Monday, 31 May 2010

The VLE may not be dead (yet) but for this one, it's too late!

Oh, the joys of working in a large instituiton!

About 6 weeks ago, I showed my head of department a website I had been working on as part of an MA assignment ( and asked about putting the theory into practical use by giving my students access to it. It was designed to help them prepare for an end of year show they do in English with wikispaces for drafting a poster and embedded Voicethreads to give them presentation practice, as they are not used to extended talk.

As the weeks passed by, I was told it had to be run by the principal, then the general director and then the school board.... Each stage took forever to pass and then I was told it would all be approved as soon as permission was granted by the parents. By this point, it was too late to get any effective use out of it and I told them not to bother.

However, in such a large school (we have over 3,000 students!), communication rarely works efficiently and today, on the eve of the first show for my kids and the eve of my assessed online presentation for the MA, my head of department excitedly told me permission had finally been granted!! /0\

I mentioned planning ahead in my last post about using the computer lab but I now think precognition would be the only way to get anything done in time....

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Taking over the computer lab - lessons learned...

Finally, after several weeks of hints, suggestions, plans, requests, delays and technical hitches, I finally got a class of my students into the computer lab today to do a text reconstruction activity. :) While all went well, this was the first time for me and my students and so there are a few lessons to be learned ahead of future trips across the corridor:

1. Plan in advance... well in advance
I've been talking about taking one of my classes to the computer lab for ages but it wasn't until two weeks ago that I asked with a specific plan in mind. Two weeks was not enough! My head of department had to draft a letter requesting permission to the school principal, which itself took over a week... Then, the principal was out of the office for two days... Then, she didn't give the go ahead until late yesterday... And then, the computer department said they didn't have enough time to transfer my files over to all of the computers in the lab!! As a result, my morning class was cancelled but I stood my ground (despite the suggestions that "it's maybe best not to bother") and got my afternoon class in.

2. Be prepared for resistance
A big part of the delays seemd to stem from other people's reluctance for the whole thing to go ahead. "Can't you just use the class computer?" (Text reconstruction on 1 computer? With 30 students?), "But it won't be fair on the other classes if only yours can go to the lab" (I'd be happy to share my materials and plan with you!), and my personal favourite "I'm not sure about using our students for testing out these new-fangled ideas" (New fangled? TR is as old as CALL itself!)

The best way to bypass the resistance? Go straight to the top. A personal chat with the principal certainly speeded things up a bit. ;)

3. Teachers know best
Anyone reading this blog is likely to be a teacher as well and therefore you already know this to be true. :P However, it's worth reminding others once in a while:

As I mentioned earlier, my morning session was cancelled as the computer technician at the school said any files to be loaded onto the students' computers would have to be transferred to one machine at a time from the school's central computer hub. No chance to access the school intranet from the teacher's computer and no USB drives for my memory stick. That was the computer technician. I later spoke to the computer studies teacher who immediately showed me how to 'search for computers on this network' from the teacher's computer and then it was just a matter of dragging and dropping. She had an even simpler suggestion for next time: put the files on CD and transfer them from there!

4. Size does matter
28 kids in a lab with just enough space for 14 computer terminals is a bit of a squeeze and a recipe for a headache, especially on a hot Friday afternoon!

5. Boys are more competitive...
I had 9 groups: 3 all girls, 3 all boys and 3 mixed. The TR activities (created on Hot Potaoes) each gave a score and I caught 2 of the all boy groups quitting the first exercise repeatedly and starting again in an attempt to beat the score of the team next to them! One group got caught out on the full reconstruction exercise though - they thought they had found an ingenious way to finish everything: by mashing the 'help' button until all the text was revealed. You should have seen their faces when I informed them that the symbol in front of the score was not a dash but a minus!

6. ...but girls are more selfish
Interestingly, it was 2 of the all girl groups that had the most trouble getting along with each other with complaints about time on the keyboard and not listening to suggestions. Only one of the mixed groups had problems and that was caused by the girl in the group refusing to let anyone else type. At least the boys who were restarting the activities in search of that 100% score were getting along with each other.

7. Kids don't always see the obvious
I deliberately did not give any tips on how to do a TR activity until they were underway as I was interested in seeing how they initially tackled the task. A couple of groups tried to go word by word from the start, others didn't think of trying common words like articles, pronouns or prepositions until I suggested it and several never thought of looking at the images I had added to the file or the ones that were being projected on PowerPoint for clues again until I told them. Sometimes the ingenuity shown by this age group amazes me, sometimes the lack of common sense drives me to despair!

One good sign to come out of it though - most of the groups immediately noticed and corrected themselves if they typed, for example, 'go' instead of 'goes' and that's one of the main things I was hoping for from this lesson.

