Tag: Teacher

Looking after your voice

Looking after your voice

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

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

Tip 1: Drink still water.

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

Tip 2 : Breathe!

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

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

Tip 3: Warm up.

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

Tip 4: Watch your posture.

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

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

 

Review: 50 Activities for the First Day of School

Review: 50 Activities for the First Day of School

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There are lots of websites full of ‘icebreakers’ out there. A simple Google search, though, shows me that they often compile activities taken from everywhere, including corporate training and party games. Clearly, not all of these ‘getting to know you’ games will work in a classroom to engage learners or fulfill a teacher’s aims for the first day of class. In this book, Walton Burns has therefore collected and written down activities that he has tried and tested in his own classrooms, and feels achieved their goals including learning student names, building rapport, or establishing classroom rules. You can find more of what Burns says about his book here. The information also includes his Author Bio:

Walton Burns is a teacher and award-winning materials writer from Connecticut who began his career in 2001, teaching in the Peace Corps in the South PaciHeadshotWaltonBurns600x600-150x150fic. Since then, he has taught in Central Asia and in his native country. His students have been a diverse group, including Russian oil executives, Afghan high school students, and Chinese video game champions. As a writer, he has been on the author team of two textbooks and written lesson plans and activities for private language schools. He is currently chair of the Materials Writing Interest Section of the TESOL Association, the international association for English language professionals. For more information, including projects he has worked on, go to Walton’s blog and his website.

The activities are good because they enable teachers to create positive atmospheres with their new classes whilst often also fulfilling some purpose and making some of the organisational aspects of a first lesson more interactive. Because of this, and despite what the book’s title says, many of the activities could also be used throughout the term, to re-energise the class group, strengthen the sense of community, or deal with organisational matters.They could also be used by substitute teachers jumping in to cover a class they’ve not taught before, as they often require very little preparation.

That said, the majority of the activities are of the ‘getting to know you’ type. To make these even more useful, I would suggest that the teacher makes notes about what the learners say, for example mistakes they make or their interests and goals, so that these can form the basis of a rough needs analysis at the beginning of a course. Within this section, there were no activities that were entirely new to me, although a few interesting variations. Still, for novice teachers the collection might contain new ideas, and for us more experienced teachers having all of these activities collected in one place is a good selling point for this book.

The instructions on how to set up and run the activities are formulated very clearly with illustrative examples, and also include ideas for possible adaptations or variations of the activities – so the book would be helpful for anyone new to teaching, as well as experienced teachers looking to re-jig their first-lesson activities.

The activities are specifically aimed at ELT classrooms, often beginner levels learners. Still, the adaptations and variation Walton Burns suggest allow teachers to use them with more advanced learners, too, and they’ve all been tested by Walton Burns in his various classes of English learners. A lot of them are probably more appropriate in classes of students from different countries and backgrounds, but again possible adaptations are explained so that teachers with mono-lingual groups can also employ the activities. Many of them would also be suitable for other subjects’ classrooms.

One or two of the activities here will need to be handled with care, such as English Names, and I Have Never, but this is also highlighted in small notes at the beginning of the instructions for the activity.

It is in the “Assessing and Evaluating” section of the book where activities with a clear classroom-organisation focus are presented. These cover matters such as needs analysis, goals, basic classroom vocabulary e.g. for items or instructions, class rules. Some of the ideas here seems less like ‘first-day’ activities, and fall more in the category of interesting ways to check and review language; though in the first lesson they could form part of a needs analysis.  The “Setting the Tone” section includes activities which are perhaps more suitable for the beginning of a course, and clearly have the purpose of establishing the class rules or lesson routines, encouraging self-study, or introducing the textbook or materials.  For me, these sections are the  most interesting in the book, as they all have a clear aim, which is more than just ‘having fun’ and ‘breaking the ice’.

Overall, for just ~€7, I’d say this book is well worth a look, and would be a worthwhile addition to any staffroom bookshelf!

Take control of your teaching career using the European Profiling Grid

Take control of your teaching career using the European Profiling Grid

A talk I attended earlier this year in Birmingham (IATEFL 2016), by Joel Cutting & Richard Kelly based at Eurocentres Bournemouth, aimed to provide advice on career management for ELT teachers, and practical ideas on making the most of your current position and moving towards your dream teaching job (See conference programme & talk abstract here).

They proposed asking yourself the following questions:

 – What’s your current career metaphor?k8410072

– What direction do you want to go in?

 – What are your professional development priorities?

