Rapport

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The class is full of different relationships. In a class with ten students and a teacher that’s 66 possible pairs. A class of 20 has 220. A few more than 40 and the number reaches a thousand. That’s a lot! However, I sometimes feel the focus of rapport building is on the relation between the teacher and the students. While undoubtedly important, it makes up only a fraction of the possible interactions in a class. How students get on with each other is perhaps even more important.

Think of a challenging class and why it was a challenge. There is often a personality clash. It might be between the teacher and a student, or nothing to do directly with the teacher. Some students don’t work well together, whether they are kids, teens or adults. I remember a class of beginners in which an offhand comment led to me needing to get in between two students to stop a full out fight. It started as one student was made to feel uncomfortable by another and escalated into a shouting match in L1. It certainly wasn’t something I expected from an adult class. It was near impossible to do any effective teaching afterwards, though after class I managed to help one of the offenders with a few key terms. She’d come back to apologise and give her side of the story. I felt my relationship with each student was good; it was just one pair among them that drastically affected the dynamics.

In any group there is a huge variety of factors which contributes to interpersonal relationships. Culture, age, education, gender, social standing and English ability are just a few. The list could be much more extensive. Before we look at conflict management, we need to look at creating union in class. Course materials have class dynamics as a hidden feature. (See Jill Hadfield for more on covert syllabi.) All the get up and mingle activities are there for that, as well as the language point. However, is it enough just to include these and hope for the best? They can help, but we also need to give them a hand in the way we set up the class and activities.

In larger groups I’ve been surprised by how few classmate’s names a student may actually know. Students know the ones close to them, but not necessarily the majority. I’ve often seen students refer to each other by pointing and saying ‘you’. Some people might be fine with it but that’s not a way I like to be addressed anyway. I think it’s important to highlight things like this and provide language to help students in these situations. I always set mingle activities up to include asking for names if necessary. I find it a more authentic way of learning names than a ball toss type activity, in which a person throws the ball to a person whose name they remember and say.

There are many mingle activities in language teaching: find someone who, class surveys, etc. However, it’s often the case that students will stand up and start speaking to the person they were sitting next to. If that’s what you want, why ask them to stand up? Getting students to ask people from around the class helps. One way I do this is by instructing students to look at the name cards from students on different tables and put a different name next to each question in a set. (This could be done by adapting a find someone who activity. Thanks Martine for this idea. Also, see more on find someone who activities here) When students mingle I notice some nicer introductions, such as ‘Hi. Are you …?’ Although there maybe the occasional student who shouts ‘Who’s …?’ In such cases I prefer instant rather than delayed feedback!

While names are important there’s more to rapport than helping students learn each other’s. Reflecting on activities helps get to know groups and their feelings towards exercises. If a student doesn’t see the point of an activity they are much less likely to engage in it. I remember a student asking me about the rationale for a pair dictation task instead of doing it with their partner. Being an EFL teacher I had to elicit the value rather than just explain, and in the meantime, the partner had to wait. Both students were fine afterwards, but it was a sign that the activity could have been unsuccessful. And unsuccessful activities lead to unhappy students. Having students reflect on the usefulness of activities helps inform a teacher of the group’s preferences. Giving the reason for an activity can help show the value to students who aren’t used to learning in the way EFL classes are often set up. From the reflections, it’s easier to set tasks the students are happy to do together. You can also be aware if two students have very different expectations of class, in which case care is needed if they need to work together.

In this article I’ve only touched one this area. I’ve found that students need more help than they are often given to actually get to know each other. Helping them do this and reflecting on their class are two key ways to develop a positive class environment. What’s your favourite tactic for developing rapport?

Photo taken from https:https://www.flickr.com/photos/robdray/4372413217/ by Rob D, used under a CC Attribution license, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

ELT materials part 2: Student choice

A figure stands before a row of doors and ponders which one to open

This is the second part of my article on qualities I value in ELT materials. In this first part I looked at genuine communication. Now I’m considering the amount of choice students have in lessons.

Think about a lesson from a learner’s perspective. In the vast majority of cases, it’s the coursebook or teacher that choose all the activities. The discussion questions are given, the text has been selected, the language point is predetermined. There’s an extended speaking or writing task, but it’s been chosen in advance. Students come to class and are served what’s on offer. Needs analysis at the start of the course, or as it progresses can be used by teachers to help plan future lessons. Students might even say what they want, but again this is usually for future lessons. How much can they actually feed into the class once it has started?

