Category: Ponderings

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.

 

A day in the life

Yesterday, 14th Feb 2020, was a special day for me. Not in the romantic, Valentine’s Day way, though. It was the last day of the teaching semester at the university where I teach – cue high fives all round! 😀

Recently, I’ve read a couple of ‘A day in the life’ blog posts giving insight into people’s working days and have been extremely impressed at the tightly-followed schedules and routines – especially of those colleagues who work from home. You’ll see that my day is far less regimented, and especially on the last day of term, I feel sometimes like I skid through the day by the seat of my pants! But maybe some blog readers out there will still be interested in what a day in the life of an EAP teacher, team leader, materials writer and MaWSIG committee member looks like. Oh, and you’ll see, I should probably add ‘team problem solver’ to this list of duties…

 

6 am: Get up. (Yes, I need an alarm for this!). Have a cuppa with my husband, listen to the news and traffic updates. Pack my bag and lunch, then get dressed and ready to go – luckily remembering to take the empty drinks bottles with deposits on, and the shopping bags.

 

7 am: Drive to work. On Fridays, there seems to be comparatively less traffic, so I made it to the university in ‘just’ 35 minutes yesterday. Luckily, I work from home two days a week (that’s when I do my materials writing – I’d never be able to stay focused in the office at university), so I don’t have to do this drive every day! I use the time in the car to mentally go through my plans for the day’s lessons, and to warm up my voice by singing along to the radio.

 

7.40 am: In the office. Make another cup of tea to take to class. Get the computer on and answer students’ emails (usually apologies for absence in the day’s lessons, and a few other questions). Make piles of materials etc. to take to class for each lesson. I’m lucky that my office includes a computer desk, a ‘writing desk’, and a spare desk which I use for meetings with students and these piles of things to take to class. Surface is space is really the key for me getting organised!

 

8.15 am:  Start teaching. I have three 90-minute classes on Fridays (or, at least, I did, during the semester – now it’s the semester break!). The Friday classes this term were “Phonology and Accents of British English”, “Advanced Grammar” and “Integrated Language and Study Skills”, all undergraduate seminars with 25-35 students. Between classes, I have 30 minutes to get back to the office from wherever I’ve been teaching, perhaps stopping in the ladies on the way, swap the materials etc. in my bag, grab another drink, and get to the next lesson.

My three Friday classes were in three different buildings on campus, so I had managed about 2200 steps by 2 pm yesterday. Before I started looking at the step counter on my phone, I’d never realised how much I walked around during my classes; on a ‘good step’ day, I get up to over 1000 steps during a 90-minute lesson. Yesterday, though, the grammar class were taking an exam and we had two student presentations in the Integrated Skills class, so I was sitting for quite a while. Still, in the quiet of the grammar exam, I was able to give feedback on the group work the Phonology class had done in the morning’s lesson and post it on our online platform for them.

IMAG0836

As an example of how chaotic the days can get, though: I had two students from a colleague’s class in my grammar exam, as they’d missed theirs on Monday due to the storm. She’d given me copies of her exam for them. About 10 minutes in, though, one of her students called me over and pointed out that the exam title said “mid-term” instead of “final”, and showed me that the questions didn’t cover the topics covered in the second half of the term. So I had to phone her in the office, (thank goodness she was there, as she doesn’t normally work Fridays!), and she did a rush-job on printing the correct exam for them and running over to my classroom.  To give them the full 90 minutes, I had to stay 15 minutes longer than planned, making my break between classes rather short and meaning I had to practically inhale the salad I had brought for lunch!

 

1.45 pm: Class are over! I mentally high-five myself as no other colleagues are around (those lucky part-time teachers!). I head back to my office and finish the rest of my lunch.

 

2 pm: Dump the materials from my lessons into a “To sort” basket – yes, I know, this is a bad habit. Really, I should file them back away in the relevant binders. But, come on, it’s Friday afternoon, and the last day of term!

