Category Archives: Techniques

ELF #4: Orienting your class to ELF

Finally then, my eagerly awaited (by at least three people) post on how I believe one could go about orienting one’s classroom to English as a lingua franca (ELF). If you’re interested you can read parts 1, 2 and 3 too.

In order to write this post I read a fair bit of literature with titles that refer to teaching ELF or an ELF pedagogy, only to find that they deal with culture in rather broad terms (McKay 2002), critique methodology  (Holliday 2005), or provide rough frameworks for teaching (Dewey 2012). So far it seems that in 12 or so years of intensive research, the ELF field has produced one book aimed at the practical teaching of ELF, Robin Walker’s (2010) Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca. While Dewey (2012) may rightly decry the devotion to norms and interlanguage still present in the Delta syllabus, this is perhaps partly a product of the lack of any practical help for teachers who would like to prepare  their students for ELF communication, and researchers themselves should perhaps bear some of the blame. I strongly suspect that the take up of ELF would be helped as much by a book of decent classroom techniques and activities as by advocating for its inclusion in in-service training programs. It is with a toe in the researcher camp, and the other 9 in the teacher camp, that I write this post.

It might be helpful here to state a few things that I believe, and that the suggestions that follow rest on:

  • There is a thing that people do called English as a lingua franca, that involves communication between speakers of different L1s in English (leaving aside native speakers (NS*) and same L1 non-native speakers (NNS) for the sake of simplicity).
  • This ELF communication will be different from communication between NSs in grammatical, phonological, syntactical and lexical forms. In addition these forms will vary between individuals and contexts. This variation is natural, and not deficient in terms of native speaker norms.
  • This variation means that there is no such thing, nor will there likely ever be, as an ELF model or variety.
  • A student’s own conception of the language is more important than a model is anyway. Students are exposed to multiple models in every class.
  • We can’t teach ELF, but we can help to prepare students for meeting English in this kind of context (and others) by simulating it in our classrooms. 
  • The decision to orient, or not, your classroom to ELF should be taken as part of a reflection of your students’ needs (the macro-context).

It might also be helpful to say here that these suggestions are things that I have done, try to do now, or may try to do in future in my classroom. For those not familiar with this blog, that means groups of first year engineering and design students at a university in South Korea.

Decentering Intelligibilty

If ELF can be said to have an ideology (and for the record, I would say that it does), it could be viewed as one of decentralization. This is in the sense of removing native-speaker English from the center of (often criticised) models such as Kachru’s. From a teaching point of view it means removing yourself from the center of the classroom. The change in role of a teacher from a dispenser of knowledge to a co-constructor has long been a tenet of CLT in general, but where ELF is concerned this is especially relevant in matters of intelligibility.

In an ELF oriented classroom, a native speaker teacher simply cannot be the sole judge of students’ intelligibility. Firstly, a native-speaker tends to approach meaning-making from the top down rather than the bottom up (Jenkins 2000). While Jenkins talks in relation to phonology only, I would argue that it applies in general. In other words, NSs try to match the whole of a student utterance to a range of possible meanings, before working back to the constituent parts. NNSs, on the other had, tackling individual signals (words, sounds) first, building them into utterances, and finally looking for meaning**. Secondly, in a lot of English teaching, intelligibility is bound up with native speaker norms, with the inference that learning these norms will make the student intelligible to native speakers. For students who will use English as a lingua franca, this seems untenable.

So the big question then. What can I do about it? Well, it’s pretty simple. Your students are better judges of intelligibility to other NNS than you are. This means getting them involved in judging it at every level, and by every level I mean the one that really matters (in Korea at least), testing. My classes loosely follow the Willis & Willis conception of TBLT, which means each week ends with students presenting a “polished” version of whatever task I set them for that week. This is evaluated to give their weekly quiz score, as required by our program. During one group/person’s performance, other students listen and grade them on their intelligibility.

I am aware that grades are important, and the concept of students giving each other grades may well be a new one. In general however, my students have taken to this quite well. Here are some reasons why I think it might be so:

  • I explain the reasoning for doing<span style="ages or my preferred path of numbers of breakdowns in misunderstanding.
  • I always have a good number of students evaluating so that an average can be taken and no one person can inflate or deflate a grade too much.
  • I make sure the teacher and performing students have a right to ask why a certain grade was given.
  • I don’t ask for examples of misunderstanding. While this would be useful, it tends to drive students down the path of least resistance, which is to tick 100% so they don’t have to provide examples.  

This also has the extra bonus of freeing up time and attention for me to concentrate on grading other things.

As I said, this works well for me, but it tends to happen in well-structured groups using institutionalized processes. This minimizes the face-threatening nature of evaluating misunderstanding. However, no such neat and sanitized methods for signalling non-comprehension exist in more open pair or group work, and students are fond of adopting the “let it pass” strategy. This is definitely an unresolved problem in my class, so this solution falls into the things I might try in future category mentioned above.

