Friday, 30 January 2015

Born to reflect?

I took part in a very interesting discussion on #eltchinwag, the first time I'd ever taken part in one of these hashtag chat thingys. I don't think I really get it - it might be a digital immigrant thing - there is something non-linear about hashtags and twitter (and the internet in general) that confuses me. Still, apart from worrying that I was missing something or posting comments in the wrong place, there was a lot of very interesting thoughts* around the topic of developing students' metacognitive skills. For the sake of simplicity, I am going to boil this complex topic down to one soundbite - helping our students to reflect on their learning.

(*ELT teachers spending their evenings talking about ways to help students - ELT employers, if you happen to be reading this, any chance of a few more quid?)

In my first years as a teacher, I heard very little about reflection. Since moving toward the EAP side of our world, I can't escape it. A few random google searches throw up tons of articles promoting reflection, both for students and teachers. Many of us teach on programmes where reflection is in some way part of the syllabus - more often than not in the form of a learner journal.

I have mixed feelings about reflection, or at least our approach to it. I will try to explain.

First off, I absolutely believe that the best way to learn is to reflect on how you learn, what works for you, what doesn't. I do not dispute the efficacy of reflection. My concern is that our enthusiasm for reflection can be a little off-putting for students.

I'll try to illustrate by example. I used to be really big into running. After a couple of years, I came across a book called Born to Run which is about this tribe of native Indians who run incredibly long distances. The book eulogises running barefoot. Bursting with enthusiasm, I told as many people as I could and took off my shoes to try it out (in fairness to the book, it strongly advises against this gung ho approach for newbies). Within a few months, I'd done both Achilles. I don't run as much anymore.

If I stretch the comparison a little - is there a danger that with our similar enthusiasm for the benefits of reflection (talking zealously about it; working it into curricula; asking students to do learner journals; assessing how good they are at reflection), might we end up killing it a bit for the students?

My own take on it would be this. Everyone reflects in some aspect of their life, to varying degrees. If you think about what you are going to say to someone before (or after) you meet them, then you're reflecting. If you think about what someone would like when buying them a present, you are reflecting. On a most basic level, if you avoid certain foods because you don't like the taste, then you are reflecting (or at the very least, capable of it). So basically, reflecting is part of us, we do it constantly. Some people will naturally turn this skill toward their learning, others won't. Those who do will learn faster, those who don't probably won't learn as fast.

So as teachers, we want to help those who don't reflect on their learning, knowing that it will ultimately help them. If they go for it, perfect. If they resist, frustration for everyone involved. I agree 100% with the intention. It is the approach that I want to consider.

First of all, we tend to stream according to language ability. But the ability to reflect is in no way linked to language level. So in a B1 class, you could have massive disparity in terms of students' ability to reflect. Then there is the cultural side of things. Certain cultures are resistant to the idea of reflection. They may believe that it is the teacher's job to do all that stuff for them. And if reflection forms part of their assessment, there can be a sense of injustice, that they are being penalised for something that doesn't come naturally to them.

So what to do?

I would say, don't make a big deal out of it. Yes, certain students would improve if they were able to reflect better. But don't make it a yes or no thing. Shy people would learn better if they were more outgoing, but we don't make them keep confidence journals. We deal with what is in front of us. If they are willing to reflect, go for it. If not, don't force it. Try to get around the problem. For instance, many people might not like analysing themselves but are more than happy to ask other people questions. Perhaps activities where students ask each other about what they do, how they study, might be a good first step toward self-reflection.

Second, don't assess it. It is good, but it is a tool to learning. I don't think we should assess the tool that someone uses to complete a task.

That's it really.

Seeing as I gave rather a bad impression of the book Born to Run (it's actually a brilliant read), I knocked this lesson together on the topic. It is quite IELTSy but there is a nice few questions around the front cover of the book that students found interesting. And some nice vocab too. I used this review of the book for the reading text. Unfortunately, I didn't include answers for the True/False/Not Given questions. I tend to write ambiguous questions and then let the students argue with me and try to convince me my original answer was wrong. What I'm trying to say is that some of the answers might be ambiguous and I'm kind of okay with that.

Click here for the lesson PDF

Monday, 26 January 2015

Spelling and Arabic learners

I read this excellent article last week on helping Arabic students who have particular difficulty with spelling. The author, Emina Tuzovic, offers some wonderful insights and lots of practical suggestions. For instance, she highlights vowels as one of the most common problems and advocates gapping exercises (e.g. _ntr_d_ct_ _n --- introduction). She also linked to this piece by Johanna Stirling which also covers a lot of interesting ground, particularly the challenge for teachers.

