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

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

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

In the classroom

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

Engagement

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

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

and that we incorporate GOSCH:

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

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

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

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

Assessment

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

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

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

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

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

Autonomy

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

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

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

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

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

Determination

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

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

In the training room

Intervening

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

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

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

Integrating training

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simple, but effective!

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

Evaluating training

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

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

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

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

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

Level 2 could be done through exit tickets for example:

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

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

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

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

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

In the manager’s office

Curiosity

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

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

Developing everybody

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

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

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

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

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

Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evaluation

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

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

In general

Communicating more effectively

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

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

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

She reminded us of our own role in any communication:

Your behaviour will influence the way the situation develops.

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

The latter can be particularly hard to remember!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions I want to keep asking myself

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

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

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

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

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

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

Am I really listening?

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

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

Over the last 18 months, we have accidentally made video observations a ‘thing’ at our school. There was no grand plan – it just kind of happened, and I’m very glad it did!

As far as I remember, it started with the senior staff recording some of their lessons and making them available to the teachers to watch in a video bank on the school server. If we think particular teachers need help with something specific, we might recommend they watch a specific video or clip.

Then we had some teachers in satellite schools who needed to be observed, but we were not able to send an observer out for the 45 minutes they needed. Video was logistically much easier to set up, and had the added bonus that the teacher could see themselves too. Some teachers have also chosen to record themselves to look for specific things in their lessons, without having it formally observed.

Another technique is when a senior teacher and an inexperienced teacher would film themselves teaching the same lesson plan (we plan collaboratively) with their respective groups, then watch both videos and compare how the lesson plan manifested itself with two different groups. This is particularly useful for demonstrating differences in pace and in running feedback.

The final way in which we use videos is to back up in-person observations, with the observer recording clips of the lesson to show the teacher during feedback.

Logistics

Although it is now possible to easily record lessons on a smartphone, most of the teachers use my Canon IXUS camera and GorillaPod tripod.

Blue Canon IXUS camera

Mine looks a bit more beaten up than this one!

Gorillapod tripod

It’s magic! You can attach it to all kinds of things 🙂

They can set it up anywhere in the room and it will record non-stop for 60 minutes (if I’ve remembered to charge the battery and empty the memory card!) I then put the video into their individual space on the server for them to watch when they are ready.

If it’s for a more formal observation, we do it in two different ways. Sometimes the observer watches the video first, then does the post-observation feedback in the same way as they would for a standard observation, but showing any relevant clips from the observation. Alternatively, the observer and teacher watch it together at the same time, having already decided what they’re looking for. They pause and discuss the video at relevant points, and decide together what the action points are coming out of the observation, and what positive things were spotted.

Permissions

On joining the school, all students sign a list of terms and conditions. One of the items is that they are happy to be filmed or audio recorded. Teachers also sign permission slips in our induction week professional development sessions. Videos are for internal use only, and they are entirely within the control of the teacher. It is up to the teacher who sees them and whether they choose to put it into the school video bank for other teachers to see.

Results

Video observations are a shortcut in a lot of ways. They enable teachers to see and hear:

  • the reactions of students to what they are doing, including who is not paying attention (and why?)
  • their activity set-up and how effective it is
  • how well students work with each other
  • pacing
  • which activities do and don’t work with a particular group
  • how other teachers do things, particularly managing young learner and teen groups (it’s not always possible for us to organise peer observations)
  • and much, much more.

Overall, video observations have enabled us to provide richer professional development to our teachers, enabling them to see into a variety of classrooms, including their own. If you haven’t tried it with your own teaching yet, I would highly recommend it. If you want to introduce it at your school, start with your own teaching – if you lead by example, it’s easier for other teachers to want to join in as it can feel less threatening. Good luck!

James Egerton shared a video by Simon Sinek called ‘Start with why’:

He used this is a prompt to examine his own WHY of teaching and to start a blog challenge. Here’s what he said:

Thus, welcome a series of ‘What’s your WHY?’ guest blogs from dear ELT colleagues from around the world, detailing their WHY-HOW-WHAT. You can read my own thoughts here, which I read semi-regularly and edit to make sure my ship is still pointing where I want it to go. Everyone’s will be different; it’s always interesting to get perspectives from other educators, and you might even be able to borrow an idea or two. Sharing is caring, so let me know if you’d like to contribute too.

Here are my responses to WHY-HOW-WHAT for teaching, training and being a Director of Studies.

Why?

To enable others to communicate.