My solution would be to try to partly institutionalize and sanitize the process of signalling non-comprehension. One unrealized ambition of mine is to introduce a load of “classroom chunks” for functions such as giving an opinion, politely disagreeing and showing that you don’t understand. NS-like chunks could simply be given, but a truly ELF-oriented approach to this would probably involve negotiating the chunks with input given in the form of NNS examples drawn from corpora such as VOICE. I suspect that some of the face threat involved in showing that you don’t understand is exacerbated by being stripped of L1 based politeness strategies. Having a recognized and validated (by the students) system for situations like this may go some way to restoring these strategies, as well as perhaps legitimizing misunderstanding as a natural part of classroom life (something which may have been drummed out of the students through their previous experience of English at high school). My other solution for sanitizing the process slightly is to change the medium, and have students complete written feedback forms for each other. In theory removing the need to give face to face feedback removes some of the potential for that face to be threatened. I’d hope that employing one or both of these strategies might help miscommunication to be signalled more often and more easily.

It might seem that I am getting slightly distracted from ELF here. After all, signalling non-comprehension is pretty crucial to any classroom, and presumably is the first stage in Long’s (1983) Interaction Hypothesis, a fairly important concept in second language acquisition. However, in a ELF classroom, it’s perhaps the most important thing. Here’s why. I said in a previous post that ELF draws it’s standards/ideals from people, not norms.*** What this might mean in practice then, is that your students should be the sole arbiters of intelligibility in a ELF oriented activity. In other words, if it works, it stays, if it doesn’t, it goes. I’m sensing that there may be gnashing of teeth and throwing of toys out the pram here, but stay with me for the rest of this post at least. Your role  as a teacher during this then, is to decenter yourself completely, and I mean go sit in the corner – I do, and WATCH! Note here, I say watch, not listen, not monitor (hearing is ok though). Let them get on with it, and intervene only in the following cases:

  • Students are not doing the task. It’s probably best to politely ask why this is so. Perhaps they didn’t understand the instructions?
  • Students are using the L1 to discuss. In this case, I usually ask them what they’re trying to say and we look at how it could be done in English.
  • Students are looking a word up in a dictionary. At the very least, this becomes useful vocabulary/teachable moment for later. It’s also a good chance to help them choose the most understandable word and understand the usage.
  • Student understanding breaks down, and is not being repaired by the students.

I put the last bullet in boldface as it is the most important part one, and the one where intervention may be most necessary. Firstly, figuring out why understanding broke down is important, but tricky. My suggestion, in a monolingual class,would be to let the students talk about it in L1. This has the advantage of speed, so students can get back on task, and exactness, as well as being able to deploy L1 politeness strategies in a high face-threat situation. Once the students understand where the misunderstanding occurred, the first thing to do is try to get them to figure out a repair strategy themselves. If they really can’t, then I suggest at least negotiating a strategy with them. The idea is to get them to rely on their own communicative resources. “This is how I’d say it” should be your very last resort.

Outside of the above cases, however, your role as a teacher is not to interfere. This means not monitoring, not taking notes, not recasting. The students, and you should tell them this, are responsible for deciding what is intelligible and what is not. Go make a cup of tea and let them get on with it.

Right then teeth grinders, it’s proviso time. Firstly, the ideal situation for this is a multi-lingual class. Not a reality for most of us in Korea. Still, I think it has value even with a mono-lingual class. It still gets students considering their interlocutors and levelling their language accordingly, especially with a range of levels in one class. This is an incredibly important ELF skill. However, there is the potential for language that follows L1 syntactic patterns to be more understandable to a fellow L1 speaker than a speaker of a different L1, plus there is the possibility of Korean English loan words appearing that would be unintelligible to a non-Korean resident (including, potentially, an NS of English). My solution to this would be to have the students record themselves, and then listen back and try to identify parts that sound especially Korean, or include loanwords. More on this reflexive approach to stuff in further posts.

Finally, addressing the toy chuckers again, I want to make very clear what I am not saying here. Note that I am talking about ELF oriented activities above, by which I might mean giving instructions in pairs about how to do something (perhaps topically engineering or computer based). This means:

  • I am not saying that you should do this all of the time. In fact, I think I’d say that you should NOT do this all of the time. You may have noticed that this provides little in the way of pushing (norm-based) accuracy, nor much in the way of complexity. In monolingual classes you’re also probably running the risk of reinforcing L1 phonology transfer errors****.
  • I do not do this all of the time (for reasons stated above).
  • In general Standard English norms provide a useful reference point for teaching. The imperative, for example, would provide the basis for the activity above. However there has to be some tolerance of variation in these norms.
  • There is no reason why you can’t/shouldn’t teach the norms in an ELF classroom, but you might want to think about how rigorously you insist on accuracy in producing them.
  • I am not saying that this approach is suitable, appropriate or useful for everyone. Many students want/need to acquire native speaker norms. I’d also say that it’s perhaps not the best use of the qualities that a native speaker can bring to the classroom, and if that’s what students have paid for then they may be disappointed with this approach.

That said, I’ll finish this post by going back to my students. They come into my class fresh out of high school, where they have spent three years learning fairly insignificant native speaker norms in order to pass the most significant exam of their lives, and wind up apologising to me if I recast one of their utterances. This cannot possibly be a good attitude for someone who wishes to speak a language, and so an approach that relaxes attitudes to NS norms, gets the NS out of the way for a bit, and allows students to get on with making meaning with each other, can surely only be empowering.

