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

Posts tagged ‘learner training’

IH Academic Managers and Trainers (AMT) conference 2019

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?

IATEFL Manchester 2015: The ones I missed

For various reasons, not least the sheer size of the conference, there were various talks I missed during IATEFL. Thanks to the power of the internet, I’ve managed to catch up with some of them through tweets, videos and/or blogposts. Here’s a selection of them:

The ear of the beholder: helping learners understand different accents – Laura Patsko

Laura’s talk was on at the same time as mine so I wasn’t able to watch it. I know it started with her ‘having a cold’ to demonstrate how we can make meaning evefn when the sounds we hear don’t correspond with our expectations, and I’m intrigued to hear more about her suggestions. She’s shared her presentation, and hopefully there will be a video of at least some of it soon!

Here’s one of her tweets from another point in the conference:

Fostering autonomy: harnassing the outside world from within the classroom – Lizzie Pinard

Lizzie‘s talk was also in the same slot as mine and Laura’s – so many possible times and they put us all on in the same one! Lizzie has written a lot about autonomy on her blog, and demonstrated it with her own Italian learning. The aspect of learner training is key when trying to encourage autonomy, and is one I’m sure Lizzie’s presentation would have helped me with. Thankfully, she’s blogged about it as has Olga Sergeeva, but it’s not quite the same as hearing it first-hand. I’m hoping the gods of IATEFL shine on all three of us next year and put us on at separate times!

Where are the women in ELT? – Russell Mayne and Nicola Prentis

As with last year, the talk which Russ was involved in is one of the ones which seems to have taken on a life of its own after the conference. Nicola and Russ picked a subject which is another very important discussion point, after Russ tackled the myths of EFL in 2014. [Original text (see comments for why I’ve kept this) As with last year, Russ’s talk is the one of the ones which seems to have taken on a life of its own after the conference. He has a way of picking subjects which are very good discussion points, and this year he was ably assisted by Nicola Prentis.] Their talk immediately followed my own and was in a tiny room, so I knew it was wishful thinking to believe I might get in, but I tried anyway. A whole group of us were waiting outside, disappointed. Last year Russ’s talk was officially recorded (content is currently being updated on the IATEFL 2014 site), and Russ and Nicola have recorded their own version this year – thank you! This area is one of particular interest to me, being a woman and in ELT as I am. 🙂 Through the Fair List, I’d become aware of the fact that plenary speakers at conferences are often men speaking to a room full of women, which seems odd. As I understand it, Russ and Nicola were questioning the fact that men feature dispropotionately at the ‘top’ of the ELT profession, despite it being a female-dominated one in general.

They did an interview about it which you can watch as a taster:

Here are two of the blog posts which were triggered by their talk, both of which have fascinating discussions in the comments which are well worth reading:

  • He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy! Steve Brown highlights the amount of time that the ‘big’ names highlighted in Russ and Nicola’s talk have been at the top (something which they mentioned in their interview too)
  • P is for Power: Scott Thornbury questions the balance of power in the ELT profession, not just in terms of gender, but also covering native/non-native speakers and the socio-economic circumstances that teaching takes place in.

Russ and Nicola have also set up their own website to examine gender equality in ELT, with a lot more information about their research. At other points in the conference there were tweets about increasing the number of non-native speakers visible at conferences and in the global community.

Walk before you run: reading strategies for Arabic learners – Emina Tuzovic

I saw Emina speaking about helping Arabic students with spelling at IATEFL last year, and she subsequently very kindly wrote a guest post summarising her talk for this blog. I’m hoping to encourage her to do the same again this year, as her ideas are very practical and deal with areas which there isn’t much coverage of in the literature I’ve read.

People, pronunciation and play – Luke Meddings

Luke shared a couple of his ideas in an interview:

I really like Luke’s focus on playing with language, which is something I’ve become more and more interested in.

Olga Sergeeva went to Luke’s talk and wrote a summary of the whole thing, although she admitted it was difficult because they were laughing too much!