Based on your answers, they suggest that you should review and reflect on your current position and goals, then plan proactive tasks and steps to move you between the former and the latter. This will involve being able to openly communicate your goals, and maybe asking for support from your DOS or colleagues (e.g. in terms of appraisals, observations, etc). So you will need to talk to people! Indeed, Joel and Richard highlighted that the more people you know and talk to, the more new career opportunities you will find!

logo-epgThey also mentioned, just in passing, the European Profiling Grid. I’ve only just got around to checking it out, and I’m so glad I made a note for myself to do so! I’ve found it to be a very practically useful tool for taking control of your career as a teacher, and planing your future CPD pathways. The website summarises the main purpose of the EPG as “a tool for mapping and assessing language teacher competencies … over six stages of professional experience … and summarises the main competencies of language teachers and the background in training and experience that would be expected at each stage.”

The EPG grid is available for free here and can be used by any language teacher when you’re reviewing or reflecting on your own strengths/weaknesses and progression in the teaching profession. It will help you to pinpoint your expertise in various areas, as well as enabling you to more concretely identify areas in your professional development where there is still room for improvement. Of course school leaders and teacher-trainers may also find this kind of evaluative grid helpful.

The categories of expertise it covers are:

– language and culture,

– qualifications and experience,

– professional conduct, and

– core language teaching competencies.

This breakdown seems particularly helpful in encouraging language teachers to expand our expertise broadly. For teachers whose own main language is not the one they teach, I suppose that target-language proficiency has always been high on the agenda for development, but the EPG also adds in the element of intercultural communication and competence in communicating in various multi-cultural situations and settings. The ‘Qualifications and experience’ rubric allows teachers to map their own experience, not only in terms of time in the classroom but also regarding observations, mentoring, and teaching at various levels and in various learning contexts; areas which even seasoned professionals may like to expand on. The heading ‘Professionalism’ covers points such as working in teams, tackling administrative tasks,  accepting changes to an institution’s policies and approaches, and being actively involved in teacher development.

It is perhaps the area of ‘Teaching Competence‘ (e.g. planning lessons and schemes of work, encouraging active participation, assessing learners, incorporating digital media, etc.) that is the focus of many teachers’ professional development. The EPG divides these into ‘Key Competences’ and ‘Enabling Competences’.  The ‘Key Teaching Competences’ include an understanding of theories of language and of learning which informs material choice and activity set-up, creating suitable and valid assessment measures for the four skills, and taking responsibility for principled syllabus design. This theoretical side of things may be new to some teachers, who can use the EPG to set themselves individual goals working in this direction. The ‘Enabling Competences’, on the other hand, focus more on the interpersonal side of the teaching profession. Here, skills and tasks such as coaching novice teachers, handling (intercultural) conflict, training transferable skills, and creating a digital PLN (Personal Learning Network) come into play, which may also have so far been off the radar for some practising teachers.

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The document accompanying the EPG states its aim as

“to inform, make suggestions, offer advice, share insights, assist in identifying individual strengths and gaps, and offer guidance.”

And I think it achieves this very well. It also includes blank tables for individual planning, as well as guidance for teachers on how best to work with the grid. When it comes to reflecting on the questions Joel and Richard posed, having this kind of concrete plan to guide our goal-setting will make the process far more effective, and enable us all to take control of our teaching careers.

Achieving goals often works far better if we are made accountable for working towards them. To this end, I’d like to invite you to write a couple of your goals in the comments box below, so we can work together to keep up our broad yet well-defined continuous professional development!

 

 

Practical advice on developing your own teaching materials

Practical advice on developing your own teaching materials

This week, I’ve outsourced the discussion question from my Materials Development course. I asked my teacher friends and colleagues:

Which ONE piece of advice would you give to a teacher who wanted to create their own classroom materials?

My top tip is: First plan the aims you want to achieve with the materials, and use them to guide everything you create!

Here’s what the others said…

Daniela (post-doc researcher & university tutor): Don’t bother unless you’re 200% sure that it’s going to be better than what’s out there already – so that your time is really worth it!

Carol (EAP tutor): Make the content relevant to your students and their learning needs.

Dan (FE Teacher Trainer): Ensure that the learner will think about the content, and not the materials.

Jessica (secondary-school MFL teacher):  Make sure anything you create allows you to play to your strengths and show off the learners’ ability.

James (graduate student, ESL teacher): Pay attention to the level of language you’re using, as well as teaching, so that students can understand the materials completely.

Chris (English teacher)Be consistent with formatting: page numbers, topic title, date, class, etc. and staple together so it’s not lots of loose sheets.

Jenny (university EFL teacher): Base the materials on topics that the students can relate to, whether this topic has been encountered inside or outside the learning environment, first-hand or through the media. 

Joanna (online Business English teacher): Start with needs analysis – learn about your learner. 

Marc (ESOL teacher): Leave plenty of white space for writing notes and annotations.

Karen (freelance editor & project manager): Make sure you write clear teaching notes and keys so others can use the materials too. 

Sandy (ELT manager & CELTA tutor): Just start doing it and testing them out! Then reflect on what did and didn’t work.

