Tag Archives: Pedagogy

How I Teach New Language

One of the great things about my job has been the flexibility afforded to me that allows me to teach what I want and how I want. This has allowed me the space to experiment with different approaches, one of those being the teaching of vocabulary and expressions. So, now I’m coming to the end of my time teaching in public schools I thought it would be nice to share how I tackle introducing new vocabulary to students and, hopefully, getting it to stick. I figured the easiest way to do this would be to run through the activities I used in last week’s lesson.

This lesson was about ‘World Festivals’.

Stage 1: Choosing the Language

This stage might be easy, the language could be given to you in a textbook or pre-made syllabus. I have to select the language myself so I decided to scowl short videos on different festivals around the world that were:

  • Not too difficult
  • Contained language that would be useful for students to learn
  • Were interesting and gave the language a context
  • Provides enough context for low level students to understand, yet pushes the high level students.

It isn’t always possible to get all three but in this case I managed to videos that hit at least two of these goals.

Below is one of the videos I selected.

Stage 2: Introducing the Language in Context

The first thing I like to do is give my students the chance to either hear or see the language being used within a context. By doing this it helps students to link a mental image to the new language. In this case, it was easy for me as I had selected four videos the students could watch that contained the target language. I start off by doing some pronunciation drills with the new language so that students would know what to listen for in the next activity. Then, I created a simple listening for details activity that involved students matching sentences containing the key language (underlined) to the correct festival.

Stage 3: Confirming the Meaning of the Language

The students have now seen the language in the context of a sentence and heard the sentence being used in context along with a visual reference. If the materials were selected properly the students should already have a pretty good idea as to the meaning of the language. The next stage involves helping the students to confirm the meaning of the new language. There are a number of simple activities that can do this, in this case I went for a simple match the words to the meanings activity. If students weren’t sure, I referred them to the context or asked them to guess based on what they saw in the video. Almost very student was able to do this (I have 440 students).

Stage 4: Putting the Language into a New Context

I this stage I like to give the students an opportunity to put the language to use in their own context. In this case, I had the students

2013-11-29 08.44.20

work in groups of four to create their own festivals. Each group had to produce some supporting material (such as a poster, pamphlet, rule book, flyers etc.) which had to contain the new language items. This stage is key as it gives the students a chance to engage in peer led meaning negotiation and error correction without even knowing it. If, for example, a student uses some language incorrectly on the poster, their group members will instinctively correct it. The role of the teacher is to monitor for any mistakes that slip through. It is worth noting them down and coming back to them at the end of

2013-11-29 08.44.45

class or for a review next class.

Stage 5: Using the Language

The final stage gives the students chance to both use, and hear their peers use, the new language in context as many times as

possible. In this lesson, I created an activity whereby the students had to sell their festivals, and students decided how much they would pay to go. The group with most money wins. I organised this by splitting every group of four into two. Two students would stand around the outside of the room with their group’s poster. Their job was to sell the festival. The other two members from each group had to walk around the room, visit each festival and decide how much they would pay to go after talking to the students selling the festival. 2013-11-29 08.52.02The key rule is that the people selling must use all the new language items before they can get the money.

So, with eight groups, each student heard or used each new piece of new language seven times (they don’t visit their own group).2013-11-29 08.55.17

Stage 6: Error Correction

Finally, the last few minutes of class are spent correcting common errors that have been picked up over the course of the lesson.

Note: I have found repetition to be extremely important. Throughout this lesson the students encountered the new language once out of context, and a minimum of ten times in context.

Do you have any special techniques you have developed for teaching new language? If so, I’d love to hear them!

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‘Understand’ – One Word, SO Many Problems!

                   
                                     un·der·stand/ˌəndərˈstand/
Verb:
1.      Perceive the intended meaning of (words, a language, or speaker): “he could usually make himself understood“.
2.      Perceive the significance, explanation, or cause of (something): “she didn’t really understand the situation”.
Synonyms:
comprehend – realize – see – apprehend – grasp – perceive 



‘Understand’ – surely if we created a corpus of language used in ESL/EFL this word would be near the top. But what do we mean by it and why does it cause us so many problems?

I honestly don’t think there is any teacher in the world who can honestly say they haven’t at least once spent several minutes explaining an activity, probably given an example too, and then looked at twenty or more slightly confused looking faces and said “so, do you understand?” to which the twenty students have all replied “yes, teacher” only for that activity to descend into chaos with half the group of students doing completely different things and the other half doing nothing. ‘Why won’t students just tell us if they don’t understand?’ we then ask ourselves. As teachers we very quickly learn (hopefully anyway) that asking students if they understand is not really a sound method for establishing if they have actually ‘understood’ or not. To make matters even worse, students are smart, cunningly smart, and they deviously use this word to their advantage. It usually goes something like this:

T – Why haven’t you started the activity? You should have started five minutes ago.
St – I don’t understand it, it’s too hard for me.
T – Well, have you actually read it yet or have you just been talking about Psy with your friend?
St – Talking with my friend.
T – So how could you understand it if you haven’t read it?
St – Sorry teacher, I’ll read it now.
T – Thank you!

By claiming a lack of ‘understanding’ students seem to feel it warrants taking an extended break from activities because they happen to feel lazy at that moment. So how, as their teacher, can we actually know if they really don’t ‘understand’ or if they just don’t want to try and ‘understand’? Surely the word ‘try’ and ‘understand’ must go together, especially in ELT. I had a great example of this in my lesson today. The lesson involved ‘understanding’ and simplifying what looks, at first glance, like quite an intimidating text. I had some low level classes that, today, were feeling highly motivated, and they dealt with the text as they were asked, in groups, simplifying the key messages in a form that a first grade middle school student could understand perfectly. But, I also had a high level class that were lethargic and for some reason feeling particularly unmotivated. This class were constantly claiming they could not ‘understand’ the text and claiming that this lack of ‘understanding’ was good reason for not completing the task to their ability.

The difficulties this word creates don’t only stop in the classroom though. Recently 1000’s of native English teachers in Korea lost their jobs, the reason given? A government administered survey of high school and middle school students indicated that Korean students can’t ‘understand’ the native English teachers properly or as well as their Korean teachers. Huh? Yep that’s right; students can’t understand native speakers so the solution is to remove the native speakers. ‘Welcome to Korea’ as they say!

Lack of understanding certainly has a negative connotation in the world of teaching. So, when my co-teacher informed me last week that she thought that some students didn’t fully ‘understand’ my classes this year and that, to find out for sure, she wanted to give students a survey containing the following question, ‘how much of English conversation class did you understand this year?’ to which the students could mark a number from 1 to 10, I wasn’t exactly pleased.

It wasn’t the fact that she thought some students didn’t ‘understand’ the class, I mean I have some students who have lived in America for ten years and some who can’t write their name in English, they can’t all understand everything. What bothered me was the question and establishing what exactly we were hoping to achieve by asking it. There are just too many variables, are we asking whether or not students understood:

– everything I said
– every word in the videos we used in class
– the meaning contained in the materials
– instructions
– how and when to use vocabulary items
– why we were doing the activities we were doing
– how they could use the skills practiced outside of class
– my British accent
(to name just a few)

Don’t get me wrong, if students who should understand my classes are struggling I need to know about it, and I need to know what I can do to change this, but the problem is, how do we objectively measure this?

We also have to consider whether or not a lack of understanding is a bad thing. If students understand everything, will they improve? If students end the class not understanding everything, will they be disheartened? Will they feel let down by their teacher? To take my class today as an example, there is no way every student (or even most students) would understand every word in the text. It was a difficult task, but I didn’t want them to understand every word and every sentence. I wanted them to understand the general meaning, a task they ALL completed successfully, even the low level students. So would they give me a 3 or an 8 out of 10 on the ‘scale of understanding’ for today’s class? Probably a 3!

This is due to another factor we have to consider, educational culture. My students are used to having every word they see and hear translated to them. In Korea this is seen as ‘understanding’. But do they understand it? If we had spent 50 minutes doing that today would they have understood the meaning of the text? Probably not, but what score would today’s lesson have got on the ‘scale of understanding’? Probably an 8! They would probably have given it a higher score than my lesson today, are they wrong to do so? Not necessarily, both these types of understanding certainly do have an effect on our students’ language abilities though.