More ELF orientation to come. Cheers,

Alex

* I’ll acknowledge here that “native-speaker” is a problematic term. As this post largely concerns teaching in Korea, I’m taking the Korean immigration definition of someone who holds a passport and a degree from one of the “big seven” English speaking countries.

** Actually, in writing this, I’m not sure that’s quite how it works. I would say that my L2 listening process worked on a whole range of levels depending on the situation.

*** This is not to say that there is no room for people in the meaning-making of English as a native language.

**** This will happen in almost any meaning-focused activity with a monolingual class, regardless of orientation.

References

Dewey, M. (2012). “Towards a post-normative approach: learning the pedagogy of ELF.” Journal of English as a Lingua Franca. 1(1) 141-170.

Holliday, A. (2005). The struggle to teach English as an international language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English as an international language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Long, M. H. (1983) ‘Native speaker/non native speaker conversation and the negotiation of comprehensible input’. Applied Linguistics. 4(2) pp. 126–141.

McKay, S. L. (2002). Teaching English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walker, R. (2010). Teaching the pronunciation of English as a lingua franca.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Student Micro-reflections & What I Learned From Them

I don’t think that it’s unfair to say that South Korean education is, in general, not the most reflective learning environment. For a variety of reasons like educational culture and teacher-centred classes, time pressure to cover an unfeasible amount of content, or simply that Minsu is trying to better his high score on Anipang under the desk, students here may be focused (or otherwise) more on the whats of learning, rather than the whys and wherefores.

In my little corner of Korean education, I’m doing my best to counteract this. I’m working on communicating goals for each lesson, and each activity so the students have an idea of why they are doing what they are. More important than that however, is trying to get the students to wake up to what they themselves are learning, and how it might be able to help them improve their English. In academic terms, I’m trying to get them to destabilize their interlanguages, in order to rebuild them incorporating new knowledge and skills.

One way that I have tried to do this is through getting students to submit very short reflections on their learning, the class atmosphere, a new teaching style or their personal goals. My method was very simple. Take a piece of coloured card and some stacks of different coloured post-its, and have students write a very short reflection to a question/topic that I gave them. This has two advantages. The first is that it adds a lot of colour to a dull classroom wall (see picture below); the second is that it only takes five minutes, leaving plenty of time to root around in the textbook for something, nay anything useful to teach.

Micro-reflections

Over the course of this semester I tried to do one of these each week, though inevitably they ended up getting pushed aside towards the end of course to cover enough stuff to shoehorn into a written four skills exam for a “conversation” course. I will try to maintain a bit better next semester. The questions/topics that I used were:

Pre-course

  • How should we behave in class?
  • How can we help ourselves to learn English?
  • How can Alex help us to learn English?
  • What are our goals for this semester?

Weeks 3 & 4

  • What were the important things that we learned? (Categorized into grammar, vocab etc.)
  • What was the most important thing that you learned? (Uncategorized)

Week 6

  • Write a question that everyone in the class should be able to answer after this week’s classes.

Week 9

  • Complete this sentence: Compared to other weeks, this week’s English classes were…

Week 10

  • What is your personal goal for this week?

I don’t think I’m stretching student privacy too far if I share the results with you, so if you’re interested take a look at the results in the word document below. The white boxes are my level 1 false beginners’ responses, and the slightly shaded boxes are from my two level 3 classes who would be around intermediate level.

Student Reflections Fall 2012

What did I learn from this?

The first thing that strikes me is that reading these this morning (10 days after classes finished) was like reading them for the first time. This tells me that I was perhaps not paying enough attention the first time around. I was certainly guilty of sticking these on the wall and forgetting about them sometimes. Also, while I wanted them on the wall to remind students, I wonder whether this actually had the opposite effect. It was impossible to read the post-its unless you were very close, and so they were possibly reduced to very pretty coloured decorations.

Another point was perhaps that I didn’t really engage with these reflections enough. For example, many of the suggestions in the pre-course reflections were things that I put on my participation/behaviour rubric for the year, but before I asked the students. Perhaps next semester I could use this kind of thing to build the participation rubric, which might include student ideas a little more.

Despite all this, the students actually responded to this quite positively, and I think they enjoyed the opportunity to review (not often given in class in Korea) what they had done. In terms of reviewing their learning, they tended to focus on the details of what we had talked about in the lesson, such as the difference between words and the accuracy of phrases. These are things that I tried to focus on in class, so there may be an element of telling me what I want to hear here, especially as performance on the exam wasn’t especially good. Again, encouraging some deeper reflection here (demonstrating knowledge rather than declaring it?) might lead to deeper learning.

Finally, one interesting and unexpected result of asking for feedback through this kind of approach is that it can alert you to things that you were completely unaware of as a teacher. Having taught for a week using some of the things I had studied about the Lexical Approach, I asked the students if they had noticed a difference in the week’s classes. I felt like classes had gone OK that week, but almost all the students said they were bored or unfocused. Did this mean that my Lexical class had bored them to tears? Actually no, it was just that the school festival was going on outside, and they would all have rather been there. It served as a healthy reminder that as teachers we can’t control everything outside (or even inside) the classroom. I’ll leave the final word to one of my student reflectors:

It’s not professors fault!

