Category Archives: Other Stuff

TBV goes back to school: Selected diary extracts

Hi.

This post is intended both as a preview of some upcoming posts for the 2.4 people who are waiting for news of my recently finished Korean language class, and also a way of reviewing my notes from the whole experience in preparation for writing more detailed posts. During the course I was reasonably diligent about writing for 30 minutes a day about things that I noticed in class and how I thought I was progressing. The extracts below are from those writings, and might give you an idea of some of my raw reactions to the course. Apologies for any unpolished language, shouting and insensitivity that may occur.

Day one:

“It strikes me on the way in that language classes are MENTAL! You can forget as a teacher that gathering in a place to speak in another language is a fairly extraordinary thing to do, and learners often don’t have a clue how they are supposed to behave in this context. When I get to my classroom, there are two girls sat in the dark. I smile and issue a greeting in two languages, which gets little response. Silence and awkwardness descends, probably because nobody knows what language to speak. We are well outside our comfort zones before the teacher even enters the room.”

“One thing I note is that there is no effort at all to create a sense of a group, and no talking to each other initiated by the teacher, though thankfully at least four of us manage to get some chatting done in Korean and get to know each other a little. This to me is a big negative and maybe something that Korean teachers don’t consider so much in class?”
“Oh yeah. Paying 26,000 won more for a textbook when I’ve already paid 700,000 won for the course? Piss off.”
Day two:
“I feel like someone has tried to make Foie Gras by stuffing my brain so full of stuff that it explodes.”
“We quickly got sidetracked onto a discussion about whether nose shape was as important to Japanese people as Koreans (it isn’t). There wasn’t any feedback or sense that the teacher was listening. In fact, she went out of the room for a time.”
Day three:
“I’m feeling quite humble today. One thing you are maybe not aware of in class is quite the level of confusion amongst your students. Perhaps it doesn’t happen to you, but if it does are you wont to blame the students for not doing paying enough attention or not checking with you? I have been guilty of this in the past, but no more! This morning everyone turned up with different versions of what we were supposed to have done and we had to check with the teacher exactly what we were supposed to have done. We were almost all wrong too!”
“I’m finding myself becoming more and more of a fan of ICQs, just because they’d give us a chance to go over what was said one more time. Even asking “Do you understand?” would be a nice chance to say ‘no’.”
Day six:
“The teacher explains all of the vocabulary first, and then asks us to read aloud, filling in the blanks on the hoof. This is near impossible and really annoying, especially as I’m discovering that reading aloud focuses all of my energy on making the sounds rather than understanding the words and therefore is not helpful at all. I wonder if reading a phonetic and non- phonetic language aloud is a different cognitive process?”
“The whole segment is basically a disaster for me. The teacher assumes I will know words like 특징 (point of difference), which I don’t, and I spend the whole time struggling to stay afloat. I imagine the same is true for others, but the teacher never stops to find out. Once we’re through the reading, there are some comprehension questions that he asks and then answers straight away. At very few points are we left alone to read or think in peace.”
“Then again, I’m yet to experience a lesson structured around a clear target, at least one based on spoken output.”
Day seven:
“One thing that’s bothering me today is the sheer burden of the vocab learning on this course. Every day we are given 30 to 40 vocabulary words to learn, most of which are new (to me at least), and every day we are tested on them. The effort to get all of those into my memory is severely affecting the amount of work that I can put into other areas of language learning such as re-reading or pronuciation and it feels limiting. It’s bad enough having to get up at 6 am without having to study all of the way to school too.”
Day eight:
“We do some listening, and she breaks us into groups to discuss the answers. This is difficult because the people I worked with didn’t really say much. We fudge with the tapescript until the teacher tells us the answers. We then listen one more time with the teacher repeating. This is helpful in terms of making sense, but I would surely like to work a bit harder on the things that I didn’t know or didn’t hear.”
“There’s a horrible moment where as a personalization thing I have to create an example of the difference between Korean and English girls. I struggle for something inoffensive, fail and settle for a fat/ thin distinction. The girl opposite me sighs.”
Day nine:
“I would say that the big improvement has been in using Korean for the purposes of being a member of my class. I’m feeling noticeably more confident about speaking in public and using the respectful style and honorifics to other class members, even if I’m the oldest and these could generally be skipped. The confidence though could easily be ascribed to a getting used to new environs as to any meaningful language development.”
Day ten:
“I’ve found that I’m not very good at remembering to use stuff in general in class, unlike another girl who seems to be able to remember to jam things we’ve learned into conversations in class. Part of the reason is that a lot of the grammar we do is pointed out as more written and formal register, but this shouldn’t be an excuse. Still, some planning time would be great and I feel like I’m being denied the chance to create anything with language. I feel like a lot of the speaking that I do in class is not oriented towards language development, but more towards sharing ideas.”
 “I’m beginning to think of fossilization not so much in terms of errors, but in terms of ways of getting things done in the language, and I think that written input might be the best way to destabilize it.”
Day eleven:
“I think if I hear another unrelated anecdote I am likely to sink deep into a pit of incomprehensible despair. But at least I’m understanding, right?”
“In fact, I had got a bit lost towards the end of the first point, and it was the pause, not any structural knowledge that alerted me to the fact that something new was coming. And here’s the thing: do we really, really need to teach people to listen for pauses? Am I just such a go-getting, switched on language learner that I don’t have to be taught this stuff?”
Post-course:
“A final question is how much teachers of English and other relative majority languages should hold teachers of relatively minor languages to the same professional standards. I have almost effortless access to a raft of literature, blogs, conferences and colleagues from which and whom to learn.”
Reading those quotes back they actually paint a fairly accurate picture of my experience: really fascinating, yet not always for the right reasons. However, it did yield a fair amount of learning and confidence in my second language, and provided some really interesting insights into teaching and learning too. Writing this post has helped me develop a long list of things to blog about in longer form over the next few weeks, so stay tuned if you’re interested.
Cheers,
Alex.
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Different approaches to writing: some course content and reflections.

