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My students say the absolute minimum

Solutions Speaking ChallengeZarina Subhan, an experienced teacher and teacher trainer, tackles the second of our Solutions Speaking Challenges: “My students say the absolute minimum”.

I find myself in the classroom in an unfamiliar position. It’s not the fact that I’ve given up teaching that makes this a new experience for me. It is the fact that I’m a student again. I’m learning Spanish and am sitting behind the desk, no longer the decision-maker who tells the learners what to do, but the student awaiting instructions and wondering if I understood them.

I’m rediscovering how uncertain, vulnerable and anxious it can feel to be a language student. Most of the reading, writing, listening, speaking and (most importantly) thinking in the target language (TL) happens in the classroom. I know I am there to improve my language; my motivation as an adult learner is high, yet I have to admit I could speak more in Spanish. So why don’t I?

The PPP Model

When you think you’ve grasped the structure of the language that has been presented, it is quite demoralising when you ‘practise’ it and get it all confused, or if you get the grammar focus right you somehow lose all previously-learned knowledge of the language.

When it is my turn to speak I keep babbling on about whatever it is that I’m attempting to say. The natural thing for the teacher to do is to correct me. However, as soon as s/he corrects me it interrupts me. I’m trying so hard to concentrate on what I have to say that this correction stops my thinking, when I need every single brain cell to be able to speak. It has taken me a great deal of focused thinking, recalling, structuring and motivation to construct and actually produce that language. Instead of feeling pleased about having actually communicated in the TL, I focus on what I failed to say correctly.

So, what if I could write a letter advising my teacher what would I say?

Letter to my teacher

Dear Teacher,

  1. Please wait until I’ve completed what it is I want to say, then focus on the idea I communicated and show me you’ve understood.
    That would really give me a feeling of success rather than failure. If at the end you could praise me and only correct me in terms of the structure/language/topic that is the focus for the lesson, it would help me turn your extrinsic motivation into my intrinsic motivation, and help me feel better about opening my mouth again in future.
  2. Could you also not insist on us taking turns one after the other to speak?
    I stop listening to my classmates until it’s just before my turn, when I tune back into the lesson. Perhaps if you asked for volunteers – the ones who actually have something interesting/fun to say – it would be more interesting for the rest of us and it wouldn’t be as painful as ALL of us reading out our boring, unimaginative offerings.
  3. If you gave us more than 2 seconds to come up with a response to your questions it would give me more thinking time.
    Please count to 10, or say the same thing a slightly different way. Whatever you do, don’t translate it, don’t ask several questions all at once, and don’t give us the answer before anyone has attempted to offer a response! Instead try writing up the key words of your question, show me a visual cue, and remind me when I last used this word/phrase. This all boosts my confidence and gives me more time to figure out my response rather than spending half my thinking time trying to be sure I’ve understood you correctly.
  4. I’ve noticed that when we have a laugh, I can forget about my anxiety and about being wrong/not being understood.
    So how about if we have points/smiley stickers/competitive games between teams – so that every time we give you a response in the TL we gain an advantage for our team? It may seem childish to you, but actually my wish to win/gain points/stickers overcomes the anxiety I sometimes feel and motivates me to speak.
  5. Talking of anxiety, not everyone likes speaking in front of the whole class.
    If you moved around the class and came to individual groups/pairs, we would feel happier speaking to each other with you listening in. Then you can correct us individually in a more intimate situation and not with everyone listening.

My lack of speaking is nothing personal. My lack of speaking is simply because I don’t like looking a fool in front of others. So I’d really appreciate it if you could eliminate the thinking that making mistakes is foolish and encourage the attitude that having a go is courageous. I think, then, I would be a better speaker in your classes.


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Video cameras in the hands of learners

Asian woman using video cameraJamie Keddie, author of Bringing Online Video into the Classroom, looks at the benefits of handing over control of the video camera to students. Jamie will be hosting a webinar on this topic on 15th and 16 April.

Filmed presentations

Anyone who is involved in rail transport will know that stopping trains at stations wastes time, energy and money. Unfortunately, it is also necessary to let passengers on and off! Today, your students are highly-creative problem solvers. Their task is to work in small groups to design a high-speed train which doesn’t have to stop at stations, but which still allows passengers to alight and disembark.

After sharing ideas and reaching a consensus, each group prepares to present their solution to the rest of the class. This involves creating diagrams to reinforce ideas. When they give their presentations, you sit at the back of the classroom and film their performances.

