EFL trainer and materials writer, with teaching experience in Ireland, USA, Spain and Germany. I spent 7 years as the head of the English department at a large language school, where I developed an interest in teacher training. Today I teach English/ Business English to university students and adults, am involved in test development, and lead workshops on topics related to teaching languages.
How do we teach when teaching online: webinar 1.7.2020
This is the video of a webinar I gave based for telc at the start of July, which was based on my contribution to the Global Get-Together, an online conference run by IATEFL. The focus was on rethinking our teaching methods when moving our classes online and starting out with video conferencing tools.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I found it easy to find video tutorials and blog posts on different video conferencing tools available to teachers and I was grateful. I, too, had to quickly get to grips with tools the organisations I was working for chose to use. Those ‘How-to’ tutorials saved me a lot of time and heartache!
However, I found that while there was lots of information about how to use tools, there was not as much info on how to actually teach with these tools. At the same time, friends and colleagues were getting in touch saying ‘I did everything right, but still…’
If we don’t recognise that teaching via video conferencing tools requires different strategies, then we end up disappointed, frustrated, and doubting ourselves. It’s sad to hear teachers say that teaching online is something they just have to suffer through. Having lessons online opens up learning to those who may not have the opportunity otherwise. It frees us from geographical limitations, allows us to learn whatever we want, wherever we are. Of course, we teachers are still just human and getting used to new ideas, technologies and teaching methods can’t happen over night. Effective change takes time. There will be highs and lows, and it’ll be hard to maintain momentum.
That’s where my talk comes in. It might point out some underlying issues you hadn’t considered, give you some concepts to think about, or provide some tasks for you to try in class. It may even just serve as an affirmation that you got this teaching online thing under control.
I also wrote a guest blog post for Sandy Millin after the IATEFL online conference. If you want to read rather than watch, that’s an option too.
You can also check out my post on podcasting Listening to the Experts. If you need a new challenge and want to keep the tech exploration momentum going, audio recording might be just what you’re looking for.
Background to my talk at ELT Ireland on Fossilisation
It’s hard to believe that I’ve been living in Germany for 13 years. On the one hand, I think of all the milestones that have passed and yes, 13 years makes sense. On the other hand, I think of my progress as a language learner and I feel a bit ashamed. Surely by now, it should be a lot better.
At the ELT Ireland conference last weekend, I talked about the verb ‘erinnern’ (remember). I could not for the longest time get it into my head that it was reflexive, despite it coming up regularly at school, in conversations, on TV, etc. If you told me it was reflexive, I’d agree, but when I had to use it, I inevitably got it wrong.
My students, all adults at C1 or C2 level, have similar problems. For them, despite all the written and spoken input they get at work, English is just a tool used to get the job done, and as a result, they tend to focus on fluency over accuracy.
With their stubborn errors and the many examples of my own stalled development, fossilisation became a bit of an obsession.
Fossilisation, ‘the long term persistence of plateaus of non-target-like structures in the interlanguage of non-native speakers’ (Selinker and Lakshmanan, 1992, p.197) refers to the idea that a learner’s interlanguage system reaches a point where the development of some or all of their interlanguage forms ceases, without having reached a native-like state. Han clarifies it by saying that despite ‘abundant exposure to input, adequate motivation to learn, and plentiful opportunity for communicative practice’ (2013, p.137) acquisition stops before the learner reaches target language mastery.
That describes me perfectly, and many of my students too. Most of our exposure to the language is in real world settings, outside the classroom environment. We want to communicate, we enjoy it, but we still keep making the same mistakes.
It seems reassuring on one hand to think ‘hey, it’s not me – it’s fossilisation!’ According to Selinker, ‘about 95% of the learners would never learn a target language regardless of age, instructions, input or learners’ will’ (Lee, 2009).
When I thought about it further, I realised it’s actually kinda depressing. The term fossilisation implies the end state when no further progress in that particular area or interlanguage subsystem will occur. That means that my example of ‘erinnern’ wasn’t actually fossilisation. It took a while, but I did eventually figure out that it was reflexive. So the idea of just accepting that something has reached the end state raised all these questions.
Luckily when I dug deeper I found various people voicing the same concerns.
Han (2013) says that some teachers embrace the concept, but falsely assign fossilisation to errors that are in fact not fossilised, while others refuse to believe that it exists, as this would imply a situation where no learning is happening. Understanding fossilisation would ‘lead to efforts to maximize learning while entertaining realistic expectations about the learning outcome, whereas ignorance would lead to use of non-differentiated strategies, which diminishes rather than enhances learning’ (Han, 2011, p.480)
I decided to side with the scholars who were suggesting that a more neutral term such as ‘stabilisation’ should be used (Mitchell et al., 2013), as it does not imply a permanent cessation of development, while keeping Han’s comment about differentiated strategies in mind.