To help to spread professionalism through English language teaching.

How?

By ensuring that students feel comfortable experimenting with language in my classroom.

By finding ways to boost the confidence of students and teachers.

By being mental health aware.

By being as professional as I can be in everything I do (leading by example).

By investing time in my own development and that of the teachers I work with.

By sharing ideas for development online and face-to-face.

What?

Experiment with methods of language learning myself.

Pass on the things that work to the students.

Try out different ways of approaching teaching to see which ones my students respond to, for example task-based learning.

Create a relaxed environment in the classroom, for example by playing music (if students want it) when they are talking in pairs.

Make sure I know all of the students’/trainees’ names, and that they know each other’s names.

Point out students’ successes in class.

Point out teachers’ successes.

Ask questions that remind teachers of the positive things that happened in their classrooms, not just the negative things.

Focus on a maximum of three things for teachers to improve on in their own teaching at any one time – any more than that can be overwhelming.

Show teachers Emma Johnston‘s talk:

Have an open-door policy.

Tell teachers about the things that I’m working on as a teacher, DoS and trainer.

Ask them questions about what they’re working on.

Record my own lessons for teachers at our school to watch as peer observations.

Encourage teachers to record their lessons and see themselves in action.

Continue working on staying calm, even when things are frustrating me. Displaying this calm through an even tone of voice, a normal or quiet volume, and neutral body language.

Write this blog.

Write ebooks that give guidance for reflection through structured tasks and questions.

ELT Playbook 1 cover

Contribute to journals.

Always explain things clearly – don’t assume that people already know what a term means for example. Use terminology when it helps, and avoid it when it will make something less clear.

Go to conferences.

Present at conferences.

Watch webinars.

Present webinars.

Read blogs.

Help other people to set up their own blogs or social media presence, but only if they want to.

Listen to teaching- and language-related podcasts.

Share links in general through social media and this blog. Send specific links to specific people who I know might benefit from them.

Participate in #ELTchat.

Happy New Year!

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

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

Day 1: your favourite activity from 2018

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

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

Day 2: most memorable story from 2018

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

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

Sandy and Ruth IATEFL web conference screenshot

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

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

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

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

Day 5: your favourite memory as a student

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

Day 6: the funniest story from 2018

Erm…not sure.

Day 7: your favourite coursebook in 2018

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

Day 8: a new idea you implemented in 2018

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

Day 9: your favourite teaching aid in 2018

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

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

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

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

When Emma got the results she wanted in her Delta 🙂

Day 12: your favourite teaching website in 2018

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

Day 13: the person who inspired you in 2018

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

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

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

Day 15: your greatest challenge in 2018

My health, as always.

Day 16: your strongest point as a teacher

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

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

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

Day 18: 3 reasons why you became a teacher

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

Day 19: your favourite teaching application in 2018

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

BYU corpus word feature screenshot

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

Ask for help!

(and buy my book) 🙂

Day 21: the best CPD book you read in 2018

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

Day 22: your greatest frustration in 2018

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

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

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

Day 24: your most memorable teaching experiment in 2018

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

Day 25: your personal success in 2018

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

ELT Playbook 1 cover

Day 26: one thing you plan to change in 2019

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

Day 27: your greatest discovery in 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time travelling

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

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

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

Here’s to a peaceful and prosperous 2019!

How to learn a language

It’s New Year’s Eve, a time when a lot of us make resolutions for the coming year. One of them may be to finally learn that language you’ve been meaning to work on for years. But where do you start?

I often describe myself as a language addict. These are the languages that I’ve had a go at learning so far and the levels I’ve reached (based on the CEFR):

  • C1/Advanced: French, German, Spanish
  • B1/Intermediate: Polish
  • A2+/Pre-intermediate: Czech, Russian
  • A1/High beginner: Italian, Mandarin
  • A0/Beginner: Greek, Thai, Bahasa Malay, Japanese, Maltese, Vietnamese, Lithuanian

It’s definitely true that learning one language helps you to learn another, but I wouldn’t say that I have any particular talent for language learning – just lots of tried and tested techniques, and many many hours of practice at it. Over time, this practice has become more focussed and more efficient. Here’s how…

(By the way, if you don’t want to work your way through this quite long blog post, you can download this one-page pdf summary instead.)

ŸMake it a habit

As with anything you want to add to your life, habit formation is the most important thing you can do.

