Saturday, 7 March 2015

Introducing the Language Academy of Ruban Vert

“I’m calling from Gabon.”

That’s not something you expect to hear when a phone call interrupts breakfast on a Saturday morning.

“We have a project to open a language school and we would like to invite you to oversee it. Would you be interested?”

It took a few seconds to click. I had sent my CV to a school in Gabon but it was for a regular language teaching position, not a language school project.

“We’ve reviewed your application and if you are interested, we are willing to bring the language school project forward from 2016 to now.”

One year on from that phone call, here we are!

Further discussion revealed this was an international school with further ambitions to offer a range of educational services in Gabon, including language courses for adults. The facilities would be the main school’s facilities but apart from that it was just an idea. My role would be to set everything up – the courses on offer, the syllabi, the assessment programme, teacher recruitment and training…
Up to that point, Gabon was not at the top of my preferred list of the different applications I had made but this opportunity to set up a school almost from scratch lured me in. Now, a year on from that phone call, we have just finished our first short courses and are ready for the second sessions. The rest of this post will summarise and reflect on the work that went into getting this school open.

Market research
My first task on arrival was to get to know the local ‘market’ (I hesitate to use that word following some recent debates but in the context of ‘market research,’ it will do). I started with Gabonese staff at the school who speak English and expats who had been here for a while before branching out to speak to the school’s business partners and associates. I simply asked them how they themselves had learned English and what they thought people would expect from a language school here. The conversations developed from there (conversation driven market research if you like).

A couple of interesting things came up in response to those initial queries. When talking about language learning experiences, most of the people I talked to never mentioned teachers or school. They told me about travel to Anglophone African countries, the UK and the US. They described their days studying in South Africa and how they had to get to grips with the language to understand the lectures. They talked about working for Shell and the US embassy here in Gabon. Only the European expats mentioned learning in a school environment and that was only to say how much they hated it!

Secondly, the expectations were interesting. Did they mention NESTs or NNESTs? No. Experienced teachers? No. Course books and study materials? Technology (the digital kind)? Class size? Specialised learning programmes? No, no, no, and no. So what was mentioned?
Exams and accreditation.

“Will you offer courses for TOEFL or IELTS? Will people be able to sit those exams in the language school?” Those are questions I was asked again and again. When I said we were looking into options for offering those exams but it would take some time, the questions changed to what exams we would offer internally and by whom they would be accredited. Even in the middle of Africa in a country with no permanent testing centre for TOEFL and people telling stories of travelling all the way to Ghana just to sit IELTS, the standardised test is king.

Materials and marketing
Once the market research was done, it was time to design a learning programme and individual courses. I had fancy thoughts before coming of working in a low resource context where perhaps courses could be run free from the shackles of publishers that were so pervasive during my time in Turkey.

But no such luck.

I am, of course, not really in a low resource environment. The language school is backed by an international school with a target clientele of businesspeople, local and expat, and diplomats with plenty of disposable income. They would expect, so I was told, all the same features they might find in a language school in Europe or anywhere else.

So, reluctantly, I started to contact publishers about their materials and whether or not they operated in Gabon. However, as has been told in another recent story of mine, I reminded myself that it is not all about the books. They should not define the courses we run and the lesson we have. They should merely be available as a resource. With that in mind, I searched for books that offered plenty of extra resources for study outside of class (workbooks, online materials, and so on) and were from a well-known publisher (for marketing purposes).

Speaking of marketing, it was an interesting experience to be involved in the creative process for brochures, posters, and online ads. This was especially true during the photo shoots (not as flash as it sounds – it was done in house with school equipment and personnel). We wanted some action shots of ‘classes’ in action. At one point, I was told to make myself more prominent in the photos. When I enquired as to why, I was told that it was not really clear from the photos who the teacher was. That, I replied, meant the photo was what I wanted!

French advertising for our classes

A flexible learning programme
Despite being unable to escape from published materials, I resolved to not be trapped by them. The learning programmes for our general and business programmes were sketched out long before our course books arrived. Once they were here (after a lengthy and expensive process of clearing customs, worthy of a few blog posts of its own) rather than make any changes, I simply mapped the content of the books onto the programmes I had already been working on. As I said, they were ’sketched out’ to offer the teacher and students as much flexibility as possible in terms of timing and progress.

I also went for short-term courses of 24 hours of class time over 6 weeks. This was part marketing so we could open new classes and/or add in new students at regular intervals and also so we had enough time to show some progress but without it turning into a slog. After six weeks would come an assessment and then a week’s break to recharge before continuing. As a rough guide, we aim to cover about a quarter the relevant book’s material in those six weeks (not necessarily sequentially) but if the class can progress faster, great, and if they need more time to go through things more slowly, that’s fine too. As long as they are getting the input they need at the pace they need it, they are happy.

(An interesting aside here when I compare my Gabonese experiences with those in Turkey – students in Turkey were very keen to progress as quickly as possible and would take the view that the higher the level they were in, the better even if it was too tough for them. Here, people tend to sell themselves short. One lady, having been placed in an intermediate level class, looked surprised and told me in these exact words “I think it would be better if I were to start in an elementary level class” !!!)

Dual stream assessment
As mentioned above, I scheduled an assessment for the end of each six-week programme. However, I deliberately avoided pencil-and-paper testing of grammar and vocabulary. Instead, I went for a programme like this: 
  • in the first week of class, each student completes a writing and speaking task, the results of which are used by the teacher to inform the direction of the course 
  • in the final week, the same writing and speaking tasks are repeated and then compared with the original attempts to show progress 
  • a self-assessment task is also completed at the end of the six weeks and discussed with the teacher in a feedback meeting 
  • there is also a skills-based assessment, focusing either on a reading text or an audio/video passage followed by comprehension questions and a related discussion and/or written task
I think this gives me as the teacher a much clearer picture of the students’ language abilities and development than a traditional exam. It also gives the student a much clearer picture. They are involved in the process much more and they get immediate feedback on what they did well and what they need to work on. In this way, I try to ensure the assessment is summative and formative at the same time – it is based on what we have covered but also used to inform our future progress.

