Tag: action research

Action Research – What and how?

Action Research – What and how?

Many schemes of professional development for teachers, as well as advanced teaching certificates, include an element of ‘Action Research’ (AR). In my work as a team leader of EFL tutors, I’ve come to see just how important AR is for teachers to continue to develop and professionalise their teaching practices. And I’m so enthusiastic about teachers doing research that I want to share some introductory thoughts with a wider audience – with you, my dear blog readers! I hope I can inspire you to start your own AR projects, and would love to hear what you get up to!

So what is ‘Action Research’ for teachers? Basically,  AR is any small scale research conducted by a practising teacher which looks at any aspect of how a class is run, and is particularly aimed at answering a question or addressing a difficult or controversial issue. The results of the research can then be used by the teacher (and colleagues if the results are shared) to inform future practice and to suggest solutions to any problems or puzzles caused by the controversial issues/questions.

With this definition, ‘action research’ can be broken down into the following concrete phases: 

  1. formulation of research question, 
  2. background reading (optional), 
  3. developing (and maybe piloting, or evaluating with colleagues) a method of data collection, 
  4. data collection,
  5. collating & analysing data, 
  6. reflection & drawing conclusions. 

Once conclusions have been drawn, these can lead to the formulation of a consequent action plan or changes in teaching practice, and/or the dissemination of the research findings.

These phases may make AR sound like a very time-consuming and serious experimental endeavour, but it really isn’t!! An AR project can be as large and time-consuming, or as quick and small, as the teacher wants it to be. Most of the time, you can ‘research’ whilst teaching. You start with something you’d like to find out, change something minor in your teaching, and reflect on the outcome. The research question could focus on a local issue connected to one specific class or school, such as getting shy learners to speak more, dealing with unruly behaviour, encouraging more engagement with homework tasks, or trialling things like project-based learning, peer-review etc. You could trial a new technique to investigate possible & necessary adaptations for particular teaching contexts. You might also want to try combining ideas from published sources and developing a new technique which could then be shared with others. Often, I’ve found informal staffroom chats highlight potential AR topics, so just keep your ears open!

The ‘how’ question can seem a big deal, especially if calling it ‘data collection’ reminds you of big scientific investigations! But in AR, you can choose any way to gather information that is relevant to your research question. It could be as straightforward as keeping a journal of your lessons and your reflections on them, or maybe asking to sit in on a colleague’s lesson to see how they approach a certain issue, or even asking your students to give you their opinions on certain aspects of the classroom/lesson setup. The key thing is reflecting on what you find out and how you can apply it to your teaching!

If you are approaching AR for the first time, you might like to talk through your ideas with a colleague who’s done some AR before, or collaborate with another colleague to emphasise the reflective nature of AR. I would also love to hear about your AR projects and can mentor you through the process, if you wish – just comment below or send me a message on Twitter, I’m @Clare2ELT.

What I really love about AR is that it can open up dialogue among teachers! That’s why I’d love for you to get in touch, and would also encourage any teacher who has conduced AR to share their findings publicly, e.g. on a blog or in a teaching magazine or newsletter.

Here are some other links and blog posts that are worth a look, if you’re interesting in finding out more about AR:

British Council: Exploring our own classroom practice.

Nellie Mueller: Action Research Projects

#BridgingtheGapChallenge Hand-Written vs Emailed Corrective Feedback on Writing

As part of the #BridgingtheGapChallenge, here is a summary of:

Farshi, S.S. & S.K. Safa, ‘The Effect of Two Types of Corrective Feedback on EFL Learners’ Writing Skill’, Advances in Language and Literary Studies, Vol 6/1, February 2015.

This study aimed to compare the effectiveness of giving hand-written or electronic (via email) feedback on EFL learners’ written work.

Participants & Procedure

Thirty-five adult participants were involved in the stud; Azeri-Turkish speakers, who were learning English at a language institute in Iran. They were divided into three separate class groups, which met twice a week for 7 weeks and taught by the same teacher. All groups covered the same material in class and were given a writing task each week based on the lesson’s focus. Depending on which group participants they were in, they received feedback on their work in a different format: Group A: Submitted paper-versions of their work and received hand-written feedback. Group B: Submit their work by email and received their feedback electronically. Group C: Submitted their work either on paper or by email, but received no feedback from the teacher. Groups A and B revised their paragraphs using the feedback they received. Before the study, students completed pre-test writing tasks (writing two separate paragraphs), graded by three teachers, and the KET proficiency test and were found to have comparable levels of proficiency in English. They post-test score was also based on two written paragraphs, graded by three teachers. The pre-test and post-test scores were given in numerical format, on a scale from 0-20 (where 20 is good).

