Family resemblances

“I take after my dad in appearance and my mother in personality,” offered a student who had obviously gotten to grips with this phrasal verb.

“I take after my grandmother because we are both good at cooking,” came a second, accurate example from another member of the class..

“Rugby takes after football….” The other students turned to look at the speaker, and I asked him if he could explain what he meant by this.

“Rugby takes after football because they both need a ball,” was the answer. A concept check revealed the student was aware that the object in such a sentence ought to be ‘senior’ to the subject (hence his choice of sports), and he went on to confidently expound a brief history of our national sport for his classmates, beginning with a schoolboy named Ellis catching a football and running with it in a games lesson. The student who had given the first example of ‘take after’ attempted to explain to the other that the connection between the subject and object should be familial, to which the other replied that rugby and football ARE part of a ‘family’- they are both ‘games’.

balls

The language level of the class was such that a discussion of the ‘family resemblance’ theory of Wittgenstein was deemed a challenge too far, but the specific example that the student gave was the same that the philosopher utilized in order to demonstrate his own idea.

In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, an ambitious attempt to establish once-and-for-all the relationship between language and reality, Wittgenstein supposed that words are representations of concepts  which can usually be whittled down to irreducible concepts- revealed by the most fundamental of words.  Later, however, in the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein was highly critical of his own earlier suppositions.

In this later work, Wittgenstein trounced the idea of concept delineation between word groups and contended that apparent demarcations were illusory, though necessary for word usage. To demonstrate this, he looked firstly not at how the ‘family members’ organised by category nouns are distinct from those of other ‘families’, but how those members are assumed to be related at all.

The famous example Wittgenstein gives is of the concept of ‘games’. If we were to make a list of all the games we could think of, we would also presumably be able to list the ‘resemblances’ or features of relatedness that enabled us to produce the first list. What we would find though, if we had approached the endeavour with sufficient seriousness and compiled a suitably extensive catalogue of ‘games’, is that no one common feature would be applicable to every item. Rugby and football do indeed require a ball, as does tennis and many other games, but what of badminton and its shuttlecocks? Shall we say then that Rugby, football, tennis AND badminton are games because they necessarily involve two opposing sides? But then we recognise any number of solitary practices as games too, such as Sudoku. What we begin to see is a collection of words categorized according to a network of ‘resemblances’ and making up the ‘family’ for the language-users’ identification.

Luwig

The example is deliberately patent, but next time you are tackling an abstract grammar concept with your students and an unhelpful exception arises, you may wish to recall it and, depending on the class level, even incorporate it into your explanation.

Tristan Francis
Director of Studies

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We are all ‘reflective’ now

As the dust kicked up by class-fulls of inspiringly creative and insightful young people finally begins to settle following another highly successful junior summer school, it is once again time to reflect upon what has transpired (between FCE exam preparation and adult summer school- come to think of it the dust is still swirling in the aether).

What does this oft-touted and referenced process involve exactly? Is it a process at all? If you, like most good EFL teachers, consider yourself to be of a ‘reflective’ disposition, that ‘reflective’ would be a decidedly accurate adjective by which to describe your teacher-persona, then I would respectfully invite you to add a comment below to explain what this description means to you. In the event of a flood of comments from teachers eager to express their thoughts on the matter, I would be willing to bet a reasonable amount of money, if I were given to gambling, that while the general notion of what it means to be reflective, as an attribute, is shared and mutually intelligible, the degree to which the tendency is manifested in an overt, measurable way may reveal significant variation from one commentator to another.

As serious and committed teachers, we all like to think about what we do, what we produce and what effects it has, so in this sense being reflective is a fairly straightforward notion. We can be ‘self-reflective’, which sounds rather narcissistic but probably just assumed a greater level of scrutiny of whatever it is we’re looking at. So what of reflection as an aspect of methodology?

For any serious discussion about reflection as a educational utility we must surely return to the ideas of John Dewey, the American theorist who first expounded the idea beyond vague ideals of ‘thoughtfulness’ and ‘self-awareness’, way back in the first half of the 20th century. For Dewey, reflection on the part of the teacher formed an integral part of his proposed philosophy of experiential teaching, and required, if it was to be properly undertaken, the aspect of intentionality. In practical terms, this means that reflection upon one’s work is targeted towards specific aims which allow the teacher to measure the degree to which success can be attributed.

.Dewey

Task- and project-based learning featured heavily in the approach and lesson content of our recent junior summer school, and while the student response was generally excellent and cited as a major aspect in their enjoyment of the course, there are other reasons to evaluate our choice of approach this year. There are a number of specific questions we will try to answer and hopefully, in answering, we will be in a confident position to make any amendments necessary for future task/project-based sessions.

 

Tristan Francis
Director of Studies

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Principles

How many times did you hear reference to ‘teaching principles’ during the recent IATEFL conference? Appeals to one’s principles can preciptate effects akin to those prompted by urges to maintain ‘values’, assuming one has any. ‘Family values’, being more consistently shared than the ‘social’ variety, have been a prominent theme of more election campaigns to mention (though messrs Cameron and Miliband have given it a wide berth his time around) through efforts towards mass appeal, while values of more colourful variety are touted in order to sure up existing support and sentiment.