First off, I looked at reasons why progress stalls, be it permanently (fossilisation) or temporarily (stabilisation).
In other words, the causes are age, attitude, motivation and acculturation.
This idea of learners resisting the process of acculturation, becoming part of the native speaker community, struck a chord with me. I had never really considered that learners might prefer to retain their ‘other’ identity, as learner or foreigner, which is ironic because … Lightbulb moment … that is exactly what I had been doing. Being an English speaker is a huge part of my identity. It has allowed me live in different countries, it influences my social life (my closest friends are all English speakers) and my home life (raising a bilingual child). I realise that, for me, it’s a serious barrier to progression. I wanted to be fluent, but at the same time retain my ‘other-ness’. No wonder I didn’t care about eliminating certain errors in grammar or pronunciation. Now I’ve figured out that to take action against fossilisation, I need to get everyone reflecting.
But I discovered quickly that you can’t just tell people to stop and REFLECT. Reflection is very personal, not everyone is open to the idea immediately, and many will ask ’What am I supposed to do? How do I reflect?’ You need to give guidance.
There are a lot of resources online to help get you started. I found edutopia.org‘s 40 Reflection Questions a good place to start.
I found that introducing reflection takes time, regardless of the questions or prompts you decide to use. You can’t assume students will know what you want, or be confident or comfortable with it, but you can build up to it, and make it part of every lesson. You could just add a question for the class on what tasks they enjoyed most, or get them in pairs to talk about the things they found hard or difficult during the lesson or that week. As time goes on, and they get used to it, you can set more difficult questions, about their own learning and their feelings about their progress. We often gauge our own performance by comparing ourselves to others around us so not everyone might be comfortable talking about this in front of class. But the main goal of reflection is to get us thinking about our learning, and what works for us, what doesn’t and why that could be.
You could also encourage your students to keep a learning notebook. There are also journalling apps or websites. I tried Penzu on my phone, but I prefer paper and coloured pens! Old school!
What I use for my German evolved from a vocab notebook into something more like a diary where I write down random thoughts, questions about language, things I heard in passing, my goals, things that frustrate me. I find it useful to be able to look back and reflect on previous reflections. Despite being a C1/ C2 in German, I write in English. Anything else seems too much like homework and for me the focus is reflecting on my learning, not the reflecting being the learning. As a result, I think students should be able to choose which language they want to write in, and whether it is something they keep private or share with you. It will completely depend on who your students are, of course. If they write in English, you can offer to correct it for them, every now and again.
Once students are reflecting on the tasks they enjoy, their progress, where they are having difficulties, the next step is working out how to increase their success.
Strategies, the steps learners take to process, store and acquire the knowledge they are presented with, appear to be the key to success at learning. How successful a particular strategy is will depend on the learner and the situation, but Gass and Selinker say that helping learners identify which strategies work best for them gives them a sense of autonomy, which helps maintain motivation.
Despite all my interest in the idea of strategy training, I procrastinated for ages, reading a lot on the topic but not really doing anything about it in class, until I came across the book Modern Languages and Learning Strategies (1999, Grenfell and Harris). There was a task where you ask students to collaboratively translate a Dutch poem. I used it in my talk as I think it is ideal for demonstrating the benefits of strategy training, and also how easy it can be.
There is also a lot of information on learning strategies online:
Sometimes learning is not transparent for students. I can’t tell you how many times adult students have said to me, ‘I had English at school but I never learned much – my teacher wasn’t very good.’ They see their success or lack of success as being the responsibility of the teacher. I think reflection and strategy training makes learning more manageable and success more achievable. I’ve decided 2018 is now the Year of Reflection, for me with my German, for my C1 groups and later on in the year, I’m going to try it out with some university students – so I will post about the experiment. Stay tuned! 😉
Gass, S.M. and Selinker, L., 2008. Second Language Acquisition: An Introductory Course. Routledge.
Grenfell, M. and Harris, V., 1999. Modern languages and learning strategies: In theory and practice. Psychology Press.
Han, Z., 2013. Forty years later: Updating the fossilization hypothesis. Language Teaching, 46(2), pp.133-171.
Han, Z., 2011. Fossilization: A classic concern of SLA research. The Routledge handbook of second language acquisition, pp.476-490.
Lee, E., 2009. Issues in fossilization and stabilization. Linguistic Research, 26(2), pp.151-166.
Mezirow, J., 1990. How critical reflection triggers transformative learning. Fostering critical reflection in adulthood, 1, pp.20.
