Monday, 16 March 2015


Last week I went to a comedy gig in a small pub. At one point, the comedian, in the middle of a bit about how great drinking is, asked if there was anyone who didn't like alcohol. I could see he needed someone to say they weren't into drinking for the joke to work. And I happen to be a teetotaller. All I had to do was put up my hand and we'd all find out what point he was trying to make. Until then, audience participation had been ticking along nicely. I'd even had the comedian direct a few bits at me earlier. It should have been relatively easy.

Instead, I kept my mouth shut.

Not a terribly significant or interesting story, but it seemed to chime both with a discussion we had on introverts in the classroom over at #eltchinwag and some points made by Hugh Dellar on these classroom management videos.

I would not necessarily label myself an introvert. Like many teachers, I'm fairly mouthy at conferences. But I think there are many solid reasons why I chose not to speak up at that gig. The audience was 80% male and a bit peculiar. I had a bit of a sore throat that night. Overall though, I said nothing because I didn't want to risk embarrassment.

Does the student in the classroom risk embarrassment to the same degree as someone being picked on by a comedian in a bar full of drunk lads? Probably not. But fear of embarrassment, big or small, can cause people to clam up.

So what is embarrassing in the classroom? Not knowing an answer? Getting an answer wrong? Having something patiently explained directly to you by the teacher? Your teacher making a joke about the mistake you made ("You cut your hair! Wow, that's amazing. How did you get the back so straight?....Oh you mean, you had your hair cut!")? Having to talk about something a bit personal (Why don't you drink?) Your teacher making you repeat a word you mispronounced?

It's hard to say. If you don't want to embarrass someone by asking them if they have the answer, what do you do? Ask nobody? Let the same one or two people repeatedly answer while the others avoid eye contact?

I'm not sure about anyone else, but I think in teaching EAP, I've often found myself saying a variation of - Look, when you get to college, you're going to have to speak up in tutorials and give presentations. You should speak up more in class so you get used to it - as a way to encourage the less vocal. Yet, I'm not convinced that this is the best way to motivate someone to speak up - I notice you're very quiet in class so I'm going to make you talk more to help you. 

So what to do?

If I think only about nominating students in some Teacher Student interaction (e.g. checking answers, finding opinions, pair-work feedback) then I've started to question my traditional approach, which can be summed up as - nominate students to answer questions = good.

But why nominate?

If I am checking answers and I just want to make sure all the class knows, who cares if not everyone chips in with an answer?

If I am checking to see if they understood, why wait until everyone else is watching? Why not wander over for a look during the exercise when there is time to do something about it?

If I think they're shy and want them to get involved, why single them out in front of a dozen other people? And how involved is someone if every so often, I make them say True or B. (And do you have to be talking to be involved?)

If I think they have something interesting to say, is there a way that I can give them a bit of a heads up first?

If I am nominating because my experience tells me nobody will answer if I don't name names, then maybe I need to leave a few sticky silences around the place for students to deal with.

Would be very interesting to get students' perspectives on what does or does not embarrass them.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Scaffolding reading (kind of)

Recently, while discussing approaches to ESAP and the challenges students face, I was struck by something a colleague said. My colleague is the business lecturer for students trying to progress to undergraduate studies. The point he was making is that students are required to do a ferocious amount of reading. For instance, the coursebook they work with, Business Studies, is 816 pages. For a native speaker, this is daunting. For someone with a 5.5 in IELTS, it is Everest. If that student is also not a big reader in their own language, then it becomes an abyss.

One way of helping the student, I believe, is to offer tasks to guide them through the reading they have to do. As my colleague rightly pointed out, there is a good chunk of reading that they have to do outside of the classroom, probably on their own. However, I think there are a number of things we can do to support them in this, which don't take a great deal of time to prepare.

For want of a better term, I'll call them guided reading worksheets. If you've ever taken your students on a tour of a museum, handed them a worksheet and let them loose, the principle is basically the same.

