February 17

The (vocab) Box

image from imdb.com

image from imdb.com

Don’t you just love it when things seem to come together?  I was observing a colleague’s class this morning and then came home to find a wonderfully hilarious thread on twitter of #makeamovieTESL, to which one of my contributions was The (vocab) Box.

Anyway, back to my original thoughts about vocab boxes.

They are a fabulously versatile way of reviewing and revisiting both target and emergent language from our lessons – for example, this morning the learners in my colleague’s class were drawing, miming and explaining the lexis from previous units.  It also works well as a filler for fast finishers – give them the box and they can review the lexis in pairs, again perhaps by miming or drawing.

However, whilst observing the lesson this morning, I realised that at the same time, the use of vocab boxes is a rather unnatural and arbitrary way of using language.  In the game today, the lexis which learners faced was: go on holiday, stepmother, arrest, argue, housewife and supermarket.  Whilst I won’t disagree that most of these constitute useful language, each one is taken out of context.

That’s not to say that I’m going to stop using them though – but it’s made me realise that it often requires more effort on the part of learners to identify the word as they must first reactivate schema for that context and then find the particular word being defined.

February 14

Raise your expectations

A few weeks ago, I posted about a talk I was going to be giving at ACEIA Málaga with some thoughts on where the talk was coming from.  I realised as well when writing the session, that part of my reticence for not getting more from my learners is because I know that I hate feeling put-on-the-spot and so I’m very understanding of my learners when they communictae their point to me whereas I should push them to be more correct.  It’s a teaching quality which I really admire in one of my colleagues, Jill – she has such patience when talking to learners – not patience in understanding them, but in encouraging them and pushing them to really use the English they can and should be using.

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January 31

Writing reports

In all honesty, this is a post of procrastination as I’m currently writing reports for my learners and have hit a bit of a wall.  Coffee is next on the list of things-to-do-in-the-meantime.

Report writing is, and should be, a long process.  Though we often reflect on individual learners during the academic year, the process of putting those thoughts onto paper can be tough.  It’s easier to write about some individuals than others, it’s easier to fit in everything you want to say for some more than others, it’s easier to give specific advice to some more than others and it’s easier to identify some individuals more than others.

By “identify”, I don’t mean knowing who’s who – though I did have a startling, and hopefully somewhat exaggerated, conversation with a teacher from another school on the topic – but rather reflect on that individuals’ strengths and weaknesses and bring that together to produce a meaningful, useful report. Some learners don’t stand out as being particularly strong or weak in any area and we run the risk of sending home a banal report with phrases such as “you’re doing well” or “good work this term”, without offering any honest reflection on that individual’s abilities or meaningful advice on how to improve.

Though it’s a pain-in-the-behind when you’re sitting in on a Sunday wading through reports (partly through a lack of organisation hence not getting them done earlier in the week), it really is worth the effort to write a personalised, heartfelt report.

January 23

“Lower your expectations”

I’ve found myself giving that piece of advice to teachers in the past and I’ve come to realise that’s not really what I want to say.

On the YL extension course which we run at Active Language, I’ve found myself saying it when talking about first classes with VYLs, and at that point, I don’t mean ‘lower your expectations’ at all, but rather ‘be aware that first lessons can be difficult for VYLs – they’re being put in a room with someone who doesn’t speak their language (or won’t speak their language), often in the afternoon when they’ve been comfortable at home, watching cartoons. Be aware that you might not get as much out of them as you plan to and don’t feel let down if they can’t remember things from the first lesson to the second – just keep repeating and exposing them to the language and they’ll get there. Be prepared for people to be crying – it doesn’t mean they won’t enjoy the lessons in the future.’  I think ‘lower your expectations’ perhaps just rolls off the tongue more easily!

I was thinking about another moment to lower your expectations earlier this week as I was covering a class for a colleague. There are quite a variety of levels in the class, with one learner who is particularly weak and his previous teacher said something along the lines of, “Don’t worry if you don’t get a lot out of him. Even if he’s just paying attention, it’s a start.”  Part of me thinks that it’s wonderful that we view our learners as individuals – we know who will be quick to pick up new lexis and form full sentences and maybe we should be happy when we get minimal responses out of our weaker learners. Another part of my brain is screaming, “No! Raise your expectations! Give them every opportunity to go as far as they can go with anything you show them in class!”

I’ll be giving a talk at ACEIA-Málaga in a couple of weeks where I’ll address some of these issues and provide some practical tips on how we can raise our expectations and get the most from our learners.

October 31

Timetable Fit

I’ve just discovered the British Council’s monthly blog topics and, as it’s October 31st and I’m still in time to blog about one of their October topics, here goes:

In the British Council’s new CPD Framework, being able to ‘describe how a lesson is linked to those before and after it’ is one of the elements in planning lessons and courses. Often called ‘timetable fit’, this is covered and expected on most teacher training courses, but it tends to become less thought about in day-to-day teaching. In your planning, how much do you plan for a sequence of lessons and incorporate recycling of previous language or skills into what your learners do?

Firstly, I would say that nowadays and in the short-term, coursebooks do a lot of this work for us.  Generally divided into units by topic, each section of the book builds upon itself incorporating new linguistic points and reviewing them through the unit.  The teachers’ book often provides a warmer which includes an element of revision from the previous lesson and in Cambridge’s Face to Face series, each double-page spread tends to include a question to review something from the page before.

The linguistic islands of Footprints 4 (Macmillan)

The lingusitic islands of Footprints 4 (Macmillan)

However, units within a book can frequently be seen as ‘linguistic islands’, with little reference to previous input when we move from one unit to another.  This is where it’s important for the teacher to build routines into their lessons which allow the recycling and revision of previous input.

I feel that it can sometimes be more difficult to review language as we work with higher levels where the input becomes much greater and more abstract.  For example, with a group of six-year-olds following a more lexis-based syllabus, we can easily review the input by playing games with the accompanying flashcards.  Also, grammatical structures with younger learners are more limited so it’s easier to encourage full sentences when working with the lexis.

That said, with older learners and higher levels we can use conversations to review language, for example by having some questions on the board for learners to talk about as they come in, allowing us a moment to monitor and check comprehension and production.