Besides, as I mentioned before, the demand for exams is all about brand names – TOEFL, IELTS, TOEIC and so on. The students have the option to do external exams as well if they want/need an accredited ‘score’. We have accreditation for TOEIC in place already and we are progressing with Pearson to offer the LCCI JETSET exams (TOEFL and IELTS will be part of the long-term plan). When we already have these exams, why load the students with more in-house?

Future expansion plans
We have now been open for six weeks and the first round of classes has been completed with the second set to start after our mini-break. For now, the focus is on building a core group of general and business English clients and adding a few people interested in taking TOEIC this June.

Long-term there are plans for expansion in mind. We already have one contract with a local business and are aiming for a few more. EAP is also on the long-term plan with an increasing number of Gabonese young adults looking to go to English-speaking countries to further their academic studies. Together with an EAP programme, we are also looking into offering Saturday classes for teenagers next academic year as that is a demand that has emerged since we started taking enquiries and enrolments.

For now, we don’t want to push too far too soon but there are also longer-term aims to keep in mind: teacher training is one as we would like to reach out into the wider community and train up Gabonese people to be language teachers. That’s something I may not stay here long enough to realise but it is something I would certainly like to lay the foundations for.

Learning programmes with space in the syllabus to be flexible, responsive, and explore the language. Materials that are used to complement but not dominate our classes. Assessment that actually assesses and doesn’t just test. I knew it was possible. I just had to come to equatorial Africa to prove it!

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Two quick questions about #EdTech

I have been thinking a lot about the role of technology in class recently for a couple of reasons: 
  • it has been part of my online studies for my Trinity Dip TESOL (more on that in an upcoming series of posts) 
  • we had no internet at all in Gabon last week due to a major technical fault combined with all the telecom engineers being on strike (you can read about how that affected my lessons here

Disagree! (See below) – Image via @mattleddig via #eltpics

Much of the reading and discussion of the subject has focused on familiar ground: 
  • what is technology exactly? (including the pedantic idea that the board, pens, and paper are all ‘technology’ of some sort – can’t we just agree that by now ‘technology’ in these discussions refers to digital technology?) 
  • do we have to use it? (of course not! You don’t have to do anything! Like any other tool at our disposal though, it pays to be aware of its potential uses and affordances)  
  • ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ (why are we still talking about this when even Prensky himself has moved on? Growing up in a connected world does not make anybody naturally proficient at using tech)  
  • the interactivity of interactive whiteboards (interactive being used here in the person-machine and not the person-person sense)
As I have reflected on it all, (the best way to use tech, the times when not use it, why it is treated as a separate ‘field’ in education and so on), I keep coming back to two questions in my mind: 
  • If you suddenly found yourself with no access to technology (the digital kind!) would you still be able to do a good job of teaching your students? Or would you go into a blind panic? 
  • If you were suddenly told you had to start using a particular piece of software or hardware, would you be able to evaluate when and how to use it most effectively and apply that to your lessons? Or would you go into a blind panic?
Whether you use tech regularly or not, don’t be blind to what’s on the other side of the digital way – just look both ways before crossing!

Picture by Sue Lyon-Jones via #eltpics

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Personalise High

All the recent debate around Demand High seems to have died down a little but, as ever with these blog-splosions discussing different viewpoints, it has given cause for reflection about what we do in class and why. It also seems to have caused must discussion about what learners need and what they benefit from, which can only be a good thing.

Mike Harrison came up with the most resonating response for me (see his post ‘How I demand high, and how you could too’) as personalisation is something I have always felt is key to helping students of all ages connect with the language and practically use what they have been learning.

Image by @HanaTicha via #eltpics

And so it was I found myself in an elementary level language class yesterday evening with three adult learners working through a grammar-based activity much like the one featured in Jim Scrivener’s IATEFL Demand High talk. As the students were nearing completion of the activity, I found myself pondering some of the ‘Demand High’ ideas for reviewing the answers as well as the wider debate around it all.

But first some background on the students: one is a French lady who learned English at high school but hasn’t really used it since. That means she has gaps in her knowledge and struggles with forming sentences correctly, which affects her confidence when speaking. Another is a gentleman from Cameroon who performs well in grammar tasks but is also reluctant at times when speaking because he feels his Cameroonian accent impedes his ability to make himself understood. Finally, there is a Gabonese lady who speaks well for this level but immediately tenses up when faced with grammar or pronunciation work.

So, I have three students who for different reasons have inhibitions about grammar and/or speaking. We have only been together for four weeks so they are still getting into the routine of being back in the language classroom and we are still in many ways getting to know each other. The classroom relationship is still developing. And this is where my first issue with ‘demand high’ arises. If I followed some of the suggestions made to ‘play devil’s advocate’ even when the right answers were given or ask for the answer to be spoken in a different way, I can’t help but feel I would be harming their confidence. The two students who have concerns about their use of grammar need encouragement at this stage and not a teacher raising an eyebrow and saying “hmmm… Are you sure? Does anyone have a different answer?” The student who is reluctant to speak because of his accent needs coaxing to open up more and not be told ‘say it like you are surprised!’

My first priority with these learners is to minimise their fears. I agree with the ‘demand high’ idea of not lavishing praise on them or simply rubberstamping the correct (or nearly correct) answers but I take issue with the idea of taking it to the other extreme by not confirming a right or wrong answer either way and therefore creating doubt and confusion. My approach was first of all to get the three of them together to compare their answers. In the case of any discrepancies, they would need to decide which answer was right. This all happens without input from me and gives them a chance to confirm and clarify before we go through the activity as a whole group (of course, the three of them together is the whole group but it still makes a difference when they are placed in an intimate group and when they are ‘exposed’ to the entire physical space of classroom, teacher, and board).

