Tag Archives: Listening

TBVGBTS: Listening in a second language class

This is another post in a series of posts stemming from my experience taking a Korean class at a university in Seoul. Other posts about the class, which might help with the background, are linked at the bottom of this post. This time I want to share some of my experiences with listening to recorded materials (ie. coursebook listening materials, not teacher talk or other students) as part of a wider discussion of the role of listening materials in the classroom.

The first thing to say is that listening to recorded materials requires an awful lot of attention, especially if the book that they are drawn from is pitched at a higher level than the students can comfortably handle, as ours was. As a teacher and a student, I believe that listening is by the far most difficult skill involved in language learning, but I think that impression may well partly come from the way we deal with listening in the classroom. Note that I’m deliberately avoiding saying “teaching” here, because this course went a long way to confirming what I’ve suspected for a while: that “teaching” listening is more or less impossible, and my experience of listening to recorded materials on this course might have helped me to understand a bit better why this is so.

The problem is that, if Skehan’s limited attention hypothesis is to be believed, we have a limited amount of brain power to devote to whatever we are doing.  If this happens to be listening to L2 speech above a level that we can comfortably understand, more or less all of our attention is going to be directed at trying to make sense of it. By way of illustration, at times during listening activities I found it helpful to close my eyes and listen; blocking out visual signals seemingly freed up a bit more processing power for decoding audial ones.

So how do we help students to process difficult listenings? The textbook way seems to be to use “listening strategies” (take a look on this page and see if you can find out what even one of the oft referred to “listening strategies” is), or “metacognitive strategies”. The problem for me is that even metacognitive strategies demand cognitive resources, and these, as we’ve seen above, aren’t readily available during difficult listenings. “Then the listening’s clearly too difficult,” I hear you chirp. Well, yes, but if it was easier then we wouldn’t need all these strategies in the first place – we’d just understand it.

I’d also suggest that pre- and post-listening tasks surely are a function more of the contextless nature of listening on English courses rather than anything you’d actually need to do in the real world. “Ah! Here is a picture of a goat in my textbook. I hence predict that I may hear information pertaining to horn configuration, or an anecdote about one of the greedy buggers eating the sleeve of a favourite jumper.” (Goodness, I should write a listening textbook – it’d be amazing!). In the non-textbook world this kind of schema activation is pretty much unnecessary because all of the context is already provided: if you’re listening to something in the real world, you most likely know what it is and what you expect to hear anyway. It’s only when you completely decontextualise a listening, as well as removing all of the visual support that the real world would offer, that you have to spend minutes of valuable class time getting students to reconstruct it before they listen (for a textbook writer’s point of view on this, see @pterolaur’s post here).

All of this ridiculousness might stem from two sources. Firstly, the need for coursebooks to provide listenings as part of a “four skills approach” or a “balanced curriculum”, or whatever.  Fair enough, I suppose, though I’d suggest that in a decently communicative class students will get a lot more useful audial input from fellow students and the teacher, especially with activities like live listenings, which might also be more efficient due to less contextualization, as well as not being contrived to sledgehammer home some arbitrary language point. Secondly, I think teachers feel a certain pressure to “teach”. You have to be seen to be doing something more than just pressing play and saying “listen to this and see if you understand it”. This leads to the kind of teaching that I experienced on the Korean course: teachers getting us to listen for how many points are made in a listening, when it’s pretty obvious even from prosodic cues like pausing and intonation where one point stops and another begins. This is not what I need to know from a listening; I need to know what the content of those points is, and that is a far more difficult proposition. I think it’s also worth saying that listening pieces vary so much in their structures (compared to writing) that, outside of very specific examples, it’s not really worth teaching structure either.

So what do I need from teachers as a second language listener? I see a lot of advice about getting listeners to accept less than 100% understanding. This seems fine, but teachers have to accept that below a certain percentage of words understood (and this will be high number, I’d say at least 80 and more likely above 90), all but the most rudimentary of listening for gist or very specific information activities will be extremely difficult. Furthermore, understanding below this level would more or less rule out any of the input becoming uptake, not that I think that listenings really provide much in this area anyway due to real-time processing making it near impossible to focus much on form.

