10 Things Teachers Should Never Forget

My flatmate recently decided to sign up for Spanish beginner classes and his experiences on it shed light on the language learning processes that students go through, and reminded me of certain basics that perhaps might have got buried within our discussions of methodology and language teaching. Basics that might have been taken for granted in our quest to get learners communicating and using the languge in this era of
communicative approaches.

But first of all, a little learner profiling.

My flatmate (Let’s call him Rod) is British, in his 40s, and has never learnt a foreign language. Nor has he ever been taught English grammar when he was back at school. His wishes to study French in Secondary school were squashed when he was told that he was ‘too stupid to learn a foreign language’. Those words inevitably still have an effect on him,
as he continues to think that the ability to learn a language is connected to an intelligence that he didn’t think he had. Upon encountering lots of expert speakers of English as a foreign language in London, he started wondering if he too could expand his view of the world through learning a foreign language himself, and attempted to study some Spanish since it’s one of the most widely spoken modern languages in the world.

The Spanish learning experience was filled with lots of frustration and anger and by lesson 3, he decided he dreaded every classroom minute too much to contiue. I spoke to him throughout the experience, and remembered the importance of the following:

1. Meeting new classmates can be a scary experience.

We teachers know the feeling of trepidation when meeting a new class for the first time, especially back when we were new to teaching. That feeling must be a 100 times more intense for students who have never been in a language class before. While sussing out the different characters in the classroom, Rod also knew his classmates were making
judgements on him, and for someone who didn’t like performing or being the class clown, the short getting-to-know-you activities were really more about not showing up oneself as an idiot.

2. Having the teacher chat away in a foreign language is confusing and intimidating.

This myth that the teacher should never use the learners’ L1s and should only speak in the language being learnt really needs debunking. When Grammar Translation methods became the common evil, we swung so far towards the other end that we have forgotten the usefulness and inevitability of translation. Useful because it can make the understanding of language explanations and instructions so much more straightforward and clearer. Inevitable because learners (especially beginners) will translate what
they hear into their own langugage anyway, whether this takes place vocally in class or in their own minds. But most importantly, having some L1 being used makes the learner feel secure and more confident. For beginner Rod who could not even say ‘How are you?’ in Spanish, having to sit uncomfortably while the teacher yabber on in what could have been gibberish for all he cares was not at all confidence-building.

3. It can be even more difficult for people who are confident in their own language.

Perhaps it has to do with an ability to be tolerant of ambiguity. For the high-flier who has been confident in his own language and secure in his predictable surroundings for over 40 years, being plunged into an environment where everything is confusing, unpredictable and incomprehensible is a nightmare. This is compounded by the fact that he has never been in a language classroom and does not know what to expect.

4. Being nominated to answer questions is also scary.

Added to the feeling of being lost, getting pulled up to answer when you didn’t even understand the question can be extremely intimidating. Then there is a feeling that the whole class thinks you are a useless git who really shouldn’t be there slowing the class down. I understand the need for nominating students in open class stages, but there’s a fine balance between giving shy students an opportunity to speak up and putting
someone on the spot. This leads me to my next point.

5. Fostering a cohesive and friendly classroom atmosphere is crucial.

The leader of a group or manager of a department often serves as a sort of ‘energetic antenna’ for their team. They set the atmostphere and in a way, allows the forging of relationships amongst the team members. Think back to a time when you experienced a change of management and how that impacted on group morale, on how members of staff related to one another, and on the general staffroom atmostphere.

In similar ways, the teacher serves as the ‘energetic antenna’ of the class, and if your students get along marvellously, gossiping, joking, sharing personal stories, whether it be in their L1 or the L2, you should definitely take some of the credit for that. In contrast, if
students spend their classroom time sitting in silence, afraid of being judged by their fellow classmates, it’s time to put language aims aside and do some team-building.

Meanwhile, continuously encouraging students to make mistakes everyone can learn from, praising students openly for good language that everyone can imitate, asserting that students are not expected to produce new language instantly, and sharing the odd classroom in-joke could do wonders for boosting confidence and motivation.

