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

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.

I have very vivid memories of each stage of my Polish so far, and have noticed fairly clear boundaries between one CEFR level to another. My writing is pretty much non-existent as I haven’t made any effort with it at all. I guess I could probably produce something at about A2 if I spent a lot of time and concentrated on it, but I wouldn’t want to put money on it! The following descriptions are therefore based on speaking, reading and listening, all of which I’m B1 in now.

A0

I already had a grounding in Czech and Russian when I started out with Polish. This meant that I could understand a fair amount of what was happening around me when I first arrived. However, my speaking was definitely A0 at the beginning, and I went through a silent period of about a year. I think it was because when I did try to speak it came out in a weird mix of Czech, Russian and Polish, and nobody could understand me. I ended up avoiding situations where I would have to speak Polish, and always using English unless I couldn’t get around it. I was worried about speaking and felt a real block. This had never happened to me in any other language, so really surprised me as I’d always been pretty confident when it came to using what I knew.

I have a few other languages which I’ve started out with and which are still A0, for example Mandarin, Thai and Greek. In all of these, I am also largely illiterate, though I can pick out a Greek word if I take my time, without necessarily having any idea what it means. Thai script was beautiful, but too much for the short time I spent on it – I think I can remember one or two letters now, but not much more. When I started with Russian, illiteracy was also a problem. There was no Roman script around in my day-to-day life outside school in Sevastopol, so I really felt like a child all the time. I would sometimes spend ages picking out the letters of a word then realise it was basically the same word in English (like ‘toilet’ or ‘lift’), which was both frustrating and motivating! Some letters are similar, which helped, and some are a Roman letter that works differently in Cyrillic – for example see George R. R. Martin’s name on the book below. This took a good couple of months of being surrounded by Cyrillic to really get my head around.

Game of Thrones in Russian

When listening, A0 feels like a wash of sounds flowing past. Periodically I hear a word that I recognise, mostly a number or two, a pronoun (usually ‘I’ or ‘you’), or a form of ‘be’. I grab onto these and am super happy whenever I can pick them out. To feel positive about this, I’ve had to learn to not put pressure on myself and relax, letting the sounds wash over me. This is something I think we can help our learners to do by making them aware that they shouldn’t expect to understand everything, and should feel good when they can pull something out of the stream of speech – they should find motivation and positive feelings wherever they can. s

I haven’t had much exposure to full texts when I’m at A0 level, but again the hunt for a word or two I recognised could feel quite demotivating until I decided to stop letting it bother me.

A1

At the end of my first year in Poland I went for a flamenco weekend in the country. I’d been attending weekly classes for the whole year, which I’d been able to follow through a combination of body parts being fairly similar in Polish, Czech and Russian, and my teacher being excellent at demonstrating and very patient. She can also speak English and Spanish, so could often explain to me in another language if I couldn’t understand. The weekend away was something completely different though: there were about twenty of us, and four or five couldn’t speak English at all. When they tried to speak to me, I had no choice but to use my Polish. The conversations were all fairly similar, giving me lots of repetition in answering questions like ‘Where are you from?’, ‘Why are you in Poland?’ and ‘Do you like it here?’ The fact that I could successfully participate in these conversations and that my interlocutors were patient with me ended my silent period.

Gzin, with a few fellow flamenco learners

Receptively, the weekend helped me to realize I could now understand whole chunks of conversation, though rarely fast enough to chip in. Conversations I participated in were very one-sided, as I couldn’t really formulate questions with any speed or confidence, meaning they tended to resemble the Spanish Inquisition somewhat! The person I was speaking to also needed to be very patient as I formulated what I wanted to say.

