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

Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

The TEFL Training Institute Podcast

I first came across this podcast when I saw one of the presenters, Tracy Yu, speak at the 2017 IATEFL conference in Glasgow. She mentioned it at the end of her talk, and as a huge podcast fan, I decided to investigate.

TEFL Training Institute Logo

Each TEFL Training Institute podcast is about 15 minutes long, with about 12-13 minutes of actual content, once you’ve taken away the introduction and contact information. They’re normally presented by Tracy and Ross Thorburn, though they often have guests too. The podcasts are structured around three questions, which helps to keep them focussed. The questions are always listed at the beginning so you know what to expect. They cover a range of topics, both inside and outside the classroom.

One of my favourite episodes was when Tracy and Ross interviewed Ross’s parents about how they’d managed to stay in teaching for so many years without getting bored or burning out. Other recent topics have included how to make role plays interesting, how to recruit the right teachers and find the right school, and how teachers move into training.

The podcast is great because it’s concise, to the point and has a very clear format. It often makes me think about how I’d answer the questions myself. It feels a bit more practical and relevant to me than some of the other TEFL podcasts I’ve listened to. I also like the fact that it’s put together outside Europe (they’re based in China) as I feel a lot of the TEFL stuff I’m exposed to is highly Euro-centric, with only some things from the Americas or Asia. It therefore broadens my perspective. The one thing I find slightly annoying is the music, but I can skip past that 😉 I’d definitely recommend listening. Which episodes did you enjoy?

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The CELTA Teaching Compendium by Rachael Roberts (a review)

As a CELTA tutor, I’m always searching for materials which will make life easier for my trainees, so when I saw Rachael Robert’s book The CELTA Teaching Compendium appear on the round, I knew I had to take a look. I wasn’t disappointed.

CELTA Compendium cover

Rachael’s e-book is arranged as a series of short entries based around key CELTA concepts such as ‘rapport’ and ‘setting up pairs and groups’. Each entry starts with a definition of the concept, telling trainees why it is an important area to know about and offering tips to deal with key pitfalls, like finishing a lesson early or realising you’re going to run over. There are often examples too, such as of stage aims or what and how to elicit. There was even a new idea for me in the pre-teaching vocabulary section, that of getting students to write a sentence connecting two or more of the items you plan to introduce. As Rachael acknowledges though, that idea only works if the vocabulary items are already half-known. The entries end with a summary of three bullet points pulling together the most important things to be aware of. In the pdf version, these are in a blue box, making them stand out clearly when you are skimming through. There’s also a bibliography of further reading at the end of the book, which I was pleasantly surprised to find my own Useful Links for CELTA page in 🙂

It took me ninety minutes to read the epub version from cover to cover, or whatever the ebook equivalent of that is, while I was at the airport on the way to my current CELTA course. I found it easy to access and highly practical. I also liked the way it addressed trainees directly, as if Rachael was in the room chatting to them instead of her words being on the page. Rachael’s sense of humour is also evident, and I laughed more than once while reading the Compendium, particularly when talking about how to use variety to manage pace when teaching young learners and adults. The sections are easy to navigate, with the concepts listed in alphabetical order, main concepts hyper-linked to each other within the text, and a contents page at the start. I also really like the cover design.

There are only two minor faults I can find with the book. The first is that there is no separate entry for context, an area which trainees often have problems with, though it is referenced various times in the book. The other is that Rachael’s suggestion that it’s a good idea to write the exact start time of lesson stages on your plan, which I believe can be quite confusing if you end up starting late.

The book is aimed at those currently doing a CELTA, and to those working within private language schools, with a reference to ‘what they’re paying for’ in the error correction entry. However, I believe it’s useful to anyone wanting to build up an understanding of basic concepts in language teaching, as it is so clear and practical. It’s also affordable, at just under $5. If you’d like to get yourself a copy, you can find more details at the round, and buy it in various formats from Smashwords and for Kindle from Amazon [the latter two are affiliate links]. Thank you very much to Rachael for putting this together, and for those involved in publishing it at the round – it’s definitely a valuable addition to our profession.

Reflections on Teaching EFL/ESL Reading: A Task-Based Approach (Coursera)

I’ve just submitted my final assignment for the Coursera and University of London course entitled Teaching EFL/ESL Reading: A Task-Based Approach. For the first time while doing a MOOC, I’ve actually managed to keep up with the timing on it, and do it in the specified six weeks. It makes such a difference when you’re doing it in your holidays instead of when working full-time 🙂 You can read about what I thought as I started the course. I wrote the reflections below as I was doing it.

