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

Posts tagged ‘differentiation’

Change or die trying: Introducing differentiation on initial teacher training courses (guest post)

Unfortunately I couldn’t attend Karin Krummenacher’s IATEFL 2018 presentation on providing differentiation on initial teacher training courses like the Cambridge CELTA or Trinity CertTESOL. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this kind of course, they generally last four weeks full-time, including workshop-style input sessions, observation of experienced teachers and peers, and (crucially) six or more hours of observed teaching and feedback from tutors. There are as many kinds of four week course as there are tutors, and no two are exactly the same as long as they meet the criteria of Cambridge or Trinity, but one thing that is extremely rare is differentiation for the trainees. Karin has kindly agreed to write up her presentation as a guest post, so we can all find out more about how this might be possible.

To differentiate and challenge our students based on their prior knowledge and current abilities is something we teach our trainees in pre- and in-service teacher training courses. At diploma level it becomes a key criterion and there is tons of literature about it. And then many of us trainers go on and make trainees with outstanding language awareness sit through over half a dozen basic grammar input sessions throughout a 4-week TEFL course in which they will learn close to nothing, most likely receive no differentiated tasks and might be asked not to reply to the next question because we already know they know. I would not be particularly impressed with a trainee handling a strong student in a lesson like this and I get more and more annoyed by us trainers doing it.

And while the reasons are obvious to a degree (that’s the course they signed up for), I don’t think they are good enough to keep doing what we’re doing the way we are doing it. Once upon a time, when the CELTA still had a different name, the groups of trainees were homogenous and what the course taught them was, in a way, revolutionary and useful. Nowadays, trainees identifying as non-native English speakers outnumber trainees that identify as native English speakers on the majority of courses. Our one “strong student” has become half the class by now and we still tell them to only answer when prompted instead of questioning our approach.

Jason Anderson has investigated at length how experienced teachers with MAs in pedagogy take 4-week initial training courses because Trinity Cert TESOL and CELTA have become a global seal of quality. The course is no longer what it used to be and the fact that very often it is still taught the way it was taught in the 1990s makes me picture John Haycraft, who first designed CELTA, rotating in his grave.

“CELTA has to change or die” said Hugh Dellar when I talked to him last year. He’s far from being the only one who’s unimpressed. Since the courses started they have been criticised (see, for example Anderson, Hobbs, Fergusson and Donno [behind ELT Journal paywall] and Borg [behind paywall]) and the voices have become louder and louder. I agree with all the criticism by experts and practitioners when it comes to short initial teacher training courses (ITTCs), but letting them die is not an option for me. It may be because I myself entered the profession that I now consider my career and vocation through an ITTC that I come from a place of great love and admiration for these courses and the educators who train people on them. I believe in the concept, I believe it works and I do not want it to vanish because I think we would miss out on some excellent teachers. Most experts suggest making the courses longer. However, as much as we would all like that, from an economic point of view, this makes little sense to course providers and is not the appeal it has to customers either.

I set out to find a way of differentiating on ITTCs. My colleagues laughed at me.

It’s too difficult, too much admin, too complex.

You’re already working 12 hour days. Do you really want to add to that?

If it could be done, it would have been done.

It may be a late effect of being the only female in a male clique when I was a teenager (strikingly similar to my work environment nowadays, by the way) but dare me and I’ll do it.

At least 13,000 candidates per year take the CELTA or Cert TESOL (based on numbers from Green 2004 and information requested from Trinity). That’s not even considering all the TEFL schools accredited by less rigorous organisations. And all Cambridge Assessment and Trinity College London tell us about these people is whether they identify as native or non-native English speakers. If you are a trainer, you will know that there is so much more to our trainees than that. One of the reasons why I, and many of my colleagues, love the job is that there is no group like any other, no trainee the same as the next. You can divide them by nationality or place of birth but there will be disappointingly few conclusions you can draw from this. In a single group of trainees, you can find so many different people with different motivations to take the course, different backgrounds and different aims. Some people take an ITTC because they want to change their lives, start a new career and plan on doing the diploma two years later. They’re in it for the long run. Others simply need to prove to their parents that the Eurotrip they paid for is not just drinking with people you met in a hostel. Many want to fund their travels before they return to their “real job” back home. Some want to lose their fear of public speaking. The ones that usually end up most disappointed are the English literature majors who want to spark the love for the English language in their students. It’s tough to love a language and make it your job to hear people butcher it 10 hours a day. Trainees have told me they wanted to build up their confidence or are just in it because their boyfriend wanted to do the course. Some see it as a challenge and aren’t planning on teaching a day in their life after the course. More than you would think are experienced teachers that want to go international.

