Tag: ELT

Rachael Roberts’ strategies to survive overwhelm

Rachael Roberts’ strategies to survive overwhelm

“Warning… The application “life” is not responding. Please make sure you update it before trying again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing/Working at home – Less is more

Writing/Working at home – Less is more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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!

Reflections on my lesson: Is this TBLT?

Reflections on my lesson: Is this TBLT?

OK, I’ll admit it. I’m a bit confused. I think my classroom practice and teaching materials reflect a Communicative Approach to language teaching. Prompted by some debates on Twitter, though, I’ve been trying to read up on TBLT and picture exactly what it would look like in the classroom, how TBLT-type lessons and courses would be sequenced and structured, and whether my lessons are actually TBLT. I’ve just read that “[g]enerally,  [ELT] methods are quite distinctive at the early, beginning stages of a language course, and rather indistinguishable from each other at a later stage” (Brown, 1997, p. 3, in Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p. 249), and “[t]here are no convincing video ‘demonstrations’ with intermediate or advanced learners, perhaps because…at that level there is nothing distinctive to demonstrate.” (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p. 250), so maybe that’s why I’m finding so hard to see whether the lesson and materials for B2-C1 learners I’ve created are actually TBLT or not.

Still, I think a lot of my lessons fit with what Willis (1996, in Richards & Rodgers, 2001, pp. 239-40) recommends as a sequence of activities in TBLT, even though I didn’t particularly plan them to be that way. Here’s an example; see what you think, I’m genuinely interested in opinions on this!

Pretask: Introduces topic & task

My lesson: T writes “food sharing” on the board and Sts brainstorm what they know about it. Any useful vocab sts use, especially if it’s new to other sts, is noted on the board. Sts are told that the overall goal for the lesson is to write a short statement showing their opinion on a food-sharing initiative.

Planning for task: Gives input on topic necessary for task

My lesson:

Stage 1 – Sts listen to a podcast on the topic, which discusses different ‘types’ of food sharing (e.g. food-sharing platforms, meal sharing, also food salvaging) and a couple of potential problems/legal issues. The two speakers basically have different views – one is very enthusiastic about food sharing and the other is wary. This is a real podcast, but I just use an excerpt so that it’s manageable within the lesson (Does this make it less authentic? And therefore not suitable for TBL?)

Sts answer some listening comprehension questions and take notes on what they learn about different sharing initiatives. Sts compare notes (e.g. in pairs) to check anything they aren’t sure they understood properly. T answer sts’ questions about any vocab or phrases in the podcast.

Stage 2 – Sts read two example comments that were left on the podcast website: again one is in favour, the other is sceptical. They both state their opinion and explain a couple of reasons for it. (I just selected two, which were well-written i.t.o. structure and no typos/language slips, and where I thought the language used would be understandable to B2 learners  – again, I wonder if this is authentic enough? Sts answer comprehension Qs: Which one is for / against food sharing & how they know (which words/phrases show the opinion). They highlight the statement of opinion and the supporting points/reasons in different colours.

Sts think about which comment they agree with most and find a partner with a similar view.

Task – Completing the task/goal of the lesson 

My lesson: In pairs (with the partner they just found), sts write a comment showing their opinion to add to the podcast website. They are told to state their opinion clearly and include supporting points/reasons.

The comments are displayed around the classroom and sts read each others’ texts. They then decide which one they think makes the best argument and why. Individual sts report back to tell the class about which comment they find most convincing and what they think makes it so good.

Language Focus – analysis and practice

My lesson: Sts look back at what they highlighted in the comments and what they wrote themselves. They are directed to find words/phrases that introduce opinion (e.g. I honestly believe, the way I see it, I’m afraid I have to disagree); these are written on the board. Sts look at their notes from the podcast and see if they can remember any other phrases – they can listen again if they wish. Sts can also be asked to discuss equivalents in their L1 (is that OK in TBLT?)

