Tag Archives: Speaking

What do my students think about English?

This is a very quick post to explore some answers to a survey that I gave my students in the first week of classes this semester. It might also link nicely to the recent #keltchat, “Just who are my students anyway?

I asked my students to complete the sentences below using a Google form. 52 of them submitted answers.

  1. In the past, learning English made me feel…  because
  2. In the future, I would like to use English to…
  3. Things I do well in English are…
  4. In this class, I want to work on the following abilities:
  5. The following activities will be useful for developing my English:

Here follows a very rough analysis of the results.

1. In the past, learning English made me feel…  because

Generally positive answers: 16.

Typical statements: Lots of talk here about learning new things and enjoying learning languages. Also contact with “foreigners” and English speaking culture, mostly movies and music. A couple of students talking about how being good at English made them feel proud.

My thoughts: Nice to see that enjoying languages hasn’t been totally beaten out of them by the school system, but not a whole lot of surprise here, and about the number of positive responses that I would have expected.

Answers about feeling shy or scared: 8.

Typical statements: Two main factors here – pressure of getting good grades, and not being good at English. One poor student got railroaded into a fairytale narration competition by their elementary school teacher and clearly still resents it. I don’t blame them.

My thoughts: Perhaps a lower number than I’d expect, and surprisingly no mention of fear of talking to foreigners.

Negative reactions (anger, frustration): 15.

Typical statements: Lots of talk about memorization here, presumably of the never-ending-vocab list kind. Also lots of mentions of the complexity of English (a four-dimensional language according to one respondent).

My thoughts: I wonder if anyone ever gives any of these kids any support in memorizing words, or techniques to help them memorize them?

Apathetic reactions (boredom, tiredness): 13.

Typical statements: Boredom seems mostly to come from students not understanding. Only one mention of boring teaching.

My thoughts: I don’t blame you at all, and a good message to me not to talk too much or at too high a level.

 

2. In the future, I would like to use English to…

First answers*

  • Talk with foreigners or people from other countries**: 24
  • Travel: 10
  • Work: 10
  • Cultural things (reading, watching movies): 5
  • Teaching others: 2
  • Studying: 1

My thoughts: Very interesting that answers are predominantly about social and leisure activities rather than more self developmental pursuits (studying and working). This would seem to indicate that my students have a good deal of curiosity about the world and its people, which is really healthy. However, I wonder what effect my presence has on these answers, and whether they would be the same with a Korean teacher. It might also be interesting that testing and test scores never make an appearance.

* Some students gave more than one answer, but I took the first as being the most important and only included that.

** Very few students specified “native English speakers” or “Americans” here.

 

3. Things I do well in English are…

First answers

  • Listening: 14
  • Reading: 12
  • Speaking: 9
  • Writing: 6
  • Nothing: 2
  • Others (vocab, interest, presentation): 9

My thoughts: Once again my students are confounding my expectations. I would neither have expected listening to outrank reading, nor speaking to score so highly. The students who said speaking tended to say they enjoyed conversation with foreigners (and had had some experience of it), and also that they were not very worried about grammar or accuracy when they were speaking. I would guess that this doesn’t fit most people’s profile of a typical Korean student. I wonder what this means, if anything, for my classes. Another thing that I wonder here is whether these answers would be the same had I surveyed the first groups I taught three years ago.

 

4. In this class, I want to work on the following abilities:

First answers

  • Speaking: 27 (plus 2 for “communication” and 1 for “pronunciation” which might take it to 30) .
  • Writing: 4
  • Listening: 4
  • Confidence: 4
  • Presentation skills: 4
  • Grammar: 3
  • Reading: 1
  • Vocabulary: 1
  • Weak points and error correction: 1

My thoughts: Not a huge amount of surprise here. I think almost all students recognise that their speaking skills may lag behind others as a result of well documented problems with Korea’s English education and its focus on (obsession with?) receptive skills and formal knowledge. This gives me a lot of confidence that a strong focus on speaking is both necessary and wanted in class, and I feel that the desire to speak is there if tapped in the right way. I’m coming to this data a few weeks into the course and I would say that it’s well reflected in the students’ participation so far.