What might be useful is if teachers could train students to listen in a different way to the L2 than they do in an L1. I’m in the realm of hypothesizing here, but listening to recorded materials reminded me of a really  interesting listening activity from my MA studies. It featured a man talking about a journey (in English), but only at the end did it become clear that he was recounting a time that he was ripped off by a taxi driver. The purpose of the activity was to show how when we listen we automatically construct and update mental representations and hypotheses based on what we are hearing as well as past experience. However, when listening in an L2, this process is fragile and subject to breaking down because there’s not enough understandable input, or because the listener suddenly encounters a word or run of words that are not understood, and so the updating becomes impossible, and the mental representation stalls or breaks down. The disorientation caused by a run of unknown sounds should not be underestimated, and so helping students to reorient themselves after losing the thread of understanding could be an important strategy for learners. It doesn’t, however, seem eminently teachable.

More sensible teaching approaches link clearly to features of pronunciation (Rachael Roberts has a great example in the video in this post) and I could possibly see a role for the learning of common lexical chunks or discourse markers in this vein too. One time I remember my understanding in Korean breaking down was when someone talked about an “angular chin”, a phrase I’d just been taught but hadn’t really internalized the pronunciation of yet, and I discovered this in a second playing of listening at slower speed.

The teachers’ approach to listening on my course seemed to be to play the listening at full speed once, look at our puzzled expressions, and then play it again at reduced speed, sometimes while translating it into more simple Korean for us. My jury is still out on the effectiveness of this because even though I understand much more when the listening is slowed down, I feel like it’s still too ephemeral for any kind of concious learning, though I do wonder if it might be used to develop a kind of listening fluency. What I would have liked, but never got time for, was some time after the listening to read a tapescript, look at the parts that I didn’t understand, and try to figure out why I didn’t understand them. This would have at least led to greater satisfaction, but perhaps few generalizable gains.

It’s difficult for me to see past massive amounts of audial input as the principal development driver for listening skills, and therefore this has been a bit of a depressing post to write, because I want to actively help my students to listen better. There are some interesting suggestions in John Field’s presentation here, though as outlined above I’m not totally sold on the idea that basing teaching on L1 listening strategies is entirely helpful. One example might be listening for the stressed words in an utterance (nuclear stress). It strikes me that there’s a lot of information contained in weak forms: I clearly remember a listening from the course that featured a man and a woman discussing their personality traits. I got all of the traits, but missed most of the pronouns, so had no idea who had which trait. This was all in Korean, which I don’t believe has such clearly marked nuclear stress (though I may be wrong), but it struck me that a lot of the information that I needed would possibly hidden in unstressed syllables and weak forms in native English. One real positive of Field’s presentation however is the recognition that any listening strategies or processes that we teach need to be repeated to the point where they become automatic, for reasons of limited cognitive resources given above.

Listening to Korean during the course has changed the way I think about listening in my classes as a teacher. I didn’t use textbook listenings that much before, but I might well think about banishing them entirely from the room and relying on my own voice, the students’ voices and anyone else that I can rope in to provide input. I’m hoping it might be sufficiently contextualized by what we are doing in class to to skip pre-listening tasks. Post-listening tasks might involve summarizing or analyzing a tapescript, but really, would it be so wrong just to sit students down and ask them to listen?

Links to to other posts about this Korean course


What I’m going to think about the next time I write an exam

Usually proctoring (or invigilating in UK English) written exams at my university is a somewhat trying experience. Trying because I sit at the front of the classroom for over an hour in silence  punctuated only by the frustrated sighing of my students. Looking out I see a sea of furrowed brows, scratched heads and, occasionally, expressions of total mental capitulation.  The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, students have quite often prioritized other studies (possibly including studying the effects of drinking and computer games on exam scores) over English and therefore aren’t especially well prepared for the exam. It’s important for me to recognize this as an examiner and to accept that I can’t write an exam that pleases everyone, especially those who don’t bother to prepare. However, the second reason for the atmosphere of general malaise in the exam room is that I am still far from a good writer of exams, and this is something that I would like to improve. This post will be a slightly self indulgent one (aren’t they all?) in which I have a look at what I did and what I can do better. I’m going to come back to this each time I write an exam to remind myself, and I’m putting it out there in case there’s anything to be learned from it for others.