If you have any ideas for making this exercise more effective, I’d love it if you would leave me a comment below.

Cheers,

Alex

Lexical Success!

Paul Scholes

A photo hint of where this story goes. If you figure out the ending in the first paragraph, 10 points; if you get it in the second, 5 points. (Photo courtesy of gordonflood.com)

A few weeks ago we held what I thought was an excellent #KELTChat on the Lexical Approach, which came directly after I had finished reading Michael Lewis’s 1993 book on the subject. For anyone not familiar with the book, Lewis recommends less of a focus on grammar (at least, rule-based, written style grammar) and a greater focus on lexis, which to him means single words, multiple word combinations (eg.”It’s about time”), sentence heads (eg. “Would you like…” [nb this is taught lexically, not grammatically]) and institutionalized phrases (eg. “Can I say a few words?”). There is also a far greater role for both context (where a word appears) and cotext (the text around it) in determining the selection of a word.

While I wouldn’t say that I taught lexically (frankly, I think that focusing on lexis in too much detail would bore the arse off my students), I have started to incorporate the odd lexical diversion into class from time to time. This one came  when reading about a rave, and the phrase “wild party” came up. Another key tenet of the Lexical Approach is collocation, especially that between adjectives and nouns, and yet another may be that drawing out the literal meaning of words should be highlighted if it links to a more idiomatic usage.* My thoughts here were twofold, one that “wild” may actually be quite a powerfully generative adjective, and that its usage here was slightly idiomatic. To highlight this, I asked students to brainstorm some other nouns that could follow wild. They came up with “animal” and “man”, to which I added (with the help of Just the Word) “flower” and “laughter”. Having established what “wild laughter” might sound like, I asked the students to draw a connection between the items. With a bit of prompting, we came up with “out of control”.

So far, so unremarkable, and I proceeded to move on to something else, while wondering whether I couldn’t slip this into the final exam somehow, and soon this little diversion had dropped out of my head entirely. That is, until I was standing watching our English department’s weekly game of football with the students last Thursday. Next to me was one of my more committed students, who, when the boards in front of us were rattled by an overenthusiastic player hurtling into them feet first, turned to me and said “You could call that a wild tackle, right teacher?”

I am not in the business of hugging students, or anyone really, but I almost did there.

Cheers,

Alex

* I think this is in Lewis’s book, and I’m certain it was in a talk by Frank Boers at the recent KOTESOL International Conference.

Pronunciation Camp 4 – Habits: Revealing, Correcting, Practising and Linking

I’m getting towards the end of the blogging marathon that is writing up my pronunciation camp from the university’s summer program. If you want to read what went before this, check out my other posts: Models & Vowels, Consonants, and Intonational Chunks & Fluency.

In my view, pronunciation is something that, most of the time, happens unconsciously in first and second language production. Especially in one’s second language, the cognitive load of meaning making, accuracy and fluency mean that concentrating on the physical act of making sounds is impossible. And so it should be. Pronunciation in many ways can be seen as analagous to sport. This fascinating article on the science of “choking” also has implications for pronunciation – the idea that there is an implicit and explicit memory suggests that, for the most part, people who have been speaking English for a while (such as my students) are largely using the implicit system, as using the explicit one would cause too much strain on their brains, and begin to affect the other consumers of cognitive resources listed previously.

To further this analogy (helpfully, with something that few of you will be familiar with), I grew up playing cricket. Batting in cricket requires a complex range of physical and mental tasks: different styles of shot, risk management, physical endurance, anticipation. However, most of the physical performance is done using implicit memory, and that’s when you invariably bat the best, as the shot-making comes naturally and worry-free and leaves you to concentrate on higher-level thinking about strategy or what kind of sandwich to have at tea-time. Of course, actions don’t start out in the implicit memory – they get there through repetition. As a batsman in cricket, you only have one innings in which to bat, and so playing games is often not the best way to build automaticity, as often you are not performing for a long time before you’re out. This is where ‘the nets’ come in. The nets are roughly equivalent to a batting cage in baseball – somewhere where you are free to practice new skills without risk or to analyse what you already do and take steps to put it right. “The nets” is very much how I see a pronunciation classroom.

In the first few posts of this series I concentrated more on developing new(ish) skills. This time I want to focus on the second function of “the nets”, habit breaking and remodelling. This is something that developed over the course of the camp, and that I wish I had had more time to concentrate on from the start. Much of my students pronunciation contains what I would refer to as “bad habits” (I realize that I could work on my terminology a bit here); either things that creep in over time, or more likely, things that were never taught right (or even likelier never taught) in the first place. These are very much part of the implicit memory of my learners, and so are performed unconsciously.