Mitchell, R., Myles, F. and Marsden, E., 2013. Second language learning theories. Routledge.
Selinker, L. and Lakshmanan, U. 1992. Language transfer and fossilization: The multiple effects principle. Language transfer in language learning, pp.197-216.
We talk about the problems we have as ‘English Experts’ who are sent companies in different industries and expected to create very specialised courses and lessons, when we may have little understanding of what it is our students actually do.
Podcasting is one idea we use to get them to teach us about their jobs, industries and the challenges they face, while giving them opportunities for creative communication.
We look at examples of professional and semi-professional podcasts available for those learning English and discuss some typical features of podcasts:
We talk about different ways of doing it ourselves, or more importantly letting the ‘business experts’ do it.
What tasks can you give your students to get them started with recording themselves to share in class or with the world?
We talk about practical ways of setting this up – how to plan your lessons and how to get real use out of the finished products.
We created some easy screencasts on how to use Vocaroo and also Audacity (but there are hundreds of excellent tutorials on youtube to really get to grips with it.)
And how to publish a file on Podomatic.
So really, there is no excuse not to at least give it a try!
A brief post to share some slides from the talk I gave today at the ELT Ireland conference. I spoke about my experience trying to work with various ESP / business English groups to negotiate their syllabus and go coursebook free.
The conference itself has been fantastic so far, well-organised with a great atmosphere and a real mix of topics being talked about.
After talking about my context, teaching business in Germany, and my goals as a teacher, I once again declared my love for the CEFR and spoke about my attempts at using the descriptors as guidelines to help me ditch the coursebook, and create a course with my students that was relevant, authentic, learner centred, task-based and communicative.
The following slides show the different steps I took the first few times I tried this process.
Then I tried to simplify it and instead of using the full Eaquals list of descriptors for the appropriate level, I chose 8 and cut up a few sets and asked the students in pairs to rank them in order of relevance.
All in all, the project is definitely paying off. My students have fully taken to the idea and are providing me with fantastic ideas and more material than we could ever use. So I will keep working on it, perfecting my system and then I’ll post another update.
You, the expert: An experiment in constructivist, technology-enhanced teaching
So we negotiated the syllabus, planned our tasks, and started working on the different stages. As I had expected, attendance proved to be the biggest issue. Because of holidays and international projects there were a lot of absences and the project had to be extended by 2 weeks. Of the 6 students in the group, four participated, but by week 5 only 2 had finished their e-book. Despite this, everyone felt very positive about the project and they said that knowing their work would be used in the future made them more attentive to what they were doing. I was delighted with their enthusiasm and the quality of the work they produced, having had little success with writing tasks in the past, particularly those presented in the course book. We also spent a lot of time talking about learning in a way we hadn’t done before.
For this project I chose tools I was familiar with, which require little digital expertise, but what I hadn’t considered was accessibility. When the students wanted to carry out their interviews they couldn’t access the audio recording site I had asked them to use from their laptops. The problem was easily overcome. None of the students had their phones with them, so we used the voice recorder application on mine instead. It allowed us to make the recordings, but having to use my phone instead of their laptops removed some of their control of the task. When using Vocaroo.com with other groups, I saw students listening to their recordings in class, analysing the results and in some cases, re-recording them. They discussed pronunciation, pace and delivery, as well as vocabulary and grammar, and decided on ways of improving different elements. Being in control of the tool allowed them to do this, and as a result, the process of recording themselves became an important part of the experience.
In this situation neither set of students mentioned or asked about listening to their recordings there and then. They did give each other feedback immediately after the interview, listened to the recordings when I sent them by email and spoke the following week about how useful having the recording was when editing their texts. However, I feel that one important element of the process was lost.
The situation also shows that what works in one environment may not somewhere else, and that for this type of project to succeed, teachers need to be flexible with regards changing or adapting their plans on the spot. As Harmer (2015, p201) reminds us, ‘technological malfunction’ is in itself nothing new, cd players and overhead projectors often broke down at inopportune moments, leaving teachers to improvise or revert to their backup plans. I would argue, however, that in these cases, teachers chose to simply continue with the unit in the book they were working on or wrote up the grammar explanations on the blackboard instead of displaying their pre-designed transparency. The technology was a tool the teacher controlled, in a lesson the teacher planned. The goal of this project was to hand over control to the students, from negotiating the syllabus to creating content future lessons would be based on, and technology was central to that process. If the technology breaks down, the Plan B could lead to the loss of the key characteristics of constructivist instruction. In this case, the alternative available limited reflective practice.