5 minutes a day

Even if you’re super busy, you can definitely find 5 minutes each day (see below for how!) It adds up really quickly – in one week that’s 35 minutes. In a year, it’s 1825 minutes, or over 30 hours. That’s the equivalent of twenty 90-minute classes, or 10 weeks of lessons if you’re having them at our school 🙂

Record what you do

I have a calendar where I make a note of whether I’ve completed my daily habits. Since I started using it, I’m much more likely to do them, as I hate seeing a ‘X’. In this example, the ‘P’ in the top left corner means Polish:

Record achievements

Sneak it into your day

I’ve tried lots of different ways to do this. With Polish, I currently use a few apps in the mornings and read in the evenings before bed (see ‘surround yourself with it’). Again, this is all about habit formation – making it ‘normal’ makes it easier.

Memrise at breakfast

It takes me about 10 minutes to eat my breakfast. While I’m doing that, I work my way through four Memrise sets of Polish, one of Lithuanian and one of Mandarin. I always revise old vocabulary first, aiming for a minimum of 1500 points in each set to maintain my streak. If I haven’t hit 1500, I’ll learn a few new words. I love memrise because it uses the principles of spaced repetition to keep reminding me of vocabulary and testing my memory of it. Since I started using it about 8 years ago, the site reckons I’ve learnt 8836 words as of today – I won’t pretend I’ve remembered them all, but even if it’s only half of them, it’s still a lot of vocabulary!

Carry a few flashcards with you

Sentence cardsWhen I was learning Russian, I cut up bits of yellow paper to create flashcards – yellow because it makes me happy. One side had a sentence in Russian, and the other had some kind of prompt. This was generally a picture or series of pictures if I could think of one, but occasionally an English translation of one or two words from the sentence if I couldn’t.

Sandy's sentence card holder TM

Sandy’s sentence card holder TM

I kept 10-15 of these cards with me all the time, in a little pouch with two pockets. When I was on the bus or waiting somewhere I’d flick through them to test myself. When I thought I knew one, I’d put it in the second pocket. Back at home, I’d take out anything that was in the second pocket and add an equivalent number of cards from the pile that was waiting for me.

i know the ones on the left

Left = ‘known’, right = unknown

After a year, the pile of sentences I’d learnt was about 3cm tall. I would periodically test myself on the whole pile and see if I’d forgotten any of them – generally I’d still remember about 80-90% of them.

Use apps/websites when you’re waiting

If, unlike me, you have a smartphone, then building your vocabulary using language apps is probably a much more productive way to spend your waiting time than looking at social media (again) and pretty easy to fit into your day. Here are four I’ve tried:

  • Memrise (the one I’ve used almost every day for years)
    + Spaced repetition managed automatically
    + Some curated sites created by the company (look for XXX 1, 2, 3 e.g. Polish 1, Polish 2…)
    + Can create your own content
    + Can choose to ignore words if you don’t want/need to learn them (only via the website)
    + Unlimited range of languages/content, with more company-curated sets added all the time
    + Available via browser or app
    -/+ Mostly word-level, with some sentence-level content
    – User-created sets may contain mistakes
    – Not all sets have audio
    – Can be challenging to find the sets that work for you
  • Quizlet (the one I use as a teacher)
    + Quick and easy to create your own content
    + Unlimited range of languages/content
    + Can take other people’s content and edit it to suit you
    + ‘Star’ words to choose what’s most challenging/important for you
    + Fairly easy to find what you need (here’s some help if you’re learning English)
    + Audio automatically added
    + You can choose the games you play, including matching games, spelling, etc.
    + Once you’ve studied something, you can use it again offline on the app
    + Available via browser or app
    -/+ Mostly word-level, with some sentence-level content
    – User-created sets may contain mistakes
    – Although there is now a spaced repetition option, it’s pretty clunky
  • Duolingo (the one everyone else seems to use – I’m not a huge fan)
    + All content created by the company, so shouldn’t contain any mistakes
    + Feedback option, so you can suggest alternative answers
    + Mostly sentence level
    + All content has audio
    +/- Limited languages available
    – No teaching before testing – you need to not give up easily
    – Not that helpful for beginners, as there are no language explanations
    – On Apple devices, (I think) you can test out of level 1, but have to earn gems to test out of other levels, so not ideal for higher-level learners either. On Android, I believe you can test out of any level
    – Multiple choice options often nonsensical, so don’t really test you
    – No ability to tailor what you’re learning
  • Lingodeer (my current favourite!)
    + All content created by the company, so generally doesn’t contain any mistakes
    + Feedback option, so you can correct any mistakes which are there
    + Once you’ve studied something, you can study it again offline (great for flights!)
    + Very clear language explanations, available at the start of each category and by clicking on any word while in ‘test’ modes
    + Wide range of activity types
    + Can choose what to revise
    + Can ‘test out’ of whole sections at a time
    + All four skills tested, including chances to record yourself speaking and to write characters from Kanji and Mandarin
    + For Japanese, there’s a great ‘story’ function where you can listen to somebody and record yourself
    + Multiple choice options are logical and really make you think
    + Everything has audio, and the pictures are very cute 🙂
    + No annoying advertising or Freemium prompts!
    +/- Limited languages/content available, with about 8 languages at the moment (more than are listed on the site!), though more being added
    – Only available via the app, not on browsers
Repeat what you hear