Findings

A paired-samples T-test (test of significant difference) was used to compare participants’ pre-test and post-test scores. On the pre-test scores, there was no significant difference between the three groups. On the post-test scores (i.e. the grades students achieved on the assessment after having received the various feedbacks on their work for 7 weeks), both Group A’s and Group B’s scores were significantly higher than those of Group C, who had received no corrective feedback on their writing. The researchers conclude that both hand-written and electronic feedback therefore have a positive impact on students’ writing skill. The key finding, though, is the significant difference between the improvements shown by participants in Groups A and B; where Group B (who had received electronic feedback) scored significantly higher than Group A (hand-written feedback), which would seem to show that feedback received electronically is more effective at improving students’ writing than hand-written feedback is.

My Own Thoughts

I can postulate various explanations for the benefit of giving feedback electronically: it feels more personal to the students, the teacher can perhaps include more detailed feedback, it is motivating for students to use their electronic devices for the English learning, etc. It would have been interesting to see what the researchers thought were the explanations for their findings.

It would also be good to know what kind of level their learners were at in their English proficiency – perhaps the effectiveness of certain feedback formats depends on level?

And also, what kind of feedback exactly was given – actual corrections? simply underlining? Comments to start a dialogue? Use of a correction code? I wonder whether these differences might have an even more significant effect on students’ improvement than simply the mode of delivery of the feedback?

#BridgingTheGapChallenge: Bridging the Gap between Researchers and Teachers

There is SO MUCH research going on into language teaching methods, approaches, etc. But the sad fact is, it has turned into a big jumble of research strands, hard to untangle and find the right connections!
An art installation on the Moselle river made by Trier Art Academy (Kunstakademie) 2015.
An art installation on the Moselle river made by Trier Art Academy (Kunstakademie) 2015.

Let’s be honest, how many classroom teachers have access to it? And time to read and digest it all? Probably very few! SO where do teachers get their inspiration and lesson ideas? Well, online a lot of the time. And so I came up with a blog idea, which will hopefully turn in to a challenge which lots of people participate in… #BridgingTheGapChallenge

THE CHALLENGE: Teachers or researchers reading this: grab (or click on!) one ELT-related journal you have access to. Read one article that interests you, and post a quick, readable summary for other teachers to read, who are too busy to read the full article or do not have access to that journal or magazine! 

The aim is for us to build up a nice bank of summaries that are easy to access and bridge the gap between published research and classroom practitioners!

You can post the link to your blog post in the comments section below, or tweet your blog posts @Clare2ELT or with the #BridgingTheGapChallenge  If you don’t have your own blog, please feel free to add your summary to the comments below, or send it to me and I’ll publish it as a guest post on my blog! 🙂

Let the bridge-building begin!

Questions for Readers – Where are you coming from? Where are you going?

Once again, I’ve been inspired by Joanna Malefaki’s post with an idea for using my blog for a bit more active / interactive networking. So instead of just writing and putting my thoughts “out there”, I’m using this post to ask questions to get to know the wonderful people who read my blog…! Please post your answers in the comments section below, I look forward to hearing from you!

(And yes, this is a piece of unashamed “market research” so I know who I’m writing for in future!! 🙂 )

I would love to know…

… your current teaching context

… your teaching/career background

… what you like to read on my blog and what you do with the thoughts I share.

Continue reading “Questions for Readers – Where are you coming from? Where are you going?”

Optimising Active Participation – A Discussion

I was recently inspired by an article in English Teaching Professional to host what I call a “Professional Development Discussion Round”, where all of the participants are seen as ‘experts’ so there is no one person giving input and ‘telling’ the other teachers what/how to do things. I can highly recommend this format as an in-service training event! This post is a summary of what we discussed, to show you how productive the session was. The aim of the post is to encourage more discussion (e.g. in the comments section below), and perhaps to encourage more teachers to hold their own Discussion Rounds!

If you’d like to do it yourself, here’s how I set it up: The topic was decided in advance, and participants invited to submit questions they would like to discuss or receive input on. These questions were sent around in advance, and everyone was left to prepare in whatever way they felt most appropriate, or had time for! Some read relevant published articles, others dug out their teaching handbooks and reference books, and others simply reflected on their own teaching practice and examples from their own classroom. The questions were used as a basis for the discussions, and I took notes to be able to send around a summary of the points covered afterwards, especially to those who could not attend.

A little note on my teaching context: I teach within the English Studies Dept. at a university in Germany, where our class groups often include around 30 learners. Other participants were my colleagues from the department and from the university’s Language Centre, as well as secondary school teachers of EFL who also work with us on training new teachers. Nonetheless, I think the topic, and our discussion, is very relevant to many different teaching contexts!

Our Discussion: Optimising Active Participation

Below is a summary of the questions and discussion from our Professional Development round. Some of the points overlap, or are relevant to different questions, but I have attempted to present them in a readable order. The ideas are not all my own, but the results of our discussion, and often other colleague’s contributions. Sometimes, our discussions actually threw out even more questions that are also worthy of discussion! If you have more to say about any of the questions, please do use the comments section below to continue the discussion!