 

5. The following activities will be useful for developing my English:

First answers

  • Speaking / Conversation: 29
  • Watching videos: 7
  • Listening: 2
  • Games: 2
  • Other*: 12

My thoughts: Again, not surprising but a very positive base for making my classes strongly conversation driven. More interesting is the popularity of video. The cynical part of me wonders if this is students making a play for some nice easy movie watching time in class. The more positive part sees students wanting to connect with culture and authentic materials. I’d be quite interested in some kind of extensive watching program, but sadly I don’t have the time in class to make it work. I’m also heartened by only two students saying “Games”. I sometimes wonder if students get conditioned to games as almost the only way to learn English by their school and hagwon experiences where games are an excellent way to encourage participation**, but this is clearly not the case. I’m pretty anti-games in my current context, so it’s good to know that I’m not crushing student expectations!

* Quite a lot of students seemed not to understand this question.

** I’m not suggesting here that games are a bad thing, or that teachers shouldn’t use them. I have certainly made extensive use of games in other contexts, and believe they can be extremely effective tools for learning. 

Final thoughts

Overall this was quite an interesting experience, especially the questions about students’ ambitions and views of what they do well. I think if anything it shows that freshmen university students may well have had a high degree of contact with English outside of the school system, and in fact do view it as a practical language for social and leisure purposes, rather than just something to study to pass an endless slog of tests. This is an assumption that I am very much guilty of. I’m not quite sure what effect all of this will have on my class yet, but I’ll try to come back to this post before next semester and try to view my next intake of students with fresh eyes.

TBVGBTS: Presentations for learning

I recently took a three week intensive Korean course at a university in Seoul. As part of the class, I had to make two presentations in Korean: a five minute presentation in which I introduced and described a Korean person I had met, and a fifteen minute presentation on some aspect of Korea that I had researched. Both presentations counted towards my overall speaking grade on the course. The English course that I teach each semester also asks students to make two assessed presentations of 3 and 5 minutes, so in this post I want to explore my own foreign language presenting experience and the insights into teaching that I gained from it.

What use are presentations?

The impression that I get from my students is that while they don’t look forward to or enjoy presentations, they do see them as a useful and valid task for assessing and improving their English. My view as a teacher is that presentation skills (in any language) are generally pretty important in life, but that as a language learning tool they may be of less use to my students, who I see as needing much more practice in the extemporaneous speaking department. As a student, I was less than thrilled to see them on the syllabus because a) I was terrified and b) presentations seem to require an inordinate amount of work on a course where the workload was already fairly high. However, I certainly gained several things from my presenting experience.

Firstly, one of the things that I don’t pay a great deal of attention to when teaching presentations is the need to use an appropriate register. Teaching time is short; English register is relatively elusive. In Korean, things are a little clearer: presentations are given using the highest deferential verb endings, and so it is much easier to move your your speech to a very formal register.  This was the one piece of advice we were given pre-presentation, and the presentation was the first time I have ever needed to use that register in a serious way, which was excellent practice.

For the longer presentation, I actually tried to give a proper research presentation, so I created a quick survey comparing Korean and non-Korean beliefs about non-Koreans’ lives in Korea and tried to analyse the results. This was a really useful experience because I could foresee a point in the future where I might have to do this for real. This might be something to think about for my own teaching, where the presentation tasks are much less “real-life” – although how I could make them more so remains a bit of a mystery at present. One reason for making things as realistic as possible is that I felt like I retained phrases like “qualitative analysis”, “objective viewpoint” and “on the other hand” fairly well without having to work very hard on memorizing them specifically.

Planning and preparing

It seems fairly well documented in research into TBLT that pre-task planning time often leads to gains in accuracy, complexity and fluency during the task. This is something that I generally try to leverage during classroom activities, though usually in the form of thinking rather than planning time. Both presentations during the course required me to write and submit a script for correction (no mean feat for a fifteen minute presentation!), and it struck me that this is essentially planning time for an oral task taken to the extreme.

