4 Things to Promise my Students at the Start of This School Year

A classroom in a Japanese high school

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another school year has got under way, laden with high hopes and good intentions. But as September gives way to October and we settle in for the long haul, it is all too easy to let those good intentions slide and fall back on the routines we feel comfortable with. So this school year I have decided to go public – in this post I will set out four things I hope to make an integral part of my teaching this year, and over the coming months I will revisit these themes to let you know how I am getting on.

1. Make homework more interesting

Homework is always a thorny issue for any teacher. What should you set? How much? How should it be checked or evaluated? And what do you do with those students who refuse to do it? Most of the time the students perceive homeworksleep-on-books-1.10.12 as dull, and often even a waste of time, however carefully you programme it into your learning objectives. So this year I hope to follow Adam Simpson’s sound advice in his post ‘6 great techniques for getting students to write down their homework‘.

In particular, Adam’s suggestion to ‘Tech it up’ appeals to me. Our students are so-called ‘digital natives’, so a clear way of making homework more appealing to them is to incorporate digital elements where possible. This opens up the possibility of including listening comprehension tasks or watching videos and doing comprehension tasks as homework. Or perhaps an editing or peer response activity using Google Drive? Or even a class blog? Watch this space!

2. Give them space to learn

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Photo credit: http://www.ed.ac.uk

This promise really brings together a couple of different ideas which I have been meaning to work on more diligently for some time now. I have the impression that my students see the teacher (in any subject) as being there predominantly to solve their problems, so that they do not have to make any effort. When they are writing, for example, they will ask for help with relatively simple vocabulary rather than stop and think for a moment to see if they can remember it for themselves, and sometimes they will ask for the same item of vocabulary again a few moments later. For some years I have solved this by taking a set of dictionaries into writing classes. This year, my intention is to take this further, taking a step back as teacher and requiring them to put in a little more effort themselves.

One way in which I can do this is to set up collaborative learning groups within the classroom. In this way, students have a team which supports them in the learning process, and peers they can consult before turning to the teacher. I already make frequent use of peer response when working on writing activities. This year I hope to extend this to other areas of the curriculum, encouraging the students to coach each other before we share the answers and correct in class. I have seen a sign on the teacher’s table in one classroom which says ‘C3B4ME’ – ‘See three (team mates) before you see me (come to ask the teacher)’. c3b4meThis approach should foster peer support within the classroom, and so help the students to become more responsible for their own and each others’ learning.

The second idea which I want to include in this promise is the intention to create a space where students can learn for themselves, providing them with activities through which they can discover for themselves what they need to progress. The rationale behind this is the old saying ‘Give me a fish and I eat for a day – teach me to fish and I eat for a lifetime’. It is all too easy to step in and spoon-feed our students rather than providing them with challenges which stimulate their curiosity and then scaffolding so that they can face those challenges successfully.

In the packed curriculum we are faced with in the school, both of these ideas represent serious challenges, but I feel strongly that they are also important to help our students really learn what we are trying to teach them.

3. Give them the thinking time they need

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As teachers, one of the things we do most often is ask questions. and while it can be satisfying to see a sea of hands raised in an instant, as in the photograph, this is rarely the case. Even if we do have a number of students who raise their hands immediately, they are usually the same students over and over, and some quieter students get shifted to the margins of the class quite quickly. Faced with hands straining in the air, it is very difficult to avoid selecting a student to answer immediately, especially as we also suffer from the pressure of a packed curriculum – surely it is more effective to get the answer over with as quickly as possible.

However, it is important to slow down a little in these situations. Many students who do not raise their hands immediately may know the answer, but simply need time to gather their thoughts and formulate their answer. So it pays to wait before selecting who should answer, and make a conscious effort to select different students each time, so that everyone gets the chance to participate. One way to achieve this is to incorporate ‘think time’ into the classroom questioning process, so that everyone has time to think before answers are requested. This can be extended to become a ‘think-pair-share’ structure, further scaffolding the weaker students.

Obviously some students take advantage of the pressure on the teacher to take a quick answer, and even if they are selected they fail to respond, in the hope that the teacher will move on to take a more willing response after a brief pause. An extended pause may feel uncomfortable in such situations, but sends the message that an answer is required before we move on.

4. Continue to learn myself

Students may learn from what we tell them in class, but they learn a lot more from who we are. One of the most important aspects of our work as teachers is to provide a positive role model for our students, and this extends to modelling an interest in further learning. Students should see a teacher who can admit that s/he doesn’t know the answer to some of their questions, but will find out the answer for tomorrow’s class, or a teacher who can try out new ways of doing things in the class. This doesn’t mean that we should sign on to every new fad that comes along, but it does mean that this year’s classes should include new elements which were not present in last year’s. In this way we avoid the predictability which can so easily kill off interest in the classroom.