In materials, there are some choices, but they are rare. When dealing with sensitive topics there may be opt out options. For example, tick the topics you’d feel happy discussing: childhood obesity, euthanasia, etc. With stories there may be a selection to choice from. For example, talk about a good/bad/recent/future holiday. The idea of holiday is fixed, but the students can take slight deviations from each other. While these are useful choices, I value materials which do more.

The dogme approach tries to use the students as a resource, which gives them a choice in the content, as they’re the ones making it. However, this too is often planned. There is still a direction, which generally includes tasks from the teacher’s bank of activities. I am also wary of lessons in which students just use language they already know. I accept and encourage peer learning, but for me, there needs to be input or upgrading. Dogme lessons can do that, but they could end up being simple conversation classes.

So how can we increase choice for students? It’s a difficult question, as having any course content creates a degree of control. However, there are a few options.

Use students to create some of the materials

Engagement generally rises when students ask each other questions they’re not expecting. Find someone who activities (or should they be find out abouts?) often come complete. But why not leave some space for students to ask questions they’re interested in? It’s also true for surveys or discussions; students can create some of the task. Materials which allow for choice usually create more authentic chat.

Role-plays or simulations

In role-plays the students are given a role. In simulations they play themselves in a situation. Role-plays might tell students what to think or do. Simulations tell them to be themselves. So simulations give greater control to the learners. It’s possible to get students involved in selecting any necessary roles. For example, choosing a chairperson. Some cultures might choose the oldest person, so it might make a role-play unnatural if roles are set. In most cases students are able to work it out for themselves. The choice might even generate some more useful language.

Forcing an opinion or letting students decide

Debates are common tasks and one way to administer them in class is by dividing into for and against groups. While some students are happy to get into character, there are more who want to give their genuine opinion. If there’s a debate in which everyone’s obviously going to take one side, then surely it’s not worth doing. ‘Death or cake?’ as Eddie Izzard asked, always got the same answer.

Have a menu of choices

As previously mentioned, there are materials which allow students to opt out of topics, or select from a list of possible topics. Give students the chance to choose whenever practical. It could be to show sensitivity to learners, but it could also be to maximise interest. For example, have six discussion questions and let students choose the three most interesting ones to talk about. Have jigsaw reading texts, so students read about something different. However, let students choose the text and have tasks which allow for an imbalance in numbers. They choose what to read in their normal life, so choice in class make this more real.

Allow for student generated language

Some materials provide language for students to use, but it’s always possible to rephrase something in another way. This is clearest with the vocabulary and functional experiences. Think about the number of ways to make offers as an example, and consider how many could be included in materials. Language focus stages should be two-way, with students providing some of the language where possible. Authentic speaking tasks should avoid a linguistic element, such as rubrics directing students to use the language in this lesson. The materials should provide language, but still allow for the students to express themselves in the way they choose.

What do you think? How much do you think materials/activities control the lesson for students? How can materials increase choice? And how much of the onus is on teachers to build in options?

Photo taken from https://www.flickr.com/photos/boris/2290837838/ by Vic, used under a CC Attribution license, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Let the teacher speak!

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Some words/phrases carry a certain connotation. For example, skinny is more negative than slim, frugal is more positive than stingy. I’m sure you can think of a few more similar pairs of words.  What about the connotations that teacher talk and student talk carry? Is one more positive than the other? Yes, definitely. In my teaching career, teacher talk has always been considered bad. Student talk is good. The reasons for this are clear; students need to speak in order to develop and the more a teacher talks the less time there is for students. However, the obsession this has created is in itself harmful and hides real issues in class.

Teacher talk is an umbrella term under which all the other issues lie. Teachers sometimes give long, unclear instructions. So why is this a problem? Because it creates high teacher talk? No, it creates confused students who don’t know what to do. A teacher could demonstrate a task to help make it clear and be a model. But that makes instructions longer, and therefore teacher talk is higher.

The language focus stages are ones when teachers are also told not to speak too much. Let them work it out for themselves, while you, the expert, listen sagely and prompt. Fair enough, that’s one way of doing it. But surely, if you can explain something clearly and concisely, that’s also a valid way. Students from many backgrounds have grown up and been educated in a culture that has the teacher in the spotlight. The teacher explains; the students listen. I’m not condoning an hour long lecture but five minutes of teacher-led explanation in a balanced lesson is fine by me. The aim of the stage is to make the language clear for the learners. If we can do that in a short space of time, does it matter how?  The focus should be on clarity, not talk time.

