Dogme in Exam Preparation Classes

It’s often widely argued that Dogme cannot be applied in Exam preparation classes as they often follow a syllabus and have strict guidelines as to where students are headed and the language they need to know in order to pass the exam.

However, many exams these days no longer utilize discrete item tests like gaps fills. Instead, most exams seem to be looking at what students can do with the language they know, and through the use of topics as prompts, assess the range and accuracy of language students use to communicate and organise their ideas. For instance, students answer essay questions such as ‘Sports do not bring people together. They tear people apart. Do you agree?’

In fact, the IELTS exam itself is a bit like a Dogme lesson – Here’s a topic, let’s see what emerges.

So why do we feel that in order to effectively prepare students for these exams, we need to systematically take them through the exercises of a coursebook and strictly follow a syllabus?

I took an IELTS preparation class recently and was prescribed a neat little coursebook which I embarked on trying out. However, in the classroom, instincts seemed to take over and using the topics of the coursebook as  a departure point, I started to do the following:

For lexis

  • Get students to brainstorm words related to the topic while I mindmap on the board.
  • Do lots of revision and recall sessions using back-to-board or board rush games.

For speaking and discussions

  • Get students to discuss certain issues related to the topic in pairs, mindmap on their mini-white boards, and feedback to the class.
  • Divide the class into two with one group agreeing and the other disagreeing and conduct a class debate after some prep time.
  • Get students to close their eyes and visualize a scene they have to describe as the teacher raises awareness of all their senses, taking them through the sights and smells of the scene. Students then open their eyes and take turns describing to their partner (great for IELTS Speaking Part 2).

For writing

  • Give each pair a different essay question to draft the main points of the essay for 3 minutes. After 3 minutes, the question is passed on to the next pair. After the brainstorming ideas for all those different questions, the class writes the introductory paragraph to the first question. The teacher writes one too. They show each other the paragraph and the class is guided into noticing certain features of writing the teacher has used. The class attempts to emulate what the teacher has done with the introduction paragraph of the next topic.

The above procedure can be done not just with introductions, but with any paragraph or short piece of writing. Repeat as many times as you like because each time, different language issues emerge, and it allows you to take students through everything from linking words to thematic structure (theme and rheme) to how to write overview statements.

For listening

  • Get students to pick a TV programme to watch as homework. You can specify the genre e.g. documentaries, or the film e.g. An Inconvenient Truth, Supersize Me. Students have to make notes and summarise the film for fellow classmates.
  • Do intensive listening exercises e.g. using the BBC News Headlines in class.

For grammar

  • So much grammar emerges from the discussions and the writing tasks that it is really a matter of the teacher being principled in the eclectic way they improvise in the classroom.
  • I find corrections for written homework best done with the whole class as a delayed correction slot so that students can learn from each other’s mistakes and think about how they can reformulate sentences to make them better.

So my one-month IELTS class went the Dogme way and feedback from my students was overwhelmingly positive. A couple said that they had never learnt so much in a month before.

And the irony is – everything they learnt came from them.

What do you do at Christmas?

Christmas is a family occasion where we gather around Christmas trees after a Christmas dinner of roast turkey and stuffing to open up presents after listening to the Queen’s Speech.    True or False?

Christmas is a time spent with friends, partying and clubbing in silly party hats and wishing each other Merry Christmas at the stroke of midnight. True or False?

Even if certain cultures don’t celebrate Christmas in the same way, they must surely know about the family Christmas of the west, thanks to the omnipresent Hollywood films.                     True or False?

Perhaps it is much harder for Hollywood to influence our family routines and traditions, but its impact is often much more clearly seen in our perceptions of romance and how we conduct our social lives and relationships. In Japan and Korea, Christmas Eve shares more in common with the Valentine’s Day we celebrate in Europe, where couples meet for a romantic candlelight dinner over which they exchange presents and whispers of Merry Christmas.

So if Christmas is like Valentine’s Day, what then do Koreans and Japanese do on Valentine’s Day? Well, here’s where local interpretations of European festivals take a slightly interesting turn. Valentine’s Day in Korea and Japan is now set aside as a day when women buy men chocolates as a declaration of their feelings. While Japanese women of all ages buy beautifully packaged gourmet chocolates for their partners, it was the teenagers that gave Valentine’s Day its real significance.  As it is not common for women in Korea and Japan to make the first move in expressing their interest in the opposite sex, this special day meant that women could take control and let the men they fancy know about it. This saw tonnes of chocolates delivered in truckloads to male celebrities making the tabloid news every year.

In order to avoid the threat to face that men might face when confronted with chocolates from a woman he’s not quite interested in, the Japanese created White Day a month after Valentine’s Day (14th March) for men to reciprocate with white gifts such as white chocolates, marshmallows or cookies, and jewellery after having a month to think about the advances on Valentine’s Day. An absence of gifts from the men they have showered with chocolates on Valentine’s Day can be taken as a form of polite rejection. In Korea, the 14th April has been named Black Day – a day when those who did not receive any presents on Valentine’s Day or White Day get together to celebrate being single.

But I digress. Christmas in Japan and Korea may not be a bank holiday, but it certainly is a chance to celebrate, a chance for shops to get out their fairy lights and fight to attract customers with the best decorations. In Singapore, Orchard Road, the main shopping street, is decorated with the most lavish lights, and every shopping centre competes to win the title for the best decorated. Unlike many countries in Asia, Christmas day in Singapore is indeed a bank holiday, but it isn’t quite the family occasion it is in the United Kingdom. So friends get together and party the night away.

The Spanish, on the other hand, certainly know how to make a holiday last. Presents aren’t exchanged until the 5th and 6th of January, during the festival of the Three Kings, when floats grace the streets of villages and sweets are thrown into the crowds as they reenact the coming of the three kings.