Of course, I think the task I gave my students was significantly more useful than having the text translated to them, but what use is that if our students are leaving the classroom feeling the opposite due to their 13 years of a certain educational culture that has made them believe they didn’t ‘understand’ it? As teachers should we have to adapt to our students beliefs on understanding? Should we even adapt to our educational institutions beliefs? The only way to find out about their beliefs is to measure their reactions to certain tasks or certain classes, but this brings us back to problems regarding how we measure it.

Understanding is certainly a word that we use often enough, it’s a word which can have huge consequences for us and our students, but, as language teachers do we really have the firm grasp on it we think we have and perhaps should have when dealing with our students as individuals, with our classrooms as a whole or even as a national and global industry? I certainly think I have some work to do in conveying to my students and institution what I want the word ‘understanding’ to mean.

You can follow me on twitter @AlexSWalsh

A must read comment from a friend:


Hi Alex,

A great post here. Thank you much for sharing. I too feel the strain and frustration of fighting the prevailing headwinds. I really like the questions you have asked here and wish you all the luck in successfully querying your institution. I too am following suit.

In times like these it is easy to get frustrated. It is at these times that I try and remind myself that if no one tries to change anything then certainly nothing will change. However, if I put myself out there and voice my opinion, I may not see the change myself, but the effect of those words on the people I share with will ripple on the lake of time. Who knows where and when things begin to change, or why?

As long as there are teachers like you out there pushing the limits and questioning themselves, their students, and their institutions, I truly believe, in the end, we’ll be moving in the right direction.

John

My Reply:

John,

You couldn’t be more right and I don’t think you could have put it any more succulently. I can only hope that we are moving in the right direction. To be honest, frustration isn’t really the feeling I have, but more hope, hope that despite the students and institutions in which we work being so firmly ingrained with a certain idea and concept of understanding, we may still be starting that ripple you mention, a ripple that will hopefully continue to grow in our students’ minds. I don’t necessarily think it is about replacing the current forms of thinking that we encounter on a daily basis, but perhaps adding to those and presenting alternatives that they can also use to their benefit at the same time as their current conceptions and ways of thought.

Cheers to hope,

As always thanks for reading and for your invaluable input.

Alex

Comments

DK
28/11/2012 04:13

Great post! I find myself asking this of my students quite often, but I think for the most part it is mostly out of habit. Usually when I want to ellicit some sort of reaction rather than feel like I’m shining a spotlight on a herd of deer.

For the most part their reaction to the question is enough to judge whether or not they really grasp the concept, ranging from a resounding “yes teacher” to hesitant nods and grunts of assent, which make me want to shake them and say “No you don’t! Why are you nodding!” 🙂

It is much more effective when I question them in order to demonstrate that they understand something, rather than simply asking if they do, for exactly the reasons you poiinted out. Saying they understand is an easy way out and often students will say this to avoid drawing attention to themselves, looking stupid in front of their peers, or having to try and explain what it is they don’t understand.

By allowing them to deomonstrate their understanding t, it allows both the teacher and the student to see that they really do understand, and at the same time it builds their confidence. If it is a grammar concept, I do some problems on the board together, if it’s the instructions for an activity, I ask them what to do after step 1, etc

I agree that the idea of asking students how much they understand in the class as a means of rating the teacher or evaluating the effectiveness of a class is a bad idea. Good for general feedback, sure, but not in order to determine whether or not to keep a native teacher on or to, say, replace them with a robot. We need to have effective ways of assessing their improvement, which is the main focus of education. It’s not just about how much you understand in a class, but how much more you can understand because of a class.

Reply
AlienTeachers
28/11/2012 17:34

Hey ‘DK’!

First of all thanks for reading and thanks even more for commenting 🙂 I think your mention of students trying to deflect any potential attention is extremely important, especially in the context in which we work. The students will do anything to not stand out from their friends, including pretending the other do or don’t understand when it suits them!

I also think you have provided a wonderful conclusion when you said “It’s not just about how much you understand in a class, but how much more you can understand because of a class.” I guess the only problem with this is that we have to help our students realise what it is that we want them to understand as it’s not always obvious.

Thanks again for reading and commenting,

Alex

Reply
28/11/2012 17:59

Hi Alex,

A great post here. Thank you much for sharing. I too feel the strain and frustration of fighting the prevailing headwinds. I really like the questions you have asked here and wish you all the luck in successfully querying your institution. I too am following suit.

In times like these it is easy to get frustrated. It is at these times that I try and remind myself that if no one tries to change anything then certainly nothing will change. However, if I put myself out there and voice my opinion, I may not see the change myself, but the effect of those words on the people I share with will ripple on the lake of time. Who knows where and when things begin to change, or why?

As long as there are teachers like you out there pushing the limits and questioning themselves, their students, and their institutions, I truly believe, in the end, we’ll be moving in the right direction.

John

Reply
29/11/2012 03:37

Alex,

I taught in the U.S. for 4 years (chemistry, not English) and you bring up some excellent questions. One thing emphasized in our school system was having a daily goal (or goals) posted prominently in the room for each lesson. I started each class by calling attention to the objective, and then at the end I would ask the students to perform some measure of that goal.

For example, in the lesson with the complex text you mentioned, you may have had the objective be something along the lines of “students will accurately summarize a complex text.” At the end of the lesson, you could emphasize that goal by asking students to fill out a “ticket to leave” which is written on an index card or half sheet of paper (the task is presented on the board or instructions given orally and the students write their responses on their tickets). In this example, the ticket to leave might be “use 1-3 sentences to summarize the text we read in class today.” When students hand in their “tickets to leave” they may then start packing up their things to get ready for the next class or lesson. In this function, the TTL also serves as a transition and class management tool.

Granted, the students may have already done something similar as part of the lesson, but it never hurts to re-emphasize the important objectives. Collecting the tickets also gives you another assessment tool so that YOU can rate how successful you think the lesson was and learn for the next round. You can also gather quantitative data a little more easily when you have those tickets and can simply do a quick read through and say that x% of the students successfully met the objective (or not).

Ultimately, the task at hand really comes down to clearly defining your lesson objectives for every lesson and then coming up with some way to measure the success, neither of which is a simple matter!

Julie

Reply
29/11/2012 03:39

I forgot to emphasize the importance of the word “summarize.” Using specific action verbs in your goals helps to avoid the nefariously nebulous “understand.”

Reply
AlienTeachers
06/12/2012 18:53

Hi Julie!

Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment (and sorry for my delayed reply, it’s exam time next week so a bit busy!)

I think your ticket to leave idea is a fantastic one, I’m going to give it a go at the end of a class before the end of the semester to see how it goes and figure out the best way to implement it next year. Did you do it in every single class so as to create a routine among the students?

Thanks again,

Alex

AlienTeachers
06/12/2012 18:55

Hi again Julie!

Forgot to respond to your action goals in the objectives. I like to use Bloom’s Taxonomy of Measurable Verbs (http://www.clemson.edu/assessment/assessmentpractices/referencematerials/documents/Blooms%20Taxonomy%20Action%20Verbs.pdf) which I am sure you know of, it definitely helps to make sure lesson objectives are clear and measurable.

thanks again,

Alex

Reply
Georgeanna
29/11/2012 06:57

@Julie
great idea! I like the idea of a Ticket to leave, and if I had younger/less proficient students (as I teach mostly English courses), I would do that. One thing I’ve done (which is..somewhat similar) is to have students in my MS Office skills course produce a file at the end of each day which must be emailed to me. (They are required to ask for an extension if they couldn’t finish during class time.) Unfortunately, I don’t get to review _all_ of the files (as in, every single class days’ worth of files, just some of the class days’ files). I haven’t thought of what might be done for other classes, but I think I’d like to incorporate something!