With that in mind, I thought I would have a bash at covering two aspects in this lesson. First of all, the lesson gives some focus to the vowels (using a variation of Scattergories that a colleague taught me - instead of using letters, you use vowel sounds). However, for my students (as Stirling noted), apart from spelling, they have a good level of English. Focussing solely on spelling, though useful, can seem like a bit of a step backward. As well, they are often in classes with students who don't have a major problem with spelling. So the second thing I tried to do with this lesson was make it challenging - to put something in there to keep everyone in the class happy (engaged?). So it covers spelling, but also reading, discussion and proposal writing. In that sense, it is probably a bit overloaded - I suppose I was trying to sneak spelling in rather than announcing it.

The topic is a bit of a chestnut - mobile phones and stress, and uses this article from the Guardian. I made the gapped exercise by using find/replace on Word. To avoid it all looking scrunched together, I found that Footlight MT Light font leaves a decent gap between words. I also doubled spaced and then double spaced between words (again using find/replace) - hopefully it is clear enough.

I should also mention that part of the lesson uses an idea I nicked from Gavin Dudeney which gets students to interact using their phones as a topic for discussion.

If you use the lesson and have any thoughts/comments/suggestions, I'd be delighted to hear them.

Click here for the Lesson PDF

Friday, 23 January 2015

ESAP - what do we have to offer?

The University of Sheffield hosted a really enjoyable free web seminar on EAP a few weeks back. They very kindly emailed on videos of all the conferences if you had signed up. I don't want to take a liberty, but I'll suggest that there'd be no harm in emailing them if you would like to see the talks, but missed out on signing up.

There were many excellent talks but one that I was particularly interested in related to ESAP and was given by Chris Smith. Of the many interesting points made, the one that chimed with me was the idea of genre analysis - taking a text from the discipline in question and analysing it from a language perspective, trying to establish what language is used in the text and for what purpose, looking at the patterns and norms of that particular subject.

What emerged from the discussions was also very interesting. I noticed many people talked about the challenge of communicating with the lecturer/professor - that they didn't get a lot of support when trying to figure out what to do with their ESAP classes.

A marketing/biology/engineering professor, I imagine, could have quite a different understanding of what an ESAP class should accomplish. Perhaps they think the ESAP class should be to build up the students' vocabulary. Or that the class should fix students' mistakes. Or that it should fill in knowledge gaps about the subject. If the latter, then they may feel frustrated - that they would now have to teach their subject to the person supposed to lighten their load.

I know it is easier said than done, but it would seem the only way to improve communication is for both sides to have a clear understanding of the purpose of the ESAP class. That could involve discussion and negotiation prior to courses beginning. However, I think that from the ESAP side of things, we need to have a very clear understanding of what we want to achieve with the ESAP class ourselves. This can be intimidating as we are non-experts (in the content subject, that is) offering our help to experts. Which is why, Chris Smith's talk was so helpful. It was a reminder of the expertise that we on the ESAP side of things are bringing to the table:
  • the ability to see patterns in language
  • the ability to understand students' language mistakes
  • the ability to teach language and language related skills 
On top of that, we are coming to these subjects fresh, willing to work through problems with the students. Take assignments, for example. I might not be able to explain what a Buckminsterfullerene is, but I know how to research, how to plan, how to reference, how to develop an idea, how to write a coherent piece of work. This is what the ESAP teacher has to offer. And hopefully with a clearer understanding of what we are there to do, we can be more direct, confident and clear in our communication with our colleagues. 

So in saying all of that, I thought it might be interesting to share a few short lessons that myself and a colleague came up with for Chemistry ESAP. Where I work, we are lucky in that we have none of the problems mentioned above. We are small, so the Science, Business, IT and EAP departments all live in the same office. A while back, my colleague Dr L, told me that the Chemistry students would be doing lab reports soon and could we do something in ESAP to support this. I asked for a sample lab report and together we knocked these Chemistry lab report ESAP lessons together. They were broken up over three lessons to give the students time to write the various sections between classes. They are quite simple but may give some idea of a way to approach ESAP.

Any thoughts or comments on your own ESAP practice would be very much appreciated.

Click here for the lesson - Lab Reports Introductions 

Click here for the lesson - Lab Reports Procedure

Click here for the lesson - Lab Reports Discussion

Monday, 19 January 2015

Do NESTs Dream of Electric Acronyms?

