Tag Archives: University

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.

 

Collecting feedback on my exams

In my last post I lamented my skills as an examiner in the written format, and suggested that I might need to gather some feedback on my exams. So I did! In this post I’m going to outline how, and what the results were. Note to readers: this one gets a bit long and statsy. Go forewarned.

The method

My last post was really the start of the feedback process, and was actually a good start as it allowed me to figure out exactly what I wanted to know. In bullet point form:

  • How students felt about their exam score.
  • Possible reasons that they received that score.
  • Possible effects that their score may have.
  • If students felt the exam was a fair test.
  • How the exam could be improved.

From these basic ideas I generated a list of questions, and had one of our teaching assistants translate them into Korean. I chose to use the L1 to maximize return, in the belief that it would help students understand and complete the form better. I then created a Google Form (very simple!) using the questions and a likert-like 1-5 scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. I chose numerical response in order to minimize translation on my part too, and because it would give me some stats to play with. I sent a link to the form to students via Kakao Talk. I got a fairly useful 40 responses out of 57, perhaps helped by a carrot of free drink prizes from the university cafe. This is what the results said.

How did students feel about their exams?

  • I was happy with the result of my WRITTEN exam (mean = 3.56, SD=1.16)
  • I was happy with the result of my SPEAKING exam (mean = 3.54, SD=1.02)

Student responses indicated that they were similarly happy with their written exam score and their speaking exam score . This was not what I expected given what I thought was the relative difficulty of the exams, and my happiness with student performances. However, I then remembered that I’d adjusted the written scores upward in order to fit them into a curve, and wondered if this was the reason. I decided to look at mean exam scores for some extra insight. However, looking at the numbers, I came across a small problem. I’m dealing with three different classes’ exams and survey responses, without knowing if the classes are represented equally within the responses. Given that their exams were of different difficulties, this is a potential source of dodgy calculations.

Nevertheless, there’s no choice but to lump all of these scores together to give us the following:

  • Raw mean written score = 35.00 (sd=8.71)
  • Adjusted mean written score = 38.35 (sd=8.71)
  • Mean speaking score = 42.62 (sd=8.82).

Even having adjusted the scores upward, speaking scores were still more than 4 points higher, yet students were similarly happy with them. What I wonder is if the adjustment and some fairly generous grading in places (see last post) caused students to receive better scores than they expected. Sadly the data was collected anonymously, otherwise it would be interesting to see how these plotted against exam scores. Maybe students just have lower expectations – whatever the explanation this is a very strange phenomenon which might merit further investigation.

The second measure in the feeling category was about the effect on student confidence:

  • The WRITTEN exam made me feel more confident about my English (mean=3.38, sd=0.97)
  • The SPEAKING exam made me feel more confident about my English (mean=3.92, sd=0.89)

These results were much more predictable, though it’s perhaps a little odd that on the written exam where just one student got an A, many students still felt that it improved their confidence. Still, the written exam wasn’t an entirely positive result and rightly so. One thing that springs to mind is that I didn’t actually issue letter grades in this exam. Perhaps I should have done in order to give students a better idea of what I thought about their performance.

Reasons and effects

The second thing that I wanted to know was why students received their scores and how students might respond to their results. I devised three questions for each exam which tried to get to the amount of preparation had done for the exam and the amount of effort they expended generally. With the responses included, these were:

  • I studied more than one hour for the WRITTEN exam (mean=3.33, sd=1.31)
  • I used Anki (or another similar app) often this semester (mean=2.56, sd=1.08)
  • I take careful notes of new language from the board (mean 3.69, sd=1.01)
  • I practiced more than one hour for the SPEAKING exam (mean=3.33, sd=1.16)
  • I have done English Cafe 3 times or more this semester (mean=3.56, sd=1.48)
  • I try to practise English speaking outside of class or English Cafe (mean=3.35, sd=1.05)

The first three items generally relate to the written exam and recommended behaviours. The second three relate to speaking exam and out of class practice (English cafe is the optional conversation slots that students can sign up for with teachers). The first set suggest that students didn’t prepare a great deal for their written exam, either in the period immediately before it or during the half-semester using the spaced repetition system that I recommended. The response to the third questions rings true to what I see in class, namely that notes are diligently taken, and the scores further my suspicions that these notes are then promptly forgotten as soon as students get out of the door. From these results, I clearly need to think more about how to get students to maintain the language that we encounter in class, but that’s for another post.

For the speaking exam, again preparation is reasonably low, though interpreting these results more than half of the students spent more than an hour on it, and a surprising number claim that they try to practise English outside of class. I’d be interested to know what form this practice takes.

