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

Posts tagged ‘professional development’

Making the most of blogs (IH Brno Sugar and Spice conference, March 2017)

On 4th March 2017, I went back to my roots to present at the IH Brno local conference, this year called ‘Sugar and Spice’.

Brno Cathedral

This one-day conference is where I did my first full-length conference presentation in 2011. That presentation was called A Whole New World of ELT and was about all the many ways you could develop your teaching using online resources. My presentations now are much more pared down and focussed, and (I hope!) more accessible because of that – when I first started I tried to pack way too much in there. I was also seduced by new toys at that point and made an all-singing, all-dancing Prezi, which makes me dizzy looking at it now, and took hours and hours to make. Simple PowerPoint slides are definitely the way to go!

The presentation I did this time round is an updated version of one I’ve done twice before. You can watch a webinar version done for the British Council, or read a text version based on the presentation I did at Innovate ELT in 2016.

The blogs which I recommended in this version were:

I had a brilliant time at the conference, including seeing Hana Ticha present for the first time and taking part in a Live Online Workshop from the conference, which will be available as a recording soon. Thanks for a great weekend, IH Brno!

Incomplete thoughts

All of these are thoughts I want to turn into blog posts at some point, but for now, they’ll just remain as sentences and the thoughts will be pursued in my head. I know there are probably books and blogposts out there which build on some of these thoughts. I may even have read/be reading some of them, and they are shaping these thoughts. But I wanted to have a record of them to see where I am and where I’m going. I may not think any of these things in a few months. In no particular order, but numbered for ease of reference in case people choose to comment…

It’s not a pleasant thought, John, but I have this terrible feeling from time to time that we might all just be human.
– BBC Sherlock, series 4, episode 2

  1. The way I teach and the way I study languages are increasingly at odds with each other. Trying to pull back by changing my teaching, but it’s a long slog.
  2. I’m not comfortable with the term ‘freer practice’. I don’t think it does what it’s supposed to. I also almost never get to it anyway.
  3. Most of a language teacher’s job is nothing to do with the teaching of language, but is in fact about the building of confidence, moving students towards ‘It doesn’t matter’: It doesn’t matter if I make a mistake: the world will not end. It doesn’t matter if I don’t understand everything: we can all do more than we think we can.
  4. Learning to teach and learning a language have a lot in common, in the same way as learning any new skill. Time, patience and an acceptance that you will never be perfect all help.
  5. Prompted by Damian Williams at IATEFL 2016: Language awareness is two-fold: knowing about the language and having an instinct about what is correct. One skill which needs to be focussed on more is writing. Native speakers should be given guidance on how to do this once they’ve left school, not just non-natives. An English teacher should strive to have the best command of the language they are able to, and we should help them to develop this, not just teaching skills.
  6. I kind of think I finally get task-based learning. I’m trying it out. At least I think I am.
  7. There’s not enough of a focus on memorisation within lessons, especially before speaking/freer practice activities. How can students really internalise the language? This is an important step before we can expect them to use it.
  8. Maybe a good lesson shape: meaning-focussed task, build on some of the language students needed or an area you think they would benefit from, memorisation/ internalisation through some kind of challenge, another meaning-focussed task. Don’t expect them to use the language you focussed on: it’s there to be noticed, then actively used when the students’ language system is ready to absorb it after whatever incubation period is necessary. This may vary from student to student. Is that TBL? Dogme? None of the above?
  9. The way we approach grammar teaching across a series of levels confuses more than it helps and is incredibly inefficient in the long run. How can we introduce the more general rules proposed by Lewis in The English Verb as early as possible and help learners see connections? I’ve tried this sometimes, but only really with intermediate and above as a way of clarifying links between grammar structures. What about making that the first way the language is introduced? Would you need L1 to do this efficiently? (I suspect Danny Norrington-Davies may help here, though I don’t have the book yet, so I’m not 100% sure) [affiliate links]
  10. Prompted by Julie Moore at the IH AMT conference: we should differentiate more between the language we expect students to produce, and the language we just want them to understand receptively.
  11. Chunks, chunks, chunks. But how to teach and practise a large enough amount of them so that students really remember them other than through rote learning? And who decides/should decide which ones are worth learning?
  12. If we really want students to get lots of exposure to the language, then the easiest way to do it is probably through listening, since so many of us are plugged in all the time anyway, and it can serve as background noise to life. But then we need to teach students how to listen. And that includes connected speech. But that might not be what they need if they’re in an English as Lingua Franca environment. But then will they get enough listening anyway? But they might get most of their exposure through films, video games and music where connected speech is probably necessary. But but but…
  13. We can’t force our students to be motivated. But without motivation they will never really get anywhere. It’s exposure to the language that provides the tipping point across various thresholds. I’ve only ever really managed this in country, but so so many people don’t get that opportunity, but still manage to get to very high levels in foreign languages. I admire them and would love to know how they do it. Where do they find the time? It’s so much easier to watch, listen to and read things in my language. Two pages a night in a foreign language is enough for me!
  14. Training, blogs and methodology books should never be divorced from a current and up-to-date grounding in classroom teaching. It’s all well and good telling people how to do things, but if you can’t do it yourself, consistently, when you’re tired, overworked, and have a million other things to think about, then it’s all just wishful thinking. We all know deep down that e.g. coursebook-based lessons probably don’t reflect how languages are actually learnt. We all know there are a thousand other things we could do in the classroom that might be more efficient. But time. And sanity.
  15. There are things which are very wrong with the state of ELT and with our profession. We want to change them. But change takes patience and perseverance. Lead by example. Speak, do, don’t shout, show patience. Ranting and railing just get people’s backs up, and may even make people dig their heels in. Be patient. Change will come. Change has already come. Notice what we have done, not just what is yet to be done. Celebrate progress and others will want to celebrate with you.
  16. Mental bandwidth is a thing. You can only think about so many things at once. The balance of how you use your bandwidth changes as you build up experience and things become more automatic. Understanding this idea might help people not to be so hard on themselves.
  17. Training shouldn’t just be about teaching. It should include things about the day-to-day realities of being a teacher. How to manage your time. How to communicate effectively. How to manage your managers. How to find work. How to have a work-life balance. How to avoid ruts. How to stay sane.
  18. My job is not to pull, but to push. Push the school to where we think it should be. Push the teachers to achieve what they can as efficiently as possible. Push people together to strengthen everyone’s networks. Push myself to keep developing, so I can demonstrate what I believe, not just talk about it.
  19. If I really believe something, then I should show it through my actions. Incremental changes in my life have made me happier and healthier. There are more of these to be made, but I am in no rush. I will make them when I am ready. And if I don’t make them in time, then it’s nobody else’s problem but mine.
  20. You can learn from everyone. But you should not let what they think govern what is happening in your head. Your head is your space. You decide who and what to let in.

