Category: How To’s

Rachael Roberts’ strategies to survive overwhelm

Rachael Roberts’ strategies to survive overwhelm

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If you can relate to the post card a friend sent me recently – the image above – then Rachael Robert’s presentation at the IATEFL MaWSIG PCE on 18 June 2021 was full of tips and ideas that might interest you. And so, in this post, I’d like to share some of Rachael’s insights with you as well as my own take on the issues of stress and feeling overwhelmed.

Now, Rachael was mainly thinking about freelancers in the ELT world, but I’m sure a lot of people can identify with her opening statement. There are two main scenarios that cause stress: Too much work, and not enough work. Whether we’re overloaded with work or facing a bit of a drought on the work front, the result is the same: We worry. 

As Rachael said, especially freelancers need to make sure that they stay visible and ‘market’ themselves and their skills in order to be offered further paid work in the future. And anyone worrying about facing a scarcity of paid work in the future, might end up spending a lot of ‘work’ time on the ‘getting your name out there’ side of things – or take on too much work in the present to earn enough money for potential low periods in future. A bit like bulk buying loo roll! (That’s my comparison, don’t blame Rachael!)

I think we can all agree that this situation can cause us stress. 

Now, as Rachael reminded us, the impact that stress has on our brains and bodies is not negative per se. I mean, we evolved to feel stress for a good reason! Stress, and the hormones it makes our bodies release, is helpful for getting things done. It’s the body’s “fight or flight” response to situations perceived as a threat. So stress can help us to ‘step up’ and deal with these short-term challenges (or ‘threats’) we’re facing. However, this biological reaction is most beneficial when it is temporary. Once you’ve fought or flown from the threat, the brain and body should go back into non-stress mode.

What I guess most people mean when they say they’re “stressed”, though, is that this temporary biological reaction to challenges has ceased to be temporary! Chronic stress seriously impacts on our  physical and mental health. It can lead us to be forgetful, indecisive or really irritable, or to have trouble sleeping or maintaining our weight. In my experience, it can sometimes feel like chronic stress swallows us up and prevents us from seeing options for improving the situation. We can’t see the way out for all the loo roll, so to speak. 

And it’s here that Rachael’s talk offered very useful, practical advice for us all. Let me summarise.

  • Try to avoid taking on too much in the first place. We need to carefully consider our options and do our calculations before taking on work. Rachael mentioned a few traps to try to avoid:
    • Our natural bias makes us focus on the benefits of a current opportunity rather than the costs, such as time and energy invested and missing out on the benefit(s) of any other work we won’t be able to do if we take on this current job. Rachael suggests carefully tracking your hours and pay over time to help you make more informed decisions.
    • Another natural bias makes us think we can do more work, more quickly than we realistically can. Again, Rachael suggests keeping track of how long things really take and using that information to help us make decisions in future and hopefully avoid this bias. 
    • Don’t fully book yourself with ‘actual work’ – remember that you’ll need time for admin, meetings and self-marketing, etc. as well. If you don’t plan for this, it will basically be done during unpaid overtime hours.
  • Develop good time management strategies. Using your time effectively not only helps you to get everything done that you need to, but helps you to feel on top of things and prevent overwhelm. Here are some concrete strategies Rachael suggests:
    • Make a to-do list so that you don’t try to keep all of your tasks in mind all the time. Try to separate out task types and break large tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks to go on your list. 
    • Prioritise and aim to spend more time on important but not urgent tasks, then you’ll have dealt with these things before they become urgent. 
    • Use your “Prime time” effectively – everyone has a time of day when they can concentrate and think best: don’t use that prime thinking time for unimportant things like admin or things that could be delegated or postponed; do those at times when your energy levels are low.
    • Don’t multitask, but focus on one task for a block of time – especially important things which require focus and cognitive energy. Rachael particularly recommended starting the day with a ‘block’ of important but small tasks, or first doing the tasks which you feel least like doing. 
    • Use apps to help you stay focused and to reward yourself when you do. For example pomodoro apps, or website blockers.
  • Learn to manage your energy as well as your time.  Rachael explained this much better than I can. She reminded us of the need to achieve a balance between things that motivate us, threaten us and soothe us. This can best be achieved through rest, rewarding play, and exercise. 
  • Just stop. If you’re struggling with something and feeling overwhelmed, or if you’re trying to work but not getting anything done. Stop, rest and recharge. 

I think all of us who attended Rachel’s talk felt inspired and better armed to avoid overwhelm after listening to her calmly present these tips and justifications for them. Definitely better able to deal with the million ‘tabs’ that are open in our brains, without overdosing on loo roll!

I hope that this summary helps even more people feel less stressed. And maybe also inspires you to hear more from Rachael, for example over at her website: www.life-resourceful.com/start-here

Writing/Working at home – Less is more

Writing/Working at home – Less is more

I’ve been working from home for exactly a month now. I’ve left the house about five times in that period and during the day I’m on my own here. I’ve been inundated with emails from students and colleagues, and phone calls and online meetings, as you’d expect. But just over a week ago, I noticed that what I’ve really been doing is just working non-stop but still not getting very far. I started in the mornings when I would leave the house to drive to work (7 am) and basically work through until around 5.30 pm, but somehow most evenings I just didn’t feel like I had got much done,  and sometimes ended up thinking about work all evening – and even dreaming about it! I spent so much time working or thinking about work, but I realised that I wasn’t working very effectively and I wasn’t taking care of myself so that my brain would be fit enough for all of the new challenges that online and distance teaching bring with them. 