Don’t just read or listen to it, say it. Having a go at pronouncing the language you hear makes your brain process it a little bit more, meaning you’re more likely to remember it. Listen and repeat improves your confidence with pronunciation over time. Read and repeat gets you experimenting with sound-spelling relationships. Try a few words or phrases each day while you’re doing other things, and again you’ll notice it building over time.

ŸŸSurround yourself with it

Even if you’re not living in a country where the language you want to learn is around you all the time, you can still add it to your life in lots of different ways.

Label your home

A classic 🙂 Here are some of my Russian labels:

Russian has taken over my fridge!

and a Polish man doing the same:

Make little posters or index cards

The process of categorising and copying information over to another piece of paper goes part way to helping you to remember it. By then sticking them up, you see it lots more times and remember it for longer. Here are some I made for Russian:

Index cards everywhere!Surrounded with postcards to be more interesting!

Read to read

Extensive reading is one of the best ways to improve your knowledge of a foreign language. I’ve been reading in Polish for about ten minutes every night before bed for 2.5 years now, and I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done for learning. I started with the first Harry Potter book when I was a low A2 level, choosing it because I was familiar with the story and knew that would help me to understand more.

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

Originally I could read 2 pages in about 10 minutes, and now I can read up to 6, depending on how tired I am. I estimate that I could understand about 10-20% of any double-page spread when I started, and now it’s about 70-80%.

Importantly, I read to read, not to learn vocabulary. My aim is to finish the book, not to understand everything. It takes a bit of a mindshift to do this, as you have to stop worrying about what you don’t understand and concentrate on what you do.

When I first tried to read a John Grisham book in German, I wrote down every word I didn’t know and translated it into English. After three pages or so of the book, I had around 150 words and felt pretty depressed – oddly enough, I stopped reading it! In Paraguay, I went to a weekly Spanish meeting. We took an article from the Economist and translated it word for word. This was the result, from which I don’t remember anything!

When I started reading Harry Potter, I only looked up words if they appeared repeatedly and felt important for the story, limiting it to 2-3 per double page. Now, if there aren’t any words in that category, I’ll pick one word to look up at random. I’ve now nearly finished book 4 and really look forward to it every night.

Writing a journal

Writing is the easiest of the four skills to neglect. Writing a journal worked really well for me in Russian as my teacher looked at it and replied each week.

Russian journal

Russian journal

With Polish, I wrote a couple of sentences a day for a few weeks, then gave up because nobody else was reading it. I almost never write in Polish, and this is something I need to change in 2019 if I want to pass the B1 exam I’m thinking about taking!

Podcasts and radio

Apparently there are now over 600,000 podcasts available, so there really is something for everyone. I experimented with listening to the news in other languages when I was at uni, but got bored with listening to the same things over and over again, especially considering I didn’t listen to the news in English. If you’re learning English, here’s an introduction to podcasts for language learning, including some of my favourites.

Alternatively, choose a radio station playing the kind of music or presenting the kind of programmes you like. This is particularly easy if you have a smart speaker – “Alexa, play radio station Antenne Bayern“. I’m now really good at traffic updates in Bavarian German 😉

As with reading, listen to listen, not to understand everything. You’ll understand more and more as you become familiar with the rhythms of the language and build up your vocabulary from other places (like the apps above).

Make it aesthetically pleasing

Do you prefer to look at a plain black folder or a multi-coloured one? What about a page of text or a page of pictures? By carefully choosing the things you use to learn a language, you’re more likely to want to look at them again.

Stationery that makes you smile
Two notebooks, both alike in dignity

Which one to buy? Both of course!

