you’re not going to end up using it! Could be reused as revision in future lessons too if you collect the scrap paper.
    Then they do the writing/speaking about their film again at the end but with a new partner, and you can praise them on how many (more) relative clauses they’re using and/or how accurately they’re using them now compared to before!
  5. What can the book support the students in?
    See point 4.
  6. What’s missing? What do I need to add/change?
    See point 4.
  7. How much variety is needed? How can I add it?
    They’ve moved, changed groupings, worked with heads up and heads down, and produced something creative (talking about their films). There’s speaking, listening (to their partners), writing (if you do the scrap paper activity), reading, grammar, pronunciation, and probably a bit of vocab from the reading or fed in during the speaking activities.

In conclusion

The lessons as described above:

  • are relatively flexible
  • leave the students space to show what they know
  • allow you to respond to their needs by filling gaps in their knowledge instead of trying to cover everything because it’s in the book (and are therefore more focussed and engaging)
  • require no extra materials, or some quick-to-prepare materials if you want to do this, using what’s in the coursebook as a jumping-off point
  • include time for memorisation and confidence-building
  • prioritise communication
  • upgrade language
  • have a range of activity types, not just completing exercises from the book
  • give students the chance to notice their progress
  • require minimal preparation beyond thinking about the answers to the questions! No cutting up 🙂

ELT Playbook 1 cover

If you want to have a go at this kind of brainstorming yourself, there’s a task called ‘One activity, multiple tasks’ in ELT Playbook 1. Find out how to get your copy via the ELT Playbook blog and share your ideas on social media or in the comments below.

If you want more minimal preparation ideas for exploiting a coursebook, here are 101 of them (approximately!)

101 things to do with a coursebook page (all of which take less than 5 minutes to prepare!)

I created this list a couple of years ago for a workshop to help early career teachers see how they can exploit the materials available in a coursebook without needing to spend hours reinventing the wheel or cutting things up. The list is designed to:

  • help teachers add variety to lessons
  • go beyond their materials
  • think about skills lessons in a different way, not just testing but teaching
  • add bits of learner training to lessons
  • be a bank of ideas for activities teachers can pull out in the lesson if they need to change something
  • give teachers tasters of bits of methodology they might not be aware of (like metacognition or ways of improving

It is not designed to be a comprehensive list – 4 sides of A4 is quite enough as a starting point. It’s also not designed to be a critique of coursebooks – that’s for another place and time. There might be one or two ideas which are ‘Sandy Millin originals’ 🙂 but generally they were collated from throughout my career so far, so thank you if you’re the source of any of them!

Feel free to use the list or the handout in training sessions/workshops, but please credit the source. My 60-minute workshop went something like this:

  • In small groups, teachers shared their own ideas of things they do to exploit coursebooks.
  • The list was cut into sections and placed around the room.
  • Teachers had time to read it, add question marks next to anything they couldn’t understand, and add their own ideas to the paper. This is why there’s an empty bullet point at the end of each category.
  • I demonstrated/explained any confusing activities.
  • Teachers decided which activities they would try out in the next week (I can’t remember if we had time to do this, but I’d make sure if I ran it again!)
  • We took photos of the annotated sheets and emailed them to everyone after the session.

You can download the handout as a pdf or a .docx file.

Coursebooks

Image taken by Sue Annan, from the ELTpics collection and shared under a Creative Commons 3.0 licence

Vocabulary

  1. Test students: get them to draw pictures, which you can then use to:
    – Play games: point to…, find…, take…, run to…, what’s missing (…all the typical ones)
    – Give each group a pile of pictures – they turn them over and make sentences
    – Show a picture – they race to write the word (in notebooks, on mini whiteboards, on the board)
  2. Categorise words (meaning):
    – I like, I don’t like
    – In the bedroom, In the kitchen, In the living room, In the bathroom
    – Know/Don’t know
    – With /i:/ /e/ /3:/ etc (pron)
  3. Using the exercise in the book: do it as is, then…
    – cover the words and work with your partner to say them (pron)
    – cover and write the words, while looking at definitions (form)
    – look at the words and remember the definitions
    – one student closes book, other open and tests them
    – groups of 3/4: one student = teacher, says definition. Others race to say word – point for each/they become the next ‘teacher’.
    – point to the word/picture on software, students say it
  4. Memorisation:
    – Close your book and write down all of the words.
    – Board race of all of the words.
    – Translation Chinese whispers – e.g. English, Polish, English, Polish
    Evil memorization of sentences around gap-filled words (show on software, they write in answers, switch off software, they remember sentences)
    – Little books: students make a book out of A4 paper, then write a word on the first page. Next student draws a pic of the word on next page. Next student looks at pic (not word!) and writes word, etc. At the end, see how different final picture is from original word. (Chinese whispers)
  5. Pronunciation (pairs first, then remedially drill problem words, especially for higher levels):
    – Different types of drill: stressed syllable, stickman…
    – Point to the picture, they say the word – as fast as possible (use their pics from idea 1)
    – Students write out words – one each (can have more than one of each word) – use for disappearing drills

Exploiting images

(particularly for warmers – on coursebook software or in their books, or PowerPoint if you want to spend more time prepping)

  1. Students discuss in pairs: 1 minute to think first, then…
    – What can you see?
    I see, I think, I wonder
    – What was it like five minutes before/after?
    – Create personalities for the people.
    – Add something to the picture, then tell your partner what and why.
    – Have you ever been anywhere like this? Seen anything like this? Would you like to?

Grammar/functional language

(see also the vocab ideas above!)

  1. Eliciting it (after students have already seen it in context!):
    – First letters of each word
    – First word of sentence – they find it in text. Add a word at a time until someone gets it.
    – Sentence hangman
    – Hum the stress pattern
  2. Pronunciation (hand over to students ASAP):
    – Different types of drill: key word, first letter of each word, substitution…
    – Draw/ask students to draw an image to represent a sentence (e.g. a door for ‘Can you open the door?’ – use these as prompts.
    – ‘Grammar’ sentences e.g. you / work / office? = ‘Do you work in an office?
    – What are the stressed/unstressed words?
    – Can you say it as fast as me? Backchain to help them with this.
    – Use rhythm to aid memorization. Try jazz chants:
  3. Exploiting controlled practice:
    – Say the sentences as quickly as you can.
    – One student says the answer, the other student says the whole sentence.
    – Translation mingle: write one sentence on a bit of scrap paper. Translate it to Polish. Mingle – say Polish sentence, other person says English. Encourage them to give feedback: That’s right. You’re nearly there. That’s completely wrong!
    – Students create 2-3 extra questions to extend the activity.
    – How many of the sentences can you remember from the text?
    – Close your books. Can you retell the story? (If it’s a complete text)
    – 1 student says a sentence from the activity. The other student remembers the one before it.
    – Contextualise the sentences: put them into a longer ‘text’. If they leave a gap, other students can try to work out which sentence it is.
  4. Semi-controlled/freer practice:
    – Type up 6-10 sentence starters taken from the book (e.g. ‘As soon as I got home yesterday…’). Have some scrap paper. Students write the endings, then mix them up. Move around the room. Other groups then match endings to starters.
    – Draw the sentences: Students fold a piece of A4 paper into 8 boxes and put small numbers in the corner, like so:
1 2 1 2
3 4 3 4

They draw a picture each for four different sentences on the left, and don’t write the sentence! They pass the paper to a second group, who try to remember the corresponding sentences. A third group checks if they are correct (with or without books depending on how evil you feel).
– Students create their own ‘find someone who

Exploiting reading/listening texts

  1. Explore context/genre:
    – Where would you see/hear this text?
    – Who would be like to read/listen to this kind of thing? Would you?
    – What other titles could the text have?
    – Which features of this text make it an article/blogpost/radio interview e.g. The introduction of the people at the start…
    – What features make this readable? Or make a listener want to continue listening? If any!
  2. Extend the text:
    – What happened next?
    – What extra question could the interviewer ask?
  3. Mine the text:
    – What phrases do you want to steal?
    – Choose a sentence. Remember, cover, write, check.
    – How could you say the sentence in a different way?
  4. Improve listening skills:
    – Do a micro dictation of problem sentences.
    – Focus on some of the connected speech, then get students to repeat it.
    – Ask students to reflect on what made a text easy/difficult e.g. speed, accent, topic.
    – Play, pause, students say what’s coming next, then listen and check.
  5. Look at ’40 things to do with a text’ http://teachertrainingunplugged.com/other-writing/40-things-to-do-with-a-text/

Extending speaking activities

  1. Read Richer Speaking 🙂 https://sandymillin.wordpress.com/2016/04/06/richer-speaking/
  2. Work with another partner:
    – After error correction from the teacher (this helps them to upgrade language)
    – To find out if their new partner is similar/different to their previous partner.
    – To report on partner 1’s answers. They could then change again to report on three people’s answers (partner 1, partner 2, and partner 2’s first partner!)
    – After the teacher has fed in some extra functional language.
  3. Change the situation:
    – Have the same conversation as if you are a manager and employee / parent and child / old person and teenager…
    – Would the conversation be the same in a café? An airport? At a friend’s house?
  4. Reflect on a task (a.k.a. metacognition):
    – What extra words did you need? How did you get them?
    – When did the conversation stop? (How) did you get it started again?
    – What made the task particularly easy/difficult? What could make it easier in future?

Extending writing activities

  1. Upgrade your writing:
    – Add five adjectives/a conditional/two more sentences…
    – Rewrite it so it’s more formal/informal/legible (!)
    – Proofread it for commas/capital letters/past simple forms/your favourite spelling mistakes
    – Add a title/subtitles
  2. Switch texts and:
    – check it for content – does it include everything?
    – correct three spelling mistakes
    – choose a word/phrase you want to steal and add to your text
  3. Walk around and read texts while:
    – adding post-it note comments
    – choosing which [holiday you would like to go on] – try to avoid ‘the best’ as this is subjective

Exploiting the coursebook software

  1. Use the extra functions:
    – Games
    – Audioscripts
  2. Block things out (either using the in-built function or putting another window over the top!):
    – Parts of images/vocabulary banks – what’s missing
    – Half a text – remember the other half
    – Only show the first letter or two of words in a vocab list – race to write them on mini whiteboards
  3. Check the answers:
    – Students write the answers in when projected on the board.
    – Show the answers and ask students if they’ve got them right.
    – One person can look, the other can’t and has to listen to the answers.
  4. With practice exercises:
    – Sentence pictionary: one person can look and has a mini whiteboard, the other has their back to the board. You circle a sentence number. They draw the sentence and their partner has to remember it.
    – Hot seat/backs to the board: circle/underline words in the word bank for them to define.
    – They race to define 4/6 words as fast as possible: guesser puts them on a mini whiteboard.
  5. Display texts for students to:
    – Run and point to the vocabulary item you define (team game). Items can be hidden in a vocabulary bank or hidden in a reading text/audioscript.
    – Remember a sentence and write it down, then look and check.

Good Omens lesson plan

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is probably my favourite book, and one of very few I’ve read multiple times. This is how Wikipedia summarises it:

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (1990) is a World Fantasy Award-nominated novel, written as a collaboration between the English authors Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. The book is a comedy about the birth of the son of Satan, and the coming of the End Times. There are attempts by the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley to sabotage the coming of the end times, having grown accustomed to their comfortable surroundings in England. One subplot features a mixup at the small country hospital on the day of birth and the growth of the Antichrist, Adam, who grows up with the wrong family, in the wrong country village. Another subplot concerns the summoning of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, each a big personality in their own right.

In preparation for the upcoming series, which I am incredibly excited about, I’ve been re-reading it for the fourth or fifth time. In the process came across a short excerpt which can stand alone and decided it would make a good lesson for my Proficiency/C2 students. I think it could work for C1 students too.

We used it over two 90-minute lessons, but it’s very flexible so you can make it longer or shorter as you choose – it depends on how into the tasks the students get!

If you teach a 121 student, you may choose not to read the extract yourself beforehand, and go through the lesson making predictions, producing your own version of the text and reading it for the first time at the same time as your student. I promise there’s nothing offensive there! 🙂 A couple of teachers from our school who had never read Good Omens themselves used this plan successfully with their 121 students in this way.

Lesson stages

  • Tell students they’re going to read a short excerpt from a book. Before they read, they’re going to predict what happens. Emphasise that there are no right answers to this.
  • Show the pictures from Slide 1 of the Newt meets aliens Good Omens p203-205 presentation. Students work in pairs to make predictions of general events that might happen in the excerpt. Switch pairs to compare predictions and/or elicit some ideas as a class.
  • Show the word cloud from Slide 2. Tell students that this is a word cloud showing all of the language from the original excerpt. A word that is larger appears more often in the original text. Newt is the name of one of the characters from the book, and Lower Tadfield is the village he is travelling towards.
  • Students work in groups of three to write a version of what they think happens in the excerpt. They can use any of the language they want to from the word cloud. Give them plenty of time to do this: 20-30 minutes would be ideal. This is a chance for them to be creative, and to check language they’re not sure about in the dictionary or with you. Again, emphasise that the aim is not to reproduce the original extract, but to play with the language and experiment with ideas.
  • Groups read all of the other stories. Have they come up with similar ideas?
  • Slide 3 shows two covers for the book. Tell students that the excerpt they’ve been working with is from a comedy written about the end of the world. This part is a small event that happens half-way through the book. “Would you like to read it?” Hopefully their interest has been piqued by now and the answer will be yes!
  • Give them the Word document (Newt meets aliens Good Omens p203-205). As they read, they should compare the events in their versions of the story to the original, and decide how similar they are. They shouldn’t worry about language they don’t understand. They’ll need about 4-5 minutes to read, then should discuss in their groups the similarities and differences between their versions and the excerpt.
  • Slide 4 has follow-up questions for students to discuss in small groups. This is a great chance to work with emergent language that students are producing.
  • This excerpt is incredibly rich linguistically, as is anything written by Gaiman or Pratchett. Slide 5 gives students the chance to mine the text for any language that might interest them (see ‘language to mine’ below). They should take the lead in deciding what they want to steal.
  • Students then return to their original writing and write a new version of it. They can insert phrases directly lifted from Good Omens, or simply be inspired by the variety and richness of the original excerpt to make their own text richer through the use of synonyms, similes, and highly descriptive language.
  • They then share their original and rewritten texts (side by side) with other groups and answer the question: ‘What difference does the writer’s choice of language make to the enjoyment of the reader?’
  • As an optional extension, students could role play the situation of Newt meeting the aliens, or of Newt/the aliens telling somebody else what happened a few hours later. This would give them the chance to reuse some of the language they stole from the text.
  • To finish the lesson, show students the trailer for the upcoming series and ask them if they want to watch it. Slide 6 has the video embedded; slide 7 has the link in case it doesn’t work.

