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#IATEFL – Focusing on the Creative Self in the mixed-ability classroom

close up of colors art supplies on white background with clipping path

Erika Osvath is co-author of ‘Mixed-Ability Teaching’ from Oxford University Press’ ‘Into the Classroom’ series. Today she joins us ahead of her talk on Saturday April 16th at this year’s IATEFL conference to preview ‘Focusing on the Creative Self in the mixed-ability classroom’

As many language teachers and researchers around the world attest, the self-esteem of language learners, being so fragile, is an important aspect to consider in the mixed-ability classroom.  Students with lower language level tend to be less confident, quieter and thus attempt to engage in much fewer opportunities to work with language. Meanwhile, stronger students may feel confident that they can perform well in most tasks the teacher sets and they are also likely to be more ready to take risks when using new language. The two scenarios described above are fairly typical in the mixed-ability classroom and it is easy see how they will inevitably lead to further increase of the gap in the language knowledge and abilities of these students.

So our job is to create opportunities where we support the self-esteem of all the students while at the same time reach the desired language teaching goals.  One way of achieving this in the classroom is by setting tasks that build on self-expression through flexible frameworks that can be easily used by students of mixed language levels. Through activities that involve art, music and poetry we can help students to drawn on their own content, to focus on their creative selves primarily, allowing language to emerge as a result. These forms of expression are highly personal and unique for every student, therefore they become a lot more engaged and actively involved in the learning process. Art, music and poetry become a channel for students to express themselves in meaningful ways, and the added benefit of these forms of creative self-expression is that they bring about an audience too, having a further positive effect on how students perceive themselves in the language learning process.

So let’s look at a few examples of such tasks:

Doodle exhibition

Play some soft instrumental music in class and ask students to doodle, to draw lines and shapes that the music evokes. The only rule is that they cannot pick up their pen from the paper, but let it move as the music leads it. Then post their doodles around the room and give each student a few post-it notes. Write the following stems – or anything appropriate for the level of the students – on the board to help them comment on the doodles displayed.

This is/looks … (adjective)
I like it because, …
It’s interesting because, …
It reminds me of …
I think you may have thought of …

Students should walk around the room, look at the doodles, write one positive comment on a post-it note, and stick it on the appropriate doodle. Once someone has already commented on a doodle, they should read it and put a smiley emoticon or a tick if they agree, but they cannot add a new comment until all the doodles have one, i.e. a post-it note.
Let students walk around the room, enjoy the doodle exhibition and read each other’s comments.  If you find it appropriate, as a follow up you could also ask them to share their thoughts and reactions to the doodles in speaking in small groups too, again, using the sentence stems from the board.

Poetry

There are various ways you can ask students to write poems about their own feelings and thoughts. In my experience, students respond very well to ones which contain repetitive structures. These, of course, are ideal language practice opportunities at the same time. For example, ‘I will …, but I will not … ‘ for future promises or ‘I didn’t …, but I …’ for describing their last holiday, etc. You may also want to use a short and simple model poem for them to read and be inspired by, but make sure these are not challenging linguistically. In each case, it is crucial that students are asked to brainstorm ideas based on their personal feelings and their own experiences before they see the model poem. Otherwise, the model poem may become an obstacle for students to write their own, especially to learners who might think they have to produce something similar. For an example lesson with a model poem, see here.


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#IATEFL – Language Learning Psychology: Getting into the ‘right mind’ for teaching and learning

EAP English for academic purposes

Leading up to IATEFL Birmingham from 13th – 16th of April, we asked our delegates to preview their scheduled talks for our blog readers. Today we’re joined by Sarah Mercer who will discuss ‘Exploring psychology in language learning and teaching’ at the conference on Wednesday April 13th.

How we approach language learning, whether as a learner or a teacher, is crucially defined by our psychology; the way we view ourselves and our abilities, our motivation for engaging with or persisting in tasks, our beliefs about how the language should be learned and taught, our emotional experiences of the undertaking, and our relationships with others. It is important that we understand how our thoughts, motives and feelings can affect how we learn and teach. As such, the field of psychology represents a rich and important source of information for teachers to enhance their practice and their sensitivity to their own and their learners’ needs.

In my own work to date, I have focused largely on the psychology of language learners. As teachers, it is important that we reflect on how we understand our learners as individuals. How an individual engages with learning a language is less dependent on the materials and subject knowledge of their teacher, but is rather more connected with their teacher’s interpersonal skills and ability to create motivating and enabling learning conditions in the classroom. As an example, a key facet of language learners’ psychology is their self-concept, which is what they believe and feel about themselves as language learners – do they feel confident in their skills? Do they feel comfortable using the language? Do they believe they are able to improve their skills? All of these beliefs and emotions impact on the learner’s motivation and behaviours. As teachers, we can work on creating the right kinds of conditions in our classrooms for our learners to develop healthy self-related beliefs which ensure they are in the best position to learn a language to the best of their ability.

However, one thing I have increasingly become aware of is that teacher and learner psychology are in fact two sides of the same coin. As social beings, we are all aware of the moods, emotions and beliefs of those around us, especially those we are close to or respect. For classroom life, this means the teacher has an enormous influence on the psychology of the students they work with. In turn, teachers are influenced by the moods of their learners and the atmosphere in the group. To start a positive cycle of interactions in the classroom, we need to ensure that as teachers we have high levels of professional well-being alongside positive personal and professional psychology. Only when we are in the right frame of mind for teaching can we ensure our learners are provided with the best conditions in which to develop their own positive attitudes, emotions, motivations, and engagement.