Planning in this way has both advantages and disadvantages. Writing a script definitely increases the complexity of my sentences as well as giving me the chance to think about what “feels” more Korean, rather than just saying the first thing that comes to mind to get my point across. It also gave a useful space for experimenting with and incorporating some of the structures that we had come across that were more suitable for formal contexts. All good so far then, but all of the above then introduce the very real possibility of planning a speech that is much more complex than you’re really capable of memorising or delivering with any fluency. The other surprising aspect that struck me was that having written a script, there suddenly occurred a very pressing need to stick to the bloody thing! This generally doesn’t happen to me when presenting in English, where I’m quite happy to dive away from what I had prepared, but in Korean led to the creation of note cards so detailed that they may as well have been a script. I’m honestly not sure how this affected my overall presentation, but it leaves me pondering things for my own teaching.

I tend to go back and forward between recommending scripting and not scripting for my students. Half of me thinks that creating a presentation from speaking with just notes to guide to gives you a better chance of natural delivery and remembering what to say. On the other hand, I feel like writing a script might benefit clarity and complexity. In the future I’m tempted to outline both approaches and let students decide as to a large extent I think it’s going to depend on what makes you feel more confident as a presenter and what you want out of the presentation.

Affective factors

I referred to confidence (or lack of it) above, and this is just one of a whole range of affective factors involved in presenting. Of my first language presenting experiences, I’d say, to paraphrase a quote of dubious origin, that I prefer having presented to presenting, but in a second language the face-threatening pitfalls are more numerous: memory blanks, worrying about extemporizing and the lack of strategies to talk your way out of problems being the worst of these. Interestingly, the prospect of making grammatical mistakes is among the least of my worries. In other words, it’s the lack of control of potentially embarrassing situations that bothers me, rather than any linguistic deficiency.

Another interesting affective factor was the strange sense of security that using a more formal register of Korean gave me. I have two theories as to why this might be so. Firstly, it may be seeking the approval of the audience (well, the teacher at least): I know I am getting roughly the right register if I am adding the right verb endings, and at the very least I am seen to be making an effort to respect the sociocultural values of the classroom and the target language. Again, I have some control over how I present myself, which makes me feel better. The second theory is that formality breeds distance; we are more polite with strangers than we are with friends, and I wonder if it is the distancing aspect of using a formal register that helps me to feel kind of detached and professional. I certainly find myself channelling every suited and booted, clicker wielding speaker I’ve ever seen give a straight-laced and uptight speech in Korean when giving my presentation.

Again, it might be helpful at this point to try to bring this back to my classroom, and how I can help students feel more confident. Clearly, if I feel the pressure of register given my limited contact with Korean, my L1 Korean students are likely to feel it all the more. Incidentally, I have had students ask me on more than one occasion how to use the equivalent of Korean high speech in English. I tend to fudge an answer, but the simple thing to do here when teaching presentation skills might be to point out that English has no solidly defined higher register, and that presentations are often given in a much more colloquial style anyway. It could be worth looking at general tendencies such as pronouncing every word (“going to”, not “gonna”), and also key phrases with politeness embedded (“Please take a look at…”).

Nonetheless, from my presenting experience, the best way to tackle teaching register might simply be through a process of trial and error. My second presentation went way over time, and I had to run through the final few slides completely off script. This required the use of quite a few communication strategies to buy some thinking time and signal that I was summarizing, one of which was (over)using the Korean word 그냥 (Geunyang, “Just”). The feedback afterwards was that this was where I’d departed from the formal register. The lesson here perhaps is it’s very difficult to predict what elements of a complex performance might come off as in the wrong register until you see an actual performance. The key thing here is to make sure that the feedback comes as part of the process, not at the end. It really annoyed me that I used a lot of lower register connectors ((이)랑, Korean fans) rather than higher (와,과). I had no idea, and to my further frustration a classmate confessed that she had incorporated that feedback into her presentation directly after mine (“That’s my feedback! You can’t use it!”).

Conclusion

All in all my presenting experience was considerably less terrifying than I thought it would be. It helped that I was familiar with the audience and the surroundings, and that I got to present twice (the second time was much better). In terms of what I learned in terms of teaching, I would aim for more options of how to prepare (though reading should still be heavily penalized), as well as a good practice stage with useful feedback. I should also try to ease student concerns about register as well as teaching a few more stock phrases, and perhaps some strategies for what to do if it all goes wrong. Presenting in a second language is rarely going to be easy, but this way it could be a bit less stressful for everyone.