Tools, tips and tasks for developing materials writing skills – John Hughes

John has shared his slides, which gives me a taster of the tips he has for developing these skills. I think the most important idea is to ‘develop a materials radar’, which echoes what Ben Goldstein and Ceri Jones talked about in their presentation on using images at the MAWSIG PCE.

Technology

Mike Harrison talked about using Vine to make short videos, and Shaun Wilden and Nikki Fortova looked at apps on the iPad to do the same.
Here’s an idea from Nicky Hockley to use a mobile phone to practise past continuous:

If you’re considering whether to use technology in your class or not, this handout could be useful:

Random tweets

These are things which I retweeted because they made me think. I’m sharing them here to make sure I don’t forget those thoughts and to see what you think. They’re loosely grouped into topics where possible.

Student abilities
Memory and engagement

These link back to Joy Egbert’s plenary.

Materials design and the importance of editors

An opportunity for anyone wanting to get into materials design?

This looks amazing!

…and on Twitter!

And if you decide to self-publish:

Research

Patsy’s accompanying blogpost is available on the OUP blog.

Empowering teachers

Yes, yes, yes to all of these!

Training and professional development
Management

(Hoping the rate of sickness at IH Bydgoszcz doesn’t go up when I take over as DoS!) 😉

About language
Pronunciation
Dyslexia
Miscellaneous

Other people’s blogging

Lots of people were blogging throughout the conference. You can find a full list of all of the IATEFL Manchester registered bloggers on the ManchesterOnline site.

IATEFL Manchester Online 2015 registered blogger

As always, Lizzie Pinard was very prolific, and has helpfully indexed all of her posts. Apart from the plenaries, I only went to one of the same talks, so there’s a lot to catch up on! Olya Sergeeva also has an index of the posts she wrote about the sessions she went to, including some which I’ve linked to above. Tyson Seburn wrote about his bite-sized takeaways from the conference. Jen McDonald summarised the talks she saw in short paragraphs. The British Council had a number of roving reporters at the conference, one of whom was David Dodgson.

IATEFL online

Apart from the many sources I’ve mentioned above, there is, of course, the wonderful resources that is IATEFL online, full of interviews and recorded sessions, at least some of which I hope to find the time to watch at some point in the future. Are there any you would particularly recommend?

How I’m learning Russian

I’d hate to have me as a student.

I very rarely do homework, so much so that my teacher has given up setting it for me.

I cancel about one lesson in four, normally the one on a Saturday. I’ve recently moved it to a Thursday in the hope that I’ll be more likely to have time then. I have two 90-minute lessons a week, the other being on Monday. We’ve never managed to make up a missed lesson, and since I pay on a lesson-by-lesson basis, this must create quite a lot of financial uncertainty, which I feel bad about.

At times, I hijack the lesson and tell my teacher exactly what activities I want to do. The last example of this was after she used a bilingual Quizlet set to introduce clothes words to me at the end of our Monday lesson. In a very rare spurt of motivation, I had twenty minutes on Wednesday night, and ten minutes on Thursday morning during which I managed to play with the words and kind of learn about 70% of them. I started the lesson by drawing pictures of clothes all over the board and writing the words next to them.

Russian clothes on the board

This took about 20 minutes. I then asked my teacher to define words for me, which meant she had to teach me verbs like ‘wear’, ‘get dressed’ and ‘put on’, and prepositional phrases like ‘on your head’, ‘on your feet’. She then turned the tables and made me define words for her. This whole process took 90 minutes, and meant we had no time to do anything she had prepared. I wrote notes throughout, and listened to and spoke more Russian than I had in any other lesson throughout the year. She told me: “You’re ready for it now.”

I constantly make demands about what I want from my lessons. My main demand is to have my lessons entirely in Russian (or as entirely as possible for a beginner/elementary student), but this is difficult because of the above statement/belief, that you have to have a certain amount of language to be ‘ready’ to speak/listen to more. This is not a choice I have in the real world, where I have to deal with whatever is thrown at me, and the person who’s speaking to me often doesn’t know how to change their language to help me understand.