Later, you show students the following video which illustrates an idea for a train which doesn’t have to stop at stations:

From teacher’s to students’ hands

Filming presentations and other performances can be a great way to motivate students and document their work. However, in the activity described above, the technology stayed firmly in the teacher’s hands. The result of this could be missed opportunities for student creativity, interaction, and learning.

By giving control of the video cameras to students, the activity could have been completely different. Rather than the traditional speaking-at-the-front-of-the-class format, groups of students could find their own quiet corners (either in or out of the classroom) and work together to create a video in which individuals communicate their group’s idea to the camera. The resulting videos can then be delivered to the teacher and later played on the classroom projector for everyone to see and comment on.

Group of adults watching class presentation

Here are some thoughts about why this second option may be favourable:

1. Students’ own devices

In many situations, students will come to class with video cameras already in their hands! Smartphones and tablet computers both have video-recording functions which are perfectly adequate for the classroom.

2. An open learning space

If students make use of their own video devices, the filming process can extend to outside the classroom. Assignments in which students create videos for homework become possible.

3. Less stress for students

Speaking English in class can be stressful enough for many students. When the teacher points a video camera at such learners, the experience can be even more intimidating. The camera may be less daunting in the hands of a classmate.

4. Technological control means creative control

If students control the technology, they can get creative. For example, they may want to think carefully about the filming location or props to include in the frame. They may also want to edit their work, include close-ups of visuals, decide what to leave in, decide what to take out, add credits, etc. In addition, with control of the technology, students can go at their own pace. They can film as and when they are ready. They can also do more than one ‘take’ in order to get the result that they are looking for.

5. Content ownership

Digital content is notoriously ‘slippery’. It does not deteriorate with time and can easily fall into unintended hands. Understandably, students may be concerned about what happens to videos that you create in the classroom. When students make use of their own video devices, they automatically become owners of the content. This can make the process less intimidating. In addition, if you would like students to share their videos online, they can choose to do so on their preferred video-sharing site.

6. Parental permission

Permission to film younger learners and teens can be easier to obtain if we can demonstrate to parents that we want them to make use of their own video-recording devices in and out of the classroom. As well as the ownership issue mentioned above, we can ask parents to take an active role in the video production process. For example, if we want students to upload their work, parents could monitor video content first before giving the go-ahead.

7. Reduced workload for the teacher

Perhaps the most important point to make! Tablets and smartphones can be regarded as all-in-one devices. Students can use them to create, edit and share video. There is no need to transfer video files from one machine to another (camera to computer, for example), a potentially time-consuming step that many teachers will be familiar with.

8. Engaged viewing

For some inexplicable reason, most teenagers that I have worked with engage better with video presentations than with live classroom presentations (see image above). With students’ attention, we can make use of the pause and rewind buttons for language feedback. This can include drawing attention to good language and communication, and error correction.

To find out more about using video in the classroom, register for Jamie’s webinar on 15th and 16th April.


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#IATEFL – This house believes that Primary ELT does more harm than good

Thumb up and thumb downAhead of the ELT Journal debate at IATEFL 2014 in Harrogate, Graham Hall, editor of ELT Journal, presents an introduction to the motion of the debate.

The ongoing expansion of English language teaching for Primary age learners and teenagers has been a notable feature of ELT in recent years. In many countries, English is now compulsory in primary as well as secondary education, whilst English for Pre-school learners is also increasingly common. Some estimates suggest that up to 80 per cent of English language teaching globally is directed, in diverse contexts, at students in Primary or Secondary schools. As the exact cut-off point between Primary and Secondary education varies around the world, let’s assume for this blog that we’re referring to teaching children of pre- and/or post-11 years old).

As both parents and educational authorities seek to increase younger learners’ English language skills, we can’t assume that an earlier start to learning English is automatically better. The advisability of an early start to learning English can be affected by a number of factors, ranging from the availability of suitably skilled teachers and appropriate resources to concerns about the possible implications for the teaching and learning of other languages, and from the development of suitable classroom practices and methodologies to the relationship between a child’s first language literacy skills and their English language development.