10 presentation tips for students in the form of a letter

Dear students,

I am writing this letter after watching last semester’s students do their presentations. Overall, I was quite disappointed with their presentations. You are reading this because I don’t want you to make the same mistakes. Paying attention to this letter should lead to a  higher grade for you, so please take a minute to read it.

Your predecessors (last semester’s students) made one big mistake. They did not read the scoring system, or the presentation rules. The scoring system and the rules help me to give you a grade, but they also help you to do a good presentation. However, many students ignored the rules and the system, did poor presentations, and so got low scores.

As a teacher, I feel responsible for this. Maybe I didn’t explain clearly why the scoring system is like that, so I will do it here. My beliefs about presentations are:

  • YOU are the most important part of your presentation. We want to know what YOU know; what YOU feel; what YOU think. The best presentations this year were things that people were passionate about or were very personal. We also want to hear YOUR ENGLISH.
  • THE AUDIENCE is very important too. They want to learn something from you, and be entertained or interested by you. Also, they want you to communicate with them.
  • Your presentation needs presentation skills that you can use again and again at university and in your career. Almost everyone will have to present something at some time. These skills are very important, and very different from normal speaking. If you don’t learn these skills, you will find this presentation difficult, and many other things difficult.

Based on these thoughts, here are some practical tips for you:

  1. Choose a topic that is personal to you. It can be a personal story, an interest or a theory. Also, think about if the audience will be interested. Don’t just look up something on the internet that you don’t know and don’t really care about.
  2. Structure your presentation carefully. Think about an introduction, a conclusion and two or three key points. If you try to do more than this, your presentation will not have enough detail.
  3. When you design your slides, the information on them should add to what you are saying. Instead of writing your three key points on a slide, find pictures to represent them. If you have difficult words or numbers, you should write these on your slides to help the audience understand.
  4. DON’T WRITE A SPEECH! Presenting is not the same as reading. Speaking and writing are quite different.  Also, memorizing your speech is very difficult. If you write a five minute speech, and try to memorize it, it will take you at least two hours. In that time, you could just practice explaining twenty times! If you do this, your presentation could be twenty times better!
  5. Ideally, you should not look at your notes during your presentation. They are there to help you if you forget. Your notes should be key points, words and one or two sentences only. You should never read more than one sentence from them.
  6. Your English does NOT have to be perfect. Your English does NOT have to be very complicated. Your English HAS to be understandable. This means that you should not look up too many words in a dictionary, or copy writing from the internet. It also means that you should check your pronunciation of difficult words carefully (especially if they are in the title). It also means that you should speak slowly and simply, and check that the audience is understanding.
  7. There should be NO KOREAN in your presentation. The challenge here is to make yourself understood in English, with help from pictures and gestures. You should imagine that your audience is from Thailand, and cannot speak Korean or read Hangeul.
  8. Keep to the time limit. You should practice your presentation before and check that it lasts five minutes. During the presentation, don’t be afraid to cut things so that you finish in time. Have something extra planned in case you finish early too.
  9. Presenting is about communicating with your audience. Look at them, smile at them, talk to them, check that they understand. Ask them questions. Tell them a joke. Surprise or shock them. There are many ways to keep them interested. Keep them in your mind at all times during planning and presenting.
  10. Lastly, and most importantly, PRACTICE. Presenting is about standing up, speaking loudly and slowly, changing slides, and talking to people. So, you should practice like this. Imagine you are really presenting. Go home and present to your parents, grandparents or your younger brother. Presenting always feels strange the first time, and then less strange each time after.  It’s better to feel strange in front of them than your teacher, your friends and the girl/boy you are secretly in love with.

Finally, let me share some of this semester’s best presentations. Notice that most of them are very personal.

  • The rules of basketball
  • Working in an Izakaya
  • Dates I would like to go on
  • UFO sightings
  • Unknown webtoons
  • My first love story
  • The end of Inception
  • Three restaurant special events
  • Three ways to measure your height

Thank you for reading, and best of luck with your presentations.