Why is Participation important?

  • It is sometimes a course requirement – this should be made clear from the start.
  • Students need to practice speaking English, to improve their fluency and to be able to get feedback to improve the accuracy of their language.
    • Because of this, it is important to stop certain students from ‘over-participating’ and dominating the class, so that a) everyone has a chance to participate and receive feedback, and b) other, quieter students do not get used to not participating and rely on others to carry the discussions etc.
    • One idea to ensure the students who most need it get feedback is to ask for suggestions from students who feel their answers are not good – then encourage others in giving constructive feedback. The emphasis should be placed on receiving feedback to aid their learning. This requires a comfortable, constructive class atmosphere, see below.
  • Participating keeps learners engaged – but there may be ways to participate other than speaking a lot: Participation of some sort is important to keep students engaged, but it could also be e.g. active listening.

How can we create an atmosphere to encourage participation?

  • Learners must feel comfortable speaking in class, and also not afraid to make mistakes – as these mistakes are what allow them to receive the most helpful feedback.
  • The teacher should make the purpose of speaking and receiving feedback clear from the start. They can also explain how they correct/give feedback and why they have chosen this technique.
  • It helps if the teacher knows the students’ names, and if the students are encouraged to get to know their fellow learners and address them by name. This helps students to feel personally valued as part of the course group and can encourage a ‘community feeling’ (see below).
  • Errors can also be approached in a positive manner, for example with a joke or anecdote as a reminder of the correction. This may help students to see participating and having their mistakes corrected as a normal (and not negative) part of the learning process.
  • Creating a community feeling among the course group also generates a constructive and encouraging atmosphere. It may help if the teacher tries to reduce the hierarchical distance between themselves and the students.
    • e.g. by referring to “our goals” “things we need to do” or “our weaknesses” (instead of “you need to…”)
    • e.g. by showing that the teacher understands the learners’ problems and process of learning, maybe with an anecdote about their own language learning experiences.
    • e.g. by encouraging the learners to help each other constructively to fix their errors or address their weaknesses – for example listing errors on the board at the end of a lesson and getting the class to correct the ones they know.

How can we nurture students’ intrinsic motivation to participate?

  • This can be achieved by highlighting the long-term benefits of participating actively.
  • e.g. by explaining the expectations they may face in future if they put this course on their CVs
  • e.g. by getting students to consider why they are doing the course, what they hope to achieve by taking the course, and what they need from the lessons in order to reach these goals.

What, if any, difference does it make that we are teaching adults?

  • Learners’ intrinsic motivation and the community feeling can be strengthened if we have an appreciation of the fact that we are teaching adults, who also have lives and responsibilities outside of the classroom.
  • The teacher needs to respect that their students have varying priorities and responsibilities, especially outside the classroom. It may be helpful to be open with students about one’s own life, workload, etc. so that mutual respect can be built up – the teacher may also function as a role-model.
  • Nonetheless, a balance must be achieved so that certain students don’t get used to using their outside lives as an excuse for not completing work or assessments for their classes; especially as others may be facing the same difficulties/stresses but nonetheless make an effort to complete work on time. One idea is to make it clear that as long as the student has handled the situation maturely and talked to the teacher in advance about, for example, missing a deadline, then they will be granted help/extra time, etc.
  • Though our students are adults, many of them still need support transitioning between school and university, including preparing them to learn well in the face of diverse teaching styles they will encounter.
  • With young adults, we should make an effort to cultivate self-direction.
    • e.g. they should be encouraged to ask questions – especially in class if they feel other students could also benefit from the information.
    • e.g. if they have questions, problems or require extra guidance, they need to learn to ask for it in advance. For example, for their very first presentation at university, students could be required to submit an outline in advance on which they are given feedback to improve before they give the (assessed?) presentation. This may show them the kinds of feedback they can expect to receive and how helpful it is, so that they learn to ask for feedback by themselves in future.

How can we organize students into groups effectively?

  • The quickest way is to assign students to groups according to where they are sitting in the classroom (e.g. the rows turn around to work with those behind them), so that not too much moving around is required. However, this may mean that students always work in the same groups. An unanswered question here is how helpful/important it is to separate friends who only ever work together.
  • Other options include:
    • Count off the students according to how many groups are needed, e.g. need 5 groups, count around the room 1,2, 3, 4, 5 and get all the 1s to make a group, all the 2s, etc.
    • Similar to counting, students can be handed out playing cards and ask to make groups according to the suits, numbers, etc. (Hint: Make sure they know the names of the suits and picture cards!)
    • Grouping students by ability; either high achievers together and lower achievers together, or mixed-ability groups, depending on the aims of the task.
    • If groups are going to work on a longer project, it may be wise to allow students to find their own groups according to, e.g. interests, times they have to spend on their English work, degree programmes, etc.
  • To organize groups quickly and effectively, it may be advisable to put them into groups first, and then give the instructions for the task.