I start checking emails that have come in while I was teaching. Most are short, some don’t even require more response than clicking “Accept meeting”. But then … a part-time colleague who finished teaching and has been on holiday since Wednesday has emailed. He’ll be away until the second week of March and had forgotten that we need his grade lists for “Integrated Language and Study Skills” by the end of February to know whether his students have passed and can be allowed to take the module exam. He’s (kindly…) sent instructions on where I can find the different lists with presentation, participation and homework scores, and has given me access to his class on our online platform so I can check their self-study diaries. Great.

I have to say… I was torn for a couple of seconds here. Part of me wanted to say “It was his responsibility and he has not reported that any students passed his class. So they won’t be able to take the module exam, and they’ll just have to complain to our boss.” But, of course, being the overly-helpful problem solver I am, I went to find the lists and see if I could decipher his doctor-like handwriting. (Luckily, I could.) But I still didn’t really see why I should do his work for him, so I called our student assistant and delegated that to her. It’s a task for complex and important than the scanning and admin we usually give her to do, so I’ve got my fingers and toes crossed that she’ll manage and I don’t have to spend (too much) more time on his work.

 

3 pm: This is the second time in the week that I dedicate to my MaWSIG duties. (The other one is Thursday afternoon when we have our Skype meetings.) I add my tuppence worth to a couple of online discussions we’re having, and send off a few emails to get our next webinar sorted.

IMAG0837

I look at my to-do list and check for any other urgent tasks. I’m glad I did this – it reminded me to upload the instructions for the final assignment for the “Phonology” class, and to send the invoice for the materials I wrote last week for an English-learners’ magazine. I have a paper diary, A5 size, where the days of the week are on the left and the right page is space for ‘notes’, i.e. my to-do list. I really like the fact that this enables me to add to-do’s for weeks far in advance, and it means I have plenty of space to list work, MaWSIG, writing and other life-admin to-do’s all in one place . I would definitely recommend a diary like this!

4 pm: The freelance teacher who has taught some classes for us this term is now finished with her last lesson. She has some questions about marking, invoicing, and planning the next semester. We also have a nice chat about the Irish elections and evaluate the textbook she has been working with. I give her some tips on adapting it more next time.

 

4.30 pm: There are actually still a few items on my work to-do list, but nothing that can’t wait until Monday, so I decide to call it a day. It’s a great feeling turning the office computer off on Friday afternoons, isn’t it?

Time for my grocery shopping. I find supermarkets in Germany rather stressful, so I stick grocery shopping on the end of my Friday to get it out of the way and not let it encroach on my weekend. I drive to the supermarket from work, return the deposit bottles, manage to get everything on the shopping list (made on Thursday evening – I’d be awful at spontaneously deciding on meals for the whole next week!), and then head home.

 

6 pm: Get home. Unpack the shopping. Make tea, put the radio on, and collapse on the sofa. A colleague actually texted me a work question around this time. But she will have to wait. Seriously, I learnt the hard way: When work is this hectic, and there are so many ‘things still to do’, that’s even more reason to have a real weekend (i.e. NO WORK!) so that I can face it all again next week with new energy and the necessary composure. Oh, and it was Valentine’s Day, too, of course…

Jumbled sentences: An authentic ELT task?

Jumbled sentences: An authentic ELT task?

Last week, we had the pleasure of welcoming Dr Betty Lanteigne from LCC Klaipeda as a guest lecturer at the university where I work. She gave a talk in our ‘English Linguists Circle’ with the title “Unscrambling jumbled sentences: An authentic task for English language assessment?” and it got me thinking about several questions… and so I thought it might be time for a new blog post. 

(You can read more about Dr Lanteigne’s work in the article I’ve linked to at the end.)

In this post, I’ll be writing about:

 – Are these types of tasks entirely inauthentic?

– For whom could they be helpful?

– How do/should ELT materials writers jumble sentences?