Jasmine (ESL teacher): My advice  would be to be a student. Take a class or try out your own lessons using another language register in English. You will be able to critique your own stuff more objectively.

And what are you tips? Please leave your comments below!

My Principles for Creating ELT Materials

 

I make a lot of worksheets and materials available via this blog, which I hope  that many fellow ELT professionals will use and evaluate. In my opinion, though, it’s important that anyone who wants to use my materials has some insight into the principles behind my work.

I believe Materials for ELT should…

  1. be based on an understanding of how learning works. – i.e. of theoretical models of learning, for example from SLA or psychology, and methodologies derived from them.
  2. guide learners to discover and practice language items and skills. – i.e. not just ‘tell’, but ‘show’ and allow space for learners to notice by themselves, by guiding them in logical steps.
  3. lead to as authentic communication as possible. – i.e. they should learn to do with things in English which they are realistically likely to have to do outside of the classroom.
  4. gain and maintain learners’ interest. – e.g. by involving higher-level thinking skills, provoking affective responses, dealing with topics relevant to the learners.
  5. expose learners to ‘taboo’ topics (PARSNIPs) in a constructive manner. – i.e. to prepare them for and encourage open discussion of potential taboos and cultural difference, in order to develop inter-cultural communicative competences; especially since a key motivation to learn English is to communicate with people form other countries (and therefore cultures).
  6. allow for differentiated ouput. – i.e. grade the output, not necessarily the input, so the same material can be flexibly employed with various groups of learners working at different levels or focusing on different skill areas by simply adjusting the output tasks accordingly.

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7 Days 7 Ways: Continued Professional Development 6) Seminars & Workshops

7 Days 7 Ways: Continued Professional Development 6) Seminars & Workshops

So, day and way #6 in this series on CPD for ELT teachers. So far, most of my ideas for CPD activities were things you could do at home, or at least pretty close to home – most from the comfort of your own sofa! For example:

  1. Blogs (1st March)

  2. Reflection Groups & Learning Networks (2 March)

  3. Magazines & Journals (3 March)

  4. Peer Observation (4 March)

  5. Professional Organisations (5 March)

Now we’ve reached a point where you might just have to leave the house, and indeed travel a little further than normal. Today’s CPD ‘way’ is…

  • Seminars & Workshops

At certain stages of your career, taking a training course can help make significant progress as an ELT teacher. I, for example, did the Trinity College TESOL Diploma after I’d been teaching for a few years, to refresh and upgrade my skills and knowledge. Teachers just starting out on an ELT career could think about doing:

Teachers with some experience, might consider:

These are all internationally recognised qualifications, which clearly has advantages. The main disadvantages are that these courses can be expensive, and that you usually have to find an accredited examination centre to be able to complete them. They are also rather general in their scope and may not always be directly relevant to your own teaching situation; making them slightly less valuable for your CPD.

IMAG0611What you might like to do, then, is find seminars or workshops being offered closer to home. For example, the university close to where you live might be offering relevant seminar courses, or a publisher might be offering a workshop on implementing their latest materials. Some professional organisations also organise one-day workshops or blocked seminars over weekends, for example. The best way to find these, I would suggest, would be through membership of a national or local teaching organisation, and through a Google search – here, you can be as specific as you like in what you’re looking for and should aim to find something that really inspires you and you feel is relevant to your own stage of development as a teacher. 

For those of you are still hoping you can do most of your CPD in nyour pyjamas on the sofa…. 🙂 There are of course distance-learning courses, for example offered by The Open University. And nowadays there are really a lot of online courses and webinars that you can take part in.Check out, for example:

  • www.futurelearn.com“a private company wholly owned by The Open University, with the benefit of over 40 years of their experience in distance learning and online education. [They] have 84 partners from around the world. These include many of the best UK and international universities, as well as institutions with a huge archive of cultural and educational material, such as the British Council, the British Library, the British Museum, and the National Film and Television School. [They] also work with a range of internationally renowned organisations [to] offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.” (quote from their website)   I recently completed a FutureLearn course on “Professional Practices for English Language Teachers” and found it a really good way to refresh my ‘basics’ and get in touch with the latest research on methodology. I also made some contacts with other participants and was therefore able to extend my PLN.IMAG0668
  • www.evosessions.pbworks.com –  The Electronic Village Online (associated with TESOL) “TESOL experts and participants from around the world engage in collaborative online discussions or hands-on virtual workshops of professional and scholarly benefit. These sessions bring together participants for a longer period of time than is permitted by land-based professional development conventions and allow a fuller development of ideas than is otherwise possible. Sessions are free and open to anyone around the globe. It is not necessary to be a TESOL member or attend the TESOL Convention in order to participate. All you need is access to the Internet. Choose a session from this year’s offerings, listed below.  And please inform your colleagues about this unparalleled professional development opportunity!” (quote from website) These ‘sessions’ and discussions are available online and free to access. I’ve just had a quick look at one and am already excited to see more!!