Another area highlighted in teacher talk discussions is echoing, when a teacher repeats the student’s words for the class. It might be done to make sure everyone hears the answers. Some teachers get into the habit of doing this. So, does repeating all the students’ answers have a large impact on teacher talk? The extra double dozen words probably don’t make a huge difference over the course of  a lesson. The real problem is how natural is it. We don’t do this outside the classroom, so why do it inside? Our students might not know why we’re repeating them. It’s occasionally used as a technique to highlight an error, so it could be confused with that. What do students think when they hear us echoing? Certainly not ‘Oh that’s great, the teacher has just repeated what I said really loudly. I must be doing well in class.’ The issue here is how natural the teacher sounds and the effect it has on the students, not the level of teacher talk.

There are other hidden issues. Using longer sentences might be too complex for the level. So the problem is grading or awareness of level. Feedback stages may drag. The problem is dynamics. There are too many teacher-centred activities. The problem is planning and dynamics. To improve as teachers it is important to know our strengths and weaknesses. It’s impossible to work on teacher talk without working out, and then working on, what the problem really is.

It’s undeniably important to be clear, concise and use language appropriate for the level. But that only paints half the picture. For me, working on teacher talk is about being engaging. What are you saying to help bring the context to life? How are you motivating the learners? How are you modeling tasks to build confidence and help set expectations? Next time you go into class, don’t think about minimising teacher talk, think about maximising student engagement. And speak as much as you need to in order to do it. Give teacher talk a positive connotation. We can’t teach without it!

Over to you. My five minutes is up. Your turn to say something!

Further reading

Teacher talk acts, not teacher talk time: Karl Millsom in  the EFL magazine (April 2016):

http://eflmagazine.com/teacher-talk-acts-not-teacher-talk-time/

Photo taken from https://www.flickr.com/photos/boris/2290837838/ by Boris Mann , used under a CC Attribution license, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

 

ELT materials part 1: Encouraging genuine communication

Find someone boo

There have been numerous discussions on the usefulness coursebooks over the past few years. If you’re interested in that have a look at one of Steve Brown’s articles on the topic, which raises a number of interesting questions. (The comments section is also worth a read.) I am not trying to solve all the problems using a coursebook may bring. However, I will talk about qualities I like in course materials, which help minimise them. These qualities are not an exhaustive list to critique materials. I won’t be talking about such things as visual appeal, which generally appear in evaluative checklists. There are three main qualities which I find help me use materials in a variety of contexts. The one I’m talking about today is related to how authentic conversations are.

Genuinely communicative

We are united across teaching contexts in the need to teach English for communication. Our students need to be able to understand and/or be understood. The need might be immediate or a long time in the future. However, all our learners want to speak or write and be understood, or listen or read and understand. Therefore our classes should be communicative.

Modern coursebooks all have a communicative focus, as do many other types of materials. However, while the type of conversations in some materials may be communicative, they are anything but genuine. An example of this is with the questions you might see being used to practise the second conditional. For anyone over twelve, do you ever think about what superpower you’d like or what animal you’d be? It’s not something that takes up a lot of my day. And I’d never go straight from wondering about superpowers into discussing changes I’d make as the next American president! The hotchpotch of contexts makes any conversation far from genuine.

Having a single context, or setting, which naturally draws out this language is far more useful. An example of this can be found on the Disabled Access Friendly website, which has a selection of English language materials. The second conditional is needed in a setting which things about the needs of wheelchair users. This, for me, is a much better way of doing it.

Problems with authenticity are not solely linked to topic selection. Activity type can also play a part. A favourite in ELT is the ‘find someone who’ activity. (Click  here for a description). Students have a number of statements and need to find a person to match each one. The example given in the link includes find someone who has been abroad, eaten something strange and done a bungee jump. While it’s possible for these to be part of the same context – holidays, it could create a discussion unlike any I’ve ever had on the topic. Here’s a made up example, based on things I’ve seen as an observer:

Student A walks up to student B.

Student A: Have you ever eaten something strange?

Student B: Yes.

Student A: What’s your name?

Student B: David. Have you ever done a bungee jump?

Student A: No.

Teacher: Good.

Student B tuts and then asks student C the same question. Student A stands nervously and looks for someone to speak to.