How do you celebrate Christmas?

How do your students celebrate Christmas?

Who do they celebrate it with?
What traditions do they have? What typical foods do they eat?

If you teach a multilingual, multicultural class, this could be a great chance for a discussion and some lovely sharing to take place.

If you teach a monolingual class, how about a task? Have different groups of students conduct research online about the different Christmas traditions of different countries and report back in the form of a presentation.

And check out websites like www.santa.net for some inspiration.

So, what do you do at Christmas?

How I use the BBC News Headlines to enhance listening

This is something that I’ve been doing for a while and I find that instead of ‘testing’ my students’ listening ability, which most listening exercises you find in course books seem to do, this truly provides listening practice by sensitising the learners’ ears to how English sentences are said. I have had learners, who previously found listening to English TV programmes intimidating, not only display a marked improvement in their listening ability after only carrying out this procedure once every day for a week, but also enjoyed a remarkable boost to their self-confidence.

I’ve done this successfully with learners of a Low-intermediate but I would recommend that learners be at least a good Mid-Intermediate Level for the BBC News Headlines to be satisfactorily exploited.

That said, this procedure could be applied to other kinds of authentic listening texts as well, and does not have to be restricted to the BBC News.

A) Prediction task

Ask leaners to predict what they think the news headlines might contain. Write the predictions on the board.

B) Google ‘BBC News Headlines’ and click the first link listed

C) Listening for content

  1. Teacher tells learners to listen to the news headlines and check predictions, and also count the number of news stories there are.
  2. Pair check and feedback
  3. Listen again and state what country/company/topic the headlines are about.
  4. Pair check and feedback
  5. Listen again and take notes in order to summarise the story for your partner.
  6. Pair check and feedback

These three listening tasks provide the learners with opportunities to process the content from top down, practising extensive subskills gradually combined with listening for detailed understanding.

D) Intensive Listening

  1. Teacher plays the news headlines sentence by sentence and get the students to identity each word which is then transcribed onto the board. Repeat each sentence as many times as necessary.

E) Noticing chunks

  1. Teacher gets students, in pairs, to find collocations, fixed/semi-fixed expressions and grammatical collocations from the transcribed text.
  2. Feedback

 

F) Progressive Deletion

  1. Story by story, headline by headline, the teacher rubs off parts of collocations and fixed expressions from the board and students fill in the gaps verbally in pairs.
  2. Quick feedback – teacher nominates a student to read out the news headline with the gaps filled.
  3. Teacher rubs off more words from the board and students fill in the gaps.

10 things I do with my Mini-WhiteBoards

It all started when a co-tutor on the CELTA suggested that I borrow some mini-white boards for an input session on boardwork. My trainees had so much fun drawing pictures of varying degrees of artistic proficiency to convey meaning of the words ‘prawn’, ‘chess’ and ‘aubergine’ while I was also able to provide a much more hands-on practice session of organizing collocations, using mindmaps, and marking phonological features.

I decided then to invest in my own set of mini-whiteboards and they have been a hit in the staffroom since. I now use it for both teacher training, English teaching and even exam preparation classes.

See here for some cheap mini-whiteboards you can purchase for your classroom.

Here are some of the ways I use them in a General English and in an IELTS exam class. The list is in no way exhaustive so do feel free to add on to it…

1.    Language Review

A mini-whiteboard can be given to each student, or to a pair. As a variation to back-to-board, I explain the lexical item in the context it was encountered, and students write their answers on the white boards. If this is to be done competitively in pairs, students should be given a few extra seconds to discuss their answers…On the count of three, they turn their boards over to reveal their answers. This way you can check how much they remember of the lexical item and their spelling of it.

2.    Needs Analysis

Instead of using tedious needs-analysis forms, students can write (or as a creative alternative, you can get students to draw) their goals on the boards. Holding their goals up for the whole class to see is step 1 to materializing those goals, and is a good chance to see if their classmates share the same expectations.

I sometimes write up a whole list of topics e.g. Health, Food, Education, Politics and Current Affairs, Travel, Family and Relationships, Technology, etc… (or Business skills if you are a BE teacher, e.g Presenting, Chairing Meetings, Taking part in meetings, Negotiating, etc.)  and students vote for the topics they want. Depending on the size of the class, each student/pair might get anything from 2 to 4 votes. They write their favourite topics on the mini-whiteboards, and when all boards are turned round, the teacher can have a clearer idea as to which topics are more favoured than others.

A variation of this is to write up the four language systems (grammar, lexis, pronunciation, discourse) and four language skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening) up on the board and students vote for which language system or skills they think are most important and they need most work in.

3.    Brainstorming & Mind-mapping

Whether done as a lead-in to a lesson so as to activate the relevant schema and lexis, or as a first stage to process writing, the boards seem to be a good platform for groups of students to draw their mind-maps. Learners seem to take more ownership of their work when it is put on the mini-white boards and shown to the rest of the class. An empty board can look much sadder than an empty notebook page, and you will notice that students are often much more keen to fill up that mini-whiteboard.

4.    Jigsaw reading picture notes

An idea I adapted from the ever-so adventurous and creative Fiona James, this is a variation on Jigsaw Reading. Students are given different texts to read and asked to make notes so that they can retell what they have just read to the other students. However, here’s the catch. They can’t write any words. All notes have to be in the form of pictures that they will draw on the mini-white boards. This automatically forces students to process the texts for meaning instead of simply copying out chunks of words, and it also encourages students to use their own words and paraphrase what they have read when retelling it to their partners.

5.    Delayed Correction

You know the drill. After a freer speaking exercise and feedback on content, the teacher writes up a list of sentences/words she has heard students say and puts students in pairs to correct those sentences on their own. The idea is to get students cognitively involved in the reformulation/correction process instead of simply telling them what their mistakes are. However, what sometimes happens with some students is that they would skim through the list with their partners, making minimal effort and waiting to be told the ‘answer’.