The problem for a pronunciation teacher is that a lot of the work that you do is in a space already marked out for pronunciation, and so students are explicitly focusing on it, meaning that some of their implicit errors go undetected.  This also explains why students sometimes seem to “backslide” and make mistakes that seemed to have been corrected previously, as after explicit practice they then revert to using their implicit memory when not focusing on pronunciation. Thus a part of any pronunciation class should be trying to generate and record any bad habits, and work on solutions for breaking them. However, getting students to focus on something other than their pronunciation and getting at the implicit errors is not always easy.

Fortunately, these days the pronunciation teacher (at least the Korean one) has a huge advantage in that almost every student has a smartphone, and hence a personal, digital recording device in the palm of their hand. This means that students can much better evaluate their own, or someone else’s, pronunciation after the event. This has several advantages: the student can hear words as they actually say them, not as they think they do; a listener has more than one chance to pick out errors; finally, the recording can be played, or sent to the teacher for confirmation. So we can record errors as they are generated, but how can we go about generating them? I used two techniques: emotion and time pressure. The first was slightly geekily inspired by Labov’s sociolinguistic research on phoneme variation in New York accents, where he had subjects describe a time that they were in danger in order to distract them from the real aim of the experiment. I did very similar, in asking students to describe frightening or joyous experiences. I also often combined this with time pressure, using the 4-3-2 technique (explained here by Paul Nation). All of this was recorded, and then examined by the students for any errors.

So, once you have generated your errors, what can you do? Well, the first thing to say is that each student will have different errors, and these will exist at the phoneme and the word level, and will sometimes vary between the two (for example, f will be pronounced correctly in ‘finish’, but not in “fight”). Whatever the error, it needs to be recorded, corrected and practised. This approach is something that I developed over the course of the camp, and my recording system needs to be better next time, but due to time constraints this time, I used this pre-made (and not by any means bad) recording system that I found online.

Next, correction can take place. At a phonemic level, I tried to cover as much as possible in class (see the first two posts in this series). At word level, I aimed for a more student-reliant approach. Over the course we learnt about the IPA system so that students could find pronunciations in dictionaries, and we also looked at forvo.com for getting models, especially of different varieties of English. Then, of course, comes practice, and building good habits. If a particular phoneme is a problem, then I advised students to concentrate on it for a week or two any time they were speaking English. It’s best just to concentrate on a single phoneme at a time though, so as not to overload the student. Hopefully, after a couple of weeks of concentration, the correct pronunciation of the phoneme should become habit.

At word level, especially where there is variation from an otherwise correctly pronounced phoneme, the variation is likely cased either by the word being incorrectly learned in the first place, or by interference from the first language. In the case of my earlier flower/fight example, “Fighting!” is a Korean term of encouragement, but with no /f/ in Korean, it’s often transliterated as “Pie-ghting!”, hence the interference here. The trouble with words is that they don’t always appear in conversation that often (unlike phonemes), and so a more systematic practice is required. for this, I suggested the flashcard program Anki, with the correct pronunciation transcribed or recorded. This means that correct pronunciations of words can be practised much more regularly, and hopefully also become good habits.

The final piece in the pronunciation class puzzle has to be linking what you do in class back into more “real life” stuff. Too much focus on making sounds can lead to the class losing a bit of context – it’s a good idea to show your students that what you are doing actually has some application in the real world. Fortunately, during the camp students were required to produce both a speech and a play for the final week, so we had plenty of chance to apply what we’d learned to real things.  I was able to tie my class in with my colleague’s speech class, so that every Thursday was “speech clinic”, where we’d work in large and small groups to analyse students’ speech pronunciation, apply anything we had learned so far, and generate more errors to work on the following week. Towards the end, we also dedicated a lot of time to play rehearsals, where there are some great opportunities to teach the value of intonation in making students speech more interesting, but that’s for another day perhaps.

And that is about the shape of my pronunciation camp habit theory. If you found this helpful, please consider leaving me a  comment below, or following me through WordPress or on Twitter (@breathyvowel).

Cheers,

Alex

Activities & Techniques: Tried & Tested

Not really related but very cool video.

I’ve previously written a reflective sort of post on my first semester as a university English teacher, and my feeling of being thrown in at the deep end somewhat. This led to me trying out a lot of things, some of which were successful, others of which were less so. It also led me to planning each lesson very carefully, and building up a fairly large stack of paper on my desk. I’ve been meaning to trawl back through it for some time now, and given that I had some time over the thanksgiving holiday here, I finally got around to it. What follows then, are some brief notes on things that I did last semester.

Activities

Grammar Auction: I tried this with my elementary class, and it works pretty well as an activity from a fun point of view, especially when teams make a huge bid on an incorrect sentence. You can use it with real student errors too to make it hit home a bit more. The problem though, is that unless it’s linked to something else, or there’s an opportunity to practice the correct forms after, then it’s not a particularly helpful activity for students. My other concern is that it takes a while to set up and do, and involves very little speaking for elementary level students. Verdict: OK, but requires careful placing within a lesson.