Let’s start with the specifics. The worst question that I wrote on this exam (about a very common mistake) went like this:

Correct (수정) the underlined word in the sentence (1 point) and write it again on the line below using different language, but keeping the same meaning. (1 point)
3. I’m going on a date. I bought new shoes and jeans to look gentle.

This is fine as far as the first ‘(1 point)’, but then gets very confusing. So much so, in fact, that when grading the exam I misunderstood my own instructions and only marked the first part of the question and not the second. I was confused by students offering different versions of both of the word and sentence. There are two main problems here. The first is that the pronoun ‘it’ in the instructions could refer to either the word or the sentence, and here it’s more likely referring to the word. Largely this is just crap writing on my part, but it does also point to a wider issue that pronouns are an area of confusion for low level students and something that I should perhaps try to avoid in future.

The second problem here is that the instruction is not particularly clear anyway, especially if you’re reading the sentence on this blog. What I intended in writing the question was to challenge students to use a couple of other ways of expressing cause (“because I wanted to / so I would”), but without some form guidance it relies on students remembering the classroom context, and essentially turns the exam into a game of ‘guess what the teacher wants us to say’, which I would sincerely like my exams, and class in general, not to be. Next time I need to remember that it’s dangerous to rely on classroom context too much, and that anyone sitting down to take my exams should be able to supply the answers from a good knowledge of English.

While reflecting on this exam I wondered whether an example would have helped, but there was only one question of this type on the exam. It’s also very difficult to exemplify something like this without giving the answer away. However, I could have easily supplied a hint in the form of “because” and/or “so” as a prompt.

This is a general pattern in my exam writing. My question prompts tend to be too open, and this probably confuses students and also makes grading more difficult. Take these two examples:

Think of a movie that you saw recently. Write a sentence about parts of the movie. You must use some of the language that we used in class in each sentence.

Respond to these questions and give some helpful extra information.

Again, these are really hard to interpret without classroom context. What’s worse, in the first part, is that it doesn’t even call for successful or interesting use of the loosely defined “language we used in class”, but simply that it be used. This leads to answers like “his facial emotion is emotional”, which I feel like from the instructions deserves at least partial credit as we talked about emotional as a way to describe acting. The second instruction is a little bit better, but still requires much more clarity. What I wanted students to do was answer a yes/no question and supply a little bit more information in order to help the conversation to progress. Again this led to some strange answers that were difficult to grade. I also mixed some questions that followed on from each other with others that didn’t without really specifying which was which, and based following questions on expected answers to previous questions, answers which students didn’t give in some cases, making it impossible to answer the next question. On reflection the whole thing would have been much better set as a discourse completion task – something which would suit the conversation based nature of the class much better anyway.

These problems are symptomatic of a tension between language work and communication work that I often feel both in class and when writing exams. Largely my class is a conversation based one, with the emphasis on just saying something rather than saying something ‘correctly’. Prompts like the two under discussion here are an attempt to mirror that in an exam, but then they have to graded as such, and it’s difficult to know where to draw the line in terms of understanding or interest. Something which might go over fine between two students in conversation can look pretty senseless written down.

Basically, these prompts are me getting caught between assessing communication and assessing language (though I’d accept that there may not be a clear space between them in which to get caught). I either have to go one way or the other into a more open writing prompt with a rubric, or to more language based assessment; I can see plenty of good reasons not to do either. Asking my students to write extendedly in an exam seems unfair if we don’t do any writing in class*. On the other hand, a totally language knowledge based exam doesn’t seem to be in the spirit of the class, might require spending more time in class looking at language, and would probably be even more difficult than this exam was, as a lot of the marks that the students did get came from open prompts.