I now give each pair of students a mini-whiteboard each and systematically go through the list of sentences one by one, and with each one, giving students time to discuss with their partner and write the reformulated sentence on the mini-whiteboard. On the count of three, they turn their boards over and I shower praise on those who have thought of good or creative reformulations. The competitive element somehow ensures that everyone is on the toes.

6.    What are the collocates?

To be used in conjunction with a corpus, the teacher gives students a lexical word e.g. global, boost, community, or even a de-lexicalised verb e.g. get, make, set, and students are given a time limit to write the top 5 (or 10) most frequent collocates of the word on their white-boards. You might want to limit the part of speech e.g. top 10 noun collocates, or top 10 adjective collocates, so as to prevent articles and prepositions from appearing.

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that the top 2 collocates of the examples given are as follows:

Global warming, Global system;

Boost confidence, Cash boost;

European community, Care community;

Get back, Get rid;

Make sure, Make up;

Set up, Set out.

A variation of this activity is What are the prefixes/suffixes?

Also a corpus-based activity, using the * key, find out the top suffixes and prefixes of words such as ‘like’ or ‘organise’ by typing *like* or *organise*. Give students the task of writing down what they think might be the top variations of the given word on their mini-whiteboards.

The top 2 with ‘like’ are ‘likely’ and ‘unlikely’, while the top 2 with ‘organise’ are ‘organised’ and ‘organisers’ although ‘reorganise’ and ‘well-organised’ appears later down the list.

7.    Silent conversation

I first got the idea for this activity from a colleague, Fiona Johnston, and have found it really useful and motivating. Now, I get students to do it on a mini-whiteboard which they can then rub out, rather than on sheets of white paper.

I walk into class not saying a word and proceed to write the following on the main board.

‘Today, we are not going to speak for an hour. But we’re going to have a conversation. A conversation on paper. Here are the rules:

  1. You’ll work in groups of 3.
  2. You will discuss the following topic I will give you.
  3. You can interrupt your partner but by writing.
  4. Try to avoid very long paragraphs. Don’t make your partners wait too long while you write.

Here’s your topic: …”

The topics can range from ‘What did you do this weekend?’ to ‘Tell your partner about the different members of your family’ to ‘What problems do you face living in London’ to controversial statements like ‘Men should stay at home while women work to support the family. Do you agree?’

As they write, I play some Nina Simone and Michael Buble in the background and walk around correcting their sentences. Works a charm and students often realize how similar this form of communication is to chatrooms and instant messaging, and therefore find it extremely useful.

8.    Information Gap

 Partners sit back to back. Student A draws a picture on their mini-whiteboard. They then try to explain and describe the picture to their partner who will then proceed to draw it on their own mini-whiteboard. At the end, both hold up their mini-whiteboards for the rest of the class to compare and see how similar (or different) they are.

Sometimes, I get my students to draw the layout of their house (great for prepositions of place), sometimes just random shapes and lines, sometimes they draw a pretend snapshot/photo from their photo album (adapted from Danny Norrington-Davies), and sometimes a favourite painting/album cover/item of clothing, etc.

 

9. Essay Writing

One of my favourite ways of teaching writing is simply to get students to write a paragraph (after sufficient brainstorming and deciding on the content of course) and me writing a paragraph with them. We then compare what we have written and look at how our paragraphs differ and what they can do to make their paragraphs better.

Take for example a recent IELTS preparation course that I was running. Students were given a topic like ‘Video games are bad for children and should be banned. Do you agree?’ After brainstorming the ‘for’ and ‘against’ arguments to the topic, we decided to write the introduction to the essay. We spent about 4 minutes writing quietly on our mini-whiteboards, and when students were ready, they compared their work with their partners. I then had everyone flipped their boards over (including my own) and we talked about their use of linkers and discourse markers, compared to mine. We found it much more effective than correcting students’ writing over their shoulders or taking home the marking because everyone gets to learn from each other’s trials and errors.

10. Win, Lose or Draw!

We can’t possibly talk about mini-whiteboards and not talk about this classic favourite, although I’m having trouble knowing who to credit for this…indeed, how long does an idea have to be floating around before we stop acknowledging the creator…

This can be used as a revision tool. Students have all their previous lexis on cards, they take turns drawing and their partners guess the lexical item.

And those are the 10 things that I use my mini-whiteboards for when teaching English. Do you use mini-whiteboards too? Did your school purchase them? How do you use them? Do your colleagues use them too? Do share what you do with these wonderful little things!

IATEFL BESIG Dubrovnik conference, 2011

Photos by Mike Hogan and Chia Suan Chong

The BESIG Annual conference this year was held in the Grand Palace Hotel of Dubrovnik, Croatia, and most of the delegates were staying at the very hotel that hosted the conference. On a practical level, this made it much more convenient for speakers who did not want to lug their laptops around all day, but an unexpected effect of this was an overall feeling of warmth and familiarity that bonded the members of BESIG.  IATEFL conferences have always been a great opportunity to catch up with old friends and make new ones, but the BESIG Dubrovnik conference went beyond that. BESIG Dubrovnik was about letting our hair down and relaxing while getting to know old friends better and feeling like a family – a family that shared the same goals and beliefs.

The Welcome

Despite the delayed and missed flights due to the unfortunate strike at Zagreb airport on the first day of the conference, most delegates made it in time to see the beautiful coast of Dubrovnik twinkling in the evening lights.  After a wonderful buffet dinner and some plum brandy amidst conversations with like-minded friends, we retired to our bedrooms, ready to wake up and see the Adriatic Sea in daylight.