What happened in my lesson?

I only had three students out of a possible six, so my pair and share activity didn’t work when they wrote their own texts. They were surprised that the text they produced had the same broad strokes as the excerpt.

Although we used two lessons, we didn’t have time to go back to the writing and upgrade it, which would have been valuable. I felt like adding a third lesson to do this would have been dragging it out too much though.

Students were engaged in mining the text, and said they would like to try this with other texts in the future. We looked at the language of officialdom and how it was used to create humour in this excerpt.

One student had already read Good Omens before I introduced it, and went back and re-read it in Polish between the two lessons 🙂 [Here’s an Amazon affiliate link if you want to get your own copy.]

Language to mine from the text

This is very much NOT an exhaustive list of examples of language that could be taken from the excerpt. Any of these could be used by students to create new texts as a follow-up (for example a description of a crazy car journey), or could be used as a language focus if you want something more targeted than the word cloud from slide 2.

  • Phrases and phrasal verbs:
    fall over
    wind (the window) down
    think of (sth) (as sth else)
    wander off
    run sth through a machine
    (let sth) build up
    let yourself go
    see to sth
    turn sth over in his mind
    turn around
    bawl sb out
  • Features of spoken grammar:
    an’ suchlike
    one of them phenomena
    Been…, haven’t we sir?
    Been…perhaps?
    Well, yes. I suppose so.
    I’ll see to it. Well, when I say I…
    We’d better be going.
    You do know…don’t you?
  • Ways of describing speaking:
    gabbled
    flailed
    rasped
  • Ways of describing movement:
    a door in the saucer slid aside
    skidded down it and fell over at the bottom
    walked over to the car quite slowly
  • Descriptive phrases for a spaceship and aliens:
    satisfying whoosh
    gleaming walkway
    It looked like every cartoon of a flying saucer Newt had ever seen.
    Brilliant blue light
    frantic beeping
  • Connected to cars:
    He had the map spread over the steering wheel.
    He had to brake hard.
    rapped on the window
    He wound it down.
    He drove up on the verge and around it.
    When he looked in his rearview mirror…
  • Connected to officialdom:
    in the worldwide approved manner of policemen already compiling the charge sheet in their heads
    Well, I’m sorry to have to tell you, sir…
    …are below regulation size for a [planet] of this category, sir.
    We’ll overlook it on this occasion, sir.

A little bit of theory

This is a task-based lesson, with the focus on meaning early in the lesson. For the initial task, students have to use their own linguistic resources to come up with an episode in a story, and they are free to go in whatever direction they choose. They have the scaffolding of the pictures and the word cloud, but are not required to use any particular language point. Sharing their texts is the report phase, and they then see a model which they can mine for language. This language can then be incorporated into their own work – it is student-led, with them choosing the language they focus on, rather than following the teacher’s agenda of what ‘should’ be learnt next. This task repetition and upgrade stage is where a lot of the learning will happen, as students experiment with the language. There is then another report phase, with reflection on language use in general (writer choices), not just the specific language used in this lesson.

The language I’ve pulled out above reflects principles of the lexical approach (I hope!), working with longer chunks of language rather than isolated words. Collocations can be explored, as well as areas like features of spoken language. This can help students to move away from a focus on single words and verb tenses plus other structures typically appearing as part of a course book syllabus, which they often still have even at proficiency level.

Teaching students how to mine a text in this way can also be useful for their own self-study, thus developing learner autonomy. Techniques like this can be challenging for students to incorporate into their own learning without being shown how to do it the first couple of times.

More of this kind of thing

I’ve previously shared materials connected to the first chapter of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Being creative 3: One activity, multiple tasks – a minimal preparation workshop based on ELT Playbook 1

Way back in December I ran a 45-minute conference session based on a task from ELT Playbook 1, ‘One activity, multiple tasks’, which appears in the ‘Being creative’ section of the book.

ELT Playbook 1 cover

The book features 30 tasks designed particularly to help new teachers to reflect as they start out in ELT, but they are also suitable for managers and trainers who need ideas for professional development sessions. I was also partly inspired by the ideas in The Lazy Teacher Trainer’s Handbook by Magnus Coney [affiliate link], which advocates minimal planning and exploiting the knowledge in the room wherever possible. The final reason I chose this was that I was running out of time to plan my session as I was organising the whole day, and I needed to run two workshops! The other one was about how to learn a language, in case you’re interested.

Before the session, I choose an activity at random from a teacher’s book. The one I ended up with was to revise future forms, taken from page 146 of English File 3rd edition Teacher’s Book Intermediate Plus. It features a page of questions like this:

  1. A   Mum! I’ve dropped my ice cream!
    B   It’s OK, don’t worry – I’ll get / I’m getting you a new one!
  2. A   I’m freezing!
    B   Shall I turn on / Will I turn on the heating?

…and so on. There are 12 mini dialogues like this, each with two options to choose from – students can also tick if both are possible. At the bottom of the page is an ‘activation’ activity, where students write two mini-dialogues, one with will and one with going to. This planning stage took me about 15 minutes – 10 to decide what I was going to do in the session (i.e. which ELT Playbook 1 task I was going to exploit!), and 5 to pick and photocopy the activity.

In the abstract for the session it said that teachers would come away with lots of ideas for how to exploit activities. As the session started, I told them that those ideas would be coming from all of us in the room, not just me!

We started by them completing the original exercise. I demonstrated how to do quick feedback by getting different pairs to write their answers on the board, then just dealing with any questions where there was confusion. We were about 10 minutes into the session at this point.

In the same pairs, teachers worked together to list as many ways as they could think of to set-up, vary or exploit that same activity. They did this on the back of the sheet (minimal materials prep!) I put a few prompts on the board to help, something like: speaking, writing, listening, reading, alone, pairs, groups, class, etc. and elicited one or two examples to start them off. They had 10 minutes to make their lists.

At the same time, and once I’d checked they were all on track, I made my own list* on the back of my paper (minimal prep! Also, I ran out of time to do it before the session and thought it might be useful if at least some of the ideas came from me!)

We put our lists face up on our chairs for the ‘stealing’ stage. We read everybody else’s lists, putting a * next to any activities we didn’t understand. More *** meant that lots of people didn’t understand. This took about 5 minutes, so we were 25 minutes through the session.

Next people added any of the extra activities they liked the sound of to their own lists. 5 more minutes, 15 minutes left.

For the next 10 minutes, different people demonstrated the activities that had stars next to them in front of the whole group. As I expected, most of the ‘different people’ were me – I’d deliberately picked some slightly obscure things to stretch their range of ideas a bit!

In the final 5 minutes, I told them about ELT Playbook 1 and suggested they try this kind of brainstorming with other activities they want to use in class to help them vary their lesson planning. Right at the end, they had to tell their partner one activity they’d thought of or heard about in the session which they planned to try next week. The whole session went pretty well, I think, and I got good feedback afterwards. 🙂

*My list

These are the ideas I came up with in 10 minutes:

  • Remove the options.
  • Mini whiteboards.
  • I say A to the group, they predict B. Then in pairs.
  • Gallery walk (one copy of each question stuck up around the room)
  • Evil memorisation (one of my favourite activities, learnt from Olga Stolbova – the third activity in this blogpost)
  • Say all the sentences as quickly as possible (AQAP on my lesson plans!)
  • Banana sentences (replace the key words with ‘banana’ for partner to guess)
  • Extend the conversations (what was said before/after)
  • Decide who/where/when/why it was said (by)
  • Take the ‘wrong’ answer and create a context where it would be right
  • Translation mingle (students translate one conversation into L1 on a slip of paper, copying the English onto the other side. They then walk around showing other students the L1 to be translated.)
  • One group does 1-6/odd sentences. The other does 7-12/even sentences. Give them the answers for the other half. They check with each other.
  • Say them with different intonation/voices to create different meanings/situations.
  • Remember as many conversations as you can with your partner. Lots of variations for this: freestyle (no prompts), with A/B as a prompt, with (own/sketched/teacher-generated) pictures as prompts…
  • Hot seat/Backs to the board with a picture prompt for student looking at the board to say sentence A, person with back to the board says sentence B in response
  • Board race. Again, lots of variations: list as many sentences/conversations as possible on the whiteboard; teacher/a student says A, teams run and write B; combine with ideas above like banana sentences…
  • Teacher says first half of the sentence, pausing at a convenient point. Students say second half. Then in pairs. e.g. “Shall I…” “…turn on the heating?”
  • Students have A sentences. They write their own Bs on separate pieces of scrap paper, then mix them up. Another pair tries to match the As and Bs together.
  • Change A to the opposite/a slightly different phrase. What’s an appropriate B? e.g. “I’m boiling!”

Thanks to all of the people I’ve stolen those ideas from over the years 🙂

Let me know if you try out the brainstorming activity, the session, or any of the other tasks from ELT Playbook 1. I’d love to know how they work for you!

How to learn a language

It’s New Year’s Eve, a time when a lot of us make resolutions for the coming year. One of them may be to finally learn that language you’ve been meaning to work on for years. But where do you start?

I often describe myself as a language addict. These are the languages that I’ve had a go at learning so far and the levels I’ve reached (based on the CEFR):

  • C1/Advanced: French, German, Spanish
  • B1/Intermediate: Polish
  • A2+/Pre-intermediate: Czech, Russian
  • A1/High beginner: Italian, Mandarin
  • A0/Beginner: Greek, Thai, Bahasa Malay, Japanese, Maltese, Vietnamese, Lithuanian

It’s definitely true that learning one language helps you to learn another, but I wouldn’t say that I have any particular talent for language learning – just lots of tried and tested techniques, and many many hours of practice at it. Over time, this practice has become more focussed and more efficient. Here’s how…

(By the way, if you don’t want to work your way through this quite long blog post, you can download this one-page pdf summary instead.)

Make it a habit

As with anything you want to add to your life, habit formation is the most important thing you can do.

5 minutes a day

Even if you’re super busy, you can definitely find 5 minutes each day (see below for how!) It adds up really quickly – in one week that’s 35 minutes. In a year, it’s 1825 minutes, or over 30 hours. That’s the equivalent of twenty 90-minute classes, or 10 weeks of lessons if you’re having them at our school 🙂

Record what you do

I have a calendar where I make a note of whether I’ve completed my daily habits. Since I started using it, I’m much more likely to do them, as I hate seeing a ‘X’. In this example, the ‘P’ in the top left corner means Polish:

Record achievements

Sneak it into your day

I’ve tried lots of different ways to do this. With Polish, I currently use a few apps in the mornings and read in the evenings before bed (see ‘surround yourself with it’). Again, this is all about habit formation – making it ‘normal’ makes it easier.

Memrise at breakfast

It takes me about 10 minutes to eat my breakfast. While I’m doing that, I work my way through four Memrise sets of Polish, one of Lithuanian and one of Mandarin. I always revise old vocabulary first, aiming for a minimum of 1500 points in each set to maintain my streak. If I haven’t hit 1500, I’ll learn a few new words. I love memrise because it uses the principles of spaced repetition to keep reminding me of vocabulary and testing my memory of it. Since I started using it about 8 years ago, the site reckons I’ve learnt 8836 words as of today – I won’t pretend I’ve remembered them all, but even if it’s only half of them, it’s still a lot of vocabulary!

Carry a few flashcards with you

Sentence cardsWhen I was learning Russian, I cut up bits of yellow paper to create flashcards – yellow because it makes me happy. One side had a sentence in Russian, and the other had some kind of prompt. This was generally a picture or series of pictures if I could think of one, but occasionally an English translation of one or two words from the sentence if I couldn’t.

Sandy's sentence card holder TM

Sandy’s sentence card holder TM

I kept 10-15 of these cards with me all the time, in a little pouch with two pockets. When I was on the bus or waiting somewhere I’d flick through them to test myself. When I thought I knew one, I’d put it in the second pocket. Back at home, I’d take out anything that was in the second pocket and add an equivalent number of cards from the pile that was waiting for me.

i know the ones on the left

Left = ‘known’, right = unknown

After a year, the pile of sentences I’d learnt was about 3cm tall. I would periodically test myself on the whole pile and see if I’d forgotten any of them – generally I’d still remember about 80-90% of them.