 

How can we address an imbalance of input into group work?

  • Students can be grouped according to how talkative they tend to be, to avoid quieter ones being dominated.
  • Activities that include information gaps, or expert groups, lead to authentic communication to share information and help to ensure that every group member is responsible for providing a certain amount of input.
  • If the imbalance is created by certain students dominating group discussions, time ‘credits’ can be set that each student is allowed to ‘use up’ (e.g. 2 minutes per person), or students can be given/make tokens with which they ‘pay’ each time they contribute – and when their tokens are all gone, they will have to let the others have their turns to speak. However, these techniques may affect the authenticity of the discussion/group work.
  • For whole-class activities, students can be picked randomly to participate (recent studies have shown that teachers often think they do this, but indeed their ‘random selection’ is in fact often rather biased.) Techniques to make the process really random include popsicle sticks, dice, picking contributors based on their birthday, etc.
  • One reason some students may not participate as much is that they might need longer to think about and formulate their answer. Some ideas to allow them this thinking time include:
    • Think-Pair-Share (students think about their answers alone, discuss them with a neighbour, and then share with the class)
    • Asking everyone to put their hand up once they think they know the answer, and waiting until everyone is ready. Students can then be allowed to put their hand down again if they do not want to share their answers with the whole class, but often if they have ‘bothered’ to figure out the answer, they will leave their hands up, and so the teacher can call on the quieter ones to answer.
  • Another suggestion is to talk to the quiet students individually outside of the lesson to find out why they don’t seem to participate very much – and then to work on strategies to help them talk more in class.

(How) can we assess participation effectively?

  • This discussion comes down to quality vs quantity when assessing spontaneous language production – if assessment is only based on prepared contributions (e.g. presentations), we may miss mistakes a student makes when they speak spontaneously. It is particularly a problem if oral participation contributes to students’ grades for a class.
  • Keeping a tally list of students’ participation is a good way of keeping track of the frequency with which they talk in class: though it mainly focuses on quantity, more tally marks can be given if a contribution is particularly good, and if a student only offers a simple answer in order to receive a tally mark, they can be given no or just ½ a mark. This method has the advantage of showing students that it is OK to make mistakes in class, as they get tally points for trying.
  • Including a lot of pair-work activities in the lesson will ensure that most people actually speak, but it is hard for the teacher to actually assess the language competence of individual students.
  • Suggestions of activities to include spontaneous, individual speech in the lesson are hot seat activities, expert panels, role plays, mad discussions etc. Since only one or two students will be speaking at any time, it is easier for the teacher to make a note of any errors.
  • Finally, a controversial question is whether we can or should even assess oral participation; perhaps it is more important to encourage students to make the most of participating in class for their own learning process and move them away from the attitude of chasing grades. (Though this is a problem if the oral participation contributes to their course grade!)

Things I would tell my newly qualified self

There’ve been a host a posts recently responding to Joanna Malefaki’s #Youngerteacherself challenge. And here’s mine.

My career as an English teacher began with an initial training course; Trinity College’s TESOL Certificate. But I’m (now, at least) under no illusion that such an initial training course can teach new teachers everything they will need to know about the profession. In fact, I tend to view such training as similar to learning to drive. In your lessons, you are shown the basics of how to move a car safely along a road, and you (have to) faithfully follow these instructions in order to pass your test and get a driving licence to be able to drive all on your own! There’s no way that your driving lessons will expose you to every possible situation that can occur in traffic (even if, like me, you learn to drive in London!). And so once you’ve got your licence, you go off and drive on your own, and the driving experience you gain over the years becomes much more valuable than your driving lessons. You also come to understand  which of the basic instructions are ‘golden rules’ and which you can adapt to your own driving situation (who really puts the hand brake on at every red light in London?!). This is just like teaching. Having completed an initial training course, you’re “licensed” to drive a class safely along the textbook road. But years of experience will teach you much more than the initial training ever could.

It’s been ten years since I completed my Trinity Cert. TESOL, in which time I’ve taught in an array of settings: one-to-one, exam preparation, secondary schools, private langauge schools, summer schools, business colleges, and university. So what have I learnt? Well, that I love teaching! And that the best way to go about teaching many of the classes I have faced has only very little to how I was taught to teach 10 years ago. Here’s my sprinkling of wisdom; I hope that newly qualified teachers will find inspiration in this post, and that more experience teachers may find comfort in knowing they are not alone in having further developed their teaching from their CELTA (or similar) ‘driving’ lessons!