I would like to end on a note of caution; We must remember not to fall into the trap of thinking that only ‘formalised’ training seminars, webinars or workshops are useful for our CPD! Nonetheless, we must remember them when we’re thinking of ways to develop professionally, as they really can give us a boost of inspiration and insight. Ad especially now so many are available for free, and/or close to home, we’d be silly not to make use of them!! 

Let me know if you do a webinar or online course you think others would benefit from – post the link / details in the comments below!!

If you’ve enjoyed reading this post, please tell others! If you haven’t, please tell me! 🙂

7 Days 7 Ways: Continued Professional Development 5) Professional Organisations

7 Days 7 Ways: Continued Professional Development 5) Professional Organisations

For those who are keeping up, this is blog post #5 in my series on CPD for ELT teachers. If you’ve missed the previous days’ posts, you can find them by clicking these links:

  1. Blogs (1st March)

  2. Reflection Groups & Learning Networks (2 March)

  3. Magazines & Journals (3 March)

  4. Peer Observation (4 March)

And now for number five:

  • Professional Organisations

Teaching can sometimes be a rather lonely pursuit, especially for ELT teachers away from home  in foreign countries. It can also be a rather homogenising experience, if you’re teaching in a specific context and only really have contact with teachers in the same situation as you. In both situations, I think many ELT teachers might miss out on the chance to hear about the current debates, research, trends, methods/approaches, etc that are being shared around the world. I believe that some sort of networking and sharing of ideas beyond a teacher’s immediate context is a key aspect of professional development.

That’s why I though post #5 in this CPD series would be a good time to provide a few links and tips that will help ELT teachers find this big world of ELT beyond their teaching situation and get them ‘networked’ with other teachers, to facilitate inspiration and continuous development as a teacher. The list does not pretend to be complete; please add further links in the comments below. 

IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language)

http://www.iatefl.org/                           IMAG0245

If I could only recommend one organisation, this would be it. I’ve been a member for a number of years and the conferences and publications have been a constant source of inspiration and professional development opportunities. Double thumbs up from me!

Based in the UK. They say about themselves: “With over 4,000 members IATEFL is one of the most thriving communities of ELT teachers in the world. Our mission [is] to “Link, develop and support English Language Teaching professionals” worldwide”.

As a member, you get a bimonthly copy of the ‘Voices’ mini-journal/newsletter with information about research and events going on in ELT around the world, a free copy of ‘Conference Selections’ with summaries of presentations given at the latest annual conference, free membership in a Special Interest Group with newsletters and events, a cheaper registration rate for the annual conference, and cheaper subscriptions to some of the leading journals in the field (e.g. ELT Journal).

Their next big annual conference is going to be in Birmingham in April 2016, find out more here: IATEFL Birmingham 2016

Each month, they provide provide a free webinar held by a famous name in the field. For details of the upcoming webinars (on topics such as coursebook evaluation, intercultural training, teaching with technology) see here: http://www.iatefl.org/webinars

TESOL International Association

http://www.tesol.org/home

They see themselves as a “global and collaborative community committed to creating a world of opportunity through teaching English to speakers of other languages.”  And say about themselves: “For nearly 50 years, TESOL International Association has been bringing together educators, researchers, administrators, and students to advance the profession of teaching English to speakers of other languages. With more than 12,000 members representing 156 countries, and more than 100 worldwide affiliates, TESOL offers everyone involved in English language teaching and learning an opportunity to be part of a dynamic community, where professionals like you connect with and inspire each other to achieve the highest standards of excellence.” See here for a brief introduction: http://www.tesol.org/docs/membership/tesol-brochure.pdf?sfvrsn=2

The host a large annual conference of which I have only heard good reviews (see: http://www.tesol.org/attend-and-learn/international-convention), and provide publications and an online resource-bank, and guidelines for best practice in ELT. They also create a newsletter and have lively online discussion groups on specific interests within ELT. Webinars and online courses complement their busy programme of symposiums and conferences (though the time-difference makes webinars slightly problematic for those living in Europe!).  See here for the full programme: http://www.tesol.org/attend-and-learn/online-courses-seminars  and  http://www.tesol.org/attend-and-learn/symposiums-academies )

If you visit their website you will see that the homepage is very ‘busy’ and not always easy to navigate, but I think this simply reflects the variety of services and activities TESOL International Association offer and are involved in. If you have the time to click through, you will definitely find something that is relevant for you – whether you are a student, teacher, teacher-trainer, materials writer, etc. Definitely a thumbs up from me!

