Reflections and Questions

The sharp-eyed, quick-witted and bushy-tailed amongst you will have noticed that this little corner of the blog-o-sphere(tm) has been rather quiet for the last few months. My MA dissertation, as dissertations are wont to do, ended up taking almost all of my spare time leaving none for blogging or, much more upsettingly, football. However, it is now done and handed in and a semblance of normality can return to my life and there’s time for some reflecting. In this post I’m going over last semester’s classes for anything that might help me with this one.

I have to say that last semester’s classes felt good to teach. The atmosphere was generally very pleasant, we had a lot of laughs, there was tonnes of enthusiasm on display and some very good conversations. Both informal and formal feedback was decent and I wouldn’t hesitate to call it my most successful semester ever. Before accusations of own-trumpet tooting start to fly, this success was born of the students more than anything I did. I had the pleasure of teaching three articulate, motivated and intelligent groups who really deserved the success that they achieved.

Nevertheless, there were some things that I tried to do or found myself doing that may have helped this atmosphere to develop. Taking my cue from the Willis & Willis realization of TBLT, I made doing things a priority, and generally eased back on preparation for doing those things, at least in the traditional sense of lexis and grammar. Where I did focus on language, it tended to be much more holistic (think dictogloss) than piecemeal. I managed to increase the amount of conversation a lot, mostly through a large amount of repetition, and this might be the most important difference between this semester and last. Given the Korean context, I tend to be wary of drilling as I assume that students have been drilled to death in school, but thinking about it as I write this it may well not be the case. From talking to my students they were lucky if they got to speak at all, especially post-elementary school. Also, better writers than I have pointed out that drilling does not necessarily have to be dull, so this might be something to work with a little more this semester. My repetition, however, tended to happen more on the task-level than the sentence level. This was helped by the seating plan: the horseshoe for ease of movement,  the onion/speed-dating for speaking tasks and lots and lots of jigsawing. I can’t stress how much of a difference it makes mixing students up and changing places and partners regularly. I also think getting students out from behind desks is important. It takes away a big barrier to movement and engagement, as well as removing a convenient shield for smartphones or anything else that students might get distracted by. I’ll definitely be continuing down this path, and would happily take suggestions for other innovative seating arrangements.

Another small change I made was to take a step back from students doing a task. This was partly born of the fact that I am unbelievably bad at monitoring activities (improving this is a PD project for this semester) but also the fact that students seemed to perform noticeably worse when they thought I was listening. I found that when I went and sat in the corner much more English got spoken.  This still means monitoring with your eyes for students off-task or needing help, but this is very different to standing over students who are already self-conscious about making mistakes. There are also other ways to elicit language for correction, such as having students record and transcribe their conversations which I tried at times, and would like to do more often. My problem is that while this is useful, it tends to be quickly forgotten and perhaps not worked on in later lessons. I wonder if anyone else does anything similar and how you go about working it?

The successes I talked about above tended to be in terms of confidence and willingness to carry out a conversation, which actually was what I set out to achieve with the class. My final speaking tests took the form of four way conversations and saw lots of co-operation, some strident opinions and even some jokes, all carried out in understandable English. I feel that this reflected the more holistic approach that I took really well. However, it does leave me wondering whether I could have done more on the discrete item learning side, but also wondering why I wonder that. Has the not-very-communicative approach that I learned GCSE* French through, and which I started out using in my own teaching when I didn’t know any better, still got it’s tendrils clinging on making me feel guilty for not doing gap-fill exercises on the past perfect? Why doesn’t helping students to have short, understandable and enjoyable conversations feel much like teaching? I think that perhaps the answer to this might lie in the fact that I didn’t feel as if I helped students to understand the language very much, which feels like an important part of my definition of what a teacher is. But there again, is it necessary to really understand language you use? How many of those “a-ha!” moments does anybody really get in the language classroom? All things that I want to consider this semester.

It is certainly necessary to have some discrete item teaching of some kind within my program, not least because it is mandated that 50% of the examination is in written form. This is an area where I have consistently failed over the course of my job. Writing a written exam that reflects the learning that I expect to have taken place on the course has so far mostly eluded me. Last semester’s attempt to write a task-based written exam was far too difficult. Other exams I struggle to write questions that really differentiate the students who can from the students who can’t. I think that the written exams need to test knowledge rather than skills, and so it’s a question of what this knowledge is.