1) Explicit Grammar Teaching is OK

For a long time, the explicit teaching of grammar has (had) been out of fashion, as other aspects of language have come into the focus, and my own training was focussed on Communicative Language Teaching, which has little place for the explicit teaching of grammar. Over the years, though, I’ve come to realise it’s what a lot of learners want, and actually benefit from (especially adults). And I admit, I’ve basically been doing it all along! A  little while ago, I attended an event hosted by ELTA Rhine where Michael Swan  and Catherine Walters held talks on explicit grammar teaching. Their conclusion? Why not?! (Phew!) Swan has published widely on this, but you can find my summary of Michael Swan’s talk here.

2) L1 Use and Translation are OK

Although I was trained that using students’ L1 was inappropriate for the ELT classroom, this standpoint has undergone something of a revival recently. And thank goodness, I say – what a relief to know that it is not a deadly sin to utter a word in a language other than English during our teaching!! I’ve been to several conference talks by people advocating, for example, quick translation of a vocabulary item into students’ L1 where this avoids distraction from the actual task and aids the flow of the lesson – and I have the impression that most teachers agree with this rationale. Teaching through translation has also had its reputation retrieved from the gutter – again a relief for me, since most universities in Germany include translation in their curricula. Indeed, a colleague and I worked on an action research project which she presented as “Can Translation Classes Improve Students’ English Skills?” at the 2014 IATEFL Annual Conference, where we found that using translation to target specific interference errors can actually be an effective strategy! This is also argued by by Guy Cook in his book “Translation in Language Teaching” (2010). Of course, there are a number of caveats and conditions here, the most obvious being that translation can only be used if all learners speak the same L1 and the teacher can speak it too! Still, for me, this is a welcome deviation from the strict L2-only policy I was trained to employ!

3) Always plan the aims (of a course, lesson, activity)

ELT trainees are often required to include in their plans copious detail on aims, objectives, materials, activities, steps, predicted problems, background on the students and almost everything else that could possibly be relevant to the class and the lesson! In an article in The Teacher Trainer Journal (vol 28/2) from last year, I argue that considering the objectives of a course, lesson or activity in detail is not without reason trained so thoroughly on teacher training courses, as the skill is essential: the most important thing is for teachers to consider aims and objectives in lesson planning, even if we do not have the luxury of time to produce formally typed-up, step-by-step plans for each lesson. Having clear aims of our lesson and course provides the guiding map that leads us effectively through to the end of term – otherwise, we could end up teaching unconnected individual lessons that don’t move our students particularly far forward in their learning. By the way, note that I’m saying definitely plan the Aims. Be flexible with the rest of the lesson – sticking slavishly to lesson plans full of minutely timed activities will probably not be satisfying for anyone!

I’ve also learnt, through my own teaching and professional development, how useful it can be to inform our learners about the aims of lessons and activities. This increases motivation and receptivity to the material, class and teacher – discussed in more detail in my article in TTTJ. For some of my ideas and research on how to communicate the aims to your learners, please read another article I’ve recently published in ELTED (vol 17).

4) Learners are normal people, too

This sounds very simple, but is easily forgotten when you’re busy writing lesson plans for a group of learners who are (apparently) at a certain level, have certain aims, and require a certain number of credit points etc. for a course. But all of your students have a life outside of your classroom, where they are experiencing life’s ups and downs just like everyone else. A student is not only a body in your class; they may be a parent, carer, full- or part-time worker, a student of another subject, a husband/wife, and the list goes on…!

I was recently having a bit of a moan to my to a graduate tutor about how my classes are always so full, when colleagues still have spots free. What she said warmed my little heart, and made me regard my over-subscribed classes in a new light: apparently, students value that random chats I have with them about their own lives, their backgrounds, and basically anything they do when they’re not in my classroom. And I know all their names! This comes naturally to me, but until recently I didn’t realise how much students appreciated it! (In fact, I’d worried that they found it frustrating that I sometimes lose track of time [and the lesson!] whilst talking to them!) So my tip is: Don’t lose sight of the trees (individual students) for the woods!

And this also extends to other areas of teaching, such as accepting that some students simply don’t have time for homework, or can’t study for exams. Who’da thunk?! They have stuff going on in their private lives, too! (By the way, I’ve also noticed that treating each student as an individual with a real life beyond the classroom means they do the same for me, and are much more forgiving if I don’t manage to turn their assignments around as quickly as I’d like! Bonus! 🙂 )

5) You don’t have to correct every single mistake

I don’t think I need to write as much on this one – especially as there would be no way to concisely express all of the debates and publications in the area! (You can read it all for yourself – some references are below!) Suffice to say, you can be selective in targeting errors and devise an approach to correction that suits your teaching style and the different groups of learners that you face. For me, the most important thing is that you have made an informed judgement and decision about the best way to go about error correction. That doesn’t mean that you choose one method and stick to it forever – be open to professional development, even if it takes the basic form of chatting to colleagues! Then you can modify your error correction behaviour based on sound justifications, and not beat yourself up about having ‘missed’ certain errors your learners make.