8. Sometimes, cheats can prosper
A big compaint between groups was "they are looking at our screen!" One boy in particular caught my attention in this respect - he slyly glanced at the next group's computer, saw they had typed 'breakfast' and told his group to type it. He then immediately recalled other words. "Toast and jam!" he shouted "toast and jam" and instructed the typist to enter 'toast' and 'jam'. Good stuff. And yet that group remained stumped by the 3-letter gap in between those two words.... it was for 'and'!!

9. The computer is a great motivator
A quick hands-up poll before the lesson revealed that more than half of the kids in the class either didn't like the reading passages in our coursebook or described them as 'so-so' (a favourite saying amongst this age group for some reason - I've certainly never used it in class). Groans and grumbles were heard when I announced we would be looking at a text in the computer lab. However, once the lesson was over, every kid in the class said they had enjoyed it and wanted to do it again.

And that's enough to make it worth it.

10. There is no spoon
Or rather no 10, but it seemed silly to leave the list at nine. :p

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Blended Learning and the 4 Skills

I'm writing this in reply to this post concerning teaching the 4 skills in a blended learning environment.

The 4 Skills in my context
As a teacher of young learners, I tend to focus more on speaking and listening. This is partly because an opportunity to develop speaking skills should be taken at this age (my current students are aged 9) before the inevitable shift to the exam driven courses they will take at an older age where English becomes a lesson for them rather than a language and also partly because the coursebooks we use and the syllabus we follow are geared heavily towards speaking and listening. There are many pairwork activites and 'games' featured in our programme in which the students have to communicate (albeit in a controlled way) in order to complete the task. Listening features heavily as new vocab is modelled on CD, comic strip stories and reading texts have parallel tapescripts and there are many listening exercises requiring the students to extract information to complete a chart/picture/sentence etc.

Reading and writing tend to be kept simple. The reading texts featured in the coursebook are very short (and backed up by an audio version as stated above) and the writing tasks never demand more than a few sentences or a short paragraph. I would like to develop my students' reading and writing skills more but time is a major constraint. We used to use readers and story books but they were dropped a few years ago as the publishers selling coursebooks started to push their 'complete packages', with stories included within the pages of the main book. I also try to do projects on the topics that really interest my students, both collaboratively and individually, but again, time limits what can be done.

Problems and Paradoxes
While I enjoy the high focus on speaking and oral communication, there are problems with the way the 4 skills are taught in my setting. First of all, despite the focus on listening and speaking activities, neither of these skills are tested when it comes to assessment time! The exams are paper-based and containing grammar, vocab and reading comprehension questions along with short writing tasks. Projects and portfolios are also assessed but these are almost exclusively written pieces of work. I often ask my self why we assess them in this way when we spend so little of the time in class working on these skills.

There is also an assessment issue over seperation of the skills i.e. a writing question should only test writing, a reading question should only test reading etc. And so, in the reading sections, students are directed to answer with just yes/no, a/b/c/d or a tick/cross and yet in the grammar and writing sections they are marked down for answers which are too short! In my view, the whole idea of seperating the skills out into individual, contained sections is a fallacy. Language does not work like that. Everyday, we engage in multiple tasks that require different combinations of the skills and our teaching (and testing!) needs to reflect that.

Using technology for the 4 skills
At present, the use of technology in my context is very limited. One computer and a projector is present in each class and that's about it. For that reason, I feel a webspace which can be accessed from home and in class would provide an ideal opportunity to develop their language skills and writing in particular. At present, we are preparing for an end of year class show in which the students will perform sketches and make presentations based on topics covered in class (they also produce a poster to go with it). The skethces are straightforward as they are scripted and it's just a matter of learning the parts and rehearsing. In past years however, the presentation part has proved problmeatic as students often state they don't know what to say beyond a few sentences or they write something and then read it out, paper held in front of face.

In answer to this, I'm currently working on a webspace using Moodle in which the students will be asked to write their ideas for their individual presentation. I will set up an OUwiki for each student to write in, allowing them to edit and expand their ideas over time. This will address an issue that occurs when they are writing in that they never return to their work and re-read or re-draft it. Through use of the wiki, they can do this easily from home and we can discuss how to improve theri writing in class as well. The text produced in the wiki could also be used for the poster they will produce, which will adorn the hallway (as a bonus, computer printed texts will stop the complaint from the head teacher of 'scruffy' writing being on display ;)).

Not forgetting that the ultmate goal is to orally present their given topic, I will utilse the nangong voice recorder, which can be embedded into the wiki/moodle page for them to record their talk at home, playback, reflect and practice. The recordings will also allow me to keep track of their work and offer suggestions etc for improvements/changes etc.

Anyway, I should get on with designing it - there's a lot to be done! I'll update here once the site is viewable.