A couple of weeks before that weekend I decided it was time to start reading in Polish. I bought the first Harry Potter, and ever since then I’ve read in Polish for ten minutes before bed every night. When I first started, I could probably understand about 10-20% of the words on the page, and it took me the whole ten minutes to read two pages. I decided that I was going to read to read, not to learn vocabulary, so I only look up one or two words if they’ve appeared a lot in what I’ve just read and I feel like they might be important for that point in the story. I don’t write down the words at all. I kept working my way through the book without worrying about how much I understood, just feeling happy whenever I could pick out events successfully. I chose Harry Potter because I was familiar with the stories, but not so familiar that I would be bored. Again, I think this is something we could encourage our students to do, letting the new language wash over them without worrying too much about understand.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Polish cover)

A2

Another year, another flamenco weekend. This time I could instigate conversations, and I started to be able to ask some questions myself. During dinner it was a huge challenge to follow the thread of what was happening when there were lots of competing conversations going on, but if I really concentrated, I could follow a conversation close to me and even chip in occasionally. By this stage in lessons, I was able to understand pretty much everything, and if I couldn’t understand normally nobody could! It was a flamenco thing, not a Polish thing 🙂

Away from flamenco, when I moved into my new flat I was living with the old owners for the first six weeks and they don’t speak any English. We had lots of similar conversations which I felt increasingly confident with, especially as they supplied high frequency words like ‘tired’ and przeziębiona (an adjective meaning you have a cold, which we lack in English!) My household vocabulary increased a lot, and I started to speak a little more fluently and confidently, but still had a lot of trouble with grammatical forms if I tried to produce them accurately. I stuck to basic forms: present, past simple, and future with być + infinitive – Polish has two ways of forming the future depending on if verbs are perfective or imperfective.

Listening was fine on familiar topics, and I could pick out bits and pieces of unfamiliar conversations, usually enough to know what the general topic was but none of the detail. When reading Harry Potter, I could understand about 30-40% of what was on the page, and sometimes had a whole page where I felt like I knew exactly what was going on. Equally, I sometimes had whole pages where I had no idea! Usually that was tiredness though, and if I re-read them the following night a lot more went in, helped by the repetition. In both listening and reading, I could pick out more complicated grammatical forms like conditionals and relative clauses, though this often involved re-reading sentences a couple of times if I really wanted to understand them.

Around this time, I also distinctly remember a conversation with one of our school caretakers about types of cheese and which were good to eat from different countries. This was the first time I remember chatting about a random subject in Polish and being able to keep up with the conversation, even if I couldn’t always express what I wanted to say. That felt pretty good!

B1

I reckon I tipped into this stage about 18 months ago. With speaking, the turning point was being able to participate evenly in a conversation, formulating questions fast enough to keep up with a patient interlocutor. Familiar topics are no problem for me, and over time my fluency has increased so that I think I talk at almost normal speed on familiar areas. Unfamiliar topics are problematic, mostly due to vocabulary rather than grammar, but if I’m with somebody who speaks English I’ll code-switch instead of trying to get my head around the grammatical forms I want to produce, especially conditionals or time shifts like future in the past. I tend to start in Polish, then change to English as soon as I can’t say something that’s more complicated than a missing word or two. I’ve never done this with another language, and I find the process of going backwards and forwards fascinating to be inside 🙂

I can keep up with most things when listening, enough to be able to respond on topic about 80% of the time if I’m in a conversation. I can follow about 60-70% of what happens in kids’ films dubbed into Polish, and sometimes find myself understanding more of a Polish subtitle than a French/German/Spanish spoken line if there are two foreign languages simultaneously. In more unfamiliar situations, such as an impromptu tour of a nunnery that a group of us had when visiting Chełmno a few weeks ago, I can pick out enough key words to attempt to make meaning out of what I’m hearing, but I have no idea how accurate that meaning actually is. It sounds impressive to the uninitiated when I can translate but I know it’s full of holes 😉

Nunnery chapel in Chelmno

My reading is much faster now. In ten minutes I can read four to six pages, depending on how tired I am, and understand around 80% of it. I’ve just finished reading Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie, which I either haven’t read in English, or read so long ago that I don’t remember it. That took me quite a lot longer than Harry Potter to find my feet with, but by the time I was used to the writing style I was up to a similar speed and rate of understanding as with Harry Potter (I’ve now finished four of them, and waiting for book 5 to arrive). I read a couple of summaries in English of Death on the Nile at certain points early on to work out what I’d missed – I knew there was something important but felt like I couldn’t get it from the Polish, though was pleasantly surprised at how much I had understood. The main challenge was the number of characters – because I was reading quite slowly, it was hard to keep them all straight. I feel like I fully understood the final two chapters when everything was revealed 🙂 At school I sometimes pick up magazines left in the kitchen and read the cartoons and short articles. I have a 50-50 hit rate with understanding the cartoons, normally depending on how culturally bound they are. With articles, if I’ve chosen something with a headline I can understand, I generally get almost all of the story itself.