Live Listening: I did this as part of a pre-intermediate lesson on hometowns. I had students prepare questions that they wanted to ask me about my hometown, and then ask them while we recorded the whole thing. I then gave them a variety of tasks, summarizing, comparing to their hometowns, listening for important linguistic features, and coming up with questions for the rest of the class about the listening. This worked OK, and got more student interest than a coursebook listening, but wound up producing a listening text that was unfeasibly long, and that we didn’t really have enough time to work with in the lesson. One thing I was pleased with though, was students picking up on authentic features of language like fillers and pauses. Verdict: Different tasks for different groups work really well. Would do this again, but try to limit questions and length of answers, and work with the text in much more depth.

Jigsaw Activities: This is a particular favourite of mine. For those of you who don’t know how they work, students form small groups to discuss something (square numbers work best, so 3 groups of 3, 4 groups of 4 etc.). Then they split up, and new groups are formed with one member of each original group in each new group. They then share/debate/discuss their original groups findings with other people in the group. Finally, if possible, they return to their group and share whatever they learned. I did this for the health and fitness unit with my pre-intermediates, and it was a great success. Having done a listening about a health club, I then had each group design their own health club, with information about facilities, diets, programs etc. They then appointed a salesperson, while the other group members became customers. The customers went to hear about other spas, while the salesperson tried to sell theirs. Then everyone came back to their own group to decide which spa they wanted to visit (excepting their own of course). They then revealed their choices, and the most popular spa was declared the winner (if I recall correctly, it was the one with the bikini masseurs). There were many good aspects to this activity – the planning stage gives an opportunity for thinking about what to say, generating new vocabulary etc., and you can do more than one rotation in groups, giving fluency practice to the salespeople. There’s also lots more spontaneous language use, as the customers are encouraged to ask questions, and by the end of the activity each person has taken part in three or four slightly different discussions, but all around the same theme using similar lexis. The competition element also encourages students, and I had little trouble getting my sometimes slightly reluctant students to push themselves and communicate freely in English. Verdict: One of the best things that I did this year.

Classroom Kit

Mini-whiteboards: I saw this trick presented by Peadar Callahan at a conference. Basically, you can create a pretty effective personal whiteboard for a student simply by laminating a piece of A4 paper. This has a huge range of uses, checking answers, drawing board, musical instrument, and works particularly well for shy classes to whom the thought of answering a teacher question is terribly frightening. Using white boards means that everyone can answer, the teacher can see who needs some help, and nobody loses face. However! This limits speaking time, and I find that if students talk about an answer with their partner first then they are quite willing to answer anyway, especially if everyone does. There are also other ways to measure a response, such as thumbs up/down for yes and no questions. The main problems that I had were 1) Mess! This is on me, and wouldn’t have happened  with proper whiteboards, but the laminated ones that I had wouldn’t wipe clean, especially after the writing had been on them for a while (even with board markers). This lead to buying board cleaner, tissues and all kinds of other stuff, meaning that the classroom filled up with rubbish, and we spent 10 minutes every lesson trying to clean the damn things. In the end, I gave up. 2) Sharing. I thought that the boards would be a great chance for students to write some example sentences, which everyone could look at and do error correction etc. In the end, students writing meant that it was difficult to read, and not everyone in the class could see anyway. I have a new solution for that this semester, but that’s for another post. Verdict: could have been awesome, but wasn’t. Invest in some real whiteboards (or get your school to).

Remembering Stuff (the students, not me)

Wikispaces: Being a switched on, thoroughly modern, gizmo-oriented sort of chap (this is about half true), and having read all about the lovely opportunities that technology presents, I decided that I would make a wiki for each of my classes, where we could share class notes, extra activities and generally have a jolly good time. Being also extremely busy, I put the responsibility for maintaining it on the students. This was one of the less successful aspects of the semester. I gave bonus points in class to students who maintained it, and they dutifully copied all of our board work onto the website, with no explanation, rhyme or reason. I suspect that outside of these loyal bonus point hunters, nobody even looked at it, even when I warned that some of the questions from the exam would be based on the vocab on the site. At least, I assume that nobody looked, as nobody got the questions right. It also meant that students thought that there was no need to take notes, as they would all be on the website later.  Add to this the fact that some students failed to even sign up, and it was a big hassle to get those that did to, and this doesn’t look like a winner.Verdict: Students aren’t the keenest to do stuff outside of class, and need their own notes. If you’re going to use technology, use something that the students already know.

Remembering the board: A very brief and simple activity. At the very end of the lesson, tell students that the following day they will have to remember everything on the board. They can look for a minute, but may not write anything. At the beginning of the next lesson, draw some hints (dividing lines, section headings, odd words or letters) and have them try to recreate it on a piece of paper, or come up and fill in the board. Verdict: Quite good. Better than Wikispaces. PS Remember to take a photo of the board!

Assessment

Making assessment a bit more personal and communicative: This was something I tried to do as time went on and I got to know my students better. For one written quiz, I had students write personal sentences from prompts like “I’m looking forward…” testing their infinitive/gerund knowledge. The twist was, they couldn’t write their name on the test (I asked them to use a memorable number for IDs sake), and I had to guess who had written the sentences for part of the grade on the test. I also did something similar where students had to describe another member of the class for a speaking test, and I had to guess who they were. Who knew that testing could deepen your relationship with students? Verdict: Made weekly quizzes that little bit more interesting and challenging.