Alex

 

TBV’s Notes

As you can see from the letter, I wrote this as a way to turn what was a reasonably negative and frustrating experience into what will, I hope, be a more positive one next time. This is also a way to spread information to students in one useful lump, rather than feeding it in piecemeal as I did this time. In general, this project was very rushed and I think that next time this will help me to think about what is important, and the things that I need to do in order to structure the project better and give students the best chance of success. What I would like to do next time is do the practice in class if possible, and get students to develop their presentation from a fairly casual explanation to a friend, into something more formal in small groups and finally into an actual presentation.

Looking back over the tips, the “NO KOREAN” sticks out. I feel like I should (defensively) mention that in general I am fairly pro-L1 in class in the right context, but I also think that students tend to use it as a crutch when things get difficult in English.

I am undecided whether to actually give this letter to students next semester, but I’m leaning towards it. It is, at least, a useful reminder for me of what to concentrate on next time. Feel free to share it with your students, and do let me know if there’s anything that you’d change or add.

Cheers,

Alex

PS I feel like I have lifted this posting style quite shamelessly from Mr. Michael Griffin. You can check out his blog here.

 

Reflecting on my speaking exams

This is the third and final part of my short series reflecting on my mid-term exams. Timely too, seeing as I’m writing the final exams this week. If you’re interested, you can read about my reflections on my written exams here, and the feedback I collected on my exams here. In general I’m much happier with my skills as a speaking examiner, but in the student feedback that I collected there was still room for improvement. This post takes a bit of an experiential direction, beginning by looking at what I do, then what I think/thought about it, and finishing my trying to make some changes for this round of exams.

What did I do last time?

I’m going to deal with this in two parts, my method and my scoring system. In fact, I’m mostly concentrating on the scoring system, as it seems the most appropriate tool for helping generate the performances that I would like from my students. Nevertheless, I’ll start with my method.

My mid-term speaking exams were 20 minute conversations between groups of four people. These groups were randomly selected a few days before the exam. Students could choose any or all of the four topics that we had studied in the half semester, and could prepare what they wanted to say, although they were discouraged from memorizing long passages of text.    

You can read my full scoring system on the second page of the document below. The language used is necessarily simplistic in order that students can understand it, but this is perhaps a problem when it comes to judging fine-grained differences in performance.

Midterm – Speaking Exam (Level 2.2)

My scoring system scores students on five traits, each scored from one to five (yes, students get a full 20% just for showing up). A score of three represents a pass in each trait. Half marks are possible. The five traits are as follows:

  • Difficulty & Interest
  • Participation
  • Fluency
  • Understanding
  • Effort.

Difficulty and interest requires the student to use more complex language and to talk about interesting things within the topic. Participation asks the student to play a full role in the conversation. Fluency requires them to speak at a comfortable speed, with no big hesitations. Understanding is that of the teacher, but more importantly their peers too. Effort is my attempt to motivate students of both higher and lower ability coming in to the course, by challenging them to exceed my expectations. 

What do/did I think about it?

The slash in the title above refers to the fact that I scribbled down a few reflections during my speaking exams last time. Other insights are coming from thinking about the exams as I write this. My method, I think, is fairly suitable. It gives enough freedom to students to express themselves and is in keeping with the fairly fluency based nature of the class. Also, a four way conversation is a more challenging proposition than one between two people, and students have to work a little harder to stay involved and follow what is going on. There is also the efficiency saving of only explaining to five groups per class, rather than ten if I did it in pairs. As time is limited, this is a very practical reason to test in larger groups.

All this means that there is fairly little that I want to change. The only thing that I wonder about is changing the number of topics, and their specificity. Four topics, between four people in a twenty minute exam leaves about one minute 15 seconds per person, per topic. In general, testing in class aimed toward being able to speak for a two and a half minutes per person, per topic. Thus one change that I would like to make is to limit groups to two topics, and also to make them more specific. Last time I had very loose topic prompts (eg. Favourite foods, shopping style and stories). This time I’d like to tighten them up a little bit, for example: “My ambition and what I have done to achieve it” for the personal background module. I’d also like to increase the spontaneity a bit by selecting a topic randomly. This might also require a change to the scoring system to reflect this.