Authentic

Dr Lanteigne first showed us a few jumbled sentence tasks to see if we could unjumble them. It was quite fun(ny): We could do them, but even the ‘correct’ answer gave us rather nonsensical sentences! Here’s one for you to try, and also so you know what I / she mean/s with the term ‘jumbled sentence’:

a want Paris to do you banana take to

This amusement was followed by a quick survey of some voices from the literature that, probably quite rightly, criticise this task type with such unrealistic sentences as being inauthentic, and therefore of low value for ELT. Dr Lanteigne counters that ‘authentic’ can be taken to mean that anything about the activity is real; the people, the text/input, the situation, and/or what learners need to do with the language are aspects that could be found outside of the classroom. And by this definition, she argues, interactions in some contexts where English is used as a lingua franca do, in fact, sometimes include unjumbling sentences. To underline her argument, Dr Lanteinge has collected ‘jumbled sentences’ that she has heard in her time in Dubai and the UAE – sentences used “in the wild”, as she called them, as opposed to having been invented precisely for such unjumbling tasks. Two of the examples she provided were:

  1. How you would feel if it to you happens?
  2. Want taxi Dubai you?
Useful

Dr Lanteigne argues that because such jumbled sentences are authentic in ELF contexts, they can be a valuable part of ELT and language assessment. If someone needs to communicate in an ELF setting, ‘decoding’ such sentences and deducing meaning and knowing how to respond are very important skills; thus such tasks are authentic. This is especially true for English learners in areas where English is used as a lingua franca, such as Dubai and UAE, where Dr Lanteigne was working. I teach EAP (B2+ level) and train EFL teachers in Germany, and many of my students’ career goals are often focused on Germany. Still, the chances are fairly high that they will at some point be in a situation where the person doesn’t speak their L1 and they don’t speak the other person’s L1, and so they may need to use English as a lingua franca, and thus also use these ‘decoding’ or ‘unjumbling’ skills.

Dr Lanteigne has therefore developed some useful testing materials based on the example jumbled sentences she had gathered. These tasks are very interesting, for tests and in lessons, I think: They involve learners showing they can understand the meaning of a jumbled utterance, reconstructing it into a grammatically correct sentence or selecting the correct version from a list, and then responding to it in some way, for example ‘What would be a suitable reaction to this sentence?’. I find this kind of adaptive and reciprocal task valuable, as it moves beyond simply putting words into a correct order, or producing an utterance for no further purpose. And so I’m basically convinced that including tasks like this in my materials for my German students every so often could be a helpful thing to do.

Task Differences

However, you might have noticed, as I did, that there is a bit of a difference between the two example ‘jumbled sentences’ she gave. The first of these examples includes all of the ‘elements’ needed for a grammatically correct sentence in a Standard English. Thus, the task really is unjumbling the words to get to the standard word order for the sentence. Also, the information structure is intact, meaning it’s really just the word order that’s the problem. The second example, though, requires a bit more than that – you need to insert an article, auxiliary and preposition, and rearrange the words to get to a grammatically correct sentence in the standard sense. You might also need some contextual clues, such as who said the utterance to whom, and where. I’d therefore call it something like ‘reconstructing sentences’ rather than ‘unjumbling’, and I feel like these two task-types should be treated as different in any research or discussion on their authenticity and effectiveness.

Materials – jumbled sentences

‘Unjumbling sentences’ tasks, then, could be useful for practising word order, verb forms, colligations, collocations, etc. Helping learners to practise ‘unjumbling’ in their head may assist them in understanding such sentences when heard ‘in the wild’. There are of course different ways of presenting the activity in materials. For example, you could leave in the punctuation, as in the second version below (which many jumbling apps seem to do), and there are many different orders you could jumble the words into, keeping the information structure intact or not (it is often not intact in coursebook/app versions of ‘jumbled sentences’). This really interests me – how do materials writers decide how to jumble sentences? And is this reflective of authentic jumbles? I asked on Twitter just got responses that said ‘alphabetical’ or ‘I use an app/website for that’. I think it would be interesting to think about jumbled orders which are likely to help with specific problems with word order or sentence structure that learners have, for example due to their L1s. In example 1 above, for example, I recognise some word order issues that my German students might have due to interference. This kind of unjumbling, then, could help to remind them of English word order rules – something similar to an error correction task. Since many of my students are studying to become EFL teachers in the German state sector, this kind of activity could be seen as authentic for them – especially with these real utterances, rather than alphabetically ordered jumbled words. The example I’ve invented below focuses on collocations, alongside word order for questions with an auxiliary – but I don’t suppose this is a realistic example of anything any language learner would say; it’s just a collection of words! Although I don’t necessarily think ‘artificial’ is the polar opposite of ‘authentic’, this one is definitely not an authentic example of a jumbled sentence in the way Dr Lanteigne understands the term, and is more akin to the kinds of sentences that are most often criticised in this task type for exactly this reason. Perhaps it still has value in ELT, but again, it would be more interesting to discuss which jumbled orders are most helpful for students in which cases. Since different jumbles would probably check different things, such as lexical, morphological or syntactical knowledge, it probably depends on the specific language point you want to check, as well as students’ L1s. This sounds like something that someone who has more time than me should research 😉