We’ve also got into the habit of speaking English in class. In an average 90-minute lesson my teacher probably speaks about 10 sentences of spontaneous Russian which are not read from a piece of paper and/or accompanied by an English translation. I speak less than this, and occasionally read new vocabulary/sentences from the page, although this is not consistent – I probably only say about 50% of the new language that is introduced to me during any one class. Both of us have spoken a bit more Russian in the last couple of lessons because I’ve made more of an effort, but it hasn’t lasted long. The rest of the lesson is in English, including chats and all grammar explanations. I rarely have to produce any Russian that isn’t part of a drill based on an exercise from a worksheet. I’m trying to speak a bit more Russian in class now, but I don’t have a lot of the classroom language I need unless I ask for it to be translated, because I’ve never heard it or been made to use it.

Most of the published materials my teacher uses are taken from a text-only coursebook, with lists of vocabulary and dialogues, or a slightly more ‘designed’ coursebook with some pictures and tables. Both of them are through the medium of English. I have no idea how you find published materials to learn Russian if you don’t already speak English (this is true of a lot of none-EFL materials). We have occasionally used a website with some very entertaining short videos telling the story of John, a Canadian visiting Russia, which is available in various languages. The videos are very short – less than a minute each – and accompanied by subtitles in Russian or other languages if you want to read them.

We have never listened to any ‘real’ Russian in class, like music or videos, or any audio designed for the classroom. All of my listening practice comes from life outside the classroom, very rarely with support from an English-speaker to help me, but English speakers normally do the work if they’re there, rather than me! That means that most of the time I’m trying to piece things together myself, using what skills I’ve picked up from learning other languages, and the pre-intermediate Czech that I know. This has, of course, got easier as the year has progressed.

I demand context, trying to move away from isolated vocabulary. I constantly ask for the prepositions and cases that go with the verbs/nouns, even though I know I won’t remember them at the moment. I try to get as much new language in sentences as possible. Having said that, I find the Quizlet sets useful for building up sets of vocabulary in topics like the body or clothes. I’m trying to get exposure to as much language as possible while I have access to somebody who can mediate it for me. During a lesson which isn’t based on materials, we fill a notebook with random notes. There’s a lot of Russian here, but it’s almost all written – there’s very little speaking, very little controlled practice, and almost no free(r) practice at all, unless I instigate it. The bit of text you can see in the top-left corner of the page is the second half of twenty minutes worth of writing I did at home to force myself to produce an extended stretch of Russian.

My Russian notebook

In some classes, I give my teacher English sentence after sentence I’ve tried to say in Russian during that week, but didn’t know, ask her to translate them, then fail to learn them. This week we have a week off school and I’ve finally had time to dedicate to Russian. I’ve copied out the sentences onto cards (made from A4 pieces of paper cut into 16 rectangles, yellow because it’s a happy colour!), with pictures on the other side as prompts. There’s a huge backlog, and I have no idea how long it’ll take to actually learn them.

Sentence cards

Sentence cards with pictures

My teacher has a degree in teaching Russian. She is a native speaker of the language, who also speaks very good English and knows bits of other languages, so can occasionally tell me when grammar is similar to other languages I speak. She is a lovely person to put up with me. She puts a lot of time and effort into preparing lessons and materials. Here’s an example of a summary of tenses she made:

Russian tense summary

She’s also started making Quizlet sets for me after I showed her the site and she realised that it motivated me! I copy the sets she’s made and get rid of the English if I can, trying to make things Russian only. When I got ill and was given a special diet, she translated the sheet I was given by the doctor and made me a list of all of the food in Russian and English, with pictures for things I might not know. When I found out just before a lesson that my grandad had been taken into hospital, she took me for a walk in the park and we chatted, then wouldn’t let me pay for the lesson.

The last lesson we had was at my flat, and she decided to try something different. We labelled everything in my kitchen that I didn’t know the names of already. I’d been meaning to do this for ages but hadn’t got round to it. We did this entirely in English, with me asking ‘How do you say…?’ in English. I was never forced to use Russian, and I forgot to try. I could have practised using the words in sentences and spelling them – although I can read Russian confidently now, I still have no idea how to say a lot of the letters. We could also have played a describing game again, but I didn’t think about that until I was writing this.

