Tag: materials writing

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!

Fun things I’ve learnt from writing one ELT coursebook

Fun things I’ve learnt from writing one ELT coursebook

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

– foodsharing and carsharing – justifications and legal issues

– reasons for vegetariansm and other dietary choices

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

– tiny homes and motivations for minimalist lifestyles

– crazy competitions from around the world

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

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

– origins of sports idioms

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

How to serve PARSNIPs

How to serve PARSNIPs

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

371921825_b53e7d5283_b   Perhaps some examples…

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

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

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

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

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

Revision Week for my Materials

Revision Week for my Materials

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

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

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

So what kinds of things am I revising?

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

to-do-liste

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

Common problems with common listening tasks

Common problems with common listening tasks

Today, at the TEASIG / CRELLA conference in Luton, I had the pleasure of hearing two talks by Dr John Field. He was focussing on creating L2 listening tests, but a lot of what he said will be useful for those of us writing ELT listening materials for teaching, too! Based on what John talked about, then, here are some common problems to bear in mind when designing listening tasks.

Multiple Choice tasks

Here, the key is finding the magic balance between not making one of the answer options too obviously wrong (or right) and not having possible answers which are too close in meaning or overlap. We often see multiple choice questions where some of the answer options are not mutually exclusive, rely on very fine lexical/semantic distinctions (therefore testing vocabulary but not listening comprehension!), can be answered from general knowledge of the world (therefore not requiring learners to understand the listening text!), or use language more sophisticated than that in the listening text we’re trying to check comprehension of! In listening tasks for lower levels, another danger is that learners may be encouraged to listen out for specific words but may not understand the overall message of the audio input, especially if the possible answers consist of only one word each.  And sometimes it seems attempts to make listening tasks harder/higher level just result in longer answer options to choose from – but this simply increases the load on learners’ working memory whilst they’re listening, therefore making it more of a memory test than one of listening comprehension.

Gap Fill Tasks

What makes this task type hard is that it makes multiple simultaneous demands on the learners, as they have to read, listen and write at the same time. Not having the right answer(s) may then be a result of this mixed demands processing, rather than a lack of comprehension. Likewise, having the right answer does not necessarily signify true comprehension of the lisening text, as learners could simply fill in the word they (think they) hear, even without knowing what it means in this context.

Multiple Matching Tasks

This kind of matching task, e.g. identify the speaker who…., can be difficult for learners to cope with when used with listening texts. This is mainly because they usually involve audio texts of conversations with several speakers, whose voices and ways of speaking the learners then have to distinguish/recognise and adjust to – in the worst case, we may end up testing voice recognition skills rather than listening comprehension! Also, if there are the same number of items in both lists to be matched up, getting one pair wrong automatically means another pair is wrong. John also warned against getting too creative with names of speakers, as lower level learners might not recognise these words as names, but mistake them for unfamiliar vocabulary items!

True / False Tasks

The most obvious argument against using this type of task is that learners have a 50% chance of answering correctly, even without understanding a word of the listening text! Some task designers add in a “not mentioned” option to decrease these odds, but listening for something that is not there is quite a tricky task! Also, there is sometimes a pretty fine line between ‘false’ and ‘not mentioned’. Interestingly, research has shown that people are more likely to tick ‘true’ than ‘false’ when given this choice (something about human nature?), so to try to ensure a learner’s good result on such a task is due to actual comprehension, it might be better to include more items where the correct answer is ‘false’.

General comments

Overall, John recommends designing listening tasks based on the actual audio, not just the transcript. This may be one way to help make sure our tasks actually test listening, and not other skills or aspects of language. Also, the focus should remain on listening, and so we need to avoid tasks which cloud the water by requiring complex reading skills at the same time, for example. Of course, the task types desribed above can be effective in checking listening comprehension and providing ‘diagnoses’ of learners’ listening difficulties, but we need to bear these potential pitfalls and problems in mind when designing them and take care to keep our tasks aligned with the learning goals of the lesson.

An iatefl quickie – Writing Methodology Notes

A very quick summary of some key points from Scott Thornbury‘s talk “Writing Methodology Texts” on 4th April at iatefl 2017.