‘A good teacher will exploit to the fullest extent all knowledge already available in the classroom’ Clarke, 1991, p18
In the post-project interviews, students mentioned choice as being a key factor in motivating them to carry out the task.
‘I chose a topic that interested me (Iran) because of my business trip in September. I have a personal connection to the topic and this motivated me to do research and share the information with the group.’ Student M
Ryan & Deci say that ‘intrinsic motivation will occur only for activities that hold intrinsic interest for an individual—those that have the appeal of novelty, challenge, or aesthetic value for that individual’ (2000, p60) and choice and self-direction play a huge role in intrinsic motivation. This project was a classroom task set up by the teacher and therefore, involved extrinsic motivation. Ryan & Deci (2000) would, however, class this as integrated regulation. This is the form of motivation closest to intrinsic, for while the push to action comes from an external force, the students evaluate the task or action required of them, and begin to see it as compatible with their own desires or needs. However, unlike intrinsic motivation, the reason for carrying out the task is other than enjoyment in the task in itself.
M was first to perceive the personal value the task would have for him. He referred repeatedly to the fact that in carrying out this task he was simultaneously preparing himself for his upcoming business trip to Iran, a country he previously knew little about.
With participation optional to a certain extent and no grades being awarded, successful completion of the task was dependent on students’ own interest. In this project students played an important role in motivating other group members.
When J joined the class, having been absent for a number of weeks, M was presenting the first draft of his article on Doing business in Iran. J’s role was to read M’s draft, offer feedback and then interview him on the topic. She was very enthusiastic and asked many questions, referencing the nuclear agreement and future trade possibilities between Germany and Iran. After the interview, she told us that as a student she had a professor from Iran who often spoke about life before and after the Islamic Revolution.
M later said that J’s questions helped him identify background information or more detailed explanations that needed to be added. Moreover, taking on the role of editor and interviewer had a motivating effect on J, who immediately decided on the topic she would focus on. She asked if the project deadline could be extended, as although she would be away on holiday for a few weeks, she was eager to participate.
This example shows how the actions and attitudes of group members had positive effects on others. This ties in with Ryan & Deci’s (2000) notion that relatedness, the need for a sense of belonging and feeling of connected-ness, is of vital importance in the case of extrinsically motivated actions.
At the end of the 5 weeks, students returned to the CEFR descriptors they had initially chosen to discuss how they felt they had improved. Breen & Littlejohn (2000) encourage teachers to see communication with students about learning as an essential component of the communicative classroom, and in this case, it was a positive experience, enhancing students’ feelings of competence. In the coming school term, the students will create activities around their projects, using their course book as a model. They could create comprehension questions to accompany the recorded audio, or a follow-up writing task linked to the text. Returning to their work in this way will give them an opportunity for further reflection on their abilities while also supporting their competence.
While the promise of collaboration and deeper learning is appealing, incorporating constructivist practices into the classroom can be daunting. It requires a complete change of role for teachers, less about providing information and more about creating an environment that supports students in exploration and meaning-making. Despite any difficulties, the outcomes of this project have definitely encouraged me to continue on the constructivist path.
Example e-book, Iran – Chance or Change or both? (shared with student’s permission)
Blogging has taken a backseat in the last year as I’ve been focusing on being a student again myself. Today my post is an outline of my last assignment, which actually came about through my interest in blogging and the role it can play in learning English.
The project, called ‘You, the expert’, was designed to help students develop their writing skills by producing a short e-book. Different digital tools were used for support during the writing process and to create finished texts which could be used as resources for later lessons. The group I worked with consisted of 6 students at level B2 to C1, consultants in the energy industry. They have weekly lessons of 90 minutes at their office, but attendance is irregular, with 2 or 3 students present each week.
Unable to find a course book linked to their business field, the students had been choosing news articles relevant to their jobs, which we read and discussed in class. To help them develop a wider variety of skills, we decided to use the ‘can do’ statements from the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), to discuss their strengths, weaknesses, and needs. They then chose a number of C1 descriptors to work on, identifying the types of real life activities that they were likely to engage in. In one example, the students linked the descriptor ‘Interviewing and being interviewed’ to situations where they are required to advise international colleagues on topics related to the German energy market. For ‘Turntaking’, one student mentioned an upcoming project with the European Commission and the types of meetings he would be taking part in. The result was a list of descriptors, tasks and situations suggested by the students. In this way, we created a type of negotiated syllabus.
One advantage of the negotiated syllabus approach, as mentioned by Nation and Macalister (2009), is that when students have greater control over decisions about what and how they learn, their motivation, satisfaction and commitment to the course is enhanced.