A mixed group of Karin's trainees

So again, why don’t we do with our trainees what we do with our students? That is, a thorough needs analysis. The idea is to do this in two parts:

Part 1: A diagnostic test. Applicants take an online test and you feed their results into Excel. I’ve come up with a formula that will assign sessions based on performance and spit out a tailor made timetable for each trainee. Meaning the ones who answer questions on verb tenses wrong, will be assigned sessions on verb tenses. The ones who answer them right will not. All trainees will still have the same number of input sessions, just not the same ones or necessarily at the same time. Multilingual candidates will be assigned sessions on using L1 in the classroom, so they can do so deliberately and without feeling it is the wrong thing to do. Trainees that aren’t quite confident about their own proficiency will get an English for specific purposes course that really polishes their teacher language and makes them feel more confident while monolingual trainees learn a little bit of a foreign language, so they can empathise with their students. This all means we offer trainees a schedule based on their background and abilities. This is something I’m still trialling, but the diagnostic test may contain tasks such as:

  • Identify the verb tenses in the following sentences
  • Identify the parts of speech (based on a given list) in the following paragraph
  • Match the words with the correct phonemes
  • Mark the word stress in the following words
  • Match the sentences with the grammatical structure (e.g. conditionals, modals for obligation vs. speculation)

Diffentiation graphic - needs analysis on left, timetable icons in the middle (different colours), mid- and end-of-course reflection on right

Part 2: Setting aims. The teaching practice tutor will agree on personal aims with their group of trainees. This means that feedback on teaching practice will be as focused and personalised as possible. The trainer and trainee assess progress in the middle and at the end of the course.

The diagnostic test can be redone as a summative test at the end of the course. Together with the achievements of their personal aims, this will then be the starting point for professional development. This is something really important that in my experience is not done at the moment or not done enough. Partially, this is down to the way ITTCs are sold. The marketing says that you are a teacher and ready to go out in the world after 4 weeks. And people take that at face value. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to change and stands in contrast to the fact that these courses were never meant to provide a standalone solution to teacher training. But what we can do is equip our trainees better and make them more reflective beginner practitioners. They will benefit tremendously from having a better understanding of where they stand and what their strengths and weaknesses are. And to get our marketing teams on board, it is a unique opportunity to advertise our programmes beyond teacher training, like workshops, online courses, diplomas or in-service training.

Finding out what our trainees need is the first step. The obvious question is, how can we give it to them? Not every centre has the capacity to entirely revamp their course and I’m not saying that’s necessary, but I believe we could get a little more creative and offer more differentiated input sessions. That would mean though, that we wave goodbye to input sessions being mainly delivered face-to-face. I have thought of different ideas on how to deliver input and have come up with different puzzle pieces that can be combined as needed.

Jigsaw pieces with these things written on them: Action research, observation tasks, peer teaching, boot camps, flipped inputs, Q and As, online/face2face, specific pre-course tasks

Whether trainees get tailored pre-course tasks, attend very intensive sessions on linguistic systems, such as grammar, in so called boot camps, benefit from Q and A sessions with tutors or teach each other in designated peer teaching slots, whatever works best in your context will be the right thing to start differentiating. This can be a slow addition to the course over several months and does not have to be all at once. Maybe some sessions can be added to the regular timetable, others delivered through online learning. Common needs could be addressed through video summaries. It will depend on the groups’ needs and the resources, tutors and space available. For most centres, a mix will be the right way to go.

In this way, timetables for trainees could become more varied and trainees would get more personalised content that better prepares them for the challenges they will face. It would free up timetables for more interesting content. Instead of teaching basic phonemes, these would be learned independently, and class time can be spent on how to teach phonology to students, the really interesting stuff.