Coursera logo

Things I liked

  • Interactive transcripts, so you can click on a line and go directly to that part of the video.
  • Tasks to think about while you’re watching each video.
  • When you’re asked to discuss something in writing, you can do it from right there in the window, without having to click through to another window to find a forum. There’s also a request for you to respond to at least two other posts, which should hopefully mean more real discussion than on FutureLearn.
  • If there is a discussion question, you have to contribute before you can read other people’s answers. This means you’re not influenced by what they’ve written, and there is less of a worry that you’re repeating what other people have said. When you submit your comment, the other responses appear automatically.
  • I’m rubbish at ‘pre-reflection’ unless I have somebody to discuss things with. I can never be bothered to write notes about something which I know I’m about to learn. If I’m feeling particularly good, I might think of it for a whole thirty seconds before I click on. Having the option to post in a forum with your ideas in parts of the course made me spend a bit more time on some of these tasks.
  • As with FutureLearn, it’s easy to see what you have and haven’t done so far. There’s a very clear blue ‘Resume’ button to help you work out what to do next when you return to the course.
  • After introducing a set of dichotomies which can be used to describe types of task, there was a poll asking you which kinds of task you use in the classroom. When you submit your results, you can see what other course participants have answered.
  • Lots of examples of tasks and reading texts are described/shown throughout to help you understand the theory.
  • The lecturers used work they had previously published, and critiqued it based on how their opinions/research has developed over the years.
  • More robust requirements than FutureLearn in order to be granted a certificate: completing assignments and peer reviewing the work of others, not just marking a certain amount of tasks complete (though that may just have been the Italian course I did)
  • The tasks we need to complete are very practical, have clear requirements and have a well-defined communicative purpose. For example, in the first week we had to create an information sheet on behalf of a Department of Educaton for L2 teachers summarising the information we’d learnt during the week (this is a short version of the rubric!) I think I’ll definitely be able to use the information sheet in future training sessions I do.
  • There are clear criteria for peer review, and it doesn’t take very long. It also encourages you to look at other people’s work, instead of skimming past it. I particularly like this reminder: “Remember, English isn’t everyone’s native language. Focus primarily on how well the work meets the grading criteria.”
  • ‘To maintain academic integrity, we check it’s you each time you upload an assignment.’ – never even occured to me, but great to know they’ve thought about this! They do it by matching typing patterns (didn’t know this was possible!) and using your webcam.

Things I didn’t like so much

  • You have to play a video to the end for it to be marked as complete. I find having to wait for people to finish talking frustrating when I can skim the transcript much faster. I ended up skipping to the end of videos and playing the last few seconds to get round this.
  • One or two of the videos don’t have transcripts 😦
  • Coursera has a similar disregard for punctuation and proof reading in some of the video transcripts. Here’s an example from week 1: “Why would this activity constitute a pedagogic task. Peter general, off sited the definition of the task. Describes pedagogic tasks in terms of […]” This is also true of some key words: “You probably understand why recognizing the correspondence between a written sign, a graph theme, and sound, a phoneme, is a skill.” [grapheme!] and dates “Keith Morrow who name is strongly associated with an emergence of communicative language teaching recognized the importance of this area in 1918, as this exercise shows.” [1980!]
  • You have to scroll to the top of the page again to move on once you’ve completed each task. Perhaps the ‘previous/next lesson’ bar could be sticky, so it moves as you go down the page.
  • A certain level of background knowledge of methodology is assumed for some tasks, but I don’t remember this being mentioned before signing up. For example, this discussion task assumes you might know some of what it asks (though ‘participation is optional’):

TBLT has received much attention from researchers, practitioners, and policy makers recently. Discuss what theoretical and practical rationale(s) might underlie TBLT.

  • It’s not possible to edit forum posts if you want to add/change anything.
  • At the end of each unit, you should peer review work by three other participants. If you’re one of the first people to do the work, it says they will email you when other work is ready to be reviewed. This never happened.

Overall

I found this course fascinating and incredibly useful. It was the right amount of input versus output, and I feel like I’ve learnt a lot from it. I’m also going away from the course with a lot more questions to answer, which is exactly what I would expect from something like this: it’s motivated and inspired me. It was the MOOC equivalent of a page-turner that you can’t put down – I kept wanting to go back to do the next bit, regardless of how tired I was or how late it was! I also now have some materials ready for a potential future course I’m putting together, so it’s killed two birds with one stone. Thank you to everyone involved in creating the course for such stimulating content!