All of my language-learning notebooks have pictures on them, sometimes themed (like the Polski język ones I have here), sometimes just fun, like the ones I used for Russian above. At various times I have also bought a Kung Fu Panda and a Pirates of the Caribbean folder. Because I enjoy looking at them, I’m more likely to pick them up and use them.

Pictures – colour in printed ones or draw rubbish ones!

Whenever possible, use pictures to help you remember things – your brain responds to these much better than words. You can colour in ones you have printed, like these ones I used to help me learn daily routines in Czech:

Coloured in pictures to help me learn Czech daily routine

or draw your own ones, regardless of how rubbish you might think your own drawing is!

Sentence cards with pictures

Think about colours and layout

Laying out what you are learning in a consistent way does some of the work for your brain. Colours also attract the eye, and again can be used to help you to process information.

Show patterns

I often use layout to help me to remember grammar. With gendered words, I always have masculine on the left, feminine in the middle and neutral on the right. If I can remember the position, I can remember the gender.

Colour-coding mistakes can help you to focus on them without needing long explanations:

Deciphering the rewrite code

And you can combine both layout and colour, which is particularly good for grammar:

Index cards everywhere! Time time time...And here are stress patterns in Greek numbers:

Categorise languagef

As I said above, the process of categorising language helps your brain to process it, and therefore remember it for longer. Vocabulary is the easiest thing to categorise, but you can do it with phrases too. Here’s a page one of the two vocabulary notebooks I filled in a year of studying Russian:

My vocabulary notebook - English

Every page of the notebook had a fold down the middle so I could test myself.

I planned to do this with Polish, managed a couple of pages, then got bored and decided Memrise would be enough.

Highlight exceptions

Judicious highlighting helps your brain work out what to focus on. Highlighting letters or words (like in the picture above) helps you to notice what is different, and the extra attention you therefore pay to these exceptions or unusual things means you’ll remember them for longer. I find this works particularly well for spellings.

Make your brain work, but not too hard

Learning a language means you need to do some processing. The more processing you do with a single item, the more likely you are to remember it. However, it’s easy to get frustrated if you have to do too much processing – that’s when you end up giving up.

Give yourself as many ‘hooks’ as possible

Imagine a large, heavy picture you want to put on the wall. You use a single picture hook, and pretty quickly it falls down. Now use three or four – it stays up for a little while longer, but eventually it still falls down. Now use twenty hooks – it’s likely to stay there for much, much longer. And the bigger the hooks, the better.

The same is true of new language items, whether vocabulary or grammar. Here are some possible ‘hooks’:

  • Meaning
  • A situation/context
  • An image
  • Something that makes you laugh/surprises you
  • (Odd) connections to other things you already know
  • Translation – preferably at sentence level/within a larger context (this could be to other foreign languages you know, not just your native language(s))
  • Collocations for vocabulary/common verbs used with the structure for grammar
  • Examples in use – if you create them yourself and get them checked, the hooks will be bigger and stronger
  • Encounters – each time you see/hear the word, you’re adding a little hook
  • Using it yourself – saying/writing it adds a pretty big hook or makes the hooks that are already there bigger

Each ‘hook’ you give yourself keeps that bit of language anchored in your brain for longer and more securely.

Hide translations

Humans are lazy. We always take the easiest route. That means that if we see a word in a language we’re comfortable with, we’ll read that before we make the effort to process something more difficult, like the language we’re learning.

That doesn’t mean you should avoid translation entirely, as that can just make you feel frustrated. Instead, make your brain work harder to see the translations so that processing the foreign language becomes the easier route. Two ways I’ve done this are by writing the English in yellow pen:

English is on the right – look carefully!

and by writing it in tiny letters in a different part of the page, or on the other side if possible:

English is in tiny letters

Avoid arrows

When you get two answers the wrong way round in an exercise or copy two words next to the wrong definitions, it’s tempting to draw arrows to correct them instead of crossing them out. Don’t! This adds an extra step of processing, where your brain has to ‘undo’ what it first saw. It might not look as pretty (unless you use Tippex/whiteout) but it makes life easier for your brain! Number 5 in this picture is an example – I don’t remember what it means though!