B2?

At this point my confidence is fine in most situations, and in the past month I’ve had lots of interactions which lead me to believe I’m at the higher end of B1 now, and possibly on the tipping point to B2. I’m not quite there yet, but I don’t feel like I’m far off.

I’ve started to experiment with producing more complicated forms myself, rather than automatically switching to English. This includes attempting to produce conditionals, trying to use verbs of motion correctly (Slavic languages have lots of them and they have their own grammatical features which don’t apply to any other verbs!), and noticing imperfective and perfective forms in action, occasionally using them in the correct situations myself, normally by imitation within the same conversation. I know that there are lots of case endings which I now use consistently correctly. I learnt them as chunks, but am starting to apply them to new words which I’ve never declined before. I’m using a much wider range of prepositions spontaneously, my descriptive language has widened, and I listen actively, particularly using the word ‘No’ as a response. Chunks play a huge part in my fluency, a lot of them having come from my reading – I’m definitely an advocate for the vocabulary + reading approach to language learning now!

Last week, I spent three and a half days in hospital for routine tests to get the next drug for my colitis, with only a couple of conversations in English with the doctor when I said that I wasn’t sure I understood towards the end of the stay – it turned out I’d actually got of more what she’d said than I thought. Everything else was in Polish, including long conversations with my neighbour on the ward about all kinds of different things, and 5:15a.m. conversations with the nurses when they came in to give us medicine. The third person in the ward was an old lady, and this was probably the first time I’ve heard ‘old person Polish’ (!) for any length of time, so it took me a little while to get used to the different cadences of her speech, but I managed in the end. She’s fairly deaf, which didn’t help smooth communication, but it was an interesting challenge to overcome and hospital gave me time to pursue it!

I’ve just spent a few days in Wroclaw and Lower Silesia, and in quite a few situations I started an interaction in English and changed it to Polish myself because I realised it would be easier, something I wouldn’t have done a couple of months ago.

Ksiaz Castle

Most motivating of all, I’ve just spent over two hours chatting only in Polish with somebody I met on the train, covering a huge range of subjects, including managing to communicate some unfamiliar ones with patience and just three or four words in English throughout the whole interaction. I feel like I was talking at the same speed he was, and there were only a couple of miscommunications, which I was able to identify immediately though needed help to resolve. I could ask for that help in Polish, as my circumlocution skills have started to improve. It felt like a ‘normal’ conversation that I could have had on the train in England, and that feels fantastic 🙂

Every morning I use the Memrise app on my iPad to learn a little bit of Mandarin. I’ve been doing it on and off for about seven years now, and almost every day for four years. Since it’s the only way I practise Mandarin, I’m still very much A0, though my progress has been slow, but steady.

Occasionally, I use the browser version of Memrise rather than the app, and it inevitably results in a bit of depression! I always score much, much lower, with only around 10-20% accuracy, compared to my normal 80% or so.

I think the reasons for this are threefold:

  • There is a time limit for typing in the browser – I often need a lot more time than it allows to pull the characters out of the depths of my memory.
  • On the app, I have the option of a kind of multiple choice, where I can select from a limited range of letters that make up the word rather than typing from the whole keyboard. These letters generally appear in a similar pattern each time the same word comes up, and if I think for a while, I can normally get to the right answer. I have it set to automatically accept the answer when it’s correct, so I can keep trying until I get it right. Not necessarily great for my long-term retention though, as I don’t end up repeating the problem words as much.
  • The fonts are different. This is the biggest one for me. Words I’ve been seeing for years in the same font, such as ‘good’ (part of the word ‘hello’, so introduced on day 1!), look completely different and I can’t recognise them at all. I got that one wrong this morning, as well as ‘teacher’.

The browser version

The app version

I feel like this gives me a little bit of empathy with people who have dyslexia, understanding that a word can look completely different in different typefaces, and therefore unrecognisable. These two may not seem that different, but the serifs and line thicknesses add extra detail. I’m used to the more simplified version in the second image.