Use apps/websites when you’re waiting

If, unlike me, you have a smartphone, then building your vocabulary using language apps is probably a much more productive way to spend your waiting time than looking at social media (again) and pretty easy to fit into your day. Here are four I’ve tried:

  • Memrise (the one I’ve used almost every day for years)
    + Spaced repetition managed automatically
    + Some curated sites created by the company (look for XXX 1, 2, 3 e.g. Polish 1, Polish 2…)
    + Can create your own content
    + Can choose to ignore words if you don’t want/need to learn them (only via the website)
    + Unlimited range of languages/content, with more company-curated sets added all the time
    + Available via browser or app
    -/+ Mostly word-level, with some sentence-level content
    – User-created sets may contain mistakes
    – Not all sets have audio
    – Can be challenging to find the sets that work for you
  • Quizlet (the one I use as a teacher)
    + Quick and easy to create your own content
    + Unlimited range of languages/content
    + Can take other people’s content and edit it to suit you
    + ‘Star’ words to choose what’s most challenging/important for you
    + Fairly easy to find what you need (here’s some help if you’re learning English)
    + Audio automatically added
    + You can choose the games you play, including matching games, spelling, etc.
    + Once you’ve studied something, you can use it again offline on the app
    + Available via browser or app
    -/+ Mostly word-level, with some sentence-level content
    – User-created sets may contain mistakes
    – Although there is now a spaced repetition option, it’s pretty clunky
  • Duolingo (the one everyone else seems to use – I’m not a huge fan)
    + All content created by the company, so shouldn’t contain any mistakes
    + Feedback option, so you can suggest alternative answers
    + Mostly sentence level
    + All content has audio
    +/- Limited languages available
    – No teaching before testing – you need to not give up easily
    – Not that helpful for beginners, as there are no language explanations
    – On Apple devices, (I think) you can test out of level 1, but have to earn gems to test out of other levels, so not ideal for higher-level learners either. On Android, I believe you can test out of any level
    – Multiple choice options often nonsensical, so don’t really test you
    – No ability to tailor what you’re learning
  • Lingodeer (my current favourite!)
    + All content created by the company, so generally doesn’t contain any mistakes
    + Feedback option, so you can correct any mistakes which are there
    + Once you’ve studied something, you can study it again offline (great for flights!)
    + Very clear language explanations, available at the start of each category and by clicking on any word while in ‘test’ modes
    + Wide range of activity types
    + Can choose what to revise
    + Can ‘test out’ of whole sections at a time
    + All four skills tested, including chances to record yourself speaking and to write characters from Kanji and Mandarin
    + For Japanese, there’s a great ‘story’ function where you can listen to somebody and record yourself
    + Multiple choice options are logical and really make you think
    + Everything has audio, and the pictures are very cute 🙂
    + No annoying advertising or Freemium prompts!
    +/- Limited languages/content available, with about 8 languages at the moment (more than are listed on the site!), though more being added
    – Only available via the app, not on browsers
Repeat what you hear

Don’t just read or listen to it, say it. Having a go at pronouncing the language you hear makes your brain process it a little bit more, meaning you’re more likely to remember it. Listen and repeat improves your confidence with pronunciation over time. Read and repeat gets you experimenting with sound-spelling relationships. Try a few words or phrases each day while you’re doing other things, and again you’ll notice it building over time.

Surround yourself with it

Even if you’re not living in a country where the language you want to learn is around you all the time, you can still add it to your life in lots of different ways.

Label your home

A classic 🙂 Here are some of my Russian labels:

Russian has taken over my fridge!

and a Polish man doing the same:

 

Make little posters or index cards

The process of categorising and copying information over to another piece of paper goes part way to helping you to remember it. By then sticking them up, you see it lots more times and remember it for longer. Here are some I made for Russian:

Index cards everywhere!Surrounded with postcards to be more interesting!

Read to read

Extensive reading is one of the best ways to improve your knowledge of a foreign language. I’ve been reading in Polish for about ten minutes every night before bed for 2.5 years now, and I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done for learning. I started with the first Harry Potter book when I was a low A2 level, choosing it because I was familiar with the story and knew that would help me to understand more.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Polish cover)

Originally I could read 2 pages in about 10 minutes, and now I can read up to 6, depending on how tired I am. I estimate that I could understand about 10-20% of any double-page spread when I started, and now it’s about 70-80%.

Importantly, I read to read, not to learn vocabulary. My aim is to finish the book, not to understand everything. It takes a bit of a mindshift to do this, as you have to stop worrying about what you don’t understand and concentrate on what you do.

When I first tried to read a John Grisham book in German, I wrote down every word I didn’t know and translated it into English. After three pages or so of the book, I had around 150 words and felt pretty depressed – oddly enough, I stopped reading it! In Paraguay, I went to a weekly Spanish meeting. We took an article from the Economist and translated it word for word. This was the result, from which I don’t remember anything!

When I started reading Harry Potter, I only looked up words if they appeared repeatedly and felt important for the story, limiting it to 2-3 per double page. Now, if there aren’t any words in that category, I’ll pick one word to look up at random. I’ve now nearly finished book 4 and really look forward to it every night.

Writing a journal

Writing is the easiest of the four skills to neglect. Writing a journal worked really well for me in Russian as my teacher looked at it and replied each week.

Russian journal

Russian journal

With Polish, I wrote a couple of sentences a day for a few weeks, then gave up because nobody else was reading it. I almost never write in Polish, and this is something I need to change in 2019 if I want to pass the B1 exam I’m thinking about taking!

Podcasts and radio

Apparently there are now over 600,000 podcasts available, so there really is something for everyone. I experimented with listening to the news in other languages when I was at uni, but got bored with listening to the same things over and over again, especially considering I didn’t listen to the news in English. If you’re learning English, here’s an introduction to podcasts for language learning, including some of my favourites.

Alternatively, choose a radio station playing the kind of music or presenting the kind of programmes you like. This is particularly easy if you have a smart speaker – “Alexa, play radio station Antenne Bayern“. I’m now really good at traffic updates in Bavarian German 😉

As with reading, listen to listen, not to understand everything. You’ll understand more and more as you become familiar with the rhythms of the language and build up your vocabulary from other places (like the apps above).

Make it aesthetically pleasing

Do you prefer to look at a plain black folder or a multi-coloured one? What about a page of text or a page of pictures? By carefully choosing the things you use to learn a language, you’re more likely to want to look at them again.

Stationery that makes you smile

Two notebooks, both alike in dignity

Which one to buy? Both of course!

All of my language-learning notebooks have pictures on them, sometimes themed (like the Polski język ones I have here), sometimes just fun, like the ones I used for Russian above. At various times I have also bought a Kung Fu Panda and a Pirates of the Caribbean folder. Because I enjoy looking at them, I’m more likely to pick them up and use them.

Pictures – colour in printed ones or draw rubbish ones!

Whenever possible, use pictures to help you remember things – your brain responds to these much better than words. You can colour in ones you have printed, like these ones I used to help me learn daily routines in Czech:

Coloured in pictures to help me learn Czech daily routine

or draw your own ones, regardless of how rubbish you might think your own drawing is!

Sentence cards with pictures

Think about colours and layout

Laying out what you are learning in a consistent way does some of the work for your brain. Colours also attract the eye, and again can be used to help you to process information.

Show patterns

I often use layout to help me to remember grammar. With gendered words, I always have masculine on the left, feminine in the middle and neutral on the right. If I can remember the position, I can remember the gender.

Colour-coding mistakes can help you to focus on them without needing long explanations:

Deciphering the rewrite code

And you can combine both layout and colour, which is particularly good for grammar:

Index cards everywhere! Time time time...And here are stress patterns in Greek numbers:

Categorise language

As I said above, the process of categorising language helps your brain to process it, and therefore remember it for longer. Vocabulary is the easiest thing to categorise, but you can do it with phrases too. Here’s a page one of the two vocabulary notebooks I filled in a year of studying Russian:

My vocabulary notebook - English

Every page of the notebook had a fold down the middle so I could test myself.

I planned to do this with Polish, managed a couple of pages, then got bored and decided Memrise would be enough.

Highlight exceptions

Judicious highlighting helps your brain work out what to focus on. Highlighting letters or words (like in the picture above) helps you to notice what is different, and the extra attention you therefore pay to these exceptions or unusual things means you’ll remember them for longer. I find this works particularly well for spellings.

Make your brain work, but not too hard

Learning a language means you need to do some processing. The more processing you do with a single item, the more likely you are to remember it. However, it’s easy to get frustrated if you have to do too much processing – that’s when you end up giving up.

Give yourself as many ‘hooks’ as possible

Imagine a large, heavy picture you want to put on the wall. You use a single picture hook, and pretty quickly it falls down. Now use three or four – it stays up for a little while longer, but eventually it still falls down. Now use twenty hooks – it’s likely to stay there for much, much longer. And the bigger the hooks, the better.

The same is true of new language items, whether vocabulary or grammar. Here are some possible ‘hooks’:

  • Meaning
  • A situation/context
  • An image
  • Something that makes you laugh/surprises you
  • (Odd) connections to other things you already know
  • Translation – preferably at sentence level/within a larger context (this could be to other foreign languages you know, not just your native language(s))
  • Collocations for vocabulary/common verbs used with the structure for grammar
  • Examples in use – if you create them yourself and get them checked, the hooks will be bigger and stronger
  • Encounters – each time you see/hear the word, you’re adding a little hook
  • Using it yourself – saying/writing it adds a pretty big hook or makes the hooks that are already there bigger

Each ‘hook’ you give yourself keeps that bit of language anchored in your brain for longer and more securely.

Hide translations

Humans are lazy. We always take the easiest route. That means that if we see a word in a language we’re comfortable with, we’ll read that before we make the effort to process something more difficult, like the language we’re learning.

That doesn’t mean you should avoid translation entirely, as that can just make you feel frustrated. Instead, make your brain work harder to see the translations so that processing the foreign language becomes the easier route. Two ways I’ve done this are by writing the English in yellow pen:

English is on the right – look carefully!

and by writing it in tiny letters in a different part of the page, or on the other side if possible:

English is in tiny letters

Avoid arrows

When you get two answers the wrong way round in an exercise or copy two words next to the wrong definitions, it’s tempting to draw arrows to correct them instead of crossing them out. Don’t! This adds an extra step of processing, where your brain has to ‘undo’ what it first saw. It might not look as pretty (unless you use Tippex/whiteout) but it makes life easier for your brain! Number 5 in this picture is an example – I don’t remember what it means though!

Use monolingual dictionaries as soon as you can

Again, humans are lazy. I use Google Translate all the time, as do many of my students. But, and this is important, NOT for learning. For that I use a monolingual dictionary as soon as I can, preferably a learner’s dictionary if they exist.For Polish, I’ve been using PWN. For English I tend to recommend:

My university teachers would be pleased to hear this, as they used to tell us all the time to go monolingual, but it took me ages to listen to them. Now I prefer the information that I can find there, including collocations, example sentences, alternative uses, phrases, and (especially online) pronunciation and conjugations. It also provides extra reading practice, and the fact you have to process the language more means you are more likely to remember it more, or be more picky about which words you look up. If you’re a teacher, persevere with persuading your students – it’s worth the effort!

Be proud of your mistakes

Mistakes are nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, they show that you are learning. As with reading to read, this can require a shift in your mindset, as far too many of us have been brought up thinking that mistakes are bad.

Collect them, highlight them

Try creating a ‘My favourite mistakes’ page. Once a week/after a lesson/when you’ve done some writing, choose one mistake you made which you know you make a lot. Add it to the page, along with the correction. In the correct version, highlight the bit that you had problems with. This will draw your attention to it. This photo shows problems I was having with Czech accents on words:

Rewrite them

With the journal writing I mentioned above, I was motivated enough and had enough time on my hands to rewrite my entries and colour-code the mistakes, which made a huge difference to the accuracy of my writing.

Colour-coded rewrites

Colour-coded rewrites

It was great to see how the things I was making mistakes with changed over time, even in the few weeks that I did this for.

Personalise language

Making the language you are learning feel like yours can be hugely motivating, and adds some of the ‘hooks’ mentioned above.

Use your own experiences and opinions

Personalise example sentences so they mean something to you. For example, only learn ‘I like chocolate’ if you actually do. If you don’t, change it to ‘I like cats’, ‘I like computer games’ or whatever is most relevant to your experience. You’ll remember it faster, and it adds another ‘hook’.

Learn what you need first

When learning a foreign language, I try to start with numbers and food, as these are normally the things I need first on arrival in a new country. If I can eat in a restaurant and understand prices, then I can get a long way. Phrases like ‘How are you?’ and ‘I’m ____ years old.’ are much less immediately relevant.

If you’re not sure what you might need first, consider working your way through a course (maybe online or using a book) and feel free to skip bits that don’t appeal.

Be selective

It’s easy to feel like you need to remember every new word or phrase you come across, but this is impossible. Choose the language which most appeals to you and/or which is most relevant. Start with ‘easy wins’ – the more you build up your vocabulary, the easier it is to understand things you read and listen to, and the more you’ll be able to learn new vocabulary and grammar from all the extensive reading and listening you’re doing (by surrounding yourself with the language as above).

Record phrases you like

When you’re listening to or reading something, write down words and phrases you like and want to use again. If you’re talking to somebody, ask them to repeat it so you can make a note of it. Again, by picking out what you’re interested in and things that appeal to you, you’re giving yourself more hooks.

Rise above the word

If you’re self-studying, it’s very easy to just learn lists and lists of vocabulary. While this is useful, in the long run, you need to do more to truly learn the language.

Look at chunks

When you’re reading, look at the words that appear around that new word you’ve just written down. Is there a preposition (in, on, from…) after the word? Is there an adjective before it? Are there other words a bit further away in the sentence that might be connected? These are all hook that can help you to better use new language.