The Plenary

Speaking of the importance of raising our clients’ awareness of the different cultures as they use English in this globalized world, Jeremy Comfort in his talk ‘What’s culture got to do with business. Supporting our learners in a complex world’ explains how to help learners develop mindfulness – an ability to step back and observe. He briefly addresses the more essentialist notions of national culture, e.g. Hofstede’s taxonomies, but goes beyond that by broadening the view of culture to encompass conflicts that are caused by different personality styles and different attitudes to time and directness in communication, and talks of the development of ‘push’ (presenting, telling) and ‘pull’ (eliciting, getting participation) skills as tools to avoid and/or getting around conflict. He wraps up the plenary by reminding BE trainers to focus on cultural issues that are of benefit to our clients’ businesses rather than those of interest to the trainers. There is no doubt that the key to understanding other cultures is curiosity and openness.

Photo by Mike Hogan

The Talks

Vicky Hollett’s talk ‘Learning to Speak ‘merican’ was a brilliant lesson in the significance of pragmatics in our understanding of intercultural interactions. Challenging the traditional stereotypes that Americans do not share the British sense of humour, and that Americans are more direct than the ‘Brits’, Vicky cleverly uses many familiar and humorous examples to demonstrate how being indirect could make utterances less threatening and help avoid awkwardness, and this ironically allows British conversations to have much more cut and thrust since we can always use jokes to cover it up. While the Americans tend to try and maintain positive face (i.e. the need to be accepted and appreciated by others) and therefore pride inclusion even when telling jokes, the Brits are more concerned with maintaining negative face (i.e. by not intruding or get in people’s way because of their need to be free and not be burdened by others) and are happy to use the ambiguity of jokes at any time or circumstance to relieve uncomfortable moments or rescind our initial requests. Thus, what might seem sarcastic to American might simply be witty quips to the Brits.

This cross-cultural interaction theme was continued by several speakers, including my own talk about perceptions of politeness in cross-cultural NNS interactions, Richard Lewis’s ‘Cultural Factors in International Business’…

Photo by Mike Hogan

and Dr. Sabrina Mallon-Gerland’s talk ‘Case Study – Why the Germans are arrogant and the Americans are not committed’. Sabrina highlighted the cultural effect on linguistic use and suggested that we could teach students to use certain formulaic language but cannot expect them to feel comfortable using them if it is not something done in their own culture. She goes on to use concrete examples in a comparative case study, e.g. the German use of ‘The problem with that idea is…’ to signal an interest to take the idea further through discussion, but could be mistaken by Americans to mean ‘I find this idea problematic and am not interested in it’.  In order to prevent misunderstandings caused by such cultural differences, Sabrina proposes the use of meta-language to describe communication intentions so as to enable clients to explicitly define and discuss each stage of their communications, and not leave it to cultural interpretation to inaccurately understand the pragmatic intentions of the speakers.

This ‘training’ and ‘coaching’ aspect of the Business English teacher’s portfolio continued to take centre stage throughout the conference, and it was perhaps most appropriate that we ended the conference with Barry Tomalin’s ‘Teaching Business Communication in the 3rd Space’ Barry describes the ‘3rd Space’ as ‘the new phenomenon in globalisation’ where ‘managers’ reporting lines are internationalized and they are reporting to managers in different countries who they never meet…’ In order to overcome problems of unfamiliarity, Barry suggests several useful mnemonics to help clients make their communication more effective. This included the importance of signposting, summarizing key points, concluding and inviting questions when structuring a presentation, and training clients to give F.A.C.E time when interacting, i.e. Focus, Acknowledge, Clarify, Empathise.

Photo by Mike Hogan

The Publishers

Photo by Mike Hogan

Aside from the opulent amount of wine and plum brandy sponsored by the wonderful publishers (thank you, it was delicious!), it was wonderful to see the rich and innovative BE resources that were being presented at the conference and the exhibition area. Ian Badger’s ‘Listening’ (Collins ELT) must be one of my favourite as he makes use of authentic recordings from various real-life business interactions and offers not just listening practice, but thought-provoking, awareness-raising discussions through them. Co-writer for Grammar for Business (CUP) Rachel Clark continues to make her mark with her cleverly-written and –organised corpus-based grammar reference book, while Mike Hogan presents his new business series starting with Business English for beginners (Cornelsen Verlag). However, perhaps making the most waves is Paul Emmerson’s photocopiable resource book ‘Management Lessons’ which he has bravely published on his own through PaulEmmerson.com, making this the first BE book to ever be self-published. Judging from Paul’s previous successes with ‘Email English’ and ‘Business English Handbook’ (Macmillan), he wouldn’t have any trouble getting this one off the ground.

Photo by Mike Hogan
That's just me...

The Partying

Delicious seafood, colourful (but lethal) cocktails, and BE Trainers dancing to ‘Like a Prayer’ on what was an exclusively BESIG dance floor till the wee hours of Sunday morning. Need I say more?

The Goodbyes

For those heading home on the last day of the conference, there was a mere 3-4 hours of a quick city tour before making our way to Dubrovnik airport. For the lucky few who got to stay for an extra day, they were made luckier by a last-minute cancellation of what would have been a second strike at the airport. For those that were heading back to the UK, foggy weather meant that Dubrovnik airport saw a whole herd of more than 50 BE teachers hanging around nostalgically looking back at how wonderful BESIG 2011 had been…

See http://www.flickr.com/photos/irishmikeh/sets/ for more BESIG Dubrovnik photos by Mike Hogan.

My trainees’ 10 (+1) Maxims of Teaching…

I previously blogged about the importance of the foreign language lesson in the CELTA, and before that, wrote about the lessons we can learn from the bad experiences of a language learner.