I’ve been preparing materials for a semester which is going to start on Monday but looking back over them I was quite disappointed with my performance. So, I stopped to take stock and figure out what I would need to do to keep myself from burning out whilst working at, and teaching from, home this term. In this post I’d like to share some of the ideas that I’m trying out and that seem to be working for me. Maybe they’ll be helpful for other people to! The overall motto is: less is more!

First of all, I’ve tried to limit the number of hours spent doing work things to the same number I would work at work. And quite honestly, even with my full-time EAP teaching position it’s probably only about six real hours of effective work I do per day on average. So that’s what I’ve set myself for this period of working full-time at home. I have to say I’m not really strict with myself on this and some days I do half an hour longer or so. But still far less than from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. In this case, slightly less is definitely more! At the absolute latest once my husband gets home I shut the computer down – even if that means stopping in the middle of something. At least I know straight away where I’m going to pick up the next morning! 

I’ve read a bit about pomodoro technique and so on, and I realised that I had been trying to multitask, letting myself get distracted by every email as it came in and basically not focusing so well on the lesson plans and materials I was writing. What I do now during my self-imposed 6-hour working day is set a timer, shut down my email program and turn my mobile phone onto completely silent. I usually go for about 90 minute blocks and not start until about 8 am in the morning. I do two blocks in the morning and one in the afternoon, plus checking emails and and talking to colleagues on the phone. Some people and techniques recommend shorter chunks than this – I don’t know if less is more here; perhaps it depends what you’re working on. But working for concentrated blocks of time has really helped me to stay concentrated, and, looking back over the plans and activities I have written, there is a much clearer linking thread through a lesson or a material, so that saves me time having to edit later. This is definitely something I can recommend and I’m going to carry on doing.

In between those blocks I take breaks away from the desk and try to do something completely different. I do a little bit of cleaning, some colouring, or some exercise like yoga, hula hooping or a stint on the elliptical trainer (and then shower!). For me, doing especially exercise in shorter sessions helps me to get motivated to actually do it! (There it is again, less is more!). And I have even found that, during some rather monotonous activities like colouring or or on the trainer, that’s when some of my best ideas come to me. I sometimes also use that time to make a mental to-do list or plan for my next 90-minute work block. Sometimes I just do laps of my garden looking at the spring blossoms, the fish in the pond, or get lost in my thoughts. I also walk around the house when I’m on the phone to colleagues, which means I’ve easily got my 10,000 steps per day in most days since I started working from home, often without even noticing it! I’m sure the physical movement is also helpful for getting oxygen to my brain to work more effectively! 

Some days (if I’m feeling particularly restless),I let myself have a little quiet time after lunch. I usually just lie down and listen to some music to get my mind off of work tasks. Of course, occasional thoughts about work do sneak in, but somehow in a less hectic way. And sometimes I get flashes of inspiration during these little rests.

In the evenings and at the weekend I take a complete break from working at the computer. I try to do activities that are completely different from my work for example baking, gardening, puzzling or watching TV. And of course catching up with friends on the phone, etc. If the weather is nice I tried to spend as much time outdoors as possible, even if it’s just reading a book in the garden. I’m pleased to say that this has really helped me to stop thinking and worrying about work stuff at the weekend. And sometimes when I get back to the computer on Monday a task that felt so challenging or where I felt I had got stuck the week before suddenly seems a lot easier or more manageable. I learnt and from previous mental health issues how important weekends are, and I think I had maybe lost sight of that a bit. But now that I have reclaimed my weekends and completely work free, I’m much more able to produce better work during the times that I am at the computer.

 

So, as a quick re-cap and handy list, here are my tips for working more effectively at home:

– Stick to a (limited) number of working hours per day.

– Break these working hours into timed blocks during which you’re not distracted.

– Take breaks through the day and do things that are clearly different from your work. Do exercise, for example.

– Allow yourself some quiet time. Spend some time outdoors, for example.

– Do not let work encroach into your evenings or weekends. (Or, depending on your situation, set other clear days/times when you DO NOT WORK.)

– Do not beat yourself up about not having done a ‘perfect’ day’s work every day.

 

Writers’ Block Busters

Writers’ Block Busters

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? We desperately want (or need!) to get something finished – an article, a manuscript, a set of materials, whatever we’re writing – but our brain just feels bereft of any ideas or information. Either that, or our grey cells are buzzing, but shooting around so many random thoughts that we can’t focus on putting together whatever it is we’re trying to write. 

I write ELT materials, and also articles for teaching magazines. And sometimes I stare at my screen trying to write them; or trying to write anything, really! But over the years, I have come up with a little list of things that can help me overcome this block when I’m writing, and so I thought I’d share it here (along with some loosely related anecdotes!):

Go outside – do some weeding in the garden, go for a jog, walk the dog, feed the birds, whatever! Get some natural daylight and a bit of light movement. There are several benefits to this, I’ve found – the extra oxygen and the vitamin D from the sunlight are great boosts, but also the monotonous action of walking/running or pulling out weeds seems to allow space in the mind for other thoughts to come together. Note: You should have some note-taking tool handy for when inspiration hits! I remember walking home from the uni library whilst I was working on my MA dissertation, and connections and arguments I’d spent all day trying to express coherently suddenly appeared in my mind, so nicely formulated that I stopped, dumped by bag on someone’s front wall, and grabbed out my note pad to write it all down!