I knew about how challenging different fonts could be theoretically, but feeling it myself as a learner is different. This is why we should keep learning ourselves! Something to remember when making materials and tests.

Sunshine, warmth, spring weather – my favourite time of year.

An adventure in Lower Silesia, falling in love with Poland all over again.

An early morning train from Wroclaw to Walbrzych Miasto, which I thought I was going to miss, but the tram to the train station was waiting for me when I got to the stop.

A little detour when the bus I caught didn’t go where I expected, taking me to some beautiful old farm buildings, and the tail end of a traditional Polish Easter egg blessing ceremony, with everyone carrying their baskets through the streets.

Old farm buildings
Leaving after the Easter ceremony

An unplanned visit to a palm house, featuring cake in a secret hideaway, and bonsai trees.

Palmiarnia
Palmiarnia café
Palmiarnia
Palmiarnia

A walk across a field and through a forest.

Path from the Palmiarnia to Ksiaz Castle

A stunning view of Książ Castle, the third biggest in Poland.

Ksiaz Castle
Sandy in front of Ksiaz Castle

Time to wander around the castle and explore its fascinating history, including the amazing collection of photographs taken by the French chef who worked there in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Ksiaz Castle
Ksiaz Castle
Ksiaz Castle

A description of seasons in Central Europe which perfectly matches my feelings about them.

Daisy Hochberg von Pless description of spring

Deliberating sitting and being, not just taking photos.

Ksiaz Castle

A walk around the terraces of the castle, with very pleasing flowerbeds.

Ksiaz Castle
Ksiaz Castle

A perfectly timed bus.

Smooth connections to Świdnica, with a few minutes to spare in Jaworzyna Śląska to pop into the church.

Jaworzyna Śląska church

The genuine peacefulness of the Peace Church of Świdnica.

Swidnica Peace Church

The ingenuity of the architects who created the whole thing out of wood and decorated it lavishly, despite the restrictions placed upon them.

Swidnica Peace Church
Swidnica Peace Church
Swidnica Peace Church
Swidnica Peace Church

A pulpit with hourglasses to time the preaching.

Swidnica Peace Church pulpit hourglasses

Sitting on a bench in the cemetery outside chatting to mum, drinking in the view of the church.

Swidnica Peace Church

Murals like this one.

Bach Festival mural in Swidnica

A delicious Polish dinner of trout, potatoes and surowki (cabbage salad) in the square of Świdnica.

Swidnica rynek

Time to write postcards.

Wildlife throughout the day: buzzards, a red squirrel, deer, collared doves, a goldfinch, a chaffinch, storks and bats.

A gorgeous sunset to watch on the train back.

Sunset

The carillion of bells playing in the church near my apartment as I write this.

Time to write a blogpost to capture it all.

Being present. Savouring the moment.

Note to self: do this more.

This is a write-up of my IATEFL Liverpool 2019 presentation. I decided to present it without slides, which made a pleasant change 🙂 This blogpost follows the same structure as my talk.

Why this talk?

In many countries in the world there is a minimum language level required by the government for state school teachers. An informal facebook survey I did showed this is most commonly B2, for example in Chile, Poland and Italy. B1 is required in Andalucia, while C1 is required in Belgium and Germany. (Thanks to everyone who replied – there were more places but I can’t fit them all in here!) However, these requirements are relatively recent, they are not universal, and they are generally not retroactively applied. It seems that only recently qualified teachers need to have evidence that they have achieved the required level, and there are many, many people teaching English with B1 or lower. I state this as a simple fact, rather than as a judgement.

Despite forming such a large part of our profession, B1-level English teachers are unlikely to present at international conferences like IATEFL due to the language level required to keep up with such a conference. I therefore decided that it could be valuable to reflect on my own status as a B1 learner of Polish who is teaching Polish to English-speaking teachers at our school, and particularly the impact that my relatively low level of proficiency might have on their learning. I don’t expect to offer any ground-breaking insights, but simply to share my story in the hope of prompting others.

