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...

Monday, 28 October 2013

English UK beckons again..

It looks like I'm headed for the English UK Teachers' Conference once more, although I have to say it is with somewhat mixed feelings.

Unfortunately, Dave Willis has passed away, and the organisers have asked me to step into the not inconsiderable breach with my own proposal. I'll be talking about Blended Learning and Flipped Classrooms, and in a nod to Dave and Jane, I'm hoping to include something about TBL in a blended learning environment as well.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Full Circle

 There were only a few minutes left. I stared at myself in the mirror, trying to gee myself up, but I felt a horrible twisting in my guts. They were waiting for me.

I'd spent the better part of the whole day getting ready, looking at what material I had, and trying to think out my strategies. Several draft plans had ended up scrunched in a bin, and I had gone through a packet and a half of cheap cigarettes. In the end, I thought I'd made something that would get me through. It had a beginning, a middle and an end. It did, or should do, what it said on the tin, as it were. My train of thought hadn't been helped by the fact that I'd been fighting several issues all day. The first was a hangover, caused by watching Galatasaray draw a match with Manchester United the night before, leading to celebrations the size of which I'd never experienced before. The second issue was the noise from the street. I had never really encountered such pervasive, incessant noise pollution before, from gas vans with jingles that sounded like ice cream vans to fishmongers screaming their wares, from insanely loud music in passing cars to streets full of people calling, shouting, selling, announcing. However, I felt, finally, that I was ready.
I picked up my plan and headed off.
me heading bravely off to face the action.

As I walked towards my destination, however, I felt my certainty and confidence drain away, leaving nothing but doubt. I arrived, but with half an hour before my fateful assignation, I locked myself in the bathroom, looked at myself, and said out loud,
'What the fuck am I doing here teaching English?'
Oh well, who wants to live forever! TEEAAACCCHHHHH!!!!

There was nothing for it however, but to go forth, open the door, and be introduced to fourteen polite, smiling faces. I took a deep breath, and said, loudly,
'Good Morning!'
It was seven in the evening.

And so began my career in TEFL. My first real lesson, on the 21st October, 1993. Here's the page I used:
Good Old New Cambridge English Course, Book 1, Unit 9c, 'I look like my father'
How I managed to stretch this over an hour and a half of teaching, I have no idea. Yet it has stuck vividly with me, simply because it was that very first lesson. I remember about half the class as well: Mustafa, Umut, Tolga, Cigdem, Esra, Muge, Ibrahim, and Pinar. They were all aged 18-24, so not much younger than me, really.
Since then, I've taught literally thousands of students, and covered virtually everything. My first three years of lesson were mostly at elementary and pre-intermediate level, using the above book and the original Headway series, to the extent that I can still quote large chunks of the tapescripts, complete with the actors' dodgy 'foreign' accents (e.g. 'I live in Tex-ass. That's the secon' biggest state. I got fourteen-fifteen bedrooms...'). I have taught TOEFL prep, and experience I'd rather avoid doing again, thank you very much. Later, I progressed to the dizzy heights of Intermediate level classes, and slowly progressed upwards to do, once I came back to the UK, FCE, CAE and CPE groups, as well as International Foundation Programmes and ESP courses. I've taught EFL and ESOL and the shades in between.
I've been a DOS. I've been Course Leader and Programme Leader. I've been a presenter at conferences, and delivered CPD to colleagues.
And where do I find myself now? After all the cuts to FE spending and funding, after several OFSTED inspections where Leadership and Management have been slated, but nothing has changed, after my team has been butchered to just 2.7 Full Time workers?
I'm teaching an elementary class and a pre-intermediate course. And after years of teaching just high-level students, I've remembered what kept me going in those first couple of years: A student's eyes light up because they'd said something accurately for the VERY first time, or they'd worked out a concept and could apply it straight away, that magical moment of comprehension. You can get it at higher levels, but there's a visceral shiver of excitement from seeing it happen with someone for the first time ever, and use it straight away.
So today, with my Entry 2 (CEFR: A2-B1; EFL equivalent: Elementary) ESOL group, I taught the page above.


I brought it to a quick end, and carried on with something brilliant instead.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Faking it.

Right, now that I'm back into the maelstrom of the new term and put a few lessons under the belt, time to kickstart the old blog again - I hope you all had a good summer, readers.

I don't know about you, but I still feel somewhat apprehensive before going into a new class, even after twenty years before the whiteboard. I still remember my first time going into a class for real, staring in panic at my reflection in the mirror of the bathroom I'd locked myself in, saying 'OhshitohshitohshitwhatthebloodyhellhaveIgotmyselfinto?' and trying to breathe. I just wanted to run away, but knew I couldn't. I would, eventually, have to unlock the door and go into that classroom to be met by twenty pairs of eyes. Minutes passed, and I kept on looking at myself, trying to chide my reflection into action. Suddenly, the school bell, an electronic little jingle that kind of went all wonky at the end, sounded:
Bing bang bing bang bing bang biiioooononinining.
This was it.
What did I do?
I went on to teach for the next twenty years, by striding into the class and saying, as loudly as I could without shouting, 'Good Evening!'
And I've been doing varieties of this with every new class ever since. It was all about faking it at the beginning - the impression of control, the sense of being the boss of the environment, until I actually became so. That may make me sound as if I need to have the class centred around me, and I think in retrospect that was what the first few years of my career was about, but until I learned to master what I do it was where I felt more comfortable. So, I faked it until I became it, which neatly segues into a mention of Amy Cuddy's TED Talk Presentation on that very subject. In it, she talks about how adopting power poses, i.e. postures that imply confidence and dominance, even for as short a time as two minutes, actually change the way a person thinks of themselves, and of how they perform in situations such as interviews. She has conducted experiments that strongly suggest that how we hold ourselves physically strongly feeds into our mental health and general wellbeing, and I'd recommend giving a view.
So, why am I mentioning this? Well, because as a seasoned TEFLer ready to jump on any passing idea as a teaching opportunity, it got me wondering whether I couldn't experiment on this with my own students. The premise: What if adopting 'power poses' would actually improve a student's capacity to learn English? Teaching ESOL students as I do, it struck me that an awful lot of our learners do actually hold themselves in class in rather diminutive, submissive positions - in the role, as it were, of supplicants before the Grail Of Language Learning. In addition, people with their Affective Filters set to Stun tend to adopt highly defensive postures. What if making the learners sit in ways that imply confidence actually changes their attitude and ability, and actually boosts their learning capacity? This would also, incidentally, link into a subject I've discussed here (and at the EUK conference) before, namely Maslovian Hierarchies and Thematically linked language learning.
Well, we'd have to design an experiment to see if it could work, and I think I may have an opportunity to give it a test- but more of that in another post.


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