Have a shower or brush your teeth – don’t take this tip personally! I’d never really paid attention to how often my colleagues or I said “In the shower this morning, I was thinking…”. Or how often I suddenly had a flash of inspiration whilst my electric toothbrush was buzzing along my pearly whites. Maybe it’s the monotonous or automated action thing like walking, or the lack of distractions from the phone, internet, etc., but something about these personal hygiene routines helps me to get ideas or join the dots in things I’m working on.

Watch/read/listen to/talk about the news – read the non-headline stories. Just like topics of conversation, I often find ideas for ELT materials, articles, and so on in a news story that I wouldn’t normally have looked at. I subscribe to a news magazine and have learned about so many interesting new topics that aren’t in the headlines, and have been able to use several of them in my language teaching materials or classes. It surprises me (in a positive way) over and over how things related to topics I’ve just read about come up in other places – in conversation, on social media, in lessons, etc. Seriously, I once wrote a worksheet based on an article about protests against replacing the carpet at Portland (Oregon, USA) airport – people had the pattern tattooed and took ‘footies’ (selfies of their feet) with the carpet. Students found it hilarious, and the text had some great vocab and collocations with colours. And the next week, our last teaching assistant who’d just headed back home to… you guessed it… Portland, posted his own footie on Facebook and all the students could see the carpet for themselves!

Clear out a cupboard – tidy your desk, sort out your wardrobe, organise your sock-draw, sort your cosmetics into little baskets, whatever! Clearing up clutter can have an amazing subconscious effect and free up some “brain space” to get some new ideas or tackle difficult tasks. I don’t say this because I have any sort of strong belief á la Feng shui or Marie Kondo; I have just found that knowing things are orderly in the physical world, helps me to bring order to my mental world and get on with the task at hand.

Do chores that need less than a minute – send that email, pay that bill, file that document, empty the dishwasher, whatever! This one works similarly to the cupboard-clearing, I think: Even the smallest items take up space in our mental to-do lists that would probably be best used for something else. I find it best to “clear” these from my to-do list first thing in the morning, so they don’t distract my focus from what we’re trying to write, but they can also work well if I’ve reached a dead-end in my inspiration or writing.

Get creative/Play a game – with your children/partner/flat mates (if available!) or online; the more imaginative the better! I know that writing IS creative, but what I mean here is some other kind of imaginative or creative pastime. I like to bake and to do colouring (because when I work at home during the day there is no partner/child/flat mate I could coerce into helping me play a creative game!), but I guess anything that activates different parts of the brain and gets synapses firing is good for enabling new ideas to come together for whatever you’re trying to write.

So, those are my top tips – let me know if you try them and find them helpful. Maybe you also have your own ways to bust writers’ block which you can share in the comments below!

10+ Things to do with a podcast in ELT

10+ Things to do with a podcast in ELT

In the EAP context I work in, we’ve recently had a drive to push engagement with authentic English-language input, within the classroom and as self-study. In general, as self-study I encourage my students to do whatever they enjoy doing – but do it in English! One of things a lot of students choose to do is to listen to podcasts.  They seem to like the fact that it doesn’t feel like ‘studying’. For me, though, this is a bit of a problem. My learners are pretty advanced, and I don’t feel they benefit as much as possible from podcasts if they simply ‘kick back’, relax, and enjoy listening. Of course the exposure is beneficial, but I found that students were not necessarily improving in their ability to use English actively. And so I came up with a list of tasks they could do to engage more actively with the podcasts they were listening to – and I’ve started doing some of them with students in classes, too. I’d like to share the ideas here as inspiration for other English learners and teachers. 

Please let me know if you try them out and how it goes! And let me know if you have other ideas I could add to my list!

Step one is, of course, choosing a podcast. I’d say that topic interest is a key factor here – if students are interested, they will put in the work to understand the content. Here are some sources of podcasts in English that I share with my students:

17850234-Vector-illustration-of-global-music-concept-with-shiny-earth-and-headphones-on-it-Stock-Vector.jpg

BBC Podcasts: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts

NPR Podcast Directory: http://www.npr.org/rss/podcast/podcast_directory.php

Sky News Video Podcasting: http://news.sky.com/home/sky-news-video-podcasting/article/1208280

Podcasts Absolute Radio: http://www.absoluteradio.co.uk/podcasts/

CNN Audio and Video Podcasts: http://edition.cnn.com/services/podcasting/

 

And here are the tasks I allow them to choose from (in no particular order):

1) Reflect on the title of the podcast/episode. What do you expect to hear about? Look up any words you might expect to hear, if you don’t know them in English. Write down some questions and see if you can take notes on the podcast to answer them whilst listening.

2) Summarise the content of the podcast in 5-10 sentences. Don’t forget to use reporting language and name the source of the podcast.

2a) Make a spider diagram or flow-chart of the points covered in the podcast. What are the main points and what are the examples and explanations used to support them?

2b) Tell someone about the podcast’s content in your first language. Can you answer all of their questions about the topic? If not, listen again until you can.