Russian has taken over my kitchen!

Russian has taken over my fridge!

When I have time, normally in three- to four-hour blocks about every six weeks, I transfer the language in my class notebook to a vocabulary notebook, organised by topic. This is the first time I’ve tried this approach, and I mostly use it as a dictionary. Copying the words/phrases helps me to recognise them, but I haven’t really used the notebook to learn.

My vocabulary notebook - pictures

With pictures and colours where possible…

My vocabulary notebook - English

…with English where it’s not. (or when I run out of motivation)

My vocabulary notebook - mix of pictures and English

With colour-coding to show grammar patterns

I also use index cards to write out grammar and some vocabulary sets, particularly those connected to time. I try to have as little English as possible on the cards, and use regular layout and colour-coding to help me reduce the need for English. If there is English, I often write it in tiny letters that are difficult to see – I want Russian to be the first thing I see when I look at the cards.

Russian index cards

Verb conjugation, time and reflexives

Index cards everywhere! Time time time...

Time index cards, showing colour-coding

I then blu-tack them all over my flat. (Blu-tack is the one thing that I always take with me when I move to a new place!)

Index cards everywhere!

Cards start on the cupboard I look at when I’m getting ready in the morning/doing my physio exercises

On the front door

They graduate to the inside of my front door when I think I know them. (Loosely arranged by grammar point, e.g. verbs at the top, and with the really easy stuff at the bottom)

Surrounded with postcards to be more interesting!

Surrounding them with postcards makes me more likely to look at them (maybe…)

This is what my desk looks like in the process:

My desk when I'm studying Russian

 

Some conclusions

  • Both the teacher and the student(s) need to have a lot of willpower to conduct the lesson entirely in the target language.
  • The student also needs to be given the classroom language they need to be able to operate in the target language.
  • The teacher needs to be flexible, to respond to the language that the student needs, the time they have available, and the mood they are in.
  • The student needs to make an effort to study what has been learnt in class.
  • Language should be introduced in context, rather than as isolated items. It should be learnt as chunks to start with, then pulled apart for grammar later.
  • Seeing language once is not enough. Students need to manipulate it, play with it, say it, use it, in class to help them remember it.
  • The student needs exposure to real language in the classroom environment to prepare them for what they will encounter outside the classroom.

Some methodological terms which I can hear you shouting at me

Comprehensible input

Lexical approach

Repetition

Dogme

What did I forget?

What’s next?

March and April have been pretty busy, both personally and professionally. They came not long after I’d finished Delta, and this week off has been a great opportunity to catch up and get a handle on a lot of things. Most of the things you can see in the photos in this post were written out in a one-day marathon study session. Three days later I had another whole day of study, which meant I finally finished copying everything out and caught up. This is something I want to avoid in the future!

I have therefore decided that in May I am going to try something (new) for thirty days and study Russian for 10 minutes every day. This could include any of the following activities:

  • Using my sentence cards, where I try to remember them/write them out
  • Reading my index cards out loud
  • Testing myself using my vocabulary notebook
  • Playing on Quizlet
  • Reading one of the free magazines/newspapers I’ve collected – highlighting the words I can understand
  • Watching a YouTube video in Russian, like Cheburashka or Russian Winnie the Pooh
  • Listening to a song and reading the lyrics (I need suggestions for this)
  • Writing a short text in Russian, including to Ann (who I wrote one short email to last time she suggested this!)
  • Recording myself speaking, then listening back and correcting it

Any other ten-minute activities I could try? I’ll let you know how it goes at the end of the month!

Update: here’s part two of the post, showing what I did over the following few weeks.

Writing journals with students

When I was working at IH Newcastle, I taught the same group for 20 hours a week, four hours a day, divided into two two-hour lessons. That’s quite a lot of time with the same group, and yet I sometimes found it difficult to get to know the students with any kind of consistency or depth, especially because there was so much coming and going: new students could arrive Monday morning, Monday afternoon and/or Tuesday morning, and every Friday some students left.