Teaching EFL/ESL Reading: A Task-Based Approach (Coursera)

Why I’m doing it

This course, run by University of London and UCL Institute of Education, was recommended by Helen Legge. Having just finished a course on FutureLearn I thought it would be interesting to compare the two MOOC platforms. I won’t go into anywhere near as much depth in this post as I did on the Italian course though! I’m also interested in finding out more about Task-Based Learning, something I’ve only touched on in passing on a few courses I’ve done, and have never explicitly tried out. Finally, reading is an area I’ve been reading up on over the past year to try and balance all the research I did on listening for my Delta. Many birds, one stone 🙂

Coursera logo

First impressions

As soon as you arrive on the Coursera site, it emphasises deadlines, and there are reminders of these in various places, including at the top of the to-do list. This is coupled with getting grades (“If you submit late, you might not get a grade.”), a word which I don’t remember ever being mentioned on FutureLearn.

Every Coursera task has an estimated time next to it, very useful for working out what you might be able to fit in in one sitting. Each section terminates in a peer graded assignment (due in 5 days for me) and ‘review your peers’ (due in 8 days), both of which are graded. This will potentially give more purpose to the community/discussion side of the MOOC than on FutureLearn, where it often seemed to lack purpose. There are clear links to references and further reading to enable you to take your learning further.

It’s a six-week course which I know I won’t have much time to do the second half of. You can see all of the tasks for the whole thing, including the deadlines, unlike FutureLearn which releases the tasks a week at a time. I wonder if the Coursera tutors are able to be as responsive as FutureLearn were, adapting the course based on feedback each week. Progress can apparently be carried over from one session to another, with most courses having a new session starting every few weeks. This is very different to FutureLearn, where many courses only seem to run once a year from what I’ve gathered (please correct me if I’m wrong).

These impressions are just based on skimming the interface: I’ll actually start it tomorrow. Anyone want to join me on the course?

If all goes to plan, I’ll share another post when I finish the course to reflect on what did and didn’t work. If you decide to join the course to, I’d be interested to hear what you think.

Future Learn Italian course – weeks 5 and 6

Week 5

I accidentally did the first five tasks of week 5 before I did week 4, so I’ve decided to combine the last parts of the course into a single post.

I watched the video about food before, and never asked for food from a deli while I was in Italy because I had no idea what to say. I should have worked through this section before I went! It’s taken me a long time to work up the courage to ask for food from counters, as it’s something I never did in the UK (and still haven’t I don’t think!) In Poland I had to learn that you ask for things in ‘deka’, or multiples of ten grams, so 200g is 20 deka. Apparently in Italy, you say ‘un etto’ for 100g, ‘due etti’ for 200g etc – interesting 🙂 The communication video also introduces the names of containers (tin, bottle etc), then asks you to name some containers in the discussion, but introduces ‘glasses’ which weren’t included in the list. Always check your controlled practice only has the target language in it, and nothing else… Made me wonder if I’d missed anything, but ‘glass’ is definitely not in the video!

The first quiz makes you put words into lines of a dialogue, which works well. The second asks you to categorise items as ‘food and drinks’, ‘quantities’ or ‘containers’. This is a good idea, but the three categories are always listed in both Italian and English. Perhaps the English could be removed in later questions to increase the challenge?

The second video is Mike cooking for Anna and Lisa, so it now makes sense that food is introduced after clothes (week 4) as it leads into this video. It’s a nice context for apologising, the topic of the next section. ‘Olive’, ‘spaghetti’ and ‘vegetariana’ are the words selected for pre-teaching, which seem a bit pointless really, since they’re all the same in English, the language of the course.

It leads in to vocabulary about the order of courses in Italy, something which confused me when I first arrived: I couldn’t understand the difference between a ‘primo’ and a ‘secondo’, but later learnt that the first is normally something with carbohydrates (rice, pasta etc), and the second is normally meat or fish with salad or vegetables. Mystery solved! The two quizzes to practise make use of matching functions on Quizlet, one to match courses to pictures, and the other to match sentence halves.

The grammar focus is on using ‘mi piace’/’mi piacciono’ to express likes, clearly showing how the verb structure is different in Italian as compared to English. There’s also a friendly reminder that everything gets easy with practice. It’s nice that they’re trying to reduce the pressure, but I feel like the challenge could be upped sometimes.