English-English_and_English-Persian_dictionaries

3) Find words from the podcast that are new to you. For each word, make a note of the dictionary definition(s) from a monolingual English dictionary. Note any related words (e.g. adjective form, verb, nouns, etc.). Now find 3 synonyms that could be used in this context, and  1-2 antonym(s). Use a thesaurus to help you with this task. With this new vocabulary, rewrite the sentences from the podcast where the new words occured – using the synonyms and antonyms accurately in this context.

3a) Draw a mind-map of the key vocabulary used in the podcast. Look up words’ meanings, other word classes (e.g. nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc.), and also synonyms and antonyms to include. Try to write your own example sentences on the topic of the podcast using these sentences.

4) Find grammatical structures which are new to you or you would not actively use. (If nothing is new, take the first two clauses/sentences from the text.) Write out the structures and an explanation of why they are correct. See how many other ways you can reword the sentence to express the same information. Use a reference grammar book to help you with this task, e.g. Swan, M., Practical English Usage (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 2005).

5) Make up comprehension questions about the topic, and make an anwer key. You can swap with a friend to check you have both understood correctly.

6) Pick a statement from the podcast which you consider to be rather an opinion than a fact. Make a bullet-point list of points you could use to argue against this statement.

6a) Discuss the podcast’s content with a friend. Which points do you agree on and why? Where do you have different opinions? Can you convince each other of your opinions?

6b) Think about “so what?” – Now that you have learned something (hopefully!) from the podcast, what can you do with this knowledge? Does it connect to your studies? Does it make you want to change your behaviour or lifestyle?

7) Write a review of the podcast/episode. What did you like/not like and why? You might be able to post this as a comment on the podcast site and engage in a discussion with other listeners.

English_vowel_chart

8) Write the first sentence of the podcast in IPA symbols.

9) Find a section where the presenter speaks quickly, and try to transcribe exactly what they say. Reflect on how the words sound different when they are said alone and within the phrase/sentence.

9a) Use a programme such as VLC Player and make subtitles to accompany the podcast.

10) Write the reference for the podcast as if you had to include it in a bibliography.

 

 

 

How to serve PARSNIPs

How to serve PARSNIPs

There are always lots of discussions about what topics are “allowed” in ELT materials and which should be avoided. My impression is that publishers hoping to sell products globally follow the notion of PARSNIP topics being too sensitive in some parts of the world for products touching on those topics to sell well. That may be the case, but very few of us are actually writing materials we hope to sell around the whole world! I personally think that what is taboo depends on the specific context – and those of us making materials for more clearly defined groups of target learners (in some cases, our own students!) are in a better position to be able to decide what topics it would be good or less good to include. Moreover, I’m not convinced that avoiding PARSNIP topics at all costs makes for engaging materials – in fact, as many people have said before me, it can result in rather superficial, bland materials, and I find this becomes all the more obvious as we get up past the intermediate level. As I see it, it should be a case of considering HOW and from which angle, not just WHAT topic is covered. I know that’s not a very innovative or original thing to say! Instead, perhaps I can just take the food metaphor a step too far: It’s more important how you serve the parsnips!

371921825_b53e7d5283_b   Perhaps some examples…

(I teach and write materials for adult English learners in Germany, and I’m currently working on writing a B2 coursebook for a German publisher.)

RELIGION: One initial idea that came up at a planning meeting was having input on the historical background of “Anglo-American” (= usually Christian) holidays, such as Christmas and Easter. Although I would have been able to focus on the more secular traditions, I felt this might be a topic that might not interest people of other faiths, and, while perhaps not particularly ‘taboo’, it would just seem odd to focus on Christianity. Firstly because most English-speaking countries are home to people of various faiths, and also because it might have seemed like it was trying to “teach” Christian traditions to the learners.  The unit I wrote still looks at religious celebrations but is about how mixed-religious families celebrate or combine their celebrations. The angle of mixed-religious friendship groups and families is, I feel, very apt in Germany, and opens up tolerant space for learners to talk about their own beliefs, religious holidays, celebrations, etc. I hope that groups of learners from different faiths and backgrounds could engage in meaningful discussions and hope that the teachers who use this book with their classes on future do not shy away from discussing religion and whatever ideas come up in the learners’ discussion.–> Tasty parsnip 🙂

PORK: How can you write a book to be used in Germany and not mention pork? The population of Germany eats an average of around 50 kg of per person per year! But I didn’t write a unit focussing on pork, don’t worry! Instead, we have input with information like the ‘fun fact’ above about statistically average eating habits of different European countries (e.g. % of population that is vegetarian, average amounts of dairy products consumed, etc.), and interaction on what you do and do not (like to) eat. There is a sneaky mention of some pork chops, though! I feel that making it more general opens up space for discussion and shows learners how to politely discuss their own and others’ diets and the reasons for them (in one task even with some controversy about how healthy veganism is), and to ask for alternative foods – which are realistically things that people want or need to do in English. –> Tasty parsnip, or parsnip alternative 😉