So, it’s perhaps time to step back and take a little time to reflect on the extent to which the expansion of Primary ELT is, in fact, straightforwardly ‘beneficial’. If we, the ELT profession, teach millions of Primary age children English around the world, does this automatically lead to advantages, both for individuals and societies more generally, or is it possible that Primary ELT brings with it significant problems and difficulties? Does, in fact, Primary ELT do more harm than good?

There are perhaps 3 key reasons for the growth of Primary ELT. Firstly, there is the widespread assumption that ‘the earlier a language is learned, the better’; in other words, younger children are (or are more likely to be) more successful language learners. Secondly, the expansion of Primary ELT is a response to the increasing demand for English, which results from globalization; governments and policy-makers around the world would like an English-speaking workforce, which they see as leading to economic success. And finally, parents would like their children to benefit from learning English.

Yet, although age clearly influences language learning in some way, the exact nature of this relationship is rather less clear than is popularly imagined – the actual evidence in favour of younger learners’ superiority in L2 learning is rather inconsistent, especially in non-immersion situations, where encounters with English might be limited to a few hours a week in the classroom. And we might also worry about a top-down ‘rush for English’ in which policy is not thoroughly thought through and issues such as teacher training and education, and classroom methodologies and materials for teaching Primary ELT, become problematic. Is a gap developing between policy and practice, and between our goal of how Primary ELT ‘should be’, and the realities of often under-resourced classroom life?

These issues will be discussed and debated in more detail in the ELT Journal debate, held at the IATEFL Conference in Harrogate (UK) on Thursday 3rd April (11.30-12.45 BST). There, Fiona Copland (Aston University, UK) will propose the motion: ‘This house believes that Primary ELT does more harm than good’; Janet Enever (Umea University, Sweden) will oppose the motion.

For more information about the conference and to access the debate online visit Harrogate online. You can also follow us on Twitter as we live-tweet highlights from the debate and other IATEFL speaker sessions.

Graham Hall is editor of ELT Journal and works at Northumbria University in the UK, where he teaches on Northumbria’s MA in Applied Linguistics for TESOL and MA TESOL programmes.


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#EFLproblems – Motivating Intermediate Students

College student smiling holding booksWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week, Verissimo Toste responds to Ageliki Asteri’s Facebook comment about motivating Intermediate students.

Ageliki wrote:

How can I motivate a teen advanced level student to do better as this level is demanding to achieve a certificate and the students is ok with his intermediate plateau?”

This is probably a situation familiar to many teachers and my first consideration is to question why the student is satisfied with their intermediate level. If a student is in a class at upper-intermediate to advanced level, it is because that student has goals he or she wants to achieve. Tapping into these goals, and into that motivation, will enable teachers to help these students.

Set goals

I would suggest that first we need to make such students aware of what they still need to achieve. This could be in the form of informal quizzes or simple self-awareness. From this awareness, students should be encouraged to set goals for both language and skills development. Depending on the age of the students, I would make the goals short term so that students can feel they are progressing. This should give them confidence to set new goals and work to achieve them.

Focus on using the language

Students may feel they know the language, even about the language, but can they use it to communicate real information about themselves and their world? While expanding their knowledge of language, including revision of what they have already learned, encourage them to use it. It is one thing to be able to understand the present perfect, even to manipulate the different forms, but it is quite another to be able to use it to talk about life experiences and achievements.

Whenever I ask my students to talk about what they feel they have achieved in their lives, even those who are able to communicate this, do so without using the present perfect tense. They are usually surprised when I tell them and make an added effort to use it next time. Writing tasks in which they share their work, or freer speaking activities – like discussions, simulations, or debates – challenge students to use the language they have learned. Encourage students to be both more fluent and more accurate when using the language.

Challenge them to be better

I set up a class library in a class of about 25 Intermediate students with the aim of providing them with more contact with English through extensive reading. I did not test their reading, but often discussed how they were enjoying their books. They seemed very satisfied. I could have left it at that but I knew the readers series I was using was accompanied by a series of quizzes to test reading level. I told my students about this and asked if they wanted to take the quiz to see what their reading level was. They all agreed. I gave them the quiz, but before returning their scores, I asked each to write in their notebooks what mark they would be satisfied with as a percentage.

19 students out of the 25 received marks below what they expected. They were all high marks and, in general, they were very good readers. However, the quizzes showed them they were not really understanding (and enjoying) as much as they could. Equally important, they were not taking advantage of their reading to learn more.

This simple activity was enough for those students to come out of their intermediate complacency and work to improve.