This I think is the last thing I want to talk about here, which is difficulty and grading. As I mentioned above, this exam was difficult for the students, as the two histograms below hint at.

Exam Result Histograms

On the diagram above, 5 refers to students scoring between 0 and 5 out of a maximum of 50. Bearing in mind that I work on around 90% being an A, and somewhere in the low 80%’s being a B, this exam left nobody getting an A and only 4 of 40 students getting a B. Honestly this is probably a-whole-nother blog post in itself, but clearly something is wrong here. Either the students are not learning what I think they are, or I am not giving them enough time in class to learn the stuff that I think is important, or they’re not learning full stop. When setting exams I’m definitely drawn to learning, and I hate setting questions about things that students should already know, but maybe that’s necessary to move the distribution up a bit. However I need to consider the kind of effect that it might have on students – will these marks give them a bit of a kick up the arse, or will they shatter the confidence that I had done pretty well at building up over the semester? Perhaps it might be a good time to collect some feedback?

I think I’ve got almost as far as I’m going to get with this post, but I’d welcome any thoughts anyone has on this, as I feel like I’ve made a little progress here, but there’s still some way to go. As a final bonus, here’s some other things that I need to think about next time:

  • Using the British “maths” leads to all sorts of subject-verb agreement horrors.
  • Be careful when using “repeat” if I really mean “rephrase”.
  • How important is spelling? Is “claims” an acceptable attempt at “clams” if I tend to de-emphasise the importance of spelling. How about “cramps”?
  • How can I make listening questions more difficult. Could I think about speaking faster or using a different accent?



* Although if the rubric assessed students in a similar way to our classwork (eg. content, understandability, interest) I guess it wouldn’t be so bad.

Ambitions: A Lesson Plan/Review (Part 2)

“I never use doors no mores. I never use stairs, just trees.”

This is the second part of my lesson plan to help students come up with, develop plans for, and talk about their ambitions. I wrote about the first half of the plan here, which looked at an expert speaker performing the task* and then asked students to break down both his language and thinking about ambitions, and begin to think about their own. This lesson looks at developing those ideas further into real plans.

Questions for planning

We had a lot to get through, so we started without warmer, and got straight down to reminding ourselves about what Samir from Sweden had said yesterday about his ambitions (giving the students a fourth exposure to the listening). Together we made a brief list of his six ambitions on the board, and then worked on some questions to help Samir achieve his plan to travel the world (“Where do you want to go?”, “How will you afford it?”). This was done with a bit of prompting from me (it may help to write question words on the board at this stage). Once we had four or five good questions on the board to serve as models, I divided the class into 5 groups to work on questions to help Samir develop his other ambitions.

Once this was completed I played the role of Samir and had the groups ask their questions. This was done with a fairly loose instruction to students to note down any language that I used that they thought might be useful for them. It strikes me here that to reinforce this, I could get students to rehearse what I’d said to each other in order to try to fix the language a little more, but I didn’t actually do this in the lesson.

The final stage of the lesson was the one where I cast the students loose and let them try to develop each other’s ambitions. Students found someone that they wanted to talk to, and they told each other their  ambitions from the other lesson. The other party then tried to ask questions in order to help that person develop a clear plan for achieving that ambition. After each ambition we changed partners in order to get some different ideas and listen to some different voices and communication styles.

After this, I wanted (well actually I didn’t want, I had) to assess students. I did this through a Kakao Talk speaking assignment (hat-tip @languagebubble). Students had to record a one minute voice note detailing two ambitions, and another talking about their plans to achieve them. This being a vaguely task-based assignment, the focus of the assessment was on how realistic and detailed the ambition and how practical the plans to achieve them.

In the end I didn’t have time to do the reflective part of the lesson, but I would very much like to have done. I think that the tendency of my learners is to do the tasks using whatever language that they have, and not to push themselves to learn anything new. Thus, I hoped to tie back in to the future language by asking learners to write a short piece detailing whether they had used the future forms, and if not, why not? As I said, we didn’t have time to do this, and I feel it may be slightly unfair to ask students to wrote this kind of thing in English. However, I am really interested in self-assessment and would like to know more about how it could be incorporated in class if anyone out there is into it.