The cultural notes are about a couple of common expressions: I like how these are introduced as chunks within clear contexts. In this case, there’s something a bit tantalising: “However, they can vary from region to region within Italy.” Unfortunately, they don’t follow through by telling you if the three expressions introduced are peculiar to Siena, or used elsewhere too. Skipped the discussion point task again, for the sake of finishing the course (and because I can’t be bothered at this point…)

For the final section of this week, the focus is on discussing the weather, introduced through the video and both the communication and vocabulary sections. There’s a Quizlet quiz to help you practice the phrases, again with no capital letters in either Italian or English. Later, there’s an inline quiz and a LearningApps one – it’s good that they’re mixing up the ways you can practise the new language. I’m doing all of the inline and LearningApps quizzes as I still find them motivating, but can’t be bothered with Quizlet at this point. Grammar is the prepositions ‘a’ and ‘in’, with an inline quiz, and the exploring Italian section is about ways of expressing surprise. I like that at the end of each of these sections it emphasises that the words are only used in spoken Italian.

Week 6

The final week of the course begins with describing an apartment. The variety of set-ups for the videos makes them more interesting, with this one as a Skype conversation between Mike and Anna, including her using her phone to give Mike a tour of the apartment (something I’ve done with my friends many times!) Other ones have been set in a shop, a supermarket, on the cathedral steps, in a park etc. They feel a little more authentic that way, and production standards continue to be high. I also like the fact that there are little jokes in there linking back to previous videos, strengthening the idea that it’s a story, not just isolated scenes.

The comprehension quiz on the video is really difficult. It’s asking me to remember the relative positions of the rooms at one point, something I wasn’t paying any attention to while watching. This emphasises the importance of the ‘task before text’ dictum, as learners should know what to focus on before they listen to/watch something.

In the communication video, there are links back to previous units, showing how the same language is being reused in different situations. I’ve also just realised that communication is always prioritised over vocabulary, which is prioritised over grammar: very good in my opinion, as if you stop partway through the week, you’ve done the most important things first! There’s a quizlet set to practise, again with the typical mistake of translating ‘com’è’ as ‘how’ not ‘what’ in the question ‘What is the apartment like?’

The house vocabulary set is extended in the next video, which finishes with a picture quiz where you have to unscramble the words, something which has been used occasionally earlier in the course. As before, these are extra words, and they encourage you to use a dictionary to help you. I cheated and just looked at what other people had written in the comments. I also noticed I’m not the only person still completing the course – the last comment was written four hours before I looked, and there have been two or three comments most days since the course ended. The first quiz asks you to categorise items (rooms/other areas/objects), with the same lack of a push to understand the Italian by removing the English names for the categories as the quiz progresses. The second asks you to complete dialogues in which quite a few items are recycled from earlier in the course. These are only in Italian, so you have to understand what they say to choose the correct item.

Grammar is the Italian equivalents of ‘there is/are’, contextualised through the original video in the section, then extended by showing how they could be used to describe a photo of your family. It’s useful to see it used in two different contexts like this, and is also a bit of recycling from earlier in the course. The section is rounded off with a look at the different uses of  ‘tutto’, including one which is in spoken Italian only.

The next clip is about arranging to do something in your free time, like going to the cinema. This leads into a set of functional language for making and responding to suggestions for arrangements. The first quiz only has two options for each question, so you have a 50/50 chance of getting it right by just guessing – not particularly challenging. There’s a LearningApps quiz to follow up, with a longer dialogue to complete. Again, only two options per space. It’s good that this uses the characters from the video, Mike and Lisa, so you feel like you know the characters, who you’ve built up a store of knowledge about over the course. There’s also another little joke at the end of the dialogue, raising a smile – bits of humour help.

The vocabulary video introduces more free time activities, and you’re encouraged to write a couple of the activities that you like to do in the discussion. I did bother this time 😉 There’s a bit more processing required in the quiz, as you have to choose the correct word order from four different options – this is more motivating for me than choosing between two words to fill a gap. There’s also more revision, as it uses a variety of different conjugations and pronouns, testing your understanding of them. The second quiz also has some level of challenge: you read a sentence about things you can do and choose the correct location from a list of six. Much better quizzes this time round.