In my previous post I introduced the writing course that I’m teaching for this year’s winter camp, and outlined some of the principles that underpin it, such as experiential learning, a genre approach and an attempt to examine each student’s English systematically through the lens of their writing errors. This post starts to examine how this is working out in practice by sharing some of the course content from this week and some of my thoughts on it.

Those of you up on your deductive science may have noticed that week one’s reflections seem to have got lost in space. Well, week one largely featured introductions and my explaining the principles of the course. This wasn’t a great success, as it led to me talking a lot to/at the students. It came from a good and bad place. Good in the sense that I wanted to make sure that students’ expectations and mine were more or less matched, and bad in the sense that my anal-retentive side came out in the planning stages and organized all of the writing stages into neat little one week parcels. Next time I’m just going to get on with it (as I’m doing quite successfully in other areas of this course) and explain as we go along.

Week two’s doings make for much more interesting reflection, so that’s what the bulk of this post will focus on. Each week focuses on one piece of my writing in which I try to include certain generic, structural and linguistic features. Conversely, I also try to write it fairly naturally in order that other features that I wouldn’t consider consciously can emerge in the piece, meaning that we get some less taught features like the role of pronouns in rhetoric. This week’s piece, an explanatory, how-to piece, emerged like this:

How To Speak English More Naturally.

Having expressed doubts about the five-paragraph essay last week, I naturally went ahead and wrote a five paragraph essay as a model for this week. Why? Mostly because it’s an easy format to write, copy and explain and makes a good starting point for students new to organizing a piece. I’m going to try to push beyond this a little as we go through the course, and also be flexible with students who want to adapt it a little. Also, my objection was more to the piecemeal approach to teaching that starts by writing thesis statements, moves on to topic sentences and finishes by, in my experience, boring the living crap out of everybody present rather than to the essay format itself.

Having hopefully defended myself to the baying mob (myself), here’s roughly what the instructions for week 2 looked like..

