‘How I learnt English’: Part II

How I learnt English - graphicIn my previous post, I focused on the use of songs and videos in order to make the learning experience in the classroom more similar to the reality of our students outside the classroom. In this post, I will examine how other aspects, such as video games, can be brought into the classroom, and look beyond the graphic to see how to incorporate other learning experiences into our repertoire.

Gamification

The comments which accompanied the original graphic (above) focused almost exclusively on video games as a way of learning English, although the focus seemed to be more a reminiscence of games which the people had enjoyed than a coherent explanation of how the games had in fact helped the person to learn English. However, there is a movement to introduce ideas taken from the gaming world into the classroom, an approach referred to as ‘gamification’.

One of the main areas in which gamification is being applied to education, as we have seen in the video, is assessment. It is argued that the shift from marking negatively to a system where marks are accumulated like experience points is highly motivational. An example of how to organise activities in this way can be found in Rose Bard’s ELT Blog. But there are other aspects of classroom life where gamification can be applied, such as classroom management. Class dojoMany years ago, I worked with a teacher who had her class divided into teams and during her lesson she awarded points to the different teams according to how they achieved the objectives she proposed. She used to record the points on the blackboard, but today’s teachers have alternatives available which are more appealing to their video-game-playing pupils – for example, Class Dojo. With this programme, students can choose and personalise their own avatars, and the teacher can assign points for different actions. Each student can access his / her profile and keep track of their progress, and what is more, parents can also access the profile and see how their children are doing at school, all in real time. More importantly, this programme is used to modify the behaviour of the students in a way which motivates them, rather than imposing norms.

However, perhaps the most important aspect of gamification is in the approach to the class itself on the part of teachers and students alike. The essence of the video game experience is that the player explores and investigates, learning and honing skills as they go. If they fail at a level, they can repeat it, using the knowledge they gained on previous failed attempts to improve their performance. DPiE-InClass-400x258They also have the opportunity to cooperate with friends, either by discussing the games or increasingly by playing together in a multi-player format. Our objective as teachers, then, would be to recreate these conditions in the classroom, proposing challenges or problems which our students have to solve, then providing the scaffolding they need as they work through them. Clearly this is very different to the traditional format of class which we are accustomed to, and it can be difficult to adapt to it, but it can pay dividends. I think it is particularly important for students to try again if they do not succeed first time. Too often when we correct an exercise we give the correct answers, then ask who got them right. An approach I have developed is to ask them what answer(s) they have, and if they do not all agree on the right answer, I ask them to think again, talking it over with their peers, rather than give them the answer directly. This allows them to explain the reasons for their answers and hear counter-arguments, analyse more closely the question and practise reaching a consensus.

The most radical form of gamification for the classroom is the creation of actual games which put your students into situations, either individually or in groups, where they have to communicate in English in order to progress. There are various logogames of this kind already on the market, in which the student takes on the role of a character and has to use his/ her language skills to negotiate their way through a game world in order to achieve an objective. A good example of this genre is Pulitzer, a game in which the student takes on the character of a journalist who is set various assignments.

Other games and activities are available on the internet, so we don’t have to have lots of free time in order to develop a game ourselves. For a list of resources available for language learners of all levels, click here. It’s a good idea to contact the publishing companies too, as they are increasingly producing more game-based online elements to complement the text books they provide.

A step further…

Michael J Fox

Both this post and the previous one have focused on introducing new elements into the classroom in an attempt to increase the motivation of our students. However, some experts advocate going further and introducing a completely new way of approaching the class as a response to what they see as the failings of the traditional classroom.

Cooperative learning

One of the results of advances in neurological science is that we have a clearer idea of how we learn, and this is washing back into how we teach. Cooperative learning claims to provide ‘brain friendly learning’ for our students, and incorporates  various recent methodological ideas. In the cooperative classroom, students are grouped in mixed-ability teams, typically of four, and the lessons are designed in such a way that students are given opportunities to interact within their teams in a structured way. The key difference between this approach and group work is that students in a cooperative team each have a defined role within the structured interaction, and so are obliged to participate in order to complete the task.

The main principles behind cooperative learning are these:

  • The members of the team must work together, and are interdependent.
  • Each individual member of the team should have personal responsibility for his / her part of the work and should be accountable to the team and to the class for their work,
  • All members of the team must have equal opportunities to participate.
  • Work can be realised simultaneously in different teams, allowing more students to be actively engaged on a task at any one time.

The flipped classroom

One of the most radical advances in methodology has been made possible by advances in technology and by its widespread availability. The concept of the flipped classroom rose from ventures such as The Khan Academy, where the actual teaching, or instruction, is delivered via recordings online which students study at their own pace for homework, freeing up class time for guided practice exercises and problem solving. The advantages are that the teacher is primarily available in the classroom for individual support, able to work with students one-on-one or in small groups while the others are engaged in the activities, and students can repeat parts of the instructuion until they understand it, even revisiting the ‘class’ later on to refresh their memories. Here is a video which explores the concept of the flipped classroom:

Happy Birthday! Top five posts this year.

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David’s ESOL Blog is one year old today, and we have also just reached a total of 21000 views. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who follows this blog or has visited it and contributed to its success. To celebrate, here are the top five posts from this first year:

1.  How I learnt English … and how I didn’t.

How I learnt English - graphic

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… (read more)

2. Speaking exams: What to do … and what to avoid.

As the main external exam season starts, I thought this would be a good time to write a post giving tips for how to approach the speaking exams in particular. To kick off, here is a new video from Cambridge English TV with some useful ideas about answering questions in the speaking tests… (read more)

3. Getting Them Speaking: Activities for the conversation class.

Getting them speaking 1 (TESOL Greece)

In this workshop, my aim was to demonstrate a series of activities which can be used in class as a way of encouraging our students, particularly teenagers, to develop their speaking skills… (read more)

See also: XXVII Jornadas GRETA, October 2013

4. Picture dictations.

Day five of the Five days five posts series, and unfortunately this is just post four. I’m writing this on the train bound for Córdoba, where I am giving a workshop on speaking activities for teenagers at the XIV Jornadas CETA (Córdoba English Teachers Association)… (read more)

5. How to … exploit video in class.

Watching video in class

Picture credit: Vimeo

It should be a motivating experience, indeed you may even have conceived the activity as a prize, or an end of term treat, but too often the use of video in the classroom has the opposite effect. In this post we will look at some different ways to incorporate video in the classroom, in a fun and, hopefully, motivating way… (read more)

 

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

Texts and tweets – David Crystal discusses myths and realities

English: David Crystal signing a book at the H...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I came across this on You Tube this afternoon, and I couldn’t resist sharing it with you all. It is always a pleasure to listen to David Crystal discussing language, and his views on what is happening in English are sharp and refreshing. Enjoy!