“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.

Writing in Primary – Part III: Extended writing

child writing

In the first part of this series, I looked at how to initiate early primary students in writing in English, and in Part II I focused on how writing activities can be built into the CLIL classroom. In this, the third part of the series, I’m going to look at ways to get students producing longer texts, either on their own or as part of a team. Here, the focus is inevitably on upper primary, although the ages at which the different activities can be used will vary widely depending on the programme of each school, and some of these activities may be more suited to early secondary in some schools.

Scaffolding longer texts

One of the things which less proficient writers find daunting about producing longer texts is the very fact that they are being asked to write something longer than a couple of sentences. Faced with the blank page, they will often simply tell you they don’t know what to write. As teachers, our job is to support them in this stage, helping them to develop strategies which will allow them to develop longer texts. For this reason, it is very important that longer writing tasks be done in class rather than for homework – the students will need individual support as they begin their writing. Once they are writing confidently they can be asked to finish their work for homework if need be. I find the best way to scaffold longer texts is to break down the requirements into smaller, more manageable parts. In Part II we saw an example of this with the water cycle exercise, Imagen water cyclewhere the students were asked to write one or two sentences about each step in the process, rather than simply being asked to write a paragraph describing the water cycle. On the worksheet the different steps are visually separated, so that what they are producing does not have the appearance of a long text. Once the students have produced their texts on the worksheet, you can ask them to copy the corrected version into their notebooks in the form of a paragraph, so that they realise how much they have been able to write, but only after they have successfully completed the worksheet. This enhances the sense of achievement, and success breeds success.

Picture stories are another useful way of breaking down longer more complex texts into more manageable parts. I use the stories from the speaking part of the Movers and Flyers exams, and in this way the students have more practise with the type of story they will face in the exam at the end of the year. You can see an example of one of these stories here, taken from Gray (2000).

Flyers Speaking Story

We can also get our students to make comic strips, producing their own pictures and adding text to each one. This can be done very simply by folding a piece of paper in half, in half again and in half again, which will divide the page into eight sections, for eight pictures. A more sophisticated alternative is to make a mini-book, instructions for which you can find here. This is a great way to check comprehension of something done in class, whether a story, or the steps in a process. I have used it to review extended reading, and to wind up work on biographies of famous people.

Collaborative writing

Another way to scaffold longer texts is to have students work together to create a text. This can be modelled using the ‘Mission Impossible!‘ activity, where each student has to create a correct sentence to form part of a story against the clock, with the teacher writing the story up on the board. Then put the students into groups of four and explain that each person will dictate one sentence of the text to the rest of the group. The other members of the group decide if they think the sentence is correct and appropriate or if it needs editing, and when they are all satisfied with the sentence they all write it down. Then the next person in the group dictates what they feel should be the next sentence in the text, and so on. This can be used to write picture stories, or any kind of text. It is very important that they have a clear idea of what they have to write about before they begin. I have used this to practise writing descriptions of places, projecting a photograph so that they are all describing the same place. This is also useful as practice for the Cambridge Preliminary (PET) speaking exam, where candidates are asked to speak for a minute about a photograph.

A slightly crazy version of collaborative writing can be a lot of fun for the end of term (although don’t expect great quality from the texts produced). Each student starts off with a piece of paper, and the teacher dictates the first sentence of a story, appropriate for the time of year or the topics being covered in class at that time. Each student then writes the next sentence in that story, and passes the paper to the student sitting next to him / her. each student then has to write the next sentence of the story they have in front of them before passing the paper on again. In this way you have as many stories circulating in the classroom as there are students, and each one will be different. As I have said, this is just a fun activity, but the students are still reading each text and writing, as well as revising what has been written before.

Final words

As I said at the beginning of this post, these activities may be suitable for primary students in some schools but more suitable for secondary students in other settings. The important thing is to get our students writing as early as possible, so that producing texts is seen as a normal part of the English (or CLIL) class. There are many other techniques we can use, and I hope that readers will share their own ideas through the comments section. One thing I have not touched on here is the use of technology in the writing class, and I hope to come back to that topic soon.

References

GRAY, E. (2000) Skills Builder for Young Learners: Flyers 1 – Student’s Book Newbury, Express Publishing.

Commencing

ELT Reflections

DSC_0287

 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/

GRETA XXVII Annual Conference

The annual conference of the Granada English Teachers’ Association (GRETA) will take place on 17th – 19th October at the Facultad de Filología of the Universidad de Granada. The theme this year is ‘Teaching English for Life’, and speakers include Liam Fitzpatrick, Patricia Reilly and Chris Roland, with opening and closing plenaries from Do Coyle and David Marsh.

The programme is now available. I will be speaking on Friday at 4pm and again on Saturday at 4pm.

This promises to be a great conference, and I’m looking forward to going back to Granada this year. Hope to see you there!