6. Clear instructions is the first step to a successful task.

Being a beginner at Spanish and having the instructions to class and homework tasks written in Spanish and not properly clarified was nothing short of frustrating. In addition, there is also being unfamiliar with the kind of language tasks that we teachers take for granted.

Here’s a typical example: Rod was given a ‘jumbled words’ task as homework, and
although the Spanish instructions stated that he should unjumble the letters to
make words, he had never encountered such a task before, and proceeded to check
the list of words given in a dictionary. They, of course, weren’t really words as such, and when he couldn’t find ‘afec’ (cafe) or ‘uqaotn’ (quanto) after searching through all the online dictionaries and translators, he lost heart and decided that he was indeed too stupid to complete the simple task. (I never understood the point of these unjumble-the-letters exercises anyway. What is it supposed to practise?)

We stress time and again on teacher training courses that trainees should ask ICQs (instruction checking questions) and do a demo or example when setting up tasks, but some are still embarrassed when doing so, worried that they might come across condescending to learners. But such instruction checking procedures are necessary for learners who might be too shy to ask or who were momentarily distracted (it is impossible to be 100% attentive in the classroom all of the time) so that they are able to follow
what is going on. Perhaps the issue of sounding condescending has more to do with the tone of voice and the paralinguistic features used when checking those instructions.

And for beginner/elementary learners or learners new to the language classroom, what’s the harm of delivering instructions in their L1 alongside the L2 instructions?

7a. Jumping from context to context, exercise to exercise can be highly confusing.

7b. We are not here to transmit information. Pick judiciously.

Sounds almost common-sensical to us language teachers but in our attempts to ‘cover the syllabus’, ‘transmit’ as much information as possible during the short classroom time we have and justify the huge amounts of money our students are paying for the course , are we sometimes guilty of doing the above?

In Rod’s first 2-hour lesson, he was introduced to making introductions (How are you? I’m fine, thank you. What’s your name? My name is Rod. Where are you from? I’m from Britain. What’s your surname? My surname is Smith. How do you spell it? S-M-I-T-H) which led them to learning the Spanish alphabet and then the masculine and feminine singular and plural names of countries and nationalities. Rod had never encountered the concept of masculine and feminine nouns but there was simply no time for the teacher to
explain.

In Rod’s second 2-hour lesson, the teacher looked at a whole range of classroom language (How do you say it in Spanish? How do you write it in Spanish? Can you repeat it? I don’t remember. I don’t understand. Louder please. Slower please. I don’t know. – Rod made sure he remembered the last one so that he could give it as an answer whenever
nominated) before going through about 10 lexical items to do with food and drink, and then 8 useful phrases used in a waiter-customer dialogue in a cafe. The lesson ended with learning the numbers 1-20 in Spanish.

In Rod’s third lesson, the teacher plunged right into saying the numbers (1 to 100!), asking for the time (it’s quarter past, it’s half past, it’s twenty to, it’s 27 minutes past), doing some
pairwork/roleplay regarding asking for the time at a train station, learning nearly 20 verbs and how to conjugate them, then doing a guided discovery task labelling the different parts of the Spanish verb (La Raiz, La Terminacion, Verbo Infinitivo, Verbo Reflexivo, Verbo Conjugado, Verbo Regular, Verbo Irregular…) For someone who did not even know what a verb was, every second of the lesson did nothing but confirm his suspicions that he was indeed not cut out for learning a language. By the end of this lesson. Rod had lost the will
to live.

…And 7 c. We can only guide learners to discover what they are ready to discover.

8. Every learner in the class is different and some having more difficulty following does not mean they are less capable.