You (or the content teacher) tell them which chapter(s) they are to read. You then create a worksheet that adds a bit of structure to their reading. The type of things such a worksheet could include would be:

  • Your Questions (you skim the text they've to read and generate 5 to 10 questions for them to answer)
  • Summaries (ask students to write specific length summaries of specific chapters)
  • Vocabulary searches (find and look up key words (say 10) that you identify for them)
  • Examples (if the topic is a concept (e.g. stakeholders), ask students to find examples from the local area)
  • Their Questions (tell students that they have to email you (or the content lecturer) with one question each based on the assigned reading)
  • Divide up (you ask certain students to read certain chapters - they've to summarise for each other)
  • Other reading (give them an article from the business section of a newspaper - they have to read and then identify as many chapters from their course book that have some relevance to the topic of the article)
  • Assign the chapter - they have to find one image to represent the main point (sorry, scraping the bottom a bit here)
This doesn't have to be done in the form of worksheets handed out in class. Students could be emailed the chapter to be read, given the relevant task and given a deadline to complete. 

I know it is not very original or very autonomous. However, I think that in many cases the physical act of sitting down and reading itself needs to be scaffolded. Whether or not you follow up on the task, at least there is a clear starting point there for students struggling with the volume of reading they need to get through. 

This is perhaps overkill, but here is a sample handout I did up for Unit 6 of the Business Studies book.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

I'm a social learner (except when I'm alone)

I've come back to this fabulous talk by Russell Mayne a number of times now. It is a joy to watch someone taking shots at sacred cows with such abandon (though as someone who gobbled up the learning styles approach, I find myself cringing quite a bit (gobbled up......does that make me a gustatory learner?)). Without wishing to simplify, Russell's point is that ELT seems to offer a warm welcome to dubious theories and unsupported practices (e.g. Brain Gym and NLP). This leads to classroom activities like watching the direction of your students' eyes to determine when to start and stop activities.

Apart from silly lessons (nothing terribly wrong with a bit of silly), one of the main problems Russell highlights is the damage to the professional credibility of ELT. Russell's targets are not teachers on the ground, but those a little higher up the chain - teacher trainers, ELT writers, course book publishers. Those who influence the kinds of ideas and methodologies that make their way into the classroom. 

What I find interesting to consider (as Russell does in his talk) is why it is that there is such acceptance of theories that seem "intuitively true" but which lack any evidence to support them (and evidence that suggests they are in fact bogus). Why is it that in EAP we teach critical thinking, but don't really practise what we teach?

I don't wish to be an apologist for teachers but I think the straight answer is mostly practical. Time. Most teachers I know are paid by the hour and have little or no access to ELT journals. If they want to get any sort of professional development, they have to give up a Saturday, unpaid. Their outside class time is spent preparing classes, correcting work and fretting that they are not effectively helping students maximise their learning potential. If they go to a talk by a charismatic so and so who espouses the wonders of NLP, then chances are, come Monday, their students will be closing their eyes and visualising childhood memories.  

As Russell says, if we want professional credibility, we need to be more professional. I have taken this as a bit of a mantra lately. I figure if we want to be considered on a similar level to university professors, then we have to act like university professors (i.e. publish, give talks, look startled when approached by students in the corridor). However, I am fortunate to work for an institution that gives access to journals and support to do research. I am conscious that not everyone is so fortunate. Thankfully, with ELT Ireland we have a great resource in helping to make things here a bit more professional. 

Essentially, this brings me round to continuing professional development (CPD). Challenging accepted wisdom, engaging in the debate, should be a part of our CPD. But for many of us, it is not. According to the Medical Council, doctors are expected on average to do 50 hours per year on CPD. But there is a framework, a support system there that helps doctors to fulfil their obligations. As far as I know (and I may be wrong), there is no such system for ELT teachers. It mostly seems ad hoc. Wouldn't it be great if there was such a system and support for teachers to carry out their CPD? Perhaps then we may be better positioned to critically evaluate current pedagogical trends (fads?).