Use monolingual dictionaries as soon as you can

Again, humans are lazy. I use Google Translate all the time, as do many of my students. But, and this is important, NOT for learning. For that I use a monolingual dictionary as soon as I can, preferably a learner’s dictionary if they exist.For Polish, I’ve been using PWN. For English I tend to recommend:

My university teachers would be pleased to hear this, as they used to tell us all the time to go monolingual, but it took me ages to listen to them. Now I prefer the information that I can find there, including collocations, example sentences, alternative uses, phrases, and (especially online) pronunciation and conjugations. It also provides extra reading practice, and the fact you have to process the language more means you are more likely to remember it more, or be more picky about which words you look up. If you’re a teacher, persevere with persuading your students – it’s worth the effort!

ŸBe proud of your mistakes

Mistakes are nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, they show that you are learning. As with reading to read, this can require a shift in your mindset, as far too many of us have been brought up thinking that mistakes are bad.

Collect them, highlight them

Try creating a ‘My favourite mistakes’ page. Once a week/after a lesson/when you’ve done some writing, choose one mistake you made which you know you make a lot. Add it to the page, along with the correction. In the correct version, highlight the bit that you had problems with. This will draw your attention to it. This photo shows problems I was having with Czech accents on words:

Rewrite them

With the journal writing I mentioned above, I was motivated enough and had enough time on my hands to rewrite my entries and colour-code the mistakes, which made a huge difference to the accuracy of my writing.

Colour-coded rewrites

Colour-coded rewrites

It was great to see how the things I was making mistakes with changed over time, even in the few weeks that I did this for.

ŸPersonalise language

Making the language you are learning feel like yours can be hugely motivating, and adds some of the ‘hooks’ mentioned above.

Use your own experiences and opinions

Personalise example sentences so they mean something to you. For example, only learn ‘I like chocolate’ if you actually do. If you don’t, change it to ‘I like cats’, ‘I like computer games’ or whatever is most relevant to your experience. You’ll remember it faster, and it adds another ‘hook’.

Learn what you need first

When learning a foreign language, I try to start with numbers and food, as these are normally the things I need first on arrival in a new country. If I can eat in a restaurant and understand prices, then I can get a long way. Phrases like ‘How are you?’ and ‘I’m ____ years old.’ are much less immediately relevant.

If you’re not sure what you might need first, consider working your way through a course (maybe online or using a book) and feel free to skip bits that don’t appeal.

Be selective

It’s easy to feel like you need to remember every new word or phrase you come across, but this is impossible. Choose the language which most appeals to you and/or which is most relevant. Start with ‘easy wins’ – the more you build up your vocabulary, the easier it is to understand things you read and listen to, and the more you’ll be able to learn new vocabulary and grammar from all the extensive reading and listening you’re doing (by surrounding yourself with the language as above).

Record phrases you like

When you’re listening to or reading something, write down words and phrases you like and want to use again. If you’re talking to somebody, ask them to repeat it so you can make a note of it. Again, by picking out what you’re interested in and things that appeal to you, you’re giving yourself more hooks.

ŸRise above the word

If you’re self-studying, it’s very easy to just learn lists and lists of vocabulary. While this is useful, in the long run, you need to do more to truly learn the language.

Look at chunks

When you’re reading, look at the words that appear around that new word you’ve just written down. Is there a preposition (in, on, from…) after the word? Is there an adjective before it? Are there other words a bit further away in the sentence that might be connected? These are all hook that can help you to better use new language.

Write out conversations

Take grammar structures you’ve learnt and have a go at using them in conversations. Would the other person in the conversation use the same grammar to reply? For example, in English a present perfect question can be followed by a past simple reply. Can you make the structure shorter or add to it in any way? For example, English relative clauses can often be reduced, or added into other sentences. If you can, ask somebody to check the conversation for you, or have a go at recording it with somebody else you know who’s learning the language.

Mini dictations

Take one sentence of something you’ve listened to and use it as a dictation. If there’s a transcript for the audio, or lyrics for a song, check how correct you were. This is a great way to spot little grammar mistakes you’re making, and to better understand the rhythms of the spoken language.

Try out a corpus

A corpus is a collection of language as it is really used. For learners, this can help you to expand your understanding of particular items of vocabulary or grammar structures. My favourite English (and Spanish/Portuguese) corpus tool is the collection at BYU, particularly the new ‘word’ function. This is a snippet – there’s far more information as you scroll down the page:

BYU corpus word feature screenshot

Lizzie Pinard has an introduction to using www.wordandphrase.info/academic which shows you a lot of the features.

I use NKJP for Polish, for example to check whether I’ve chosen the right verb to go with a particular noun.