I decided to try an idea I’d first heard about at TESOL France in November 2011: journal writing. By the time I left Newcastle I’d done it successfully with groups at three different levels, with slightly different approaches in each case.

For all three levels, students wrote in small A6 notebooks from the school. I think this is the perfect size, as they’re not too daunting and it’s relatively easy to fill a page. When I introduced the journals for the first time, I asked the students to tell me anything they thought I should know about them. They could also ask me questions, about life in the UK, about English, or about me. I think it’s only fair to give them the chance to ask about me, if I want them to talk about themselves in this way. They had time in class to write their response. I then collected the journals and spent about an hour each day responding to all of them, with some correction (depending on whether I wanted that particular student to focus on accuracy or fluency when writing). As far as possible, my response consisted of answering any questions they’d asked me, then asking further questions as a prompt for the next day’s journal writing. The questions could be linked to things the students had told me, or on a completely new topic. The topics we covered in the journals were incredibly wide-ranging, and differed from student to student. They also informed some of the lessons I taught, by showing me what my students were interested in. Here are some of the things I remember talking about:

  • why the English drink so much
  • why Tesco is so popular
  • the North Korea/South Korea divide
  • the riots in Turkey
  • how to become a state school teacher in Spain
  • films and TV series (a lot!)
  • books
  • places to visit in Newcastle/the UK/the students’ own countries/cities
  • language learning (including advice on how to practise outside class)
  • family
  • homesickness
  • computer games
  • card games/tricks
  • …and much, much more…

When the students left my class and/or the school, I gave them their journals to take away with them.

Pre-Intermediate

This was a group with a lot of Arabic students who were very reluctant to write generally, but who were very willing to write in the journals. I think this is because it was writing with a real purpose, and they could see that I was correcting them. It was also important for them that I was showing an interest in them as individuals, by responding to what they wrote on a personal level. There were non-Arabic students too, and the journals gave me a chance to see everyone’s writing regularly.

With this group, I did the journals at the end of the lesson, which meant we didn’t always do them if an activity ran over. I tried to leave about 20 minutes, with the first 10 being for a regular spelling test, as this was a real problem area. All of the spellings in the test were collected from the journals – I recorded the mistakes in a list in my notebook, which I then put onto Quizlet. Each time we did the journals, I would dictate five spellings for the students to put in the back of their notebook. After the spelling test, they had writing time to respond to my comments and questions and/or continue the conversation in any way they chose. Sometimes I would ask them all to write on a specific topic. Here are some examples of writing they did after my mum visited the class, in which you can see the kind of feedback I gave.

Pre-intermediate student journal sample Pre-intermediate student journal sample Pre-intermediate student journal sample Pre-intermediate student journal sample Pre-intermediate student journal sample

Intermediate

Despite the success of the journals with the pre-intermediate class, I didn’t start using them for a while with the intermediate group – I’m not sure why! When I did, I did a lot less correction with them. We also didn’t do a spelling test as part of the journal writing, although I did collect the spellings and do occasional tests and games with them in class instead. As soon as I started using the journals, the dynamic in the class changed and my rapport with the students really improved as we all got to know each other better. The quiet writing time at the end of most classes was also good for the more introverted students.

Advanced

Again, I didn’t start using the journals straight away, but I did use them for over two months. For the students who wrote them for that whole time, there was a marked improvement in the quality of their writing and in the length of their responses. What was quite noticeable with this group was that they really tried to incorporate new vocabulary and grammatical structures into their journals. Their written comments and questions were also sometimes language-related. For example, after a lesson on collocations with ‘get’, one student told me about all the phrases with ‘get’ he’d heard his host family use the night before.