Over to you

So these are my plans for the new school year. But what about you? How do you want to modify your teaching practice this year? Or do you have any suggestions how I can better achieve my aims? I look forward to reading your comments.

Improving writing

I came across this in Larry Ferlazzo’s article for Education Week Teacher, and thought I would share it here. It underlines the importance of pre-writing activities in the classroom, rather than just expecting students to launch into writing a text.

Whenever we set up a writing activity for our class, the temptation is to set the writing for homework and expect our students to produce a reasonable text to be handed in at the start of the next class. However, the reality is very different. What we should really be doing is modlling best practices in writing, and this can only be done if the writing is done at least partly in the classroom. Students should be taught a series of steps to follow when approaching a writing assignment, which includes generating ideas, selecting and organising these ideas, and drafting, and an important part of the acquisition of these practices comes in classroom talk around the writing assignment. Particularly at the beginning, students need the support of their peers and of the teacher in order to generate reasonable ideas and cogent arguments, and a simple way of testing these arguments is to try them out on peers in the classroom. Student talk in the classroom therefore allows them to share ideas and to test how powerful these ideas are. In addition, the teacher is at hand at the beginning of the actual writing phase to ensure that no student suffers from ‘writer’s block’ when faced with a blank page. A writing assignment can be finished at home, but if we want the best from our students, we should be prepared to dedicate some class time to it as well, particularly in the early stages.

Improving writing

“How I learnt English … and how I didn’t”

How I learnt English - graphic

#MIUI: How I Learnt English
http://en.miui.com/thread-2179-1-1.html

I came across this graphic on Facebook recently and, as an English teacher, it depressed me a great deal, especially when I went to the original page and read the comments, as person after person spoke of the video games which helped them to learn. While it is great that they have been able to learn, and that they have taken responsibility for their own learning, as a teacher I feel bad that this is the image that at least some students have of our work. So for the past few days I have been thinking of ways to redress the balance. Luckily, there are many ways in which we can incorporate elements of what the students identified as helping them to learn English into their mainstream classes.

English learning word cloud

Using songs

Perhaps the step that we have all taken to bring our classes into line with the interests of our students is the introduction of popular songs into the classroom. Indeed, modern textbooks designed for teenagers often include exercises built around pop songs as a way of engaging students. However, the very nature of popular music means that it is practically impossible to include  a song in a printed medium which stands the test of time until the next reprinting. In addition to this, it can be hard to choose the most appropriate song for a classroom of teenagers – inevitably, if some of the students love the song, others will hate it. And the generation gap between teacher and student can lead to choosing a song which fails to have the desired motivating effect. Often, the end result is that the teacher chooses a more classic song which they feel more comfortable with.

One answer to this problem is available online. The site www.lyricstraining.com provides simple gap-fill listening exercises based on a large range of modern songs. If you have access to a computer lab at some stage, this can be a nice exercise to end the session, as each student can choose the song they want to work on and complete the lyrics exercise on their own using headphones. If you are lucky enough to have access to computers in the classroom, this can be used for fast finishers.

However, there must be more to introducing music into the classroom than simply providing more practice in gap-fill exercises, or the novelty will soon wear off. Something I try to do is to have parts of songs appear in unlikely places in the class. One exercise I use is the jigsaw dictation, in which a text is dictated with the sentences jumbled. The students must first take the information down as a dictation, and then work together to reorganise the sentences to reconstruct the original text, using their knowledge of grammar and cohesion. So why not use the lyrics of a song as the jumbled text? Better still, why not mix the lyrics of two songs, to add an extra layer of text organisation to the exercise? If you don’t tell the students at the start of the exercise what the source(s) of the text dictated is, it adds an element of surprise to the exercise which can perhaps be motivating than simply announcing that you’re going to listen to a song. A possible way of checking whether they have the correct order for the texts is to play the song(s) at the end of the exercise.

Another way in which I use songs in class is in the exercise ‘Desert Island Discs‘, which I presented as part of my workshop ‘Getting them speaking‘. In this activity, students get to talk about why they have chosen a particular piece of music and how they feel about it, as well as sharing their choice of music with the rest of the class.

Bringing video into the classroom

In my post ‘How to exploit video in the classroom‘ I examined different activities which can be used in class in order to introduce an audiovisual element into

everyday learning. Videos are a great way of presenting ideas or topics to the class, but they should be used as an integrated part of the lesson. To this end, short clips of video are far more useful than longer parts of films, and a series of activities can be planned around different showings of the same video. For excellent ready-made examples of what can be achieved with this sort of material, I suggest you try Kieran Donaghy’s great website, www.film-english.com, which I examined in my post ‘Five websites to spice up the end of term‘.