Upon meeting my new Celta group today, I decided to make a few quick changes to the foreign language lesson. To start with, one of them speaks Chinese and so I had to make an emergency switch to teaching Japanese instead. However, the problem with teaching Japanese in the context of a cafe is that most cafe items in Japanese sound exactly as they do in English since most of them are ‘loan words’ from the west. So orange juice is simply ‘orenji jusu’, coffee is ‘cohee’, and ‘milk’ is ‘miruku’. After all, the concept of a cafe was a western one in itself.

So I decided to instead bring in some fruit that do not have western names and group the items into drinks and fruit. After making some changes to the dialogue, I thought while I am at it, I might as well change the format of feedback. Instead of only getting trainees to talk about how they felt, they were given the task of formulating maxims for their own teaching, in hope that it would contribute to feelings of ownership of the ‘maxims’.

The maxims that they formulated were impressively similar to the points made in my previous post about the foreign language lesson…(I did guide them and summarise what they were saying of course…) Here are their 10 +1 maxims.

1. Thou shalt allow lots of repetition. 

This was the first point that lots of the trainees mentioned. They realised how important repetition was and passionately stated that no matter how many times I allowed them to repeat ‘mizu’ (water), each time was precious to them and a chance to review and etch the word into their memory.

2. Thou shalt not make students feel bad for not remembering. Instead make them feel relaxed.

The phrase ‘energetic antenna’ is starting to make a regular appearance on my Celtas. The  teacher is the energetic antenna of the group in the same way a manager of a team conducts the energy and affects the dynamics of its members. The teacher is therefore responsible for fostering an enjoyable, friendly and relaxed atmosphere conducive to making mistakes and learning. After all, as I always say to my students, ‘if you don’t make mistakes, I don’t have a job.’

3. Thou shalt drill! drill! drill!

A more experienced trainee came to me during the break and asked if I was advocating the audio lingual approach or the direct method. Although I’ve had lots of experience with the Callan Method in my early days of teaching, it was important to get across to him that a multi-method ‘cream of the crop’ approach (where we select and pick the ‘cream’ or the best of each approach/methodology to suit the occasion and the student) was what we hope to encourage (and not the ‘Celta method’ which some cynics seem to complain about).

4. Thou shalt not overload students with too much information.

Although it is never wise to overgeneralise, I suggested to trainees that for a 40-minute Celta lesson, it is perhaps appropriate to introduce 7-10 pieces of new lexis (if lexis is the main aim), but it was also a good opportunity to highlight the fact that words like ‘orenji jusu’, ‘coca cora’, ‘cohee’, etc were easier due to their similarities to English, and therefore allowing us to include more than 10 pieces of lexis in that lesson.

5. Thou shalt teach lexis in chunks.

Several trainees were puzzled by the meaning of certain words in the phrases I taught them. When encountering ‘cohee o onegaishimasu’ for ‘coffee please’, I overheard some of them wondering out loud what ‘shimasu’ might mean. But ultimately, it did not matter for as long as they knew that the whole expression ‘onengaishimasu’ was one that allowed them to ask for favours in Japanese, our job was done.

6. Thou shalt train students to tolerate ambiguity.

A skill that is so important to every language learner – the ability to face unknown language items and not suffer a psychological block or a deflation of one’s self-esteem. The language classroom can already make the most powerful of business people feel like a child – one without control of his/her environment and not able to achieve what must be one of the most basic of human abilities – the ability to communicate. It is thus extremely vital that learners realise that there will be times when lots of words will be unknown and that is okay. We can still try to guess the meaning from context. And more importantly, for learners to understand that language learning is a long process. One of my trainees exclaimed today that we had spent 40 minutes and had only learnt a short dialogue at a cafe. Language learning is like a race with no end, a run where the destination is unclear…and we all know that these kinds of runs can be psychologically exhausting. That’s why it is all the more important that we enjoy the journey and the small successes that we achieve.

7. Thou shalt use visuals.

The trainees clearly found the use of realia was novel and motivating, and mentioned that it was important to cater to more visual learners. This also included the writing down of the dialogue on the board so that trainees were able to see the words and not just hear them. My co-tutor doing the session on learner styles tomorrow is going to have the trainees all prepped and mentally ready for that session!

8. Thou shalt motivate the learners.

Several trainees commented on the importance of the lesson being fun, and the trainer being energetic and engaging. The teacher of course does not have to be jumping around like they are high on an overdose of ADD medication. The teacher is not a performer and does not have to behave like mad ol’ me. A teacher can be calm, sedate and relaxed and still motivate and engage their learners all the same.

9. Thou shalt correct the students’ mistakes, albeit judiciously.

This seems obvious but I was once told that one of the most frequent complaints that students make to managers is that they don’t get corrected enough. Students pay to be corrected, so as long as you do it in a friendly, supportive and encouraging way, and in a way that doesn’t interrupt that fluency too much, correction should be a feature of the language classroom. And I encourage my trainees to do so from day 1 of their Celta.

10. Thou shalt set a context and present language in context.

Probably a cornerstone of the communicative approach to teaching, the context-based presentation creates a place in the brain for learners to ‘put’ the new language and this therefore helps learners to retrieve the new language more efficiently and effectively. But my trainee today probably gave a less-noted, but equally valid reason for presenting language in context : it is more fun and shows you directly how you can use the language. He claimed he was now looking forward to going to a Japanese cafe and putting the language he had learnt to good use.

+1. Thou shalt encourage lots of student talking time and only quality teaching talking time.

Okay, this is a +1 because it is the one I deviously slipped in so it actually came from me rather than the trainees…although some of the trainees did mention the importance of the use of clear and graded speech, gestures, and facial expressions to ensure understanding – a tenuous link to ‘quality teaching talking time’ I admit, but nevertheless useful. Related to the importance of increased practice in the language classroom, increased student talking time is achieved by encouraging pair/group work, and multiple opportunities to rehearse the language taught.