Be patient

Nobody learns anything overnight. But with language learning people seem to find that particularly frustrating – ‘I already speak my language. Why can’t I learn this one?’ Patience is key to getting to the level you want to achieve.

Grammar will come – don’t agonise over it

If you’ve read this whole post, you’ll notice that mentions of grammar are few and far between. Although I do have a grammar book, I only glance at it occasionally, and I’ve never done a grammar exercise in Polish. My grammar has improved though, through exposure, reading snippets of grammar explanations, and trying to notice patterns. Reading and listening to as much of the language as possible will help you to develop an instinct for correct grammar. Exercises might help you get there a bit faster, but they’re not essential.

Think about the process of children learning

Think about how children learn their first language. They start with essential everyday words, like ‘yes’ and ‘no’, then add vocabulary they need all the time, then add grammar later. It takes them a couple of years before they say anything, years when they have 24/7 exposure to the language they’re learning. When we learn a foreign language, we generally expect to speak from day one, and don’t give ourselves a ‘silent period’ to absorb what we’ve been exposed to before we have to produce it.

Children also make lots of mistakes, but they persevere, and eventually they speak the language they need to the level they need to in their everyday levels, providing the conditions are right for them.

It’s a long process, and it’s not easy, but it’s worth it in the end.

Be kind to yourself

Languages are big, complicated beasts from the outside. It can feel pretty daunting when you’re starting out. But if you’re kind to yourself, if you allow yourself to experiment, to make mistakes, and to try out the new language you’ve learnt without fearing failure, you’ll make it. As with everything in life, there’s no point beating yourself up if you find something challenging – all that does is makes you feel depressed. It doesn’t actually make you learn any more effectively.

ŸDon’t listen to me!

If you were patient enough to read the whole post, you’ll see that although I’ve tried everything I’ve described, I don’t do all of it now. Not everything works for everybody, and not everything works all the time. Be flexible with your learning, experiment, and work out what works for you. That way, you’ll enjoy the process a whole lot more.

Good luck!

P.S.

These tips are all based on my own experience. I know there’s science behind at least some of them, but I’m feeling too lazy to find the links! If you feel like sharing them, please do…

This year I’m teaching a Proficiency group, with free choice of the materials I use and topics we cover. In the first lesson, we brainstormed a list of key words that could act as possible topics and each time I exhaust a topic I ask the students to choose the next thing they’d do from the list. This seemed like a really good idea at the time 😉 Then they chose…

Disaster!

I was completely stuck for inspiration, as the only thing in my head was Brexit and having only met them a couple of lessons before, this wasn’t a route I wanted to go down yet. Instead, I headed to the TD Lab Staffroom facebook group and asked them to help me out. If you’ve never come across the group before, Shaun Sweeney set it up as a way for teachers to ask for audio recordings on particular topics. And it was Shaun who rescued me, with a one-minute recording talking about what he thinks of disaster movies which he has agreed to me sharing here. That was the spark I needed, and it prompted two complete 90-minute lessons 🙂 Here they are…

Lesson 1: Intensive listening and spoken grammar

I started by displaying the collage of disaster movie posters from this website. Students discussed the following questions:

  • Do you like films like this?
  • Are there any you’ve seen? What did you think of them?
  • Are there any you’d like to watch? Why?

Next, I showed them a picture of Shaun. They had to predict whether he likes disaster movies or not, then listen and check. Here’s the recording (confusingly with a picture of me!):

Those were the easy stages!

The next part was the real challenge: listen what Shaun said and transcribe it word for word. Before the lesson I’d uploaded the recording to our Edmodo group, which all of the students had joined during our first lesson. Now they divided into groups based on how many people could easily access the recording via their smartphones, with one phone per group. They had as long as they needed to transcribe it, and could go back and forth as much as they wanted. To transcribe one minute of audio it took them around 30-40 minutes. If they didn’t know what something said, I encouraged them to play it repeatedly and make a guess. When one group finished, I skimmed what they had written and underlined sections for them to listen to again.