Rod’s class was made up of about 6 students. One was Italian, another two spoke French and another had learnt Spanish before. Having knowledge of the Romance languages had a huge influence on how easy it was to follow the grammatical explanations in class, but also the language learning experiences the other students had also helped them understand what language learning entailed. Rod’s idea of language learning had been a very bottom-up one where he needed to understand every word of a phrase before feeling
comfortable in using it. When encountering ‘Como te llamas? Me llamo Rod’ he instinctively seeked to understand which part of the phrase was ‘what’, which part was ‘are’, which part was ‘you’ and why ‘called’ was different in both phrases. The Lexical Approach may state that language is learnt in chunks and we should not encourage learners to string individual words together to create meaning, but perhaps our knowledge about Second Language Acquistion and the language learning process needs to be made explicitly clearer to learners instead of carrying on about tasks in a mysterious ’I-know-why-this-is-good-for-you-even-if-you-don’t’ sort of way.

When I tried to comfort Rod, he exclaimed, ‘Telling me the others have a headstart over me is not going to make me feel any better in class when I am stumped by the teacher’s questions. I still feel like an idiot.’

I don’t believe in pitching the class to the lowest common denominator, but a better understanding of each learners’ background and the obstacles that face them in the learning process is key to providing the ‘+1′ for every single student of the class. Although ‘acknowledging students’ previous language learning experiences’ is a phrase found in both CELTA and DELTA criterias, how much attention do we give to it on teacher training
courses?

9. Just because some of the students understand (while the others sit in silence) is not a green light for the teacher to move on.

Along the same lines as the above point, the teacher tended to ask the taboo question ‘Do you understand?’ and the Italian student would cheerily nod away and/or shout ‘yes’. The teacher took this to mean that the whole class was now ready to move on to the next
exercise/language point/context. Many might not insist the teacher spends more time clarifying because they might (a) think they understand but they don’t, or (b) are too shy/embarrassed to admit they don’t understand. Admitting such a thing requires bravery and a large dose of self-awareness, and should be met with patience and encouragement. Of course, a relaxed and non-judgemental classroom atmosphere can also lower inhibitions and allow students to voice their feelings of confusion more openly (see point number 5).

10. Repetition Repetition Repetition (Drilling is not just about pronunciation)

I’ve left this for last because I’m so passionate about this that I could dedicate a whole blog post to this point alone. We all know the importance of repetition but in practice, we sometimes worry that repeated drills could be boring for the students and too reminiscent of the Direct Method. I am unashamed to admit that I came from the Callan School of
English, where drilling was the only method of teaching. Although I am a strong believer that one single methology should not dominate one’s teaching, I have taken away lots of good drilling practices that I still use in my classroom today. I have found drilling to be necessary in helping learners get used to getting their tongues round the language and absolutely useful in terms of aiding memory and retention.

Rod’s teacher simply provided lists after lists of lexis and 1 or 2 controlled practice exercises of the language (like the jumbled-word exercise) and never offered the chance or time for the learners to actually learn them. And learners were never explicitly told that it can take up to 25 encounters with a new piece of lexis before feeling even remotely
confident in trying it out in spoken production. Repeated drills interjected throughout the lesson could have reinforced the idea that learners are not expected to remember or produce the language after just the first encounter. And to teachers who think it’s boring, I would say, it’s probably boring for you, the expert user of the language, but not for the learner. Pacey and snappy drills can be really invigorating and confidence-building.

Of course, drills are not the only way to get students repeating. Creative recycling activities like ‘Back to Board’, ‘Charades’, ‘Board Rush’, ‘Language Auction’ etc can all be used to increase the number of encounters learners have with previously taught language items. I
spend one of every three hour class I take purely on recycling activities, and the incidental language that goes up on my board every day is no longer incidental, but part of my learners’ lexicon.

I have indeed noticed that the length of this post is looking more like a dissertation than a blog and I hope Rod feels slightly more vindicated having his point of view heard and understood, albeit vicariously. But most importantly, I’d like Rod to know just this:

Language learning is less about intelligence and more about determination and perseverance.

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The Best Laid Plans…

I don’t like covering other people’s classes.