It looks like some of those thoughts were deeper than I suspected! Maybe this shows you some of my beliefs and principles. I always find that kind of thing hard to pin down. Maybe I’ll get round to writing more about some of these. Maybe not. But now at least some of them are out of my system. Happy New Year everyone!

Happy birthday IHJ!

The IH Journal has turned 20 this month, and to celebrate Dominique Vouillemin has edited a special edition of the journal pulling together the traditional columns and a selection of anniversary treats. His editorial gives you a taster of what’s available. The full edition is available for you to read online or download. My own contribution to the journal is called ‘Travelling back through our profession’, and was inspired by Chia Suan Chong and the TEFLology podcast. It’s on pages 36-37 of the journal, or is on the site.

ih-journal-20th-anniversary-cover

Here’s to the next 20 years!

Travelling back in time

Having recently recorded a lesson, I thought it would be interesting, if excruciating, to go back and re-watch myself teaching from mid-Delta. You can watch too if you want to join in the fun 😉

These are my impressions:

  • I’ve lost a lot of weight, and I’m so much happier and healthier for it! (Yep, that’s the first thing that struck me!)
  • My lessons flow much more now, with better pacing. There’s a dramatic reduction in the amount of time I spend at the board/doing open-class work.
  • I’m more confident when dealing with language now. Much less looking at a piece of paper to check things.
  • My God I was talking slowly! Although that may reflect the level of the students – I can’t remember if it was intermediate or upper intermediate, but I think I could have spoken at a more natural speed.
  • Everything was at the board here and open class. I’d be much less likely to do that now, unless I’m mopping up. I also appear to be telling the students lots of things, rather than checking if they already know it by getting them to discuss it in pairs.
  • My board work was already fairly well-organised, and I was using different colours to differentiate information. I can’t remember what happened in the rest of the lesson, but it looks like I’ve written everything on the board. That must have taken quite some time – time when I wasn’t paying attention to the students…
  • There wasn’t much thinking time for the students after some of my questions. The language appears to be appropriately graded.
  • The staging of the questions appears to be logical and the questions are all clear.