I finally learnt from my pre-int/int experience and moved journal time to the beginning of the lesson. As students came in I gave them their journals and they started writing straight away. This was a great way to cater for latecomers, and gave the students the chance to write for as long as they needed to (normally 15-20 minutes) instead of being rushed by the end of the lesson approaching/arriving. While the students were writing, I would normally have a conversation with one or two of the students in a kind of mini tutorial. At this level I underlined problems/mistakes but didn’t correct them, so they had to ask me if they didn’t understand what the problem was. I could also use this time to talk about other areas to work on, unrelated to the journals, and to provide some intensive, targeted practice.

This was the class I was teaching when I left Newcastle, and in my final lesson with them I asked for some feedback on the journal writing process. I asked them:

  1. What did you think about writing the journals?
  2. Do you think writing the journals helped you?
  3. How could I improve this activity?

These are their exact responses:

J

In my opinion, it’s a very good idea to get them pupils to write.

It’s more interesting than other writing exercises, because it implies a conversation (between teacher and student).

In all my other classes I barely wrote. That’s not very good because it’s one of my sticking points in English and therefore it was the perfect exercise for me.

This student had been a bit frustrating for me, as I couldn’t seem to get through to him. Writing the journal improved my rapport with him, and gave us things to talk about. It also really focussed on his weak point, which was writing as he said. I was pleasantly surprised by his feedback.

K

The journals are a good way to test student’s writing and get to know them, so I think it is very useful.

R

What did you think about writing the journals?

It was a good experience. We tried to use the vocabulary we learned before so it was a good way to practise. It’s also interesting because we wrote about thing we like.

How could I improve it?

I have no idea.

L

1. I really liked writing the journal because it’s a way of knowing each other better and practicing my writing. It’s an interesting thing and I enjoyed doing it. The good thing is that now I’ve something to remember you!

2. As I said before I honestly think that it really helped me, because you corrected my mistakes and I hope I won’t make them again.

3. I’d say that you don’t need to improve it. It’s great the way it is!! It doesn’t need an improvement.

(As you see, I’ve used different ways of expressing my opinion) (something we’d practised in class that week!)

N

I’ve never done it before. For starters I was surprised, but got used to it.

– make language problems obvious. Sometimes I haven’t been aware of this à good to know so that I can work on it.

– Go ahead with these journals, a piece of individual teaching in a large group!!

– Definitely!

– Nothing to complain about J

T

1. Very positive. Please go on with it. I think it’s positive to learn about your students. You can immediately evaluate them for their writing skill. For the students is good to write about their daily life.

2. For me it was helpful. Actually I know my weak point and I will try to improve it.

3. The booklet should be bigger. Nothing else to add.

Your turn

As you can see, the journals made a real difference with these groups, and as one of the students said, allowed me to provide ‘a piece of individual teaching in a large group’. Although they probably took an hour or so of my time each day to check, the pay-off in terms of the improved rapport and needs analysis were worth it. When you’re teaching the same group all the time, you don’t necessarily need to do the journals every day, but it’s a good routine to get into (and provides 20 minutes of ready-planned lesson each time!)

I haven’t tried this with my groups in Sevastopol yet, but now that I’ve written this post, maybe I will. I could introduce it, with them making the first entry in class, then give the students the chance to write their journals at home if they want to continue with it. Hmm…

Another post you might be interested in: Writing and Marking

Ways to practise your languages

One from the archives, from my first year of post-Celta teaching. I’ve just found this file on my computer, last opened on 1st April 2008. I’m still pretty happy with it, although I’d probably make it a lot longer now! What do you think?

(You can download it by clicking ‘slideshare’ and logging in – it’s free to create an account, and you can link via facebook if you want to.)

International House Newcastle Personal Study Programme (IATEFL 2013 presentation)

My presentation for IATEFL Liverpool 2013 is an introduction to the Personal Study Programme (PSP) which we run at IH Newcastle. It was part of the Learner Autonomy SIG day.

If you couldn’t be there, or you want to relive it, here is a recorded version:

You can also read about PSP on the IH Newcastle website.

Feel free to leave me a comment if you have any questions or suggestions.

Note: thank you to Amy Brown for helping me to put the presentation together.

Update:
A few bloggers have very kindly responded to my presentation. I will post the links here if you are interested. Please let me know if I have missed any:

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