  • Monday – Read the piece, discuss in peer groups and feedback to class on topic, audience, structure and role of each paragraph,  and introduction techniques. Write a short journal entry about perceived characteristics of the genre. Then in groups discuss ideas for your own article, how you might introduce it, and how you might explain it. Create a paragraph plan for homework.
  • Tuesday – Present your plan to peer group and get feedback. Write a journal entry based on this. Then discuss with your peer groups linguistic/grammatical features of the piece for organization, cohesion and linking ideas, and finally those used in establishing the style of the piece. Journal again and add ideas for language you can use to your plan.
  • Wednesday – Start to write first draft. During the class, have a five minute consultation with the teacher about your plan and any writing. For homework, write a journal entry processing this feedback and applying it to your writing and yourself as a writer.
  • Thursday – Present your writing so far to peer group. Guided peer feedback and journalling. Finish final draft with opportunities for further teacher feedback.
  • Friday – Peer and teacher proofreading of first drafts. Write final draft, using writing tools (corpus, thesaurus, learner dictionary) to fix errors. Catalog errors on a Google sheet for whole class reflection. Reflect on how to eliminate errors and learn new language skills based on errors made.

It’s worth pointing out that this is a lot to get through in a week. At this stage it feels like I might be spending a bit too much time journalling and not enough time on the errors, which I’d pinpointed as an important source of learning. However, the journalling might well prove to be an important part of information processing- sadly I don’t really know because I haven’t had a chance to look at them yet because they’re always in use! This concerns me as I wonder exactly how effectively they are being used, especially if I’m not reading them. It would be totally understandable in an intensive program if the part that the teacher doesn’t read got neglected. Still, the balance of activities is something that I want to play with and get feedback on.

Another slight problem I encountered this week with the lowest level class (who are still at least B1 and much higher than that in terms of reading) was that they struggled to move their analysis from the level of the text in front of them to the level of the generic. However, this may just have been a case of not quite understanding the instructions. I made sure with the other two classes to make this clear, so I’m not sure whether it was the level of the class or the clearer instructions that made the difference, but something certainly did. (Update: I just did the same thing this week and it went much better, so maybe it was the instructions.) A bigger problem came with the odd student not realizing (or perhaps willfully forgetting) that the aim was a generic how-to piece. Sods law also meant that one of them couldn’t fit an interview into Wednesday’s class, so I didn’t catch it until Thursday afternoon. Again, it seems I could have been clearer in my aims, and this is also another good reason why the week 1 information dump didn’t work well, because by the time Monday came around it had all been forgotten again. Another reason to get over my love of neat week-long teaching cycles.

Aside from this I’d say that things are running fairly smoothly. Every student has managed to write upwards of two-hundred words, which is pretty impressive given that some had never written an extended piece in English before, and possibly not in Korean either. The process-based nature of the course is working really well too – presenting stages of the writing process as class activities means that there is less temptation to skip them. One of the ways I’m trying to keep students following the process is to have them write their first draft by hand, and only type it up when it comes to final drafts. While this isn’t really how people work these days, it does force them to take a proper second look at their writing and gives them another chance to improve it. I’ve been surprised at how happy students are to rewrite sections by hand too, far happier than I would be in fact. They’ve also spent a good deal of time planning, aided by this very simple but rather nifty essay mapping tool. There’s also a lot of desire to get feedback, but a willingness to find things out for oneself in this group of students. All in all, it’s been a very positive week.

To conclude, I’d like to mention one other thing that’s been a big success this week. The nature of writing class means there’s quite a lot of studious silence and scribbling of pens – an atmosphere which can sometimes feel a little intense. I’ve experimented a bit this week with playing music in class. Students can DJ themselves from their phones, or play the Britpop/Snoop Dogg/Drill ‘n’Bass lottery that is my mp3 collection. Surprisingly they’ve often opted for the latter, which has meant I’ve been able to introduce them to Nick Drake, Vampire Weekend and RJD2 over the past week, which has been a pretty cool experience all in all.

I’d made a bunch of notes about the reflective questions in my last post to write about here, but as I’m climbing towards 1,400 words I’m going to leave those for another post. I hope that in reading this you might have found a few things to steal for your own writing teaching, or something that made you think a little differently. If you did, I’d love to know what it was in the comments below.