Obviously, there would be some flexibility required from accreditation bodies. The Unknown Foreign Language in its current form could no longer be part of the assessment on Trinity Cert TESOL courses. And while CELTA has a very flexible syllabus, centres would benefit from being encouraged to make more use of it. At the same time, this could be an exclusive opportunity to promote more professionalism in initial teacher training and remind customers that these are in fact level 5 qualifications on the UK Qualifications and Credit Framework and therefore have an academic aspiration.

Overall, the idea is to take our trainees’ backgrounds and goals into consideration more. No matter how small we start, these initial courses need to change or die trying.

About the author

Karin Krummenacher

Karin Krummenacher is a freelance teacher trainer on Trinity Cert and Dip TESOL courses, researcher and international conference speaker. She holds Cambridge Delta and is currently working towards an M.Ed. TESOL, researching the role of ITTCs and their implications for professionalism in the industry. This article is based on her IATEFL talk from April 2018 for which Jason Anderson, Hugh Dellar and Ben Beaumont were invaluable sounding boards. She has recently started blogging at thekarincluster.wordpress.com. Give Karin a shout at karin.krummenacher@gmail.com or on Twitter @thekarincluster.

Introversion: the hidden strength in language learning? (guest post)

I was disappointed to miss out on Alastair Roy’s IATEFL talk this year, in which he described ways to help introverts in the classroom. Since I couldn’t attend his talk, I asked him to write a guest post for my blog. I’ll let him introduce himself…

All about me

I’d like to start this blog post by telling you a few things about myself. I enjoy going for walks alone with my dog (shout out to Oreo). I like reading books on my balcony. I hate noisy, crowded places like nightclubs. I don’t like to be the centre of attention, especially on my birthday. I like one-on-one conversations and prefer to take a back seat in group conversations. My mobile phone bill rarely exceeds nine euros per month because I prefer WhatsApp to my own voice. I find small talk tedious and, at times, painful. I enjoy eating out with a friend or two, not so much a big group. When the majority are at the beach soaking up the sun each summer, you’ll find me happily lost in a small town in Sweden, Portugal or Romania.

Put all this together and you’ll see that I have a rather introverted personality. Note that I don’t call myself an ‘introvert’, as I believe that introversion and extroversion lie on a spectrum, with each individual’s character falling somewhere on that line. Often when discussing my interest in introversion and its effect on language learning I’m told “but you aren’t introverted!”, or “you’re not shy – you like to talk too much!” It’s very simple: I’m chatty and outgoing if I feel comfortable with you and know you quite well. The great misunderstanding is that introversion is equal to shyness and inability to relate to others, a misconception that Cambridge even allude to in their online dictionary. To me, introversion and extroversion can easily be illustrated by something I encounter on my daily commute:

Two roads

Image taken from Google Street View

…two roads eventually leading to the same destination, each with its own particular set of obstacles. As teachers we need to be aware of where our students are on the introversion-extroversion spectrum and help them make the journey as smooth as possible so they can arrive at their destination.

Identifying introversion in students

I’m often asked after giving sessions on introversion how to identify students who may be more-introverted. I’d love to say it’s easy, but it’s not so easy to pin down.

I first became interested in the effects of introversion in language learning because of four students I had in a Cambridge: First preparation group. What drew my attention to these students was their lack of participation in class, and I automatically jumped to the conclusion that they were struggling with the content of the course. This was just before the Christmas break, so we soon parted ways for a week or two of obscene quantities of food and gifts. During that holiday, which I spent in my childhood home in Scotland with my family, my mum handed me a ‘memory box’ she had kept for me, stuffed to the brim with yellowing pieces of newspaper and other long-forgotten objects. As I made my way through the never-ending collection I happened upon an envelope full of school reports, meticulously kept since 1988 in true Mrs Roy style. What I read made me realise that I had misjudged those four students, and it would lead me change my whole approach to teaching:

  • Alastair is often distracted – or bored – in class.
  • Alastair needs to participate more if he is to succeed.
  • Alastair must learn to work better in a group.

I thought back to all of those classes. Had I been such a bad student? I was no angel, but nor was I so detached from the learning process. Over the course of my festive break I analysed thirteen years of schooling. I had hated raising my hand in class. I had disliked group work because I preferred to navigate my own thought processes. I had written stories with an imagination you couldn’t believe. I had enjoyed practical subjects where I could experiment on my own.