6)You are a materials writer

Do you write your own worksheets and exercises for your classes? Then you are a materials writer! And the materials you produce are no less valuable than published materials! Especially as you have targeted your materials specifically to your students, their aims and abilities – something that published textbooks can never hope to do. Of course, it’s not a bad idea to use published materials, textbooks etc. for inspiration (especially to save you re-inventing the wheel!), but adapting these for your lessons or developing your own activities inspired by published works probably means your materials will be more beneficial for your learners. However, don’t get stuck on pretty formatting – I used to do this when I first qualified, which meant I was teaching from very professional-looking worksheets that distracted learners from the actual langauge learning aspect of the work! Another common mistake is spending hours making a worksheet activity that will only take students 5 minutes to complete and then not lead to any further practise/production. For some more tips on making worksheets, please see Adam Simpson’s blog post “6 Things that can go wrong when making a worksheet and how to avoid them.”

References

  • Cook, G., Translation in Language Teaching (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 2010)
  • Ebbert, C. “Can Translation Classes Improve Students’ English Skills?” Presentation at IATEFL Annual Conference, Harrogate, 2-5 April 2014.
  • Ferris, D.R. (2004). The “Grammar Correction” Debate in L2 Writing: Where are we, and where do we go from here? (and what do we do in the meantime . . .?). Journal of Second Language Writing, 13, 49–62
  • Fielder, C., “Are detailed objectives really necessary in lesson planning?”, The Teacher Trainer Journal, Vol 28/2, May 2014, pp. 18-20.
  • Fielder, C., “(How) Should we inform learners of lesson and activity aims? An action research project conducted with young adults studying for an English Studies degree in a German university”, ELTED, vol 17 (2014), pp. 1-4. [available here: http://www.elted.net/issues/volume_17/index.htm ]
  • Simpson, A., “6 Things that can go wrong when making a worksheet and how to avoid them”, www.teachthemenglish.com, posted 22 Feb 2014. [http://www.teachthemenglish.com/2014/02/6-things-that-can-go-wrong-when-making-a-worksheet-and-how-to-avoid-them/]
  • Swan, M., “Teaching Grammar – Does Grammar Teaching work?”, Modern English Teacher, 15/2, 2006.

Further Reading

  • My other blog posts 🙂
  • Johanna Malefaki’s original #Youngerteacherself post also provides links to other bloggers’ response to the challenge.

Can translation classes improve students’ English skills?

GUEST POST BY CAROL EBBERT

 

Introduction

Translation has a tool of teaching foreign languages is undergoing a rejuvenation, after it was out of fashion for many years. Translation is also part of the curriculum within the Department of English Studies at Trier University. We at Uni Trier have always felt that teaching translation to C1-level monolingual learners helps improve their grammar and accuracy in English, helping our students to recognize possible areas of interference from German (their L1). This assumption, however, was never put to the test.

So we decided to test it. A first step in doing so was carried out in winter semester 2013/14. Our test subjects were five translation classes taught by three different instructors. These translation classes are not meant to specifically train translators, but rather the focus is using translation as a method to learn English. To do so, sentences or short paragraphs relating to specific grammatical features in German or English, or longer texts containing multiple such features, are translated from German (L1) into English (L2).

The classes were given a grammar test in the first week of class prior to any translation. A similar test was then administered in the last or second-to-last week of class to the same five groups of students. The results of these two tests form the basis of our study.

The Grammar Test

The areas we chose to cover were articles, tenses, modal constructions, prepositions and false friends. The test exercises were taken from course books with an appropriate level (advanced or C1). The tasks were made as similar as possible across the two tests and with similar numbers of points as well.

An important point was to get as close to ‘real’ production as possible in the artificial test format. We decided against overuse of multiple choice answers, because we did not want our students to recognize and pick the right answer. As our students are fairly high level, they often make mistakes despite knowing the right answer. Thus in multiple choice, they will often recognize and pick the correct answer, although when asked to produce free speech or their own written texts, they may make mistakes in these same areas. We wanted them to create an answer with as little outside help as possible. We were able to especially achieve this in the section on articles, tenses and prepositions, where only the context of the texts or knowing the rules of English grammar or collocation led them to create the correct answer. We were unable to create a version of the false friend section that did not give a selection of words. As students scored high in this section on both the first and second test, this perhaps indicates that they can recognize the correct answer although they may not always produce it.

Results

Our sample size was 94. Once the tests were administered in class, they were corrected and the scores were tabulated. The exams were administered anonymously and students were identified by their student number.

The data were analyzed using a dependent t-test. This test is used when the same participants have provided data in both experimental conditions, as is the case here. With a sample of this size (N=94), the dependent t-test is able to detect even fairly small effects. The t-test aims to compare the average difference between each participant’s scores on the various test exercises before and after the intervention. It was used here to test the following hull hypothesis:

H0 = There will be no difference on average between students’ scores on the grammar test exercises completed before the translation course and after the translation course.