Blog wandering, I've come across a lot of very interesting discussion around the issue of NESTs (Native English Speaking Teachers) and nNESTs (non-Native English Speaking Teachers). I think this article by Robert McCaul says everything (or as close to as is possible) on the subject. James Taylor also outlines the bias within TEFL which NESTs benefit from - the favouritism experienced by teachers because of accidents of birth. As someone who has benefitted greatly from an accident of birth, I thought I might share my own perspective.

I was born in Ireland, so through no particular skill on my part, I speak English as my first language. Generally speaking, we Irish don't carry too much baggage when we travel. We've never got round to conquering any other nations (at least not directly), so, if they've heard of us, generally other countries tend to be quite well disposed toward us. This makes the Irish NEST's life a good bit easier. Our accent can sometimes pose a challenge for learners (I had to live in the US for three months before I could pronounce my THs) but once you take the edge of it a bit, slow down and avoid words like rashers, nobody really has a problem understanding us. To make things even handier for us, you get nonsense like this coming up every so often. 

So all in all, I would argue, that on the spectrum, your Irish NEST has things a bit softer than most (apart from the cowboyism still a part of the industry here).

Being in this lucky position, you tend to wander along thinking to yourself what a wonderful teacher you are - how great your lessons are, how engaged your students were, how wonderfully you explained the difference between the present perfect and the past simple. And maybe this is true - maybe you are a wonderful teacher. But by reading the posts I have mentioned above, and, more fundamentally, by sharing my life with an incredibly talented and inspirational nNEST, I have come to realise that good teachers are good teachers, irrespective of what their first language is. 

There are really good arguments here as to why it makes no sense to favour a NEST over an nNEST; the Wikipedia page on the topic has some good links; and this webpage is a nice reminder that its not just NESTS teaching English out there. 

For my own contribution to the debate, I thought I might be practical, and consider what teachers can do. I believe that the people who run schools and hire teachers are acting from a practical concern - that students will favour the school with the most NESTs. I honestly don't know if students actually believe this, but if they do, then where does that leave us. Do we accept that? Does one school use this to manufacture a competitive advantage over the school who hires the best teachers, irrespective of mother tongue? I think these are questions to be considered. 

As teachers, I would (preachily) suggest that there are a few little, practical things we can do to support our colleagues. 

1. Don't distinguish between NESTs and nNESTs. We're all teachers. 
2. If you hear of a job up for grabs, recommend the person you think most suitable, regardless of where they come from. 
3. Praise other teachers in front of students. Again, regardless of where they come from, if you think a teacher is good, don't be afraid to say it in front of students (they'll still love you). 
4. Think critically about the idea "students prefer native speakers". Do they? Who says? How wedded are people to this notion?
5. Be kind to other teachers. Chances are they're having a tough day, native or not.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Nominalisation part 2 - Cause and Effect

I posted a lesson a while ago about nominalisation after coming across the zombie video via Jennifer MacDonald's blog. I've used this nominalisation lesson a couple of times now with different groups and it has gone over quite well. As I mentioned before, there has been a lot of debate about nominalisation (I've even come across some exercises teaching writers how to undo the damage caused by nominalisation) and I can see the merits of both sides. However, many of my students tend to write (perfectly fine) sentences like this:

The government needs to spend more money on education 

Giving them the option of coming up with an alternative sentence, such as below, is no bad thing.

Government spending on education needs to increase.

Quite belatedly, I've come up with a short little lesson to follow up the previous nominalisation lesson. This one focuses on using nominalisation when writing about cause and effect (there is also a very tiny bit of "noticing" of hedging language). 

As I read back over this post and the excessive use of the word nominalisation, it occurs to me that the post itself would make a very good substitution lesson :)  

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Does Ted count as a Podcast?

Outside of teaching, I've only really gotten into listening to podcasts in the last year or so. My colleague tipped me of to This American Life which I've started listening to on the way to work. Along with Graham NortonSlashfilm and Second Captains, I'm pretty much sorted for sitting in traffic listening. 

So its only now, about ten years after everyone else, that I've started to think about using them. The problem with the ones I listen to myself is that they are too long to use in class. Today, I spent a good chunk of the day looking around for podcasts that were shorter. The six minute English podcasts from the BBC are really good, cover a lot of topics and include transcripts. But I can't use them too often for fear that the students get a bit bored with the structure of the talks. 