When we check together, I do not of course simply run through the answers. Nor do I just focus on the mistakes or the alternatives. The key thing I feel I do is to bring a personal connection to the activity. Last night’s gap-fill focused on positive and negative statements with present simple and one of the examples was “My husband ________ the housework. (-)” Upon confirming the answer “My husband doesn’t do the housework” I asked the French lady, who is married, “is this true in your house?” She proceeded to explain that her husband doesn’t do much housework (great way to bring quantified statements into the lesson) but she understands this because he works long hours (thus adding reasons and explanations to simple statements.

The other students are not married so I asked them “who does the housework in your home?” (a nice pre-cursor to bringing in question forms). Again, a small discussion ensued despite their limited language.

A couple of lines down, there came the sentence “People in Britain don’t have ID cards.” This came as a surprise to them and led into another mini discussion about ID cards and the different information that is included on them in France, Cameroon, and Gabon.

Just small things maybe but these little tangents allowed us to make connections between the context-free examples in the exercise and our own lives and also gave us cause to explore the language a little deeper, looking at how statements can be adjusted and also reviewing/extending the personal information items we had covered a couple of weeks earlier.

There was no need to challenge, frustrate, create doubts, or demand high. All we needed to change a dry activity to a more productive one with the added benefits of giving them time to speak, explore the language, and grow in confidence was a personal touch. That for me is the way to engage students and ensure the lessons is not about ‘going through the motions’.

Personalise, and personalise high – doesn’t have much of a ring to it but it’s what the students need.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Paragraph Blogging–Sure, Demand High but Aim Well and Lower the Volume

It seems blogging battle lines have been drawn (at least in the ELT corner of the blogosphere with a few skirmishes spilling over onto Facebook) recently over the idea of ‘Demand High ELT’ (check the link for details). I’m not exactly sure where this has come from (no recent conference talk or article that I am aware of) but on the wagon I jump, tossing a couple of pennies on the way.

While I’m here, I thought I might as well jump on another bandwagon of ELT trendiness by trying out @AnnLoseva and @sprincait‘s idea of ‘paragraph blogging,’ which they almost literally put in the shop window for all to see recently (in case you’re wondering about my  seemingly ‘football speak’ use of ‘literally’ here, you should check out the photos on Anna’s original Paragraph Blogging post and Kate’s guilt-free offering).

Of course, @HanaTicha has already done the same thing on the same topic in her usual convincing style but we don’t have the same opinions so here I am. I am also aware that this introduction has already taken me far beyond a single paragraph but my real post doesn’t start until after this nice picture of a tall tree:

Image via Pixabay

I came across the idea of Demand High a couple of years ago when I reviewed a recording of Jim Scrivener’s IATEFL talk on this very blog. Several of the recent posts have criticised the whole concept of Demand High as being essentially nothing new, just two well-known writers and presenters in ELT circles almost desperately trying to start a trend or a movement of some sort. While I’m not inherently cynical enough to agree with the last part of that idea, I have found myself agreeing with the first bit. Reading back through my old post, I found most of the things I said I agreed with were things I already do and things I have been doing for a long time. Also, I agree with those who have been arguing that there is no need to go around conferences ‘introducing’ this idea to teachers. It is often a problem at such events that the attendees are keen teachers who push their students hard and try out different ideas and the speaker ends up preaching to the converted. I stand by the comments from my original reactions to the Demand High idea that we need to make sure teachers are expected to ‘cover’ a lower volume of material in class so they can do justice to a few key activities. That means this idea should be aimed at syllabus planners, materials authors, and decision makers – not the poor teachers who have to fit it all in and then be told that they are not demanding enough. Lower the volume of the demands and aim the identification of the problem and the offering of a solution at the right target.

Those other recent Demand High postings:
Enjoy reading!

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

My Story II–The Book(s)

“Better late than never” is my motto for blogging these days. This one is a late response to one of my favourite online CPD things – a blog challenge! It’s also a challenge set by one of my favourite online CPD people – Vicky Loras! Whoop!

The challenge is a simple yet effective one – share ‘your story’ about teaching, whatever that might be. It is in fact an extension of the original “What’s your story?” challenge of 2011, a challenge I also entered, and also entered later than most others – I am nothing if not consistent. ;-)

And so, this time I decided to tell my tale through that classic medium of stories – books.

Image fittingly by @VickyLoras via #eltpics

The opening chapter
Although it was over 12 years ago, I remember the day well – the excitement, the anticipation, the relief…. Finally, we would be able to teach classes based around a modern, vibrant, colourful, and ‘newly updated’ course book.

The teachers at my school had long bemoaned the lack of an up-to-date course book. We had longed for the ease of use, the materials pitched at the right level, the listening exercises, and the structured grammar syllabus of an official book.
And now we had it – Headway no less in all its shiny, glossy glory.

A step back
I spent the first two and a half years of my teaching career bookless. On my Trinity Cert course, we were encouraged to make our own materials and use realia with just the one occasion that comes to mind of being told to photocopy an activity from a book in the resource library to ‘see what it is like’.
“Once we get our first jobs, we’ll have course books and it will be much easier,” I often heard. Not so. I took my first job at a school that didn’t have a syllabus centred around a book.

Actually, that’s not quite true. There was a book, a hopelessly outdated and out-of-print series called Blueprint. As an example of how out-of-date it was, I recall a reading page on telephones that finished with the line “Nowadays, some people even have mobile phones that they carry with them and use to make calls when they are outside!!” Even in 2000, the accompanying photo of a woman with a huge perm and even bigger classes holding a device the size of a shoebox to her ear seemed old…

The story went that the school owner had bought a job lot of the books a decade earlier and was still trying to get rid of them. Whatever the reason, hardly any of the students had the book and teachers had over the years responded by making banks of supplementary materials (you can see some of my contributions here) which in turn had become the syllabus itself. It was, quite frankly, a mess.