Along with drilling, I tend to steer away from teaching grammar. Students don’t enjoy it, and generally have heard all the explanations before. I’m not really convinced that teaching it works anyway – I spent a whole lesson practicing modal verbs of probability last semester, only to set students a sleuthing task, and have them not use a single one, even when I offered bonus points. I sat down at the end of the activity and we talked about why they didn’t use them, and the students kindly and patiently explained that it simply never crossed their minds, and that if they weren’t sure of something they would just use “maybe”. Seemed fair enough to me.  So if not grammar, then what? I think lexical chunks and formulaic language might be the answer. It’s easily testable, and could probably be tied into a pragmatic skills framework. I’m talking about things like “Could you repeat that?”. Again, if anyone has any suggestions or activities for this kind of thing I’d be really glad to hear it.

I’m going to tie this post up here now as it’s getting long. In conclusion, I do want to try to develop a similar atmosphere and approach to last semester classes in this semester’s classes, but with a little more work on drilling, lexical chunks and pragmatic skills. Looking at it now, these dovetail quite well (introduce chunk, drill, use throughout class, examine). Hopefully this will not only make setting exams easier, it should push the students on to greater conversational heights too.

Cheers,

Alex

* GSCEs are national exams taken by 16 year olds in England (and possibly the rest of the UK but I’m not totally sure) in a range of subjects.

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10 responses to “Reflections and Questions

  1. Nice post. What’s jigsawing?

    • Thinking about it I might have my terminology wrong, but what I meant was an arrangement of (ideally) 4 groups of 4. They discuss in the group, then each group splits up and 4 new groups of 4 are formed with 1 member of each original group comprising the new group. The results of each original group’s discussion are presented to the new group by each member.

      I guess an example would be something like deciding the best thing to eat on a hot day in the original group, and then debating it in the second group.

      I call this jigsawing, but now I’m not so sure…

      • The term jigsaw is usually used to describe a reading or listening activity, where different groups in the class read or listen to different texts. Then they regroup and tell each other what they heard/listened to. For it to be a proper jigsaw they should all start with the same questions, but their text will only give them some of the answers so talking to students with different answers allows them to put the pieces together, hence the term jigsaw. Headway has a lot of jigsaw-type readings.

        • Thanks for the comment Steve!

          So I think what I was talking about above is a similar thing but adapted to a conversation task rather than a reading or listening one. Anyway, whatever you call it seemed to work pretty well with my students 🙂

  2. Welcome back! Very happy to start seeing stripes again. 🙂 Really interesting to read where you’re at! I wonder if you could say more about testing knowledge rather than skills in a written test. I’m not totally sure what you mean in the context of a conversation class.

    • Thanks! Walshy says the stripes make his head hurt, so I was actually wondering about changing them if I get the chance. Make the most of them while you can.

      What I meant with the knowledge/skills thing is that my class is mostly based on developing the skill/ability to conduct short conversations in English. I try to do this through conversational tasks like ranking, puzzle solving and such like. What I tried to do on a mid-term exam this year was do something similar, but in written form. My students don’t write well and it was too difficult anyway so a bit of a failure all in all. What I want to get to this semester is to go back to a more traditional exam format, and test knowledge items, traditionally grammar and vocabulary, rather than skills. The problem is I don’t actually want to test grammar, nor single word vocabulary. That’s where lexical chunks, particularly ones with a discoursal function, might come in.

      Does that make more sense?

  3. That’s how I understand jigsawing, too, Alex. Apropos ‘taking a step back’, two things. 1) A student of mine watched a video of herself in class last semester and commented, more or less, that it was amazing how much more comfortable everyone looked when she sat down. 2) Tuesday I reflected with my own students on a video we all watched of me ‘teaching’ them 10 days before. I mentioned how I hope to replace my ‘standing-up voice’ with my ‘sitting-down voice’ when I’m ‘standing-up’. My brain doesn’t seem to realize that an authoritative voice is redundant emanating from an authoritative posture, and the overall effect is doubly intimidating to my students.

    • Cheers for the comments Tom, and nice to connect again after a while. Are you still blogging?

      I’m very much a fan of sitting down, one because I’m horrendously lazy and I don’t like to stand up too much, but also because of the intimidation factor. I really believe that the softer approach works better with Korean students, and if they’re off-task it seems fairly unlikely that standing over them yelling “SPEAK ENGLISH!” is going to make them want to get back on task.

      • Yep — put a rusty-voiced one up a couple of days ago, but haven’t promoted it much. Another one in my head — might get out today.

        When they get off task, I’ve found pulling a chair up or taking a kneel down with them makes assisting them to get back on more successful.

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