Monday, 1 September 2014

How valid is your lesson?

Well, my nose is most firmly back to the grindstone once again, and I'm busy with the usual start-of-year rigmarole of assessing and enrolling, checking my SoLs, all while sporting the first head cold of the academic term.


Before long, I'll be getting down to the fun and games of lesson planning. As I've mentioned in previous posts, the degree of elaboration I've put into these has waxed and waned over the years, depending on what I'm doing, how often I've done it before, and if I'm being observed. Like many teachers with a similar number of years' experience, I have a store of lesson plans safely ensconced in my head, along with an more or less encyclopaedic knowledge of the various methods of delivery that we in TEFL love to fiddle with.

Now, I'm sure you've experimented, as I have with all the available methodologies, from mainstream CLT to the dark arcana of Suggestopedia, or even my own Blockbuster Approach (see my post from July 2013 for that), and I suspect that you may have reached the same conclusion that I have: All these techniques are fine, but I wouldn't like to do them all the time. Again, as I've mentioned before, there is not a single piece of empirical evidence to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that one technique is better than another, so why should I bother with any of them? If Grammar Translation gets results, why not stick to it? If ELT Dogme floats your students' boats, why not go with that?

All this speculation has lead me to this question: How valid are my lessons?

By validity, I am of course referring to the concept of validity when it comes to exams. It strikes me that we can also use the term when we think of our lesson, or indeed our course. and yes, I know that it may sound as if I'm reinventing the wheel - surely a syllabus must have validity in order to be meaningful? - but I suspect that the reason why we're teaching a given lesson may sometimes get hidden beneath the need to complete, let's say, a course, or because we're using a particular methodology.
If we think of a lesson in these terms, we could ask the following:

A)Does it have construct validity?
 That is, does the construction of the lesson actually end up teaching what it's meant to teach?

B)Does it have content validity?
 In other words, does the lesson's contents (in terms of the methodology) lead to the desired outcome?

C)Does it have criterion validity?
 Does the lesson, within its constraints, demonstrate that the desired learning outcome has been learned?

D)Does it have face validity?
 In other words, does the lesson look, feel, taste, smell, and/or sound like a lesson?

Two things are obvious from looking at a lesson this way.

The first is that all lesson planning should be outcome lead. This is remarkably simple, yet it is remarkably easy to forget, especially if we're teaching our backsides off and only have time to copy Unit 4, page 35, or whatever.

The second thing is that A) and B) are the two questions that teachers should ask, while C) and D) are the two questions that institutions and inspecting bodies always ask.

I suspect that in the rush to make our lessons engaging and fun (not least for the teacher), our objectives can sometimes become lost, and this in not merely a problem for the tutor - the institution itself can be culpable, leading to lessons that may well be engaging and fun, but which actually deliver far less than they potentially could.

Anyway, back to the grindstone....

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Keep Calm and Shout Slowly

...aka the English Approach to Talking to Foreigners.
I've been delivering workshops on working with Non-Native English Speakers recently, and of course I've highlighted the above typical behaviour as something we shouldn't do. Someone asked why we shouldn't - he thought speaking loudly and slowly was the best way of getting a message across clearly. But as anyone who has ever experienced this phenomenon in English (or in my case, Turkish) knows, this isn't the case - and it's not necessarily a problem for the language learner, but for the attitude of then speaker.
Here's why - or at least, my take on it.
Let's start with the person speaking loudly and slowly. What do we generally associate a raised voice with? I'd suggest anger, frustration, warning and reproach, or getting someone to do our bidding. Who do we raise our voices at? Well, it may be someone who has angered us. I think the act of raising volume is a deeply engrained evolutionary trait, one that originally served as a way of drawing attention, warning manger, etc.
But who else do we speak loudly and slowly to? Children, the elderly and the infirm - and also foreigners. It's remarkable, actually, that there is a built in tendency to use the same tone of voice to all the aforementioned. It's as if we associate all the above with some kind of infirmity or weakness. In the case of a language learner, it's a linguistic weakness.
Now here's my suggestion: because people tend to talk loudly and slowly to foreigners, and because talking loudly has a deep association with showing strength, being angry, giving warnings etc, there is a tendency in the speaker to assume the listener is in some way inferior. Think about the number of times you've heard the phrase 'stupid bloody foreigner' or similar. I'd suggest that this attitude arises from a simple feedback loop: because the speaker has raised bis or her voice, the or she assumes on some basic mental level that they are angry or irritated , and this colours the speaker's attitude towards the listener.
So, my advice?