Teaching English – British Council

http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/ IMAG0667

This is slightly different from the other associations listed here as it is mainly an online community. That makes it especially interesting to those who cannot travel to conferences, etc, and/or don’t have much spare cash to spend on memberships and travel costs. Why register with TE? They say: “Registration on this site is totally free and allows you to interact with other users as well as add comments and download certain material. You can:

  • build your own profile in an international online community;
  • access our tools for teachers;
  • join monthly online workshops;
  • watch our teaching tips videos;
  • sign up for a variety of teacher training courses;
  • join in discussions with teachers around the world.”

They offer free webinars and instructional videos and articles, as well as training courses and workshops, both as self-study and with a trainer (see: http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/teacher-training ). There is also free access to a number of journals and research publications via the site (see: http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/publications ). Again, double thumbs-up!

 

Local Organisations

Wherever you live, there might be a smaller professional organisation you can join. This would of course have the benefit that the workshops, conferences, etc. provided would not be as far away from you, and may be more relevant to your specific teaching context. This kind of national or local networking can be particularly rewarding, as it can be easier to really get involved than within large international organisations. Their conferences are naturally smaller than those of the international associations mentioned above, but that also means that the costs are lower, and the events are less overwhelming for new teachers / students. I’m sure a quick Google search would find most such national/local organisations for teachers nowadays, but specifically for ELT teachers you might want to take a look here at this list of more organisations (all of which are affiliated with IATEFL) in your country, here: http://www.iatefl.org/associates/list-of-associate-members

A couple that I know of and have heard good things about are:

TEA (Teachers of English in Austria): http://www.tea4teachers.org/joomla/

German Association for Teachers of English (GATE): http://englisch-und-mehr.de/wp/

MELTA (Munich English Language Teachers Association): http://www.melta.de/

 

Most of my inspiration for CPD and my search for innovation, ideas and impulse for reeflection has come from being a member of IATEFL and other professional organisations; and indeed, most of the people in my PLN I met through this membership. So I would highly recommend joining such a professional organisation as a big boost for your CPD!!

Please share your experiences and further relevant links below! 

If you liked what you read here, please tell others! If you didn’t, please tell me! 🙂

 

 

The Role of Wikipedia in EAP – Take Two

I realised after publishing my previous post, and turning on my critical thinking brain a little too late, that I had actually written about using Wikipedia in university/academic essays – and had (*embarrassed cough*) actually ignored the EAP aspect altogether. So I sneakily changed the previous post’s title… and am writing this new post now to address the EAP issues in the Wikipedia debate!

So, what are the aspects of using Wikipedia that might be specific to EAP students?

In the previous post, I made the point that Wikipedia can function as a good starting point for some initial research. However, EAP students are perhaps more in danger than other students of not continuing their research from Wikipedia to proper academic sources; depending on their educational and cultural background, and English language competence, they may see no reason, or also no way for them to find further, more academic sources for their work. I don’t think a ‘one size fits all’ explanation works here, and each teacher will know their own students and the potential traps or hurdles they might face. From my own experience and a few stories from colleagues, I can share the following possible dangers of Wikipedia for EAP or EFL students:

– Some students use it somehow as a translation tool, believing that the article on their research topic in their native language is simply a translation of the English article. This, as you can imagine, can cause all sorts of problems, and can make students’ essays practically unreadable!

– Some students see the fact that there is no author stated as a free ticket to copy and paste as much as they like (–> “It’s not plagiarism because I haven’t stolen another author’s work” !!) [Note: I have only experienced this with students who have a weak understanding of plagiarism anyway, and who come from a culture where it is regarded somehow as less serious.]

– Some students, perhaps those really new to academic study in a culture that values critical thinking and students’ own voice in their writing, believe that the summary of published research provided by Wikipedia is so good (i.e. it makes the key concepts in the area clear to them as non-experts) that they don’t need to read the original sources and can ‘blindly’ trust Wikipedia to give them the information that they need.

– Some, perhaps lower-level, EAP or EFL students may be impressed by how ‘well written’ the Wikipedia article is and think that they could never hope to do a better job, especially with their limited language skills, and therefore end up over-relying on the wording of the Wikipedia text when writing their own work.

– It may be hard for some students to find academic sources such as journal articles due to limited vocabulary: in order to use a library catalogue or search a digital article database successfully, it is helpful to know a few key items of vocabulary on your topic, but also synonyms for these words that might also have been used in titles or tags – this may represent a challenge for EAP students.

– Some EAP students understand (sole?) the purpose of their EAP classes to be improving their English language skills, and not study-skills which they intend to learn within their degree subject/discipline. Therefore, they prioritise the actual writing of their essay (for example) over doing sound, academic research, when it comes to assignments for their EAP classes. It may be the case that they know how to research properly and that Wikipedia is perhaps not ideal as a source, but for these ‘minor’ (?) assignments which will usually not count towards their grades, they choose to take the ‘easy route’ when researching, and concentrate on writing an essay in their best English.