And that is the end of my ambitions lesson. I hope you enjoyed it, and if you think it might be doable in your classroom please feel free to use it. If you do, I’d love to hear about how it went, and if there are any improvements you made. I’m sure many are necessary!



* The reference to tasks here is deliberate. While this lesson is not strictly task-based, it is at least inspired by my readings about task-based learning.

Ambitions: A Lesson Plan/Review (Part 1)


This being a family blog, you”ll have to imagine a youtube vide embedded above around the theme of “naked ambition”.

I started this blog as a space to share the lesson plans that I was making for my high school classes. Since moving to university I’ve stopped making (shareable) lesson plans as the course is taught from a book. However, having got a bit frustrated with the materials on offer over the past few weeks, I felt like having a go myself again. The following lesson plan was what I came up with – please excuse any rough edges – I’m a bit out of practice.

The previous lesson we’d done some quite heavily language focused work on “going to…”, “hope to…”, “maybe…” and definite and indefinite times for plans. The problem with the book (I feel), is that it doesn’t give sufficient practice opportunities, especially for students whose productive skills are much lower than their receptive ones. I also think that many coursebooks have a tendency to just throw in a listening or reading, but then do nothing with the text except check comprehension. Seems like a wasted opportunity to me. Also, the final activity in the previous lesson was to talk about ambitions. This fell completely flat not because the students lacked the language, but because they lacked ambitions! Direct action was needed!


Some people aren’t the biggest fans, and I don’t always use them, but a class just after dinner time needs to move about a bit I feel, otherwise they all try to go to sleep. We started the lesson with a quick guessing game – make two plans, one certain and one uncertain, and write the times that you will do them ONLY on a piece of paper (ie. you will have “in 2 hours” and “sooner or later” written down). Students then mingle and have to guess each other’s plans. Encourage them to use “Are you going to…” and “Do you plan to…”.


I took the listening material from ELLLO.org. A quick search for ambitions turned up Samir from Sweden talking about some of his life goals. This turned out to be a really good text to use, because it has a nice easy to follow structure, and Samir’s speech is not too complex or quick, but his (slight) Swedish accent provides an interesting extra problem. It’s also not too rehearsed, which means that there are some false starts in there, and it doesn’t conform strictly to the rules of written grammar.

I confess to not having much of an activation stage. I just told the students they were going to hear a young guy from Sweden talking about his ambitions. I guess that we could have done some predicting here, but we didn’t, and I don’t think it made a whole lot of difference. Anyway, the first task was simple. Listen to the recording, and write down his six ambitions, then share and compare with your partner. I largely stayed out of discussions at this point, unless specifically asked to help. Students largely got most of the ambitions anyway.

I’m a big believer in multiple listenings (actually I think doing many things multiple times is a good idea), and so I set a second task, which was to listen again, and this time make notes in more detail about 3 of the ambitions, and then try to tell your partner about them using language as close to the original as possible. Sort of like a dictogloss but no quite so accuracy focused. I then threw in one further listening with the tapescript, and asked students to reflect on where their retellings had differed with their partner. At this stage I patrolled a bit more threateningly (not really) to try and pick out any misunderstandings as teaching points. The major problem seemed to be ‘exotic’, so we did some board work about what countries might be exotic (consensus, hot and weird ones!).

Tapescript for Ambitions Lesson

Thinking and Speaking

I then wanted students to do a bit more thinking, so in pairs I had them discuss what kind of categories we might be able to place the ambitions in. We worked through the first ambition together as an example (everyone was pretty unanimous on “travel”) and then they set out to categorize the others. You may need to encourage students to be specific, one group of mine had a few too many wafty categories like “experience” and “leisure”. However, the same group, with a little prompting, came up with “self-improvement” which I thought was pretty cool. I then asked them to think individually about what categories of ambition were most important to them, and rank them from most to least.