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Back to work - in more ways than one

Back once more!
I am making it my mission to engage in a lot more writing between now and December, in any way, shape or form, and this blog has been in hiatus for far too long, thanks to various factors.
Well, I hope all you out there had a restful Summer break. I don't know about you, but I find it difficult to get back into the rhythm of things once the holidays are over. I have this feeling of reluctance, and I really don't want to be back into the same old routines. It's also the fact that I find the first few weeks probably the most stressful: Testing and enrolment, planning, class allocation, dusting down and recycling Schemes of Work etc are hardly the most exciting things in life to do. I'd be happier just getting into class, but my workplace requires me (and my colleagues) to get our hands dirty and get down to all the onerous, tedious pre-teaching tasks - and all the paperwork, blah blah etc.
I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling less than enthralled at the prospect of doing all this.
So, the question is, is there any way possible of getting all the necessaries done without being bored to death?
Answer: probably not. The only solution is to trudge on and get it out of the way so that we can get at the fun bits, namely strutting my funky stuff in the classroom.
In other words, and you're probably way ahead of me here, I'm suffering from a raised affective filter, meaning I have low motivation, thereby leading me to be reluctant to engage in any activity whatsoever.
It shouldn't, of course, be a surprise that we teachers also have to contend with our affective filters but I suspect that we sometimes forget about it, especially when we trudge back into work at the end of August or the beginning of September. But we could, potentially, use this New Term Drag Syndrome (I just invented that phrase. Bit awful) to give us an insight, or a reminder, what learning English can be like for our learners, and, in turn, help ourselves get back into Full Metal TEFL Mode a bit faster.
When we're faced with a dreary task or set of chores so multitudinous that we would rather gnaw our arms off than begin to attempt, it's probably better to start off by looking at the end target rather than what's right in front of our eyes. So, for me, the current end target is having four or so brand shiny new classes, full of bright-eyed, eager-faced and possibly bushy-tailed students ready to learn. For our reluctant learner, on the other hand, it should be some concrete kind of attainment. I don't think it's enough to say 'today, you will learn how to use the first conditional' or whatever. Instead, using the first conditional (or whatever) is a step towards achieving something tangible. This is where it's vital for us to get to know our learners and their needs, and to develop work that will help them reach those needs. Of course, a lot of students will say they are learning English 'to get a job', or 'because English is important', or something along those lines. Unfortunately, these are too vague, and students with vague approaches to language learning are the ones most likely to have poor motivation, to do badly, and to drop out. In my experience, the more concrete a goal a student has for learning English, the more likely they are to achieve it, and to use the language far more fluently
As an example, I came across one of my old students in a restaurant the other day. When I was teaching him, he'd been pootling along with his lessons, more or less going round in circles, and he talked only in the vaguest terms of his future. After one more protracted tutorial, I discovered that he really wanted to study Art, but that he felt he'd never reach a sufficient standard of English to do it. I wrote up a Learning Plan for him, which involved him getting his portfolio of work from Sicily. I nagged him every day for about two weeks until he gave in.
He was immediately accepted onto a Foundation Art course once he produced his work. About a year later, he'd started pootling again, and so I and a colleague once more intervened, and he was taken on to a prestigious course. So, I came across him in a restaurant where he was working. My first thoought was that he'd dropped out.
'No,' he laughed. 'I've just finished the course - this is just a summer job, you know?'
'So how was it?' I asked.
'I'm expecting to get a First,' he told me, proudly. 'Thanks to you.'
It always gives me a thrill to hear good news stories from past students, but we should be aware that they don't always know where they're heading, even the older learners - and sometimes, we don't know where we're heading, either, especially as we walk back through the school gates.
Our motivation has a direct effect on the learners and how successful they'll be. Next time you're eyeing up that unenviable task, take a breath, think of the outcome, and push on through to the other side.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Teaching, not talking.