Write out conversations

Take grammar structures you’ve learnt and have a go at using them in conversations. Would the other person in the conversation use the same grammar to reply? For example, in English a present perfect question can be followed by a past simple reply. Can you make the structure shorter or add to it in any way? For example, English relative clauses can often be reduced, or added into other sentences. If you can, ask somebody to check the conversation for you, or have a go at recording it with somebody else you know who’s learning the language.

Mini dictations

Take one sentence of something you’ve listened to and use it as a dictation. If there’s a transcript for the audio, or lyrics for a song, check how correct you were. This is a great way to spot little grammar mistakes you’re making, and to better understand the rhythms of the spoken language.

Try out a corpus

A corpus is a collection of language as it is really used. For learners, this can help you to expand your understanding of particular items of vocabulary or grammar structures. My favourite English (and Spanish/Portuguese) corpus tool is the collection at BYU, particularly the new ‘word’ function. This is a snippet – there’s far more information as you scroll down the page:

BYU corpus word feature screenshot

Lizzie Pinard has an introduction to using www.wordandphrase.info/academic which shows you a lot of the features.

I use NKJP for Polish, for example to check whether I’ve chosen the right verb to go with a particular noun.

Be patient

Nobody learns anything overnight. But with language learning people seem to find that particularly frustrating – ‘I already speak my language. Why can’t I learn this one?’ Patience is key to getting to the level you want to achieve.

Grammar will come – don’t agonise over it

If you’ve read this whole post, you’ll notice that mentions of grammar are few and far between. Although I do have a grammar book, I only glance at it occasionally, and I’ve never done a grammar exercise in Polish. My grammar has improved though, through exposure, reading snippets of grammar explanations, and trying to notice patterns. Reading and listening to as much of the language as possible will help you to develop an instinct for correct grammar. Exercises might help you get there a bit faster, but they’re not essential.

Think about the process of children learning

Think about how children learn their first language. They start with essential everyday words, like ‘yes’ and ‘no’, then add vocabulary they need all the time, then add grammar later. It takes them a couple of years before they say anything, years when they have 24/7 exposure to the language they’re learning. When we learn a foreign language, we generally expect to speak from day one, and don’t give ourselves a ‘silent period’ to absorb what we’ve been exposed to before we have to produce it.

Children also make lots of mistakes, but they persevere, and eventually they speak the language they need to the level they need to in their everyday levels, providing the conditions are right for them.

It’s a long process, and it’s not easy, but it’s worth it in the end.

Be kind to yourself

Languages are big, complicated beasts from the outside. It can feel pretty daunting when you’re starting out. But if you’re kind to yourself, if you allow yourself to experiment, to make mistakes, and to try out the new language you’ve learnt without fearing failure, you’ll make it. As with everything in life, there’s no point beating yourself up if you find something challenging – all that does is makes you feel depressed. It doesn’t actually make you learn any more effectively.

Don’t listen to me!

If you were patient enough to read the whole post, you’ll see that although I’ve tried everything I’ve described, I don’t do all of it now. Not everything works for everybody, and not everything works all the time. Be flexible with your learning, experiment, and work out what works for you. That way, you’ll enjoy the process a whole lot more.

Good luck!

P.S.

These tips are all based on my own experience. I know there’s science behind at least some of them, but I’m feeling too lazy to find the links! If you feel like sharing them, please do…

Disaster movies – a lesson plan (or two!)

This year I’m teaching a Proficiency group, with free choice of the materials I use and topics we cover. In the first lesson, we brainstormed a list of key words that could act as possible topics and each time I exhaust a topic I ask the students to choose the next thing they’d do from the list. This seemed like a really good idea at the time 😉 Then they chose…

Disaster!

I was completely stuck for inspiration, as the only thing in my head was Brexit and having only met them a couple of lessons before, this wasn’t a route I wanted to go down yet. Instead, I headed to the TD Lab Staffroom facebook group and asked them to help me out. If you’ve never come across the group before, Shaun Sweeney set it up as a way for teachers to ask for audio recordings on particular topics. And it was Shaun who rescued me, with a one-minute recording talking about what he thinks of disaster movies which he has agreed to me sharing here. That was the spark I needed, and it prompted two complete 90-minute lessons 🙂 Here they are…

Lesson 1: Intensive listening and spoken grammar

I started by displaying the collage of disaster movie posters from this website. Students discussed the following questions:

  • Do you like films like this?
  • Are there any you’ve seen? What did you think of them?
  • Are there any you’d like to watch? Why?

Next, I showed them a picture of Shaun. They had to predict whether he likes disaster movies or not, then listen and check. Here’s the recording (confusingly with a picture of me!):

Those were the easy stages!

The next part was the real challenge: listen what Shaun said and transcribe it word for word. Before the lesson I’d uploaded the recording to our Edmodo group, which all of the students had joined during our first lesson. Now they divided into groups based on how many people could easily access the recording via their smartphones, with one phone per group. They had as long as they needed to transcribe it, and could go back and forth as much as they wanted. To transcribe one minute of audio it took them around 30-40 minutes. If they didn’t know what something said, I encouraged them to play it repeatedly and make a guess. When one group finished, I skimmed what they had written and underlined sections for them to listen to again.

Once all of the groups had something, I switched on the projector and took dictation, replaying the audio section by section as we went along. Anything that they didn’t have exactly as it was in the recording was underlined in my transcript, and we went back and listened again. It took us 10-15 minutes to get the full transcript onto the board, and all of the students present were engaged throughout. As we did it, I explained possible reasons why they may have misheard things, for example words that sound similar, connected speech linking words together, or weak forms which almost disappeared. I made sure that every sound was transcribed, not just ‘grammatically correct’ utterances. The only thing that nobody in the class could hear was the ‘ll in Now I’ll generally… right at the start, which prompted a discussion of the difference between present simple and will to describe habits. Here’s the transcript we ended up with, including underlining to show areas which my students had trouble picking out:

Shaun’s disaster film transcript

In pairs, students had to identify all of the features of the text which are part of spoken grammar, not written grammar. They discussed it in pairs, then went to the board and circled everything they could find. We have a whiteboard and projector set-up, which makes activities like this much easier! Here’s the same transcript with all of the features of spoken grammar I could identify highlighted in yellow:

Shaun’s disaster film transcript with features of spoken grammar

We only had a few minutes of the lesson left, so we quickly listed these features, including:

  • repetition (it’s…it’s…; going to die, going to die, going to sit)
  • ‘simple’ linking words (and, but, or)
  • emphasis (you’re just going to sit…)
  • fillers (um…yeah…like)
  • unfinished utterances (one of the worst films)
  • approximation (probably around Christmastime)
  • lack of concrete ideas/listing information (something like Towering Inferno or something with a volcano, or people are stuck in a tunnel)
  • opinion phrases (I have to say; well I can’t get into it at all)
  • time phrases to structure speech (when I was a kid; more recently)

I’m sure that’s not exhaustive, and I know for a fact those aren’t the technical terms, but they’ll do! I emphasised that it’s not vital for students to speak like this, but that they still sometimes sound like they’re reciting from a piece of paper instead of speaking naturally, and that it’s OK to include any of these features in their speech 🙂

For homework, I asked them to read Mike Russell’s Make Your Own Disaster Movie cartoon and look up any of the vocabulary they didn’t know.

Lesson 2: How to create your own disaster movie (reading and speaking)

A slightly different combination of students in this lesson meant we started off by recapping what had happened in the previous lesson and giving everybody time to re-read the cartoon. We probably spent about 20-30 minutes clarifying various items of vocabulary with students trying to help each other to understand words, or me showing them how to find the information they needed in the OALD using the projector (they’re still pretty new to using monolingual dictionaries consistently, despite their level!) These are the words we decided to record on our word cards:

  • bicker
  • estranged family
  • wild conjecture
  • nature’s wrath/the wrath of God
  • lump things together, like it or lump it!
  • mankind’s hubris
  • a dormant volcano
  • mayhem
  • cat-burglar (this was their favourite, and has come up in pretty much every lesson since!)

I had cut up an article from The Guardian along similar lines to the cartoon, called How to write the perfect disaster movie. I gave each section to one student. They read it and wrote 3-5 key words or phrases on the back. The perfect disaster movie article to put in order

With their summaries (without looking at the original text), they then mingled to find out all of the ingredients that Paul Owen believes make the perfect disaster movie. As a class, they decided what order all of the sections should be in by sticking them to the board (with me out of the way). They read it all to check whether they were correct.

With two ‘menus’ for disaster movies to help them out, the students now worked in small groups to create their own storylines. We had about 10 minutes for this, with time for them to present their stories to the rest of us at the end. In the true spirit of disaster movies, these made very little sense but were very entertaining, with one featuring a volcano that stopped air traffic and a monk who decided that a sacrifice to the ancient gods was required to stop it, and the other starring a cop who was a single dad being fired from his job, a meteor shower set to destroy Earth, a magnet on the moon to stop it and a female scientist to coordinate the rescue attempt, who inevitably fell in love with the cop 🙂

Thanks Shaun!

Overall these were two very enjoyable lessons which the students got a lot of vocabulary and intensive listening practice out of, both things which they have told me they want. And all inspired by just one minute of audio!

Energy breaks for young learners

You’re teaching a group of young learners and they just won’t sit still, no matter how many times you tell them to. They can’t seem to concentrate on anything you want to do with them. What can you do about it?

Give them an energy break, of course!

Try some of these ideas to use up at least a bit of their energy.

  • Brain Breaks therapy – the first one in the video, ‘ear and nose’, is my go-to. Lots more on their blog.

  • Board races – great for revision too, though think about how to set it up if you have pre-literate students. Divide the students into two teams (more if the board is big enough) and have them run to the board. Loads of ways to vary these:
    • Say a definition, they write a word
    • Say a word, they draw a picture
    • Show a flashcard to the person at the back, they whisper to the next person in line and so on until the person at the front writes/draws it
    • Say a word in English to the person at the back, they say it in L1 to the next person, who says it in English, and so on to the front. Either L1 or English is written on the board, depending on what they finish on.
    • And many, many more (please add them to the comments!)

Energy breaks can mean encouraging calm too. Meditation and mindfulness exercises change the energy levels in the room.

  • This video is a 1-minute meditation.

As a side note, if this is a regular problem in your lessons, you might want to check that your plans are interspersing activities which stir and settle. Here’s and introduction to stirrers and settlers from Teaching English British Council, and some tips on planning tasks for young learner lessons from ELT Planning.

What would you add to this list?

Teenagers losing their luggage

Today I taught two low-intermediate teen classes at the same level, covering for another teacher. The first half of the lesson was a test. The topic of one of the recent units they’ve done is travel, so I finally got the chance to try out Mike Astbury’s lost luggage activity, which I’ve been meaning to do for ages. The basic idea of Mike’s materials is that students role-play travellers who’ve lost their luggage and airport workers who take the details. Here’s what I did with it.

Setting the scene

You’re going on holiday. You’ve just arrived at the airport. Your luggage didn’t arrive. What’s missing?/What was in your suitcase? How do you feel about it?

I said this and students discussed it in pairs or small groups, then I took a general poll of feelings for feedback. This also served to generate some ideas for later in the lesson.

Describing luggage

I projected the second page of Mike’s handouts with 8 images of different items of luggage. Students had two minutes to describe what they could see using the language they had available. I didn’t really do any feedback for the first group. In the second we talked about Polish ‘It has green colour.’ versus English ‘It’s green.’ which came up for most groups.

I’d prepared pieces of paper with Mike’s descriptions of the luggage which I laid out on the floor. They had to discuss which description matched which item. Feedback was them using magnets to stick them to the board.

We checked them as a class, and I pulled out items of vocabulary to check the meaning. Examples were ‘buckle’, ‘handle’, ‘strap’ and ‘lock’.

They then described the cases again, with me gradually removing the descriptions.

Preparing their luggage

On the board, I showed students what I wanted them to write on the back of their luggage cards.

I handed out one luggage picture per person at random. They had 90 seconds to write a few items that were in their luggage and to make up their address. They then put their luggage under their chairs for later.

Working out questions

I organised students into pairs or small groups, with one notebook and pen shared between them. I displayed the lost luggage form (page 4 of the handouts) on the board and elicited a couple of example questions – a simple one (What’s your name?) and a more challenging one (What time did you land/arrive?)

In their groups, students had to write a question for each part of the form. I told them that flight details are things like the airline (Lufthansa) and the flight number (ZX 123). I monitored closely and did a lot of on-the-spot error correction, aiming for grammatically correct questions by the end of the exercise.

As soon as a pair/group had a full set of questions, they had to test each other by saying e.g. ‘flight details’ with the reply ‘What are your flight details?’ or ‘What was the airline?’ Each group had different questions. All groups had a couple of minutes to try and memorise the questions.

At the airport

Half of the students had time to look at their luggage cards again, then had to hand them to me. That way they were remembering the information, probably imperfectly – I don’t know about you, but I can never remember exactly what’s in my case or the finer details of what it looks like!

The other half lined up their chairs and stood behind them, as if it was an airport counter. They each had a pen and a lost luggage form. They had to ask questions and complete the form as accurately as possible. Then they put their completed form under the chairs and switched roles. When there were three students in a group, first one person had to collect information from both of them, then two of them had to collect the same information from one person. One student in the second group got particularly into it and kept bothering the airport worker by trying to rush them and asking ‘When will I get my luggage back?’ 🙂

Finding their luggage

I laid out all of the luggage on a ‘carousel’ on the floor. Once everybody had performed both roles, they used their forms to try to identify the luggage. They had to give it back to the owner asking ‘Is this your luggage?’