Once all of the groups had something, I switched on the projector and took dictation, replaying the audio section by section as we went along. Anything that they didn’t have exactly as it was in the recording was underlined in my transcript, and we went back and listened again. It took us 10-15 minutes to get the full transcript onto the board, and all of the students present were engaged throughout. As we did it, I explained possible reasons why they may have misheard things, for example words that sound similar, connected speech linking words together, or weak forms which almost disappeared. I made sure that every sound was transcribed, not just ‘grammatically correct’ utterances. The only thing that nobody in the class could hear was the ‘ll in Now I’ll generally… right at the start, which prompted a discussion of the difference between present simple and will to describe habits. Here’s the transcript we ended up with, including underlining to show areas which my students had trouble picking out:

Shaun’s disaster film transcript

In pairs, students had to identify all of the features of the text which are part of spoken grammar, not written grammar. They discussed it in pairs, then went to the board and circled everything they could find. We have a whiteboard and projector set-up, which makes activities like this much easier! Here’s the same transcript with all of the features of spoken grammar I could identify highlighted in yellow:

Shaun’s disaster film transcript with features of spoken grammar

We only had a few minutes of the lesson left, so we quickly listed these features, including:

  • repetition (it’s…it’s…; going to die, going to die, going to sit)
  • ‘simple’ linking words (and, but, or)
  • emphasis (you’re just going to sit…)
  • fillers (um…yeah…like)
  • unfinished utterances (one of the worst films)
  • approximation (probably around Christmastime)
  • lack of concrete ideas/listing information (something like Towering Inferno or something with a volcano, or people are stuck in a tunnel)
  • opinion phrases (I have to say; well I can’t get into it at all)
  • time phrases to structure speech (when I was a kid; more recently)

I’m sure that’s not exhaustive, and I know for a fact those aren’t the technical terms, but they’ll do! I emphasised that it’s not vital for students to speak like this, but that they still sometimes sound like they’re reciting from a piece of paper instead of speaking naturally, and that it’s OK to include any of these features in their speech 🙂

For homework, I asked them to read Mike Russell’s Make Your Own Disaster Movie cartoon and look up any of the vocabulary they didn’t know.

Lesson 2: How to create your own disaster movie (reading and speaking)

A slightly different combination of students in this lesson meant we started off by recapping what had happened in the previous lesson and giving everybody time to re-read the cartoon. We probably spent about 20-30 minutes clarifying various items of vocabulary with students trying to help each other to understand words, or me showing them how to find the information they needed in the OALD using the projector (they’re still pretty new to using monolingual dictionaries consistently, despite their level!) These are the words we decided to record on our word cards:

  • bicker
  • estranged family
  • wild conjecture
  • nature’s wrath/the wrath of God
  • lump things together, like it or lump it!
  • mankind’s hubris
  • a dormant volcano
  • mayhem
  • cat-burglar (this was their favourite, and has come up in pretty much every lesson since!)

I had cut up an article from The Guardian along similar lines to the cartoon, called How to write the perfect disaster movie. I gave each section to one student. They read it and wrote 3-5 key words or phrases on the back. The perfect disaster movie article to put in order

With their summaries (without looking at the original text), they then mingled to find out all of the ingredients that Paul Owen believes make the perfect disaster movie. As a class, they decided what order all of the sections should be in by sticking them to the board (with me out of the way). They read it all to check whether they were correct.

With two ‘menus’ for disaster movies to help them out, the students now worked in small groups to create their own storylines. We had about 10 minutes for this, with time for them to present their stories to the rest of us at the end. In the true spirit of disaster movies, these made very little sense but were very entertaining, with one featuring a volcano that stopped air traffic and a monk who decided that a sacrifice to the ancient gods was required to stop it, and the other starring a cop who was a single dad being fired from his job, a meteor shower set to destroy Earth, a magnet on the moon to stop it and a female scientist to coordinate the rescue attempt, who inevitably fell in love with the cop 🙂

Thanks Shaun!

Overall these were two very enjoyable lessons which the students got a lot of vocabulary and intensive listening practice out of, both things which they have told me they want. And all inspired by just one minute of audio!

Following on from Katie Lindley’s Christmas homework for students last year, Charlotte Giller was inspired to create some relaxing Christmas homework for teachers to do. 

If you are a teacher who finds it hard to even occasionally put yourself first, you might like to consider that our well-being impacts directly on our learners’ achievements. As Sarah Mercer observed in her insightful webinar for the IH Wellbeing season earlier this year, happy teachers make for happy and successful learners. So take time these holidays to rest, relax and recharge and use the plan below to help you timetable this. If you struggle to do it for yourself, then you can do it for your students 🙂

Christmas homework for teachers 2018 (by Charlotte Giller)

Charlotte GillerCharlotte Giller is an English teacher and trainer based in Valencia, Spain.

Reference: “Language Teacher Psychology” Ed. Mercer, S. and Kostoulas, A (2018) Multilingual Matters

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