The teacher has a role to play in activities, so problems in conversations like this are not solely due to the materials. The teacher here is more focused on the accuracy of the language, rather than the authenticity of the conversation. Through demonstrating and prompting teachers can make this more genuine. However, the role of the materials is to  make this as easy as possible, by encouraging more of a conversation rather than just a series of random two-line dialogues which follow one another.  The ‘find someone who’ activity focuses on the ‘yes’ answer and not on the details. Simply changing its name to a ‘find out about’ activity would suddenly make conversations much more realistic. For example, find out about a country someone has been to, a strange food someone has eaten on holiday and an interesting experience someone has had on holiday. In this activity students need to talk more and give details about their experiences, as we do in real life. There may still be some strange conversations, but at least we are taking a large step in the right direction.

There is a simple question to ask with conversations generated from class materials. Do they replicate conversations outside the classroom? In my opinion the answer needs to be yes for the materials to be beneficial.

What do you think? What’s important for you with ELT materials?

Youth versus experience

Franklin Park Zoo, Boston, MA
When I started teaching I felt quite popular. I certainly got more presents from students than ever. I really enjoyed teaching and I think that gave my classes a good feel. It was all new back then. I got to read these interesting texts about tomato throwing festivals and then talk about them. I was genuinely interested in everything the students had to say and they seemed to feel the same way. So was that my peak as a teacher then? Certainly not, but also yes!

Now I’m much better qualified. I’ve taught in a variety of different countries and contexts. I’ve spent a fair bit of time in each of the three main different paths teachers take; academic management, teacher training and materials development. Each of which has given me a deeper understanding of the industry and also allowed me to bring different skills to bring into class. So am I a better teacher now? Obvious yes, but also no!

Clearly I need to explain my answers a bit. What did I have as a new teacher that I don’t have now? It’s a hard question to answer as I think I still have all the same qualities. I still have passion for the profession, though I’ve lost the newness you get when something is, er, new! I have a wider repertoire of activities, though perhaps I don’t get as much pleasure seeing them go well. I generally expect it to now. I also have a much wider range and understanding of teaching techniques, but would you ever describe your favourite teacher as technical? So what else is important in teaching?

To answer the question I’ll talk about a teacher I’ve observed. One of my favourite memories as a Celta trainer was when I saw a trainee teacher do what I call a happy stamp when an activity went well. A happy stamp is when you run on the spot, often with your arms in the air, because you feel a sense of joy with something. She had such enthusiasm it was contagious. The students really warmed to her. I’ve often seen this with new teachers. There is a sheer joy in seeing things go well. Experienced teachers I’ve seen never have quite the same feeling. But then again, who’d want to see their experienced teacher do a happy stamp just because the class was going as planned!

So what can we do to make sure we stay fresh as teachers? There’s plenty of advice out there about different ways of teaching, all of which helps. It’s often said that it’s better to have ten years experience than one year experience ten times. My main tip is to remember yourself as a teacher a year ago, or five, or ten? Don’t just think about how you’ve developed, think about what your strengths were and make sure you keep them.

How have you changed as a teacher over your career?

Photo taken from https://www.flickr.com by Timothy Burling, used under a CC Attribution license, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Have I said too much?

Pic shhh

Having a good rapport with learners is often said to be one of the keys to a successful class. The goal is to create an atmosphere in which the students feel comfortable. Comfortable enough to speak. And comfortable enough to play around with language and make mistakes. In fact comfortable enough to learn. Most of the advice around developing rapport is common sense. Very briefly it’s smile, nod, use names, listen and engage the learners. Another rapport building tip is sharing something about yourself with the group. It’s this point I’m dwelling on in this post.

When I was about 16 and still at school I remember one particular assembly. A teacher told us about a scare his sister had had with HIV. He highlighted some of the potential dangers, telling us how they’d affected his family. All of us listened, without any of the usual messing around. He talked with such emotion it had an impact on many of us. It wasn’t usual to have such direct contact with someone talking about something I’d only really heard about on the news. I still have a lot of respect for that teacher for being so open with us. He had a powerful message, and one which took a lot to share. There are other experiences I remember from school, such as an ex-drug addict visiting the school to talk about his life. Again, he was very passionate about what he had to say and it had an impact. I can still remember him 25 years later.