In a somewhat related sense, I have students (in all my courses) fill out a status report (which is handed in at the beginning of class.. a handy way to get attendance and also…keep reading :D). It asks them to fill out the current ‘task’ we’re working on (since usually tasks or projects are on-going) and their current ‘status’ on that task or project. It is a way for me to get feedback (of ‘understanding,’ too!) and answer questions they may not have asked before. Of course, here too, I have people in class asking their friends, “What task are we working on?” (sniff sniff…guess they didn’t ‘understand’)

in response to the original post…
I am reminded of a conversation with a teacher trainer here in Daegu who mentioned a class (as in, time) when they tried to call attention to their participants’ (i.e. the teachers being trained) use of the phrase “This is difficult, but…” which was so often used to introduce tasks or activities (when the teachers were doing practice teaching sessions). I would like to link (or point out the link that exists to connect) this to the whole mess surrounding “understanding” because surely if teachers are _telling_ you that something is going to be difficult, you’re already somehow losing points on the ‘understanding’ scale (or, your possibilities for ‘understanding’ and ‘success’ have now been lowered).

I am …baffled, to say the least…that people would do this. I admit I have done it a few times myself!! (If my poor memory serves me correctly, not in the last year or two, thankfully!)

The concept of translating every word (missing the forest for the trees) in an effort to ‘understand’ something peeves me greatly. I try to hard in my reading courses to wean students off of that. Using literature circles to discuss their reading does help them sort of wean themselves, too. But, that’s a digression..

I wish you the best of good fortune, patience, and great results in your efforts to resolve this issue/address it. Look forward to hearing more insights!

Using Students Output in Preparation for Lingua & Cultura Franca

The use of authentic materials in foreign language learning has a long history, dating back to Sweet (1899:177) who highlighted the use of “natural, idiomatic texts over artificial methods”. The authentic materials we have access to and utilize in our classrooms are often created by native English speakers, or, extremely competent and fluent like non-native speakers of the English language. Yet, we are now living in a global society where by one billion people are learning English as a foreign language, Crystal (1997) predicted that by 2010 there will be more speakers of English as a foreign language than there are native speakers, and approximately 80% of English used worldwide does not involve a native speaker (Crystal, 1997). Given these facts, I questions whether by confining our students to tasks based on native/near native speakers of English we are adequately preparing our students for the communicational needs they are likely to encounter outside of our classrooms. This challenge has provided the inspiration for a project a close colleague (John Pfordresher) and I have been working on called the ‘ESL Learners Output Library’. We believe the open resource we have created can provide the tools we need to better prepare our students for inter-cultural communication.

There is no doubt that English is now a global language, and as such it has inevitably “diversified into a proliferation of forms, varying in pronunciation, intonation, grammar, vocabulary, spelling and conventions of use” (Gilmore 2007:103). With English now a global language it is no longer adequate to prepare our students to communicate simply through the ‘English language’, we need to prepare them to communicate with English as a lingua franca, in other words English as a common language used as a means of communication between speakers of many different native languages.

A conversation with one of my students last week provided a clear example of this need: I started teaching Mina just before she spent her two month break from university travelling through Europe. Last week was our first class since this trip, and while discussing her travels I asked her how she found communicating in English. She replied that she was extremely shocked as she often found herself sat in hostels and bars, communicating in English with people from China, Japan, India and many other places around the world. I asked why she was shocked by that situation and she replied that she didn’t feel she had been adequately prepared for it at school, or in English classes she had taken since school. She stated that she is only familiar with native accents, native sentence structures and native uses of vocabulary. She went on to tell me she has never been more highly motivated to improve her English, as she now realized it is not necessarily about communicating with native speakers, but the whole world. Given this reality that the English language is now a lingua franca we have a duty to our students to overcome the linguistic imperialism our textbooks and materials often force upon us. In other words, we need to find a way of exposing our learners to the output of other speaker of English as a second language (L2 output).

The need for exposure to L2 output is not only necessary due to English being a lingua franca. If English is being spoken by people with vastly different backgrounds, it is impossible that all L2 English speakers are disassociating themselves from their cultural knowledge when communicating in English. This cultural loading of language has resulted in English becoming a cultura franca as well as a lingua franca. As Pulverness (1999:6) explains, this is simply an issue that most textbooks fail to deal with. In fact, their usual solution is to side-step it all together by presenting completely inauthentic and impractical ‘international contexts’. This is not through fault of material developers, as how can one possibly expect to disassociate themselves from their own culture, especially when language is so representative of one’s culture? All of our communication, and interpretation of others communication, is inevitably loaded with our background and culture, this includes both our actual and our own interpretation of others meanings in writing, speaking, listening and reading.

The need for us to help our students develop the skills to deal with English as a cultura franca isn’t only apparent when our learners are communicating with people outside of their own country. We now live in huge urban melting pots of nationalities and cultures. Our students’ ability to successfully communicate is therefore dependent on their ability to understand English from as by people of different cultures and ethnic identities. As teachers, both John and I firmly believe it is our responsibility to expose our learners to as much output from different L2 speakers as possible. By doing this we not only develop our students communicative competency, but also their intercultural competency. Quite simply, if we can present our students with examples of other L2 output (which is the aim of the ESL Students Library) we can substantially reduce the likelihood of our students facing cross-cultural miscommunication.

Of course, I am not suggesting we completely overhaul the materials we present to our learners. As teachers, if once or twice a week we could just commit five minutes to the exposure of our students to materials that represent the myriad of levels, cultures and backgrounds they will be exposed when communicating outside of the English classroom it would make a significant difference to their confidence and skills in communicating with other non-native speakers, a situation they will almost definitely encounter.

It is for these reasons that John and myself were inspired to create the ESL Learners Output Library, a resource providing teachers with access to all the L2 output they could need. We realized that such resources don’t have to be difficult to find because as educators we have all the L2 output we need right at our finger tips, in the form of our learners output (work). It is to take advantage of this that we built the ‘ESL Learners Output Library’. This project is a free service that is designed to allow educators all around the world to share the output of their students. Our mission is, through this website, to create a global community sharing their students’ output. This can then be used to expose our students to English language produced by learners of different cultures, background, levels, ages or any other factor that will help our students communicate outside of our classrooms. We can create tasks for our students that will prepare them for inter-cultural communication, we can inspire each other to try new activities in our own classrooms, we can encourage our students by showing them projects students are doing all over the world, we can compare and contrast the specific needs of certain groups of students, we can even create links between our classrooms that will allow our students to interact with each other, the possibilities are both endless and necessary.

We welcome you to join us in creating this special project, to get involved simply visit www.esllol.org to explore, share and contribute to the ESL Learners Output Library.

Also please check out this passionate blog post from the co-founder of http://www.esllol.org @johnpfordresher http://observingtheclass.wordpress.com/2012/10/15/why-create-the-esl-learner-output-library/

Bibliography

Crystal, D. (1997). English as a global language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gilmore, A. (2007). Authentic materials and authenticity in foreign language learning. Language Teaching. 40 (.), 97-118.

Pulverness, A. (1999). Context or pretext? Cultural content and the course book. Folio 5.2, 5–11.

Sweet, H. (1899). The practical study of languages. London:Oxford University Press.

 

Assessment Part 3 – Building Assessment Preparation into a Syllabus

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Over the past few days I’ve been talking about assessment. So far I’ve focussed on how we can make assessment of benefit to our students and explained the process I used in implementing my speaking test. In the final part of my assessment blogging trilogy I want to talk about how we can prepare students for speaking assessments in every lesson we do, not just for the two weeks before they take the tests. I also want to discuss how, for public school conversation teachers in Korea, the NEAT presents us with the opportunity to add a real, demonstrable value, to our jobs.

In case you haven’t read my previous two blogs I’m going to explain what the NEAT exam is. The NEAT exam is a new format of test being introduced by the Korean government; its primary aim is to assess every Korean student’s English ability before they apply for university. A wider goal is for it to replace the plethora of other English ability tests used in Korea. It is an important step because for the first time ever Korean students will have a speaking element in their national English ability tests (which provides the acronym for NEAT by the way). I believe it is basically going to be Korea’s equivalent to IELTS and TOEIC.

This is of particular importance to all the native English teachers (NETs) in Korea as previously there was often the complaint from both the NETs and the Korean community that our lessons had no real objectives or targets. Our job was to simply teach conversation. Without any real focus or goal it has always been hard to design a syllabus, to have any real long running themes guiding our conversational lesson planning as there was no target to aim for. The NEAT test changes that, and  in doing so has made me realise my lessons over the past three years could have been that bit more practically relevant by building in activities that practice the skills needed for speaking exams such as IELTS, TOEIC and now, for students in Korea at least, NEAT. I’m certainly not saying that our conversation lessons should be teaching to these tests, but that we can introduce activities the help prepare our students on a lesson by lesson basis, as opposed to the two weeks before their exam.