ceilings men legs tall long high like do with 

ceilings? men legs tall long high like Do with 

Materials – sentence reconstruction

With example 2 above, the syntax makes me think this is not an L1 speaker of a European language; at least I don’t know any Indo-European languages that separate the subject from the verb in this way. And, as I said before, reconstructing this sentence to understand the speaker’s meaning is more than just an unjumbling activity – it will require contextual and maybe also cultural knowledge to determine the speakers’ meaning and intention, as well as knowledge of grammar and lexis. Still, as an authentic utterance and thus potentially authentic task, learning to reconstruct it would seem to have value, as Dr Lanteigne argues, especially for learners who are likely to communicate in an ELF context. In order to produce materials that help to train this competence, then, we would either need to collect more authentic examples “in the wild”, or investigate the patterns behind omitted words and ‘jumbled’ word order, in order to create our own artificial, but authentic, examples to work with. Here again, I believe that context is key – depending on the speaker’s L1, the patterns are likely to be different, so we’d need to know a lot about who said what in order to create a suitable sample base of sentences for our materials, and might then also need to select relevant examples for the materials based on the specific learners, their context and reasons for learning English (e.g. where are their future ELF interlocutors likely to come from?).

So what?

I’m slightly torn at this point, though I can’t formulate my evaluative thoughts very well. I’ll try: This sounds like very interesting and insight-rich research to do, and I’m sure the results would be valuable for ELT materials writers. But it does seem to presuppose that such decoding and understanding skills are rather high-level in terms of English language competence and need to be trained. I wonder if that’s always true? I mean, what if a few words, some gesture and context, and a willingness to negotiate meaning are enough for communication in ELF contexts? Do the conversation partners need to reconstruct a grammatically correct sentence in their head to understand or be able to respond? Again, more research… please let me know if you do it! 🙂

Further Reading

Lanteigne, Betty. 20 17. “Unscrambling jumbled sentences: An authentic task for English language assessment?”. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching (7/2). 251-273. Accessible here: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1149764.pdf

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!

Fun things I’ve learnt from writing one ELT coursebook

Fun things I’ve learnt from writing one ELT coursebook

I’ve recently read (am a bit slow) this post https://eltplanning.com/2018/08/03/materials-writer-elt/ and one point really stood out to me – about how being interested in lots of things is helpful for materials writers. And as I’m just going through the proof stage of a book I’ve co-written, it made me reflect on the interesting things I’ve learnt about while writing one ELT book. They include:

– foodsharing and carsharing – justifications and legal issues

– reasons for vegetariansm and other dietary choices

– Shakespeare’s legacy / influence on the English we use today, plus the fact that there is a computer game based (loosely) on Hamlet!

– tiny homes and motivations for minimalist lifestyles

– crazy competitions from around the world

– details on the origins of many holidays and the associated traditions (Halloween, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, Chrismukkah,…)

– training for a marathon & health benefits of running over other sports

– origins of sports idioms

– how to fake a news story and a photo of monsters/freaks of nature/other unidentifiable objects – yes really!

– how to carve an onion into a flower – though I have to admit I’ve not yet had an occasion to try this out!

 

Writing this book has had an effect on my own life and lifestyle; I can only hope the future students find the topics as engaging!

What about you? Have you researched something to make language teaching materials and learnt something new that’s changed your life?

 

 

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! 😀

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!