Cheers,

Alex

Class constructs: creating my own (part 1)

I blogged previously about the possibility of creating a construct for a short term class in order to keep teaching and testing in line with one another. There is also the advantage that your construct can be shared with students as a form of class goal, and activities can be justified to students in terms of it (especially if they are of the less fun variety). As a brief recap, a construct is a short statement of what you will teach and test, how you will go about it and the expected results and standards. In this post, I will document the first part of the process of creating my own construct.

At the end of the last post I looked at 4 areas that need to be considered in creating a construct. These were:

  • Assessment (& teaching) context (Students, institution, geographical location, purpose and score use and tester).
  • Assessment (& teaching) procedures (What students are expected to do in class and exams)
  • Construct definition (What do you mean by the terms used to describe your class – what is “English”, “Conversation” or “Speaking” for this class?)
  • Models and Frameworks (How can you justify the above with reference to clever people or yourself?)

In this post I will try to outline my thoughts on the first two areas.

Assessment and Teaching Context

A good place to start here is asking who my students are. In my case this also covers a lot of the geographical and institutional factors. Beautiful and unique snowflakes that they of course are, my lot do form quite a usefully homogenous group in two ways. Firstly, they are all Korean and are products of the educational culture here, and secondly they are all students at a polytechnic university. This allows me to make some guiding assumptions:

  • Their English education will have been largely reading and listening focused, and grammar and vocabulary will often have been decontextualized and almost always depersonalized. If they have encountered speaking they have not been especially successful in learning it. I’d venture to say that they have generally learned English as an academic subject rather than a language.
  • They are not taking English as a major, and so they are unlikely to be learning it out of a love for the subject (though this is possible). They are more likely to be learning it out of long-term pragmatic value, but in the short-term their grade is the most important factor. Their future careers are more likely to require practical, rather than perfect, English.

In terms of assessment purpose and score use, one or two things are worth considering. Firstly, I’m aiming to assess achievement not proficiency. In other words, someone who makes a great effort and improves from 0 to intermediate should theoretically score higher than an initially high-intermediate speaker who improves little. Secondly, assessment is not only in terms of exams, but performed continuously over the term through participation, quizzes, projects and 1:1 conversation. The scores have a very narrow use, which is assigning grades for the term. However these grades may dictate scholarships, so it is important that they accurately reflect effort and achievement.

One final consideration is who the assessor is. For the most part it is me, but I do feel that student views should play a part in assessment as well, especially in something as subjective as participation. I think allowing students to play a part in scoring themselves and others also helps to motivate them, as well as keeping complaints down at final grading time.

Assessment and Teaching Procedures

In assessing and teaching the course I want to take the notion of “conversation” as literally as possible.  By this I mean that the aim of the course will be to develop the ability to hold medium length conversations in English on a few topics, and we will learn to do this by having short conversations throughout the course, which will serve as a framework for practicing useful lexis, conversational skills and strategies and a little bit of grammar.

Given this aim it makes sense for the mid-term and final speaking exams to take the form of conversations. This will form the principal drive for the course, and students will be expected to apply what they have learned during class in the exams. The length of the exam is important, as it should be sufficient to pose a real challenge to students (or at least appear to).

Also significant is the number of participants. This is a really interesting question that I am still working on puzzling out. My preference in the past has been for 4 person speaking assessments. I believe that they pose a greater degree of challenge in terms of organizing turns and dealing with multiple inputs. They’re also practically much easier to arrange and going back to the length, I think that a 25 minute 4 person exam sounds more difficult than a 12.5 minute group conversation. The potential downside to this is that a lot of my classwork is done in pairs, though there is nothing to say that I couldn’t up group size over the course of a semester.

Another thing to figure out is the role of written exams. It is institutionally mandated that 50% of my mid-term and final exams is a written paper. What, then, is the role of writing in conversation? Listening might provide some of those marks, perhaps choosing the right answer to a question. The discrimination of similar sounds could also be included.  I also think that common errors that we point out in class should have a role. Finally, vocabulary and lexis in the form of gap fills will be important, as well as subtler shades of meaning that we talked about in class that simply won’t come up in a speaking exam. As far as possible, I would like to avoid grammar transformation exercises and reading passages. 