Well, who does? You arrive at work and are informed that you’ve got a class to cover. You are presented with a lesson plan that you’re supposed to teach and you walk into a room with 10 pairs of eyes staring at you wondering where their teacher is. You know nothing about them, and there just isn’t time to get to know them.

I often have full intentions to follow the plan I have been given and teach what I am supposed to. But once I get into class, my instincts seem to take over and unplugging takes place. Today wasn’t so different.

The lesson plan I was given this morning was clearly meticulously prepared. A reading text had been careful copied and cut into neat pieces, ready for a jigsaw reading, and a detailed procedure was written out for me. I started to feel guilty and decided to that I should follow the plan this time.

But the students were just too interesting…damn it!

The conversation started with me asking the Pre-Advanced students what they did for a living and one of the ladies was trying to explain the fact that she owned furniture shops selling furniture that was specially aged to create an antique look that was fast becoming popular in her country. We talked about the ultra-modern, minimalistic designs so characteristic of single male households and the collocation ‘bachelor pad’ came up. One of the students mentioned ‘Bachelor’s Party’ and more lexis about bachelors went up on the board. A student wanted to know the opposite of bachelor and another student volunteered the word ‘Spinster’. I quickly clarified that ‘spinster’ had a very negative connotation, and the conversation soon became about the sexism inherent in our language.

I boarded the words ‘Master’ and ‘Mistress’ and asked for the different meanings and connotations they had, and then we looked at the words ‘Mr’ versus ‘Mrs’, ‘Miss’ and the more modern and politically correct ‘Ms’ and the reasons why these terms were considered inappropriate by some and why they were used in the past.  We started to think about the names of jobs ending with ‘man’ and found their politically correct substitutes, and decided that the words ‘doctor’  and ‘nurse’ didn’t need any changes as it was already de-gendered.

This led a student talking about the experiences he had with a male nurse and the conversation moved towards injections and vaccinations. When a student struggled to express that she had had an operation on her knee, the following sentences went up on the board:

I have had an operation on my knee.

I have had my knee operated on.

A doctor operated on my knee.

My knee was operated on several years ago.

We looked at the causative structure in the second sentence and students were reminded of the meaning and form before being given some quick practice. We then examined the rest of the sentence and I thought it was a good time to bring up the Textual Metafunction of Halliday’s Systemic Functional Grammar. The departure point (i.e. the subject) of each sentence was identified and we look at which parts of the sentences were Given and New, forming likely questions that preceeded each statement. We then started to look at separable phrasal verbs and why we would never put the pronoun ‘it’ at the end of a sentence like ‘I switched it off’ (because ‘it’ is a given piece of information and not new).

A student then asked about placing the stress in a marked position and we started looking at Contrastive Stress and how we can give information a ‘new’ position in a sentence by placing a marked intonation stress on the word. This led to us practicing intonation changes in sentences and then chunking longer sentences and playing around with prominence.

At this point, I started to feel bad about those nicely cut-up texts that were sitting in a corner and decided to use them for a chunking activity. Instead of a plain jigsaw reading, students had to read the short passages to their partners with the appropriate intonation changes while their partners took notes. The catch is they weren’t allowed to write words in their notes. They were only allowed to draw. Using their drawings, the students were then re-paired with different partners and had to re-tell what they had heard using only their drawings to help them remember.

Time was running out at this point and I had to leave the students at that point…

But I felt a bit more at peace with my guilt this time having used part of the plan given to me, albeit only a small part of it…

So who says cut-up cards were only for Tommy and Tina TEFLS and can’t be used in a Dogme class?

Reflections on IATEFL Brighton and good teaching

After a hectic 4 days at IATEFL Brighton, followed by the come-down of those post-conference blues, I started to reflect upon the talks I had attended and the same message that seemed to be stressed and repeated again and again. And when I realised that I could no longer tweet these thoughts in 140 words, I gave in to the pull of starting my own blog, suppressing previous embarrasments and worries of the seemingly ego-centric nature of the extended airing of my own views and experiences online.