My Polish lessons

The lessons I teach are:

  • 60 minutes once a week
  • survival Polish for absolute beginners
  • to a group of fluent English speakers from four different countries over the 18 months since I have been teaching Polish (since November 2017)
  • for anywhere between 4 and 10 students
  • based on topics I choose in conversation with the students
  • using a mix of published and self-produced materials, sometimes based on phrases or short conversations supplied by native Polish friends
  • mainly language-based, particularly vocabulary and functional language, and generally quite tightly controlled (see below for more on this)
  • one way of challenging myself in my teaching (as a DoS and trainer I’m not in the classroom much nowadays!)

My experience

I am CELTA- and Delta-trained, as well as being a CELTA trainer and a Director of Studies. I have 10 years of teaching experience, and have done lots of CPD, including this blog and reading about methodology.

This is also not the first time I have taught languages other than English. Previous experience includes:

  • A2 German via my school to two Czech students with no English – I had recently graduated with C1 in German and this was my first year as a full-time teacher.
  • A0 French and Spanish (separately!) to Czech English-speaking friends as informal exchanges for other languages they spoke within my first three years of teaching – again, I was C1 in both cases.

However, those teaching experiences felt quite different as I could speak only in L2 much more comfortably than I can in Polish. Having said that, I lacked a lot of functional classroom language as my own lessons when I was learning had been primarily conducted through English in the case of French and German, and were few and far between for Spanish!

Despite all of this experience, I still feel I need a lot more training to conduct Polish lessons in the way I want to.

English use in class

This varies a lot depending on the lesson, and has also generally reduced the second time I have taught the same topic this year (it’s my second academic year of doing a fairly similar sequence of lessons).

In vocabulary lessons, there is almost no English use. This is because the lessons primarily consist of drilling new language. As the items are almost all concrete, most of the meaning can be conveyed through pictures or the occasional mime.

In grammar lessons, there is a lot more English for two reasons:

  1. I am not confident with Polish grammatical terminology myself, meaning of necessity I use English terminology.
  2. As I am teaching absolute beginners and a lot of grammatical concepts are new to the students (such as cases), I have made the informed choice to use more English. This is the main type of lesson where English use has increased the second time round, rather than decreased.

In functional language lessons, for example ‘at a restaurant’, meaning can be conveyed through the context, pictures and mime. I include some translation exercises, mostly to check understanding. The main way is to get them to work with a partner and translate the whole dialogue into English once we have worked with it a little in Polish. I tend not to use English in this case, but they do.

Skills lessons are few and far between (see below) and when they do happen, I do a lot of translation for efficiency and ease of checking meaning – I suspect this is partly laziness on my part, partly lack of preparation, and partly lack of confidence.

To sum up, although I believe that a shared fluent language (L1 for most of my students) has an important place in the classroom, I don’t think that my students really need to speak as much English as they do in these lessons. It has improved a little this year as the same phrases consistently pop up and I have now memorised them, such as Twoja kolej / Your turn. Having said that, I am not systematic at introducing classroom or functional language in English lessons I teach either, and this is something I would definitely like to work on in both English and Polish lessons in the next year or so.

Maximising Polish use in lessons

Some of the techniques I use to ensure that Polish can be and is used systematically in lessons include:

  • activity routines which require little instruction, such as a 10-minute section at the beginning of every lesson where students revise from previous handouts and choose what to focus on themselves;
  • choosing language I am both familiar and comfortable with;
  • use of flashcards, particularly created and printed using Quizlet – these allow me to incorporate a wide range of activities with minimal set-up;
  • tables and clear board layout to show how grammar fits together (see example in next section);
  • jazz chants for memorization;
  • PowerPoint presentations which allow me to prepare language in advance;
  • a focus on demonstrations rather than instructions when setting up activities;
  • scripting instructions. However, this has slipped somewhat the second time I have taught lessons as I have become complacent: ‘It worked OK last time, so why wouldn’t it work OK this time.’ Erm, because I haven’t prepared in as much depth and last looked at the plan a year ago?! Really need to get on top of this!