These four students in my class were me.

They were avid readers, forever in the school library. They were conscious of their work and strived for 100%; 99% was not an option. They enjoyed speaking practice with their friends but were filled with terror when I drew names out of a hat at random.

The problem was that my classroom environment wasn’t meeting their needs as learners.

On my return to school, refreshed and carrying an extra two kilos of Christmas joy, I began investigating a bit further and stumbled across some of Susan Cain’s work online. After reading her book in one weekend I decided to adapt a questionnaire she devised and use it in class as a fun activity. I led in with a discussion on introversion and extroversion to find out how familiar the students were with the concepts: they were surprisingly knowledgeable about introversion and how it manifests itself. We then completed the questionnaire (me included), with students writing down their answers on a piece of paper as I dictated the questions. We then compared answers by revisiting the questions and having a chat about the results. Students were able to opt out of answering if they felt uncomfortable, which a few did on some questions. The feedback from this activity confirmed my suspicions that these students were not struggling academically, rather the classroom environment was not conducive to their learning needs.

Creating a more inclusive environment

Reflecting on my own experiences, I began to analyse my classroom practice with a view to making the learning environment more accessible for all. I realised that the language learning environment can be quite exclusive, favouring extroversion over introversion, with this being particularly true with the communicative approach. So I made a list of the factors that had a negative effect on more-introverted students in my classroom, including:

  • lack of quiet time to think and reflect on what they have learned;
  • stressful group situations;
  • fear of speaking out in class – fear of ridicule;
  • classroom layout;
  • the typical teacher ‘worry’ about students who are on their own.

It was time to take action. Not wanting to make sudden changes to classroom procedures that had been established for some time, nor wanting to go too far and risk the exclusion of more-extroverted students, I introduced my new approach gradually.

Lesson Structure

First, and most importantly, I introduced what I like to call ‘the valley’. While this may conjure up images of breathtaking Welsh scenery, it was an important element in classroom activity which meant starting the class with noisier activity, perhaps vocabulary input or a video, followed by a quiet activity, such as reading, in the middle, before finishing with another interactive activity, perhaps speaking.

Valley

Taking this approach means that more-introverted students have the opportunity to work quietly and individually, giving them time to reflect on what they are learning, while more-extroverted students are not denied the opportunity to work in a more interactive way.

Working in groups

I often ask students to produce projects or presentations in groups. However, for someone who is more-introverted this can present a series of challenges: speaking out in front of a group, a heightened sense of ridicule, or simply just not being confident to challenge ideas. A nice way to solve this is to issue roles to each member of the group: the sense of order and clear expectations for every member of the group can go a long way to addressing our fears. Roles can include note-taker, chairperson, spokesperson; I even include a ‘language police’ role where the person monitors the group and ensures they are using the target language as much as possible.

Another key thing to bear in mind is this: is working in groups really the only option for the activity? Could an individual produce something equally as valid in the same amount of time? Let them choose whether they want to work individually, in a pair or in a small group and be flexible. Sometimes the team approach is not the most productive; letting the individual choose how they prefer to approach some tasks can lead to much more affective learning.

Speaking out in front of the class

It would be wrong to say that more-introverted people strongly dislike speaking in group situations, such as in class or in work meetings, with many equating this aversion to the aforementioned ‘shyness’. In reality this is not the case at all. Putting someone who is quite introverted on the spot is extremely stressful – our introversion means that we like to think our ideas through and plan an answer before we open our mouths to speak. Think back to the last class you taught: did you put any students on the spot to answer a question? Or perhaps you asked a question to the whole group and chose someone whose hand shot up into the air? The chances are that you didn’t speak to one of your more introverted students. Some ways you can make group discussion more accessible to more introverted students are:

  • Give a few minutes for students to construct an answer on their own or with a partner before contributing to a group discussion.
  • Allow students to make notes on cards in preparation for discussions – note-taking is a valuable skill to develop.
  • Introduce a ‘question-pause-question-answer’ approach, whereby you ask, wait a few seconds, ask again, and then invite answers. The moment’s pause allows everyone the opportunity to construct an answer.
  • Introduce a ‘pass’ option in quick-fire questioning. Although some students will abuse it at first, I have found that some of my introverted students have been thankful for the opportunity to step back from a question when they are not fully ready to answer. This doesn’t mean that you can’t return to them a few moments later for their input.