So there they are – the ten (+1) maxims that my trainees formulated all on their own.

Ten (+1) maxims that beautifully describes the foundation of the SLA (Second Language Acquisition) principles and the communicative approach.

Ten (+1) maxims that I will be holding them to throughout the teaching practice lessons on the Celta.

And here is a blog post to remind them that I will.

Weddings, Funerals, and Women’s Place

First of all, I must apologize for having been away for quite some time. There’s been my MA dissertation, planning for a wedding, and a sudden death in the family. Perhaps not the dissertation, but the latter two has made me ponder the position of the woman in today’s society.

Lakoff wrote in 1975, in her seminal book ‘Language and Women’s Place’, of society’s control and subordination of women through the language women were expected to use – language that was socialised into them from a young age. To put it crudely, it’s brainwashing at its most subtle and insidious form.

The identity and status of a woman was largely influenced by that of her family, and then that of her husband when she got married. She would be known to her neighbours and friends as ‘Mary, the one who’s married to David Green, the accountant’. At parties, women would almost inevitably be asked the question, ‘So, what does your husband do?’ What she did was often of no relevance since she would most probably be a housewife (or homemaker, but political correctness didn’t exist in those days…and hey, a rose by any other name?)

Before you think I am knocking the very noble job of a homemaker, let me just say that I have no issues with women who choose to stay home and look after their families. The issue I have is with the lack of recognition these women have. The role of ‘Homemaker’ or ‘Housewife’ is never considered a ‘proper job’, and therefore not one that identifies a person. Meeting ‘Mary the housewife’ isn’t enough in most people’s eyes to tell us about Mary or put Mary’s social status into a category – a favourite past-time of most of humankind. ‘Mary, wife of the doctor’, however, raises different expectations from ‘Mary, wife of the miner’.

Thankfully, a lot has changed since 1975. Lakoff, in her newest edition of the book, comments that although it was literally unheard of back in 1975 for anyone to ask a man the question, ‘So what does your wife do?’, this is taken for granted as normal today. Amongst many other factors, standards of living have risen, leading to more and more women maintaining a job and having a career, and in so doing, carving out an identity and a role for themselves in society.

In my day-to-day life, it’s almost easy to forget the sexism and discrimination that women have experienced through the ages because I work in a relatively liberal industry where my sex bears no relevance to the job that I do, or the perception of my ability to do the job. The laws of the country ensure that my biological makeup does not impact upon the opportunities I get in my teaching and training career. Outside the workplace, I have always chosen, albeit unconsciously, to socialise with women who took pride in being equal to men, and men who support that notion. Perhaps this is why I was filled with shock and horror when I realised the inequality and injustice that perpetrated every part of the rituals of weddings and funerals.

Like many girls, I used to dream of the fairy tale wedding, and in my notebook, I would write my name beside the surname of the boy I had a crush on dozens of times. It was romantic. It was cute. It was the brainwashing that society has served up in a pink icing-coated wedding cake.

The planning of my wedding has so far been a tremendously joyous affair and my fiance has been nothing but chilvarous and enthusiastic in jointly organising the event with me. However, having been researching it for the past few months, I’ve come face-to-face with the values and beliefs embedded in the ritual that haven’t quite seemed to have caught up with modern times.

Let’s start with the ‘giving away’ of the daughter to the new man who would reign over her. And the ‘honouring and obeying’ of the husband in the wedding vows (which most people have now taken out…thank God!)

Then there’s the stealing of the credit for organising the wedding. Most men (my fiance is an exception, a gorgeous exception) would not want to have anything to do with the organisation of the wedding, leaving it all to their wives-to-be. Yet, come the speeches, they are standing up there thanking everyone as if they had done it all, while their wives don’t even get a chance to get a word in edgeways. Instead, their fathers speak on their behalf. We get to hear amusing stories about the groom’s drunken escapades from the best man, but childhood stories about the bride from her father. Of course, a woman’s childhood lasts till she gets married, for she can never fully be an adult with her own identity until she weds, right?

But the thing that makes me most irate is the taking of one’s husband’s surname. I know that many women today choose to either keep their maiden name or to turn it into a double-barrel surname, combining it with their husbands. But most tend to continue with this tradition, oblivious to the origins or implications of this age-old custom. Many of us don’t even question the reason we do that, assuming it’s just what is done.

In actual fact, it isn’t what’s done in most countries outside the UK and America. Chinese and Singaporean wives might use their husband’s names in social occasions, but keep their maiden names for official and legal purposes. Korean women are not allowed to take on their husbands’ surnames. It’s just not a done thing. So how did we start thinking it is?

Although we know now that women no longer need to take on their husbands’ identities and status, that they can carve a name for themselves in the world, we still think it romantic to change our names after marriage. We would go through tedious and copius amounts of red tape, calling every institution to change our names. We would risk ex-work acquaitances and ex-business associates not being able to locate us through any directory. We would forgo the long lost friends that might now not be able to get in touch through Facebook because we no longer exist. We would wipe our ‘old single selves’ off the face of this planet. For we’ve been given away to another family. Our single selves are now a non-entity.

Some may wonder why I am making such a big deal out of this. After all, my husband-to-be is totally fine with me keeping my maiden name. So, no, this is not personal for me. This is simply a feeling of intense puzzlement at how rituals and customs have simply not caught up with the times. And how we let ourselves be so willingly brainwashed…perhaps by society, perhaps by traditions, and perhaps by the romantic dream factory of Hollywood.

Why is this such a big deal?

To quote John Proctor in the Crucible (Arthur Miller),

“Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! …How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!”

Learning English through a TV series

This is a true story I often tell my students.