We planned a 3-week project where each student would write a report on a topic of their choice related to their job or industry, be interviewed on this topic by a classmate, and finally use the text and audio recording of their interview to create a short e-book. The multimedia materials they created would be presented to the group at the end of the project and used as content in future lessons.
1. just-the-word.com, a corpus tool useful for checking collocations and how specific vocabulary is used. Students could refer to this site to find out how to use some of the language they discover when doing their research. Chambers (2005), in a study on the training of language learners in corpus consultation, notes that students reacted positively to concordancing tools, believing that discovering lexical or grammatical patterns by themselves could be more effective for retention that explicit teaching in traditional textbooks.
2. vocaroo.com Students could use this simple voice recorder to record themselves and save recordings as mp3 files. Students can listen to the recorded interview to help them produce their final draft, and can later add the recording to their ebook.
Every stage of the project is carried out in English, including any training in the use of tools. Students read guidelines and FAQs on the websites, watch video tutorials if needed, ask the teacher or classmates questions, and give each other feedback. This focus throughout is on the process rather than the end product, with students learning new skills as they go along.
The type of course I describe does not fulfil all the requirements of a negotiated syllabus as set out by Breen (1987). Clarke (1989) admits that in most teaching situations achieving a fully negotiated syllabus may be impractical. However, he asks educators not to reject the concept entirely, but instead to consider introducing an element of negotiation into each stage of course design.
One disadvantage of the Negotiated Syllabus is that without guidelines as to which types of skills or tasks are available, students’ choices may be restrictive from a learning perspective (Nation and Macalister, 2009). As Clarke says ‘few learners, indeed, would have any clear awareness of what they need or want to learn, let alone how they would wish to go about it.’ (1991, p19) This is particularly a danger when working with adults returning to education after a longer absence, as their knowledge of activities derives from language learning experiences in their own school days, and methods may have changed since then. I believe the CEFR level descriptors can alleviate these problems as they clearly set out competencies in different skill areas (e.g. addressing audiences or sustained monologue) and also include descriptions of the strategies language users can utilise to achieve these tasks, such as planning, compensating, and monitoring and repair. With this information at hand, negotiating a syllabus becomes a less daunting and more satisfying process.
Nation and Macalister (2009) mention a major obstacle to implementing a negotiated syllabus from the teacher’s standpoint, that is the fact that creating individualised lesson plans and resources requires a greater investment of the teacher’s time than if a course book was used. Clarke (1991) also discusses the difficulty in finding sufficient materials, stating that it would only be possible if there was a large selection of local resources available combined with ‘ideas books’ of ready-made modules that could be used as required.
These authors focus on the challenges a teacher faces in creating or locating adequate materials. However, if we take a constructivist approach or the constructionist approach advocated by Papert & Harel (1991) which links making or developing a product to deeper learning, then the problem of insufficient materials is eliminated as students create their own. The act of creating something becomes part of learning and the process, rather than the end product, takes the spotlight.
Having read about the benefits blogging has on language learning (Sun & Chang, 2013; Bloch 2007; Sun, 2009), I wondered if a similar type of task would be possible with this group. Would producing and publishing shorter stand-alone texts be feasible and if so, would this have the same effects on learner motivation and language development as blogging?
Although previously this group had shown little interest in writing tasks, writing ‘reports and essays’ was something they identified as requiring attention. Bloch (2007) says that instead of wondering what we can do with blogs, we should consider what problem might blogging be the solution for. With this in mind, I hoped that a writing project involving research and peer feedback, with a published product at the end, might encourage student participation and perhaps even have a positive effect on attendance.
What happened? Well, there were highs and there were lows, but I’ll have to wait for another post to fill you in on all that.
To be continued…
Bloch, J. 2007. Abdullah’s blogging: A generation 1.5 student enters the blogosphere. Language Learning and Technology. 11(2), pp.128-141.
Breen, M., 1987. Learner contributions to task design. Language learning tasks, 7, pp.23-46.
Chambers, A. 2005. Integrating corpus consultation in language studies. Language Learning and Technology, 9(2), 111–125.
Clarke, D.F., 1991. The negotiated syllabus: what is it and how is it likely to work?. Applied Linguistics, 12(1), pp.13-28.
Nation, I.S.P. and Macalister, J., 2009. Language curriculum design. Routledge.
Papert, S. and Harel, I., 1991. Situating constructionism. Constructionism, 36, pp.1-11.
Sun, Y.C., 2009. Voice blog: An exploratory study of language learning. Language Learning & Technology, 13(2), pp.88-103.
Sun, Y.-C. and Chang, Y.-J. 2012. Blogging to learn: Becoming EFL academic writers through collaborative dialogues. Language Learning and Technology. 16(1), pp.43-61.