Then, of course, it was time to actually come up with ambitions in the most important categories. As a bit extra speaking practice, I had students write the top four categories on a sheet of paper, and then mingle again. When they met someone they wanted to talk to, they would ask the student about each ambition, and write down what they said on that student’s sheet.

This took us about an hour and fifteen minutes to do, and seemed to go pretty well. The students did a lot of speaking, seemed to be fairly interested and looked at a text in depth. There was also a nice diversion about native and non-native speech, and whether something Samir said was grammatically correct (answer, no it isn’t written grammar, but it is something I say all the time). There is a part two to this lesson, coming soon, in which we develop the ideas a little and conduct a final speaking assessment. Until then, if you have any comments, suggestions, questions or that sort of stuff, leave me a note below.



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.


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!


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)



Egg on my face

egg faced monster

egg faced monster by Wilheln on Flickr

I’d been on a pretty good run of lessons recently. My incursions into the blogosphere this year have provided some excellent techniques and lessons, and my reflective work on this blog has crystallised some of my vague notions of how my students work best. I’m also learning a lot from the teaching module of my MA studies. All of this has combined pretty well so far, and I’m feeling like I’m accruing a fairly substantial body of knowledge. Nothing like a  good dose of reality to keep me modest then, which is just what this week’s Easter themed lesson provided.

This lesson drew on a few things that I’ve read recently. It incorporated a live-listening activity, in which the students had a chance to interact with me during the listening piece and so more accurately mirrored a real conversation. It also took the ‘pyramid’ approach of starting with individual work, and working up to pairs and then small groups as inspired by The Speaking Cyclist. Finally it intended to put the students in the position of having something to tell me that I didn’t already know, with the idea that this would provide a greater reason to communicate with me.

The lesson plan was fairly simple. We’d watch this video clip:

and answer some “Where?” “When?” “Why?” “What?” questions, which should lead us to thinking about Easter. We’d then do the live-listening, with me talking about Easter in England while the students took notes individually. They would then get into pairs to discuss their notes in English only (the first time I have tried this) before forming a larger group to create a speech comparing Easter in the two countries. I even had Cadbury’s Creme Eggs for the winners. Simple, effective, and a complete and utter failure. So what went wrong?

Engagement & Motivation

Every time I ran this lesson I struggled to get students involved. Almost no-one did the note-taking, and there was very little interaction during the live-listening from almost every class. A bit of informal feedback from the early classes was that they didn’t really understand what the final goal was, and so couldn’t see the point. Valid criticism, and I resolved it for the rest of the classes by clearly outlining the task before the live-listening stage. As well as this my most important and fundamental mistake was in choosing the material. I assumed that Easter was similar in Korea in terms of importance (to religious and non-religious alike), when here it is just a religious festival observed solely by Christians. Thus my students didn’t really know what they were talking about, which didn’t help matters. I also think that introducing the live-listening activity cold didn’t help, and some form of “learner training” might be necessary in order to ease students into the concept that they can interrupt/interact when a teacher is talking, which goes against cultural norms here. Finally, the level of difficulty involved in this was too high for some of my students, meaning they lost heart pretty quickly.


The fact that I have my first run of a high school lesson with my most difficult class is not a great way to start a Monday, and my worst fears about pair work (and the reason why I usually avoid it) were realised. With a class of 25, as soon as I move to monitor and help one side of the class, the other side stops working and this spreads. I ended up losing control completely of this class, and never completely regaining it for the rest of the lesson, resulting in several groups having a speech consisting of just one or two lines. I like to view classroom control in terms of critical mass: if you have enough students pulling in the right direction, all will more or less follow. If the critical mass swings too far the other way then you lose almost everyone. I think that pair work in my situation provides too much opportunity to get off-task.

The other big problem here was that I forgot we were in the run up to school exams, which means that students are even less focused than usual on my classes (or anything that isn’t cramming their brains full of facts). Usually I try to do something a bit more lighthearted at these times, but I got carried away in  my enthusiasm to try this lesson.

