Thursday, 26 April 2012

ELTpics and Art

ELTpics has to be my favourite discovery this month, and like so much else that is influencing my teaching now, I heard about it through Twitter.  It couldn't be simpler - you can contribute photos by tweeting them using the hashtag #eltpics, and they will be added to the ELTpics Flickr page by one of the curators: @fionamau (Fiona Mauchline), @sandymillin (Sandy Millin) and @cgoodey (Carol Goodey).  Then the photos are available for anyone to use as a teaching resource.  At the time of writing, there are 7,689 photos and videos available, arranged in 66 sets.

It's not only the quantity which is amazing, but also the skill displayed by so many of the contributors.  Quite simply there are gorgeous photos there on almost any ELT-friendly topic you can name - and if what you need isn't there, someone in the ELTpics community may be able to help if you tweet a request.  The tattoo picture in the presentation below was generously contributed by @mrsdkrebs (Diane Krebs).

So, today I used in class an old resource of mine, tweaked, improved, updated, and now using 100% ELTpics for the images.  It's a discussion-starter slideshow, which aims to get students discussing and defining what they understand, or will accept, as 'Art'.  It can be used with students at different levels with very little pre-teaching of vocabulary, and usually provokes a range of opinions.  If you want to download it, just go to my Slideshare page.  Enjoy:

Sunday, 15 April 2012

My First Lessons - Learning Curve

Long after memory of the actual lesson contents has faded, I can still vividly recollect the circumstances of my first lessons after qualifying as an English teacher.  Namely, I was in the middle of planning for my wedding, which was then only 3 months away.  I had actually been looking forward to a little bit of unemployment after finishing my CELTA, hoping that I would be able to devote myself to such pressing matters as the cake, the decorations and the entertainment at the reception.  Some chance, as it proved.

Although my ears were ringing with Cassandraic predictions that it was near-impossible for newly-qualified CELTA-ites to find employment in a British language college, I managed to do so less than a week after qualifying, after sending out only one CV: sometimes, the timing works out just right.  I was engaged immediately, to do cover work over the summer, with the possibility of being taken on as regular staff at the start of the next term.

Summer being the peak time for holidays, I covered just about every class in the college over the next few months.  It's probably just as well that I don't remember clearly what I taught, because I don't believe that much of it was very good. But here's some of what I learnt:

Lesson Length
On a CELTA course, you spend hours planning a 30- or 60-minute lesson segment, and then get feedback in minute detail.  You teach for 6 hours in total.  This seems like a lot.

That first week of cover, I taught for 6 hours every day.  So after the first day, my teaching experience had doubled.  I had a short feedback conversation during the first day, and also at the end of the week.  Other than that I was on my own.

Lesson Content
Teaching practice on a CELTA is like performing tricks.  It's all about you, and you want to show off all the techniques you've just learned.  You have a short time, so you keep the activities short in order to cram everything in.  Your lesson plans are insanely detailed, with everything timed to the last second.  Your demonstration class never get to sit still as you are constantly moving them to new partners, stand up, sit down, run to the other side of the room, pick things up off the floor...  Boy are they well drilled.  But what they actually take from the lesson after all of that is anyone's guess.

A three-hour lesson is long.  Loooooooong.  You can't approach it in the same way.  Also, 'real' students (sorry) don't want just games: they want, and need, to learn real, solid, meaty language.  It's all about them.

The Dreaded Textbook
We used textbooks in my CELTA classes, kind of.  They were the springboard for our own ideas (see above), which always seemed to involve cutting up paper into tiny tiny pieces.

Having a whole book to teach was a whole other matter.  After realising that my technique would have to change from the CELTA method, I at first swung too far the other way.  I stuck too closely to whichever book that week's class had been inflicted with, teaching without imagination or adaptation to students' needs.  (OK, with little experience and only a few days with them I was unlikely to work out what their needs actually were, so maybe I shouldn't be too hard on myself here.)

I could go on: I had to learn about homework, exam levels and preparation, about what students should be able to do at different levels (but can't always), and about paperwork, paperwork, paperwork.  The learning curve was incredibly steep, but that's the way it should be.  I know I'm a better teacher now than I was a year ago, and a much better one than I was two years ago.  And I know I'm still learning.  A year from now I hope to look back with horror at my present teaching (and blogging?!), because I will be able to see yet again how much I've learned in the interim.

In the early period, I think I learned most from the bad times.  It took 3 months to lose the feeling of dread at the start of every day.  I've been bullied by a member of staff and by a malicious student.  There's been stress, self-doubt and a bereavement that was like a punch in the gut.  There was a staffroom feud that poisoned the atmosphere for weeks.  You keep going.

Now, I get to learn from the good times as well.  How the atmosphere improves when those negative people leave.  How positive people can transform a working culture.  How a college that's willing to take a chance on a newly qualified teacher can be a great place to grow.  How students can be exasperating, contrary, inspiring, hilarious, diverse and marvelous.  How you can make contact with amazing educators through blogging and social media, and continually be inspired and challenged by them.

This is only the beginning - always.

Oh, and one more thing: I've learned that I love being married to my husband!

Monday, 2 April 2012

The Dictionary Question

Should students be allowed to use dictionaries in class?  This age-old question is growing more complex as smartphones proliferate, massively increasing the choice of dictionaries available, as well as the ease of using them.  The teacher who takes a stand against dictionary use faces an uphill struggle when students can simply reach for their phones, not to mention that it can be impossible to tell if the student tapping away on their phone is genuinely using a dictionary, or is instead texting or whiling away the time on Facebook.

Very pretty, but no way to learn English.
Over-dependence on dictionaries frequently leads to problems.  Students learn to distrust their own judgement and are reluctant to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words.  They read at a slow pace, convinced that it is necessary to understand every word of a text in order to understand the text, and in consequence they do not learn whole-text reading skills.