I’m back from an inspirational few days at the IATEFL Conference in Birmingham and ready to report on my own workshop ‘The Gap between Classroom and Online Learning – Closing the Circle’ which took place on Saturday, the final day.
The workshop looked at the Common European Framework of Reference and ways in which its descriptors can be used to link online activities to classroom tasks. The topics that interest me most at the moment, as well as all things tech, are task-based learning and communicative language teaching. The latter has been keeping me awake at night since I heard Bill Vanpatten say (controversially) that most language programmes ‘may claim to be communicative, but they really aren’t, and they never have been.’ (SLA Podcast: Tea with BVP, episode 1)
Vanpatten says that without a valid definition of communication we can’t understand what communication is. His preferred definition is ‘communication is the expression, interpretation, and negotiation of meaning in a given context.’ What I took away from that podcast was that not all pairwork is necessarily communicative, and communicative tasks should always have a purpose. This led me to analyse what I was doing with authentic materials in class and I realised that I was relying heavily on comprehension questions or tasks that involved students sharing their opinions, but not a lot else.
So I turned to the CEFR, or rather returned, as we have an on-again, off-again love affair. From giving training courses on the CEFR, I know that many teachers are not really familiar with the descriptors. They may know the global scale or the self-assessment grid, but not much else. So my goal was to get people thinking about how they could take advantage of the CEFR to create their own lessons, particularly tasks built around online materials.
I used modules from telc’s English Practice Material Online B1-B2 to create a variety of communicative tasks.
So here’s my summary…
When it comes to using blended learning or self-study materials as homework, many teachers worry that students won’t actually do the activities. If this happens, it can be very de-motivating and can disrupt the entire lesson plan. If it happens a few times, the teacher might soon decide that the ‘tech’ experiment just isn’t worth the effort.
To ensure that students carry out the online work we set them, we need to create a stronger link between online activities and the classroom.Instead of ending our lesson with the instruction to go online and do task X for homework, we need to take the process full circle. To do this we can add a pre-task to spark interest and motivation and then follow-up tasks to build on what was done online. This shows students that online homework is not just ‘busy work’ but essential to progress. If they don’t complete the tasks, they are at a disadvantage in the face to face lesson.
You might think this is obvious, but because online learning materials are created for self-study, giving immediate feedback, we tend to think ‘they did the task, we can move on’. But then we miss out on an opportunity to really knit the course together. We want to make sure that students see it as one course, rather than two parallel streams that are loosely linked, with the second stream being less important, or possibly optional.
We could take the online material andcheck comprehension or vocabulary, ask for opinions or predictions, but these are things we already do. The CEFR, with its action-oriented, communicative approach, can help us come up with creative tasks that are communicative, personalised and appropriate.
In the workshop, we looked at modules from telc’s English Practice Material Online B1-B2. Here is what we did with a module from the unit Gratitude, involving a radio show where listeners rang in and spoke about the people who made a difference to their lives. To create some follow-up tasks, we first used the descriptors for Correspondence.
B2 Can write letters conveying degrees of emotion and highlighting the personal significance of events and experiences and commenting on the correspondent’s news and views.
B1 Can write personal letters giving news and expressing thoughts about abstract or cultural topics such as music, films. Can write personal letters describing experiences, feelings and events in some detail.
Using these and the idea of Gratitude, International Thank You Day (the topic of the listening activity) and the person you are grateful to, you could come up with a task like this:
‘It’s International Thank You Day, the day we are reminded to thank those who’ve helped us and made a difference in our lives.’
Who would you like to say a special thanks to? Why? Take a minute to think about your answer, then tell your partner. Write an email to a special person for International Thank You Day.
‘Happy International Thank You Day! I’m sending you this email to say thank you.’
Explain why you want to thank them. You can write about some experiences you’ve shared, where you both first met, or how you felt when they helped you out or supported you.
I have highlighted the words that link directly back to the CEFR descriptor, to show that the task really focuses on what the CEFR says students at those levels should be doing.
What can you do with the finished emails? Note the descriptor for B2 mentions commenting on the correspondent’s news and views. B2 students could be given a new email at random, and asked to read and respond in character.
Other ideas participants came up with included composing letters to thank specific people, designing thank you cards for family and friends, writing facebook posts and even a song about gratitude.
But to be honest, that one was kind of easy, so I decided to try something more challenging. I asked the participants to match the topic of gratitude to two other descriptors that were not as obvious as perhaps correspondence was.
SUSTAINED MONOLOGUE: Describing Experience
INFORMAL DISCUSSION (WITH FRIENDS)
B2 Can give clear, detaileddescriptions on a wide range of subjects related to his field of interest.