All of this and I’m only really through talking about final assessments. Ongoing assessments (quizzes and participation scores) should also be generally conversation based, and reflect the effort made to actually have conversations, on the basis that conversational skills cover a wide range of areas, and are probably subject to individual variation. It’s developing an individual ability to have conversations that I am most interested in during this course. Partly this can be taught directly in terms of strategies and language  but partly this is something that you figure out for yourself by getting involved. The course needs to both offer opportunities to do this and reward them when they are taken.

To bring this post to a conclusion, as I am already over my self-imposed 1,000 word guideline, my teaching and assessment aims should be to improve speaking as this is the area in which my students need most improvement. A conversation based approach gives an opportunity for personalizing the language as well as providing a reasonably well defined structure for assessment (see the next post). Conversation must form the basis for ongoing and final assessment of achievement on the course, with an emphasis on fluency and communication skills rather than accuracy (or complexity especially). The ability to deal with small group work is thought to be important, as is the ability to function in English speaking environments for a slightly longer duration.

In the next post I’m going to tackle my description of conversation. I hope you’ll be there to read it. In the meantime if you have comments, questions or suggestions, please leave them below the line.

Cheers,

Alex

Class constructs: an introduction.

16 weeks, roughly 5 hours of class time in each. Throw in a couple of presentations and a magazine making project, as well as exams, entrance tests and university festivals, and it doesn’t leave a lot of time for learning something as large as a language. Nevertheless, we grab our textbooks and have a go – and while we do so we also try and order ourselves for the dishing out of grades or levels. Basically the two problems I imagine that many teachers with some autonomy grapple with: what to teach, and how to assess it. In this post I’m going to set the background for creating class constructs that go some way to tackling this problem.

Construct is a term drawn from assessment literature, and is a more or less a statement of what the test author believes they are testing, how they should test it, and what the results might look like. As an example, a construct for the TOEFL exam would be a definition of the English ability required to take a higher education course, perhaps in terms of vocabulary size, grammatical knowledge, skills (summarizing, note taking), functions, knowledge of genres and many other things. It would also include the kind of tasks that the authors felt would test these, and what acceptable and unacceptable performances looked like. All of this is realized in the test that is actually taken, and the rating scales, scoring and the final grade. Therefore, if you score a full 120 on the TOEFL IBT, you can congratulate yourself on being the embodiment of what ETS (the makers of TOEFL) think academic English is.

“Teaching to the test” gets a bit of a bad rep, especially in Korea where anything that isn’t an academic reading passage is ruthlessly cast aside. It feels a bit dirty to be honest, like you’re being cowed by the man – encouraging your students to chase letter and number grades over actually learning anything useful, or teaching test-taking strategies rather than language. If the test is crap (TOEIC, the Korean university entrance exam) then this is abundantly true, but if the test is good, then surely this can be a good thing (these two situations tend to be called negative and positive washback respectively). For a short course test such as mine, which is aimed at measuring learning, control of the design should play a large part in deciding what should be learned (though we know that this is not an exact science), and so a construct not only defines the construction of a test, but in this case the construction of the whole course.

But why exactly is this useful? Firstly, going back to the opening sentence, time is short, English is not only big but constantly shifting. With hundreds of thousands of words, not to mention fixed phrases, as well as countless combinations of functions, domains of use, registers and skills, pinning English down to something teachable is constant source of frustration and argument in journal articles, blogs and at conferences. General English courses (in the form of books) try to tread the most middling, inoffensive and general line, in order not to upset anyone into not buying them. However, this means they also tend to miss out anything culturally specific, potentially insulting or simply left-field. Having a construct allows you to cut out the irrelevant stuff and focus on what your students (and you!) really want and need. In my case, students can translate about 3000 single words in English, and have a pretty decent reading level. Their grammar is OK if they can write it out first, but spoken interaction is often conducted in single words at the beginning of the course. They also have very little knowledge outside the academic register. I’ve talked a lot about this already (and will again), but safe to say that concentrating on speaking skills almost exclusively is a good  bet.