I wrote the above list while watching the video saved on my computer. I’ve just found the original blog post, and noticed some of my opinions/beliefs have changed too. For example “I think I was speaking at a manageable speed, using appropriate language, with some repetition, as you would get in normal language. I do speak faster to these students at times, but I feel in a grammar lesson it’s better to take your time.” which is not what I thought when watching it this time, especially when I realised they were upper intermediate!

Sandy at the board clarifying borrow and lend from a 2013 lesson

I also realised there’s actually another post about an intermediate class, this time with two videos. Here’s what I thought on watching those:

  • My instructions were fine, not as bad as I remembered, but not as good as they could have been. Some chesting of the handout, some instruction checking, instructions before handouts… I think the main problem with them seems to have been a lack of demos/examples.
  • The first time I was drilling without visuals, so students were saying, not reading. This is good! I also made everybody join in. Later in the lesson they were reading from the board though – no memorisation here. There were some supporting gestures and a bit of connected speech (‘to’/’from’) too, plus one example of drilling from phonemes. Now I suspect I’d put structures like “lend sth to sb” into a ‘real’ sentence, like “He lent the pen to her.”
  • I reminded students that “There’s never idle time in classes. That’s your remembering time.” Didn’t realise I was already doing that before – I thought that was a relatively new thing. There are also other bits of learner training: highlight the things you had problems with, use two colours to copy information and a reminder to use Quizlet, which was obviously a routine with this group as I didn’t have to tell them any more about it. I also must have used Edmodo with them, which I’m out of the habit of using with my students now (just some of my trainees).
  • Clear board work again 🙂
  • There was an opportunity for some dictionary work with the prepositions and the money words potentially.
  • I emphasised that the preposition should be learnt with the word: a bit of lexical chunking (though prompted by the book, and not sure I realised I was doing it)
  • Giving students the opportunity to work out the language themselves, although again in open class. Now I’d get students to discuss it in pairs first, then feedback in open class.
  • The borrow/lend focus included students’ names, making it a tiny bit more personal.
  • I made sure I had their attention during the clarification, and gave them separate writing time afterwards.
  • Wait time was better in this clarification than in the first video.
  • Nice bit of comparative linguistics about ‘borrow’ and ‘lend’ 🙂

So it turns out another benefit to recording yourself – you can come back to it later and see how much you’ve improved/developed/changed, just as you might by recording a student and saving it for the end of the year 🙂 Oh, and it wasn’t quite as excruciating as I thought it might be!

Watching myself teach (again)

A few days ago my students agreed to let me record their lesson. Thanks very much to Mike for doing the honours! Unfortunately we didn’t get the whole lesson, because the camera ran out of space, but 50 minutes was plenty. I was working with a group of upper intermediate students from English File Upper Intermediate 3rd edition, and this was my tenth lesson with them.

Four images of Sandy in class - two giving instructions, one with a hand up for silence, and one writing on the board

The last time I watched myself was during the Delta, about four years ago. You can see the videos here. I enjoyed the experience much more this time round, partly because I have a great group of students, and partly because I can see just how much I’ve progressed.

My instructions are now almost always clear and concise, and I’m much better at waiting for students to listen to me. I indicate changes in pairs or groupings and wait for students to move before the rest of my instructions, show the materials as I speak, and check instructions so the whole set-up is much more efficient. Monitoring is more consistent, for understanding of the task, task completion and language. I’ve recently started using the board more consistently for emergent language, and am developing the information I include there. I was pleased that I gave students time to write down this language as I don’t always remember it.

There is still the occasional lack of wait time for students to answer my question, I should have introduced the phonemic chart before students looked at the sounds on the board, and I need to incorporate more of the language that I write in my notebook into future lessons, though at least I’m normally getting it into the lesson which I write it down in. In fact, it’s important to get a lot more recycling and revision into all of my lessons.

The part of the lesson which wasn’t recorded consisted of finishing the pronunciation practice, including differentiating between /u:/ and /ʊ/, which the group particularly struggled with, and then giving them some speaking practice about clothes and fashion. For the first time in a while they had a chunk of time to do this, which was long enough for me to conduct a speaking assessment, one of the regular assessments we do. It also gave them freer practice, something which I often struggle to get to, and am trying to work on at the moment.