I shouldn't have gone into work this morning. I woke with my throat still hurting and knew that it was likely to only get more painful if I spent the five hours of lessons looming in speaking, instructing, correcting etc. I could stay at home: however, unless my legs have actually been gnawed off by a tiger, I always feel a bit of a fraud when it comes to illness and being off - that, or I enjoy spreading the viral joy around the staffroom.

So: how to have a lesson without using my voice too much? Simple - just don't speak. I knew I had a lesson due on going to the doctor and describing symptoms etc, so I decided to bring it forward by a day. I went into class, and literally acted dumb for the next hour and a half. This didn't mean not communicating:I wrote questions on the board, added on vocabulary items, expanded ideas on how to express the same idea in different ways, did plenty of mime - even doing work on pronunciation - and by doing so ensured the whole class was engaged in working on the tasks in hand.

What is interesting about engaging this 'Silent Mode' is noticing how the dynamic of the class changes. for starters, the whole room becomes much quieter. There's less chat going on and more focus on the tasks given. The students have to work harder at understanding instructions, but with a decent amount of miming and a whiteboard, it's remarkable how even difficult ideas can be expressed without too much hassle. And by t he class going silent, it becomes easier to monitor, to actually listen to what the learners are saying, understanding, doing with the language.

It also allows the teacher time to reflect on how much time he or she spends in giving instructions, explaining and just generally speaking. After all, we are there to facilitate language learning - if we could somehow absent ourselves entirely from the dialogue, wouldn't we actually be getting more language learning done in class?

I won't pretend that giving a silent lesson is easy. I had a colleague who decided to give it a try and ended up being given a formal warning because his students thought that  he was taking the piss. I had a decent pretext however, namely my sore throat, and in the context of the previous few lessons (use of modal verbs) it worked and worked well. You may find that it works in half-hour stints - it's good for the students as it makes them concentrate on what's happening in class in a different way, but also for the teacher, as it allows us to monitor without the interference of our own voices and also make us mindful of what we normally do and say when we instruct.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Vocabulary and affective filters

It seems that I've been making a return to previous topics recently, both here and at work, but that's OK: we all need to revisit things from time to time, to re-evaluate and appraise.
I'm returning to a subject that I covered ages ago - namely, is there a linguistic hierarchy of needs?

You've probably heard of Maslow's Hierarchy, and how it relates to things like esteem and self-actualization - here's a diagram:

Anyway, it got me thinking about how some students just never seem to get past the intermediate level, and how some learners seem to resent their learning - that they have a high affective filter.
Now, some of this is understandable from the simple fact that English has a relatively small common core vocabulary, meaning that it's possible to reach a B1 level of use quite quickly. However, progressing beyond this, in particular with stepping beyond the confines of using our basic lemmas (e.g. changing use into useful, useless, usability, or swim to swam, swum, swimming etc) is tougher. However, there is also the fact that some learners simply find it hard to progress because, for them, there is a seeming limitation on them as people caused by the lack of language ability. In particular, I'm thinking of ESOL learners, who have to live, function and work within an English-speaking environment.
Here are three questions to ask your learners: Do you feel 'different' when you speak English? Do you sometimes feel like a child, or disabled? Why?
I think part of the issue is the kind of vocabulary we use to express ourselves. If we were to map the 100 most common English verbs on to Maslow's hierarchy, where would they go? Clearly, verbs such as 'eat', 'drink' and 'sleep' would be in the Physiological category. What about modals? Where would we put those? What about verbs of perception, feeling, and opinion? What happens when we map the entire Common Core against this hierarchy?
It strikes me that as a part of course design, we should consider the psychological effects of teaching certain lexical items and chunks. Put simply, if we can elicit words and phrases that we associate with the 'esteem' and 'self-actualisation' categories, we may well find that we have more contented, more fulfilled and more confident language learners. 
Having said that, we all know that the key to learning any language is a)using it and b) practising it. If a learner is unwilling to do this, he or she will never make much headway. But if a learner is not practising/using simply because he/she believes that they'll never get it, then focusing on the kind of language that makes them feel as if they can talk about anything surely will get them to have greater confidence in their abilities.
We should also, of course, consider what kind of topics students need to be able to discuss - for an adult ESOL learner, for example, he/she may need to handle things such as work and employment (possibly with a specialised vocabulary for their field of work), dealing with their children's schools and so on, so delivering content that allows them to deal confidently with these issues is crucial to making them feel better about language learning.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Demonstrating tenses and aspect