I have a colleague who regularly uses film trailers from You Tube in her classes, with listening comprehension activities very similar to those which can be done with songs.  In a C2 (Proficiency) class, I used a series of short clips from the series ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Pet‘ to illustrate different regional British accents, although fully accepting that even a Proficiency group would have difficulties follwing Jimmy Nail in full flow! Matt Halsdorff, in a comment on the post mentioned above, mentioned that he used video for close listening exercises, focusing on very specific items of usage, such as ‘gonna’, ‘wanna’, or the excessive use of ‘like’ in popular speech.

However, while bringing video into the classroom in this way is motivating and comes closer to matching the students’ real world experience, it remains a relatively passive experience. It is a simple step to allow the students to make their own videos, either in the classroom itself or for presentation in the classroom. This can range from recording videos of presentations done by the students so that they can analyse themselves as part of any debriefing to full-blown video projects which they script and organise themselves. I have had students produce videos of weather forecasts, adverts, daytime TV programmes and cookery programmes, while a colleague in Primary sets a video project every year in which his Year 4 students represent different aspects of Roman life as part of his CLIL social science class. Using relatively simple software, students can create photo stories, or video podcasts explaining a point of grammar or an item of vocabulary, along the lines of ‘iswearenglish.com‘ (see example below).

Conclusions

An important thing to say in any examination of possible new teaching techniques is that what we have been doing up to now should not be rejected. While in this post we have focused on bringing elements of our students’ outside realities into the classroom, what we have been doing in the classroom up to now plays an important part in the education of our students and we must continue to do it. However, things outside the classroom have changed radically in the last few years, and as educators we must be aware of ways in which we can engage and motivate our students, including incorporating what they feel comfortable with into our everyday approach.

Commencing

ELT Reflections

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 Image courtesy of Maegan Tintari 

When I initially proposed the idea of having an ELT Research Blog Carnival to share what we as English language professionals had been learning through academic journal articles, I never really anticipated the response I would get. Deep down, I thought that this idea wouldn’t really catch on and it would die before it ever got started. I was pleasantly surprised, actually shocked would be more apt here, at the response I received from others. I thought I might be too optimistic to think that 2-3 people would join me in the first run, but instead there are a total of seven posts to share! I believe it shows how much ELT instructors care about learning and growing in their field. They are happy to question and reflect on what is happening in their classroom in order to help their students grow. I am proud…

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Welcome – ELT Blog Carnival

 

Listen to the music

Welcome to ELT Research Blog Carnival, the aim of which is to provide a space for ELT professionals to discuss research articles on a common theme. The first topic is ‘Listening’, and it is open until 23rd August.

Articles so far:

Nathan Hall: Preparing

Carol Goodey: Listening for learning

More information: http://eltresearchblogcarnival.wordpress.com/

Who am I? An existential ice-breaker

depositphotos_4441026-Disorganized-Communication---People-Speaking-at-Once

This is relatively simple ice breaker activity which can be done at any point of the programme, but since I like to start my conversation classes focusing on questions I plan to do this in September. It also helps to build a sense of team spirit in the classroom, as it obliges students to speak to other members of the class, but at the same time gives them a clear objective to achieve from the interaction, making the interaction less threatening.

Before the lesson, you need to prepare name tags, or pieces of paper with the names of famous people on, one for each student in the group. It is important that your students should know who the famous people are. At the beginning of the activity, tape the name of one famous person onto the back of each student. The students then stand up, mingle and pair up. Each student looks at the name on the back of their partner, then the students take turns to ask one question (which requires a yes / no answer) to their partner about their famous person / character.

Once they have each asked their questions they thank the person they have worked with and look for another partner. It’s a good idea at this stage for the people looking for partners to do so wth their hand raised, to make it easier for the others to see them. This continues until the person has guessed their character. At this point they take the name taped on their back and tape it on their chest.

Students mingle with faculty members

The students who finish first now become counsellors for the others. At any time  a student who has not yet guessed can go to one of the students who have the name tag on their chest and ask for advice. The counsellor should first ask what the person already knows abut their character, then suggest a possible line of questioning. The counsellor does not give clues as to the identity of the character, just helps with the questions.

During the activity, the teacher should be mingling too, monitoring the activity and helping students who have difficulty with the language, although it is up to the counsellors to help with the content of the activity.

A nice follow up activity to this would be for each student to write a short biography of their character, basing themselves on the questions they asked which led them to guess their character. Or they could use the same material to give a short presentation on their character.

Obviously you are not limited to famous people for the name tags. If you are working with literature or extended reading with your group, a variation on this exercise could be to assign each student one of the characters from the book you are reading in class. In this way you get the students to think about the characteristics of their character in more depth. If you are working with science, the names could even be names of elements from the periodic table. You can adapt the activity to suit the content you want to practise or review. Because the students need meaningful clues, they are forced to think of the specific characteristics, and this will help them remember what they have learnt far better.