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.