ALCOHOL: Working in Germany, it’s almost impossible to avoid beer! Of course, you don’t have to drink it, but even beyond the massive and massively famous beer festivals, you can’t help but notice it in your everday life. They even have the saying ‘Das ist nicht mein Bier’ meaning ‘it’s none of my business’! In a mini-attempt to avoid talking about alcohol (not really), and just because I thought it was interesting, I wrote an activity where students discuss adverts for alcohol-free beer as an isotonic drink, which are aimed at sportspeople. There are opportunities to consider the approaches of such adverts and their persuasive strategies, as well as learn the words to do with talking about beer, alcohol, or the lack thereof! And just in case PARSNIP pedants were worried, it’s the alcohol-free versions that in the focus, so it’s basically a tasty parsnip-free parsnip! 🙂

To be honest, I didn’t set out trying to ‘avoid’ PARSNIPS in this coursebook I’m writing, but trying to take a fresh angle on some topics that seem to be covered repeatedly, and often blandly, in other books I’ve seen. But in the end, I’ve convinced myself even more strongly that it is the HOW and not the WHAT of PARSNIPS that should be the focus of any teachers’ or writers’ discussions on the topic. Oh, and just for fun, a unit with recipe / cooking vocabulary, included a recipe for a swede and parsnip bake! 😀

Revision Week for my Materials

Revision Week for my Materials

Finally it is the last week of our semester here, which started in October. It’s been a long, hard slog, but we’ve made it! But the final week of term is a weird one. We still have classes, most of which are revision sessions or tests, and we have to make sure we get all the final assignments uploaded for students to do, but then most of the rest of the time it’s really quiet. I don’t have any marking to  do – yet! And so, although we normally think of the end of term as really stressful, actually this one final week is a bit of down time, the peace before (and after!) the storm.

That’s why I’ve decided to have my own little “revision week”. I don’t have any exams to study for (thank goodness!), so I’m using the time this week to revise and edit materials and worksheets I have written for my classes over the semester. I’m tweaking things and adding extra notes for myself, so the materials will be even better next time I use them.

Revising and editing are key steps in preparing language teaching materials for publication, but they’re often left out when we create materials for our own classes. And that’s a real shame – as teachers who write for their own classes are in the very lucky position of being able to use materials with exactly the target learners they were written for! I find reviewing and revising my materials not only helpful for the next time I use them, but also an important tool in developing as a materials writer and teacher, as I reflect and evaluate how well the materials worked.

So what kinds of things am I revising?

  • Timing: I had several lessons this semester where things I had thought of as fairly straightforward, warmer activities took my students much longer than I had envisaged. And often, these were things that were very introductory or revising previous content, so not the main point of the lesson, and then they ate into the time I had planned for whatever the main point of content was! I find revising timing estimates quite hard: Will next year’s students take a long time, too? Or was there something about this group? The decision is basically between cutting out/down the activity, or making a note to chivvy students along when we do it! It’s this kind of considerations that should go into teachers’ notes that accompany materials, though the answer is often “it depends!*”

 

  • References: I often note on my materials where students can find more information, for example in their grammar reference book or the cultural studies book we’re using. In one case, the publisher brought out a new version of the book right before our term started, so all my page/unit numbers need updating. But it gives me a chance to re-read the extra references I’m giving students and re-evaluate if they’re really as relevant as I thought when I first listed them! Doing this has made me reconsider something I’m writing for a publisher, too: We have “Info” and “Tip” boxes in the book, and I think I’ll probably go back and check them with ‘fresh eyes’ to see if they’re still as helpful as I thought when I first wrote them! Even when the materials are not for publication, time, it seems, is the best editor!

 

  • Poor examples: Sometimes examples seem to clear to us when we write, or we are writing in a rush and don’t have much time to consider how clear they are. Then, when we’re in class and students struggle to understand an example, it flashes up how poor an example it was that we wrote. So I’m looking back through all my example sentences and input texts to make them clearer. Especially the ones that seemed to confuse my students. This really highlights the need for an editor, or at least a colleague, who can read things over and notice things that we oversee when we’re in the flow of writing. imagesWith some of my examples from this semester, it’s just a case of adding a time adverbial to clarify the function of the verb form. But I’ve also discovered I had a ‘future in the past’ example of would in an exercise that was supposed to focus on the ‘habitual actions in the past’ use of would – oops!

 

  • Ordering of activities: Most of my teaching follows a deductive approach, but in some very advanced classes (like phonetics!) this turned out to be less effective than I had hoped. In a couple of other classes, too, we had moments where students suddenly understood, for example, task 4 after we had done task 5. So I’m going back and checking again which order seems best for which series of activities. I find it helpful to explicitly name the purpose of the activities in a list, e.g. discovery, gist, comprehension, personalization, production, and then see if that order makes sense. For example, did the personalization task not work because it came right after the discovery task and would it be better after the short-answer comprehension questions?

 

  • Extra explanations: At the beginning of term, I was proud to have been so organised and prepared a lot of my teaching materials in advance. 🙂 The problem was that then, weeks later, in the actual lesson, I didn’t have with me all the resources and books I’d used when I put the material together. And of course students always seem to ask about exactly that one thing that you can’t remember very well. “Does may or could express a more likely possibility?” “How many voters are in each UK constituency?” This week, I’m going back and adding notes on these and other points I hadn’t remembered. Lesson learnt: Make an answers sheet with explanations of all the answers on it at the same time you make the materials and key!