Quite a long time ago, I went out with an Italian who was relatively new to London. He hardly spoke any English when we met, and we used to have conversations, negotiating meaning in Italian and the little Spanish I knew, with a huge Italian-English dictionary between us. Shortly after we met, I gave him a simple gap-fill exercise that required him to transform the verbs into the past tense, and he spent about 5 minutes understanding the instructions ‘Fill in the gaps with the suitable verbs’, and getting quite frustrated. I soon realised that it was quite impossible to teach someone whom I was involved with.

Watching TV together was always quite a challenge and the psychological block he had grew as he struggled to understand what he was hearing. Finally, I suggested that we watch DVDs of the American series 24 together and assured him that we would have English subtitles on, and that he should feel free to pause at any point and I could either try and explain what was happening, or we could check the dictionary together. Very reluctantly, he agreed and these subconscious English lessons began.

The first 5 episodes took us ages to get through as he would yell ‘stop’ every other second. But as the general plot and the characters of the series became clearer, it became easier for him to deduce meaning from the background information he now had. And as the storyline developed, he became more interested in what was going to happen, and was happier to deal with the ambiguity of certain words. He found himself not wanting to pause the DVD when he could grasp the gist of each scene, especially when it would interrupt the flow of the action on screen.

One day, as I was watching TV, he walked into the room and started watching the TV programme with me. About five minutes later, he exclaimed, ‘There are no subtitles on!’ I was quite amused as I had thought it was something he would have noticed immediately, but instead he said, ‘I understood everything! And I didn’t even realise the subtitles weren’t there!’

We went through 3 seasons of 24 in 3 months (that’s about 72 hours of TV) and a couple of months after that, he proceeded to take the Cambridge First Certificate in English. Bear in mind that he had not had any formal English instruction up to this point, and had not really spent much time reading or writing in English (aside from text messages to me). To my surprise, he not only passed the exam, but had an ‘Exceptional’ in his reading paper and an ‘Excellent’ in his writing!

So here’s why I strongly recommend watching TV series with subtitles to any student.

  1.  You don’t have to keep getting to know new characters and new plotlines as it is with films. The background knowledge of the story helps you deduce meaning from context more easily.
  2. Words, phrases and grammatical structures often repeat themselves in a TV series. We looked up the Italian translation of the word ‘to threaten’ and ‘threat’ about 5 times when watching the first 2 episodes of 24, but by the 25 time, he not only understood what it meant but also how it was used.
  3. Reading subtitles does help one’s listening skills. One is able to not only hear the words and phrases but also make the connection between how it’s said and how it’s written. After some time, the brain starts to associate the way things are pronounced and the individual words that actually make up the utterance.
  4. We often use prediction stages when providing receptive skills practice in the classroom mainly because the very act of predicting helps better understanding of the text, regardless of whether our predictions are right or wrong. We predict the end of the story as we read the beginning of it. We predict the end of a sentence before we finish it. We predict the other half of a collocation before seeing it. And this is a skill that everyone uses subconsciously in our L1. We often try to help our learners transfer those skills when reading/listening in an L2, but when watching a fast-paced TV series like 24, the learner starts to use those innate prediction skills automatically as they get more involved in the plot.
  5. There’s nothing like getting addicted to a good series. You will soon forget that you’re doing it to improve your English and become genuinely interested in the storyline. This interest motivates you and propels you to watch one episode after another as the excitement builds. Before you know it, you’ll have had hundreds of hours of listening/reading practice, alongside being exposed to hundreds of lexicogrammatical structures. That’s more exposure than any English course can provide.

So what TV series would you get your teeth sunk into?

Here are my top 3 criteria when picking a TV series.

  1. Go for something that doesn’t feature too many social or romantic scenarios because they tend to be heavily laden with phrasal verbs, colloquialisms and slang. (Sex in the City is out then…)
  2. If you want to go for a comedy series, ensure that the comedy doesn’t depend too heavily on witticisms, plays on words or cultural references. (that immediately excludes The Thick of It and Yes, Minister).
  3. More important than the first 2 criteria is this: Ensure it’s a genre you love. Motivation rules.

So, what would you watch? Here are 20 suggestions I often give my students.

Are there any you would add to this list? I’d like to know what works for you.

Why I brought back the foreign language lesson to the CELTA

Many Celta trainers I know have taken the foreign language class out of their Celta timetables in favour of other more ‘practical’ input sessions such as classroom management. But looking back at the times when I was training up to be a teacher, I realised how some of the most valuable lessons I had learnt have come from those demo foreign language lesson and decided to give it top priority by dedicating a good 60 minutes to it on Day 1.

But before looking at the reasons why I’ve chosen to do so, let me first outline the foreign language lesson that I usually deliver. And for those teacher trainers out there who claim not to speak a foreign language, I hope this brief lesson plan would serve to reassure you that you do not need to speak a foreign language well to carry this out.

I usually do the foreign language lesson in either Chinese or Japanese, depending on the profiles of the candidates. Evidently, I’d choose the language that trainees are most unfamiliar with.

Materials: 6 items of realia – A box of English tea, a tin of green tea, a bottle of milk, a jar of coffee, a can of Coca Cola and a bottle of mineral water.

Procedure: I greet the students in the foreign language, and set out the items on the table. I start with one item, say, the English tea, modelling, drilling chorally and then individually. I then do the same with the second item, the green tea, before moving back to the English tea and the green tea again. Every time I introduce a new lexical item, I go back and drill those that I had done previously.

When the six items are drilled sufficiently, I draw a chair and a table on the board with a customer sitting and a waiter standing. Because my drawing abilities are so bad, I mime the waiter with my scarf over my arm just to ensure understanding of the context. I then mime the following dialogue line by line, but with the introduction of each line, I drill the phrase and everything I covered before.

Waiter: Hello

Customer: Hello

Waiter: What would you like?

