Tag Archives: Communicative Activities

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

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#KELTChat Summary: Automaticity & Fluency (23rd September 2012)

This a summary of the #KELTChat that took place on Twitter on the 23rd September 2012. It is dual posted on the KELTChat Blog and my personal blog The Breathy Vowel, but feel free to only read the one version!

On Sunday night we witnessed one of the busiest #KELTChats ever, with over 200 tweets sent in an  hour on the subject of Automaticity & Fluency. Along with regular members, I’d really like to mention the great contributions by two first-timers (I believe): @bora_maren and @jankenb2. Welcome to the community 🙂

We started out chatting about how important fluency was in our classrooms. The consensus was that it is important in every context, but especially so in Korea, where the bias of school teaching (we will return to this later) is towards grammar and vocabulary, and some teachers are guilty of treating language as knowledge, rather than as a skill, especially where speaking is concerned. We also pointed to the fact that opportunities for practice outside the classroom are limited. I think this is why those of us who teach at universities, such as @languagebubble, put fluency “at the forefront” of their classes.

For @keisenhow it was not only speaking fluency, but thinking fluency in English that was important, which she tries to promote through a task based approach, with thinking time built into a pre-task stage. Combined with relevant tasks and good modelling this helps her students to access the language that they need to complete the task.

We then had some fascinating ideas about the nature and role of fluency. @jankenb2 felt that fluency helped students to free their minds to focus on meaning more (I think I may have Matricized this a little in transcription), and @tamaslorincz added that it might also help with accuracy and range. @chopedu summed this up nicely with a metaphor: “Like learning to drive, we struggle before we can relegate the mechanics to the subconscious and just focus on the journey”. I wasn’t quite sure I agreed with this view on fluency though, for me meaning should always come first, but I am in no doubt that fluency helps to deliver quicker and clearer meanings. The beauty of #KELTChat was that this was then jumped on by both @bora_maren and @chopedu, claiming that form should sometimes come before meaning, and that students could not focus  on meaning, accuracy and fluency all at once, and that performance in the other two factors would drop if students focused on just one. This thread of the discussion then moved on to the role of repetition and games in the classroom. I suggested that simple speaking tasks could be redone with different audiences, and different focuses each time, and @jankenb2 highlighted the role of games in maximizing repetitions within an environment where they are actually required (ie. not just endless drilling).

While all that was going on, another chat within a chat was taking place about the role of fluency within high school classrooms. @bryanteacher (another brilliant recent addition to the #KELTChat squad) suggested that he focused much more on fluency activities, and introduced us (well me, at least) to the concept of ‘unlocking’ what the students already know. This was heartily agreed with by @annehendler, and the point was raised that it often meets opposition from school teachers who prefer to focus on the eminently more measurable and testable quality of accuracy (@josettelb).

At this point @alexswalsh chimed in with a very good point about the fact that fluency activities were strongly tied to motivation and the reasons the student is learning English. This seemed a good point, and again goes back to the testing culture here – why bother putting in the effort to be able to produce something fluently when all you need to do is check a box on a multiple choice exam. @michaelegriffin, @languagebubble and myself all agreed that motivation is crucial in developing fluency, but that we may be able to ‘sow the seeds of motivation’ by giving enough space for fluency in our classrooms. The flip side to this argument came from @alexswalsh again, suggesting that a) students may just throw chunks of language together to finish a task, and b) that doing fluency activities with large classes is not practical because many students simply revert to the L1.

Another issue that came up for public school teachers is that of level, and teachers not trusting their students, or not thinking fluency activities were necessary at lower levels. @bryanteacher pointed out that any “low-level” middle school student has a good few years of English education behind them, and this would seem to make the case that fluency needs to be concentrated on from the very beginning, a bit like what I understood Demand High ELT was all about.