I don’t even think making these changes would have been a difficult thing for me to introduce to my lesson planning; in fact, it would probably have made the process a lot easier. Instead of wondering how I was going to fill that last 10 minutes, I could have created an activity similar to one the students would likely encounter in a speaking test, using the test format as a template.

I’m going to look at this more closely in relation to NEAT, identifying quick examples of the type of activities that could be inserted into lesson plans to help the students be as prepared as possible without ‘teaching to the test’. I do think such methods could be equally applicable to students around the world who might have to take IELTS, TOEIC or any other speaking proficiency exam, but are in a conversation class not specifically targeted at formal assessment.

NEAT Question Type 1 – Story Telling

–          Personally, I use a lot of short films in class to help stimulate the student’s imaginations. There are two things I could have done here; firstly, I could have given them stills from the film and either had them predict what would happen or have them write a short summary of what did happen.

–          For lower level students, I could have them make the pictures for each other, and then their partner makes the story.

NEAT Question Type 2 – Graph Description

– Students could survey each other; they make questions they would like to ask each other on the topic of that class, and from the results make a graph. They could then present their graph to the class.

– Students could predict how many class mates are wearing grey socks, blue socks, red socks, green socks, then as a class make a chart, give a very simple description and whoever had the closest prediction gets a prize.

NEAT Question Type 3 – Advice Giving

– Students could secretly write on a piece of paper problems they currently have in their life. They then make it into a paper airplane, everyone throws it to the other side of the room, they then plan the advice they would give and some are read to the class.

– For lower level students I think this is the most difficult category, but they could start off with simple statement like “the man should eat breakfast”. (Any better suggestions for this one are particularly welcome!!!)

NEAT Questions Type 4 – Conversation

–  This is the easiest to introduce, and I’d be surprised if most teachers don’t already. For high level students creating a role play where one student is a character in a film, book or one of their favourite famous people and the other an interviewer is just one of hundreds of options.

Identifying in the objectives of our lesson plans or syllabuses this relationship between the activities and the assessments our students will likely take in the future could prove to be very worthwhile. One reason for this is that it strengthens our position with our employers. If we demonstrate to our employers, whether it be the Korean government, an academy director or our students and identify the links between our lessons, the practical usefulness AND assessment they can only be happy. I really think this is true even if they are not taking classes directly towards a certain type of speaking assessment. Secondly, these exams have been designed to test certain communicative skills that are deemed important by professionals in the field, for me, this provides reassurance that the skills are likely to be transferrable to common every day communication.

In relation to Korea it’s really important we start objectifying the need for our role here. Government cuts are reducing the jobs available for native English teachers on a monthly basis, this could be one way we can turn that around.

Well that’s about all I have on assessment! The past two months planning, implementing and reflecting on the speaking tests I’ve been conducting this semester has been a massive eye opener for me regarding just how much there is to think about. Assessment isn’t a simple thing; I hated it when I was a student and so if we are going to put our students through it I think it’s important we give them all the support they need while make the process as fair and useful for them as we can.

Once all my students have finished their speaking tests I’m going to be getting feedback from them on what they thought of the design. I can’t wait to find out what I can learn from them and whether they were won over from the plan, memorize, recite tests they were used to and wanted at the beginning of the process.

If you use twitter, you can follow me on @AlexSWalsh or if not subscribe for email updates on the right.

Students, the harshest teacher trainers?

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This semester I decided to compile as much data as possible from my students and co-teachers regarding my performance and effectiveness over the past four months. The results have been invaluable as a tool for my own professional development, but I also believe that, despite the variation in contexts, they can provide some useful tips and insight for other educators too. Here are my reflections on the feedback I received and the lessons I’ve learnt.

I’ve embedded the full document with my students and co-teachers feedback at the bottom of the blog.

My Reflections

The feedback from both my students and co-teachers has been unexpectedly positive, my co-teachers have enjoyed being a part of the lessons and my students seem to have really appreciated the structure of the lessons and my passion for their education. I’ve been overwhelmed by how constructive (both critically and  favourably) and honest their feedback has been, it has provided me with an invaluable opportunity to improve as a teacher.

I’m going to split my reflections into three sections: firstly, I’ll look at things I need to keep doing (that I have started doing and have worked well), secondly, I’m going to consider things I need to start doing and finally, things I need to stop doing!

Things I Need to Keep Doing (I’m going to concentrate here on things I don’t feel I did so well in previous semesters.)

i) Use of Short Films

The student response to the use of short films in class (usually between 1 minute and 10 minutes in length) indicates that students are really enjoying them, that they are seeing the benefit of them and that they have been extremely important a motivating and holding the concentration of my students. I think there are a number of reasons for this:

1) Teenagers now live in a much more visually stimulating world. Everything is on computers or T.V’s, and this is what the students are used to.

2) Some of my classes are very mixed ability. Short films allow my low level students to understand the general gist of what is happening, the information they get visually can help them understand and contextualize the language that is being taught. For my highest level students videos often come with very natural pronunciation and expressions, this presents a great opportunity for them to hear language how it is naturally used and challenges them to pick out language and expressions they wouldn’t find in a text book.

3) Videos allow students to absorb culture as well as language. I find my students genuinely interested in other cultures around the world and video present a great way for them to explore that.

ii) Praising the Students and Displaying Their Work

It has really become apparent to me this year just how important praise is to the students. My girl classes visually show how much they want positive feedback and so it is easy to find opportunities to provide them with positive feedback and praise. At this age boys can’t really be seen to desire positive feedback from the teacher, I think this is especially apparent if the teacher is male. This means it is harder to find opportunities to provide them with positive praise and feedback. From the student feedback it seems I have done this successfully with my first grade boy classes, but not my second grade boy classes. The classes are much larger and the boys are naturally much louder and more boisterous, so it is harder to find opportunities. Next semester I really need to actively find opportunities to provide them with positive feedback.

We’ve done two activities this semester purposely designed to give the students opportunities to make some really great work that can be displayed all over the class. The feedback shows the students have both acknowledged and appreciated this. Other than this feedback I have noticed the students really taking a keen interest in other classes’ work that is displayed around the room. It seems to have created a kind of competition between the classes.

iii) Having Clear Rules

Although I have the same rules this semester as last semester, I am working at a different school that provides more levels of support when enforcing rules. This semester has shown just how important the support of the institution is in enforcing rules. As an example, last year if a student walked into class 5 minutes late eating cake nothing was done about it, although I disciplined them, the institution itself took no interest in this. This semester there are clear consequences, both from myself and the institution, regarding the consequences of a student’s actions. It has become very clear how important having your institution on your side regarding discipline is.

iv) Catering to Multiple Intelligences & Learning Styles

Something that has been made absolutely clear in the feedback from the students is the variety of learning styles and preferences the students have. The students indicated that they recognized the use of many different forms of activities, but when asked what they would like more/less of next semester and what they enjoyed/didn’t enjoy, other than wanting more short films, there was a huge variation. For me, this clearly shows the importance of providing students with a range of activities and stimuli in order to keep all students motivated and interested in class.

Things I Need to Start Doing

i) Giving Students More Time to Complete Activities

Although the students rated me favorably for this it was still one of my lowest scores, and I have to say that on reflection I absolutely agree with them. For the majority of the semester I was at conflict with my institution. They wanted me to teach key expressions every class, I wanted to teach skills. This meant I was trying to fit both into a 50 minute period and the classes felt a bit too rushed. I’ve now reached a compromise with my school; we are going to have spread topics over two classes, meaning half the compulsory amount of expressions and more time for skills. This will hopefully result in the classes being less rushed. It’s amazing just how observant and sensitive the students are to issues such as this.

ii) A Better Introductory Lesson

I started at a new school this semester and my directives were to start teaching my syllabus from the very first class. They asked me to only take up 10 minutes for introductions etc. and I used this time for making the rules of the classroom clear and introducing myself. I think this was a mistake and something I should have strongly objected to. The students have shown in their feedback that they weren’t sure exactly what they were supposed to achieve from the course, something that should have been made clear to them in the introductory lesson. Although almost all the classes adapted well I think this could be partially responsible for the behavioral problems one class faced at the beginning of the semester. Quite simply they weren’t sure why they were there. This is a mistake I won’t be making again.

iii) Explaining the Reason behind Activities

On reflection something I hardly did this semester is tell students why we were doing the activities we were doing, what skills were we practicing, what could they achieve from the activity, how is it useful for them in real life etc. This is shown in the relatively low score for ‘providing students with opportunities to practice creative thinking, divergent thinking and critical thinking’. Although I strongly believe these skills were practiced in almost every class I didn’t make the students aware of this. This is definitely something for me to bear in mind next semester.