Blimey, it's been while since I posted. Have been kept busy with a) a British Council Inspection, followed very closely by b) an OFSTED inspection, both of which officially deemed EFL and ESOL to 'Kick Arse', of course.
I was reading a blog post yesterday, via Twitter, of one teacher's attempt at explaining tenses and the relationship of tense forms to notions of reality and unreality. Unfortunately, I forgot to bookmark the site, and I've forgotten who wrote it! (UPDATE: Found it! It was Sandy Millin, over here - thanks, David!)
She mentioned how much Michael Lewis, in The English Verb (1986) influenced her teaching, and I'd certainly agree - it's an informative, useful and thoroughly readable book, and one that formed part of the background reading for my 2007 conference presentation on Tense and the concept of Distance.
One part that was particularly useful was Lewis' timelines, explaining the relationship between simple, perfect and going to, but one day while using these timelines in class, I realised he'd missed a simple, but beautifully efficient trick for teaching aspect to learners.
Here it is.
Start by drawing a street corner on the whiteboard. put a stick man on the corner. Ask the learners where the man is, then ask them what tense they are using (He IS on the corner). Next, draw some traffic going past. Ask the students what the traffic is doing (it is passing the man, for e.g.), then ask them what tense that is. Draw a shop to the right: Tell them the man is going to the shop and ask what he's going to buy (e.g. he is going to buy a banana). Now draw a house to the left: Tell the learners that this is the man's home and ask them where he has come from (e.g. he has come from home) and again, elicit the name of the tense. You should end up with a board that looks like this:

Now we have the street corner, point out the directions the man has to look to 'see' the tenses. After that, take away the extraneous details and draw this:
This looks much more like Lewis' timelines, except with a crucial distinction. In The English Verb, Lewis makes the vertical line represent the simple tense: in mine, the vertical represents the point around which the continuous occurs, with the intersection of the lines (the 'street corner') actually representing the time. That is, the directions moving away from the intersection demonstrate the fact that English tenses are, in reality, aspectual (with the exception of the present and past simple tenses).
Having done this and drilled the tenses, move the action back to yesterday and ask the students where the man was. They should, fairly naturally, then come up with the other tenses. Repeat for the future, then draw this:
And there we have it. I've used this for several years now, and it helps the learners understand that there is a spatial element to the tense system in English. Of course, you will have noticed that the perfect continuous forms are not included on this: I've done that for the sake of visual simplicity, but they can be added - preferably during a different lesson :) 
Feel free to use these pictures, but I would appreciate an acknowledgement, please!
What do you think? Ideas for improvement and criticism gratefully received!

Friday, 8 November 2013

English UK Teachers' Conference 2013 - Finding the right Blend presentation

Well, that was a great conference! Packed to the rafters with delegates and good ideas. I found it really refreshing to escape the purlieus of my normal work existence and catch up with a group of fellow professionals.

Obviously, I couldn't see all the presentations, so I look forward to catching up on a few on the English UK website later on. I enjoyed Russell Stannard's talk on tech to enhance student talking, and Hugh Dellar's Counter-Blast to the sloppy use of technology in the class.

Here's my presentation from The English UK teachers' Conference 2013, along with a video about the flipped class and a sample Google form underneath. Here's a link to Socrative, the synchronous class-based quiz tool I mention in the presentation.
I'll be adding a few more links to tools I've used for blended and flipped learning that you may find useful.

and here's a short introduction to the Flipped Class...


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