Grammar is negation this time round. Although this is a pretty easy grammar point which could have been introduced earlier in the course, I suspect they saved it until now to highlight other uses of the word ‘non’, like in the suggestion ‘PerchĂŠ non…’ The quiz involves putting words into the correct order, but again, frustratingly, none of sentences in the multiple choice are punctuated. There’s also a question which tests something that wasn’t covered explicitly in the video – the use of ‘non’ with a reflexive verb. Examples were given, but the rule wasn’t highlighted and I clearly didn’t take it in as I got the answer wrong. One good thing is that alternative correct answers for structures with ‘mi piace’ are offered in the comment when you submit a correct answer.

‘Allora’, another word which I heard all the time in Italy but didn’t really understand, is the subject of the article at the end of this section. Nice to have this cleared up!

I really don’t get why the discussion points are 2/3 of the way through each week: “In this step, you have a chance to practise what you have learned so far and what you will learn by the end of the week.” How can you practise something you haven’t learnt yet?! I suspect this is one of the reasons why I’ve been so reluctant to do them.

The final clip of the course is Mike finally starting the language course he came to Sienna for, though he probably doesn’t need it, since he apparently hasn’t made a mistake in any of the videos so far! It’s nice to see that Mike’s teacher is Sabrina, who’s been presenting all of the functional videos and some of the grammar ones during the course. A few of the students in the class introduce themselves and give their reasons for studying Italian: it’s good to see a range of nationalities and reasons. It’s all in open class, which is great for the sound quality on the video, but doesn’t strike me as hugely communicative! Mike’s final line is another little in-joke from previous videos.

‘Expressing motivations’ is the functional language for this section, practised through a two-option multiple choice quiz. I was rushing to finish so didn’t read all of the questions properly and got 6/7. Oops! There’s also an extra LearningApps quiz, matching sentences about motivations to pictures – nice idea. Vocabulary extends this by adding more possible reasons for studying Italian, and you’re invited to share your reasons in the discussion thread. After the inline quiz, there’s a Quizlet set requiring you to match sentence halves. It’s good to see richer sentences being used by this point in the course, testing your understanding more and pulling lots of things together. Again, I actually bothered with this, playing Scatter(my favourite function) for about five minutes, and ending up in second place on the leaderboard. 🙂

The last grammar focus looks at ‘dovere’ and ‘volere’, two very important irregular verbs. There’s also some revision of ‘potere’, and all three are covered in the quiz.

The course input closes off with a focus on ways to express your likes and dislikes, but because it’s the ‘Exploring Italian’ article, there’s no practice to follow up on it, although some people have used the comments to do this. This is a shame, as it’s very useful language, arguably more so than some of the other language chosen for focuses during the course.

All of the presenter-fronted videos in this section have ended with them saying goodbye, a nice touch, and with an invitation for you to study Italian in Siena. I wonder how many students actually go from studying this online course to doing a full-time paid one at the university. It’s certainly a good advert for the city and the university, though it’s a lot of work too!

Anna and Mike in Siena

Anna and Mike in Siena

To encourage participants, there’s a discount of up to 20% on the course fees if you’ve completed the FutureLearn course, and you can register your interest through the final page. Finally, you can pay for a certificate of completion if you’ve marked at least 90% of the steps complete, or a certificate of participation if you’ve marked 50% of them complete. Needless to say, I won’t be doing this for this course, but I may consider it for another course at some point. Sorry FutureLearn!

Overall

Despite the many holes I’ve picked in this course, no MOOC is ever going to be perfect, especially considering that it’s all being offered for free (unless you want to pay for the certificate at the end).

As a taster course, I think this worked pretty well, though the lack of productive practice is frustrating. I know you can use the discussion, but there’s no real communicative purpose to this, and there’s no production at all within the controlled practice exercises. It’s good to see the creators responding to comments from students each week – they clearly read and respond the comments while the course is running.

The FutureLearn interface is very easy to find your way around and you can see your progress clearly in a variety of places, including a to do list, a progress wheel (with more of the wheel completed as you go through the course), as well as the number of the step you’re on and how many more in that week as you work through the activities. It’s definitely something I’ll do again, and I already have a management course waiting for me (though I’ve completely missed the four-week window it was run in), as well as the rest of the ‘Dyslexia and Foreign Language Teaching‘ course which I did one and a half weeks of a while ago before being overwhelmed by work, then getting distracted by this Italian course! I’d definitely recommend exploring their list of courses and registering for ones you’re interested in, even if there are no dates at the moment. They email you when the course is coming up, which is what I did with the dyslexia course – I think I was doing the third iteration of it.