This led me to think about Ted. I posted before about using as a homework activity that would then fit into the following class. I tended to use these talks as homework because most of the classrooms I teach into don't have a projector installed. Wouldn't it be nice if you could just take the audio from a Ted talk and use that in class? You've probably been doing this for ages but this was a revelation to me. Sure enough, on many of the talks, you can download the audio as an MP3. (I've only just noticed how the speaker in the talk was literally pointing out how blindingly obvious this was.)

Here is a lesson I did to use with this talk by Kelly McGonigal on the topic of stress. The first part is vocabulary based and encourages students to play around with the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary. Then there is a bit of a reading around the topic of stress with some discussion. This then leads to the Ted talk, again with another vocabulary exercise. It is a fairly vocab heavy lesson but I've been feeling lexical lately. 

I hope you find it useful and if you have any comments or suggestions, I'd really appreciate it. Also, if you happen to know of any good podcasts, please let me know. 

Friday, 9 January 2015

5 ways to use Mentimeter

I can't for the life of me remember who recommended mentimeter to me. I think I came across it while surfing blogs or it may have been through Twitter. Either way, whoever you are, thank you so much. I used it yesterday in class and really enjoyed it.

If you haven't come across it, mentimeter lets you conduct surveys in real time. You pose a question (it only takes a few seconds). The bit where you put in the question looks like this

Your audience/class goes to a webpage, types in a six digit code and then answers your question. It is kind of like the ask the audience thing in Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

So yesterday, I was talking to a group of students for the first time. As part of their course, they have to do a needs analysis of their own learning. So I posed the question, which of the four skills do you think is your strongest. One by one, their answers start popping up on the screen, until it looked like this.

So then I can ask them to talk about why they think this is. It was a bit gimmicky but as an introduction to thinking about their strengths, it was fun. Plus, nice to have a visual representation that everyone has different strengths (or at least different perceptions of strengths - although in saying that, the first answer to pop up was listening!).

So then I posed an open ended question. I explained that they could think about it over the weekend and then I waffled on about something or other. When I turned around, they had already answered the question. 

 So that was pretty cool. 

Of course, for it to work, you really have to have a projector in  your classroom, and for the students to have internet access on their phones. 

However, if you're lucky enough to have those, I was thinking you could use it in these 5 ways:

1. If you are in an exam preparation class, you could use it to hold a vote about which part of the exam to do for that Friday's mock exam (e.g. reading, listening, writing).

2. If there is a particularly tricky question, you could use it to see how many people got it right or not (really just a fancy alternative to a show of hands).

3. It generates graphs, graphs based on their opinions. Might make IELTS writing part 1 more interesting. 

4. The students could collaborate and use it to carry out in class surveys. They could then use it for presentations or writing up reports based on the data. In that sense it is kind of like a simplified version of survey monkey

5. If you are having a classroom debate, you could pose a question at the start of the class (something like - do you agree with such and such - yes no). Then have the in class debate. Then repeat the survey and see if the opinions have changed. 

Any other thoughts on how to exploit this would be most welcome.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Questioning the coursebook

Hugh Dellar posted a while back about the generalisations regarding specific cultures that pervade a lot of ELT coursebooks. You can read his post here. I was struck by one criticism he made of a particular coursebook - that there was a piece of text that spouted some stereotypes followed by comprehension questions that essentially reinforced the message from the text. Hugh was making the point that this kind of thing is widespread and therefore, there is scope for trainee teachers to be made more aware of cultural sensitivity.

I found myself thinking - given students are likely to spend a lot of time with coursebooks - perhaps we can turn the problems of a coursebook to our advantage. Perhaps we can use the coursebook in ways that go beyond its intended purpose. That we could use the familiarity of the coursebook as the first step in a conversation about critical thinking.

Often, when encouraging students to think critically, I use resources like online articles, newspapers, blogposts. But perhaps the coursebook is the natural starting point for students to start challenging a text in English. Throw in a question or two that have nothing to do with the task being asked of them - the purpose being simply to encourage thinking beyond the coursebook.