Sts discuss in small groups other things that can be shared / other sharing initiatives they’ve heard about and their opinions of them (also in comparison to food sharing) – whether they see any issues or whether they’d like to try them. I display pictures (e.g. of books, cars, couch-surfing, office space) to give them ideas, but the language they mined from the input texts remains displayed on the board.

Posttask – reporting and consolidating

Finally, Sts reflect on their use of the words/phrases for showing opinion and edit their written comments on the podcast if they wish. They tell each other what they changed and why, and evaluate each others’ edited comments.

If sts wish, they can post their comments on the real podcast website.

 

From what I’ve been reading, a lot of what makes TBLT TBLT is the priority or focus given to meaning over “language points” – if I had, for example, done the language analysis (here, the guided discovery of phrases to introduce an opinion/supporting reasons) before the actual task (here the writing of comments), then this would perhaps have not been so in-keeping with what TBLT recommends, right? Then I would be “back to” the Communicative Approach, wouldn’t I? Comments welcome!

Don’t get me wrong, this blog post is not trying to weight different methods up against each other (that’s a discussion for another time and place), but I’m trying to get my head around some criticisms of teaching and materials that claim TBLT would be better – and that got me wondering if it’s not TBLT I’m doing anyway…

 

References

Brown, H.D., “English language teaching in the ‘post-method’ era: Toward better diagnosis, treatment and assessment,” PASAA, 27, 1997, pp. 1-10.

Richards, J.C. & T.S. Rodgers, Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (CUP, 2001)

Willis, J., “A flexible framework for task-based learning”, in J. Willis and D. Willis (eds), Challenge and Change in Language Teaching (Heinemann,, 1996), pp. 52-62.

 

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?

 

 

10+ Things to do with a podcast in ELT

10+ Things to do with a podcast in ELT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

English-English_and_English-Persian_dictionaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

English_vowel_chart

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Perceiving Prominence – Part #1 (the “What?”)

Perceiving Prominence – Part #1 (the “What?”)

How would you say these example sentences?
a. I think that’s the right answer, but I’m not sure. 

b. I think that’s the right answer, no matter what you say!

I’m guessing that “I” and “think” sounded different when you said these two sentences to yourself – and it is this difference that is interesting and helpful to understand, particularly for English learners.

My friend and colleague is doing post-doctoral research on the different functions of the chunk “I think”. Depending on whether “I” or “think” is pronounced as prominent (i.e. stressed), the chunk can either be a hedger or a booster, as we saw in the example sentences above. Her research is looking into whether these two functions of “I think” align with its function as part of a matrix clause or comment clause respectively. If that’s too hard-core linguistic-y for you, do not worry! This post is about how prominence in “I” or “think” is realised and perceived, and part 2 will then look at how we can help English langauge learners to understand and use “I think” effectively.

To set the scene… My colleague and I were phonetically coding audio recordings of English speakers reading example sentences that include “I think” – she needs the coding for her research. In some cases, we noticed that we had coded the prominences (i.e. stressed syllables) in some sentences differently. And that got us thinking: On a phonological and rather subjective level, when do we perceive “I” or “think” as prominent? And on a phonetic and objective level, how are “I” and “think” produced to be prominent? That is, what makes a stressed syllable sound stressed?

For those who are less interested in the empirical details of the study, skip this paragraph! 😉 We had 23 English speakers read 6 sentences including “I think” three times each. There were also other ‘distractor’ sentences that they read, and they were not informed that our research focuses on “I think”. That ratio of distractors to experimental sentences was 2:1.  The findings I’m reporting here come from our coding of  115 recordings of “I think” sentences – only one instance of each sentence per speaker.

