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.
* 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.