Things I Need to Stop Doing

i) Compulsory Homework

Feedback from the students is quite clearly against homework, and on reflection I think they might be right!

Why am I giving them homework? The honest answer is ‘I’m not sure.’ Maybe because it’s what my teacher did when I was at school, maybe because I want them to see my class is serious, maybe it just felt right.

What did I achieve from it? Probably not much, the students who wanted to do it did it, and I hope gained from it (it was usually to interview someone, in English, on the topic we had done in class), but by forcing students to do it who didn’t want to meant that all they were probably doing was either copying their friends answers or making it up. Next semester I will make students aware of the reasons for doing the homework, but make it optional. This will also mean I have fewer to grade and so can do a more thorough job.

ii) Presuming I Can Motivate 2nd Grade Boys with Stamp Sheets!

The 2nd grade boys have made it very clear to me this semester they really don’t care about stamp sheets (a technique that works very well with my other classes). So, I’m going to have to think of something new, something sports related. At this point I’m not sure what, but I have a month to figure it out! For me this was a really clear reminder that we teach students, not lessons, and all students have different needs we must adapt to.

Notes

i) This is the first time I have performed such an extensive self evaluation and the amount I have learnt from it has been invaluable. I wasn’t required to do it by my school or regional office, and it took a lot of time to put together all the data, but I highly recommend doing it. The main reasons I have never done this before is firstly, because I’ve never been required to do it, and secondly, because I was nervous that the feedback might be negative. However, I really encourage teachers to do this once or twice a year as you will be surprised how much you will learn, both about what your co-workers and students appreciate in your work, and what you can improve. In terms of professional development, it seems essential.

ii) The low score for the ‘level of the exam was appropriate’ is something I haven’t mentioned as it is not something I had much (or any) control over. The results of that question have been fed back to the institution I work and it is something that we are going to work closer together on next semester to rectify.

If you took the time to read this I really hope it was useful for you. I would love to hear any comments regarding these reflections, especially if you’ve got any tips for motivation 40+ 17 year old boys 😉

You can follow me on twitter @AlexSWalsh

Comments

Gemma
08/07/2012 19:27

wow a very brave and honest post! This was really useful for me and probably something a lot more of us should do but are to scared of doing, so well done!

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AlienTeachers
15/08/2012 01:24

Hi Gemma!

Thanks for the kind comment! If you do feel like doing something similar just let me know, you’re welcome to use the form I created.

Sorry for the late reply, just back from holiday!

Alex

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Iona
04/08/2012 06:52

Fantastic. In my second year of teaching I did a much simpler version of the same thing and I was blown away by what I learned…it was so powerful that I continued it during my teaching career and now use it to have my staff evaluate my performance as Principal. I love your format and will crib some bits from it!

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AlienTeachers
15/08/2012 01:28

Hi Iona!

First of all I’m sorry for my delayed response, I’ve been away for the past few weeks spending some time with my family!

You’re welcome to use any parts you like, and I couldn’t agree more, this is the first time I’ve done this (in my third year of teaching) and like you I was blown away by how much I learnt and how receptive the students are to what is happening in the classroom!

Thanks for your comment,

Alex

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jorgelina-carlassare
06/08/2012 05:18

Congrats! Excellent ideas! Thanks for sharing them with us!

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AlienTeachers
15/08/2012 01:29

My pleasure, thanks for reading 🙂

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20/09/2012 20:37

Hey Alex,

This is fantastic, and an excellent example for other teachers to follow. I am more than half way through my second year and have yet to do anything approaching this. It’s not so much because I am afraid of negative responses, as much as it had not come to my attention as to how important and helpful it really can be.

Thank you for showing us that it is integral to our development as teachers.

In addition, I would like to say that your provided example of evaluation gave me many more thoughts about what I do in class and without even asking for feedback can see things I need to improve.

All in all it is more proof that there is no cruising by in this job. If one wants to improve one must truly care about what one does and go at it full steam. You are an exemplary model to follow, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have met you, along with so many other incredible teachers, so early in my career.

Cheers!

John

PS…I will definitely be coming to Seoul, for the conference in October, with a boat load of questions! Would love to take you up on your offer for assistance!

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28/09/2012 02:46

I think the things you covered through the post are quiet impressive, good job and great efforts. I found it very interesting and enjoyed reading all of it…keeps it up, lovely job.

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Nicola Perry
31/03/2013 02:26

I picked this up from the teachingenglish website. I have scooped.it as I think it has some really useful ideas about getting feedback and how to use it. Thanks.

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Alex (AlienTeachers)
03/04/2013 00:47

Hi Nicola, thanks so much for the comment. I will certainly be trying my best to keep it up! Haha, thanks again!

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31/03/2013 04:50

Hi Alex, thank you for sharing with us! I have been using something similar ( a more general type questionnaire) mainly in the higher level classes and I have to admit I always get quite impressed with the results! Something my youngest students really enjoy is the mime game. I give each one of them the name of an animal (they choose) and they try to sound like it 🙂 Every week they choose a different animal so we all have a good laugh and they never forget the name of the animal!

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Alex (AlienTeachers)
03/04/2013 00:48

Hi Ellen, it’s my pleasure, thank you for taking the time to read it! I used to teach very young learners and they also loved the mime game, or anything that got them out of their seats and jumping around for that matter!

Thanks again for reading and especially commenting!

Alex

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Saima Gul
02/04/2013 00:21

You have shared a wonderful experience which can help teachers develop more and make their teaching more effective. As a master trainer I will share your document with teachers of my country’s schools.

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Alex (AlienTeachers)
03/04/2013 00:49

Hi Saima,

thanks for taking the time to comment, it is always appreciated! I really hope it can help other teachers develop.

Thanks again,

Alex

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02/04/2013 06:47

Thanks for sharing, this is something I’ve been contemplating for a while. I’ll certainly be using your experience as a model for developing my own feedback forms.

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Alex (AlienTeachers)
03/04/2013 00:51

Hi Abdul,

completely randomly I stumbled upon your blog this morning on the way to work and really enjoyed it! Amazing coincidence! I had no idea until I just clicked on the link you provided with this comment and recognised it.

Anyway thanks for taking the time to comment, I will certainly be returning the favour soon! Do you use twitter?

Alex

The Confessions of a Grammarphobic ELT

I have a confession to make, I’ve been hiding it for about 3 1/3 years, but it’s time I got it off my chest, my knowledge of grammar is absolutely terrible, just awful. Yep, that’s right, I’ve been teaching EFL for over 3 years and yet my knowledge of English grammar is appalling. Just to be safe I think I should clarify exactly what I mean here, by lack of knowledge I mean that similar to most native speakers, I know what’s wrong and what’s right, I just don’t know why!  Now, before you judge let me make my excuses! To start with, I was never taught any outright grammar at school, and even if my English teacher tried (which I genuinely don’t think she did) I probably wasn’t listening, as I would have had no interest! From there I did my BSc Sociology & Criminology, all essay based, all essays were completed on a word processor that corrected my grammar for me, and beyond swearing at my computer for telling me I’d produced yet another fragment I just went with it and didn’t question it.

My first classroom based teaching job was teaching elementary level students in an academy for a year, my grammar did improve a bit over the course of that year. I then did my CELTA, again my grammar improved a fair bit, however well I tried to hide my lack of grammar knowledge (I somehow swindled only doing two assessed classes that involved teaching grammar) my tutor did pick up on it, and I was told it was the reason for being given a ‘pass B’ instead of a ‘pass A’. From there, I’ve taught high school for two years in a system where not only am I not expected to, but I am discouraged from explicitly teaching grammar. That is the job of the Korean teachers, and they do a mighty fine job of it, my god they know some incredible grammar rules I would never have even been able to guess existed! I’m now coming towards the end of my M.A TESOL, which has focused much more on methodology and issues in teaching ESL/EFL than outright grammar, as (in my opinion) we shouldn’t need an M.A course to teach us grammar.