Encourage independent learning

Many times students simply rely on the opinion of the teacher for how well they are doing. Too many times this attitude also includes passing the responsibility to the teacher for the whole class. However, it is important to encourage students to become independent learners.

Develop in your students the capacity to monitor their own language. Did they say what they wanted to say? Or did they avoid certain topics because they didn’t have the language? Encourage them to notice the kinds of mistakes they may be making. Are they mistakes they could correct themselves, but have left it for the teacher to do so?

As I have mentioned before, challenge them to be accurate, as well as fluent. Help them notice the difference between the English they use and the English of more advanced learners. At times, give them work that is well above their level. If students are studying for an exam, give them a mock exam at the beginning of the year. Let them see what they will be working towards in their English classes.

Invitation to share your ideas

Do you have anything to add on the subject of motivating Intermediate students? We’d love to hear from you! You can respond directly to this blog by leaving a comment below.

Please keep your challenges coming. The best way to let us know is by leaving a comment below or on the EFLproblems blog post. We will respond to your challenges in a blog every two weeks.


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Teaching Students with attention, concentration and hyperactivity difficulties – how to stop those spinning tops

Dice with different moods on each face

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Marie Delaney is a teacher, trainer, educational psychotherapist, and author of ‘Teaching the Unteachable’ (Worth). She will be hosting a webinar entitled “Teaching Students with attention, concentration and hyperactivity difficulties” on 11th and 14th March. Here, she explores some of the themes of the upcoming webinar.

Imagine being in a crowded shopping centre, music blaring, people shouting, laughing, talking excitedly all around you, traffic whizzing by, flashing neon signs, … and sitting in the middle of this chaos, trying to learn a foreign language.

This is what it is like for some learners in our classrooms. Information and ideas bombard their brains and they find it impossible to focus on one thing.

Joachim, a learner says.

It’s as if every room in my brain has the lights on, I don’t know which room to go into first, in case I miss something important in another room.”

Teaching these learners can make us feel quite agitated and stressed.

Agata, a teacher says

Teaching Maja gives me a headache, she is like a spinning top, never stopping. I lose my own focus when talking to her.”

The behaviour of these learners usually falls into one or more of the following categories:

Inattention

  • They are easily distracted
  • They cannot pay attention to detail
  • They do not seem to listen or follow instructions
  • They forget things all the time

Hyperactivity

  • They fidget and squirm
  • They constantly leave their seat
  • They seem constantly ‘on the go’ as if driven by a motor

Impulsivity

  • They shout out
  • They cannot wait their turn
  • They often express emotions inappropriately

Some of these learners might have been diagnosed with ADHD. However, there are many possible reasons for this type of behaviour. If we can try to understand the underlying reasons and identify the needs of the learner, we can find teaching strategies to support them.

Possible reasons for the behaviour

  • They might be tired or hungry
  • They might be preoccupied about outside worries or feel unsafe in class
  • They might lack confidence and be anxious about their ability to do the work
  • They might not understand the classroom rules
  • They might have difficulties with executive functioning – the part of the brain which we use to think and solve problems. This also includes the internal voice, the voice we use to self-regulate
  • They might have difficulties with working memory – holding information in our minds long enough to act on it

Identification of needs and teaching strategies

This leads us to the following learner needs and possible teaching strategies:

The need to feel safe and secure

  • Have a few clear classroom rules and remind learners of them
  • Have a clear reward system; involve the learners in the design
  • Set clear time limits for work; give warnings when time is nearly over
  • Have a worry box for learners to post their concerns to the teacher
  • Sit the learner near the teacher, away from distractions such as windows, heaters
  • Allow the learner to go to a designated quiet area if the classroom gets too stressful
  • Use visual prompts and timetables

The need to build self-esteem

  • Notice and praise when the learner is on-task and behaving appropriately
  • Focus on the learner’s strengths
  • Send home good reports
  • Encourage study buddies

The need for help with self-regulation

  • Use individual laminated whiteboards for learners to show their answers rather than shouting out
  • Allow the learner to work with headphones on or to imagine wearing headphones to cut out distractions

Above all, do not give up with these learners, they will benefit from your perseverance!

For other ideas on meeting the needs of these learners, particularly with regard to executive functioning and working memory, join my forthcoming webinar on 11th and 14th March entitled “Teaching Students with attention, concentration and hyperactivity difficulties“.

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