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Further thoughts on “heads down”

I’ve been musing more on our students’ response to “heads down” activities since a 10-year-old in one of my classes recently said that he doesn’t enjoy speaking activities and would prefer to do a written task from the book.  He’s a strong student, although I would perhaps ‘label’ him as more of an intrapersonal learner: he’s quite quiet, will answer questions when directly asked but is more reluctant to volunteer, takes a more supportive rather than dynamic role during team games, etc.

However, I was wondering whether it’s more than just the learner’s personality which accounts for their interest in completing written tasks.  Written activities are permanent and measurable: when a learner completes a written task, it’s corrected and provides the learner with a sense of achievement.  On the other hand, spoken tasks are far more transient and although the teacher will no doubt be monitoring the task, it’s impossible to hear what every student says during a pair-work activity, so errors may go uncorrected.

Heads down = “real” work

We had a wonderful professional development session yesterday  by Ceri Jones on coursebooks.  It was a wonderful moment of querying the role of coursebooks in our classes and really thinking about how we use them.

We discussed what the coursebook means to us individually and the content of an ideal coursebook, looking at how our ideals compare to what the majority currently offer.  Then we went on to look at a specific two-page spread and talked about how we would teach that lesson – how we would Select, Adapt and Supplement the material (a healthy dose of SAS is important for every page of the coursebook!).

At this point, Ceri introduced us to Lindsay Clandfield‘s idea of “Heads Up, Heads Down and Heads Together” as a way of categorising the interaction patterns and activity types.  After the session, I was thinking further about this: about the variety within the class and, more importantly, what learners respond to.  We said during the session that as EFL teachers using a communicative methodology, we instinctively aim for more “heads together” activities as these encourage STT and really get the learners using the target language.  However, something that we’ve found, certainly in the extra-curricular classes we give in a local state school, is that learners respond particularly well to “heads down” activities.  Younger learners who are taught in a fairly strict, structured, “heads down” environment often struggle to recognise the boundaries of a more communicative “heads together” class, leading to classroom management issues because of noise, high energy levels and over-use of L1.  I wonder whether as well, because of their learning experience, they see more benefit in “heads down” activities or whether it’s simply a case of habit and expectations.

As always, it’s essential to have a balance of activities in every lesson.  But also, it’s important to keep those “heads down” moments to appeal to all our learners – those intrapersonal learners probably appreciate the chance to do an activity quietly and it may perhaps be their moment to shine as well.

Closer, closer…

I’ve just read this article about eliciting – it’s one of those teaching skills which I think I do well, but there’s always room for improvement and also it’s good to get a fresh perspective.

One of the points the article mentions early on is about standing close to students with quieter voices so that they don’t misinterpret you not hearing them as an incorrect answer.  This got me to thinking about instances where that has happened in my own classes – I can picture the faces of the students who are keen to volunteer an answer, but then look a little forlorn when I ask them to “say it again”.  Perhaps part of the problem is in my own response to not hearing them: I should say, “Can you repeat that, please?” rather than, “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.  Can you say it again?”

This all ties in with classroom management – in this case, thinking about teacher (body) language, noise levels in the class and seating plans.  Do I sit the quieter students nearer me?  Do I make sure that each answer has everyone’s full, undivided attention?  Do I use the correct gestures and language when I don’t hear an answer?

I think the answer to all these question is “No”.

Hmmmm….something for me to think about…

Phonetic Fun

I’ve recently been doing some work with phonology with my 10-year-olds, trying to familiarise them with the phonetic alphabet.  A quick and easy way to raise awareness of English sounds is with a discrimination activity:

  • Divide the class into pairs and give each a mini-whiteboard.
  • Dictate a number of words to them.  The words should contain one of the two phonemes you want to focus on.
  • In whole group feedback, write the words on the board.
  • Then write up the two phonemes and tell learners to work in pairs to categorise each word according to the phoneme it contains.
  • After checking, you can either do some kinaesthetic controlled practice – such as jumping to one side or the other depending on the phoneme they hear – or a freer activity, such as using four of the words in a dialogue.

This activity is especially useful to highlight the spelling-sound difference, for example, /dʒ / in jeans and genius or /i:/ in beach, green or people.

Shark Attack…what happened next?

I’ve done the Shark Attack activity recently with a couple of groups and they really enjoy the task – it’s an easy, enjoyable, controlled practice activity of the past continuous.  However, I was doing a lesson today with past continuous and past simple and adapted the activity so learners would use both tenses.

The first part of the activity was the same: we brainstormed things to do at the beach and then I told them to draw the beach (I didn’t mention a shark) and then mingle to find out what their classmates were doing.  Once we had mingled and done some feedback, I told them to draw the shark and to think about what happened next.  There were some very inventive ideas:

Ana and Elena were swimming in the sea.  When the shark attacked, they died.

Or alternatively,

Álvaro and Carlos were playing football.  When the shark attacked, Álvaro jumped into the sea to save the girls and Carlos called the police.

And even…

Pepe was sitting under an umbrella.  When the shark arrived, he saw Pepe and they fell in love and moved to another country.

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