All in all, I think this was probably my most successful lesson with this group, mostly because for the first time this year I didn’t try to cram too much in. The students were engaged throughout, and I believe we only focussed on the language that caused them problems after we’d completed the initial test.

Things I’ve learnt about my teaching this week

This week I have taught:

  • 3 hours with my new upper intermediate adult class (who are actually mostly older teens);
  • 3 hours of cover with a low A1 kids’ group;
  • 2 hours with a 121 who I’ve been working with over the summer;
  • 3 hours of cover repeating the same lesson with two different high A1 adult groups.

This is easily the most teaching I’ve done in a single week for over two years, since I started out as a CELTA tutor and then a DoS. It’s also probably the largest number of students I’ve had contact with in a week since I finished my Delta. While it’s been pretty tiring on top of my DoS responsibilities, it’s also been very invigorating, and has helped me to realise a few things about how my teaching has developed over the last couple of years of self-reflection and training others.

I never used to enjoy teaching kid’s classes. Despite knowing the theory of how to approach them, I could never put it into practice. I’ve now spent a year working in an environment where there is a lot of training for teaching kids and teens, with teachers who are great examples to learn from, as well as tried and tested routines and discipline systems which are used across the school. I was also the local tutor for a teacher doing the IHCYLT for teaching young learners and teens. This was useful revision, as it’s six years since I finished mine. I discovered that I now really enjoy these lessons 🙂 It’s been a long time coming! Having the security of routines wasn’t just good for the kids: it also meant that I knew what to do at any given time in the lesson, especially for the all-important beginning and end of the lesson. It probably helped that it was a relatively small group, but I felt in control throughout the lesson, and felt that my plan was right for the level and interests of the kids. This is a huge step forward for me, and I’m even considering timetabling myself for a kids’ class next academic year, something I was very reluctant to do before (!)

Another area where I’ve noticed a massive improvement is my activity set-up and instructions. This is particularly important for lower levels, and between the four lessons I taught with them last week, I only had one activity where the students didn’t understand what I wanted them to do. This was entirely my fault, as I knew it would be a potentially complicated activity, and I hadn’t thought through the instructions carefully enough, but I managed to rescue the situation pretty quickly through a demonstration, which is what I should have done to start off with. Although I still forget them sometimes, demos have now become much more natural for me, and have led to a massive decrease in the amount of time I spend setting up activities and solving problems when the students don’t understand what to do.

With the upper intermediate group, I also set up a series of routines right from the first lesson. One of these is journal writing, and another is extensive reading, something which I already knew was useful, but now understand more of the theory behind thanks to the Coursera course I’ve just completed.

My 121 student showed me that my language awareness is now pretty comprehensive, as I was able to deal with pretty much any language question she threw at me without having to look it up. When I did need to use a reference tool, I was able to confidently access a corpus, something which I had no idea how to do a couple of years ago. I also managed to explain some of the fundamentals of grammar based on what Lewis says in The English Verb [affiliate link] using this diagram, something which I’d like to develop more in the future – this one was created on the spur of the moment!

Rough diagram based on Michael Lewis's The English Verb

The way that my own teaching has come on makes me feel much more confident about supporting all of the teachers I’m working with. We’ve got another exciting year ahead at IH Bydgoszcz, and another great team. I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes us.

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

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

Coursera logo

Things I liked

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

Things I didn’t like so much

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

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

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

Overall

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

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

Why I’m doing it

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

Coursera logo

First impressions

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

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

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

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

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

Featured blog at Lang LTC

Featured blog banner for Lang

Thanks a lot to Lang LTC in Warsaw for featuring my blog as part of the Edu Blog Fest on their facebook page this week. They’ll share a selection of my posts, with different ones each day, along with some ideas by their teachers inspired by those posts. Here’s the link to the first post and to their facebook page, which has a different featured blog every week, and is full of great ideas for teachers of all languages, not just English.

Choosing where to do your Delta Module Two?

Sue Swift has just posted this very useful list of questions for anybody thinking about where to study for Delta Module Two. I’d recommend working your way through them, not only to check with your course provider what their answers are, but also to give yourself an idea of things that might go wrong during the course and think about what you can do about them. This will help you to feel more prepared going into the course.

Good luck!

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