 

Reading this list of students’ difficulties, mistakes and misunderstandings highlights once again, I think, the actual root cause of the problem: Lack of Understanding. Some of the points above bear witness to some students’ misunderstanding of the aims of academic work as ‘knowledge gathering’, rather than striving to understand arguments and engage with the evidence in order to critically assess it. Moreover, they demonstrate a lack of understanding of what Wikipedia is and aims to do. That is the point that I also wanted to make in my first blog post on the topic – that it is important to know what Wikipedia is and to use it accordingly. You can find the previous post explaining that here.) EAP tutors have an important role to play in nurturing this understanding; especially if working with students from academic cultures and traditions where critical thinking is perhaps not stressed as strongly as in Anglo-American academia.

In an ideal world, then, perhaps we as teachers would not be banning Wikipedia with no explanation of why, but bringing Wikipedia into the classroom and encouraging our students to explore, and critically assess its usefulness and limitations for their work. I would say that Wikipedia is perhaps even more useful as a research starting point for EAP students than for native or proficient English speakers, as they can use the article not only as an introduction to the topic, but also to the vocabulary and language used to talk about the topic. Once they have encountered these vocabulary and langauge items in the Wikipedia article and understood them in context, they will be in a better position to access and comprehend academic sources on the topic of their research.  In fact, EAP tutors could even plan to employ Wikipedia articles in this way – though introductory text-books also do the job of introducing vocab, they don’t open the door for the discussion on using Wikipedia in academic work; and that, to me, seems to be the key aim that has emerged from my ponderings and posts on the role of Wikipedia in academic writing. 

#BridgingTheGapChallenge: Bridging the Gap between Researchers and Teachers

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

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

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

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

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

Let the bridge-building begin!

Explicit Grammar Teaching: The what and how

Planting seeds may not guarantee that they will grow; but not planting them is scarcely a superior strategy. (Swan, M., 2006)

Introduction – A sense of relief

At the weekend, I attended a talk by Michael Swan entitled “Some things that matter in grammar teaching… and some that don’t” at an event hosted by ELTA Rhine in Cologne. The talk was not just interesting and informative, but gave me an enormous sense of relief. Basically because he argued in favour of explicit grammar teaching. I realise that this will not bring a sense of relief to all EFL teachers, and in some it may even incite mild panic! But let me explain. For a long time (for me it seems a long time, in actual terms its been a few decades), the explicit teaching of grammar has (had) been out of fashion, as other aspects of language have come into the focus of ELT writers and teachers. Particularly Task-Based Learning and the Lexical Approach are largely against the presentation of grammar rules. Many teachers also understand Communicative Language Teaching to have little place for the explicit teaching of grammar. In my teaching context (in the English Department at a German university), we actually teach a whole separate module called “Grammar”, more recently called “Advanced Grammar”. Yes, it’s been pretty standard in Germany for the whole time that other ELT fashions have come and gone. For most of the seven years that I’ve been working here, I’d been led to feel almost a sense of shame that we were teaching this class – seeing the horror on colleagues’ faces when I’ve mentioned it at conferences and the like. Most of their responses began with ‘but’: But what about Krashen’s theories? But that’s not very communicative! But lexis is what helps learners to create meaning! But fluency is more important!

At the start of my teaching career, I was, I suppose understandably, rather unsure of myself. Actually, a few times I probably agreed, embarrassed, with the criticisms, and extracted myself from responsibility by blaming this ‘poor’ syllabus decision on the institution; putting myself in the role of dutiful pawn in the great game of ELT. Over the years, though, I’ve grown and developed as a teacher, and my sense of confidence in my teaching decisions and practices has matured. This has occasionally meant having to defend my explicit grammar teaching to a few, what I would call, hard-core TBL, Lexical Approach or extreme Communicative Approach advocates. That’s OK: I can handle it better now than I could in my early twenties when I started teaching. Nonetheless, you can imagine my relief to hear from Michael Swan, and indeed whole host of other researchers in this area, that teaching grammar is OK: Not only OK, but actually rather effective. (See published research evidence below.) Phew! Of course I’m not, and I don’t suppose anyone is, claiming that explicit grammar teaching without any communicative practice is a good idea, nor that teaching grammar rules openly always ‘works’ 100% of the time (but then, honestly, can we really expect that of any method/approach?!). But, I wholeheartedly agree with the quote above from Michael Swan.

So that explains my sense of relief. But ‘teaching grammar’ is still a very broad term that barely brings us any closer to knowing what exactly to do in the classroom. I’m also aware that some teachers, maybe mostly the native English-speakers that have ‘fallen’ into a teaching job, may not be so relieved to hear that grammar is back on the menu. Maybe because they themselves have little formal grasp on English grammar (for this there is a simple cure; read a grammar book! See below for my recommendations), or maybe because they are unsure how to translate ‘teaching grammar’ into practical classroom activities. The rest of this post will therefore deal with the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of grammar teaching; in a bid to remove any impending sense of panic from other teachers who are less used to and less comfortable with the explicit teaching of grammar rules in the ELT (or any modern language) classroom.