If you violently disagree with anything I’ve written here, do feel free to leave an acerbic comment below, and if you use one of these ideas successfully (even if I did), feel even freer to leave a nice one. Also, you can always follow me on Twitter (@breathyvowel)

Cheers,

Alex

Pronunciation Camp 3: Intonational Chunks and Fluency

This is the third part of my series of posts on the pronunciation course that I taught over the summer. You can read Part 1: Models & Goals and Vowels here, and Part 2: Segmental Consonants here.

As I mentioned in my preview post, my university wasn’t quite as keen as I was on having a pronunciation camp, doubting the saleability of such an endeavour. In order to make it a bit more appealing, we threw in a fluency aspect as well. I had at first thought about conveniently ignoring this side of the course, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to include it. For one, the ability to make sounds and words is a key part of fluency, and two, supra-segmental aspects go hand in hand with fluency, and you can’t often can’t work on one without automatically working on the other.

It’s my view that it is impossible to achieve fluency without repetition. I’m not necessarily talking about drilling here, though it plays a big part, but also repetition of tasks and situations. The big problem is of course, how to get a lot of repetitions of something without it becoming monotonous. Examining my own Korean skills (always a great source of inspiration for my teaching), I noticed that in daily pleasantries I am much, much more fluent than any other area, mostly due to doing these every day – and because they’re real interactions, they’re not even boring. Too often English lessons don’t leave time for students to chat about the small things using language that they already know, but perhaps don’t use that often because they have limited opportunity outside the classroom. In other words, we’re too focused on learning and not enough on practising.

On my course, I reserved the first 20 minutes or so of each lesson for what we called “small-talk time”. Most days we took a different conversation starter, and looked at the pronunciation, especially the intonation, but also anything that we had looked at on the course so far. As I said, fluency and supra-segmental features are closely related – you can’t teach sentence stress and thought grouping if the sentence is riddled with hesitations – and so teaching them together seems to make sense.  Every morning, I would choose a conversation starting chuck (eg. “That’s a nice _____!”), drill it, and then have the students try to draw the intonation contours in their notebooks. They’d then hold them up and try to choose whose was most accurate. The best contour was then transferred to paper and stuck on the wall each day, leaving us with something that looked like the below.

I deliberately tried to steer away from teaching rules for intonation, with the exception of rising intonation for yes/no questions and falling for Wh- questions, as I wanted students to absorb it more than think about it. It’s my view that just constructing sentences uses almost all of a lower level students cognitive resources, and I don’t want to further overload them. The lines on the pictures were just there as a reminder for students. As evidence for this being a successful approach, I’d like to show you here some of my students’ own creations, if you can look past the somewhat unusual nature of these conversation starters, you’ll see that the intonation lines are pretty spot on, as was the pronunciation when they said them out loud.

At first getting students (and teachers!) to recognize intonation is tricky. It’s probably something that no-one has ever focused on with them before. The first thing to do is get the students to reproduce it accurately, and they can do this without being explicitly instructed. My aim was not only to teach the intonation though, but to make students think about it, and perhaps help them to figure it out if they need to in the future, hence the diagramming. So, once they can produce it accurately, how can students be helped to represent it visually? Firstly, I think that intonation can generally be felt in the throat – vocal cords seem to vibrate in different places according to the pitch. Getting students to track this with their hands, by moving them up and down according to where they think the sound is coming from, helped them to visualize the intonation (this seemed to work for me and my students, and I’m interested to know if it does for anyone else). Another more technical method is to use a sound analysis program like UCL’s WASP which draws the intonation for you. This can also provide great fun for students trying to match the teacher’s model. However you find it out, it seemed to me that drawing the intonation helped students to realize what they were doing/had to do, and also reminded them of the intonation when they hadn’t heard or used the phrase for a while.

Once we’d figured out and diagrammed the intonation, it was practice time. I would generally walk students through the first couple of exchanges of a conversation, and then let them try it for themselves. When working on something new, I’d start by keeping the exchanges very short, shouting “Change partners!” every 30 seconds or so, but gradually lengthening the times to allow more complex conversations, and also allow students to use previous days conversation starters. I also found it was important to some days not teach anything new, but just to allow students to have twenty minutes of simple conversations using the things that they had already learnt. This also gave me an excellent change to circulate, tackle individual problems and join in some conversations to try to make them more challenging, or just provide an expert speaker model.

Of course, even this can get boring after a while, and it’s handy to have a couple of different activities up your sleeve to keep things interesting. One of the ones I used was based on an article by Gatbonton and Segalowitz (that I found through an excellent post and discussion about automaticity on Scott Thornbury’s blog) which talked about creative fluency activities – activities that require multiple repetitions of language but with some kind of customization. They key point is that, in order to be interesting, these activities need a communicative purpose. One great way to do this is for that purpose to be predicting the majority view of a group.