The penultimate part of the discussion stemmed from the motivation thread, and considered how we could make an atmosphere in our classrooms that was conducive to practising and building motivation to achieve fluency. We talked in terms of a “safety zone” (@languagebubble), of which features might be “thinking time” and a “friendly atmosphere” (@bora_maren), or a “social presence” (@keisenhow). “Lightheartedness and laughter” and improving student dynamics through team building are important for @languagebubble.

Actually, that wasn’t the penultimate bit of the discussion, as another thread popped up at the last (this is not the easiest #KELTChat to summarize, in case you hadn’t noticed). This brought in a bit more SLA research which says that students learn linguistic features in predictable sequences. What does this mean for fluency though, @chopedu asked @jankenb2? The response was that even when students seem to be backsliding (I assume in terms of grammar and lexis), especially in conversations, this may still be a sign of progress, and again brought us back to the separate concepts of ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’.

Finally we did get down to talking activities, which for the sake of my tired fingers I’m going to present as a list.

In terms of book recommendations @languagebubble and I also highly recommended English Firsthand for developing fluency, especially at lower levels.

And that more or less rounded off the chat for the evening. Both moderating and participating was a thrilling experience, it seems like every chat is better than the last right now, so thanks to everyone who joined in! I’m going to leave the final word to @bora_maren, in one of my favourite #KELTChat tweets ever:

“It was my first time joining.I enjoyed it a lot. It was a bit confusing and I am still dizzy but I am sure i will get better.”

Pretty much sums it all up I think.

Cheers,

Alex (@breathyvowel)

PS I’ve tried to be as accurate here as possible, while weaving the various threads of the chat into some kind of cohesive whole. If anyone feels that they’ve been misquoted, misrepresented or misused, please get in touch and I’ll do my best to correct it. You can also see a Storify of the important bits of the chat here:

http://storify.com/breathyvowel/keltchat-23rd-september-2012-automaticity-and-flu

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.

Some end of semester reflecting (Part 1)

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No more students 😦

So I have survived the first semester of university teaching, and actually, in places, quite enjoyed it. It’s definitely more rewarding than teaching high school classes, where there was no incentive to, well, do anything really, and seeing students more than once a week, before they’ve had a chance to forget everything you taught them last lesson, is a definite  bonus. It’s also had a very positive effect of making me feel a lot more a part of a wider ELT community. I feel like teaching in many public schools is a completely different enterprise to the kind of ELT that you read about in the literature, or tend to hear about in conferences, and left me feeling rather excluded. In my view solving this problem is something that would immeasurably improve the world of public school teachers here. I certainly feel more like an English teacher now, closer to the content of my MA course, and to the world in general*.

* This is in no way intended to suggest that public school teachers are in any way not real teachers, nor that they don’t do real ELT. It’s solely reflective of my own experience of one public school. I personally know of many people in public schools doing amazing and valuable work every day. 

While the move up to university teaching has been satisfying professionally, it has not been without its difficulties. This blog post is an examination of some of the difficulties – and some of the successes – of the last four months or so, and an attempt to build on them for next semester.

What am I supposed to be doing?

This is the question that has hung over me the entire semester, and continues to hang over me now, though I feel that I have come some way to solving it. The problem for me lies in a conflict between the explicitly stated goals, and the implicit goals imposed by the structure of the course. In terms of outwardly stated goals, the aim of the course is to boost students’ speaking skills. To do this  I am given a relatively free rein over my classes, and no guidance in teaching them whatsoever. However, I am advised to give weekly written or spoken quizzes, with the suggestion that these feature translation of the ‘key sentences’ for each chapter of the book. Then I am also supposed to set exams which constitute 50% of each student’s grade, 70% of which comes from reading, listening, grammar and vocabulary. Most of these questions are also expected to be multiple choice.

This then is my problem: how to square what I think the administration, myself and the students all want, which is a heavily speaking based and interactive class, with enough book work to get students through the quizzes and exams. Over the course of this year I have learnt that I need to selectively ignore quite a lot of suggestions, such as model sentences, and most of the textbook, in favour of more speaking based activities. This of course leaves me with a problem that setting exams becomes a little more difficult, but I’ll talk about that later.