Dealing with problems

Inevitably there are many times during lessons when my low level of Polish causes problems. I deal with these in a variety of ways:

  • Looking up language using Google Translate (selectively!), double-checking things in a Polish corpus and using bab.la, an all-in-one tool which I have recently discovered, containing a bilingual dictionary and corpus-based full sentence translations, great for checking how a word or phrase works in context.
  • Playing pronunciation using Google Translate, Quizlet or Forvo (a pronouncing dictionary, particularly good for names of places and people which aren’t in traditional dictionaries).
  • Facebooking a group of Polish-speaking friends with emergency questions I can’t answer elsewhere, for example when I realized I’d been teaching the word pierś/breast and not klatka piersowa/chest throughout the first lesson I taught on body parts, but the dictionary couldn’t help me! Needless to say, I didn’t make this mistake the second time round and I’ve never forgotten the difference 🙂
  • Admitting my mistakes as soon as I make them, and trying to correct them as quickly as possible. Beyond the Polish lessons, this is important as I’m teaching novice teachers and I think demonstrating that it’s OK when things go wrong is vital as long as I don’t need to do it too often 😉

One particularly proud moment was when I managed to teach an impromptu lesson on plurals. Only two students came to class that day, rather than the 6+ I was expecting. One of them had missed the previous lesson on body parts which I was planning to build on, so the revision stage was extended with the student who had been there teaching the one who was absent. In the meantime I looked up plural rules that I was previously only half confidence with myself, and built up a table on the board based on words we’d covered in class already, mostly body parts and foods. They spotted patterns in the way plurals are formed in different genders, including spelling changes, copied the table, tested each other, tried out a few other words, and memorised the table. There was no freer practice as we’d run out of time in the lesson and my creativity hadn’t stretched that far, but I was still pretty proud of my first impromptu Polish lesson.

Singular and plural table of Polish nouns on whiteboard

As a side note, I recognize that I’m privileged to have a small group of students who want to be there, and therefore don’t really have to deal with classroom management when I do have problems with the language. Loss of face is also minimised as I am the manager of all of my students/teachers and we have a strong relationship outside the lesson, which I think mitigates the effects of when things don’t go as planned in my lessons.

The impact of my B1 level on students’ learning

Summarising the background I have detailed above, I think the following are the main effects that my low level of proficiency have on my students.

I focus largely on language rather than skills as it is easier for me to check and control. These language structures are also often ‘easy’, for example looking at singular adjectives but not plural ones as I’m not really sure of the rules of plural adjectives myself.

Other areas I have noticed avoidance of are the alphabet and spelling-based activities, and minimal grammar input, meaning that my students don’t really have the building blocks to create and understand language independently outside the very controlled structures I have given them, which I think could impede their progress. My lack of confidence with classroom language means that it can be hard to introduce this to the students, and even harder to enforce use of Polish consistently when it could be used.

My pronunciation is sometimes problematic, including passing on my own mistakes. For example I recently spend 50 minutes drilling The sun is shining / Świeci słońce with a final /tsi:/ sound on the first word before realising it should be /tʃi/ just before the end of the lesson. In a survey I did for this presentation, one of my students said it can be confusing when she’s heard one way of pronouncing a word outside the lesson, then when she tries it out I correct it to a form she has only heard from me. Finally, if I don’t check emergent language carefully I can end up teaching it wrong, such as using the spelling Francia instead of Francja in a lesson on countries.

Benefits of me being B1

It’s not all bad!

I’m obviously still learning the language myself, which means that I can empathise very strongly with my students, and they can empathise with me. I provide a realistic model of what they can work towards with their own Polish if they choose too. This is in contrast to a highly proficient speaker/native speaker teacher which it can be hard for beginners to imagine they could ever emulate.

My problems with learning Polish are very recent, and I can normally still remember how I’ve overcome them or how important they are to overcome, passing this on to my students. I also focus on language in class which I’ve found particularly useful when living in Poland, so the lessons genuinely are survival Polish based on real needs rather than guesses.

Because we all share English as a common tongue, I can fall back on it when necessary. One of the students also said it means I can understand easily when they use English grammar with Polish words! Another said that if there was no English at all in the lessons they would be much harder.

A third commented that my low level of Polish means that my language is graded comfortably for them both in terms of speed and level. There is no running commentary on the lesson because I couldn’t produce one if I wanted to, and I use lots of gesture and demonstrations.

Training I still need

Based on all of this reflection, the main areas of training I think I still need as a B1 teacher of Polish are mostly language-based, covering the following areas:

  • useful exponents for classroom language, how to introduce them, and how to reinforce their use in class.
  • typical instructions I need, and how to vary them for talking to one student or a group (verb conjugations).
  • language about language (metalanguage and grammatical terminology) and how to present grammar in Polish to low-level students.

