Monday, 23 February 2015

ELT Ireland Conference

Saturday and Sunday (Feb 21st and 22nd) marked the first ELT Ireland Annual Conference. It was a fantastic event and wonderful that this organisation exists here in Ireland. Our industry is going through some tough times, so it is great to have the chance to go to events like this, meet colleagues and share ideas. There were tons of highlights (I will do a post on these later this week) but one that really resonated with me was Peter Lahiff's talk about getting involved. His message, "Push, the door is open", really struck a chord, especially as Peter himself has given me, along with many others, a lot of support in trying new things and getting involved in the ELT world.

The hashtag for the conference was #eltirl2015 if you would like to check out some of the discussion.

I've attached the slides from my talk here if anyone would like to take a look. Basically the talk was about exam preparation classes and how to share the pain with students.

I'll try to explain one or two points that might not be so clear from the slides.

½ with answers + ½ with questions = less TTT

With reading texts, I might give half the students the questions and let them get cracking. With the other half, I give the answers. Their job is to find evidence in the text to prove the answer. After the time is up, get them together. They discuss a bit more as opposed to listening to me telling them the answers.

Text + student questions = speaking practice

I often give a reading text on a particular topic. The homework is to think up discussion questions related to the topic. The next day, we use those topic questions for discussion in class. They are hopefully more invested because they are discussing their own questions and they can use ideas/language they picked up from their reading.

Backwards essay writing = plans and questions 

I always bang on about making plans before writing. One thing that breaks up the monotony of me harping on is to give a complete essay and ask students to make a plan from it and figure out what the question was. If it is a good essay, it should be easy to make the plan. If it is a bit incoherent, trying to recreate the plan might show that up; likewise if the essay hasn't answered the question.

I should also credit Hugh Dellar, who very kindly allowed me to rip off the structure he used in this talk and offered his encouragement.  

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

What I've learned from learning Polish

This month marks the one year anniversary since I started learning Polish. Considering that I've never consciously had to learn English, I think the next best thing for us natives is to try and learn another language and let that inform our teaching practice. This is what I've learned.

1. Learning a language is difficult

I hope I always knew this. But the thing is, I started out learning Italian when I first got into teaching. And I found it really easy. I may have sounded like a bit of an eejit, but I was having garbled conversations in no time. Did this make me less sympathetic to students struggling with English? I hope not. At least now, after a year of Polish, I have much, much, much more sympathy for people who don't get it as quick.

2. Vocabulary is important

When I read something I don't understand, it's not because my skimming/scanning/predicting skills aren't up to scratch, it's because I don't know the words. When I am unable to say something, it's because I don't know the words. I need words. Give me words.

3. Grammar is boring

This is a bit harsh but there is so much of it in Polish. I started off thinking I would learn it properly but after I almost had a stroke trying to correctly say "My brother is a sporty man", I decided that accuracy was getting in the way. Now I don't ask my teacher is it correct, I ask is it correct enough. Keeping my motivation for the language is more important than speaking only when I'm sure it's correct.

4. I like being corrected (but only in a certain way)

If I make a mistake, I don't mind if someone points it out to me. What I can't stand is when someone explains to me why it is a mistake. If I didn't use the masculine form then chances are my priorities were somewhere else. And if you try to explain it to me, I'm afraid plenty of other people have tried and failed. Just tell me the correct version and hopefully it might stick.

5. I get embarrassed easily

I constantly tell my students - come on, speak, who cares if you make a mistake. When I speak in Polish, I can get embarrassed at the drop of a hat. If someone does that scrunched up, what was that face, after I say something then I get anxious. If someone says something I don't understand, I panic. Funnily enough, this doesn't happen when I speak English.

6. I'm not listening to you as much as you might think I am

I'm sure we've all had that student who never seems to listen. You tell him/her a hundred times and they keep making the same mistake. Each time you explain something, they nod sagely, say ah and then carry on regardless. I am that student. When you're talking to me in Polish, chances are I'm preparing the next thing I want to say. Or maybe I'm stressed because you used a word that I know I know but I can't remember it and now I'm thinking how stupid I am, how I'll never learn, how I'm too old, how.........oh sorry, did you say something?

7. I love boring stuff

I recently chatted with teachers and we were complaining about how creative, fun homework is often met with a lukewarm response from students whereas they lap up gap fills and match ups. As a Polish student, I gobble this stuff up like its ice-cream. Give me ten sentences to translate into Polish and I'm in heaven. Give me a paragraph with words taken out and I'll put them back in with a tear of joy in my eye. I love them because they are quantifiable. I know when I'm done and I know when to pat myself on the back.

I suppose the two main things that I have learned is that, number one, I am a shockingly bad student. Instead of just studying, I spend ages trying to come up with new systems that will help me study more efficiently or writing blogposts that try to add heft and significance to my Polish classes. The second is that Polish really is a stunningly beautiful language (less so when it's me doing the speaking), worthy of the fabulous people that speak it .

Still, I think there is something to be said for getting into your students' shoes as much as possible. Would love to hear other teachers' language learning experiences.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Curb your routine

I read a couple of interesting articles yesterday. The first was an opinion piece by John Worne about the drop in the number of British students taking second languages at university. The second was another John, Fanselow this time, reflecting on his idea of teachers breaking rules. The latter piece advocates a lot of self-observation (by videoing lessons) and challenging the routines (or self imposed rules) we adhere to in the class. The former espouses the benefits of learning a second language.

With those two articles in mind, I tried to do a lesson using the John Worne piece as a source and the Fanselow piece as inspiration.

Normally when I prepare a reading activity, I start off with some discussion questions. Trying to break this rule, I started with vocabulary I extracted from the text. Normally, I do vocabulary as matching - this time I tried to do it as guided discovery. Not sure if this is better or worse, but shook me out of my routine a little bit. Plus, I got to use a picture of Larry David.

I tried to also add a research element to the reading - encouraging the students to investigate the author and a source referenced in the piece. I normally do this as a complete lesson - this time I just threw it in quite casually, a minor part of the lesson.

The writing element I also made quite unstructured, using the Twitter idea I described in an earlier post. There is something fun about writing with a limited number of letters/words. For instance, today, in class, we were looking at essay exam questions and we had a competition to see who could boil the question down to the fewest number of words. Surprising how engaged they were with this.

I finished it with a bit of grammar (wish for regrets), again lifted from the text. The idea of the lesson is that there are quite a lot of elements to it.

Click here for the Lesson PDF