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He surveyed methodology book writers to gain some insight into what makes such texts most useful for teachers, much of which applies to writing any kinds of teaching notes or rubrics! The key points are:

  • Be careful not oversimplify or ‘dumb down’ research or theories when making the key implications accessible to teachers.
  • Keep a practical focus, but include a clear rationale, e.g. use research findings to validate suggested practice.
  • Avoid an overly formal or academic tone.
  • Allow the voice of your own experience in the classroom to shine through.
  • Aim to present options and alternatives, not prescriptions.
  • Be sensitive to trends in ELT and aware of any weaknesses.
  • Appreciate that no one can know better what will work in a particular class than the teacher who is actually in that classroom!
  • Remember that you have a responsibility to promote standards of good practice.

 

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An iatefl quickie – Choosing & Using Authentic Texts

An iatefl quickie – Choosing & Using Authentic Texts

A very quick summary of some key points from Sue Kay’s talk, “The genuine article (you couldn’t make it up)”, presented at iatefl 2017 on 4th April.

Questions to ask when choosing a text:

  •  Will it interest and engage learners?
  • Can learners relate it to their own lives? Is it age-appropriate?
  • Can learners learn (well contextualised & high frequency) language AND something new about the world?
  • Are the concepts at a suitable level of complexity and abstractness for the learners age and language level?
  • Are the role models presented positive?
  • Does it avoid polically sensitive topics, or deal with them appropriately?
  • Does it take a perspective that will give learners something to say?
  • Is it a bit “wacky”, unusual, or have something surprising in it?
  • Are there engaging visuals to liven up potentially dry topics?

Points to consider when adapting authentic texts:

  • Edit to provide maximum exposure to high frequency language – maybe substitute less common words with more frequent equivalents
  • Aim to keep the authentic feel, even if you need to edit to make it accessible
  • Make sure it will provide scope for language focussed work and genuine responses to the content.

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Principles of ELT Materials Writing

Principles of ELT Materials Writing

This is my first post from Glasgow as a registered iatefl online blogger! And it’s about the first talk I attended at the conference – A talk by Katherine Bilsborough as part of the MaWSIG SIG day.

In this interesting and inspirng talk, Kath talked us through a small investigation of some principles of ELT materials development. Focussing on principles based on theories which are derived from research, she wondered whether/how such principles described by theorists have change over time. She looked at principles listed by Paul Nation (1993), Brian Tomlinson (1998) and Rod Ellis (2005), and found that most of these would probably be considered common sense by most teachers. All three based their lists on theories of language and learning – but these change! So would these theorists still view their principles as universally valid in the 21st century?

Kath emailed them to find out. And she was “chuffed” that they answered!

Paul Nation says he believes his principles are still valid and supported by recent research. He might add something about deliberate study, though. However, he emphasises that materials writers should also develop their own set of principles, based on the specific context and learners the materials are being developed for.

Tomlinson assesses his principles to still be valid to varying extents. But he highlights the most important points that materials should provide rich exposure, stimulate affective and cognitive engagement, and include sufficient opportunities for learners to notice their achievements. He also notes a distinction between universal (=common sense?) principles, such as materials being age-appropriate and inoffensive, and local principles, more specific to the context, purpose and learners.

Rod Ellis also emphasises the need to focus on the classroom context, not the writer’s but the teachers’ and learners’ perspectives. He believes ELT materials should be based on both L2 acquisition research and classroom settings, so experienced teachers have a lot to contribute!

To add another view, Kath reported what she’s taken from Jill Hadfield’s work on this topic. Jill believes anyone who writes materials should have their own framework of principles to work with, even if they haven’t formulated them concretely.

And so Kath encouraged us all to write our own principles for writing ELT materials, with the reminder that if you can justify it, it is a valid principle! Her framework is a helpful guide for teachers doing so.

Let me close with Kath’s conclusion: it is time to open up discussion, and prompt teachers and writers to think about principles. I’m inspired – you can find my own principles here.

So thanks again Kath for sharing this informative and inspirational journey through your principles obsession! Diolch!

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