And now that I’ve finished the course, I’m off to complete the post-course survey, then voglio mangiare pasta al pesto. 🙂

Future Learn Italian Course – week 4

After a couple of crazy weeks at the end of the school year, two weekends of travelling to Warsaw for CELTA and two days off sick with a bad virus (completely recovered now!), I’m now well behind with the course, as tomorrow will be the beginning of week 6 and I’m only just starting week 4. This shows the importance of having time in the evening or at weekends if you want to keep up/not spending your evenings messing about on social media when you sh/could be studying… 😉

This week starts with going to the supermarket, and a dialogue at a deli counter. This was one of the things which most scared me when I first started living abroad, as in the UK I never bothered with the deli counter, and just picked up what I wanted from the shelves. I started using them in Russia, and in Poland, I use them all the time, so I think this language will come in very useful for me.

Mike at the deli counter

For some reason, the transcript is in English. I don’t really know why this is, and it definitely defeats the object of the comprehension quiz which follows! Luckily I didn’t have time to see any of the answers before I noticed.

Just managed to do steps 1-5 of 36 in this sitting, and since my friend arrives tomorrow evening, I suspect the next time I’ll get chance to study will be in at least a week, by which time the course will have finished (although I’ll still be able to access the materials) and, more importantly, I’ll be in Italy 🙂

A little while later…

Or to be more precise, nearly two months later, it’s now 12th August. I spent a month in Italy, and have now been back in Poland for at least two weeks, and I’m now wondering whether it’s worth continuing with the Italian course. I stopped using the memrise course a few days before I left Italy, not helped by very irregular net access while I was there. That, coupled with an intensive CELTA, meant I definitely didn’t have the time or energy to bother continuing with the FutureLearn course while I was there. I managed to get around fairly well with my prior French/Spanish knowledge, the few words/phrases of Italian I’d managed to learn, speaking German (with the fluent speaker who looked after my flat!) and (mostly) resorting to speaking English when I needed to say something. I’m interested in Italian, but time is precious 😉

But…I’ve started so I’ll finish (though I suspect nobody other than Lizzie is reading these posts!)

Continuing where I left off…

I’ve now realised that the video of the deli I watched above was actually from week 5, and I didn’t notice until now. Oops!

Week 4 actually begins with a video about habits. As always, the comprehension questions test your memory, and sometimes use phrases and vocabulary that haven’t been covered on the course at all so far, like the last question: “Anna e Lisa vanno a pranzo da Mike a mezzogiorno.” I have no idea what ‘a pranzo’ means, and I’m guessing many of the other words from Spanish/French. I’m assuming the sentence means “Anna and Lisa will go for lunch at Mike’s at midday.” but I could be wrong.

The communication video relies exclusively on translations, with each phrase written out and translated into English. This would be the perfect place to use images as extra support, with phrases like ‘goes swimming’ and ‘sleeps’ among the vocabulary. It would be an extra ‘hook’ for learners to hang the new language on.

After a short quiz, the next communication video is about days of the week. I’m continuing to be lazy and just reading the transcripts for these now because it’s faster to scan them than listen, and I don’t feel like I need to hear the pronunciation for most of these things. The discussion task for the comments section is “Which day is your favourite day of the week and why? “Il mio giorno preferito è la domenica”, because I can sleep in! Tell us in italian what your favourite day is and, if you want, you can add why in English, in the discussion below.” It’s fairly typical of these in that it doesn’t seem to have any real communicative purpose – there’s no real reason to tell anybody your favourite day of the week. How about writing which days you study this course on? Then people can compare their answers in some way, and it’s also useful information for the course writers. The quiz for days is good within the restrictions of a multiple choice: you have sets of three days and have to choose which set is in the correct order, though it works through the week in order, which helps a lot. There’s an optional quiz outside the platform to help you practise the days too.

Reflexive verbs are the first grammar point and are explained clearly, with two fully conjugated examples, and two other examples from previous lessons highlighted but not conjugated. It’s good to see links between the weeks. After the quiz, there’s an article about fillers (though they’re not called that) used in spoken Italian, with some transcripts and the chance to listen to the sentences. The sentences are from the video, but the recordings are somebody else, and the fillers seem a bit over-emphasised. On the plus side, at least you can listen to them, which you haven’t always been able to do with similar articles earlier in the course.