Getting the (Conference Speaker) Balance Right

Getting the (Conference Speaker) Balance Right

There’s been a lot of talk about this recently – getting the balance right. The balance between men and women, between native and non-native speakers at ELT events and conferences. 

I’ve fairly recently joined the committee of an IATEFL SIG. I’m on the events team. So these kinds of ‘balance’ topics are more pertinent to me now than ever. 

This post is not really a ‘How to’: In fact, it’s me just kind of getting my thoughts in order, my pondering on the subject. There might be some tips, but this is definitely a request for more ideas!

So, let’s say we’re going to organise an ELT event. We put out a call for proposals. Various things could happen, and it’s how to deal with these that I want to talk about in this post. 

Scenario 1. We want someone to host a workshop. We review the submissions ‘blind’, i.e. without any information about the potential speaker who has submitted them. Proposal A fits the theme of our event, has a good balance in favour of practical ideas, includes interesting workshop activities, and sounds like it would be a good fit for our event. Proposal B is only loosely connected to the event’s theme, sounds too theoretical for a workshop, and the activities don’t sound like they would fit in the workshop time-slot. I’m guessing we want to accept Proposal A. Right?

And then we find out that the speaker who submitted Proposal A happens to be a white, male native speaker. Proposal B came, let’s just say, from someone who didn’t fit all of those labels. We are keen to avoid all-male or all-native-speaker presenters at our events. Should we accept Proposal B in order to fulfil this aim, and risk providing a less good workshop for our participants? I’m not really in favour of ‘positive discrimination’ in this case if it may endanger the quality of the event.

So what else could we do?

– Cancel the event. (This is probably the least favourable outcome for everyone involved.)

– Contact the person who submitted Proposal B and explain its weaknesses, asking for a re-submission. (This might take time we don’t have. And is it fair?)

– Find another way to include Proposal B, such as a poster presentation, so that the speaker can gain experience, get their voice heard, and hopefully submit a more fitting proposal next time. (If possible…)

– Accept it this time, and keep the person who submitted Proposal B in mind for a future event.

– Extend the deadline in the hope of receiving more proposals. (This might take time we don’t have.)

– In future, provide more specific guidelines for speaker proposals. (This doesn’t solve our immediate problem.)

– [What else could we do? Answers on a postcard, please!]

 

Scenario 2: We are looking for 6 speakers for a conference. We receive 5 proposals. All of them are from male native speakers. We could arrange the day to include 5 talks and a panel discussion with those speakers. We are keen to avoid all-male or all-native-speaker presenters at our event, but if we don’t accept all of the 5 proposals, we won’t be able to fill the day.

So what else could we do?

– Cancel the event. (This is probably the least favourable outcome for everyone involved.)

– Extend the deadline in the hope of receiving more proposals. (This might take time we don’t have.)

– Invite late proposals from other (female / non-native) speakers and re-evaluate the selection. (This poses a new set of questions:  Does this seem unfair? Who do you choose to invite a proposal from?)

– Invite other (female / non-native) speakers to take part in the panel discussion. (This poses a new set of questions: Who do you choose to invite? Should it then be an all-female panel – is that ‘positive discrimination’?)

– [What else could we do? Answers on a postcard, please!]

 

Scenario 3: We are co-organising an event with a sponsor, e.g. a publishing company. We agree that we will select 5 speakers from the proposals we receive, and they will send 5 speakers (maybe editors, authors, sales reps, etc.). We choose 3 female and 2 male speakers, of whom 3 are native and 2 are non-native speakers. We think we’ve got a pretty good balance. But the sponsoring company decides to send 5 male native speakers to hold talks at the event.

So what else could we do?

– Cancel the event. (This is probably the least favourable outcome for everyone involved.)

– Express our concerns and ask them to send alternative (female / non-native) speakers. (Not sure how well this would go down?)

– Change our speakers so they are all female non-native speakers. (How fair is this on the others we wanted to accept?)

– [What else could we do? Answers on a postcard, please!]