In the end, psychology for language learning is not just about the psychological well-being of our learners, although this will always remain a prime focus, but it is also about the psychology of teachers and how we can ensure that they thrive in their jobs, for their own sake as well as for that of their learners.


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Teacher training: a waste of time?

Group of teachers working togetherGraham 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.

It is fair to say that teacher training is one of the central pillars of ELT. Anyone who attends an ELT conference is likely to hear about teacher training in one way or another – maybe in a talk or presentation, or maybe through marketing information and advertising. If we browse through an ELT book catalogue, we will find texts which discuss teacher training. The International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) has a Special Interest Group focused on Teacher Training and Education. ELT Journal publishes articles about it. And, of course, the majority of teachers have experienced some teacher training at some point, maybe on a pre-service course before taking up a job, or maybe on an in-service programme in the course of their working lives. Alongside, for example, materials writing, testing and assessment, and, of course, teaching itself, teacher training is one of *the* core activities of the ELT profession.

At this point, we should distinguish between the kind of teacher training being talked about here, the more formal kind which tends to involve participating in a course and contrasts with teacher development, which can be characterised as informal, collegiate, probably independent of any formal qualification or programme of study (although it may be coordinated by workplaces or teacher associations) and so on. And obviously, training courses for teachers vary enormously. Pre-service programmes might range from degree-level programmes lasting a number of years to short taster courses lasting a few hours or days; in-service courses can vary from a day’s training on a specific aspect of pedagogic or professional practice to a month or even year-long course involving observations, reflective discussions, further study and written assignments.

Yet what teacher training seeks to do is to equip teachers with the skills and abilities they need to help them, or help them develop, in their work. If we are talking about beginner teachers, these skills and abilities could perhaps be labelled ‘professional competencies’, perhaps the ability to analyse and explain language, or key techniques and approaches for managing classrooms (we should note, however, that the label ‘professional competency’ arguably has a discourse of its own, conveying an impression of teaching as a body of knowledge and activities that can be learned – see below!). More experienced teachers might develop reflective skills as well as ‘higher level’ insights into classroom practice.

And yet… although many people assume that a training course is an important – even essential – preparation for and part of professional English language teaching, does training really help or is it just a waste of time and money? Don’t we learn much more through experience, and by reflecting on what we do in the classroom? How can a training course, which inevitably will be one-step-removed from our teaching, capture the diversity and complexity of classrooms which we might eventually or currently teach in? Is teaching ‘just’ a body of knowledge and competencies that can be passed on in a course? Aren’t teacher training course, by their very nature, going to be somewhat prescriptive, pointing us towards certain ways of teaching and of thinking about teaching, rather than truly encouraging us to think through for ourselves the full range of possibilities for our classrooms?

These are some of the key concerns which surround teacher training, and many readers and bloggers will have valid responses and retorts to these questions.

But the issues will be discussed and debated again and in more detail in the ELT Journal debate, held at the IATEFL Conference in Birmingham (UK) on Thursday 14th April, 2016. There, Peter Grundy will propose the motion ‘This house believes that teacher training is a waste of time’; Penny Ur will oppose the motion. For more information about the conference, go to http://www.iatefl.org/.


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Let’s celebrate 70 years of ELT Journal

Birmingham LogoThis year Oxford University Press is excited to join IATEFL in the effort to bring more teachers to the 50th annual IATEFL conference in Birmingham through the Scholarship scheme. Sponsoring a scholarship seemed to be the most natural way to celebrate our own anniversary – the 70 years of ELT Journal, a quarterly publication for all those involved in English Language Teaching (ELT), whether as a second, additional, or foreign language, or as an international Lingua Franca. The ELT Journal has long had strong links with IATEFL, and the ELT J Debate has become an eagerly anticipated fixture in the IATEFL conference programme.

We hope that through this scholarship practising teachers will get a chance to take advantage of the IATEFL conference as a professional development opportunity – both in terms of ideas and theory shared at the talks and workshops, but also as a great time to network with fellow teachers from around the world.

The IATEFL annual meeting gives a truly global overview of contexts, experiences and practices, and to many delegates that is most valuable aspect of the conference.

It is not necessary to be a member of IATEFL to apply, and the applications must be submitted to IATEFL by 23 July 2015.

The award consists of:

  • Registration for the Pre-Conference event of the winner’s choice
  • Registration for the IATEFL Annual Conference
  • A year’s IATEFL membership
  • GBP 1500 towards conference related costs, including travel, accommodation, and visa costs
  • An annual individual subscription to ELT Journal online
  • An Oxford Teachers’ Academy online course of the winner’s choice

To qualify you must:

  • Be a practising teacher in primary, secondary, tertiary or adult education, state or private
  • Be interested in continuous professional development
  • Agree to submit a blog post about your conference experience by June 2016, to be published on the OUP blog: oupeltglobalblog.com
  • Agree to be interviewed (on video) by OUP about your conference experience, to be published on the OUP ELT global YouTube channel

To be considered for this scholarship you must submit a statement between 400 and 500 words in which you:

  • Outline your teaching context, including a brief description of your teaching community and the part you play in it.
  • Outline the professional development opportunities available to you in your context.
  • Identify key professional challenges NOT addressed by the professional development opportunities available to you in your context.
  • Outline an action plan for how you intend to take the learning gained during the conference to your teaching community.