Training I’ve exploited

Methodological training I’ve received in the past has been very useful to me, and could be useful for B1 teachers of English and other languages:

  • how to demonstrate activities rather than give instructions.
  • a range of easy-to-set-up, easy-to-vary activities for a variety of purposes.
  • how to leverage technology like Quizlet and PowerPoint to support my language knowledge and add routine to lessons.
  • recognising and exploiting suitable reference tools for checking language, such as bilingual dictionaries, Google Translate (which can be good for quick and dirty work!), and corpora.
  • how to continue learning a language myself, including finding the time and getting the support I need to do this.
  • Methodology or language training?

So if you’re working with low-proficiency teachers, should you focus more on methodology or language?

I believe that methodology is probably an ‘easier win’ as a strong methodological awareness can carry a lot of the lesson, and is likely to be faster and easier to pick up and incorporate into lessons than overall language. As one of my students said, she would prefer an ‘amazing and inspirational teacher who’s B1 to a mediocre teacher who’s C1’. (Thanks!)

Having said that, both are needed to build confidence in the teacher. A higher level of English would give those teachers access to a lot more professional development too, as a lot of resources still only exist in English.

Find out more

If low levels of teacher proficiency in English is an area you’d like to continue to research, the following four sources could be useful:

  • Gerhard Erasmus presented an IATEFL webinar called ‘Managing and developing teachers with lower English proficiency’ in August 2018. You need to be an IATEFL member to watch the webinar recording in the member’s area (how to join).
  • Donald Freeman’s IATEFL 2015 plenary ‘Frozen in thought’ touched on the subject briefly in the ‘myth of proficiency as a goal’, and I believe he has written about it elsewhere. Lizzie Pinard summarised it on her blog. It is also included in that year’s Conference Selections, again available to members.
  • Damian Williams talked about Language development for teachers and an LDT Toolkit at IATEFL Birmingham 2016, a talk summarized on my blog (the second talk covered in the post) and (much more fully!) on Lizzie Pinard’s.
  • Cambridge Assessment English have a Language for Teaching course available at A2, B1, and B2, which covers both classroom and general English.

If you know of any other related resources, please do share them in the comments section.

After the fact

Since doing the talk eight days ago, I have taken a few hours to create a syllabus for next year’s Polish course. Following on from my reflections for IATEFL, I have based it more around a good quality Polish coursebook, making sure that I balance vocabulary, grammar and skills work much more. I’ve also tried to incorporate more homework to make sure that what we do in class will be as focused on using the language (not just remembering it/talking about it) as possible. I also plan to research more classroom language and return to scripting more of my instructions as part of my planning, if time permits. Watch this space to find out whether the new-look course increases the proficiency of my students any faster!

These are the slides from my IATEFL 2019 How to session this morning, giving you guidance on How to present at an international conference. Sorry there are no notes yet – hoping to add them after the conference!

IATEFL 2019 speaker badge

Zhenya Polosatova has a list of tips for coping with presentation preparation anxiety.

Tim Thompson has written a pep talk which you should read immediately before your presentation starts, and probably a few times before that too!

ELT Playbook Teacher Training cover

ELT Playbook Teacher Training launches today! It contains a selection of 30 tasks to help trainers to reflect on what they do, centred particularly on areas that seem to cause the most problems for those new to teacher training. These include transitioning from teaching to training, planning training, giving spoken and written feedback after observations, and running workshops and input sessions.

It’s now available as a paperback through the BEBC website and can be shipped all over the world. If you’re at IATEFL Liverpool 2019, you can get 25% off at the BEBC stand (stand 17) in the exhibition. You can also find information about lots of other independent authors and publishers at stand 2.

As with ELT Playbook 1, you can share the results of your reflections using the #ELTplaybook hashtag on Twitter and Instagram, or in the ELT Playbook facebook group. Once you have completed all five tasks in any section, or all 30 tasks in the book, you can claim badges to display on your social media profiles or CV.

ELT Playbook Teacher Training all badges previewHere’s a sample task and the full list of all of the tasks in the book to whet your appetite. Looking forward to seeing people’s responses to the tasks!

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