A leap forward
By the mid-2000s, I was teaching kids. At first, I was sharing my classes with other teachers and I was instructed to cover the writing and speaking activities in each unit of the book. That was a great comfort to me in those days. I had never taught kids before and, even though the activities seemed remarkably dull at times, it was good to have something (anything!) to keep my little terrors at bay cherished little learning partners busy.

I later moved on to having my own classes for ten hours a week and again, a book seemed crucial to fill the time. This time, we had a colourful book called I Spy with lots of weird and wonderful characters (though it was weird in a different way that they all came from different periods of history but never taught the past tense, and it was extra weird that they never fitted in with the other background characters who were actually modern day spies but hey, ho what was I to know!)
I started to lose my love for the books when going through an unnecessarily agonising period of trying to choose a new one.Why were we choosing a new own? Because we had used I Spy for five years and other schools were not using it anymore. That seemed a strange reason to change books but hey, ho what was I to know! Our new book, Stardust, was equally wonderful and bizarre in good measure.

I started to realise at this time that the learning in my classes was actually taking place in the moments between using the books when my students and I interacted and made choices (but I have already told that story before). A dissatisfaction with the prescribed learning of these books and the idea of using them just because, well, that’s what language teachers do was growing inside me…

Back to the beginning
Except that this feeling of disquiet was nothing new. I had actually started to experience back in those early Headway days. It turned out the books we not the solution to all our problems. Although they made lesson planning and preparation easier and there were some great lessons (a murder mystery story involving an ice statue as the weapon springs to mind), they didn’t magically solve all our problems in class. Many students, used to their ‘hardcore grammar’ worksheets, rejected the higher emphasis on content stating they needed to pass exams, not read about marriage contracts or listen to people talking about their unusual jobs. Others found the magazine-style presentation reminiscent of the books their own kids were using in 7th grade. Many more found some parts of the courses too simple and other parts too hard. The books simply weren’t meeting their needs….

Dogme days
Having decided upon reaching my 30th birthday that I had been teaching for a while and I needed to do something to move my career forward, I enrolled in an MA. That meant I had the chance to interact with teachers from around the world and from a huge variety of ELT contexts.

Upon the discussion forums, I noticed some teachers mentioning ‘unplugging’ their classes and ‘doing dogme’. Intrigued, I did some searching online, found some blog posts, and boom! Suddenly, I was engaged in a dogme blog challenge and I was experimenting with student-centred and student-generated lessons.

That all led up to possibly my favourite period of my career to date, when I took an unplugged approach to preparing my students for the Cambridge Flyers test. We used students’ pictures, short stories, and dialogues to build up to the exam only using something ready-made when I brought a few past papers in near the end. How I laughed at the books I had previously had to use!
I hadn’t been doing this for years
It’s always a common comment with Dogme, Demand High and whatever else that the teacher has actually been doing that for years (or that it’s ‘just’ good teaching…) It would have been tempting to look back on my pre-Headway days and claim the same….

But, as I have already alluded to, that is not the case. When I had no course book early in my career, I was teaching proscribed grammar as much as anyone else. We were firmly plugged in with a grammar syllabus, ready-made handouts, and exams tied closely into it all. Teaching unplugged does not mean teaching without a book. I think I needed to teach with and without a book to know that…

Classroom realities
But the dogme bubble finally burst. The learning programme at my old school was restructured meaning that despite the praise I had received for my unplugged lessons and the level of engagement my students showed, when the publishers came peddling their latest book it was adopted and made mandatory.

I have since switched jobs and had the chance to open my own language school (more on that in future posts) – also the chance to go unplugged again, right? Well, not really as the key backers for the school wanted their ‘product’, something unique that was desired but difficult to get in Gabon – that turned out to be course books!!!

So, as Adam Simpson predicted in the first comment on my 5 Stages of Dogme treatise, there is a step 6 – back to the book.

Epilogue – It’s not the book(s)
But they main thing I have realised is that it’s not all about the books. They shouldn’t dominate the class or the conversation around language teaching. They are present in the majority of schools but as one of many resources, nothing more. The best learning takes place outside the books in the space of interaction between the people in the room. My story so far has told me that much, but I am sure there is a lot more to discover as well…

Thursday, 5 February 2015

How to Maintain Motivation in Students Who Are Running Out of Steam

It’s been busy, busy, busy, in Gabon of late as the language school I came here to run has started, well, running and I am about to embark on the Trinity Dip TESOL course. I have plenty of blog posts to write about all that but hardly anytime with which to write them. So, in the meantime, I shall keep this blog active with my first guest post in a while, courtesy of Paul Mains, an English language teacher based in Argentina, who has a few tips to share about keeping motivation levels up. Over to you, Paul…

It’s the bane of every language learner: after the initial excitement of learning a new language starts to wear off, the harsh reality of language-learning sets in. Indeed, picking up a brand new language isn’t easy; the path to fluency is long, winding, and fraught with challenges and frustrations. However, as teachers, there are some measures we can take to make our students’ journeys less taxing. If you have a student – or students – who are running out of motivation, steer them back on track with these pieces of advice:

Image via Marvin Lee (flickr)

1. Be honest with your students about the reality of language learning

Many people think that they’ll become fluent in a language simply by being exposed to it. This makes sense, as it’s how they undoubtedly learned their native language. As a native English speaker, I didn’t have to learn about phrasal verbs or memorize how to form the third conditional: it just came naturally to me.

Unfortunately, as anyone who’s learned a language later in life can confirm, learning a second language does not work the same way. Indeed, there is a stark difference between the way that a child acquires language and the way that an adult learns language, and the latter is much more difficult. If your students are feeling down about their progress, tell them to not feel discouraged: remind them that learning a second language is a slow process, and by doing so, they’re slowly but surely overcoming a huge challenge.