 

The more I think about it, I’m sure my revision week is just as beneficial as what my students are doing this week, and, in contrast to them (probably!), I’m actually really enjoying it! It’s good to make these edits while the memory of how things went in class is still fresh in my mind, definitely a recommendable practice. Probably even more recommendable would be to have “revision hour” at the end of each week, so things are even fresher; but will I always have the time and inclination to do that? It depends.

to-do-liste

*Note: This is at the same time a very common answer and my most frustrating answer in language classrooms! 😀

Looking after your voice

Looking after your voice

Alongside psychological issues, voice problems are a major cause of illness among teachers. 

I recently attending a workshop on how to look after your voice as a teacher (held by Frank Gutjahr at Universität Trier), and in the post I’d like to share the practical tips I heard. They’ll probably be relevant for anyone who does a lot of public speaking. 

Tip 1: Drink still water.

Here in Germany, people seem to be somewhat obsessed with sparkling water, but the carbon dioxide bubbles can irritate the vocal chords. I know a lot of people drink herbal or fruit teas, too, but even these can actually cause you to have a dry throat. Apparently, the best thing to drink if you need to speak a lot is still water. If you have a dry throat, try inhaling sage or sage essence in hot water.

Tip 2 : Breathe!

Our natural breathing rhythm consists of breathing in, breathing out, and a brief pause. During this pause, the diaphragm and intercostal muscles relax, which is why it is so important. If you try to rush your breathing rhythm and don’t pause between exhaling and inhaling, you’ll quickly get out of breath and have to strain your vocal chords and larynx to be able to speak loud enough. Also, this brief pause in your speech breaks what you’re saying into units of thought, which makes the content of your speech easier for your audience to understand.

It is important to use the muscles in your torso to push the air out when you exhale and speak, otherwise you put all the pressure on your voice box! You can practice breathing like this by singing along to a song – which will also warm up your speech apparatus. One of the best warm-up songs I’ve found is “What’s Up?” by 4 non blondes.

Tip 3: Warm up.

To ensure you articulate clearly, you need to warm up your speech apparatus – your jaw, lips and tongue. There are several funny exercises you can do to warm up. For example, use your tongue to ‘clean’ your teeth – stretch your tongue into the corners of your mouth and run it along the inside and outside of your teeth. Or, if you’re alone, poke your tongue out and try to paint circles in the air with the tip of your tongue. You can also make circular movements with your bottom jaw, as if you were chewing a big chunk of something! To warm up your lips, swap between grinning as widely as you can and pouting. Reading tongue twisters slowly and with exaggerated enunciation can also help, especiall yif you find ones that focus on vowel sounds. Repeat after me: “Roberta ran rings around the Roman ruins.”

Tip 4: Watch your posture.

Apart from being good for your back, good posture ensures that your lungs and diaphragm have enough space to ensure your natural breathing rhythm. Sitting or standing up straight, without over-straining, will mean that you can inhale more deeply and have enough air to speak loudly, and makes spaces for the muscles in your torso dto do their work! If you slouch, it can also mean that your breathing becomes audible, which makes you sound out of breath and distracts from what you’re saying!

In general, the most important tip I head from Frank Gutjahr is: Relax! If you’re preared and follow these tips, you’ll be able to speak well as a teacher, and protect your voice for all those lessons and speeches that are yet to come! And remember: It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it!

 

How to access ELT-relevant research

How to access ELT-relevant research

A while back, I summarised an article for ELT Research Bites exploring the reasons why language teaching professionals rarely access primary research reports. The main findings were that practitioners may have negative perceptions of research as irrelevant, they may face practical constraints such as expensive pay walls and a lack of time to find and read articles, and they may not be able to understand the articles’ content due to excessive use of academic jargon.

In this post, then, I want to share how we can access research related to language teaching in ways that do not cost a lot of money or time. 

  1. The website I mentioned above – ELT Research Bites – provides interesting language and education research in an easily digestible format. The summaries present the content of published articles in a shorter, simpler format, and also explore practical implications of articles’ findings for language teaching/learning.
  2. Musicuentos Black Box is similar to ELT Research Bites, but summarises research articles in videos and podcasts. (Thanks to Lindsay Marean for sharing this with me!) 
  3. The organisation TESOL Academic provides free or affordable access to research articles on linguistics, TESOL and education in general. This is done mainly via videoed talks on YouTube, but you can also follow them on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
  4. The University of Oregon has a free, customisable email digest you can subscribe to here. It is aimed at language teachers and sends you a feature summary based on primary research articles. (Thanks to Lindsay Marean for sharing this with me!)
  5. IATEFL has a number of ‘Special Interest Groups’ and I’d like to highlight two in particular that can help us to access research. IATEFL ReSIG, the Research Special Interest Group, promotes and supports ELT and teacher research, in an attempt to close the gap between researchers and teachers or materials writers. You can find them on Facebook, Yahoo and Twitter. IATEFL MaWSIG, the Materials Writing Special Interest Group, has an open-access blog as well as a presence on Facebook Instagram and Twitter. In the last year there have been several posts summarising research findings and drawing out what the conclusions mean for English teaching materials and practice – including “And what about the research?” by Penny Ur, and “ELT materials writing: More on emerging principles” by Kath Bilsborough.
  6. Of course there are also search engines, such as Google Scholar, that you can use. You might find it helpful to look out for ‘State of the art’ articles or meta-studies that synthesise research findings from several reports and save you from having to read them all! If the pay wall is your main problem, some journals also offer a sample article from each issue as open access, at ELT Journal, for example, these are the “Editor’s Choice” articles.