To finish this section, there’s a section on double consonants. They’re divided into ones which are pronounced more forcefully and those which are pronounced longer than single consonants. I thought at first that was because the person being recorded knows that these would be pronunciation examples, but listening to some of the words on forvo, I’m not so sure. To me they all sound more forceful in the audios of the words chosen – I can’t differentiate between the two groups. I’d like to be able to compare the ‘longer’ group with words with single consonants so that I can hear the difference.

The next section starts with a video of the group getting breakfast at a coffee bar. The transcript under the video is in English (maybe for all of the videos, but I didn’t notice before?) and you can download the transcript in Italian. I’d prefer the other way round so that I’m not overly reliant on the English, but can access it if I want to. I find it interesting that they chose ‘euro’ as one of the words to pre-teach, but not ‘cornetto’, which is actually a false friend (in British English at least!)

Cornetto ice cream

What ‘cornetto’ means to me

Reading the ‘communication’ transcript about how to pay the bill, I find it annoying that there seems to be a complete disregard for punctuation at times:

Let’s see what we say when we have to pay the bill for example when we go to a bar as Mike, Anna and Lisa do in the clip Let’s watch […]

I realise that some poor sod has had to type up the transcript, but it perhaps should have been proofed before being put on the site. To practise there’s a dialogue reordering activity on LearningApps (another interesting function of that site) and four Quizlet flashcards in a set (where they include ‘cornetto’), but nothing within FutureLearn.

The next step is a focus on food vocabulary, including some useful cultural notes, like when it’s acceptable to drink cappuccino. The vocabulary input here is supported by pictures, which is good. In the LearningApps quiz, you write the missing letters to complete the words. However, most of the words have a double vowel at the end, which is quite confusing :s There’s a pdf version of the quiz within FutureLearn, which doesn’t have this problem.

The grammar here is the indefinite article, and there’s a link back to the week 2 video if you want to review the definite article – again, useful to have a link between the lessons. Two quizzes test you here, first selecting the correct indefinite article, then choosing whether you need a definite or indefinite article. Useful revision.

The article at the end of this section answers a question I had throughout my time in Italy: what on earth does ‘ecco’ mean? I heard it all the time! In this case, it just means ‘Here you go/are’ when things are handed over. Again, you can listen to phrases from the video, but somebody else saying them. The discussion point is designed to get you to revise by writing a text about what you eat/do and when, but I can’t be bothered. Lazy student! I ticked ‘Mark as complete’ anyway, which highlights one of the problems with a course like this: you’re relying on self-reporting to find out whether the students have actually done activities or not.

The next day

The final section for this week of the course is about buying clothes. I find it a little odd that this is introduced before buying food, which is arguably more important, but maybe that says something about Italians versus Brits! Having said that, Lisa looks beautiful in the dress she wants to buy 😉

The vocabulary video focuses on clothes and shoes, but I’m not really clear about what ‘vestito’ and ‘abito’ mean. Initially it seems like they’re ‘dress’, as in, ‘She’s wearing a beautiful red dress.’ But from the video, it looks like they actually mean ‘formal clothes’ as he says they can be used for a man or a woman, with pictures of a dress and a suit. Hmmm. This is one of the problems with using images with vocabulary, and demonstrates that you still need to check it carefully, as it may not be completely clear. The activity at the end of this video is the first one for a while with a real reason to do it: “Unfortunately in the next slide our graphic put the wrong words next to the image. Can you help us match them up correctly?” It might be obviously fake, but it’s more motivating than some of the other tasks! Two quizzes from LearningApps help you to practise the clothes and colours together. This is useful as you’re seeing the colour adjectives change form right from the start, and not internalising the masculine singular form only, though as with most of the quizzes (apart from the occasional crossword), it’s receptive only with no production.

‘Potere’ (‘can’) is introduced in the grammar video, and the conjugations are tested in order in the quiz. Mixing them up a little could provide more challenge, though I recognise that this may be too much for somebody for whom Italian is a first foreign language. I wonder if FutureLearn offers the option of randomly mixing questions in exercises?

The last input for the week is about words used to encourage/convince somebody to do something, with the first example taken from the video (again with random audio) and the other examples put into a selection of short conversations. As always, there’s no clear task other than just to look at the examples. Some people have taken it upon themselves to write encouraging phrases in the comments, but it’s noticeable that this number (200) is much lower than in the matching task from the colours/clothes video (1100).