2. Engage with your students’ favorite target-language media

All foreign language teachers know the importance of using fun, interesting material in order to catch the attention of their students. But sometimes it takes a while to discover what really makes a student tick. Is it the slapstick sitcom humor of Friends? The intense drama of Desperate Housewives? The passionate music of Beyoncé? Spend some time getting to know your students and their interests, and whenever possible, incorporate their personal favorite series, movies, or musicians into your lesson plans.

3. Help your students find a pen pal

Having a personal connection in the target language is a great way to stay motivated and practice target language skills. Even in places where native speakers are not readily available, websites like Conversation Exchange make it easy to find a pen pal with whom your students can correspond through email or through video-chat.

Image via pixabay

4. Encourage your students to use the language while exercising

This may seem a bit far-fetched, but studies have shown that exercise provides a double advantage for language learners. First, it releases endorphins that improve mood and motivation, which will give your students more confidence and enthusiasm in their language skills. Second, recent research has linked exercise to increased memory, which will help your students retain what they’ve learned in class. So give your students some suggestions for target-language songs and podcasts, and tell them to listen to them while walking, running, lifting weights, or playing soccer.

5. Keep your eyes on the prize

Too often, learning a foreign language can seem like a series of random steps: today you’re learning about the present perfect, tomorrow you’re reviewing phrasal verbs, and while you’re certainly learning something, it’s not clear how exactly this will help you get to your end goal: fluency.

Take some time with your students to really think hard about where they want their language skills to end up. Imagine being able to hold a conversation with a native speaker, without hesitating, stuttering, or asking “What?” Or visualize what it’d be like to watch a target-language movie without having to pause and rewind. By envisioning the final product, your students will be reminded why they’re taking language classes in the first place.

6. Track your students’ progress

Learning a language takes a long, long time. Very rarely is it possible to consciously note the linguistic progress that you make in a single day, or even a week. For that reason, it can be easy to lose sight of the progress that you’ve made.

To prevent your students from feeling like their efforts are in vain, occasionally check in with them and help them see the progress they’ve made in clear, concrete ways. For example, perhaps you have a student who at first needed to use subtitles when watching a particular target-language TV show. Show her the same TV show without subtitles to prove to her that she’s made substantial progress. Alternatively, administer a language level test to your students every few months. This will enable them to monitor their own progress on their journey from A1 to C2.

Motivation ebbs and flows. As language teachers, we experience the joys of helping super-motivated students reach their goals, but we also have to be there for our students who find themselves discouraged, exhausted, or even bored. Hopefully, the advice in this article will help lift your students’ spirits when the going gets tough. Teachers: what are your favorite strategies for motivating your students? Share your favorite tips and tricks below!

Paul currently lives and teaches English in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language tutoring service offering personalized course packages to individuals and groups. Check out their free listening tests and other resources on their website. For more information, feel free to visit their Facebook page or contact with any questions.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Picture This–A favourite lesson from 2014

My first post of 2015 will be a quick one reviewing one of my favourite lessons from 2014. It’s easy to show you what the result of this particular lesson was as I captured it on my phone:

What you see is a map of an island and a shared memory of a school excursion but first of all, a little context – this is a Year 7 class of two students (both girls) who are enrolled as French first language students. However, they are both advanced level in English as one has a British parent and another is French but grew up in the USA until the age of 8.

We follow a specialised ‘language arts and language development’ in which we roughly follow the mainstream English programme but pause every so often to focus on refining and developing their language output (they are at that awkward stage of being almost fluent in English but are hampered from time to time by choice of vocabulary, pronunciation, the finer points of grammar, and choosing appropriate styles of English). They can get frustrated when they can’t quite find the right word or phrase and are on occasion reluctant about speaking at length (they are not fans of the ‘presentation’ formative assessment assignments we do, for example).

One hot, sunny day in early December (one of the best things about being near the equator!) they came to class in non-uniform dress clearly excited about something. It turned out they were off on a trip to the nearby rainforest as part of a joint science/geography project immediately after my lesson and they proceeded to share the details.

From there, they started to tell me about a 4 day trip they had been on the previous school year and very soon, my plan to get them researching a festival they didn’t know much about (which later became homework as you can see on the photo) had been shelved as I decided to see where this sudden enthusiastic flow of memories and information would lead.

They were soon up at the board, illustrating as they spoke. The picture they created over the course of the lesson is a map of an island in the middle of a lake in central Gabon. The boys and girls camps are marked at opposite ends of the island along with a separate “Teacher’s Island” nearby (each group of course having a different supervisor each night after dark).

The trails above the island show their boat trips and rainforest walkabouts and I got to hear about all the weird and wonderful wildlife they encountered. The red and green dots and lists of letters in circles represent a detailed retelling of the ‘capture the flag’ games they played and I also heard tales of students falling in the lake, struggling to make their own fires, telling ghost stories, and finding huge spiders in their cabins.

All of this was done with the two seamlessly interchanging, reconstructing, and coming to a mutually agreed version of controversial events. There were many moments when I could have jumped in to direct their enthusiasm and bountiful information into an activity or to pick up on a couple of minor improvements they could make to their output but I resisted the temptation. I also held back from asking them to consolidate everything into some kind of post-production written activity.

Why? Because they had held me as a captive audience for almost 45 minutes and I didn’t want to interrupt their flow or energy of their detailed description of the trip. I also didn’t want to deflate them by turning the focus to language points and making them think they hadn’t communicated clearly or well. I might have brought in an activity based on their input if they had started to run out of things to tell me or had brought it all to an end with lesson time still left but neither of those things happened so there was no need.

I also didn’t make the point immediately that they had spoken well at great length or that I had been impressed with their ability to communicate in partnership and support each other with extra details. I simply ended the lesson by thanking them for telling me about their trip and wishing them well for that afternoon’s excursion. I also took the photo as I said it would be a shame to just wipe off what was an integral part of their lesson.