One Monday morning, we looked at the chunk “Did you _______ this weekend?” along with it’s rhythm and intonation. I then asked each student to supply an answer to the question that they thought some, but not all, of the class would also have done. I wrote these answers on the board and then selected the five that I thought would be closest together in terms of how many people did them the previous weekend. I then asked students to secretly mark which ones they had done in their books. I then drilled the five questions they would need (eg. “Did you eat chicken this weekend?”) until everyone had the pronunciation down. They then had a set time (three minutes worked well) in which to mingle and ask as many people the questions as possible. Once they had finished, they made a prediction about which activity was most popular, and we checked the results. Those who predicted correctly won a candy.

Although this activity takes a while to set up first time, for a relatively low amount of speaking, it’s eminently repeatable, and can be customized for many different chunks of language. As Scott says in the post linked above, these activities are great for the end of lessons when you have some time left over.

In the feedback from the camp, the small talk, conversation and intonation teaching was by far the most popular element of my course. I’m going to to a much more detailed feedback post in the future, but for now I’d recommend doing this to anyone. In fact, it’s going to become a part of my general English class this semester. Putting phrases on the wall really works well, as it gives the students something to start their own conversations with – sometimes just saying “OK! Free talking!” can be intimidating in terms of where to start, but this meant students could get straight into conversations. The intonation too seemed to sink in much better for the repetition than it ever would have otherwise.

Again, it’s time to finish another overly long post. I hope you enjoyed it. I think I have at least 2 more of these in me, so please come back soon if you’re after more, or leave me an encouraging comment below.

Cheers,

Alex

References

Gatbonton, E. and Segalowitz, N. (1988) ‘Creative automatization: Principles for promoting fluency within a communicative framework’, TESOL Quarterly22, 3.

Just A Minute

Welcome to Just A Minute

A recording of “Just a Minute” by Diamond Geyser on Flickr

Those of you not from the UK may be unaware of BBC Radio 4. It’s a wonderful mix of news, debate, documentary and especially comedy. It’s where many British comedies (including Little Britain and The League of Gentlemen) got their first, pre-TV airings. I think it’s the jewel in England’s public service broadcasting crown and probably justifies the cost of the license fee alone.

One of the longest running shows on BBC Radio 4 is called Just a Minute. The rules are simple, four contestants play, and one is given a subject to speak on for one minute without hesitating, repeating themselves or deviating from the subject. If they do, the other players can challenge, and if successful, gain a point and steal the topic and the rest of the time. The player speaking when the minute is up is awarded a point. If you speak for the entire minute without a successful challenge you also get a point.

This game has been in my mind almost as long as I’ve been teaching English. About three weeks into my career I think I tried a listening class based on a show, followed by an attempt to play the game with a class of intermediate students. It was pretty much a disaster. The language, which is always playful and laced with cultural references shot straight over my bewildered students heads, and they found playing the game with the original rules almost impossible. Not surprising really, it’s difficult for a native speaker and even the pros very rarely get through the whole minute. With a little adjustment though, the basic concept can be used in any kind of classroom, and the point of today’s post is to share two things that have worked very well for me in the past.

The first is really useful where you want students to memorize something, which for better or worse happens often in Korea. I found it particularly useful as a substitute or addition to the listen and repeat with the dialogues in the elementary textbooks. You can apply it anywhere though, including trying to recall text in a kind of spoken dictogloss, role plays or imitating speeches or even just pronunciation. Here are the steps:

  1. Pre-teach the terms “hesitation” and “deviation / mistake/ error” (whatever you choose to call them).
  2. Group the students into however many speakers the text has (eg if you’re doing a dialogue, put the students in pairs). Now match these groups up with 3 or 4 other groups, so you have several larger groups.
  3. Give the first pair a prize. I use candy. Tell them they cannot eat it yet, and other pairs in the group can steal it.
  4. Tell all the participants you will play/read/show a text/recording. They have to memorize as much as they can.
  5. The first pair then has the first chance to try to repeat the text exactly. The other pairs listen. If they hear a hesitation or deviation, they can challenge and steal the prize and attempt to recreate it themselves.
  6. The teacher can replay any or all of the text at any given time.
  7. The pair that completes the text unchallenged gets to eat the candy.

This activity has great benefits for listening for linguistic detail, and noticing the differences between expert production and the students’ own. It also makes sure that the non-speaking students are really focused on their peers’ output, and not just using the time to take a break.

The second thing I’d like to share is my version of the game for a Korean classroom. I did this with my lowish level high school students and they managed it OK, and had great fun. I’ve played a little fast and loose with the rules here, and devised a much more motivating scoring system (the beauty of the original game is that competing comes a distant second to being witty, but that doesn’t work so well with teenagers). I also took out repetition and replaced it with a “language” challenge for if the student makes a mistake. Here’s the Powerpoint:

Just a Minute.ppt (Original PPT to download)

What I found whilst playing the game is that carefully selected topics can be great for eliciting points of grammar and lexis that you have previously worked on, and for having the teams listen for them with specific challenges.

Of course, the game does rather focus on errors, so it may be worth explaining to your students that it is just a game, and that the mistakes don’t matter so much outside of it. I think it also has a lot of potential to build fluency, so be careful to select topics that students are already well familiar with. In this way, it will hopefully build, rather than destroy their confidence 🙂

However you use it, I hope you have fun.

Cheers

Alex