What? ~ It depends.

Of course, teaching ‘all’ the rules of English grammar would, for a number of reasons beyond the scope of this post, be an impossible task; and anyway a rather ineffective approach. And so we need to select which aspects of English grammar to include in our syllabi. I believe there is no fits-all answer to the question of what to teach; it will unavoidably depend on the learners and their needs and goals. It depends. I actually don’t like this answer to questions, and I’m sure many learners don’t either. Alas all EFL classrooms and learners are different, and so it depends. But what does it depend on? Well Michael Swan suggests the following selection criteria, which do fit to my experience and understanding of our profession:

– comprehensibility

– acceptability

– frequency and scope

– teachability/learnability

Just a brief clarification here, to ensure we all understand the same things when reading these criteria. ‘Comprehensibility’ refers to the question of whether not having mastered this language point could lead to misunderstanding or lack of understanding. For example, the sentence *I start school last week* does not follow standard English grammar patterns, but is clearly comprehensible. In contrast (and I’m borrowing this example from Michael Swan), *John didn’t told about the meeting* is more difficult to de-code, as it could mean either that John WASN’T told about the meeting, or that he didn’t TELL us about it. As this mistake could lead to a lack of comprehension, it would be advisable to teach/revise the points of the passive, or the simple past in negative statements. ‘Acceptability’ looks at other people’s reactions to what a learner says. How negatively will a learner be judged who says *I start school last week*? Phrased more positively, how accepted would this non-standard form be? (Again, the answer I suggest is ‘it depends’ – on your learners’ context, goals, etc; so individual answers all around, I’m afraid!) Note that I’ve used the same example twice here, in order to highlight the discrepancies that may occur between the comprehensibility and acceptability criteria – more on that later.

Moving on, ‘frequency’ and ‘scope’ are rather self-explanatory. The frequency with which a learner is going to encounter or need to use a certain structure should help us judge whether to teach it or not. The ‘scope’ of a grammar rule describes how much of the language it helps to explain. A clear example here, again showing how these two criteria may also be in conflict, is the word ‘children’. ‘Children’ is a rather frequently used word. However, the rule of making irregular plurals with -ren does not cover many items (I can’t actually think of any other right now!), so teaching it as a rule would seem less worthwhile. And finally, teachability and learnability refer simply to how straightforward it is to teach or learn an aspect of English grammar. Again, it depends.

Clearly, if an item impairs comprehension, negatively affects acceptability, and has a high frequency and broad scope, as well as being fairly straightforward to teach, then we should go head an teach it. One thing Michael Swan didn’t touch on in his talk is how to make a decision based on these criteria when the details conflict, so I’d like to discuss that briefly here. We’ve seen that the same sentence may be perfectly comprehensible, but not particularly acceptable. And that the high frequency of an item may not mean that the rule has much scope. In this case, I would advice teachers to weight the criteria based on their knowledge of the learners’ context and goals. This will include considerations of who the learners are likely to interact with in English, what kinds of topics they are likely to speak/talk about, the format of the communication (formal written, informal spoken, etc), and the likely goals of that interaction (purely communicating information, making a high-stakes sale, etc). Teachers may also consider the kinds of input their learners are likely to be exposed to, and potential interference pitfalls caused by the learners’ L1. That said, I would say that comprehensibility has to be criteria numero uno in any case.

If we have, then, agreed that we are going to teach grammar, and have selected points of grammar to be taught, the next step is to think about what we are actually going to do in the classroom in order to teach these points.

How? ~ Just three Exes

Michael Swan said in his talk that he sees grammar teaching as consisting of “three exes”. Not to worry, he’s not talking about broken partnerships, but rather EXplanation, EXamples, and EXercises. Now, you may think this sounds suspiciously like a re-worded recipe for a PPP lesson (Presentation, Practice, Production – which was the standard lesson structure taught on most preparatory TEFL certification courses for a long time), but fear not – his clarification highlights the input of ‘examples’ and ‘explanation’ as less valuable in grammar teaching than the ‘output’ from exercises. Nonetheless, they are not unimportant, and so we should still make them as effective as possible. Note that I think the order of explanations and examples should be seen flexibly – in many cases a more inductive approach (examples first) may be more appropriate, though that is a subject for another post!

Explanations, according to Swan and I’m inclined to agree, should be economical, take one step at a time, be clear to the learner, use visual support, and possibly even the learners’ L1. I suppose only the last point there might cause discussion. To my mind, though, it is logical that a grammar explanation in English may make use of language that is above the learners’ current level and therefore be more confusing than it is helpful. If the teacher is able to speak the L1 of their learners, then this can be a simpler and more efficient way of explaining the rule. Of course, not all teachers have this luxury, but where appropriate I’d be all in favour of brief grammar explanations in the L1 for lower-level students.