The second advantage that I can see for developing a construct for the class is that if you want the exam to dictate teaching, you theoretically should write the exam first. The problem of course, is that it’s difficult to write an exam based on content that you haven’t taught yet, especially if your course is based a lot on lexis that arises from what students say, rather than being planned in advance. A construct for the class provides a nice straight ledge for aligning one’s ducks on, and if teaching and testing are conducted with reference to it then the two should reflect and reinforce each other. This hopefully will help me to tackle two problems that I’ve encountered in previous semesters – difficulty in writing exams that accurately reflect what we have done in class, and also the fact that in feedback I tend to score low on questions about students understanding my goals. As an extra idea, there would of course be nothing to stop you designing a construct in collaboration with your students.

So what goes into designing a construct? I’m going to finish this post by examining in a little more detail the kind of thinking that one might need to do, and presenting the questions that might need to be answered. In doing this I’m drawing heavily on the work of Sari Luoma (2004) on speaking assessment, though these considerations could easily be adapted to other assessment concepts.

Assessment Context

A construct links the theoretical with the more concrete (though of course this is still within a context of a test, which itself is often a prediction of how a testee would fare in the real world). Part of this is defining the context of the test – institution, purpose, takers and backgrounds, the tester and the plans for score use. While the theoretical definition for speaking might be the same for young children, teenagers and young adults might be similar, the ways of eliciting speech (task type, topic) will be very different, so context here is extremely important.

Assessment Procedures

A construct should have some indication of the length and frequency of the assessment, as well as the tasks required to elicit it and the methods used to score it. This helps keep things practical (no sense in having hour long one on one speaking tests when you teach 200 students) as well as, in the case of my class constructs, meaning that class activities can mirror testing activities.

Construct Definition

What are you actually going to try to teach and test here? The more specific you can be here the better, so you might want to think about sub-skills, grammatical structures and vocabulary ranges, rather than something general like speaking. You should also consider what a good, average and bad performance might look like in these terms. All of this will help greatly in designing rating scales and rating performances.

Models and Frameworks

What’s even better is if you can relate the thinking above to reading that you’ve done in the area. An example of this might be Hymes’s SPEAKING framework. This gives you a base to work from in terms of teaching and learning.

A Construct Definition

Finally, you should attempt to summarize all of the thinking above into a neat little paragraph like the one below:

The aim of this test (class) is to assess (teach/improve) the examinees’ ability  to express their ideas in English, take their interlocutor’s contributions into account and make use of them in the discussion, and collaborate in the creation of interaction. Social appropriateness is not assessed (taught) explicitly. (Luoma 2004: 121).

So that is roughly what a construct design process looks like. In the next post or two I’m going to have a go at it myself. In the meantime I’d be interested to know your views on whether this is a sensible approach. Are there any downsides to working this way? Am I consigning my students to a life of exam hell? Any argument very much welcomed below the line.

Cheers,

Alex

Reference

Luoma, S. (2004). Assessing speaking. Ernst Klett Sprachen.

A (Brief) Tale of Two Answers

Vaguely School/Exam related (awesome) song

It’s exam week here, and I’ve had a couple of days off. Sadly, I’ve had to fill them completely with MA studies, as I had got a bit behind owing to making exams and, far more excitingly, presenting at the KOTESOL International Conference with the #KELTChat team. I wish I had more time to write about this, but I’m not sure that I do.

Anyway, I’ve already finished my grading my exams, but in doing so came across a couple of slightly problematic and troubling answers. I thought I’d share them with the class, and I’d be interested to hear what anybody else thinks about this, particularly if you’d have acted differently.

Both the answers were to the same question, a writing question on my level 1 exam which asked students to describe themselves, using certain words as prompts. Two of these words were ‘skin’ and ‘body’.

The first problematic answer came to the ‘skin’ prompt, in which one answer was “I have yellow skin”. This raises certain difficulties for the marker. Clearly if I uttered this, it could (would?) be taken as a fairly racist epithet, but what of a Asian student with limited linguistic resources? Is this an appropriate self-description? Is it influenced by Western racist language? Could it cause offence to other people if used in public by the student (about himself or others)?