Over the course of my education I have never been taught why we structure the English language the way we do and my career, meanwhile, has happened to allow me to hide my grammarphobia. The problem is that the longer I’ve hidden it the more fearful of it I’ve become! A teacher of one month not knowing his grammar, no big deal! A teacher of over 3 years, that is embarrassing! Now, at this point I should probably state that, despite my lack of knowledge, I’ve always tried to be as professional as I can, I will never guess a reason if a student asks me, and I will never just not give them an answer. I always reply with the same answer, “come and see me in the morning, you research it, I’ll research it, and we’ll see if we come up with the same answer.” It definitely does have some negative effects on my teaching though, for example I’m fearful of open and outright error correction, I always try to structure it in a way that avoids me having to explain complex grammar structures as I don’t want to deal with that embarrassment in front of my forty 16 year old students of having absolutely no idea why we use what might be a common structure!

So why have I decided to publicly embarrass myself by openly admitting my grammarphobia? Well, there are a number of reasons, first of all, I think grammar is important, it is something students want to be taught, need to be taught and that I absolutely want to be confident teaching them. If we are professional English language teachers we should be able to confidently explain more than just the common structures of the language. Secondly, I don’t think I’m alone, in fact, I know I’m not alone. I have met many other professionals in the EFL/ESL industry who have the same feelings towards grammar as I have. Thirdly, I’m considering changing jobs in the next year or so, well I’m considering moving countries actually. When and if I do I want to be as confident as possible in every aspect of my teaching, including grammar. But the main reason I’ve chosen to admit this now is that I have a one month holiday coming up, in which time I will have no studying towards my M.A TESOL to do, no lessons to plan, no syllabus to write and probably no blogging to do! I will have a lot of time sat on various planes, busses cars and trains though, so I want to use that time productively, I want to improve my grammar.

This brings me to the point of this blog; I would like to know how you improved your grammar knowledge? I’m sure most native teachers, when they enter the industry, have relatively poor knowledge, so how did you go about improving yours? What tips would you give me? As native speakers are there efficient ways of improving our knowledge? Do you think it’s important for us, as English language teachers, to have a good knowledge of English grammar? Can we call ourselves professionals if we don’t?

We have one month to turn this grammarphobic teacher into a grammar genius! I’m ready and willing to take on any advice you have!

Comments

22/06/2012 19:17

Hi Mike,

Thanks for the suggestion, I think that book is going to be my holiday reading!

Appreciate the advice!

Alex

Reply
Sophia Khan
21/06/2012 06:46

Hey Alex, we’ve all been there, and you also learn what you need to learn at the time. For me early on I found myself with an advanced mixed nationality class in the UK, and we were using the Headway Advanced CB (v.1). There was a FABULOUS short grammar section at the back. Not only did I read the whole thing, but before every lesson that involved grammar/patterns I checked in the back, did my research, did all the exercises and made sure I was ready to deal with any problems that came up. But if you want to get a good overview of “grammar” that involves you reading, thinking about things, looking at typical task types then the book you need is About Language by our man Scott Thornbury. It’s gold. Good luck and enjoy your holiday reading!

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22/06/2012 19:24

HI Sophia!

I’m going to try and find a copy of ‘about language’ this weekend and make it my holiday reading!!

I think your absolutely right regarding English teachers learning what they need to learn at the time, unfortunately I’m in a job role now where I don’t really need to ‘know’ any grammar. Really looking forward to reading the book you suggested and appreciate the advice 🙂

Alex

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AlienTeachers
22/06/2012 19:40

*You’re absolutely right :p (still feeling the Friday night beers!!!)

Sophia Khan
21/06/2012 06:48

Lol, great minds think alike!

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21/06/2012 07:44

I think Sophia makes a great point when she says that we learn what we need to learn at the time. So far you probably haven’t really needed much grammar (whatever that word means) knowledge. About Language was recommended twice above and I would surely agree with that. @JosetteLB was recommending birds like Swan and Parrot the other day and I also recommended (the massive) “The Grammar Book” (by Marianne Celce-Murcia, Diane Larsen-Freeman). All good stuff. My best suggestion, however, is to think about what you actually need to know and why.

Do you need to know uses of present perfect for a job interview?
Do you need to know the differences between coordinating conjunctions, correlative conjunctions, and subordinating conjunctions? (Why?)
Do you need to know to explain why common errors are common errors?
I know you wrote that you want to be more confident..and that is surely reasonable in my view. I guess I am wondering what it is you’d need to know to be more confident.

(I love how I always answer a question with a question…sorry)

I also think that textbooks (as much as I love them) can be a good starting point. Not totally sure that I would recommend ur student’s standard school book but most textbooks are organized around grammatical points which might be a good start for you.
(Meaning check out popular books and see the grammar books than do your own research)

Hope this helps,
Mike

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22/06/2012 19:35

*then do your research.

All grammar mistakes above were unintentional.

22/06/2012 19:38

Hi Mike,

Given the comments I think ‘About Language’ is going to be a must read for my holiday!

Regarding your questions I am planning on changing job roles next year and probably countries too, and you never know what might be asked in interviews. It is going to put me outside my comfort zone as I have only taught in Korea and I really want to be able to approach jobs with as much confidence as I possibly can. I remember when I did my CELTA with IH the instructor telling me that in their interviews they like to pick a certain grammar point and ask teachers how they would teach it, I think it is this kind of question I’m worried about. I have my beliefs on how grammar should be taught and could probably put together an effective lesson on the spot, but if I don’t know the grammar it could be an issue.

I appreciate the advice mate, my students have exams next week, I think I might well spend a couple of days checking out their text books!

Thanks again 🙂

Daniel Craig
21/06/2012 07:09

Hell, I’m still there. I’m nearly 15 years in, but I still struggle with grammar issues on a regular basis. This is particularly true with my writing classes. There’s nowhere to hide when writing. They problems are generally not about what is “correct” or not (of course that’s an entirely different conversation), but rather how I can describe the rules for WHY that particular structure is being used.

I feel a lot better now than I did 5 years ago (much less 15!), but I still struggle regularly to provide good rationales for grammar use. I note that 5 years ago was a turning point, though. It was around that time that I realized I didn’t have to have all of the answers. I simply began telling students that I didn’t know and asked them if they did. Often, our discussions would jar something loose and I’d be able to explain it better, or they would simple offer a good response (these days they are English Ed students). If we couldn’t come up with a good answer, I’d do one of two things. (1) Tell them to go figure it out (again, good for use with English Ed students). (2) I’d go figure it out and talk about it in the next class. 5 years ago is when I gave up being the Sage on the stage and started being another blind man feeling his way through the dark world of grammar.

Of course, I did have some really great training that I could fall back on. I had a couple of great Profs in my MA that really knew language and the issues that language learners had. I think I was lucky in that I happened upon the program (University of Illinois) at a time when there were some real superstars there at the same time and they were all at the top of their games in writing, pedagogical grammar, pragmatics, morphology, and socio-linguistics. It was a great experience. One, Ron Cowan, really rocked in the reading, writing, and pedagogical grammar. He wrote a book that I’ve heard great things about. I’d encourage you to check it out – http://www.amazon.com/The-Teachers-Grammar-English-Reference/dp/0521007550. It’s required for our students for one of the required classes. The Prof for the class swears by it and she is a top-notch linguist. It’s not just about grammar, but the problems that language learners have and how they can best grasp the usage.

I laugh at anyone who tells me they have mastered grammar (meaning an understanding of the underlying rules for constructing communication in a language). That’s a joke. Grammar shifts. It’s a changing beast. Regardless of the linguistic camp you are in, one can make the argument that grammar is predictable and consistent, but that is only in the abstract. Usage is a bitch and that is where pragmatics screws everything up so wonderfully.

Don’t be afraid of gaps in your ability to explain grammar, but also don’t be content. Keep learning and when you think you’ll learned it all reconsider what “all” means 🙂

Reply
AlienTeachers
22/06/2012 19:59

Hi Daniel!

First of all I really want to thank you for your comment, to be honest knowing someone with your qualifications and experience still struggles makes me feel a lot better about my grammarphobia!