These are more extreme examples of sharing something with your learners. Through telling these stories the teacher managed to engage us and build up respect. I wasn’t always the most attentive student at school, but I think I was a bit better behaved in his class afterwards. I’d like to think so anyway. Sharing such stories is difficult for any teacher. There are risks. Younger students may lack the maturity to be able to respond appropriately. The cynical may not believe some of the details or thing there’s a hidden message. In the cases I’m referring to I think the teachers got it right.

So should we share stories like this in our classes? ELT is known for it’s choice of palatable subjects in its course materials. Neither of the topics I heard would pass the PARSNIP test*. I can see the case for this too. Students may find these topics difficult to talk about, even if they do want to talk about them. My reaction to the stories was silent reflection, not the general aim of language classes.

The sharing I do in class tends to be about less sensitive topics. I’ll happily talk about the general topics which come up in class; family, experiences, friends, jobs, etc. Some of the most successful lessons I’ve taught have been based around anecdotes on topics such as why I became a teacher or moved to this country. Students have always responded to these stories. Live listening activities have great potential, as long as there is a lesson based around the teacher speaking as well. I also do a lot of modelling exercises. I’ll answer one of the discussion questions or tell a little story about me if that’s what I’m asking students to do. It helps with instructions/task set up too.

When there’s a good rapport there’s a degree of trust. With the trust students are more likely to be open to more personal topics. Learners may confide in you, ask for your opinions or ask you about more private aspects of your life. In these situations I’ve opened up and revealed my true thoughts. I’ve told stories that I wouldn’t put here. Well, not yet anyway.

How open are you with your students? What type of things do you tell them back yourself?

*PARSNIP test: making sure your materials don’t include any of politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, isms or pork.

Photo taken from https://www.flickr.com/photos/katietegtmeyer/67865829 by Katie Tegtmeyer, used under a CC Attribution license, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

 

Using L1 in language learning

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It’s been fifteen years since I caught that Easyjet flight to Madrid, en route to the initial TEFL course I’d signed up for. Could I survive outside of England? Could I make a living in a foreign country? Could I make a new life for myself? Could I learn Spanish? Moving abroad for the first time was perhaps the greatest challenge I have ever faced.

As I’m writing this in Malaysia fifteen years later it’s clear that the answer to most of the questions is yes. I survived. And yes, I did also learn Spanish. When I left Spain I was borderline B2/C1 level. I had friends I’d only use Spanish with. I used Spanish to help my school sell courses. I could live and work using Spanish. It took a while and some stubbornness on my part. After my morning Spanish classes I would regularly go to the internet café across the road. (Yes they were popular back then, in the days of pesetas.) I’d use the best Spanish I had, and without fail, they’d reply in English. It  was typical of much of my time there, until I was at least intermediate level. I really do believe it’s harder for English speakers to learn a foreign language, due to the necessity to speak it, but that’s not the point of this blog.

So how did I learn Spanish? I learnt through studying and practising a lot. I went to classes. I bought Uso del a gramatica española. I did language exchanges. I got a Spanish girlfriend. I read Spanish newspapers and books. You name it I did it! Being young, fairly carefree and living in the country is by far the best way to learn a language.

I’ve mentioned finding English a hindrance to learning,  but it’s worth reflecting on whether it helped in any way. In class, if I struggled, an English speaking friend occasionally translated. Rarer still, the teacher would use English. A new Italian classmate who sold artificial grass knew the phrase in English and used it after explaining what he did in Spanish, as he knew it’s quite hard to explain without translation. I never thought of any of this as restricting my exposure to the language. It was always useful and it never took long.

I also had my trusty little bilingual dictionary; still the book I’ve probably spent the most time using. I’d sit on the bus going to my morning class with a newspaper and the dictionary. I’d use it when using the Spanish grammar book. I used it when I wrote in Spanish. Occasionally I’d use it in Spanish class. I learnt a lot studying that way. I got a bit better and got a monolingual dictionary too, as you should. But I never found it nearly as useful as the bilingual one. I tried but it just look longer to get it. I’d look up words, then the other words from the definitions. Sometimes still I’d not get it. As a teacher it’s been ingrained that students should use a monolingual dictionary. It’s not something I found more useful as a learner, even though it was something I knew I should.

As I trainee teacher I was told about the direct method. We only use English to maximise exposure. It’s not like I had a choice in the early days anyway. As my Spanish got stronger though I had the choice to use it, and very selectively that’s what I did. When unsure of understanding I’d concept check by asking for the Spanish. When students asked how to say something in English I’d help. It certainly played a small part of my classes, but Spanish was there if necessary.