Classroom layout

I’ll keep this part simple. Are your students in rows or groups with the teacher’s desk at the front? Move your desk to another part of the room so that students can approach you for support more discreetly. Consider creating a quiet area, if possible, where students can remove themselves from the group during individual activities and ‘recharge their batteries’. Have a mixture of group tables and individual tables and allow students to choose where they want to sit for different activities.

Worrying about ‘lonely’ students

This area is particularly relevant to me as I write this, as just today I had a lovely conversation with a student in the playground of our school. Every day I see him sitting alone on the same chair, swinging his legs and staring off into the distance. Our gut instinct as teachers is to nurture relationships between students; however, sometimes we need to recognise that we shouldn’t force students into being with others at all times during the day. Back to the student today, I asked him how we was, and he told me he was “fine”. A typical answer. I asked him if he wouldn’t prefer playing rather than sitting down during his break, since he’s sitting down all morning in class. And the reply was strikingly honest: “I like being on my own”.

Of course, the teacher in me discreetly checked that he truly did want to be on his own, as opposed to feeling excluded by his peers. But he assured me that he loved his classes and enjoyed being with his friends, but that his breaks were “his time”. Brother, I totally get you.

What could we do? First, try not to jump to conclusions. Try chatting with a student who is on their own and finding out a bit about them: if they are happy being alone then leave them be. Being on our own helps us recharge our batteries and face the next part of our day with renewed energy. Offer a quiet space, for example the library or the classroom, where they can relax during breaks. They will thank you.

Conclusion

“Introvert: someone who is shy, quiet and unable to make friends easily” is how Cambridge describe my personality type. I’m not particularly shy. My family and friends will tell you I’m far from quiet, especially when I get on my soapbox about something I feel strongly about. I don’t find it particularly difficult to make friends when I have things in common with people. But what I don’t enjoy are some of the situations I’ve described in this blog post. Introversion is a unique personality trait that fosters far more positives than negatives, but as education (especially in languages) is subconsciously directed towards the extroverted ideal, many who tend towards introversion don’t have that opportunity to shine as brightly as they should. Us teachers hold the power in our hands to make change this.

To close any workshop I present on this topic, I like to tell people a story that is attributed to Mark Twain that I believe sums up introversion:

Upon arriving at the pearly gates of Heaven, a man asks of Saint Peter, “Sir, I would dearly love to meet the greatest General the world has ever known”.

Saint Peter, smiling, points to a elderly gentleman sitting on a nearby cloud. “Why, there he is, sitting over there!”

“Rubbish!” answers the man, “He is not the greatest General! I knew him on Earth. He was nothing more than a common baker!”

“Ah, but that is where you are wrong,” said Saint Peter. “That man may not have been the greatest General the world has ever known, but if he had been given a chance, he jolly well would have been.”

P.S.

If you’ve made this far, thank you! If you would like to learn a bit more about introversion and its affects on the learning process, I highly recommend you read Susan Cain’s book [affiliate link]. You can also find a very early version of what would become my session at IATEFL 2017 here and and some interviews with me about the topic at the British Council Madrid Conference 2015 and the TESOL Spain Conference 2016. You can also contact me on Twitter if you’d like to ask me anything: @air02.

Alastair Roy

Alastair Roy is Manager of the British Council teaching centre in Villaviciosa de Odón, a stone’s throw from Madrid, Spain. As well as being a regular conference speaker and teacher trainer, he is a Trinity TYLEC tutor. He is currently completing a Master’s degree at Lancaster University while attempting to rebuild his long-abandoned blog, Resourcefl – watch this space!

References

Cain, Susan. (2012) Quiet :the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking New York : Crown Publishers.

Cambridge Dictionary: Entry for ‘introvert’. http://dictionary.cambridge.org/es/diccionario/ingles/introvert?q=introversion Accessed on 16 July 2017.

Other posts about introversion (from Sandy)

If you’re interested in finding out more about helping introverts in the classroom, or if you’re an introvert yourself, Laura Patsko has written a series of posts you might be interested in. Anthony Schmidt has also collated some relevant research.

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