To make engaging with research more worthwhile, I’d suggest you should reflect on what you’re reading / hearing: Think about the validity of the findings based on the content and the method of the study, the relevance of the findings to your pedagogy, and, perhaps most importantly, the practicality of the findings for your own work. Be aware of trends and fashions, and use the conclusions you draw to inform your materials and teaching.

Worksheet-free Vocab Revision Activities

Worksheet-free Vocab Revision Activities

What do you do in those last 5 minutes of class when you’ve finished everything that was planned? Or when energy levels hit a low during a lesson? Or in that lull while the next student gets ready to present, or whatever? We all know about the need to revise and recycle new vocabulary in language lessons, and in this post I want to share a few vocabulary revision activities that teachers can slot into any downtime that might occur in a lesson!

I’ve built up my repertoire of this kind of quick review activity over the years, so many are borrowed or adapted from colleagues, and others are based on popular board games. I want to give you a collection, all in one place, of collaborative and competitive activities that check students have remembered and actually understood new words (i.e. there are no rote learning activities here!) You can print out this post and take it to lessons with you – that’s the only paper you’ll need: all of these activities have one main thing in common – you don’t need to photocopy anything to do them!

1. Scategories

scategories

Choose a category of vocabulary you want students to revise, for example ‘character traits’, ‘school subjects’, ‘transition words showing contrast’. Choose 5-10 letters of the alphabet and write them, with the category, on the board. Students (in teams, if you wish) now have 1 minute to come up with one vocabulary item fitting the category which starts with each of the letters you have chosen. Compare answers. To make it into a competition, give points: Students or teams get 2 points if they’ve written a correct vocab item that no one else / no other team has written, and one point for correct vocab items that someone else wrote down, too.

2. ‘Taboo’ on the board

Like the game ‘Taboo’, but without any little slips of paper that need preparing! It works best with nouns. Get your learners to sit with their backs to the board. Option 1: Choose one student to look at the board and see the word you’ve written there. They have to explain it to the other students, who try to guess which word is being explained. The first student who guesses correctly can be the next one to explain a word. Option 2: Group competition! Students sit in teams/groups with their backs to the board. One team member turns around and looks at the word you’ve written on the board, and explains it to their team members, who try to guess which word it is. Give them a time limit (e.g. 30 secs per word). For each word correctly guessed within the time limit, the team gets one point (keep track on the board) and then the next team has a turn. To make either option more difficult, write the main word on the board (maybe put a circle around it) and add two or three ‘taboo’ words which are not allowed to be used in the explanation. For example, if the main word is “bauble”, the taboo words might be “Christmas,” “tree” and “decoration.”

3. Beep

This guessing game works best with verbs or verb phrases, but nouns can be good, too. One student is told a ‘secret word’ which is to be ‘beeped out’ (like swearwords on TV). The other students ask them yes/no questions to try to guess the secret word – each student is only allowed one question at a time. For example, “Who BEEPS?” “Do you BEEP on your own?” “What do people BEEP most often?”  As these examples show, the activity can be used with fairly low-level language, but I’ve also used it in EAP with verbs such as research, evaluate, and analyse. After their question has been answered, the student can make a guess at the secret word, if they wish – if they get it right, they can be the next one who is given a secret word. To make it more difficult, allow each student only 2 guesses at the secret word during each round.

4. Sentence editing bingo

I like using this one to revise adverbs or adverbial phrases, but nouns work, too. Students abingo-159974_960_720re asked to write down a number of vocab items that you’ve recently covered in a particular category (e.g. adverbs of manner, adverbial phrases for time/place, things you find in a classroom). Choose the number according to how much time you have and how many sentences you think you’ll get through. Usually 5 or so is enough. Students can also work in pairs. Write a simple sentence on the board, such as “I like reading.” Students tick off one of their words if they think it can fit correctly into the sentence. For example, a student might tick off ‘in the evening’ or ‘really,’ or maybe ‘books’ if you’ve gone with nouns. Repeat this with several sentences. Once a student has ticked off, i.e. thinks they’ve been able to use appropriately, all of their words/phrases, they shout ‘Bingo!’ Check their answers together as a class – if there’s time, check other students’ suggestions, too.

5. Changing corners

This activity will get students up and moving around the room! Make sure they move their chairs and bags out of the way! Nominate corners or sides of the room that are the ‘spelling zone’, ‘definition zone’,  and ‘example zone’. Call out one vocabulary item you want to revise. Students have to move and stand by the corner or wall that shows the challenge they feel comfortable doing with that word: spelling it, defining it, or using it in an example sentence. Pick one student from each zone to give their answer out loud. To make it a competition, either give points for correct answers (1 for spelling, 2 for defining, 3 for an example use), or get anyone who gives an incorrect answer to sit down, then keep going with different vocab items until only three students are left! (For this, you might need to increase the difficulty of the words as you go along!)

 

Teaching a deaf student EAP oral skills

Teaching a deaf student EAP oral skills

Since October I’ve had a student in my class who is practically deaf, especially if she hasn’t got her hearing aid.  The class that she’s taking with me is actually an Oral Skills class; it’s the first class of an EAP programme and focuses on presentation and seminar skills. Clearly, not being able to hear makes it quite a lot more difficult than normal. But we’re slowly finding our way! We’re halfway through semester now, and I think I’ve got some strategies that might be useful for anyone else who has a deaf or hard of hearing student in their English language classroom!