Thinking about scoring systems, it’s clear to me that mine needs a bit of work. The main thing is that it perhaps doesn’t reflect clearly exactly what kind of performance I was looking for. This is due to the lack of a clearly defined construct, a project which I never quite got around to finishing properly. Nevertheless, I have tried to briefly outline a construct below. These are the kind of things that students should perhaps be able to do in their exams. This is based largely on grading notes from my last exam.

Students should be able to talk in a reasonable amount of detail about 2 topics as part of a twenty minute conversation, making the conversation interesting through a variety of opinions (backed up if possible), personal stories and unusual information/facts. Students should be able to organize the conversation into short turns rather than long monologues, and be able to both claim and relinquish the floor when appropriate. The conversation should be relatively spontaneous. All speech should be understandable (to both peers and teacher) and fluent (defined as a steady rate of speech with minimal hesitation and restarts). Accuracy in grammar, word choice, syntax and pronunciation is not important unless it hinders understanding, but errors that were explicitly discussed in class should be avoided. Some attempt to (correctly) use language from class is preferable, but long memorized passages are not. No Korean language, aside from names, is permitted.

Looking at the scoring system linked above, I can see several places in which it does not match the construct and needs to be changed. The first is the slightly odd category of difficulty and interest. This is a bit counter-intuitive because, as anyone who’s ever attended one of my conference presentations will tell you, it’s perfectly possible to say something very boring using difficult language, and of course the other way around. Clearly this needs to be split out. Looking back at my notes, my way of judging difficulty seems to be to note instances of target language use. Therefore, it makes sense to split this out into its own category (more on this later). This leaves us with the rather subjective category of “interest”. Again, I went back to my notes on this one, and found that the performances I scored highly tended to contain interesting stories, unusual information and strong opinions. This goes some way to making things less subjective, but much more importantly, gives the students a guide to how they can score top marks.

Another category that requires a little tweaking is participation. I’d like to include turn length, questions, turn management and amount said into a slightly updated rubric. The idea behind this is to make the conversations a bit more spontaneous and conversation-like, and avoid a problem I encountered occasionally last time of students essentially going round the table delivering monologues.

The fluency and understanding categories are largely fine as they are, though I want to add restarts into the fluency section. That just leaves me with the final section, effort. I like this section, as it gives the lower level speakers in my class something to aim for. I don’t like grading on ability only, as despite level testing it can vary quite widely in my classes. Again though, I’d like to be able to give students a little more guidance on how they might do it. This is a place where attempts to use target language can be recognized, along with not memorizing long pieces of language and speaking spontaneously. I could also try to recognize humour here. Finally, some recognition of shy students participating confidently would be good, as this is something that I have tried to encourage throughout the semester.

This just leaves a further section for penalty points. Given this is an English exam, speaking Korean except for names is not allowed and must be made clear. Also, long diversions from the topic should also be penalized as I am trying to get students to show what they learned in class. Finally, I think I want to punish errors that we have talked about in class, as these too are evidence of (not) learning.

What am I going to do about it?

When I make my exam guide on Wednesday, I’m going to do the following things:

  • Allow students to choose one topic in advance for the exam, and give them one of the other three in the exam.
  • Make the topics much more specific and relevant to class content.
  • Make the first category interest, defined as opinions, stories and interesting facts.
  • Add questions, turn management and turn length into the participation section.
  • Add restarts into the fluency section.
  • Write some notes in the “Effort” section, explaining to students how they can get better scores through spontaneous speech, humour and confidence.
  • Explain clearly the penalty points system.

These exam reflections have been pretty long, so thanks for reading this far. I’m interested in any ways which you think I could further improve this system, and also in how you do your own speaking exams. If you want to read more you might even want to check out @alexswalsh‘s post on his speaking exams.

Cheers,

Alex

Class constructs: creating my own (part 1)

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

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

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

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

Assessment and Teaching Context

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

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

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

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

Assessment and Teaching Procedures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers,

Alex

Class constructs: an introduction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assessment Context

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

Assessment Procedures

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

Construct Definition

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

Models and Frameworks

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

A Construct Definition

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

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

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

Cheers,

Alex

Reference

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

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.