What helped a lot with my thinking was a reflective workshop with Tom Farrell that I went to in May. I’m very aware that I’m still a very inexperienced teacher, and that there is a lot I can do to improve. Because of this, I tend to pick things up that I read about and try them in class, because they seem interesting to me, or because they seem like the way things should be done. Tom’s message was essentially that most of this was the sort of thing that male cows produce from their rear ends, and that the place we should really be starting was at the students. This made a great deal more sense to me, and helped me see that there were several things I could change about my classes.

The first of these was that I can’t expect my students to do a great deal of practice outside the classroom, nor should I necessarily. These are not English majors, and often don’t really want to be doing English at all. To expect them to go away and practice what we did in class seems a little optimistic. I also think for many of them, that their time would be much better spent either working on their majors or simply having some fun. Thus, the class had to be much more of a practise area, with more focus on just getting involved and doing stuff – even if it meant stopping, correcting and doing it again. In general I think I prefer this approach anyway.

This leads into the second part of my unease with the program – the textbook. I’m not a 100% unplugged enthusiast, and generally I think textbooks have a place. However, I think the textbooks that we select for the students we have are  rather inadequate, not on account of being textbooks, but on account of being traditionally levelled for people starting out with learning a language. Sadly that doesn’t really suit someone like Tae-hoe, who has a passive vocabulary of at  least 2,000 words, and has probably done phrases like “My favourite…” a number of times through school. Tae-hoe however, through a combination of nerves and lack of practise speaking English, can’t put it together in a sentence. He doesn’t really need it nicely presented in the book, with grammar explanations. He needs a framework in which he feels comfortable to practice it, and the opportunity to practise it enough times to give him a degree of fluency. Most of this can, and should in my opinion, be done without recourse to the textbook.

So towards the end of this semester my class became a lot more talking, a lot less trying to shovel whatever disparate bits of lexis and grammar the book suggested in, we just did lots and lots of practice, and looked at how we could say stuff that we wanted. All sounds a bit d***e-ish I know. One other innovation I had was linking the content of class to the English Cafe program, where students can come and talk to us one on one. I offer class bonus points for discussing class topics in cafe the following week. I only had a couple of weeks of this in class last semester, but it seemed to be successful, so I will be starting it from week 1 this year.

This has turned into a long, and probably not very coherent blog post, so I’m going to end it here. I’ve probably got another few of these in me if I have time (you lucky, lucky readers), so keep an eye out.

Cheers,

Alex

Make Your Students The Experts: My KOTESOL National Conference Presentation 2012

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been working pretty hard recently getting ready for a presentation at KOTESOL‘s National Conference 2012 in the southern city of Busan. The conference has now been and gone and I’m still here, which is a positive. Actually, my presentation went really well (I thought) and the seven people who came were quite complimentary. I would have liked a few more people to speak to, but at least the small numbers made for a personal and constructive atmosphere.

Having been asked by at least one person, I’m going to share my presentation with you here. Unfortunately I don’t have time to write it up, but if you have time to sit down and watch/listen to it you can watch the Youtube videos below, (as filmed by the wonderful Anne Hendler (@annehendler), thanks!), or watch and listen to one of my slightly ropey practice screencasts further down the page.

If you watch the videos, you’ll need good eyes to see the projector screen, so you might want to take a look at the Prezi first.

I hope you find these useful. If you have any questions feel free to ask them in the comments section.

Cheers,

Alex

Youtube Videos

Screencasts

Part 1: http://screencast-o-matic.com/watch/clh003GfG

Part 2: http://screencast-o-matic.com/watch/clh0VzESm

Part 3: http://screencast-o-matic.com/watch/clh0VdESJ

Part 4: http://screencast-o-matic.com/watch/clh0V8ESM

Handout

Handout

Favourites: simple, right?