We saved the reflective part for the next lesson when I pointed out how long they had been speaking (they were surprised) and asked them to think about how they had managed to keep up that level of enthusiasm and detail for so long. They decided that interest played a key role as did the fact that the trip was a shared experience. They also said that drawing out the map help them to visualise the memories as they recounted them.

And that was my favourite lesson – one where the students took control, communicated, collaborated, and co-constructed a detailed picture (literally and verbally). More of these is an aim for 2015!

Thursday, 18 December 2014

More Observations on Observation–Refreshed and Refreshing

It has been two-and-a-half years now since I blog-ranted about some of my experiences with observations: the standard criticisms, the almost nit-picking insistence on finding something ‘wrong’ with the lesson (even when the observer wasn’t paying full attention!), the going through the motions of being observed just to say you have been observed…

My negative viewpoint was obviously not helped by my initial experiences as a language teacher. It was also not helped by a closer-to-that-time experience (omitted as I was still working at that institution at the time of writing the post) in which I got a ‘surprise’ observation from my head of department. She entered the classroom all smiles but when I said we were doing a spelling test my would-be observer left the room in a huff complaining that I hadn’t informed anyone I was doing a test (why would I if it was a surprise observation?) I was promised a future surprise visit but it never came to pass…

That original post kicked off quite a discussion of what observations could and should be like. In the comments (and in a couple of other posts around the ELT blogosphere), teachers bemoaned their similar experiences, expressed sympathy for the busy and at times stressed observers, and talked about how constructive, focused observations would be of more use for all parties.

Looks refreshing! Image by Lulu Polar via #eltpics

Well, I am happy to say that my new job has given me a refreshing new experience with observations that has changed my outlook considerably. Last month, we were informed that it was time to begin the annual ‘performance review’ process. We had a meeting explaining the steps and how they would work. The steps were as follows: 

  1. Assignment of each member of academic staff to a supervisor. As an EAL teacher, mine would be the Head of Foreign Languages. 
  2. Arrangement of a meeting time to make an action plan. Crucially, this would take place before any observation and I was asked to come prepared having thought about strengths and in my teaching and areas I wanted to improve. 
  3. Meeting to decide on areas of focus for the observation. These would be decided in consultation with the supervisor, who would also go through the observation feedback form in detail.  
  4. The observation itself. The class, day, and time were all arranged in advance. 
  5. Post-observation feedback meeting. There would be a chance for self-assessment on the teacher’s part, a comparison with the thoughts of the supervisor, and discussion about the areas of focus, whether or not targets had been met, and what could be done to improve and/or sustain standards in the future.  
  6. A repeat of the process from step 2 onwards. A chance to show feedback had been taken on board.
Where had this process been all my teaching life? Not only having a pre-observation meeting but also having the time to reflect on my own strengths and weaknesses prior to it was invaluable. In the days leading up to that initial meeting, I analysed my own teaching very closely, deciding that I was letting a class of seven students work in the same groups too often (4 girls and 3 boys). I was also still struggling with timing, often having to abruptly stop lessons mid-activity as time was up.

We discussed these points in the meeting and also talked about potential solutions. I was also shown the observation sheet and got to see that the lesson in general would be evaluated in terms of student engagement, level of challenge, production, and classroom/activity management.

This all gave me plenty to think about ahead of the observed lesson, which would be with my Year 8 & 9 intermediate EAL group. I prepared a series of activities (of course, all the pre-observation steps gave me time to get a lesson I was confident in doing ready) and paid particular attention to how I would group the students at different stages and for what purpose.

And so it was that the day of my first official observation in 12 years (!) began (I was only ever observed by new teachers in my previous job not counting the spelling test!) My observer arrived on time and alert (and stayed alert for the whole lesson unlike observers past) and willingly got involved in a stage of the lesson I had planned as a whole class activity to replace the student who was absent. I started with a homework review (done with the partners they had sat with when coming into class).

We then moved onto a jigsaw reading based on a text entitled ‘how to learn new words’. They completed this in groups of three, sticking the different paragraphs on the board in the order of importance. A spontaneous discussion then began about the differences between their lists.

We then had a whole class activity with a different instructional ‘how to’ text which they had to out in order. Once they had done that, we applied some of the strategies from the first text to discover the meanings of unknown words.

Finally, I randomly handed each student half of a title for a ‘how to’ writing activity. They had to find the person with the matching half and then write a relevant ‘how to’ guide. The final stage was to be error correction and presentation of the guides but we were running out of time so I called everyone’s attention, reviewed what we had done, and informed them we would continue with the task next lesson.

The next day, I met with my supervisor for feedback. We started with “how do you think the lesson went?” and filling in the self-assessment form. The observer’s comments were then made and, for the first time in my ELT career, it was mainly positive. The stages of the lesson were clear, the students were engaged, it all flowed well, the dıfferent groupings worked and served the purpose of each part of the lesson. “I can’t really say you could have done this or that better,” my observer said. “I can only say I may have approached certain parts of the lesson in a different way.” She even added that she had picked up some ideas to try out in her classes.

Now, this is an observation process that makes sense to me. It’s not that on this occasion it all went well but rather it’s the fact that I was given time to think of my own areas of weakness to work on (and time to work on them!) and the feedback was framed in a positive but constructive way with an open-minded observer. I also left with a few ideas of what I could do differently (or at least try) and a very strong feeling that I had come out of the process as an improved, refreshed teacher.

No surprises, no generic or unjustified criticism, and no stress to be had here. Instead, time to reflect, discuss, develop and enact a plan, and then reflect some more. That is what observations should be. They are part of our professional development after all.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

5 Lessons in 5 Minutes

Or in my case, it was almost eight o’clock. It was Monday – the busiest day of the week with 5 lessons, lunchtime duty and an after school club.