From all of this pondering, what have I / we learnt? OK, so I invented the scenarios and plucked the numbers out of thin air, just to make the point. But I think you get what I mean! But, well, sometimes we might just be in a bind and not be able to change he situation. We might end up with a line-up which seems to proliferate the male native-speaker presenter bias among conference speakers /workshop hosts that we want to discourage. People will complain – but maybe they don’t understand the difficult situation we are in. Still, at the very least, we can change how we approach our event organisation in the future. And if we’re planning an event in good time, which most of the time I’d guess we are, we might (should) be able to make that extra effort to move towards a better gender and non-/native speaker balance.

It seems to me, though, that some of the roots of the problem do not lie within the powers of events organisers. For example in Scenario 2 – why do we have so few proposals? Why are none of them from non-native speakers/ women? Perhaps the call for proposals was poorly advertised, not targeted at a wide range of potential speakers? That we could fix. But if lots of people (including women and non-native speakers) saw the call, then why did they not submit a proposal? I’m not the first one to say this, and I surely won’t be the last, but I think there must be reasons why these groups sem to put themselves forward for talks less often than others. Maybe it’s a confidence thing, maybe time or money concerns, or maybe extra-professional issues. Whatever it is, probably one of the most effective ways to avoid scenarios like the ones I invented here would be to somehow help these potential speakers  see themselves as potential speakers. But the ‘How to’ on that topic will have to be another post!

Who can help with my to-do list?

Who can help with my to-do list?

There seem to be a flurry of posts at the moment on how people are feeling, what they’re thinking, what’s going on in their lives. Maybe these posts are people sneakily trying to hit the record of 15 posts in a month set by Hana Ticha (See: #hanachallenge !). But people also often say that blogging is cathartic and can help clarify your thoughts. So here I am …. giving it a go… and I have some tricky to-dos that you can maybe help me with. 

Planning

I’m pleased to say I finished my marking from last semester! So now I’m on to planning my 8 classes for next semester, to start mid-October. For most things I’ll carry over the general outline from last year. But for the first-semester students it’s hard to plan because we don’t know how many we’re going to have! And, all of my British cultural studies textbooks are now out of date, thanks to the recent referendum and election. Don’t suppose anyone has any resources at C1 level about recent British politics??

MaWSIG

I’ve recently been elected to the MaWSIG committee as a Joint Events Coordinator. Two of us were new to the team, and we’ve really hit the ground running. So far, I’ve been involved in setting up a competition (running now!) and organising a MaWSIG Strand at the TESOL Spain convention (March 2018). Maybe you guys can all join in to make it really worth our while organising?! We’re also in the midst of planning our PCE for Brighton, and there are two other conferences in the pipeline. I’m loving my new role, but it does involve quite a lot of emails and Skype meetings!

Writing

I write for an EFL learners magazine and am responsible for the collocations pages. The basic set-up is that we choose two words that are often confused, and show and practice collocations that go with them. For example step/stair, make/do, say/tell. The thing is that I always need two words with about 8 collocations each, which can all be easily visualised, haven’t been covered recently, and lend themselves to written exercises. If you have any ideas, please do let me know!

I’m also writing a piece for a TA’s newsletter about teaching EAP in Germany. I’m a bit worried that what I’m writing makes sense to me, an insider, but won’t be clear or interesting to anyone outside the EAP-in-Germany world. If you were going to read an article like this, what would you be interested in finding out?

Conferences

I got a bit overly inspired at the beginning of the year and sent off a bunch of proposals to talk at conferences or give webinars. I’m pleased that several of them were accepted, but now I’m trying to juggle writing summaries, creating slides, and booking travel to various events. Actually, there’s not much you can do to help me on this. But if you do see me at a conference in the next 6 months, maybe congratulate me on having made it and given the right presentation in the right place…!

Life Admin

I go through phases of looking ahead in my diary and buying birthday cards, but recently I’ve been a bit lax about posting them on time. I need to get on top of this, especially for international posting! I definitely need to sort my things out before Christmas! How long does a letter take from Germany to the USA?

Blogging

I really am motivated to blog more. But I don’t really have many great ideas that I think people would be interested in reading about. The #hanachallenge is a cool idea, but I don’t want to post stuff just for the sake of it. Please send inspiration!