To round it all off, I asked them to put their hands up if they didn’t get their luggage back, and told they how successful our airport is. In both groups about a third didn’t get it, which I suspect reflects real life nicely!

In sum

The activity worked really well with this group of students, although we were a bit rushed at the end. I allocated 45 minutes, but I think 50 would have been enough, and 60 ideal.

I completely forgot to give them tickets from page 3 of Mike’s handouts, even though I’d prepared them, but this didn’t matter as most students seemed to enjoy making up this information. One student got a bit flustered about it though, and definitely would have benefitted from having something to draw on, although she managed to work around it in the end. The rush at that stage probably didn’t help either!

They were a bit confused by the way that we arranged the room for the role play at first, but as soon as they worked out what was going on they seemed to appreciate it.

They were definitely trying to use some of the new language to describe luggage, and I didn’t hear any ‘green colours’ in the second group during the role play 🙂

All in all, I’m really glad I finally got a chance to try out this activity from Mike’s blog. The students were engaged and it generated a lot of language and helped to further practice travel vocabulary and past tense question formation (which some of them had struggled with in the test). It worked well as a task-based lesson, which is something I’m trying to experiment with more, with students pushing themselves to speak as much as possible. Thanks for sharing these materials with us Mike, and I would encourage everyone to take a look at the materials on his blog!

A black cat sitting on a half-packed suitcase

Ironically, I’ve lost my picture of my lost luggage after it was returned to me, so instead here’s a picture of Poppy the cat (not) helping me to pack

Attention, please!

I’ve just finished working on a CELTA course in Strasbourg, and one of the things some trainees had trouble with was getting and maintaining the attention of their students. Here are some of the questions I asked them and tips I gave in feedback after the lessons.

Do they know what signal you will give them when you want them to pay attention?

If you tell the students what signal to expect before the activity, they are more likely to notice. For example, you could tell them that you will:

  • Clap your hands.
  • Say ‘stop’.
  • Press a buzzer.
  • Ring a bell.
  • Switch the light off and on again.
  • Use a call and response signal, for example: Teacher: ‘Macaroni cheese.’ Students: ‘Everybody freeze!’ (Thanks Rose!)
  • Put your hand up and wait for them to put theirs up too.
  • Countdown from 5, starting quietly, and getting louder as you reach 1. (Particularly good for speaking activities.)
  • When the background music finishes playing, the activity ends.
  • Stand in a particular place.

It’s good to get into routines with this, and always use the same signal for the same kind of activity. For example, I normally put my hand up to signal the end of a pair discussion.

Did you give everyone time to respond?

After you’ve given the signal to pay attention, make sure that you pause for a few seconds to let them stop before you start speaking. Wait for attention from everybody – don’t just start with the next instructions or feedback, as you’ll only end up repeating it!

Try praising students who are paying attention, rather than picking out those who aren’t, especially with young learners: ‘Thank you, Sandy.’ rather than ‘Sandy, stop talking please!’

Is the signal visible/audible to everyone?

If you’re giving an audio signal, make sure it is loud enough. If you’re speaking, you don’t need to shout, but do project your voice over the volume.

If you’re giving a visual signal, make sure all students can see you.

Are they deeply involved in the activity they are doing? Are they ready to finish? 

Monitor closely to find out how students are progressing with the activity. If they’ve only done half of the activity, they are unlikely to want to stop when you try to get their attention.

If you know that timing will be a problem before you start, try to change how you set up the activity. For example, tell the students to do as many questions as they can in 3 minutes, rather than making them finish the exercise. Getting them to check in pairs can help them to fill in the gaps in their answers.

Have short extension tasks available for students who finish very quickly, preferably ones that don’t require too much extra input from you! For example, ask students to:

  • Read a sentence from the exercise, remember it, turn over your paper, write it from memory, then check whether you’ve got it right.
  • Change the sentences so they’re true for you.
  • Turn over the paper and remember as many of the words from the exercise as possible, either speaking or writing them. Then look and check.
  • Start saying the sentences/words to practise pronunciation.
  • Decide what was the most interesting thing your partner said, ready to report it to the class.

Is there a valid reason for them to need to pay attention to you or the other students who are talking? (i.e. Why should they care?)

For example, some teachers interrupt speaking activities to get everybody’s attention to try to elicit a single word from the group that one student asked for. This is unnecessary, as you could just give them the word without stopping all of the other conversations.

During feedback stages, students might pay attention at the beginning, but drift off if the stage gets too long or boring. Think of how to keep feedback concise, and try to give them a real reason to listen to the other students.

How long have you required their attention for? Can they maintain focus for that long?

It’s difficult to concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time without drifting off and losing attention. Vary the activities and the interaction in the lesson, so that students aren’t just listening to you for long periods of time. Give them clear things to do and keep them active.

Do you truly believe that you have the right to their attention at this point in the lesson?

This may sound quite odd, but I’ve noticed that a lot of teachers feel like they’re being rude when they interrupt students, especially if the students are older than them, and/or if they’re inexperienced teachers. I think if you don’t believe that you need students’ attention right now, then there is less conviction in your voice, and they are less likely to listen to you.

What would you add to the list?

EU Parliament, with flags of all of the current EU nations flying in front of it

The EU Parliament in Strasbourg, which I visited during the course

Some things from the IH Torun Teacher Training Day 2018

Torun - Copernicus

A wise man in Torun

Saturday 21st April 2018 was the annual teacher training day at our sister school, International House Torun. I attended sessions by Lisko MacMillan, Matthew Siegal, Rachel Hunter and John Hughes, and presented on Making the most of blogs. Here are few of the things I got out of the day:

  • Although I hated drama at school, and did my best to avoid it, I really ought to embrace activities borrowed from improvisation. They make great warmers and energisers, and there are lots of opportunities for revision there.
  • I wish I’d been relaxed enough to enjoy drama at school, because it’s a lot more fun now that I don’t care about appearances as much!
  • It might be a good idea to swap your writing with another teacher and mark each other’s when possible to avoid the bias you get when you know your students.
  • One way to make feedback on Cambridge writing much faster is to give students a copy of the mark scheme with the relevant sentences for their work highlighted. Obviously you need to explain what it means, but the more they see it, the more they know what is expected of them.
  • gw = good word, ag = advanced grammar, are possible additions to a writing code that focus on positives. Although I haven’t used a writing code for a long time, this was a useful reminder.
  • To encourage students to engage with writing criteria and to kill two birds with one stone, turn the criteria into a Use of English open cloze exercise.
  • An activity to make students plan before writing: you plan your partner’s answer. They only get to see the plan, not the question, and write the answer. Then show the question and they get rid of what they didn’t need.
  • Give students a list of things they can when proofreading their text. They should do as many as they have time for. For example:
    • Task completion and paragraphs
    • Spelling and vocabulary repetition
    • Grammar accuracy
    • Grammar range
    • Linking words
  • Art is an interesting alternative to photos, and lends itself to a lot of the same classroom activities.
  • There are loads of activities you could do with a single picture, like The Bedroom by Van Gogh. Try asking ‘If you lived in a room like this, what would you change?’ Show the picture, then hide it and ask students to remember as much detail as possible. What isn’t in the picture? Whose room is it? Be art critics. Give them half a picture each and make it an information gap.
  • With pictures of people, make the person the subject of an interview. If there are a lot of people, recreate the image by making a tableau vivante. Imagine the relationships between the people or describe their personalities.
  • If you want students to describe and draw, why not given them something like a Picasso or a Dali, and do it as a head drawing exercise (with their paper on their heads)? It’s already an odd picture, so they won’t feel as bad if they can’t reproduce it!
  • There is a blog by a Polish teacher in Polish about teaching English written by Beata Topolska. If you can recommend any other good blogs which are about teaching English but not written in English, please let me know!
  • Problems with teenage students are often due to rapport. Get to class early and get chatting to find out more about them.
  • Watch out for being too shallow or deep with personalisation – it’s a fine line. Try using Speak/Pass/Nominate, so students can choose whether they want to answer (Speak), don’t answer (Pass) or choose somebody else (Nominate).
  • To help students engage with a word bank of photos (e.g. types of food), try getting them to engage using sentences like:
    • I really like ______, but I don’t like _______.
    • I often eat ______ for breakfast, but I never eat _______.
    • I’ve never tried to cook _______ but one day I’d like to.
  • When you give students a list of topics, encourage them to find things in common. This is more authentic, as it’s what we try to do during small talk. You could give them a simple Venn diagram (you/both/me) to frame the discussion. For example, see ‘making connections’ in John Hughes’ post about personalisation.
  • With teens, try asking ‘What do you really hate/dislike?’ rather than ‘Which do you prefer?’ They’re more likely to respond.

All in all, this was a great local conference, and I walked away with loads of ideas for my classes. Thanks to Glenn Standish and IH Torun for organising it!

IATEFL 2018: In the classroom

This is a collection of talks I saw at IATEFL Brighton 2018 which have ideas that can be used in the classroom, or thoughts on methodology that may influence your classroom practice. They’re arranged roughly from what I perceived to be the most theoretical to the most immediately practical (as in, activities you could use in class tomorrow).

The frequency fallacy

Leo Selivan’s talk examined how useful frequency-based word lists really are. You can watch the full talk yourself, or read my summary. We can often over- or underestimate how frequent words actually are due to the availability bias, which says that if something is easy to remember, it must be more frequent. There are many different ways you can check how frequent a particular word is, for example by looking at the information in learner dictionaries. In the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, there is information about how common a word is in both spoken and written English. For example, abroad is in the top 2000 words of spoken English, and top 3000 of written English. 80% of English texts are made up of high frequency words, and they are used as defining vocabulary, so it can seem a good idea to focus on them in our teaching.

However, there are many problems with these high frequency words. We can assume that if you know high frequency words you’ll be fine, with a high-level of understanding. Polysemy (same word, different meanings) isn’t acknowledged in word lists, for example the different meanings of ‘rough’ in ‘He’s got very rough hands.’ and ‘It’s just a rough estimate.’ ‘Cast’ has 10 different meanings as a verb, without thinking about its meanings as a noun. It’s essential to consider co-text too. This implies that we should teach collocations straight away, not wait until higher levels. Another problem with frequency lists is the grouping of words, so ‘name’ and ‘namely’ are there as a single item (I think!). This implies that learning ‘name’ should mean understanding of ‘namely’, which it obviously doesn’t! Some words we often use in the classroom don’t appear on frequency lists, like ‘homework’. Leo challenged us to think of 6 words or chunks that we think of when we see the word ‘travelling’. Mine were ‘plane’, ‘alone’, ‘passport’, ‘go away’, ‘holiday’ and ‘backpack’. Leo pointed out that most of the ones we came up with probably aren’t in the top 2000 or 3000, but if we’re travelling, they’re really important, so we also need to consider student needs, not just general frequency of words.

Another issue is that chunks like ‘at all’ or ‘bear in mind’ are non-transparent, so although some or all of the words may appear on a frequency list, it doesn’t mean students can understand them by learning the component words. The PHRASal Expressions List (PHRASE List) and PHrasal VErb Pedagogical List (PHaVE List) are two new frequency lists designed to take this into account, by including non-transparent multiword items.

I found the talk very interesting, and it certainly made me think about how useful frequency lists really are, but I was left wondering what we should do instead. I know it’s hard to answer that in 30 minutes, but I’m hoping Leo will go into more detail on his blog at some point.

Adi Rajan summarised the talk much more thoroughly than I did!

P.S. Another talk about word lists at this year’s IATEFL was Vocabulary lists: snog, marry, avoid? by Julie Moore. Her blog post includes lots of links for further reading too.

Pronunciation and phonology

Mark Hancock’s was called ‘Towards a pedagogical phonology’ and looked at developments in the way he believes that phonology should be taught in a post-ELF world. He highlighted that accent snobbery is pointless, as there are so many different accents in the world and none of them are any better than any others. He also said that it’s important to expose students to a variety of accents, since no matter how ‘perfectly’ you might speak, you can’t control how your interlocutor speaks. It also doesn’t matter which accent you use to speak, as long as it gains you access to the international community.

The more common a variant is between accents, the more likely it is to be understood. This therefore makes it less problematic for listeners to understand. For example, ‘free’ is such a common variant of ‘three’ now, that it is almost always understood. It also generally doesn’t make you less intelligible if you pronounce something that is written, like the ‘r’ in ‘Mark’, but it might make you less intelligible if you don’t say it. We should aim to build or grow our students’ accents, rather than to replace them.

When we think about teaching pronunciation, we ultimately have to think about what is essential and what is superficial. Mark used the metaphor of aliens finding a car in space and trying to copy it. They don’t know that the scratches on the car are not a key part of what makes it work, so they copy them with the same level of care as they copy the engine and the wheels. In pronunciation, the equivalent of the engine and the wheels are things like syllables and phoneme distinctions, whereas the schwa, weak forms and elision are like the scratches. Having said that, it’s important to negotiate the syllabus with students, as they may have different ideas to you about what they want.

You can use this inverted triangle as a kind of hierarchy of pronunciation skills to be developed, with lower order skills at the bottom, and higher order ones at the top:

Multiple entry point model

The full set of Mark’s slides are available here, and there is a treasure trove of other useful materials on the HancockMcDonald site, which he shares with Annie Hancock.