To survey the effects of the exam, I asked some similar questions:

  • Because of my WRITTEN exam score, I will try to use Anki (or another similar app) (mean=3.28, sd=1.04)
  • Because of my WRITTEN exam score, I will try to take better notes in class (mean=4.10, sd=0.70)
  • Because of my SPEAKING exam score, I will try to practise speaking more outside class (mean=4.05, sd=0.85)

These results for the written exam are rather interesting, in that it’s the behaviour that students already consider that they do well that they also consider needs improving (though I suppose that I can’t rule out the chance that it was the students who responded negatively to the previous question about note taking who are responding positively to this one). What I am potentially getting into here is the difficulty of changing ingrained practices –  a lack of genuine engagement with language and perhaps an over-reliance on cramming rather than long-term learning. This was what I’d hoped to combat by using the app, as well as allowing myself to do a lot more work with lexis. Here, however, the student choice seems to be for the path of least resistance. While there is a chance that the app I recommended simply doesn’t fit well with the students, I see this as indicative of an underlying culture of shallow and temporary learning that I would like to do my best to change.

Was it a fair test?

Perhaps the main motivation for writing my last post was the fear that as an examiner I was letting my students down, and causing their scores to be lower than they actually deserved. I’d hate for the trust I have built up with these groups to be damaged by a poorly written exam. The following questions were , therefore, an attempt to see how students evaluated the exam and their own performance.

  • I thought that the WRITTEN exam was a fair test of class content (mean=4.27, sd=0.86)
  • If I had studied harder, I could have got a higher score on the WRITTEN exam. (mean=4.46, sd=0.75)
  • I thought that the SPEAKING exam was a fair test of class content (mean=4.42, sd=0.82)

These are a pleasing set of results for my peace of mind. These are some of the highest mean scores, so at least in the students’ minds (much more so than mine) I am a fair/competent examiner. The second question also shows that they tend to attribute their low scores to their own effort rather than deficiencies in the exam. This might be reflective of a less critical view of exams, however. For each exam, only two students disagreed that it was a fair test.  Still, the largely positive response suggests that I haven’t irreparably damaged my relationship with the group. This in no way excuses me from making improvements though.

Improvements for future exams

Finally, I wanted to know how students thought that I could improve the exam. I also wanted their view on my idea that the exam could feature slightly extended writing pieces in order to get away from the kind of half-open questions that plagued this exam.

  • I would prefer more extended writing/communciation in the WRITTEN exam, and less vocabulary and grammar questions. (mean=4.26, sd=1.06)

While there’s a bit of variation in answers here, students seem to be more positive than negative about this. I’m undergoing a bit of a shift in thinking about writing at the moment anyway, and trying to include a few more writing assignments in class, so my next exam could/should include a writing section.

Finally I included an open field for students to suggest improvements to the written and spoken exams. Suggestions included less grammar (funny as there really wasn’t much – my students perhaps view grammar differently to how I do), and there were comments that the listening section was too heavily weighted (which I might agree with) and that the questions started very suddenly (an easy fix). One student picked up on the fact that the written questions were too open, and another claimed that he couldn’t see the pictures well.

Speaking-wise there wasn’t much of interest except for a request to see the time, which I will definitely try to organize for the next exam.

Reflection on Reflection

All in all I’m reasonably happy with the way that this went. I learned a lot from it, and I hope it also gave the students a sense of agency in deciding how they are examined. I also hope that doing the survey helped students to reflect on their own behaviour, attribute their successes and failures to the right reasons and hopefully do something differently next time. As for what I might do differently again, the one change that springs to mind is to try to collect feedback with names – it would be very interesting to see how responses correlated with actual exam scores, and also to do this for individual classes rather than all of my students as a group.

Final Word

Thanks very much for reading if you got this far. If you’d like to try this yourself, please feel free to use the Google Form linked above for your own investigations, and if there’s anything you’d like to chat about please do leave a comment below.  If you do try something like this, I’d be very keen to know how it turned out.

Cheers,

Alex

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?

 Cheers,

Alex

* 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.

My Podcast Debut!

A couple of weeks ago I sat down in front of my computer to be interviewed by Brad West (@bradonomics) for the englishinasia.com podcast. We talked about the path that led me from Guatemala to Korea, what it’s like working in a tiny mountain town, and how to make the jump to teaching university. We also touched on what it’s like to study a distance MA in TESOL, and how to be a social media entrepreneur that doesn’t make any money!