The results of the t-test showed statistically significant improvement in the areas of tenses, prepositions and false friends, and of course in the combined scores of both tests. Articles showed a statistically significant decrease in scores, and the modals were not statistically significant. Of the areas where improvement was shown, our statistics showed a medium effect for prepositions and false friends, and a large effect for tenses.

Conclusion

Our translation class has brought about improvement in the areas of tenses, prepositions and false friends, which is a sign that translation has a place in language teaching, although we advocate it as one of many tools of language teaching. We feel it is best used with advanced students, as translation particularly targets interference mistakes, and at lower levels of teaching, these have not fossilized yet, or mistakes are made because students are attempting to produce structures they have not learned yet. Translation seems to be best geared towards students who have learned most grammatical aspects classically taught in books but need to work on the finer points of applying these rules outside of textbook exercises. We also feel that is it not helpful in a multilingual setting, but rather works best when students have the same native language and the teacher has a high proficiency in both languages and can explain aspects of both languages’ grammar to the students.

Feedback on Demand: Learner-Directed Feedback on EAP Writing

IMAG0245My presentation this week at IATEFL 2014 in Harrogate was entitled “Learner-Directed Feedback: A useful tool for developing EAP writing and academic skills?”. It was a report on a small action research study I recently conducted on what I’m (for the moment) calling ‘Learner-Directed Feedback’. I’m aware that this may be slightly misleading to some, particularly when it’s confused with peer feedback or peer review – any ideas for a better term are welcome! For now, I’ve adopted a fun term suggested by my colleague as the title of this blog post: Feedback on Demand (but don’t worry, there’s no subscription fee!)

I define Learner-Directed Feedback as follows: Learners ask to receive feedback in a certain format and on specific aspects of their written work. The feedback is given by the teacher, but the learners ‘direct’ how and on what they receive feedback comments. In order to ‘direct’ the feedback, learners can often choose between various modes of delivery (e.g. email, electronic document, audio recording, face-to-face consultation), and are usually required to pose specific questions about their language and text to which the teacher responds. More details on instructions given to students working with this method of feedback can be found here: LDF Instructions

Here are the slides – I’ve edited them to include a little more detail which was part of my speech, in case you weren’t able to be there, or didn’t take very good notes! 🙂

IATEFL 2014 Learner Directed Feedback

I would welcome any comments or questions on what I have ‘said’ – please post them below.

 

Other Useful Links

The conference programme: http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2014/sites/iatefl/files/pages/harrogate-2014-conference-programme.pdf

 

See also: http://eltcattheuniversityofsheffield.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/new-ideas-on-feedback-from-iatefl-2014.html

IATEFL ReSIG PCE Day

Today I was part of a really energising event: the Pre-Conference Event held by the Research SIG of IATEFL at the annual conference in Harrogate.  The day was especially focused on teachers’s research and set up to be “for teachers by teachers”. We heard some really interesting poster presentations, and had some interesting discussions in plenary. Here are my personal highlights.

 

Good ideas I learnt from poster presentations & the discussions that followed

–          “Process-folios”: Instead of assessing students on a portfolio consisting of the work they have chosen, their best pieces of work, get students to produce a portfolio which demonstrates the process through which they arrived at their final product and how they improved the product and their language/skills throughout the project. For example, if they are working on an essay, the process-folio could include reading notes, essay plan(s)/outline(s), drafts, feedback, peer review, reflections, etc, as well as the final essay. Since it’s hard to give a grade for this kind of documentation, the assessment could be a list of ‘can do’ statements, so the students have to prove through the documents included in their process-folio that they have the skills to complete the tasks listed in the statements, for example ‘I can narrow down a topic appropriately’, ‘I can read sources critically’, ‘I can incorporate feedback into my work’. These process-folios remove the pressure from students of producing one very good essay (for example) and re-focus their attention on the process of improving themselves and their work.  (Thanks to Jayne Pearson for this idea!)

 

–          Group peer review: Instead of having students bring copies of their written work to class and working in pairs or small groups on peer reviewing tasks, put the documents online (e.g. in a Google Group) and invite everyone in the class/group to leave comments on all the other pieces of work. Students can sign up to the group using pseudonyms, and the anonymity can help to make the feedback more honest. It will probably also mean that students receive feedback from peers who are not in their immediate friendship group (who they would probably work with if given the chance in class) and are thus likely to receive a broad range of comments and ideas. They may be exposed to new approaches to improving their writing, and receive more abundant feedback than just from one partner within the lesson time. (Thanks to Elena Oncevska for this idea!)