 

Nicola Meldrum and Mark McKinnon shared some of the insights into pronunciation which they have come up with while running teacher training courses. They were working with A1 groups, and wanted to ensure that they modelled an equal focus on meaning, form and sound/pronunciation with all groups. This meant using natural speech and intonation patterns, even at very low levels, and highlighting what happens when form and sound don’t seem to match. Often students and teachers seem to focus on meaning and form, neglecting the sound of new language. They shared a 3-minute video of Toni, talking in Spanish (subtitled) about his experiences of pronunciation in class. It’s well worth watching, as Toni described how useful he found individual drilling, transcription of phonemes, and being able to concentrate just on the sound of new language at times, among many other insights. Before these lessons, he only used to focus on the written form and not the sound, and now he notices a real difference in how much more confident he is.

Nicola and Mark also recommended feedback focussed planning, where you consider what problems students might have with the sound of new language and plan how you can help them with it. Give students time and space by reducing the amount of ‘stuff’ to get through and leaving time for feedback. A supportive listening cycle is also useful here: time and a variety of tasks means students can spend time really understanding the sound of new language. They have written a series of blog posts covering all three of the concepts they mentioned during their talk: MFS (meaning, form, sound), SLC (supportive listening cycle) and FFP (feedback-focussed planning).

Older learners

Heloisa Duarte’s talk looked at what we can do to support older learners in the classroom. Depending on your context, older learners can start at anything from 45 to 70. As Heloisa said, there aren’t many generalisations we can make about older learners, but one thing we can say is that their parents didn’t force them to come to the classes! They tend to be highly motivated, perhaps wanting to learn English to talk to new family members, perhaps to move to an English-speaking country, or to feel better about themselves and boost their confidence. For others, it is just because they’ve always wanted to and now have the time and money to do it. The social side of courses can also be very important for these students.

Challenges for older learners include health problems, like mobility, hearing or eyesight. For example, the higher the pitch of a voice, the harder it can be to understand. There may be affective factors, such as previous bad experiences with English teachers, or a feeling that it is too late for them to learn, affecting their self-confidence. There may also be cognitive challenges: ‘I want to learn, but I forget.’ Some younger students may have the perception that older students are helpless, or less able to participate, and this is very rarely true.

Heloisa asked us to think about how we might adapt the lessons for three possible students. One of them was shown in one of my favourite adverts ever:

She advised us to help learners to acknowledge every victory they have, and work hard at boosting their confidence. She recommended Seeds of Confidence by , [affiliate link] published by Helbling languages, as a source of other confidence-building activities.

Other advice included:

  • Choose coursebooks with appropriate topics, making sure they’re not pitched too young.
  • Adapt activities to suit the interests of your students. One example she gave was to listen to ‘Old Macdonald had a farm’, then write an advert for him to sell his farm because he’s going crazy!
  • Use and teach memorisation techniques.
  • Revise and recycle as often as possible.
  • Find out about learners and value their experience.

Ultimately, it’s most important to adjust the classroom and lessons to your learners, rather than demanding they adapt to you.

Clarifying grammar

David Connolly shared some Venn diagrams he has used to help students to understand grammar points, rather than trying to navigate the long and often complicated explanations that appear in a lot of course books. I was particularly interested in this session as I have been experimenting with different ways of clarifying language points for a while now, as any of you who have been following my blog for a while will know (another articles chart, anyone?!) David emphasised that Venn diagrams don’t provide a complete explanation covering all exceptions to rules, with context still being key. However, they can be used as a starting point for understanding. Here is one example for the uses of past simple, ‘used to’ and ‘would’ for past habits:

He also had diagrams for vocabulary, for example the different between a table and a desk, something I’d never really thought about before.

The final set of diagrams I have pictures of are connected to ‘have to’ and ‘must’ in the present and past:

 

Bruno Leys showed us a lot of pictures of real English in use that he has noticed in the UK and abroad, along with the kind of questions and follow-up tasks he uses with them. I would highly recommend looking at the full presentation, here, to see both examples of the pictures and his reasoning for approaching grammar in this way. I’ve selected a couple of my favourite examples to give you a taster. These two are great as the present perfect causes problems for speakers of a lot of languages, including Slavic languages, and these pictures help to make the meaning very clear:

'Fat rescues' article We have moved

If you’re interested in using ELTpics to work with grammar in this way, you could try the Signs or Linguistic Landscapes sets. Bruno also mentioned the free-to-download e-book The Image in English Language Teaching, edited by Kieran Donaghy and Daniel Xerri.

 

Teaching the same thing all over again (paragraph blogging)

This week I’ve taught six 90-minute classes at a company, working through needs analysis and getting examples of speaking and writing as we are working with them for the first time. I had the same plan for all six lessons, covering every level from elementary to advanced, but it panned out completely differently in each group. The general structure was:

  • Students write questions for me and their teacher (who was observing and data collecting), then ask them.
  • Annotate a copy of the contents page of the book they’ve been using for lessons before we started teaching them, to show which things they’ve done, what they’d like to do, and what they’d prefer to avoid.
  • Individually, divide up 40 points between the speaking, listening, reading, writing, grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation to show their course priorities (an idea I adapted from Teaching English One-to-One [affiliate link] by Priscilla Osborne and now use all the time!). Write this on the back of the contents page.
  • Write a paragraph about their job, roles and responsibilities, when/if/how they use English at work, their hobbies, and anything else they choose, also on the back of the contents.
  • Extend the paragraph by finishing various sentence starters from a choice of 10, such as:
    • I prefer English lessons which…
    • I am confident/not confident about ____ in English because…
    • I generally have good/bad memories of learning English/Russian/German/… at school because…
    • A good English teacher…

Pretty straightforward, right? None of the lessons are encapsulated in that plan though! At various points this week, I (sometimes with my colleagues) have done error correction based on questions, looked at the grammar of questions in general, created indirect questions, discussed at length good places to visit in London, talked about the etymology of Wolverhampton and Chichester, discussed learning strategies and how to make English a habit, shared websites that can be used in addition to doing homework, explained various Polish/English differences, discovered all seven students in a single class prefer dogs to cats, encouraged (elementary) students to speak up so that I can give them feedback and then praised them a lot for speaking pretty much only English for 90 minutes, and probably many more things that I’ve forgotten. It’s a reminder, if one was needed, to teach the students, not the plan 🙂

Lady Wulfruna statue

Lady Wulfruna, the source of the name of Wolverhampton – Image by David Stowell [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Questions (paragraph blogging)

Inspired by Matthew (again), as well as the lessons I’ve been teaching this week…

My current favourite getting-to-know-you activity to do with new students, especially 121s, is simply to get them to write a list of questions they want to ask me. With 121s I’ll write a list of things to ask them at the same time, so it doesn’t feel so awkward watching them write, and we take it in turns to ask them. 10 questions seems to work well in 121; in groups it’s about 5 each with students then selecting the ‘best’ from their lists. Questions are inevitably an area that students need to practise, regardless of their level. Students rarely form questions themselves, and are much more likely to answer other people’s/the teacher’s questions in the average lesson [I know I’ve read blog posts about this before, but can’t remember where – all links gratefully accepted].

The lists of questions students produce in this activity tend to show up the same kind of problem areas: present simple v. continuous, present perfect (or the lack thereof), word order, common mistakes (like Where are/did you born?), articles, etc, giving you a starting point for grammar areas to focus on. They may also throw up slightly more unusual problems: one of the ones I’ve noticed this week is capitalisation of ‘you’, following the Polish pattern of politeness, e.g. Where are You from? In addition, student-generated questions demonstrate which topics students are most interested in, as they tend to ask at least one or two questions about those areas. To push higher-level students to show off their grammar, especially if they’ve picked very simple questions to ask, you can encourage them to reframe one or two things from their list as indirect questions, and talk about politeness, especially if you’ve never met the students before.

Of all the things this activity makes me consider though, I have to say the oddest thing is how often the question How old are you? comes up in a typical student list. It’s one of those things students often ask at the start of lessons without thinking twice, though I’m pretty sure they would be unlikely to ask it that quickly if they were meeting people at a party or a conference!

Have you tried this kind of activity? Do you have a similar experience of it?

Stop asking me questions!

Based on an ELTpic by @ij64 (I believe!)

Articles chart (again!)

18 months on from the previous version, and here’s another ‘final’ version of the articles chart I’ve been working on for a number of years:

Articles chart

Here’s the PowerPoint version for you to download.

I use the articles chart with students instead of the long lists of explanations and rules that normally appear in coursebooks. We look at a few examples of nouns in sentences, and follow the chart to work out the explanation for why that article (or lack thereof) was chosen. For example, in the first sentence of this paragraph:

  • Noun = chart. It’s normal, countable, singular, and specific – it’s important that I’m talking about this particular chart, not just any chart.
  • Noun = students. They’re normal, countable, plural, and general – I’m talking about any of my students – it doesn’t matter which ones.
  • Noun = lists. They’re normal, countable, plural and specific – I’m talking about the ones which appear in coursebooks, not just any lists.
  • Noun = explanations/rules. They’re normal, countable, plural and general – it doesn’t matter which explanations and rules – it covers all of the ones in coursebooks.
  • Noun = coursebooks. They’re normal, countable, plural and general – it covers all coursebooks, not just specific ones.

As I’ve said before, the 90% rule mentioned in the box is entirely made up, has no scientific basis, and is only because sometimes I can’t get it to match up, though in reality I find it works about 99% of the time if you think around the sentence a bit. If anybody would like to give me a more scientific number, I’ll be very grateful 🙂

I don’t expect students to memorise the chart, but instead use it as a point of reference. I introduce it by going through a few sentences, as above, then give them a paragraph of a text, probably something we’ve just read or listened to, and ask them to figure out why articles were(n’t) chosen in each case. They can ask me about any which don’t seem to fit the rules. I get them to staple the chart in their books (less likely to lose it!) and we refer to it whenever relevant in future lessons. I find that after using it in a few lessons for analysis and correction, they tend to get much better at selecting appropriate articles, and are more able to self-correct.

If you use it, I’d be interested to know if you find examples which really don’t fit, as well as how well your students manage with this way of representing this grammar.

Introducing ELT Playbook 1

Since April 3rd last year, I’ve been working on this, and it’s now finally ready to share with the world:ELT Playbook 1 cover

ELT Playbook 1 contains a selection of 30 tasks to help teachers to reflect on what they do, centred particularly on the areas that seem to cause most problems for those new to our profession. It is based on my work as a CELTA trainer and as a manager of newly qualified teachers. There is also an associated online community where participants can choose to share their reflections and learn from others using the book, taking the first steps to building up an online support network.

Where can I buy it?

ELT Playbook 1 is currently available through the following retailers:

  • Smashwords (available in .epub, .pdf, .txt and more)
  • Amazon.com [coming in the next couple of days after I post this, as soon as the powers that be have approved it!]

All links above are affiliate links, meaning I get a few extra pennies if you buy them via this site.

It costs approximately 6.99 USD, 5 GBP or 5.50 EUR.

If you’d like a taster, here’s the contents page and first task, or you can see a blogged version of the first task on the shiny new ELT Playbook blog. You can also download samples via both Smashwords and Amazon before forking out your hard-earned cash.

Who is this series for?

  • Those who want to develop as a teacher, but who would like some support to learn how to do this, along with clear tasks to work through.
  • Teacher trainers or managers who would like ideas for professional development programmes (though please do credit the source).

And this book?

  • Teachers fresh off their initial training who would like to build on what they’ve learnt.
  • Those who have not yet completed an initial training course and would like something to start them off.
  • Teachers a few years after their initial training who feel they would like to go back to basics.
  • Those who would like to develop in a systematic way but are on a limited budget or working in an environment without available support.

Series aims

  • To provide a series of tasks you can work through to improve your teaching.
  • To help you to build a professional portfolio that can be used to show your development when applying for jobs.
  • To provide guidance in how to reflect on your teaching.

Why ELT Playbook?

According to the Macmillan Dictionary online (accessed 17th August 2017), a playbook is ‘any set of strategies to achieve a goal.’ I believe it is just such a set of techniques and strategies that teachers need to develop both inside and outside the classroom to describe themselves as truly professional. This is reflected in the fact that the term ‘playbook’ has moved from the sportsfield to the boardroom over the last few years.

It is also important to emphasise the ‘play’ part of ‘playbook’. We already have plenty of work to do, so it’s important that any professional development we do complements our work in an enjoyable and stimulating way, rather than adding unnecessary extra stress. None of the tasks should take you longer than 2 hours, and many of them should be achievable in under an hour. They are designed to fit in relatively easily around a busy career and the demands of home life.

How do I use ELT Playbook 1?

You can do the tasks in any order: you could start with something you feel you particularly need to work on, you could complete a whole category, or you might prefer to work through the book from beginning to end. If you do one task a week, you should have enough for an average academic year, with a couple of weeks left over to help you when you are particularly busy at work or home. You can also repeat tasks as many times as you like, perhaps reflecting on them in different ways, or seeing how your responses change over time or with different groups.

That means that just this one single volume could provide you with years of professional development, if you so choose! Having said that, if ELT Playbook 1 is successful, I hope to develop a series of similar playbooks for other areas of ELT, and I would very much welcome feedback on which areas you would find it most useful to focus on.

I hope you enjoy using the book.

Thanks

Big thanks to everyone who’s been involved in getting this ready, though they might not realise they helped me!

  • Penny Hands, for editing it and supporting me through the process of finalising everything.
  • Adi Rajan, for inspiring the name.
  • Ola Walczykowska, for designing the cover and the logo.
  • Lindsay Clandfield, for letting me know about the existence of The Noun Project.
  • Karen White, for teaching me how to deal with icons in ebooks.
  • Mum, always.
  • Everyone who’s listened to me talking about it over the last few months.