If this sounds like your kind of thing, I strongly advise you to head to the link below and have a listen:

http://englishinasia.com/teaching-english-in-korea-with-alex-grevett/ 

Cheers,

Alex

My First Day

Haven’t managed to work this into my opening day lesson – yet.

I’m taking a quick break from pronunciation writing, as I wanted to share what turned out to be a good first day lesson. I had been very inspired by the spate of “What i do in my classroom?” style posts that appeared around the time of Chia Suan Chong’s “teach off”, and then I read Rachael Roberts’ excellent post on building bonds on the first day, and thought I’d just add to the pile of first day activities.

In her post, Rachael recommends not putting too much pressure on students to learn each other’s names. I actually took the exact opposite approach, but framed right I think that can work too. I’m a big fan of getting students to do something slightly silly on the first day as a way to break down some of the barriers too. This semester my first day name learning game was dueling pistols.

It’s pretty simple to do. Ask the students to say their names out loud while sat in a circle, and then divide them into two teams. The teams form two lines facing each other (there can be as many people in the lines as there is space, and if at all possible the teacher should join in), and everyone says their names one more time. Teams then stand back to back, and without looking behind them, change places so that they don’t know which person on the other team is behind them. Someone counts to 3, with students taking a pace on each number, and them turning on 3. They must then say the name of the person opposite, and shoot them with their finger (being a friendly, peaceful blog, The Breathy Vowel does not advocate the use of real weapons in this game). As in a traditional duel, he or she who shoots first is the winner. If you’re feeling particularly cruel, or your class is dramatically inclined, you could even have the losers pretend to die. The winners are then counted, and the team with most winners has to repeat their names again. Repeat as many times as necessary, and make sure to mix the teams so everyone learns everyone elses name.

In the end this game was great fun, despite a few “WTF?” looks from the students when I explained it. It’s also pretty effective for name learning, as it forces students to remember and use names as if their lives depended on it. As a teacher though, be prepared to be annihlated by each and every one of your students, who of course already know your name.

I think it’s also a good idea to reveal something of yourself to the students if you expect them to do the same in class, and it seems to me only fair if the teacher goes first. Like most teachers, I prefer it if the students have to extract the information from me, but in Korea this often ends with the same old questions being trotted out about whether i like Korean food, even from higher level students. I wanted to try to get them asking better (or at least more interesting) questions, and try to connect with me in different ways. I did this through realia, always a bit of a favorite of mine. It’s interesting the change that objects make to the atmosphere in the classroom – the presence of something not usually seen there causes a frisson of excitement i think, and using your own possessions gives students a tangible connection to your life, which helps to break down those teacher student barriers. Thus, I bought with me to class: my passport (trustworthy students required here), a Spanish language copy of One-hundred Years of Solitude, a picture of my previous town in Korea, a bottle of English ale (Theakston’s Old Peculier if you’re interested), and The Handbook of Applied Linguistics. This generally allowed me to talk about important and interesting things in my life like my studies and living in Guatemala, and hopefully piques the students interest to listen to them.

The task was simple, take an object, look at it and come up with four questions for me about each object. In order to provide a decent amount of language for the students to use in their own attempts later, I asked them to dictate the questions that each group asked as exactly as possible, as well as a short summary of my answer. This wasn’t a particularly exciting task, but did serve to share a lot of language, extract a lot of information about me (including impromptu follow up questions), and serve as a model for the students.

We were already sat in a horseshoe shape, so I had the students review the questions that they had dictated, then mixed up their positions so they were working with different people. They then produced an item important to them (I set this task during pre-class speaking tests), and I modelled a conversation about our respective items with a confident student, making sure to include the question “Why is this important to you?”. We then did the conversations for a couple of minutes, and at the end I shared anything useful I’d heard from monitoring / conversations with a student. Then every second student moved around two places and we repeated the conversations. In most classes we did this four or five times, and then the students had to secretly choose the students they were most interested in. I’ll be using this data for next week’s seating plan 🙂

I hope that there’s something useful in this first day lesson for you. I feel like it was pretty successful in introducing me to the students, getting them used to the concept of repetition of activities (one that will feature heavily this semester), and was a little bit different to traditional first day approaches. However, I’m sure it could be jazzed up a little, so if you have any ideas about how to do that, do leave me a comment.

Cheers,

Alex

Some end of semester reflecting (Part 1)

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No more students 😦

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

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

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

What am I supposed to be doing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers,

Alex

Asking students to assess your L2 output

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

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

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

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

Giving Advice

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

Foci

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers,

Alex