The conference started with Peter Grundy striking the perfect balance between humour, practical teaching tips and academic rigour as he spoke about the importance of Sperber and Wilson’s Relevance Theory and the creation of meaning through conversational implicatures.

The message: Communication is much more than literal meanings, for meaning comes from use.

In Dave Willis’s talk, he demonstrated the use of an authentic conversation used in a task-based classroom.

The message: Learners don’t systematically build up their grammar in the linear fashion that coursebooks would have us believe in.

Fiona James spoke about the use of visualisation to tap into the students’ imagination and inner lives and in doing so, develop the students intrapersonal skills, improve their self-concept, and most importantly for the language teacher, encourage lots of speaking and emergent language.

The message: Learners’ lives and imaginations are the most valuable resource that can be tapped.

Eugene Schaefer’s talk ‘Chuck the Book! Learner-generated Roleplays’ entertained the delegates with practical ideas and energised us with an array of drama-based activities.

The message (I got out of it) : A coursebook-less lesson could be filled with excitment and fun, and doesn’t have to resemble a chat in the pub.

Chaz Pugliese talked about using creativity in the classroom to motivate learners, reminding us teachers to have fun, or we might bore the students.

The message: Real-play, as opposed to Roleplay, allows learners to bring their own identity into the classroom.

Ultimately, they all point towards one thing. That good teaching is simply about supplying structures and frameworks that allow learners to bring themselves into the language classrooms, facilitating genuine interactions that put learners at the centre of their learning process, and providing opportunities for learners to encounter language in use. It is certainly not about letting coursebooks dictate which grammar point one needs to learn next, diverting learners away from what they truly want to talk about in favour of the perfect lesson plan we have created, or playing audio recordings of John and Jane Doe that learners do not care about in an attempt to enforce some listening practice. Ultimately, they all point towards a Dogme approach to teaching.

My conference experience was wrapped up appropriately by the Dogme Symposium, in which Luke Meddings, Anthony Gaughan, Candy Van Olst, Howard Vickers and Scott Thornbury talked about this conversation-driven, materials-light, and student-focussed approach to teaching. Amongst lots of laughter as we watched Luke drill us to say ‘Dogme’ in the Danish way and Anthony sing to get pairwork to stop, Candy hit the nail on the head when she said that we should let learners talk about what is meaningful to them as we learn to be the listener of stories rather than the storyteller. Why do we spend time contextualising our lessons, when the context is right there in front of our eyes? In Anthony’s words, why import interest into the classroom when we have real stories of people’s lives in the room?

During the gruelling Q&A session, less-convinced delegates started to question the effectiveness of Dogme in Business English classrooms especially for newly-qualified teachers, claiming that the teacher needed to plan the technical jargon that they were going to teach, and couldn’t afford to be caught out during the lesson. It took me a lot of effort to stop myself from yelling ‘In all my years of Business English teaching, I have never been asked by any of my students to teach them jargon!’ Most of my students know more business jargon than I do, and I see no shame in getting them to explain the concepts of their specialization to me. The most important lesson I had learnt when I completed my LCCI CERT TEB (a Celta-like qualification for Business English teachers) years ago was this: I am an expert in using English for business communication. I am not an expert in their business areas. Living by this motto has allowed me to humbly ask questions and listen to my Business English students tell me about their work and specialities. And in the process, I have learnt more about finance, marketing, human resources, sales, architecture, trade, law, politics, etc. than I could ever glean from a coursebook.

Ironically, Dogme is not a dogmatic methodology, as some might think, and as Luke Meddings said in his talk, isn’t new to teaching. Business teachers, for example, have been approaching their lessons in ways I have heard termed ‘Authentic Participation’ for ages. But the moment Scott Thornbury gave it the ‘Dogme’ label, it enabled us to start thinking about teaching in a different way. As Vygotsky would say, labels help us to process thought and concepts.

The message: Whether you call it Dogme or any other name (I will resist quoting the trite Juliet to Romeo speech here), it is simply about good teaching.