In the end I marked it as wrong, as we had discussed skin colour in class, and how it may well be a sensitive issue for both Koreans (generally pale skin is seen as the ideal here) and other races. I had suggested using darker or lighter as slightly softer terms for describing people’s skin. Given that the exam was designed to test what we had talked about in class, I felt I was justified in marking this as wrong, but what would you have done?

My other troubling answer followed the ‘body’ prompt. The only girl in the class described herself as ‘heavyset’. This is a girl who, while fairly short, cannot possibly weigh more than 50kg. She’s certainly not anywhere near fat, or even remotely unhealthy looking. Again, the beauty ideal here tends towards the very slim, and she obviously considers herself bigger than that. I would strongly question her use of ‘heavyset’ though. However, given that this issue didn’t arise in class, I didn’t feel right taxing her a mark for it. If I get a chance to talk to her about the exam though, I would really like to mention it to her quietly. Again, would you have done the same?

Thanks for reading and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Cheers,

Alex

The Tech Diaries #2: The Dawn Chorus

First Tweets – Dawn Chorus by karenwithak on Flickr

This is the second in a series of posts detailing my attempts to introduce some technology into my high school classroom. You can read the first post here, where I told the story of how my classroom came to be, and outlined three principles for following a more technological path in helping my learners. Having just read the #eltchat summary from last week, it seems I’m not the only one thinking and doing things like this.

My first principle for introducing technology read as follows:

1. Introduce technology in the classroom that will allow and encourage students to communicate and learn with me outside it.

The reason for this was simple. I get to see each of my high school learners for 50 minutes each week. This is barely enough time to review what we did the week before, let alone get anything done. What I have been wanting to do for a while is extend my reach into the students lives a little more, and give those who want to practice the chance to do a little more in a way that fits into their busy lives (and mine). Twitter gives me exactly this chance.

As a start,  I have used Twitter in lessons to get answers to questions from the entire group. One question asked how we could use Twitter to practice English, the other asked for opinions on a music video. Groups of two or three students worked to construct a tweet and send it to the feed on the IWB. I’d already written a blog post on the potential effects of Twitter on classroom discourseand a lot of the positive things I predicted did indeed come about, such as more student responses, self-nomination (admittedly prompted by the offer of a reward) and answers which showed some development.

I’ve been working hard recently on making the atmosphere in my classroom one in which students want to contribute to a discussion. At my school, shyness, low-levels and a degree of apathy all lead to students not always being keen to put across their point of view. Using Twitter definitely changed that and students were voluntarily contributing things. Furthermore, when asked follow-up questions to their Tweets, students seemed more willing to answer, and explain further the ideas they had tweeted. This echoes a point made by Geoff Thompson about getting students to accept a part in an interaction. He suggests asking a yes/no question followed by a follow-up wh- question (Thompson 1996). Anecdotal evidence here would suggest that an initial idea tweeted plays a similar part in accepting an interaction which can then be developed through further questioning. An additional nice point here is that it gives the teacher a little more time to come up with good follow up questions, which lead the students on through their thinking, and are appropriate for their language level.

I also noticed that students took a lot more care over crafting their tweets than they would with a solely oral answer. Oral activities with my students tend to involve them saying just enough to merit sitting down and shutting up for the rest of the lesson (often just a single word, and rarely anything grammatical). However, with time to think about their answers, they became more complex and much better structured. According to Swain’s output theory (1985) it is more through the use, not reception of language that we are forced to concentrate on the structure. Thus, perhaps, the more students focus on constructing output the better it will be for their development. Another big advantage is that grammatical problems arise before the question is answered, meaning that I can deal with them with a small group of students who need that advice, rather than with the whole class, many of whom will be at too high or low a level for it. This helps me a lot with developing a learner-centred classroom.

There would also seem to be practical advantages to using Twitter in the classroom. One is that it completely obviates the need to take notes. If answers are given in tweet form, the transcript can provide all of the data easily. In addition, tweets can be looked at, picked apart and re-sent if the meaning isn’t clear. Finally, they can be collected and analysed later in a kind of pedagogic corpus, which helps inform what needs to be taught in future lessons. Also, it saves a lot of chalk stains and sore wrists. In class, it makes it a lot easier to refer to what other people say – at no point in my class is everyone listening, so having everthing readable makes sense (this isn’t always a positive for listening skills of course).