The weekend had been a busy one and the Monday morning briefing, usually a 5 minute affair, had overran. For those reasons (plus the fact that I had never got round to thinking ahead the previous Friday), I found myself with 5 minutes to go before my first lesson began needing to plan out a whole day of teaching.

In my old job, this would have been no problem as I was teaching different classes in the same level and I would choose a single starting point before seeing how each lesson developed. However, as I now work in a smaller school, the five lessons were with five different year groups and included an IGCSE class, primary classes, and secondary classes covering both second language and first language groups!

There was no choice but to use what little time I had to the full and five minutes later, just as my ever-punctual first student was walking through the door, this is what I had planned to do:

The first lesson was easy enough. It was an IGCSE English Language B class and we had spent the previous week working on structuring an essay and writing effective introductions and conclusions. My student (just one student in this class!) had been set a homework task to write an introduction and conclusion for a given topic so a review of the that was the obvious place to start. We would refer back to a “dos and don’ts” checklist we had drawn up for opening and closing essays and check the homework against it before making any necessary changes. We would then work on the main body of the essay and finish with a focus on any errors of grammar, register, vocabulary, and style. Lesson #1 done – next!

The next lesson would be quite a contrast – a primary school group of Year 3 and 4 kids who have grown up in a bilingual environment but until now have only been schooled in French. That means they communicate quite easily but struggle a little when it comes to reading and writing in English. I knew the Year 3 kids had been studying dinosaurs with their class teacher and Year 4 had been looking at describing people and the clothes they wear so that led me to monsters! I would introduce them to a classic drawing lesson I featured on my blog a few years ago – Mike Harrison’s Mixed-Up Monsters. Requiring no more than a few pieces of blank paper, we would create monsters, describe them, invent profiles for them and then write up a detailed description of them, all to be followed up by error correction activities based on their own work. 2 minutes gone, 3 lessons left to get ready for….

Something slightly different next as a Year 6 group would come with two kids who are fully bilingual and have French first language lessons and English first language lessons (English with me obviously!) That means we work on literature, writing skills, and ‘language awareness’ rather than trying to improve their language knowledge and accuracy. As a general topic, they had been looking at globalisation, commercialisation, and had focused on famous explorers in history. So how about bringing that all together with a desert island inspired lesson? Using a favourite idea from Teaching Unplugged  as my starting point, I devised a warmer activity to ask students to describe some possessions they couldn’t live without leading into an explanation of the ‘Desert Island’ concept. They would then imagine they were being sent to a desert island to live for a year with a few survival and luxury items allowed. Diary entries narrating their time on the island would then  be written. Great, but time was running short. Onto lesson…

Familiar ground – an intermediate ESL level group of early teens. We had been looking at short stories with a grammar focus of narrative tenses so back to another Teaching Unplugged idea it was with a news story. I would dictate the first line of a news story with a key phrase missing. They would speculate as to what that phrase was. I would then give them a list of numbers form the text before reading it aloud and ask them to listen for what the numbers meant. Using that info, they would then do a dictogloss-style reconstruction activity with a final stage of the lesson focusing on refining and correcting their texts.

Time was ticking away so what about Lesson 5, the final one? This was another bilingual/first language group. We were nearing the end of Midsummer Night’s Dream so the first part of the lesson was straightforward to think of – guided reading/acting of a scene from the play. It would be the scene in which Lysander was released from the spell that had made him forsake his true love Hermia for a mad obsession with Helena. In the play, he seems to get off rather lightly so I decided to inform the students that off stage, Hermia was livid. Their task? To write a grovelling letter of apology trying to explain the unexplainable and ask for forgiveness.

And that was the point when my Year 10 student entered the room asking “So, what will we do today?”

Some caveats

#1 – What I thought I planned v. what I planned

Of course, what you see above is an elongated verbalisation of my thought process. What I actually had in front of me was something more like this:
Lesson 1 (Year 10) – Review hw re. checklist; write main body; error correction
Lesson 2 (Year 3/4) – Mixed-up monsters (draw, describe, create profile, write)
Lesson 3 (Year 6) – Desert Island Dıscs! Choose must-have items, write diaries
Lesson 4 (Year 8/9) – News story (dictation, number listening, dictogloss)
Lesson 5 (Year 7) – Finish Act IV, write letter of apology from Lysander
(Yes, I did just use Comic Sans. What ya gonna do ‘bout it? ;-) )

These kind of moments serve to remind me of the fallacy that is ‘think in English’ as a piece of advice to learners. We don’t really think in language. We think in ideas, images, and flashes of inspiration. We speak in English and write notes in English but the thought behind it all goes much deeper.

#2 Was that really all on Monday morning?

Yes and no. I will admit that even at the weekend, lessons are often on my mind and I had wondered a couple of times on Sunday what I would do the next day, especially as I knew it would be a busy one. And of course, I was mindful of what each class had done in the previous week and I was also aware of what they were doing in their other lessons, all of which helped inform my on the spot decisions. In my opinion, that knowledge is a huge part of ‘being prepared’.

#3 That was never 5 minutes!

And there is the fact that that 5 minutes of Monday morning ‘planning’ has nearly 15 years of language teaching experience backing it up. I have helped many students write argumentative essays, drawing imaginative pictures and building lessons around them is another favourite activity of mine, the inspiration from Teaching Unplugged has been drawn on and adapted before, leaving the letter writing idea as the only one that came to me at that very moment.

I have plans for a more detailed post on my general approach to preparing for class (as part of this must-read/must-join-in blog challenge!) but in brief, I am usually on the lookout for a catalyst, something that will get a discussion started or provide the impetus for a productive piece of work. My experience then kicks in as I adapt to the input and suggestions of the students and get them to review, revise and refine their output. The students’ own ideas together with their own mistakes and weaknesses are what make my lessons (check out this video from the TeachingEnglish Associates for a clearer idea of what I mean).