  • Who do you think wrote this? 
  • Why do you think he wants you to learn this vocabulary/grammar?
  • Why do you think there is so much colour on this page?
  • Why do you think there is a cartoon here?
  • In this reading about cultures around the world, do you think it's really true what they say about people in......? If its not true, why do you think they're saying it?
At higher levels, a lot of texts for examinations tend to be newspaper style reports on research. As well as getting students to answer multiple choice questions, match headings and fill in gaps, why not throw in a few questions that challenge the content of the text.
  • How do you think they found out that 70% of people think this, or do that?
  • Where do you think this research was carried out? Do you think the results would be true for every country?
  • What do you think is the purpose of this text - to persuade you; to educate you; to frighten you?
  • This article on car usage paints a very negative picture. Do you think there is another side to the story?
  • Why do you think so many of these articles are about stress? What does this say about materials developers?
On a lot of listening CDs you often find actors pretending to be non-native speakers. I always found this a bit odd, and kind of offensive, but perhaps there is scope for introducing a tiny bit of critical thinking here.
  • Do you think that person is really from ........?
  • Why didn't they just find someone from that country?
Or even just trying to infer something about the people speaking on the CD. 
  • Did you think he sounded a bit annoyed? 
  • A lot of these professors seem to be men - why aren't there more female professors on this CD?
  • Where are all the Irish people on this CD?
Or with speaking exercises - encouraging students to consider whether the question might be leading them slightly. I often see these really loaded questions in books - Do you think children today spend too much time playing video games? Wouldn't it be nice to hear a student answer no, not enough actually to this question? 

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Correcting written work

Coming back to work after two weeks of freedom and cake eating is always difficult. Coming back to work to face the pile of corrections you put off is a trauma. Instead of getting stuck into it, I've found myself thinking a lot about correcting written work over the last few days - the value and the best way to go about doing it. It can be a bit of a depressing rabbit hole to disappear down - the what is the best approach conundrum - but I'll do anything to put off correcting.

This article by Jay Schwartz argues the case for using correction codes (e.g. Sp = spelling mistake). I'm not a fan. The idea seems good but it never seems that workable. For it to work, you have to spend a lot of time indoctrinating students into the code. And even then, it can be confusing or unhelpful. Sp is fine - grab a dictionary - but if you write WW (wrong word), are the students really going to figure out what the right word is? Surely when they were writing, they thought the word they chose was the right one. Is a WW going to be all that helpful? How do they know the new word is better than the old one? If they show the correction to you, do you then write another WW if it isn't the word you had in mind? And are students really motivated by these codes? I wonder.

I believe Truscott kicked things off by calling for error correction to be abandoned - that it doesn't work and is demotivating. This article  by Ronald Gray offers a very thorough overview of research into the effectiveness of grammar correction, most of which finds that specific grammar correction (be it highlighting mistakes, using correction codes or specifically identifying and correcting the mistake) doesn't really work. But like most teachers, it can be hard to put down the red pen. How will they know its a mistake if I don't tell them? Sure, I can point out stuff about paragraphing, topic sentences, etc., but can I just stand by and watch a verb be conjugated like that?

In this video, Jeremy Harmer discusses the sensitivity of correcting errors; the judgements teachers need to make in deciding whether to correct or not. This talk relates to error correction of spoken English, but the sensitivity around correction equally applies to giving feedback on written work.

Scott Thornbury makes interesting points here in relation to general error correction (as well as leading a discussion here on what constitute errors and how to deal with them). One specific suggestion he makes which could be directly applied to written error correction is to...
"Recast it.  Reformulate the learners’ interlanguage productions into a more target-like form. This is not the same as correction. It is simply a way of indicating “I know what you’re trying to say; this is how I would say it”."
I like this. But sometimes, I am not sure what they are trying to say.

In short, I find correcting stressful because I am not sure of the best approach; because I have a lot to do and little time to do it; and because I have to balance the approach I take with the students' expectations. Saying that, I find it helpful to think less about correction and more about goals.
  • Am I correcting simply to establish a grade or give a student an idea of their level? 
  • Am I correcting for the purpose of helping them to improve their language skills? 
  • Or am I correcting because another human being has tried to communicate something to me and rather than correcting, my goal is to offer a human response to what they have written?
Of course, really, I should be first asking myself, what was the student's goal in writing this for me. This then informs the way in which I respond to what they have written. If a student writes looking for a grade, and I don't give one, that could be demotivating. If the student wants feedback, and I don't give any, that could be demotivating. But if a student wants some form of human reaction, if their goal was to communicate, and I give a cold assessment of their grammar mistakes, that is arguably the most discouraging response I could offer.

So generally, I find the safest option is to give a bit of all three. Give them a grade. Point out an error or two (perhaps using the recasting method Thornbury suggests). But most importantly, respond to it. If there is an idea that I like, I say so. If there is something that I disagree with, I say why. If I don't understand something, I (kindly) ask them to explain to me. If I think of a related topic they might be interested in, I suggest they check it out.

I'd be very interested to hear how other people go about correcting/giving feedback.

Happy New Year.