B2 Can take an active part in informal discussion… commenting, putting point of view clearly, evaluating alternative proposals and making and responding to hypotheses.
B1 Can reasonably fluently relate a straightforward narrative or description as a linear sequence of points. Can give detailed accounts of experiences, describing feelings and reactions.
B1 Can make his/her opinions and reactions understood as regards solutions to problems or practical questions of where to go, what to do, how to organise an event (e.g. an outing).
What would you come up with?
For Sustained Monologue, I suggested a task based on a speech at your best friend’s wedding or birthday party and for Informal Discussion, a task that focuses on planning a surprise party for your best friend.
Other ideas for Sustained Monologue from the participants included having students create their own radio show talking about people who were special to them at different points in their lives, giving a thank you speech at an award ceremony, and presenting a Pecha Kucha on the topic of gratitude. For Informal Discussion, the radio show idea again, but this time as a dialogue or interview, a discussion about who to award a prize to, or which song expressing gratitude you would choose as you theme tune. Other ideas were informal discussions to decide on the best birthday gift for a mutual friend, or to plan a day out for a friend who’s feeling a bit down. I was delighted by the participants’ enthusiasm. Their suggestions were really creative and would definitely make exciting communicative lessons.
We looked at other modules and came up with lots of great ideas and hopefully I achieved my goal of sharing my love of the CEFR. Not only can it help students assess their abilities, it can also be used by teachers as a tool for planning a course, creating lessons and as in the case here, designing communicative tasks to use with online materials.
What should we do with these descriptors? I ended with my workshop with a challenge…
Look at the descriptors with students in class to identify some key areas students wish to work on. Use those descriptors when planning your lessons.
Assign descriptor/s at random to each of the units in your coursebook. Try to integrate these descriptors when planning.
Find interesting content online. Use the CEFR descriptors to design action-oriented tasks to link the online material to classroom learning.
photopeach.com is an easy-to-use website that allows you and your students to get creative, producing attractive photo slideshows, with the option of adding text and simple quiz questions.
It doesn’t take long to get the hang of so it’s suitable for school-aged students as well as adults and because it is so simple to use, students can focus on the story they want to tell rather than getting bogged down figuring out how it all works.
You can choose music, the number of slides you want to have and when to add vocabulary, information or quiz questions. It is very engaging and really grabs students’ attention.
You have to sign up to create slideshows. However, if you are sent an invite to view a specific slideshow, you don’t need to log in to access it. The final product can be downloaded and shared via email and social media.
Photopeach- ideas for teachers or students
Vocab: Photos grouped by a topic, such as relationships, animals, places in the city. Label all the photos.
Grammar: Photos with people carrying out different actions to practice tenses. He is running to catch the stick. The man is flying a glider.
Visual Stories: Add photos with words or expressions to be used as the basis for creative writing or story-telling. Talk about how the images make you feel.
Projects: Create photo slideshows to present class projects. Add text and even quiz questions. This might be an interesting activity for adult learners after the summer holidays. And because there is a limit of 30 slides, you’re saved from having to look at hundreds of very similar shots of beaches, cocktails or whatever it is your students like to take photos of. Very tall buildings, in my case!
It’s a great way of personalising the course and giving the reins to your students for a while. And it’s always interesting to see what people share. So give it a shot and put your holiday snaps to good use!
Online tutorials are a weekly fixture on the distance learning MA I’m currently doing. Contrary to my expectations, these are not carried out in a video conferencing setting to replicate a face-to-face environment. Instead, a synchronous chat tool is used. Students and tutor are online at the same time, in a ‘meeting room’ where they discuss a topic by typing out their comments to each other.
My initial feelings towards chat were very mixed. The approach is very student-centred and I was at times frustrated by the slow pace of discussion and the tendency of the participants to go, as I felt, off topic. I enjoyed the interaction and felt it was a nice way of getting to know classmates, but was sceptical about how beneficial it would be for me from a learning standpoint.
I quickly noticed that my class mates didn’t feel as I did. Some of the benefits they mentioned were
there’s a written record/transcript of the tutorial (useful if a student is called away)
the transcript can be used for revision or to help you catch up if you missed a discussion
non-native speakers of English may feel more confident about participating in writing
multiple people can ‘talk’ at the same time
Within a few sessions, I’d completely changed my mind. Two factors I found particularly impressive were increased participation and inclusion. Because communication is being carried out via text, participants don’t have to wait for their turn to respond. So there’s no real limit to the number of comments they can make within the hour-long tutorial. As more people are commenting simultaneously, participation is higher than it would be in face-to-face tutorials.