It’s taken longer than expected to get here, but hopefully it’ll all be worth it! Enjoy 🙂

Why should they care?

In lessons I have observed, it is often a little step that is missing that could make a real difference to the students’ engagement in a particular activity. By asking yourself ‘Why should they care?’ at every stage of the planning process, it’s easy to make little tweaks that could help students to get more involved.*

Do you recognise any of these situations?

Speaking

You ask students to discuss a question like this in pairs:

Tell your partner what you did at the weekend.

They each monologue for about 30 seconds, and the whole activity peters out after less than two minutes. Neither student really listened to their partner, and apart from saying a few words in English, they haven’t really got anything out of the activity.

Why should they care?

Here are a few little tweaks that might avoid this situation.

  • Give them a listening task too. These can also be used as questions for feedback after the activity.
    ‘Find something your partner did that you didn’t.’ > Feedback = ask one or two students to say what their partner did and why they didn’t do it.
    ‘Decide whose weekend was more boring.’ > Feedback = put your hand up if you had the most boring weekend.
  • Add challenge.
    Students have 15 seconds to tell their partner what they did – time it strictly. Afterwards they change partners and tell someone else what their partner did. Give them thinking time first to decide/rehearse what to say in that time.
    Students can only say two sentences before their partner speaks. Give an example, and make sure you include questions!
  • Change the interaction pattern.
    Students mingle, speaking to as many others as possible. They have to find one person who did the same three things as them/did none of the things they did/did something they wish they’d done.
    Play Chinese whispers with two teams racing to correctly write down one thing each person in their team did.
  • Give them some functional language you want them to use.
    ‘No, really? Why did you do that?’
    ‘That’s something I’ve always wanted to do.’

If you want more ideas for how to adapt speaking activities, I’ve got a whole e-book of them!

Writing

You ask your students to write a blog post about a place they want to visit. Some of them write a paragraph, others write a whole page.

Why should they care?

  • Get them interested in the topic first.
    Talk about the most popular places a tourist can visit in the students’ countries.
    Get them to decide three things which make a place worth visiting, then compare the list with a partner and narrow it down to three things from their combined lists.
  • Show them what you expect from them.
    Give them a framework, e.g. Paragraph one = a description of the place, including at least three pieces of information about it. Paragraph two = why they want to visit it. Paragraph three = why they haven’t visited it yet/when they plan to visit it. > This can also be used for marking if necessary, giving you an objective way of deciding if they get full marks for content.
    Show a couple of examples from real blogs.
  • Change the interaction pattern.
    Allow students to choose if they want to work alone or in pairs.
    Get students to write a paragraph, then pass it on to the next student/pair who write the next paragraph, then pass it on again for the final paragraph.
  • Give students other choices.
    They could write about a place they don’t want to visit/the last interesting place they visited/the most boring place they’ve ever visited.
    Let them decide on the format: a blog post, a poster, a newspaper article, a comic strip…

Listening

There is a three-minute audio recording about straw bales in the course book your school requires you to use. 30 seconds in, the students are clearly incredibly bored, and starting to fidget.

A straw bale

Image from Pixabay

Why should they care?

  • Use an image.
    Show them the picture above. Give them a minute to imagine this is real – they think about what they can see/hear/smell/touch/taste. Then tell a partner.
    Give them the image in the middle of a piece of paper. They should draw the bigger picture, then compare it to a partner. Do they have similar pictures?
  • Set them a challenge.
    Get them to think of a minimum of five different things they could use a straw bale for, then compare to a partner.
    Somebody has dumped a straw bale in front of the school. It’s too heavy to lift easily. How will they move it?
  • Make sure they have a clear task to do while they’re listening.
    The first time they listen, they could check predictions they’ve made before listening.
    Get students to come up with three questions they want the answers to. They can be as simple as ‘Why am I listening to a text about straw bales?’ 🙂
  • Use the audio in other ways.
    Break it into 30-second chunks. After each chunk, students should tell a partner what they remember. They could also come up with one question they think will be answer in the next section.
    Pause the audio at a particular point and ask the students what they think the next three words are. You can decide on these points before the lesson if you want to focus on particular pieces of language. This can build students’ confidence when listening to English if you choose chunks of language students are already familiar with.

Reading

There’s an article about gender pay gaps in the news, which you think is an important issue and should be discussed with your students. Some students have previously said they would like to read ‘real’ things in class, but in the lesson the students just aren’t interested in the article, and you end up moving on to something else after a few minutes.

Why should they care?

  • Deal with part of the topic first.
    Have pieces of paper around the room, each with the beginning of a statement. Students walk around and write as many sentences using these beginnings as possible in two minutes. Examples might be ‘Women are…’ ‘Men are…’ ‘Women can’t…’ ‘Men can’t…’ ‘It’s important for women to…’ ‘It’s important for men to…’
    Ask students to list five jobs where people get paid a lot of money, and five where they don’t get paid much. They compare lists with other students, then decide whether they think more men or women do those jobs.

Gender pay gap word cloud based on http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-42580194

  • Use a word cloud. Wordart.com allows you put a whole text into their creator.
    Students have five minutes to write as many sentences as they can using the words in the word cloud. These become predictions – they read the text to check what was included.
    They choose one big word, one medium word, and one small word, then predict how these are connected to the story. You could also give them the headline to help.
  • Reflect real life.
    Show students the headline. Ask them if this is something they would read about in their own language. Encourage them to discuss why or why not. If they say they would, ask them to read it. If they wouldn’t, ask them to choose another article from the BBC homepage (give them a time limit). In both cases, get them to tell a partner what they think they’ll still remember about the article tomorrow.
    We often read online articles by skimming them quickly as we scroll down the page. If you have a projector in your classroom, replicate that process. Scroll down relatively slowly, but fast enough that students can’t read everything. When you get to the bottom, minimise the window and ask students to tell their partner what they saw, what they understood, and what (if anything) they’d like to go back and read in more detail.
  • Work with the language.
    Ask students to find phrases which describe companies or replace the name of the company, e.g. ‘major companies’, ‘organisations with 250 or more workers’, ‘the carrier’, ‘the firm’. They discuss why these phrases were selected in each case.
    Get them to list five different sentences with a percentage in them, e.g. ‘Many financial firms feature in the list, including the Co-op Bank – where mean hourly pay is 30.3% lower for women.’ or ‘It said 7% of apprentices last year were men, compared with zero in 2016, while 41% of roles involving helping at children’s tea time were filled by men – compared with 25% in 2016.’ They can analyse the structures these percentages appear in, e.g. ‘X is % lower for Y.’ or ‘% of X were blah blah blah – compared with % in year’

Grammar points

You’ve recently taught students how to use the passive in news articles. In a follow-up piece of writing, there is no evidence of passives at all.

Why should they care?

  • Contextualise.
    Make sure that example sentences you use are all taken from clear contexts, not plucked at random from thin air. Context can really help students to understand new grammar.
    After doing a practice exercise, ask students to choose three sentences. For each sentence they should add a minimum of two sentences before and two after, making a longer paragraph or dialogue. They could leave a space where their chosen sentence appeared for other students to remember what it was.
  • Get them to notice how it’s used outside the classroom.
    Ask students to open an article from English-language news at random. They should underline all of the passive structures they can find. Afterwards, they can compare usage of the passive in different kinds of article – for example, is it used more in articles describing a crime? A sports event? An election?
    Send students on a treasure hunt. Ask them to find one example in the news of each kind of passive you have studied, e.g. present simple passive, past simple passive, present perfect passive. They should find as many as they can and write out the full sentence, all within a specified time, for example 15 minutes.
  • Compare and contrast.
    Give students pairs of sentences in the active and the passive, with each sentence in the pair conveying the same information. Ask them to choose their ‘favourite’ sentence in the pair and say why. For example: ‘The dog ate the cake.’ ‘The cake was eaten by the dog.’ ‘Somebody stole my bag.’ ‘My bag was stolen.’
    Show students a 2-3 sentence paragraph including a passive structure. Ask them to translate it into another language they know. They then use the translation to analyse differences between how the idea of a passive is expressed in their own language(s). For example, emphasis on the object might be conveyed through a change in word order but no change in the verb form.
  • Add it in.
    Give students a short news article in pairs. Ask them to add three passive sentences into the article, wherever they like. They can then compare the results to another group.
    Tell students you expect to see a minimum of two passive structures in the news article you want them to write. Include this in criteria for peer checking before the article is handed in.

Vocabulary

You introduced a range of words connected to clothes in your last lesson, like ‘button’, ‘zip’, ‘sleeve’. During a revision activity at the beginning of this lesson, the students need a lot of prompting and they can’t really remember any of them accurately.

Why should they care?

  • Find out what they know.
    If you’re working on vocabulary from a particular lexical set, do a board race first. In this case, divide students into two teams. They race to write as many clothes words on the board as possible in five minutes. Teams switch and work out the points for their opponents: one point for completely correct, half a point if there is a spelling mistake.
    Show them pictures of clothes – three or four items is enough. Ask them to list as many things they can see in the pictures as possible. Point to various things and ask ‘What’s this?’ to prompt students to notice features like the buttons or sleeves, not just the items of clothing themselves.
  • Help them to notice the gaps in their knowledge.
    Display all of the words you’re planning to teach on the board. Ask students to draw pictures for as many of them as possible, but not to worry if they don’t know any of them – they will by the end of the lesson! To reinforce this, repeat the same activity at the end of the lesson and point out how much they’ve improved.
    Give them the first and last letters of the words, like this ‘b_____’, ‘z__p’, ‘s_____e’. Ask them to complete the words to describe parts of clothes. Again, they shouldn’t worry if they don’t know them.
  • Add extra processing.
    Don’t just ask students to read words from a flashcard, show them the picture and get them to remember the word. For extra challenge, they could then spell it. It’s better to do this chorally or in pairs/groups, rather than putting individual students on the spot, as this may affect their confidence if they can’t do it or increase their fear if they think they might be next.
    Display all of the pictures on the board/floor. Students should write as many of the words as possible in their notebooks, then compare the spellings with the vocabulary list. To add challenge, you could get them to switch notebooks with somebody else for the checking stage.
  • Make it real.
    Ask them to choose a word which is new for them. They should think of one time they would expect to say/write the word, and one time they would expect to read/hear it. For example, they might say ‘button’ if they’ve lost a button, or read it in a craft magazine which tells them how to make a teddy bear.
    They choose three new words they want to remember, and write them into short sentences connected to their lives, e.g. ‘I’ve lost three buttons from my coat.’. As an extension, they could then google the sentences and see if they exist on the internet anywhere.

All of the vocabulary tips can be connected to the idea of ‘hooks’. This is a metaphor I use to describe how you remember new information. The more hooks you hang something on, the more likely it is to stay where you put it. When you think about learning new vocabulary (or grammar for that matter), you need to give the students as many hooks as possible to ‘hang’ the new vocabulary from and keep it in their heads.

Pronunciation

When you ask students to repeat sentences after you as part of a drill, they sound really bored and/or refuse to do it.

Why should they care?

  • Do you care?
    Record yourself doing some pronunciation work. Listen back to it. What do you think your tone of voice and body language conveys to the students? What does your intonation sound like?
    Before you drill anything, imagine somebody is going to ask ‘What was the point of that?’ Do you have a good answer for them?
  • Play.
    Experiment with different tones of voice, speeds, characters (the Queen, Arnold Schwarzenegger…), positions (standing, sitting, superhero poses)…
    A really popular activity at my school is a stickman drill, where students are in teams. Each team gets a stickman, with one or two extra features of their choice, like a hat or an umbrella. Each team repeats the sentence. Whoever the teacher decides did it best can remove part of their opponents’ stickmen. The aim is to have the most complete stickman by the end of the game. [I still haven’t actually tried this, but I’ve seen it used many times!]
  • Add challenge.
    Don’t just ask students to repeat the same sentence again and again. Get them to change parts of it. For example, in the first sentence of this paragraph, you could change the verb (ask), the person (students), the infinitive phrase (to repeat the same sentence) or the time adverbial (again and again). This is known as a substitution drill. Students or the teacher can decide what changes.
    Use key words or images as prompts, so students have to remember the language without having it all in front of them.
  • Add extra support.
    Give students a minute to read and remember the language you’re going to drill, then close their books during the drilling process.
    Break down longer sentences into smaller chunks, then put them back into the full sentence. This is known as backchaining if you do it from the end of the sentence.

*I recognise that a lot of the tweaks I’ve suggested above may more appropriately answer the question ‘What can I do about it?’, but I find the phrasing ‘Why should they care?’ adds a bit more impact when I’m asking my teachers!

Have you tried any of these tweaks? What other little tweaks do you use to encourage students to care more about activities in class?

P.S. This blogpost has been in the back of my mind for a while now, and reading this post about lead ins by CELTA train is what made me actually write it today 🙂

DIY festive homework (guest post)

When I walked past my colleague’s desk at work a few days ago, I noticed a really interesting handout, and asked her if she would be willing to share it with the world. I’m very happy that she agreed 🙂 Over to Katie…

‘Tis the season for teachers to hand out Christmas holiday homework, and if your students are anything like mine, ’tis also the season for students to ignore their Christmas holiday homework until half an hour before their first lesson back in January. So I came up with an idea that will hopefully motivate them to actually do something different every day, without having to personally visit them on Christmas day and force them to talk to me.

The format is simple and can be adapted for any level, but mine was for an advanced class (hence the uninhibited use of the word “regale”). I’ve made a calendar for my students, with a box for every day between our last lesson of the year and the first lesson of next year. Every day they choose a task from the list, and they note down which one they did into the right day. On their return to the class in January, they use the calendar to recall the different things they got up to over the holidays. My hope for this exercise isn’t necessarily to test or challenge my students, so I won’t take in any of their work to be marked. Instead the aim here is to train them to keep working at their English even when I’m not standing over their shoulder.