Worst of all, if they are dependent on a bilingual dictionary or translator, their knowledge of English exists in fragments.  Each word they learn connects back to a word in their L1 (whether or not that word is an exact counterpart), rather than connecting to other English words and forming a network.  English for them is a field of individual words, growing out of the bed of their L1.

What students need is for their L1 and L2 to be like two floors of a building.  There may be several staircases going between the floors, but if you are on the L2 floor, and want to move to somewhere else on that floor, you don't go downstairs to L1, walk across that floor and up another staircase to L2 again.  Instead, you walk across the L2 floor, following the network of connections that you have made between words in that language.  Careful use of a monolingual dictionary, whether paper-based, online, or available as a smartphone app, can encourage this, as long as students learn to use all the information in the dictionary entry, not just the spelling and the basic definition.

In my experience, very few students take the time to work out for themselves the meanings of dictionary abbreviations such as U or C for nouns, or T or I for verbs, let alone figure out the phonetic transcriptions or study the usages in example sentences.  So, most students will need dictionary training in class, comprising advice on how to choose and use a good dictionary, and 'dictionary drills' to rehearse and reinforce good dictionary skills.  For lower level students, a student dictionary at their level will be useful for basic vocabulary.  On the whole however, my belief is that dictionary use is best kept for self-study, and that classroom work should focus on developing the students' own vocabulary strategies and judgement.

Let's try extending the building metaphor to see how far it will go: the L2 floor has to be built from scratch.  In the beginning there will be loads of scaffolding and ladders, with rickety planks between them.  There will be areas of the floor that can't be reached, and the routes between the safe areas will be far from comfortable.  Metaphor still working?  I think so.  There will need to be extra routes between the two floors - ladders, poles and ropes.  Gradually you extend the scaffolding, and use it to put the floor down, removing the extra ropes and so on as you go.

And then you party.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Receptive Skills - Going Beyond the Textbook

Part 2 of my teacher development session moves on from Communication Games (see previous post) to Receptive Skills, in particular the sub-skills that students may miss out on developing if you just 'teach the book.'  Again, for experienced teachers this will not be earth-shattering material, but for newer teachers I hope it will be a useful recap, and maybe even give some new ideas.

First of all, Listening

Most textbooks include listening activities where students listen to a recording repeatedly, answer questions, then check the correct answers.  What they do not teach is listening skills.  And how often in real life do you get the chance to hear every word of something 2 or 3 times over, with exactly the same pace, intonation and emphasis, until you capture every nuance of it?  Book listening activities, however useful they may be in preparing for an exam (where you also typically hear everything twice) are a very poor imitation of real-world listening.

So how can students be helped to bridge the gap between graded recordings made by actors, and real-life speech with all its variety, not to mention messiness?  What skills do they need to practise?

Active Listening is one important area.  Imagine the difference between a classroom of students listening to a recording because they have to in order to complete a worksheet, and a group of people listening to something that interests, enrages, entertains, enthralls, or provokes them.  Which group is listening better?  Imagine also two conversations between friends: one in which A talks while B is silent and has a blank expression, and one where B responds to A constantly, with words, facial expressions, non-verbal expressions, but above all with their clear attention.  Which friendship is likely to grow stronger?

In this video from, Julian Treasure discusses why we all fail to listen, and recommends tactics to improve listening skills.

This video works well with high level classes to get them to think about how they listen, but even Elementary students can be taught the acronym RASA (Receive Appreciate Summarise Ask), and learn to apply these steps both when they listen to recordings, and in conversation.

Receive - Take it in
Appreciate - Think about it, absorb it, what does it mean to me? do I agree? / Hmm, Really? - ways that we show we are listening
Summarise - So you mean...
Ask - Find a question to ask about what you've heard.  (When teaching this method to students, there is no such thing as a stupid question.  A tiny step in developing Active Listening skills is still a step.)

I've touched on Social and Emotional Cues above, which is another key area where students need practice if they are to be able to talk with native speakers without causing unintentional amusement or offence.  Authentic resources are much better for this than textbook recordings made by actors, which typically have exaggerated intonation, and very few interjections or hesitations.  Try using video of real conversations, such as this excerpt from the BBC documentary The British Family.

I showed this to a Pre-Intermediate class, without any preparation other than telling them that they would see two people being interviewed.  After watching it, I asked them how the man and woman felt during the interview.  The students were unanimous that in the first section of the interview, the man disagreed or was angry with what the woman was saying, because he was completely silent, and stood with his arms folded and a frown on his face, not looking at her.  In the second section, he was still silent, but you could tell that now he agreed with her, because he smiles and makes eye contact with her, and at the end of the section he laughs.  In the final section, they both speak, overlapping and interrupting each other, and both are smiling, so you know that these are positive interruptions, not rudeness.  In other words, they understood a great deal from the recording, without even looking at the language.

Another area where textbook listening exercises fall down, is that they ask you to listen for 6 things during a recording, which will probably be spaced at fairly regular intervals.  In real life however, we frequently have to listen to a long spiel of information, most of which is not relevant to us, without drifting off sufficiently that we miss the One Detail that is not only relevant, but frequently vital.  Train announcements are an excellent example of this, such as the one below. 

Which platform is this train going to be at?  Is this the train for Arundel?  If it is the train to Arundel, where in the train do I need to sit?

(OK, so the visuals aren't great, mostly it's someone's finger, but the audio is useful - you get some background noise, a lot of unfamiliar station names, and the answer you want towards the end of a long list.  And if you get it wrong, maybe you won't get home tonight!)

I hope that some of the above has been useful - next time: Reading Skills!

(NB - I did not create any of the videos linked or embedded here, all rights remain with the creators.)