Many students mentioned that they feel more confident making a written contribution to the discussion, as they have time to formulate their comments and reflect on grammar and vocabulary choice. As a result, chat tutorials are more inclusive than tutorials where spoken communication is required. This was really something I had never thought about and it encouraged me to assess how I facilitate communication in my own classes, with the realisation that, be it through the context I work in or an unconscious bias based on learning styles or preferences, oral communication is prioritised over written communication. So my new goal is to try to introduce text-based communication to some of my lessons to see if it could help increase participation and ensure all students have a voice.
Of course from using chat weekly, I see that there are some disadvantages. Due to the fast pace of participation, there are often spelling and grammar mistakes, from native-speakers as well as non-native speakers. As many people are communicating simultaneously without the presence of turn-taking conventions typical in face to face communication, the discussion can be hard to follow.
This means the tutorial scripts can be confusing, particularly to those who didn’t take part. However, I think that errors in syntax and spelling, and confusion arising from comment overlap can become valuable learning opportunities, especially as students are analysing their own mistakes. So this main disadvantage is actually a benefit in a language learning context.
After some research, I have found the site TodaysMeet.com a free site that allows you create ‘rooms’ for chat comments and discussions.
So far I’ve used it with a group of six B2-C1 business students in an advertising agency, as a backchannel for comments and questions while we watched a TED talk (I paused at regular intervals to allow them to read and comment on what the others had written).
I also tried it with a group of 20 university students (mixed levels B1- C1) studying tourism. I created 4 rooms, assigned 5 students to each room and with the students scattered around the room, gave them a problem to solve. No speaking, just typing. Of course, the silence was broken by occasional laughs, but all in all, I was very impressed with how they got stuck in. With the adults, on the other hand, all aged between 30 and 50, a few had to be ‘disciplined’ for messing around (which I admit was funny in itself, especially their expressions when I gave them homework as ‘punishment’. They had to write up a summary of the discussion using the transcript, which surprisingly for this group, most of them did!)
I intend to do more experimenting with this tool now that I have realised the benefits chat can have and plan to write up some lesson ideas soon. In the meantime, if anyone tries or has tried this out, please let me know how you got on.
I’m busy being a student again and now half way through the first year of an MA in Technology and Education with the University of Leeds. As part of the module ‘Learning with Digital Technologies’ MA, I had to reflect on my experiences with different tools and learning theories. So I thought I’d share my thoughts on the flashcard tool Quizlet.
Quizlet allows you to create flashcards, games and quizzes which can be used to learn vocabulary, definitions, historic dates and so on. Progress is assessed automatically, giving students feedback as they make their way through the activities.
After logging in for the first time, I typed ‘English’ in the search function and found numerous flashcard sets, created and shared by users. Many consisted of image and word combinations suitable for lower ability levels. Others sets such as ‘Junior College English Vocab’ contained words like nebulous, fetters and truculent, which would be too advanced for most ESL (English as a Second Language) students. Many sets were simply titled English and, although hovering over the title presents a view of the contents, it was often unclear what the connection between the words was. Without proper naming or tagging conventions to clearly identify the target group and type of the vocab, finding suitable sets to practice with is time-consuming and I feel this reduces the value of the set sharing function.
However, when I started practicing with a flashcard set I found the tool to be very engaging and was impressed by clever additions such as the option to listen to the words, the choice of displaying either the term or the definition first and also the fact that tests can be printed. The games are timed and once your score is revealed, you are encouraged to repeat the activity to beat your time and improve your position on the score board. Motivating messages, such as ‘Yipee, you beat your previous record’, are also given.
Having assessed Quizlet from a learner’s standpoint, I followed the steps to create a set of flashcards on English financial terms with definitions. This was very easy and, as the tool gives you the option of importing your own lists, very quick.
Quizlet does not ‘teach’ the user, being limited to simple repetition of words to help memorise spelling and meaning. However, I feel the key to its appeal is the individualisation aspect, as students can choose the type of activity they want to try and can repeat it as many times as they want, therefore defining the pace of the progress.
I had heard of Quizlet prior to this, but had assumed it would not be suitable for advanced-level adult learners. I worried they would see it as game-like or frivolous, and I also felt that prescribing lists of words for students to learn goes against the type of student-centred learning I try to practice. Having to try out different tools as part of the MA course has made me aware of the need to reflect on my own bias or preference regarding learning strategies, and now having tried Quizlet, I feel that, ironically, the tool I dismissed as being too teacher-centred could have great potential in a constructivist classroom. Allowing students to choose the vocabulary and definitions they want to practice or encouraging them to create sets themselves, which they could then share with classmates, would give them a central role in the learning process.