The list is based on my class and what I know might be interesting to them, but you should edit the list to make it appropriate for your class. I’d especially recommend adding in any online resources that you regularly use with your students, but to keep all the tasks relatively low-effort.

Christmas homework handout

Here’s the list again, for ease of copying and pasting:

  1. read your book for 20 minutes
  2. watch a film in English
  3. write a New Year’s resolution and summarise it in exactly 20 words
  4. go to bbc.com/news and read a news story
  5. put a photo on social media with an English caption
  6. write an email to Katie wishing her a Happy Christmas & tell her what you’ve been doing (your@emailaddress.co.uk)
  7. listen to some music, look up the lyrics and try to sing along (obviously only songs that have English lyrics!)
  8. write a diary entry about something interesting that happened to you
  9. watch something in English on YouTube & tell someone about it
  10. learn a Christmas song in English and sing it to your mum/uncle/pet/neighbour
  11. compose a haiku about Christmas Day
  12. go into a shop and pretend that you don’t speak any [Polish], and ask them to speak English to you
  13. write a Christmas recipe out for Katie to try at home (please make it very clear, and with minimal pickling)
  14. regale your family members by speaking to them in only English for part of the day (even if they’re not sure what you mean)
  15. look at your textbook, sigh, and say “maybe I won’t do anything in English today today” *ONE USE ONLY*

Bio

Katie Lindley

Katie Lindley has been teaching at IH Bydgoszcz since September 2016.  She hasn’t published any books (yet), or spoken at any conferences (yet), but the 9-year-old girls in her kids’ class think she’s brilliant.

I hope you enjoy adapting Katie’s festive homework, and I’m sure you’ll join me in asking her to write more posts in the future!

The shy teacher’s drill

On Monday my intermediate group were looking at modals of obligation, based on a text about how to become a millionaire. We had a set of sentences which I wanted to work with. They went something like this:

  • You have to be very hard-working.
  • You shouldn’t take long holidays.
  • You don’t have to be born rich.
  • You must have a clear idea of what you want to achieve.
  • You should (something I can’t remember…)
  • You mustn’t (something else I can’t remember!)

We checked the meaning by matching the sentences to a set of key words, and then I thought it was important to work on stress patterns. I also wanted them to memorise some correct sentences, as at an earlier stage of the lesson they’d produced things like:

  • You have to very hard-working.
  • You don’t have to born rich.

Here’s what I did:

  1. Told students to listen.
  2. Said all six of the sentences as quickly as possible.
  3. Put students in pairs and told them to practice doing the same.
  4. If they decided they’d finished, I made them do the same thing backwards, starting with the final sentence.
  5. When I thought they were ready, I challenged them to say the sentences as quickly as me. I counted 3, 2, 1 and we all spoke at the same time, with the aim being to finish at the same time as I did.

Students seemed to really enjoy this activity with lots of laughter throughout, especially when they were racing me. They worked hard to correct each other. I didn’t have to do any remedial drilling in this case, as the challenge of speaking as fast as possible meant they produced the correct stress patterns pretty naturally.

And why is it for shy teachers? Because once I’d said the sentences at the beginning, all I had to do was listen until they were ready to race me at the end, at which point I was speaking at the same time as them. That meant I only ‘exposed’ my pronunciation once in front of the class, which I know is something that some teachers are worried about. They got lots of drilling, and I did hardly anything 🙂 Win-win!

What other drills can you think of which do the same job?

A tree in the Bornean jungle, complete with a ladder to climb it

The picture I was trying to upload on Monday when I first wrote this post, at which point the WordPress app decided to crash. There was a link in my head the first time, but now I can’t remember what it was! It’s a tree in Borneo with a viewing platform at the top…you can hide there from other people if you’re shy (?) Other guesses are welcome!

A story wot I wrote

A couple of days ago I came across a notebook I used to practise my handwriting when I was about 7 or 8. One double-page contains the beginnings of a short story, and disappointingly I didn’t finish it. In the tradition of good stories, the beginning raises more questions than it answers 😉

——

Jim Bolley was a boy of 8. He had curly red hair and liked walking and jogging.

Jim was walking home from school one day, when he spotted a flight of stairs. He climbed up the stairs. When he got to the top he came to a door which had a keyring with four keys on. He held the one that had been in the door.

As Jim opened the door, he saw three doors behind it. Jim tryed all the keys and then the door opened. He looked down and saw a cloak, a pair of boots, and a hat. So he put them on.

Then Jim tryed two of the keys in the next door, but it would’nt open.

‘If I’ve tried the other two keys, then the door must need all three.’ thought Jim.

So Jim used all three and the door opened. Behind that door was a ring, a pen and an inkwell full of ink.

He moved on to the last door and used all three keys. The lock clicked and he opened the door. Behind the door was a desk, a car and a watch.

Jim got the things out of the cupboards and put them at the top of the stairs. Jim opened the desk to put the pen and inkwell into it. As soon as they touched the desk, they turned into a manuel which said on the front:-

How to use the objects By Myst.Rey

On the first page it said:

Invisibility cloak     2

Silence boots           3

Flying hat                 4

Magic ring               5

Pen and inkwell     7

Size desk                 8

Car                           9

Watch                      10

——

I’d love to know what I was reading to prompt 8-year-old me to write this story. This was in the early 1990s, so well before Harry Potter, who is probably the owner of the most famous invisibility cloak now. I definitely remember having a joke book with puns like the one on the cover of the manual – there’s were probably a little more skilled though!

I also find it interesting that I spelt ‘tried’ incorrectly twice, then correctly the third time, but didn’t go back and correct myself. I also had trouble with ‘manual’, and there’s a lot of repetition in there. I’d got rid of some of it at the beginning of the story, but doors and keys feature frequently. There’s also a bit of punctuation which I don’t think I’ve seen for years:-

A picture of my notebook

And the story leaves lots of questions unanswered:

Where are the stairs? Just out in the room? Or was Jim walking down a long corridor to get home? For some reason I’m picturing the doors and the lock in a castle – some kind of big heavy key ring with old iron keys, but then, how on earth did he not notice it before?!

How did the car get into the third room? Why a pen and an inkwell, not just a pen? Why on earth did I decide that he needed a manual? Who wrote it?

Finally, why does the magic ring need two pages of the manual, but everything else just gets one?

Maybe you or your students have the answers 🙂

The Proficiency Plateau (guest post)

At the beginning of my career, I was lucky enough to work with a whole range of dedicated teachers at International House Brno. One of them was Lily-Anne Young, who at that point had been teaching the same proficiency-level group for a couple of years. She worked with the same group for many years, and is therefore always the person I go to when I need help with teaching very high-level students. She has now agreed to write some guest posts for me, which I hope you will find useful. Over to Lily-Anne:

What do you do with students who already have, or don’t need, CAE/CPE but want to keep working on their English? The non-native speaker teachers, translators, business & tech people and many others? The ones who have hit the proficiency plateau?

Having taught a C2 class for 10 consecutive years, with many returning students, this is an area I have dealt with, struggled with and love. It’s demanding, challenging and potentially soul destroying, yet I, and some other people, thrive on this.

Expectations are incredibly high. It’s up to us and the learners to meet those expectations. To do this, it has to be a mutual experience: negotiated content, constant communication, reciprocal feedback, respect and the teacher as a facilitator.

In this introductory post I’m going to share some of the observations I have made over time and consider the implications for both teachers and learners.  In future posts I will share some activities which have proved successful with my students, and make further salient observations.

Who are these amazing people?

O’Maley (Advanced Learners, OUP) [affiliate link] points out that learners at this level are usually:

  • Highly educated
  • Teachers, educators, translators, academics
  • Middle or senior management

Based on my own students, past and present, they:

  • may be suffering from the Proficiency Plateau;
  • are highly motivated;
  • but may be wondering just how they can, usefully, improve their skills;
  • cannot be pigeonholed (as if we would ever consider such a thing);
  • love to challenge the teacher and to show off a bit;
  • all have different areas of language expertise, obsessions and gaps.

The Proficiency Plateau

I am coining this phrase as my own (I hope nobody else has used it). Teachers often talk about the Intermediate Plateau, yet the same situation can be hit at all stages of learning a language and once learners have achieved C1/C2 level it can seem almost impossible to measure progress and achievement.

What does it mean?

It means that you are going to work with students who, as with most learners, have a wide range of interests, from the mundane to the bizarre, but who also have much of the language needed to express complex ideas. This gives us a much wider range of available topics and scope to play with language than we have with lower levels and coursebooks.

It means that they are going to ask you questions you may not know the answer to off the top off your head or can answer but can’t explain. Hence, you need to be able to think on your feet and be willing to admit that you are not an encyclopedia, dictionary or Google.

It means that you have to adapt coursebooks, resource books, find suitable authentic materials and create lessons from them which meet the diverse needs of the learner(s). Which takes us on to:

Materials

There is a dearth of ready-made materials for advanced learners who don’t want to do CAE/CPE/IELTS  (or have it). This is mainly due to a lack of market demand and I believe/hope, based on the fact that my C1 students are getting younger every year, that this may change. (Yes, I am older but the C1 students are still in secondary school – that’s a big change from 10 years ago when my students were 30+).

In the meantime there are published resources which you can use and adapt – after all, we teachers are very skilled at that – and the CAE/CPE books can give you an idea of which language areas you may wish to target in the development of your course.

However the main resource for us has to be authentic materials.  Everybody has their favourites and I have mine, which I will reveal at a later date 🙂

Going beyond language

Push the boat out; above and beyond; the call of duty; hit the nail on the head. These are all wonderful phrases to know but you have to encourage your learners  to use them in appropriate situations, not just parrot them to show off knowledge. Likewise we have to motivate the learners to use their language effectively.  

To do this I work with authentic materials, some of which are provided by them and some by me, then use those materials to create classroom situations in which they can practise both language and skills.

So here is a, not exhaustive, list of some of the skills my learners and I work on together:

  • Humour
  • Sarcasm & irony
  • Criticism & compliments
  • Swearing (be careful with this)
  • Different accents
  • Different Englishes
  • Poetry, nursery rhymes, literature
  • Reading between the lines
  • Presentation skills
  • Marketing/negotiation/persuasive skills
  • Making appropriate choices between synonyms depending on contexts

Thus, I prefer to take the emphasis away from measuring progress and focus on encouraging my students to explore not only language, but also how English has so many variations and to develop skills which they may or may not have when using their own language.

I hope you have enjoyed this post and I have whetted your appetite for more.

Lily-Anne Young

Lily-Anne is a DipTesol qualified teacher with over 15 years experience in teaching in various locations and covering the whole gamut of teaching situations. Working as a freelance teacher trainer and senior teacher, based in Brno, CZ, she has recently decided to try to share some of her knowledge with other professionals via conferences and other peoples’ blogs.

In particular she has an interest on how to work with and help very advanced learners as this is an area she has been working in for a long time and many people find daunting.

In her spare time she plays in an amateur badminton league and tries to understand her Czech speaking boyfriend.

What are you thinking about?

When I was a full-time teacher, my thoughts went something like this:

  • Why do I have to get up this early?
  • When will I find time to eat?
  • I hope my students are enjoying their lessons.
  • I really hope I’m actually teaching them something!
  • Hmm…that didn’t really work.
  • Oh my god, how could that lesson possibly have gone that badly?
  • This blogging malarkey is fun. I’m learning so much from everyone.
  • I don’t want this year to end because I’ll really miss my students.
  • …and so on.

Now, I’m a Director of Studies, CELTA trainer and materials writer, and my thoughts have (mostly!) moved on.

  • Why can’t I get back to sleep?
  • When will I find time to eat?
  • Where am I going to find the last teacher I need?
  • What teacher development should we offer this year? Is it giving everyone what they need?
  • Will this timetable ever be finished?
  • How can we make sure everyone feels comfortable at school?
  • That was really snappy/short/sharp/angry – apologise now and don’t let it get worse.
  • I wish I had more time in the classroom and to work on my own teaching.
  • I wish I had more time.
  • I really want to work on that CELTA course, but the dates don’t fit.
  • Where will my next CELTA course be? When will I know?
  • How can I encourage people to buy my book?

Richer Speaking cover

  • I’m really excited about this project – I can’t wait to be able to share it!
  • Don’t forget to put in your IATEFL proposal.
  • I need to make sure I still find time to get thoughts out of my head onto my blog.
  • I have too many ideas for my blog and not enough time!
  • Switch your computer off at 9:30. You know you’ll sleep better if you do.
  • Stop it. Look after yourself.
  • …and so on.

What are you thinking?

How to learn a language every day (IH Journal Issue 42)

Issues 42 of the IH Journal has just been published.

IH Journal Issue 42 cover

My article is about various ways to make language learning part of your daily life, without expending too much effort. Hopefully it will be useful both for students and for teachers wanting to explore new languages.

As always, I’d recommend taking a look at the whole issue,  which you can access through the links on the right-hand side of the main IH Journal page. Some of my highlights from this issue are Katy Simpson describing three reasons why we should all be (ELT) feminists, lots of ideas from Kylie Malinowska to make the most of YL coursebooks, and Maria Badia’s ideas for using the Oxford Owls e-readers, a resource I had no idea existed, but will certainly be recommending to parents in the next academic year. Emily Hird pulls together some of these threads by showing us how to be more aware of everyday sexism in materials we use, and suggests some ways of dealing with it.

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