Chunks

Chunks by mediageek on Flickr

I’m beginning to really enjoy university teaching. With no offence meant to my former institution or former students and colleagues, this feels much more like real teaching. This has less to do with the students and more to do with the addition of some extrinsic motivation in the form of grades (though I feel like there’s quite a bit of early semester intrinsic floating about too), a reduction in class size and a greater uniformity of level that means I’m able to do a lot more of what I think the students really need, rather than what just gets us through the class – namely conversation based teaching (I’m not mentioning the ‘d’ word on this blog anymore, in protest at it having the daftest name for a (post-?)methodology since ‘suggestopedia’).

Given a classroom with a CD player and a whiteboard only, in cramped conditions, means that I follow a fairly low-tech approach (at least in the classroom), and given a textbook that I’m free to use as I see fit (and I tend to see it in the same ways as Rachael Roberts suggests in her excellent post here means that I am teaching not quite unplugged (don’t mind that term so much), but definitely on low voltage.

Nevertheless, the book does provide the syllabus for the course, and this has to be adhered to more or less. Today’s subject was talking about your favourite things, which should be well within the capability of my A2ish students. Having written ‘favourite’ on the board (UK spelling, of course), I elicited a model question “What’s your favourite hobby?” from them, and turned it into a model, or “chunk” if you like (and I do), “What’s your favourite ________?”. Then, I set them off to ask each other various questions, noting down the words that they filled the gap with, the form of the answers, and anything interesting that they heard.

When finished, we looked at how to complete the chunk, a rephrased a few things slightly. “What’s your favourite music?” is actually a fairly vague question, and I’m interested in what answer NSs would give to that question, so we tried to add to the subtlety a little more with type of, style of, piece of etc. We also pointed out other clarifying items like adding “cartoon” in front of “character”. We also talked about “What’s your type?” as opposed to “What’s your favourite kind of girl?”.  Then we moved on to the answers, discussing the fact that the traditional model sentence “My favourite X is Y” works just as well as “It’s Y” in most contexts. “I like Y” and interestingly “I usually [verb] Y” were also suggested. Finally, the reporting element also gave us the chunk “[name]’s / [poss.determiner] favourite [X] is [Y].

Once we’d done all this, talked about it, played with a few sentences, we switched partners and did the task again. I heard lots of the new phrases being taken up, the students seemed to be enjoying the discussion (I had to ask them to stop as we were running out of time), and they were noticeably more fluent and invested in the task (incidentally, I think the do, analyze, do again cycle is one of the most important cycles in language learning).  All in all then, a good lesson, the language sprang from the learners in a real-ish task (they’re freshmen, and so at least some of the information would have been new), we analzyed and improved it, did the task again and better, and then put all of the items produced on a class wiki, with an optional follow up task.

However, now I’m sitting here wondering if I really needed to go into that much detail. We spent approximately a quarter of our book time (40 minutes) this week on favourites . Do you think this was too much to essentially do a bit of polishing on a structure that they’ve likely been able to use since about the fourth grade? Does the language we produced have a wider application? Should I have pushed through this and on to something else? I know that this is largely a decision that I have to take in accordance with my students’ needs, but if anyone reading this cares to share any insights they have, it would help greatly with my reflection.

Cheers,

Alex

Asking students to assess your L2 output

This is my first week as a university “professor” in Korea. I’m entirely uncomfortable with the title, and have made my students promise to call me Alex instead, at least until I get my PhD in ten years or so. Anyway, the chance to work with some slightly higher level, and perhaps slightly more motivated students is an inviting one. The course is “conversation based”, so that means lots of student talking too, which is great because then I don’t have to do any.