There’s nothing really surprising in the characteristics Swan says good examples should have, although I find it good for us teachers to refresh these things in our minds, particularly just before embarking on a new term and a new “Advanced Grammar” course! Good examples should be realistic, memorable (perhaps through humour), in context, and taken from various topic areas/text genres. I don’t know about you, but I find looking for or inventing examples that fit all of these criteria actually rather time-consuming. And I sometimes feel that teachers neglect this part of their preparation, perhaps because of the time it takes, or perhaps other teachers are really able to spontaneously create realistic, memorable examples from various topic areas in context when they reach this point in their lesson. Lucky them! – I know I’m not! There are several potential sources of example sentences, but sometimes the examples they provide just do not fulfil these criteria satisfactorily (for example, corpora/concordances, dictionaries, grammar references or course books). I find the best examples by just going about my every day life attentively. Paying attention to the structures and language my colleagues and I use to talk to each other, to email, to make posters, to recount anecdotes, and so on – that’s realistic language in a context our students are familiar with, with a range of genres and topics, and often rather memorable due to our humour! Or what about news articles or websites you read, radio broadcasts you listen to, TV programmes you watch – all of these can be sources of interesting and effective example sentences. Maybe I can mention just a couple of lessons I’ve recently planned: A lesson on simple present/progressive – I used a blurb from a novel found on Amazon. A lesson on referring to the future – I used an episode of “Tomorrow’s Word” (BBC).

Ok, so once we’ve got our explanation neatly formulated, and our examples duly noted, we need to move on to the most important part of the lesson (I hope no disagreement here?): the output, or exercises. I have to say, Sorry Mr Swan, but I’m not keen on the term ‘exercises’ here – although it fits nicely in the “three exes” category. For me, and I checked with my colleagues that I’m not alone, the word ‘exercises’ is perhaps somewhat misleading, conjuring up images of monotonous gap-fill or sentence transformation worksheets, maybe some text-based or listening tasks if we’re lucky. This is all reminiscent of the second P in a PPP lesson; not particularly exciting, and not really the kind of thing I believe to be the most effective for learners to really make use of the new language. For me, the third P – Production – is more the output we should aim for, as it is most similar to the kinds of things learners will want and need to do in English in the future. Again, though, Michael Swan ‘saves himself’ so to speak, by describing his characteristics of a good ‘exercise’ – and if I understand correctly, he is actually using ‘exercises’ to capture both controlled practice tasks and, even more importantly, freer production and encouraged use of the target structure. His characteristics include the tasks being interesting, empowering, personalised, imaginative, and possibly involving physical activity, visual or audio elements. These tasks should also help learners to connect the grammar point to other aspects of langauge such as vocabulary, skills, pronunciation, and so on. Of course, whether a task is ‘interesting’ etc. will… you guessed it… depend on your learners!

 Conclusion – Is it worth the effort?

My assessment of all of this is that explicit grammar teaching is easier said than done. Doing it badly is probably quite straightforward, but then it’s probably not worth the effort. Bearing in mind all of the points and issues discussed here makes explicit grammar teaching a rather time-consuming and preparation-heavy thing to do. So is it worth the effort? I believe so. And I believe that there are plenty of academic studies which support this view. The way I see it, if we don’t bother with grammar teaching, then it definitely can’t work. If we give it a go, then at least it has a chance of working! As always, Michael Swan has expressed this thought slightly more eloquently than I can, so let’s close his words which I used as an opener to this post: Planting seeds may not guarantee that they will grow; but not planting them is scarcely a superior strategy. (Swan, M., 2006)

 

Sources

Swan, M., “Teaching Grammar – Does Grammar Teaching work?”, Modern English Teacher, 15/2, 2006.

Swan, M., “Some things that matter in grammar teaching… and some that don’t” Talk given at ELTA Rhine, Cologne, on 19th October 2014.

Recommended grammar references for teachers

Carter, R. et al, English Grammar Today: An A-Z of Spoken & Written Grammar (Cambridge: CUP, 2011)

Leech, G., Grammar and the English Verb (Longmann, 2004)

Swan, M., Practical English Usage. (Oxford: O.U.P., 2005)

Research publications on teaching grammar

Gass, S. & L. Selinker.  2008.  Second Language Acquisition: an Introductory Course (Third Edition).  New York: Routledge/Taylor.

Norris, J. M. & L. Ortega.  2000.  ‘Effectiveness of L2 instruction:  a research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis’.  Language Learning 50/3: 417-528.

Spada, N. & Y. Tomita.  2010.  ‘Interactions between type of instruction and type of language feature:  a meta-analysis’.  Language Learning 60/2: 1-46.

 

 

This blog post waas featured in “My TESOL Daily”: http://paper.li/Stephen_Hofstee/1327126879