At this point I will admit that the activity could equally have been done orally with groups, and answers prepared on paper and then delivered through speech. I don’t know (and it would be interesting to find out) whether it was the preparation time or the medium that really made the difference. Nevertheless, one of the things that I accepted in undertaking this project was that sometimes it would be necessary to use technology in the classroom where it was not strictly needed, in order to show how it worked, and try to encourage students to continue using it outside the classroom. In this respect I’ve had a little bit of success – I now have six or so students who tweet me almost daily, with a few more who enter my weekly extension competitions (link). It’s going to be a long game getting more of them involved, but for now at least, I’m going to keep trying.

I’m already up towards 1,000 words of fairly positive comment here. There have been negatives as well, which I’d like to deal with in a separate post. For now, if you have comments, or any advice, especially if you’re doing something similar, I’d be delighted if you’d leave them below.

Alex

References

Swain, M. (1985). ‘Communicative Competence: Some Roles of Comprehensible Input and Comprehensible Output in its Development’ in Gass, S. & Madden, C. (eds.)  Input and Second Language Acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Thompson, G. (1997). ‘Training Teachers to ask Questions’. ELT Journal, 51:2, 99-105.

Last Semester’s Survey

City Refraction, City Reflection

Time for a little reflection (and refraction(?)) (Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/lrargerich/)

Wow. It’s been a while since I last posted. I think the blogosphere in general has been quiet of late with everyone off on their summer holidays. I spent half of my two week holiday finishing off my MA project (separate post on that to come I hope), but did manage to sneak across Asia for a week in Thailand once it was done.

Now, suddenly, I’m back at my desk with a whole new semester stretching out in front of me. As ever, I’m wondering quite what, where and how to approach it. Part of my semesterly reflection is to survey the students to see what they thought of the classes. In the past I’ve used a more statistical approach  but inspired by Ceri Jones’ idea  this time I tried to collect more qualitative data. Below is my version of the survey:

End of Semester 3 Survey

This approach produced mixed results – allowing the students space to comment on the good and the bad, as well as what they wanted to learn provided some interesting feedback. However, asking them to remember activities proved problematic (obviously my classes weren’t that memorable) and so any time any student thought of something it was immediately seized upon by those around them, and so skewed the results.

Nevertheless, there were some interesting findings. Unsuprisingly, most were memorable for being fun, with post-it sticking  and drawing scoring highly. More unexpected was the popularity of a taboo style game (part of this lesson) where students had to convey -ed and -ing forms to their team-mates. A three week history project as part of my MA project culminating in teams of students trying to convince me of the importance of a historical event got mixed reviews, with almost everyone finding it difficult, and being split on whether it was useful or detestable.

The second half of the survey provided a bit more insight into what the students thought, and produced what I thought were more useful data. The two things that seemed most important to the students were the chance to participate and co-operate more in class, and the desire to learn to speak. There were some really interesting comments, such as “I’m not sure what the purpose of the class is” (sometimes neither am I) and a request that I improve my Korean so that I can use it more in class (probably not going to happen).

The participation aspect is something I need to refocus on. I do try to make sure that everyone has the chance to participate, but the variation of levels (low-intermediate to zero) make it tough. Mostly I try to combat this with group work, with the better ones helping the weaker ones, but I need to recognize that this is not enough, and the group dynamics often do not favour weaker students. Going back to the popular activities, the ones that scored highest were individual activities that everyone could participate in. Obviously finding similar activities to this would be great, but the problem is that I didn’t feel that a great deal of English was practised in either, and there was almost no speaking element, which doesn’t fit with the students’ second main request.

The fact that speaking is important is a positive though. Over the course of this year I’ve come to see my role as providing opportunities to develop speaking skills, so its nice that I’m hopefully pushing in the same direction as the students. The post-it activity was well-liked because of the interaction with class-mates, and one comment suggested that being able to write before speaking was a big help. With these in mind, it would seem that activities which involve some individual work, allow for preparation before speaking and allow everyone to get involved will be the most useful. If anyone has suggestions, I’d be more than grateful to hear from you.

Alex