So does ELT still believe in the direct method? Yes, though this is partly though necessity. How do you enforce teachers to know the language of all the students? How do you train them? How do coursebooks accommodate this? It’s clearly impossible. But does the research support this position? The answer is n0. ‘A growing body of research clearly supports the principled use of the learner’s first language (L1) in aid of second and foreign language learning, especially when teaching at beginner and intermediate levels.’ (Wolfgang Butzkamm and John A. W. Caldwell 2009). For more information see Silvana Richardson’s plenary at the 2016 IATEFL conference, which talks about this in the wider context of the NEST/NNEST debate (highly recommended if you haven’t seen it).

So what’s my advice for regarding students’ L1 in class? In monolingual classes this is easier. Use it as a resource. English is the main language, and the one to be used whenever it can be in a clearly comprehensible way. Concept check  and translate if there’s an issue, though not as a first resort. Definitely make sure students still feel the need to use English whenever they can. Don’t force only monolingual dictionaries. Be aware of the weaknesses of resources like Google translate, but also be aware that the false translations are relatively rare and often get over-quoted.

In multi-lingual classes L1 use is harder. Be understanding if students translate for each other. Try learning a few key phrases in the most common to help you gauge understanding. For example, what does …mean?/ I don’t understand./How do you say…? If you hear these you know there’s an issue to check. Knowing the students’ L1 gives you respect as it shows you have some awareness of the position a language learner is in.

Where do you stand? How much L1 should be in a language class?

Image – My bilingual and monolingual dictionaries © David Bunker 2016

Degamification

board

In a recent post I talked about including fun or more serious activities in class. I suggested that some fun activities, such as running dictations, could be less effective than similar alternatives. In this post I’m continuing on from this starting point. The idea of gamifying activities has been around for a while. I’m looking at the opposite; how degamification may benefit your classes.

The basic idea behind gamification is that people enjoy games, so by making class activities more competitive, students will be more engaged. The idea of adding fun to classes makes them more beneficial. I believe there is a place for this approach, but we need to be aware of the effects it may have on our classes. Competitive games can be dominated by a few students; the best linguistically, the most confident or the most extrovert. You can sometimes see students standing back among the noise of their loudly participating classmates. The noise makes the activity feel successful, but could the quieter students be encourage to participate more with other dynamics?

To explore this question I’ll talk about my experiences with one of the most popular language games, hot seat/backs to the board. I first saw this as a trainee teacher. Brilliant, I thought, it’s so easy to set up and use to recycle language. My students enjoyed it and I continued to use it in my teaching. After a while I started to notice some students were quieter than I wanted them to be. Participation was never equal. I wondered if there was a solution to this. I’d have a maximum of four students per team tried to position students closer to each other.  This can help but in classes I taught with 20 students, it became harder to monitor and control effectively. I found that even this couldn’t allow for all students to contribute equally. I moved on to an extreme of two per team. I had classes of twenty with ten backs to the board. I definitely felt there was more engagement from quieter students, but someone would always get the answer almost immediately, as well as being really hard to referee. The game element diminished. Consequently I’d put more words on the board, so students would need to define a few before finishing. This made sure everyone had time to explain some words before someone would shout ‘finished’. I still think hot seat is a good game, but one I’m never truly satisfied with.

One of my alternatives to the game is using word cards. Students pick up a card and explain the word/phrase on it. I have a set of cards including the same language I’d use in hot seat. The language used to explain and complete the activity is similar to hot seat, but without the frantic nature it seems more authentic. In real life conversations speakers compensate for linguistic gaps by explaining the meaning, but without the wild gestures and mad rush which hot seat encourages. In this set up I find all students have the chance to speak. I can monitor more effectively to see which words were problematic, or which students struggled with the lexical set. The cards allow for extension in an easier way, for example by prompted students to personalise the language. Earlier finishers can be prompted to do more tasks like that with the language, which helps set differentiated tasks for groups with mixed abilities. With this dynamic I’m always satisfied with the activity.

Am I suggesting we all ditch hot seat? No, many students enjoy it, as well as it helping to consolidate their knowledge. However, using a degamified version can be more beneficial. My suggestion is to try both and ask your students which they find the most useful. You’ll get different answers from different groups. I’m a believer in giving students the chance to reflect on their learning and feedback into activity selection. Are there any popular games you degamify?