The two responses you use with your students (asking them to figure it out or you figuring it out for next class) are also the ways I approach any questions I can’t answer, which is most at the moment! To be perfectly honest, if I did know the reasoning, I believe it would good practice to ask the students to go away and research it themselves anyway.

I will definitely be checking out the book you recommend, I’ll make sure I let you know how I find it.

Thanks for the recommendation and encouraging words mate, I appreciate it a lot.

Alex

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Daniel Craig
21/06/2012 07:12

I should add that this book (http://www.amazon.com/The-Grammar-Book-Teachers-Edition/dp/0838447252/ref=sr_1_9?ie=UTF8&qid=1340287864&sr=8-9&keywords=esl+grammar) got me through grad school and I still go to it at least once a week.

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21/06/2012 07:22

I’m not a native English speaker, but the international language has been taught to us since age 5 or younger. Grammar correction becomes instinctive when you’re choked with the same subject-predicate relationship rules, everyday, for the rest of your school life. With this experience, I should say that if for some reason my English teacher can not explain grammar rules, I’ll personally take legal action against him/her. In fact, I did it twice in middle school. In my mind, it’s like a doctor who doesn’t know the fundamentals of CPR. He/she knows the application but doesn’t know the reason behind each action.
But if it is not for teaching, I’d throw the rules out the door. Since I started communicating with native English speakers, I lost faith on the language. The rules have changed drastically and still changing really fast, to conform to current generations. It took years before “but” and “and” to be accepted as the beginning of a sentence. Now, changes happen in less than six months. Would you believe the proper use of “whom” is about to be discarded including the word itself?
Bottom line, if you’re professionally teaching the language, knowledge of grammar is a must. Else, I don’t even care anymore.
If ever one of my students ask me why such rules are important, I’d base my answers on this article: http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/does-grammar-matter.aspx

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AlienTeachers
21/06/2012 16:21

Hi Phoenix,

First of all it’s great to have the perspective of a ‘non-native speaker’ here, so thanks for your comment.

I have a couple of questions for you about your comment, and it’s probably easier to use your analogy to make them. Now, a doctor knowing CPR, let’s just take it a little bit further and say a baby is hit by a car and needs resuscitating, if you were to ask a 65 year old gynecologist the theory behind the resuscitation technique for a baby I doubt they would be able to tell you. They’ve been practicing medicine for 35 years, just as I have been speaking English for 28 years.

I think we could also use the medical field as an example of many native speaking teachers professional expertise. Most doctors specialise in a certain field, they gain expert knowledge of the specific area in which they work, just as my Korean coteacher and I have different specialisations in teaching English, if you asked her to teach a conversational English class she wouldn’t really know where to start, but ask her to teach a lesson preparing students for a grammar exam and she would be unbeatable!

Now to stay along the medicine theme, in England we have ‘general practitioners’. These are doctors who have a general knowledge of everything, but no specialisation. Their job is to refer to you to a specialist if they feel you need it, if not to offer you medical assistance there and then. It is absolutely normal for a GP to have to look up your medical condition in a book before offering assistance, especially what treatment to prescribe, and if you were to ask the GP the theory behind how that treatment works she would certainly have to refer to a book. I think this is similar to an English teacher having to go away and look up a particular aspect of grammar before offering a student an answer. I don’t feel there is anything unprofessional about that.

I hope you’re kidding about the legal action mate!

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28/07/2012 14:07

Phoenix Jackson – may I suggest you find the time to read Quirk’s short book “The Fight for English” http://books.google.fr/books/about/The_fight_for_English.html?id=EqpiAAAAMAAJ&redir_esc=y

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Andee
21/06/2012 07:58

very short: my english grammar improved after i spent time studying japanese through korean… basically, comparative analysis of three languages made me understand things in more detail

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22/06/2012 20:37

Hi Andee!

I think you’re absolutely right in the point you make, the little Korean I have studied definitely raised my awareness of language issues in English as well as Korean.

Thanks for the comment, always appreciated no matter how short 🙂

Alex

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Dayle
21/06/2012 08:10

Hey Alex,

A few book suggestions have been made already; however, I’d like to add another one if I may. My current MA course is Pedagogical Grammar and the prescribed text for it is Kennedy, G. (2003). Structure and Meaning in English. Chapters 3-7 of the book deals with English grammar; each chapter contains not only explanations but also tasks to work through and answers are at the back of the book.

You could read it during your commutes. If you’re interested, What The Book stocks it: http://www.whatthebook.com/book/9780582506329?

Reply
AlienTeachers
22/06/2012 20:39

Hi Dayle,

Thanks for the recommendation, I’m on my way down to pick up ‘about language’ now, I’ll see if the have a copy of the book you recommend and have a browse through those chapters!

Thanks again,

Alex

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Manpal
21/06/2012 22:21

My name is Manpal and I am a grammarphobe.

I applaud your honesty. I think many teachers are in the same boat.

Maybe the two of us should pick up some of the books others have recommended and get together regularly to help each other increase our grammar knowledge.

Of course, I think such meetings should end with chicken and beer.

Reply
22/06/2012 20:45

Manpal, welcome to my club! They say the first step is the hardest…….!!!!

I’m actually just about to go and pick up ‘about language’ and would definitely be up for some grammar get togethers (my computer is telling me that’s not a real word!), very much followed by some chicken and beer!

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John
03/07/2012 18:40

Hey Alex,

I will ditto the previous comments. It is great to hear all you experienced teachers struggle with grammar as well. I have always resisted acquiring grammar knowledge due to a belief that proper grammar will come about of its own accord through enough use (LSRW) of the language.

After a year and a half I now realize that there is occasionally a place for grammar, and I can certainly respect the fact that many students want to know the why behind some of the language. I also believe that teachers SHOULD know the why behind it all, at least a portion of it.

You have given me some inspiration to make my own inroads into the grammar realm. I too will check out “About Language”. Perhaps we can meet after our respective summer breaks and discuss what we’ve learned…over chicken and beers of course 😉

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28/07/2012 14:55

I really enjoyed reading your post, and all the comments. You may have noticed a recent upsurge of visits, sent here by @mikecorea via http://eltchat.com/?p=3654&preview=true

You know that wish-I’d-said-it-at-the-time feeling? It came to me after the #ELTchat was over so here, just for you is the “missing” tweet and a reply 🙂

#ELTchat Grammar: problem is not “exceptions to the rule”. The prob is – over precise rules do not describe reality.

@eannegrenoble good point, Elizabeth. Sticking to 100% grammar accuracy can sometimes produce language that sounds unnatural and stilted.

Enjoy your reading, and just for pleasure, try “The language Web” by Jean Aitkinson. Though, having done an MA in the subject, I’m sure you’re just doing that typically British downplaying yourself bit!

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Lolu
28/07/2012 22:20

Hello Alex,

Just discovered this amazing website. Kudos on you!!

I’ll get straight to the point. I believe the main reason we native speakers (at least those from the UK) struggle with grammar structures is because we studied grammar from a different angle, we learnt grammar through ‘verbal reasoning’.

I remember my primary school days and those horrid “verbal reasoning” lessons/books. They mainly consisted of different sentences (grammatically correct and incorrect) and we had to choose which one(s) were correct. However, we rarely got an explanation as to why certain grammatical structures were correct/incorrect, just a tick or cross.I believe that is why we instinctively know correct grammatical structures, without being to explain why.

It wasn’t until I studied for my TESOL certificate that I truly realized the complexity of English grammar, and how to explain the structures. Just like you I was absolutely petrified of explaining grammar, but now I’m becoming more and more confident.

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Jason
27/08/2013 22:32

Hi mate,

Books like Grammar in Use were pretty useful for me when I was trying to get the basics of grammar together before I did the CELTA. I found I learnt best from seeing examples along with the rules to consolidate it in my mind. Grammar in Use also has activities and answers so you can test yourself to see if you get the idea! If you fail, maybe English isn’t your first language haha

It’s funny you mention Korean teachers and grammar. I taught there for two years and found the opposite to be kind of true. They do know their grammar, but they apply it so rigidly they’re not always right. The subtleties of grammar go completely over their head sometimes as the rules have generally been rote learned. That’s where you come in, although it sounds like you’re lucky enough to have teachers who might be more aware of this.