Doing activities in English only

One thing that did go well during this lesson was the insistence that my students work only in English in parts. Most groups at least had a go, and while there wasn’t a great deal of genuine communication between group members, the communication with me was definitely useful. Once again, this was probably above level for quite a few, but I’d like to have a go at something more simple next time, and I think it would go well.

A couple of tips for putting your class in “only-English” mode that I found worked very well. First, give them an “air-lock” period (I used 30 seconds) in which they can quickly check the meaning of the instructions and say anything else they want to in Korean. The second is provide some motivation: I gave each student a post it that could be exchanged for a Skittle at the end of the lesson, or removed if they do lapse in Korean. Finally, the instruction should probably be “English only” rather than “No Korean”, or some of your students will simply switch into Japanese.

In conclusion this was a pretty depressing week, with the class largely failing to get involved and not really enjoying the class. However, there were some positives to come out of it, and some surprisingly good speeches from students who don’t ordinarily contribute too much. Also, some of the process (as opposed to the product) was good, particularly with groups who didn’t take any notes during the lesson, and then had to spend a while asking me questions in order to catch up.  I think the basis for a good lesson is here, but needs some more interesting content. I’m going to leave it for next week though, and do something a bit more fun for my poor kids.


What’s up with chew?

I’m a big fan of dictation. As an exercise it’s not exactly the most exciting, nor is it communicative, but it does have useful outcomes:

  • Forces listeners to concentrate on everything they hear in a text, not just the parts that they understand.
  • Fixes the spoken language on the page for further analysis.
  • Makes listeners think hard about the structure of what they hear.

The last point is I think the most important. For me the real use of dictation is getting the students to fit what they hear into patterns that they are already aware of. Doing it this way is like focus on form in reverse. Instead of starting from one form and using it to create others, dictation takes the created forms and asks the listener to consciously match them to forms they already know. Every time I do dictation I tell my kids that it’s more of a thinking exercise than a listening one.

I usually use video clips for dictation. As a high school teacher, half the battle is keeping my classes interested. If I’m going to do dictation, it has to be from something amusing or interesting. The other reason is that it also provides visual clues, which is a more accurate representation of communication in the real world. How often really are we forced to listen without any visual hints to help us?

I used a dictation exercise in my Alternative Greetings lesson to help students to figure out that “what’s up” can mean “what are you doing?” I used the video and prompt sheets below. In general, the exercise was pretty well done. Some groups had problems with “nothing” and “just” but they are difficult and rather idiomatic uses, so I didn’t worry too much. What really gave all my students problems was the response, “what’s up with you?” Almost no groups got it, despite lots of prompting, role-playing and knowing that it was a three-letter word. Most just left the space blank, but the problem was highlighted when one groups (on the easy level) gave the answer “what’s up with chew?”


Wazzup (Alternative Greetings Presentation) Easy Level

Wazzup (Alternative Greetings Presentation)

Listening again, I realised that is more or less what is pronounced (actually, it’s more like “supwitchew”). This group was transcribing simply what they heard, paying little heed to the fact that it doesn’t make sense linguistically or contextually. This exercise showed us that what we hear from native speaker pronunciation is far from what we expect. I realise this every time I ask a Korean student’s name, and fail to repeat it correctly. Once it’s written down I find it very easy to pronounce from the characters, but the received pronunciation is very different to that in my own mind, meaning I frequently repeat J sounds as S’s, and often completely miss the final consonant of a sound. 

I asked the group in question whether they thought their answer made sense. They said no, so I asked them not to listen, and just to think. After a short while, with a bit more prompting, we got the answer. It led me to wonder whether I was being unfair on my students. How should we go about transcribing speech in ELT materials? Is it fair to ask my students to write words which don’t sound as they are written? My view is that I did right by transcribing the phrase as “What’s up with you?” It forced them to think, and think logically about what they had heard. I’d hope they learned a little about the structure of discourse, and a valuable lesson that English is not always as it sounds.