In my case the student, let’s call her Mary,  did her A-Level equivalents at a normal high school, so she had her whole school career to develop good strategies that can help her to learn various things in various ways. She knows what the teacher can do to help her best and so I have gradually learnt how I can help her, especially with these oral skills that are the focus of our course. I thought I’d use this blog post to share some of what I’ve learnt.

I guess the most important thing is really to have an individual conversation with the student – probably more than one conversation actually! Some of the basic adaptations I’ve made based on such conversations are probably no surprise, for example providing transcripts of any audio texts we listen to or videos we watch. Working with a transcript, the focus of the task is then shifted to reading comprehension rather than listening comprehension, but this is more in line with what Mary’s likely to need in her future use of English. On this module, we’ve been watching videos that demonstrate good and less good presentation skills, and it was hard for her to read the transcript at the same time as watching the presenter. Also, I sometimes needed to type the transcript out especially, which became quite time-consuming. I solved these problems by choosing a focus according to what my goals were for the task. For example, if we were looking at presentation style or use of visual aids, understanding the content of the example speech was less important, so I stopped giving Mary the transcripts for these tasks, and asked her to concentrate on looking for what makes a good or less good presentation style, or whatever.

The audio practice tests that we’ve done often intended to help students develop note-taking skills for use in lectures or seminars. This is something Mary will always have to work hard on and talk to individual teachers about getting help with, especially as there’s usually no transcript for a lecture. But she has also learnt the importance of having a study group to compare notes with. Mary can take notes from the extra reading  without problem, so she often takes responsibility for this in the study group, and then ‘swaps’ these good notes for another student’s good lecture notes. It’s perhaps less than ideal, but makes the best of a difficult situation for Mary.

In terms of understanding me when I talk to the class, Mary has a special device that goes with her hearing aid. It’s a mini-microphone that I clip to my collar which amplifies everything I say and kind of ‘beams’ it straight into her hearing aid! This has obviously been a great help, though she still needs to lip read to really understand. And what a feat learning to lip read in a foreign language!  One little thing I’ve learnt is that wearing lipstick is apparently really helpful: when the lips are more clearly defined it’s easier for her to lip read. And I also have to remember to wear something with pockets on the days we have class, so I don’t have to carry the battery pack for the mini-microphone around in my hand all lesson!

As part of her self-study, which is required for the credits for the class, I’ve sent Mary a few links to videos to help her with lip-reading in English. Initially, I introduced her to the website https://lipreadingpractice.co.uk/ which is for English speakers who lose their hearing and have to learn to lip read.  Later, I also sent videos that were made for phonetics classes and the like, which feature close-up videos of how different sounds and words are pronounced in English. Hopefully these will also help her with her own pronunciation. Although Mary is quite clear to understand when she speaks, there are elements of German interference on her English accent which she can’t really eliminate just by lip-reading. I think it’s important here to work on ways to enable Mary to see and/or feel these pronunciation features that are hard to see. The phoneme /r/ is a particular problem, for example, but we’re working on ways to help her feel the difference in articulation between German and English, by feeling which parts of the speech apparatus are used (e.g. by placing her hands on her throat to feel the vibrations of the German uvular fricative). Recently, we even did a lesson on intonation, and helped Mary to see (through gesture and movement of the head) and feel (which muscles are used in the throat) pitch movements for emphasis or in questions versus statements. 

Group work is something that has been quite tricky. While the other students understand why I mainly look in Mary’s direction when I’m speaking to the whole class, they’re not so good at doing the same themselves! In group work she’s better off in a smaller group where she can clearly see who’s speaking and read their lips. This was tricky at first with students who were nervous, mumbling, holding their hands a pen, or playing with their hair in front of their mouths! But I’ve managed to discern a few very clear speakers who Mary can work well with. Needless to say it’s been a bit of a learning curve for everyone in the class!

Now, in the second half of semester, students are giving group presentations. Mary’s a bit wary about giving them the extra device for their collars because passing it around increases the likelihood of it being damaged. But lip-reading in a foreign language from a speaker who’s speaking the language as a foreign language themselves is proving really quite difficult. What we’ve decided to do them is to show other students in the class the same videos as I sent Mary. This way, everyone can work and their articulation and on enunciating sounds and words clearly, which will be better for their own language production and also enable Mary to better lip read their presentations. 

Something we haven’t been able to solve yet is how to enable her to better follow when students around the classroom are sharing their answers to a task we’ve done. We’ve rearranged the desks so that we sit in a big U shape which at least allows her to look at whoever’s speaking. Sometimes, though, the answers are quite short so one person is only speaking for a very brief moment before the next person starts, which makes it hard for her to keep her up. As a group we’ve now discussed strategies such as the speaker raising their hand so she knows who to look at, and me pointing to the person I want to share their answer rather than just saying their name. These things are taking a bit of practice to get used to but seem to be working ok for now!

I have to say, I’m really glad to have Mary in my class. Not only is she a conscientious and pleasant student, but  devising and developing these strategies to help her improve her oral skills has been a great new aspect to my professional development! And I hope that I’ve been able to show in this little blog post just how easy it can be to integrate a deaf or hard-of-hearing student into an English langauge class!