Tuesday, 3 May 2016

#IATEFL 2016 - Barefoot with beginners

This was a talk title that immediately took my mind back to the early days of building my online PLN. 'Barefoot teaching' is a phrase I remember from Paul Braddock's old blog to describe his experiment of teaching a group of teenagers without adhering to a pre-selected coursebook. Instead, he responded to learners' immediate needs, incorporated authentic resources based on the students' interests, and let the lessons flow.

Barefoot teaching - washing it all away
Image via pixabay.com
CC0 Public Domain
The other flashback to those days was the speaker Ceri Jones, who has been a key member of my network and an influence on my development over the years through her excellent blog, involvement in #eltpics, and work as a tutor on my Trinity DipTESOL course.

I've never seen Ceri speak though and neither have I met her (despite us both being at IATEFL Manchester last year!) so I picked this recorded session out to watch. This was not just a selection based on personal preference though - I was also intrigued by what an established coursebook writer had to say about teaching without any published materials.
The concept was made even more interesting by the fact that the group in question was a class of beginners. The idea of 'materials light' teaching is often associated with learners past the beginner stage, who have enough language to at least try to express themselves. In turn, that language becomes the starting point for the teacher to build the lessons around. But what do you do when there is hardly any language coming form the students?

Ceri gave an example from the very first lesson when a student said he was from an obscure village in central Spain. Building on that, extra language such as "where's that?" and describing where places are. This is the kind of personalised learning moment that I feel language lessons often lack. Perhaps with a standard coursebook exercise, this would have never come up. Instead, it stood out ehre as a learning opportunity.

The idea of lesson summaries was an interesting one. I have found it is common for students and teachers to leave an unplugged lesson feeling they have discussed and learned a lot but without a written record, it can be quickly forgotten. Here the summary acted not only as a record but also as a map of the barefoot journey allowing Ceri to trace where and when particular language points had come up and how they developed.

The past simple example was a very interesting one - it first appeared early on as something the students genuinely needed. With a focus very much on meaning and use, it was recycled and developed until the grammar focus finally came a couple of months later. This stands in stark contrast to the usual procedure of covering the grammar early on and gradually expanding the communicative use.

As a result, the students' own summary of the classes focused on topics and content whereas Ceri's summary looked at grammar points more - a reminder that student and teacher perceptions of learning are not always the same. The summary also provided a starting point for in-depth self-assessment of strengths and weaknesses in the language learned to that point, something that may be more difficult with a proscribed syllabus.

The progression of the students as shown by the writing sample was impressive. The emergence of grammatical elements such as the past continuous without them ever being formally taught was a strong testament to the strength of this approach. At times, we need to give learners a chance to play with the language and jump ahead in the syllabus to the language they need to use. When they need to use it, it is more likely to stick than when it's covered just because it's in Unit 5.

All of which serves a nice lead in to my next series of posts - some reflections on dogme... :)