 

–          Online/Smart phone apps for improving oral fluency: Students can be encouraged to improve their own oral fluency if they are aware of where their weaknesses lie. There are a number of tools available on the internet or as smart phone apps which can make this work more motivating. For example, the IDEA (International Dialects of English Archive) provides recordings of English speakers from around the globe, who are speaking freely and naturally (not like the staged recordings often found in textbooks!). These recordings can be used to encourage students to notice what exactly it is they listen to when someone is speaking, what aspects of their speech make them sound ‘fluent’, etc. And then they can record their own speech (using smart phones, usually no special app is required) to ‘anaylse’ and compare with the IDEA samples. Other apps, such as The Ahcounter or The Hitcounter can be used by students (alone, in groups, or with/by the teacher) to measure things such as words per minute, the number of disfluent interruptions (e.g. ah, err, um) in a concrete nominal way, from which the students can set themselves targets and continue to monitor improvements in their fluency. Being allowed to use their mobiles in class will probably bring additional motivation to the task! (Thanks to Becky Steven and Jessica Cobley for this idea)

 

Interesting points of discussion

We didn’t really find clear answers to any of these, but I think the questions are important ones for teachers to be asking themselves and perhaps discussing with colleagues – and it would be great to read your ideas if you’d like to post them as comments below.

 

–          Is teacher/action research simply part of good teaching practice, or is there something more to it?

–          What is the relationship between action research and professional development?

–          Where is the boundary between teacher research and “proper” academic research?

–          How can we share and disseminate the findings of teacher research projects to reach the people who are actually in the classroom?

 

As you can see, an interesting and productive day … can’t wait to see what the rest of the conference holds in store!

 

By the way, if you’re interested in seeing/hearing more from the ReSIG PCE, here are the videos from all the poster presentations: http://resig.weebly.com/teachers-research-1-april-2014.html 

Are Detailed Objectives Really Necessary in Lesson Plans?

Lesson planning is usually a key component on English Language teacher training courses.  However, practising teachers rarely draw up such detailed plans as they are taught to on training courses. Thus questions arise as to whether it is really necessary to describe course, lesson and activity aims in such detail and what the benefits of this practice might be. 

The background literature is full of statements aboout how beneficial detailed lesson planning is, and mostly regard it as a vital part of teaching. Here are some of the most pertinent comments:

Bailey (1996, p.18): “Lessons are intended to help students accomplish the objectives of the course and program.”

Woodward (2001, p.2): characteristics of a ‘good’ lesson/course include that Ss and T are aware of what there is to learn and of why they are doing the chosen activities

Williams & Burden (1997, p. 82):“teachers first need to be clear why they select [an] activity and then help their learners to see the value for them.”

In order to provide some answer to the question which forms the title of this post, beyond theoretical perspectives found in the literature, I undertook a small-scale action research study and would like to present a summary of my findings, to provoke further consideration and discussion of this topic.

My study was based on teaching EFL to advanced learners on English Studies degree programmes at Trier University (Germany). I kept a developmental record including detailed tabular lesson plans for language lessons, my post-teaching reflections on these lessons and the success of the activities, plus student comments from post-lesson feedback.

From my collection of reflections in this record, the findings can be summarised as follows:

Why include aims in lesson planning?

  • it helps teachers organise their thoughts
  • it increases teachers’ self-confidence
  • it provides a yardstick to help evaluate materials
  • the teacher can evaluate tasks’ effectiveness/contribution to aims
  • the long-term value of skills and language taught is concretely considered
  • it helps to highlight the links between the lessons of a course
  • it thus prevents the course/lesson from being an end in itself

Why not?

  •  it is time consuming
  •  it may be a waste of time if need to change course goal
  •  it may lead to inflexibility

Conclusion

Generally, what I’m saying is that considering and contemplating the overarching aims of a course, lesson, or activity, and the relationship between these, IS NECESSARY, and is more important than the actual form the lesson planning takes or when it is done.

I don’t wish to advocate that we, as teachers, should always formulate the aims using staid old statements e.g. “by the end of the lesson, learners will be able to…”, as these are often quite unrealistic when you think about them. I mean, in just one lesson, they’ll be able to ‘do’ something or ‘know’ a language point? Maybe your lesson is just an introduction to the language point, or a bit of practice or repetition, but to truly ‘learn’ and ‘know’ something and be able to do it, we would all need more than 1 lesson!

So what I’m saying is, a ‘plan’ doesn’t have to be a long, typed up document for scrutiny by someone else. Indeed, ‘planning’ can be everything – scrappy post-its, discussions over coffee with a colleague, or typing up a scheme of work schedule. But I do believe that writing down can be very useful, in any form, especially at beginning of your teaching career.

Indeed, what my little action research study has really found, is that trainees’ books such as that by Harmer  are definitely pointing new teachers in the right direction when they say that “[t]he actual form a plan takes is less important than the thought that has gone into it; the overriding principle is that we should have an idea of what we hope our students will achieve in the class, and that this should guide our decisions about how to bring it about” (2001, p.311).

This post is a very brief summary of the following article, due for publication shortly:

Fielder, C., ‘Are detailed objectives really necessary in lesson planning?’ TTT Journal (expected Dec 2013)