Image CCO Public Domain from Pixabay.com

Using the news in class

newspapers

In my last post I questioned how serious language classes should be. Since then the world has got more serious, or at least it feels like it to me. Britain has voted to leave the EU and now seems to be in political meltdown. The prime minister has resigned. The leader of the opposition may well follow the same path, if he hasn’t already by the time you read this. A second referendum for independence in Scotland is a distinct possibility. This has been reflected in conversations and social media since. Facebook, or at least what I see on it, has had fewer pictures of kittens or delicious meals. But all this you already know. So if general life takes a turn in this direction should language classes follow?

My answer to this is yes. But how you do it depends on your students. While Brexit is important to me, it’s not the same for everyone. Being in Asia, there are a number of students who’ve never been to Britain or Europe. The idea of values of a political and economic union is more abstract. The fact that the electorate in the UK chose to be out of one isn’t as important as it is to me. There have been far more serious issues recently in their countries. There are some interested students, just not everyone. So what can we do?

I’m a great believer in choice. Giving students the chance to select topics without forcing them is one way to introduce more sensitive topics in class. Here are a few ways I have used to give students options in the lesson content:

  1. Students summarise an article of their choice from a newspaper/news website.
  2. Give students a list of topics, containing a mixture of serious and lighter subjects (e.g. Brexit, food, holidays, politics, Euro 2016). Students tick the topics they want to talk about. Then chat to classmates who are happy to talk about the same things.
  3. Students rank their interest in different news events and then compare in groups.
  4. Students look at a selection of pictures related to various news stories and answer the questions:
    1. What is the story about?
    2. What do you know about it?
  5. Students talk about news on social media by answering these questions:
    1. Do you use social media? What do you post about?
    2. What news stories have you seen recently on social media?

Through monitoring these activities you can see how willing students are to discuss different topics. You can judge which global issues could be introduced. You’ll find there are some who would rather talk England leaving Euro 2016 the EU referendum. (At least the English have done something to put a smile on a few Scottish faces!) In any case, giving everyone a chance to choose a topic should also include you as the teacher. After the students have discussed stories, they are generally interested in knowing about the teacher’s ideas. Without getting on the soapbox it is chance to raise something important to you.

Please post any comments on the way you use news stories in class.

Image @ Daniel R. Blume (https://www.flickr.com/photos/drb62/2054107736)

How much fun should language classes be?

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I’ve recently been reflecting on the idea of fun and serious being learning preferences. It was prompted by watching a recording of a webinar on the covert syllabus, delivered by Jill Hadfield (available to IATEFL members on the webinar page). This took me back to my teaching a few years back, when if a class wasn’t going as well as I liked my automatic solution would be to make it more fun. I’d often look for new games, or ways to make the class fun. I’d start with a new warmer, quite often a competitive activity recycling previously learnt vocabulary. ‘Fun’ and ‘recycling’ are still buzzwords in ELT. I was definitely doing the right thing.

However, for a couple of classes this didn’t always work. But where was I going wrong? I couldn’t see why some learners were less engaged. Probably they just didn’t like learning English. If only they had more intrinsic motivation everything would be fine. One particular teenage class seemed to be a case of hit and miss. Sometimes I managed to really engage them. I particularly remember a couple of classes which I left feeling I’d done a great job. One was based around telling an anecdote about my life and the other was about the US elections. The ‘problematic’ students weren’t problematic. Other lessons had a variety of dynamics and teachers’ room favourites: running dictations, find someone whos, competitive games, etc. These lessons didn’t seem to work as well. It’s clear to me now; students don’t always want fun, serious can work better.

So why is that? I’ve developed in teaching environments where fun is lauded. It’s a kids class, make it fun. Exams, have something fun before you get into the serious stuff. These are things I’ve heard and seen in action, as well as doing myself. I mentioned running dictations as one of those fun activities, and tried to think why we do them instead of similar alternatives, such as dictogloss. I learnt on my initial training course that running dictations are a fun way of practising all four skills without ever questioning it. Now I think ‘what type of speaking/listening/reading/writing are we actually doing?’ Not an authentic one as far as I can see anyway. Whereas dictogloss requires learners to be much more engaged in the language. However, I can’t remember a single occasion someone in a school I worked in actually said this. But think about it, how often do you see running dictations in published materials?

So my advice: keep the fun but make sure it really adds value to the lesson. Make sure there’s a bit of serious too. Try getting opinions on a current topic as well as fun recycling game every now and again. What serious activities do you do to engage your learners?