Unbenannt

As a first step in answering our questions about the perception and production of prominence, we each coded the recordings, using P or p to show strong or weak prominence, using the Praat software- see image below for an example. In 96 cases, we both agreed on which syllables were the most prominent ones in the recording – an overlap of almost 83%. In 19 cases, we didn’t overlap exactly on whether it was strong or weak prominence in comparison to the rest of the sentence stresses, but both identified the same syllable in “I think” as prominent, and in 19 other cases one of us had not marked any prominence in “I think” and the other one had. Of these 19 where we disagreed, there were 13 cases where my colleague coded “think” as prominent, and I perceived no prominence in “I think” compared to the rest of the sentence.

Bild1

And so we moved on to looking at what was different in the productions of “I” and “think” in these sentences that could help explain our differences in perceiving prominence. Generally, syllable stress, or prominence, is said to be a combination of pitch accents (i.e. higher pitch or pitch movement), longer duration, and higher intensity (i.e. volume/loudness). Some linguists assume pitch to be the most important factor, whereas others claim intensity to be the best predictor of a syllable being perceived as prominent. Since the literature presents some conflicting ideas here, we were motivated to look at all three aspects and see whether they could explain our differing perceptions of prominence. We coded the recordings phonetically for pitch, duration and intensity (also using the Praat software), to come up with the following findings.  The image below shows what the coding looked like – the yellow line shows intensity and the blue one pitch.

Bild2

Is there always a pitch accent on the syllable we perceived as prominent in “I think”?Basically, yes. There was only one example among our 115 recordings where there was no pitch accent on an “I” that we both percieved as prominent. Interestingly, prominence on “I” was often associated with pitch movement, rather than a peak. We also noticed that, even when I had not percieved either syllable in “I think” as particularly prominent in the sentence, there was usually a pitch peak on “think” – which may explain 13 cases where my colleague percieved “think” as prominent and I had coded no prominence. So it seems that pitch is a fairly reliable predictor of when my colleague will perceive prominence. But what about me?

Next, we looked at intensity. Here, there was a less systematic correlation. We found that the more prominent syllable in “I think” is most often produced with more intensity. However, in 13 of the cases where we agreed on which syllable was prominent, the syllable we had marked as prominent was not the louder one – this was especially true for recordings of American speakers (11 out of 13 instances). Regarding the cases where we had coded prominence differently, intensity explained 47% of my colleague’s prominent syllables, but only 21% of mine. [My colleague was a little frustrated with me at this point – What IS it that makes syllables sound prominent to you???!!!]

The final phonetic aspect we looked at was duration. I should tell you that this is hard to measure, and phoneticians disagree on the best way to measure it, but that is a discussion for another time! In the cases where we agreed on the prominence of “I” in “I think”, it was always the speaker’s longest pronunciation of “I” in the sentence. Still, my colleague’s perceptions of prominence seem to be somewhat immune to the duration factor – even the long duration of “I” did not make her perceive it as prominent if pitch and/or intensity pointed to “think” as the prominent syllable. In 5 cases, though, this longer duration led me to code “I” as the prominent syllable, despite the pitch accent and/or higher intensity of “think”. So, it looked as if we were getting to the bottom of which factors create prominence they way I perceive it! Still, there was one case where the pitch peak was on “think”, an intensity peak on “I”, and it was the speaker’s longest “I” – and I still did not code either “I” or “think” as prominent!

From all this, we concluded that my colleague may have been influenced by all her research into the chunk “I think” and thus perceives prominence there more often than I do, as I focus on the whole sentence and compare any peaks in pitch, intensity or duration to all other words, rather than just within the chunk “I think”.

Unbenannt2

Still, overall, the order in which I have discussed the factors above seems to be their order of importance for creating prominence in our little study: pitch, intensity, duration. And for some conversation partners, like me, a combination of all three factors in one syllable may be necessary for it to be perceived as prominent.

 

So what does this mean for English langauge learners and teachers? The length of this blog post was getting a bit out of hand, so I’ve divided it up – Come back for Part 2 to find out about the practical applications of these insights!

 

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! 😀