A disclaimer

By the way, I’m aware that I’m going through the whole of this course picking holes, and just wanted to emphasise that it’s well put together and you can learn from it, but I feel the whole experience can be improved in lots of ways to make it more useful for learners. Reflecting on what does and doesn’t work for me as a learner will hopefully help me if I ever come to design a similar course in the future, and I hope anyone from FutureLearn/University of Siena or who is thinking about doing the course takes these comments in the way that they’re intended.

Michel Thomas: Language Master

A couple of people I know have spoken highly of the Michel Thomas CDs for learning languages. I’ve never tried them, but one of them recommended this BBC documentary from 1997 on Youtube which I’ve just watched:

My initial impressions are that his method is a combination of:

  • intensive learning (9 hours per day for 5 days in this case – I think)
  • taking time to do lots of repetition within the lessons, and going back a step whenever necessary
  • small groups – only 8 students in this case
  • reducing the affective filter as much as possible, with comfortable seating and mood lighting
  • positive reinforcement – if you can’t say something, the teacher goes back, or supports you to be able to say it
  • translation – all words and phrases are translated from the first language of the learners (from English to French in this case)
  • breaking down the language to a manageable chunks – starting with words which are similar in your language
  • lexical chunks – no explicit focus on grammar rules, especially where the rules are similar between the two languages, and no metalanguage (grammatical/linguistic terminology). The example of le faire being used to translate do it, then encouraging learners to produce see it as le voir is a case in point
  • everything going through the teacher – there didn’t seem to be any student-student interaction in the classes in the film
  • the teacher taking full responsibility for everything in order to reduce pressure on the students
  • no memorising – ‘you should clear your mind and that should come naturally’
  • no reading or writing
  • no homework (though with 9 hours of classes each day for a week, you probably don’t need it!)

Looking at the website, one of the selling points is to ‘Learn a new language the way you learnt your own’. I don’t think that can be true, since none of us learnt our own language by translating it from another one, though it’s true that we didn’t read, write or do homework at the beginning!

I’ve listened to the 5-minute audio sample of the Arabic course, and it seems they always start with loanwords into and out of the language being learnt, i.e. English words that have moved into Arabic, and Arabic ones that have moved into English. These are then used to construct sentences by adding simple bits of grammar to them. This is clearly a good place to start, providing you have an awareness of both languages.

Reservations and reflections

The intensity of the classes means you can learn a lot without requiring homework, since the learners are getting a lot of exposure within a short time. This ‘miracle’ would probably result in a higher rate of learning than the classic 2-3 hours per week in any situation without any of the other parts of the ‘method’, though how much higher depends on the teacher and the course. Small groups also help here.

Reducing the affective filter and making students feel comfortable in the classroom should always be part of our aim. If we could all have classrooms with armchairs, I’m sure that many students would feel more comfortable. Positive reinforcement is also very important – if you believe you can speak a language, you will be able to.

Translation may work very well with a monolingual class, but what do you do with multilingual classes? Especially if you don’t know their language(s)?

Lexical chunks are clearly a much less stressful way of learning than through listing of grammar rules and doing lots of exercises. They’re just a lot harder to ‘put in order’ in terms of syllabus design, so unfortunately grammar still rules in most materials. Removing metalanguage is generally a good thing if it makes it easier for learners to understand, but can make it harder for them to study independently if they want to go away and practise outside the classroom, as it will be more challenging for them to find extra materials to practise the same things outside the classroom.

The teacher has complete control of everything going on in the classroom. This seems to take some of the freedom out of language learning, as you can only say what the teacher wants you to say. What if you want to say something different? I would hope/assume that changes at higher levels. It’s also incredibly intense for the teacher, as they are the focus of the entire lesson.

Learners should be given the option to read or write, at least at the end of the lesson. It’s an extra way of remembering what they’ve learnt, and helps them progress in all four skills, not just speaking and listening.

What level is it possible to progress to with this method? It seems like it could be particularly useful for beginners, elementary, even pre-intermediate (A1-low B1), but what about higher levels? According to Wikipedia, the ‘Total’ courses should help you to achieve A1-A2 level in grammar, and the ‘Perfect’ courses should take you to B1-B2, again just in grammar. Vocabulary building is dealt with separately, although some vocabulary is introduced throughout the grammar courses.

Michel Thomas

Have you had any experience of the Michel Thomas method? How did you find the methodology? Did it work for you?

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