That also holds true for my first language literature and language arts classes. My EFL/ESL background serves me well as, even though they make hardly any grammatical errors, they still need feedback on content, register, and structure (and spelling and punctuation as well!).

Now, of course, I will not get complacent and think I can come up with 5-minute daily plans on a regular basis. However, as a result of experience, a willingness to adapt, an inclination (if not a full adherence) to dogme ELT, and being aware of what my students are doing in their other classes, I can quickly prepare a lesson to suit their needs. Just gimme five!

All images taken from #eltpics

Thursday, 11 December 2014

A Hand in Language Learning

There is nothing quite as thrilling as seeing a baby start to communicate: looking around when their name is called, waving, pointing, and the big one – clapping hands.

I have tried not to do over-analyse with my sons as they have grown up and developed their language skills but sometimes drawing comparisons between first and second language exposure and development is hard to resist! Our youngest is just a little past 18 months now and he’s not talking yet but he’s getting there. This post centres around some thoughts that started to fly around my head as he began to show understanding of the word hands.

Not my kid’s hands… nor mine! Image by @HanaTicha via #eltpics 

(I should point out here that these thoughts have been flying round for a few months and my son’s understanding has been growing through that time but the post fell into a kind of ‘development hell’ over the summer and then the new job settling in period. It is finally seeing the light of your computer screen thanks to a similar line of questioning posed by Kevin Stein on his excellent The Other Things Matter blog entitled “The Best (and yet still mostly useless) Lesson I’ve Taught This Year” . An honourable mention also to the final paragraph of a recent post by Hana Ticha on the equally excellent How I See it Now blog called “My Attempt to Square the Circle” (I say final paragraph as that really resonated but the whole post is worth your time of course!)

So, one day a few months back while we were still in Turkey slowly packing our things up and preparing for a new life in Gabon, I asked my older son to hand me some duct tape. When I said the word ‘hand’, my little one immediately held out his own hands – a very exciting early sign of understanding. Over the following weeks, I kept looking for similar responses from him. Over that time, I noticed the following things:

Building backwards*

His understanding began with just the word hands. Any utterance involving that word caused him to show his hands. Slowly, he started to distinguish between the different words that preceded hands. First came the enthusiastic response to clap your hands and then wave your hands. Other hand-related commands soon started to follow (show me your hands, put it in my hand, hold my hand, and so on). In short, the basic word was acquired first and the rest of the language that accompanied it came later.

(*I’m sure there is a more academic term for this but I couldn’t recall it or be bothered to look it up in my MA notes. If anyone wants to enlighten me, please share!)

Repetition Required

And lots of it! Once he had grasped the meaning of this word and all the other language that came with it, we made sure it was all recycled regularly. We must have used those terms hundreds of times over the space of a couple of weeks. The responses were not always consistent either. Sometimes, he would blissfully ignore me and continue with whatever else he was doing but gradually, he started to show his understanding and respond on a more frequent basis.

Songs of Praise

The classic nursery rhyme to go with all this of course is If You’re Happy and You Know it, Clap Your Hands. It soon became a favourite tune. At first, hands were clapped for every line whether instructed to or not but slowly, my little one started to pick up the other actions in the song too and extend his learning even further. As he picked up on a different body part and associated command, we rolled with it and went through the same cycle of reinforcement and repetition as with hands. This was all backed up by plenty of encouragement of course with lots of excited faces, noises, and applauding of efforts all round!

Classroom Contrasts

This all got me thinking about how my students learned and developed their English in class.

(Now, before going any further, a little aside to say that I am of course fully aware that what I have described above and what happens in a classroom are not the same thing. I have outlined the linguistic development of a baby in a first-language home environment and now I am going to talk about a large group of kids in a formal school setting having lessons, but bear with me. I will try to make a point eventually!)

One day, back in my old school in Turkey, I was mindlessly flicking through professionally evaluating potential new course books for the primary school when I thought why not follow up all this learning-centred excitement from home with a critical analysis of how new language is presented in these books.

I looked through 5 different titles from 4 different publishers (again, I know it is by no means a comprehensive number but, hey, this is a blog, not an academic journal, and that’s why I am also writing up these reflections from memory several months later rather than from meticulously prepared notes). Predictably enough, hands was introduced through the topic of the body in all bar one of the books, which bizarrely had no reference to hands at all (even though gloves was one of the key words in the clothing unit!)

So far, so what? Well, I next looked at the context in which the word was introduced and practiced. In all cases, it was part of a unit introducing have/have got. There were examples of people’s faces and relevant descriptions. Fine, but of course describing body parts is a bit unnecessary as all the children featured in the book were in possession of the right number of everything! A couple of the books used animals to practice things like it has got 4 legs  and it has got a long mouth (or even a beak  but that was not ‘target’) and a couple more went for the monsters/aliens route with cartoony pictures and Xyrex has got 7 hands!! examples.

And that was about it. One of the books featured Put your hands up please for classroom language but I couldn’t find any other use of hands or any other body words in the rest of the book.

Of course, first and second language learning are not the same but repetition is said to be a key feature of both. Where was the repetition in these books? Context is also very important in language acquisition. What context does The monster has only one hand provide?

Clap your hands  was nowhere to be seen. Wave showed up in one book as wave goodbye but with no mention of hands. Shake hands, hand it in, give me a hand – these are all potentially useful language items in the classroom but they are not presented in the books.

So why not present these words and the actions that go with them? Why is it (almost) always body parts and has (got)? Why is it grammar practice over meaningful and practical use? I don’t have beginner or elementary classes at the moment but next time I do, I will take that approach – body vocabulary and collocations that go with the different words. I will of course report back on it when/if I try it here.

But for now, what do you think? Is a meaningful context not important at primary level? Should we simply focus on presenting grammar and let the appropriate use of vocabulary come later? I would be interested in hearing different perspectives on this!