Good luck with it all.

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Jason
27/08/2013 22:35

I should’ve added – it took me years to get confident with the basics and I’m still not comfortable with new grammar, or able to go into in-depth explanations of complex grammar. I’m confident with stuff I’ve taught before, but that’s about it.

I think if you can go through grammar in detail and explain every single thing that comes up in a lesson you’re either wrong, or are in serious need of a decent hobby!

At what point, if ever, is it right to implement an English only classroom?

At what point, if ever, is it right to implement an English only classroom?

Over the course of my career this is a question I’ve never been quite sure about, but luckily up until now it’s been a decision that’s been out of my hands! I’m now, however, in a position where I’m wondering whether trying to introduce an English only classroom is the right thing to do, and I need your help! I started off my career, as many in Korea did, working in an academy that brought in students by promising a completely immersed English environment for the students. The benefits and necessity for an immersive environment was something I just took for granted at the time, it just seemed like the right thing to do.

After leaving the immersive academy environment I became a high school teacher, and suddenly going from 8 very cute 7 year olds in a class to 40 mature teenagers/immature adults (depending on the day!) in a class meant I had a lot more to worry about than a completely immersive English atmosphere. Quite honestly I didn’t have the classroom management skills or subject knowledge to start trying to introduce such a scheme. I’m now three years down the line, I’ve figured out my classroom management skills, subject knowledge and range of activities that can keep students interested, and I’m blessed with, on the most part, high level students. The objective for my students first semester was to build their confidence and motivation to participate in classroom activities, I’m quite comfortable this has, on the most part, been achieved. This means that I feel I’m at a point where, at the start of next semester, I could comfortably introduce an English only classroom, but I’m not sure if I want to.

My current conflicting view on the topic is something like this, as long as the students are focused and motivated allowing the students to communicate in Korean helps them to help each other generate new language, I see this happening every day, I also believe that by having the freedom to check in Korean with their partner or group it encourages them to use vocabulary they might not be sure about, thus increasing confidence and willingness to volunteer in class during feedback. It also allows the students to explain activities to the student next to them who was too tired to pay attention. This all sounds great, until the little TEFL devil on my other shoulder starts making me consider the benefits of an English only classroom. By encouraging (in reality probably forcing) the students to constantly use English, although it might be difficult for them at first, they might do all the above in English, this would provide huge benefits. They would be creating and using massive amounts of English, suddenly activities such as making comics are about more than using the key expressions learnt in class, but the organization of roles in the group, even simply asking each other to borrow coloring pens becomes a production activity in itself. This, in turn, would help build confidence for using English outside the classroom, but then again, this could isolate the lower level students and really hinder their improvement if the other students feel uncomfortable using Korean to guide them in activities.

This feels like one of those lists you make when you’re 15 years old trying to decide whether to breakup with your girlfriend! Well here is mine:

Reasons for breaking up with Korean

–       If successful it would result in my students producing a lot more language.

–       Could increase students’ confidence outside of class.

–       It would encourage my coteachers to speak more English in class, something I’ve been wanting for a long time.

–       It encourages the students to think in English.

Reasons for staying with Korean

–       But would the language simply be language they already know and are comfortable with?

–       Some students might say nothing at all with an English only classroom.

–       If my coteachers ONLY speak English in class, it could prohibit them from picking up on misunderstandings my students have.

–       In real communication in a second language, many argue it is normal to translate from your first language to the target language in your head, so why not practice this in class?

So, I guess I’m really looking for some advice/suggestions, as I’m really struggling with this. I would absolutely love any comments, especially regarding these questions:

What do you think I should do? Why?
Do you encourage an English only classroom? Why or why not?
Have I missed a vital point that could help me make my decisions?

Don’t forget you can follow me on twitter @AlexSWalsh

References:
For quite a balanced and well researched overview please see :http://www.ncela.gwu.edu/files/rcd/BE019020/Reexamining_English_Only.pdf

Comments

Paula
20/06/2012 06:25

Depends on the level. I find that most of my students speak to each other in Portuguese when they’re trying to figure something out. I just pretend I can’t hear them. I Keep on encouraging them to speak in English to me at all times and during a speaking activity. This can be difficult with elementary students but there are always a few who can say “whatever” in English. This can be a problem if they’re real beginners…I hardly ever get real beginners.

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21/06/2012 06:35

Hi Paula!

thanks for your comment! I completely relate with you, I also feel that my students do a fantastic job of using Korean to try and figure stuff out and to aid each other when completing tasks, this is something I really feel is important in my classroom. My students are quite advanced learners, so I wonder if they would be able to be able to figure this stuff out in English if they really tried? What a dilemma!

Thanks for your comment, it’s really appreciated

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Anne
20/06/2012 07:27

I used to insist on an English only classroom. I have never worked with a co-teacher and so didn’t have that consideration. English only classrooms work with a variety of ages and levels, as long as I’m consistent in enforcing it. It forces the students to be more creative in using English to make themselves understood by me and more importantly by each other. It also seems to encourage automaticity because the students become so focused on meaning that they forget to think about how they’re creating it. In this case, the relationship the students have with the teacher is really important.
I said “used to”. I no longer enforce an English-only policy. I stopped when I realized that, if I have a good handle on classroom management, students primarily use Korean to explain to each other (which saves a lot of time) and to plan out how to do activities/ group work. It might be different if they were at a level where I can expect them to think in English, but then again it might not.
I agree that it’s a dilemma and I can’t say that I won’t change my mind about it again.

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21/06/2012 06:37

Hi Anne!

Your comment is really interesting, when you did have an English only classroom how did you go about enforcing it, as this is one the things I would have to get spot on. It sounds like your students use Korean for the same reason mine do. I wonder, what level are your current students? Do you think they would be able to offer each other this support in English if they really wanted to?

Thanks for your great comment!

Alex

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Anne
22/06/2012 21:01

Hi Alex,
The students I was referring to are second year university students at an intermediate level. I think they MIGHT be able to do some of it in English, but it would be confusing for them and take a lot of time that, in my teaching situation, we just didn’t have.

When I enforced English only, I started the semester by getting them to tell me what they saw as benefits of an English-only classroom and asking them all to sign an agreement. I have freedom with about 10% of their grade that I can use for participation and I explained that they’d lose points for speaking Korean in class. I also showed examples of classes that explained things to each other in English and had conversations with each other in English, to show them it is possible. Further enforcement wasn’t really necessary (but those students were a little older than yours) and it got easier as they went along. Their feedback at the end was that it’s really tiring to use only English in class. (Imagine using only Korean, even for a couple hours.)
Anne

08/10/2012 12:39

This is a really interesting post. I’ve been wrestling with the same questions myself. At the moment I’m spending half my week with English language learners in kindergarten and half of it with first-year university students. English-only isn’t practical with kindergarteners and I think you have to pick your battles. Also, they are still learning how to interact with each other and learning about the world. I can’t expect them to do all of that in English, it’s just too much. Plus, the goal is for them to be bilingual and biliterate, not for English to replace their L1, so they need to keep using their first language in order to achieve this. My university students have told me that they like English-only policies, as they get to hear and speak more English that way. However, I really think that if you ask students to ‘think’ in English before they are fluent then it restricts their thinking. My students are beginning their majors but if they only think and talk about concepts that they have the English vocabulary and grammatical structures for, then they’ll fall behind their English-speaking peers in content knowledge. So my policy in both classes is English-mostly. The kindergarten students talk to each other, help each other, and discuss the content of our English-language readalouds in their first languages. They use English when they are speaking to me, and when the activities are focussed on English-language vocabulary and grammar. My university students use English pretty much all the time, but I encourage them to explain things to each other in L1, think through difficult concepts in L1, and brainstorm their ideas and essays in L1. I find this works pretty well so I’d definitely be interested to see if other people use this approach. For high school, I really like your idea of having students organize roles in English. This is English that they are really going to need to use! However, I also think that there’s no point battling them for an English-only environment, especially if classroom control is difficult. I’d go for the carrot rather than the stick – give extra points for communicating in English, make organizational communication part of the lesson, but don’t penalize the odd whispered word in Korean. I’d also consider asking the students how they think they learn best. They’ll be much more on board if they think it was their idea. Good luck!