One of the things that I want to push my students towards this semester is becoming evaluators of each other’s language. This has several benefits for the students and for the class. The first is a practical one – in a class of 16-20, I can’t listen to everyone at the same time – I can wander and monitor, but I won’t catch every individual mistake. With student evaluators, I hope that more mistakes will get caught. Another reason is that it should make the students more linguistically aware, and bring to their attention aspects of performance such as pronunciation, word choice and form that will positively affect their own, and perhaps highlight mistakes that they were previously unaware of.

Judging another person’s language is not always easy, even for an English teacher, and giving constructive criticism is difficult, especially for my freshmen students who hardly know each other, and in whose culture opinions are not always given as directly as in the West. I came up with an activity to help introduce the concept of language evaluation, based on the old teaching maxim “You should never ask your students to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself”. I gave each student the opportunity to ask me a question about myself in Korean, and I would (try) to respond in Korean. Given that we had just done interviews to determine levels, I felt that this was a good way to let them have a little revenge too.

Before the activity, you need to either give or elicit some useful sentences for giving advice to language learners, and also some things to listen for. These are some examples:

Giving Advice

” I would say X like this: Y”, “I didn’t understand  when you said X”, “X was the wrong pronunciation/grammar/word choice”, “I think you need to improve your X”.

Foci

1. Grammar, 2. Word choice, 3. Word order, 4. Pronunciation (sounds), 5. Intonation.

Then, simply give your students the chance to ask you one question each, listen to your L2 output, and then write and read out some sentences giving you advice on how to improve.

I tried this activity with three classes, one at level 1 (elementary) and two at level 2 (pre-intermediate). The first class was not really a success, for a number of reasons. Firstly, I tried to elicit some sentences from them, which was a struggle, but we did get things like “X was perfect” – this turned out to be a poor option to give them, as many of the students took it as a way out of having to say/do anything. I also didn’t ask for specifics, so I got a lot of answers like “I think you need to improve your pronunciation.” (“I know that – but HOW?”). I think that also, many students waited until the end of the activity to do their thinking, which meant that they couldn’t remember examples (this has happened to me as a teacher in the past too, even with notes!). What I ended up with was a lot of compliments about my Korean, and not a lot of awareness raised, or experience of giving constructive criticism.

The second class I worked on ironing out the problems from the first. This class seemed a bit more into it anyway. I decided that I would give them example sentences aimed at helping me to improve only, but gave them the option of creating their own.  I also demanded that any statements be backed up with examples, and that they take notes as soon as they heard anything wrong. The response was definitely better – we picked up a misused verb, some pronunciation problems and the fact that in Korean, time adverbials always come before adverbs of manner – at least two things that will help me. However, there were still a lot of blank faces and papers come the end of the class. What I think this shows is that as teachers we need to be aware of how little our learners know about the way language functions, and the possibilities for problems and successes to come about. I like the idea (put forward by Aaron Myers on The Everyday Language Learner, see point 3) that classes should often be language learning theory rather than language itself, especially in the internet age, and I think that increasingly that is where the role of the language teacher lies. It’s certainly a direction that I’m trying to push my classes in.

In the third class I had my first real breakthrough moment (I’d hoped for a lot more). One of the class pointed out that my intonation was wrong on a word. I asked him for an example and he gave me a rendering of the word as I had said it with an English stress pattern forced overtop, and then as it should be said with Korean stress on every syllable. He went on to say that he always heard foreigners talk like this, and he didn’t know why. This lead to a great teachable moment where we discussed the difference (briefly) between English and Korean stres patterns, and the fact that Korean learners have the opposite problem of stressing every syllable in English. At this point I had the attention of the whole class, and hopefully opened their eyes a little to the differing ways in which we speak. There were also some other great pieces of advice, like not taking too much care over my pronunciation of certain words, and just saying them.

Overall, I think I can count this lesson a moderate success, and I think it would work well with the right group. It does, however, require a monolingual and inquisitive group. Also, it requires a rather brave teacher – I am hideously shy about speaking Korean, and have only just stopped blushing now, about 3 hours after class.

Cheers,

Alex