Customer: I would like some English tea/coffee/water/etc…

In pairs, students role-play the dialogue with the help of the dialogue written on the board.

I then add  the rest of the dialogue.

Waiter: Would you like anything else?

Customer: I would also like some milk/Coca Cola/ etc…Thank you.

Waiter: Thank you.

Again, in pairs, the students role-play the dialogue. Just before they swap roles, I erase the dialogue off the board and have students do the role-play from memory.

At the end of the demo, the trainees discuss what they think each phrase from the dialogue meant in English and how they felt during the lesson.

During feedback, I take the opportunities to unpack the stages of drilling (model, choral, inidividual) and get them to notice other features of the lesson e.g. my seating position during the lesson, how I monitored, the effectiveness of pairwork, etc.

But one could argue that these are features that could be highlighted in any demo and not necessary through a foreign language lesson, but here are some other points that I find the foreign language lesson making very effectively.

1. It’s scary being a learner. 

Some of my trainees have never had the experience of learning a foreign language before. But even those who have might need a reminder of how it feels to be a learner – After my foreign language lessons, trainees often say they felt insecure and anxious when placed in a situation where they couldn’t speak the language. It brings attention to how language is such a core tool of communication to the rest of the world that without access to it, they experience a sense of panic and a loss of control over their surroundings. Some are surprised at how it makes them feel like a child and are better able to relate to how the high status professionals might feel being taken far away from their comfort zone.

2. Context is everything.

Choosing to do my foreign language lesson as a situational presentation, trainees are able to deduce the meaning of the lexical phrases without the need for any translation. But more importantly, it is good chance to draw attention to the fact words and phrases are often remembered through the context they were encountered in and are not stored in the brain separately, but in clusters e.g. with other related lexis or in lexical sets. When attempting remember the lexis a few days later, trainees will quickly realise lexis is more easily retrieved when the words/phrases are given a context, ‘a place to belong to’.

3. Drilling isn’t boring… and it isn’t just about pronunciation.

The foreign language lesson is a good chance to introduce drilling, and to demonstrate the importance of drilling, not just for pronunciation practice, but for memory retention and getting their tongues round the language. Being on the receiving end can help trainees see that drilling is not boring for the learner at all, and is in fact confidence-building. It is often the teacher who feels bored because he/she already knows the language item well.

4. Pronouncing unfamiliar sounds in a foreign language can be frustrating.

Especially when trainees have not had the experience of learning another language, it might be hard to relate to how difficult it might be to first recognise and differentiate what might seem like similar sounds in one language but totally different phonemes in another, and then try to contort their muscles in strange ways to make sounds that don’t exist in their language. Repeated drills of more difficult sounds can drive that message home.

5. Language learning isn’t always about learning single words.

When covering the Lexical Approach and introducing language chunks like collocations later in the course, I refer to how they learnt the phrases in chunks during the foreign language lesson without necessary understanding what the individual words meant, and highlight the fact that it takes the brain the same amount of effort/energy to remember a chunk/phrase of words as it takes to remember a single word, and encourage trainees to present language in their chunks and collocations.

6. It can take multiple encounters with a language item before it is retained and produced.

Trainees get to have first-hand experience of how long it can take to remember a new lexical item and how quickly we can forget it. By asking trainees again a few days later for the lexical items they learnt (and having them admit they’ve forgotten quite a fair bit of it)demonstrates the difference between short-term and long-term memory and the importance of recycling language and how language acquisition is not a linear process. What is taught is not necessary learnt.

7. Don’t overwhelm learners with too much information at a go.

When trainees try to squeeze in too many language items into their 40-minute lessons, I often remind them of how many lexical items they covered in their foreign language class (6 nouns and 5 phrases) and how close to feeling overwhelmed they already were.

8. Don’t just say them, board those new lexical items.

Too often do I see trainees who attempt to deal with emergent language by simply telling the learners the word or phrase, and not actually bothering to write the words up on the board. This can be extremely frustrating for many learners who find it easier to process and to remember lexis when they can actually see how it’s written. This also gives learners a chance to copy the new lexis into their notebooks. In my foreign language lesson, trainees are drilled the lexical items first and are given the written forms much later. They often report feeling a sense of relief when they are able to see it written down. This is a feeling worth referring to in order to encourage the boarding of new lexis and keeping a column for emergent language on the board.

9. A tolerance for ambiguity is crucial to being a good language learner.

Trainees often see reading and listening texts as a mere conduit for new language and are often not aware of the different subskills and strategies used unconsciously when reading or listening in their first language. Very commonly, when reading for gist or specific information, trainees give their learners way too much time, resulting in the learner attempting to decipher every single word and feeling dejected when they encounter one or two unfamiliar words. Sometimes such a psychological block created by just a couple of words can lead to learners giving up and not feeling competent enough to carry on reading. This need to cling on to every single word and this intolerance of any ambiguity in the foreign language is a sense easily conveyed through the foreign language lesson. Trainees can then better understand the need to develop their learners’ tolerance of ambiguity and the importance of training train learners to skim and scan so as to enable the transfer of such skills from their L1.

10. This is what a beginner’s class looks like.

This is the only time they will see a beginner’s class. Arguably, when teaching English as a foreign language, there are very few real beginners, but nevertheless, learners will encounter elementary students when they go out into the ‘real world’ and need some idea how they might deal with teach the very basics, with the help of some realia and mime, while still maintaining a communicative approach in the classroom. Trainees get to see that it’s totally possible to teach such a low level class even when the teacher is unable to speak their learners’ L1.

Obviously, these points can still be made through the use of other demos and discussions, but aside from the fact that one demo conveniently embodies so many of the key issues surrounding language learning and acquisition, more importantly, I brought it back because I will never forget how much enjoyment we got out of the foreign language lesson back when I did my Celta.

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