What interests me is where this amounting concern for teaching principles stems from. In one sense I think we can quite safely say we already know the answer, while in another it remains elusive.

The proliferation of CLIL, drives towards the technological classroom and the possibilities of online learning have converged to cause serious educationalists to feel compelled to remind teachers not to get ‘carried away’ and to remember principles that ought to remain at the heart of what we do. Various aphorisms are presented to this end which, though may not be known in the precise constituency and order of words in which they appear on the PowerPoint slide, every sane individual present must be willing to patronise.

Collect the various maxims together, however, and you may find that the principles underpinning much of the existent approaches in ELT, a relatively youthful field unknown to Behaviourism, those we would likely recognise and share, are extraordinarily conducive to these new modes of learning. Learner autonomy, student-centred learning, the insistence on regarding the teacher as a facilitator primarily and as an instructor only secondarily, if at all- are these not the principles we most value?

I wonder whether we ought to have more faith in ourselves. It is not inconceivable, I think, that the prevalent (and accelerating) trend towards modalities which satisfy our most inalienable principles may in future be viewed as symptoms of a peculiar, underlying orthodoxy, rather than representing an incremental, principle-endangering orthopraxy.

Dydd Gwyl Dewi Sant Hapus!

Alright, I regret to say I’m not a Welsh speaker. Despite the flags strewn along the shopping streets of Cardiff (or properly, ‘Caerdydd’- ‘fort of the Taff’) this part of the country is home to far fewer Welsh first-language speakers than its western and northern regions. I have to go quite far back into the annals of my south-east Wales family history to find Welsh speakers, while I have living relations in the north who are only the most recent of a long line of people for whom Welsh is the language of the home (and the pub).

Questions and discussions relating to the Welsh language frequently crop up in my English lessons, especially from those students who were unaware of the existence of the language until their arrival here. Wishing it to be viewed as more than a source for confusion, I often recount a very simplified (such as my knowledge allows) version of the history of Welsh, from it’s Brythonic beginnings through the middle-ages to the modern era. It provides, amongst other things, an opportunity for an exercise in which the students compete to jott down the narrative tenses I use as I ramble on. After the story has ended, I invite suggestions as well as recollections of the actual sentences the tenses formed part of so that we can put them up on the board for analysis. The students can then prepare a similar talk of their own as a mini-presentation, perhaps on an unrelated topic, employing the same narrative tenses.

Occasionally, a student might ask what this or that is in Welsh and even more occasionally I might actually be able to answer them. The topic can lead to interesting discussions about the language(s) of the students’ own countries, particularly when there are those in the group who speak ‘first’ a language which is either ‘second’ or ‘not spoken’ among the general populace. With a map, one can draw the students’ attention to ‘pre-English’ words that are seen in Welsh but in place names outside of Wales with questions such as “what’s the connection between Aberdeen and Abertawe, or Statford-Upon-Avon and Aberavon?” and draw out speculative language through their suggestions.

Well, there are only a few hours left of St. David’s Day (St. David was incidentally the only indigenous British patron-saint… another post!), so I wish you Dydd Gwyl Dewi Sant Hapus, Happy St. David’s Day, and hope the weeks and months ahead are filled for you and your students with happiness and learning.

Tristan Francis
Director of Studies

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Back channels

May I first wish everyone a very happy and prosperous new year for 2015! I trust that you have long-since recovered from the post-Christmas blues, New Year shock and post-seasonal consumption/spending-guilt and that you have set some new sights for this year.  If you haven’t yet, might I suggest some investigation into the ever-growing number of online tools available for the ELT  teacher  to utilize!

I think I have mentioned before the screencast sites (Jing, ScreenR), which can be used for capturing video, sound  web searches and other activities (such as marking a piece of homework complete with commentary). I have recently finished delivering a one-to-one teacher ‘refresher’ course and one of the sessions, which explored the benefits of  screen casting as I understood them, ended up snowballing into a brainstorming session during which a number of further applications which I had not considered before came to light.

Aside from all this, I would like to introduce you to a new acquaintance, a site called TodaysMeet.com. I don’t advocate using any of these things simply for the sake of it, but I have talked to a lot of other people about it and have yet to make up my mind. What I would really like is to gauge YOUR opinion on this tool and let me know how useful you think it potentially is.

TodaysMeet is provides what has been described as a ‘back channel’ to whatever is going on on the immediate level (i.e. the lesson). It is essentially a chat room, but a temporary one with both time limit which can be set by whoever activates the virtual room and a limit owords for each comment, necessitating brevity of posts. The idea is that a room can opened at the start of class and students can comment freely on what’s going on without raising their hands each time they want to add something. They might even be encouraged, by the brave teacher, to pass public judgement on how they are finding the class, for example, whether they have understood an explanation fully. Students can join a room under a nickname ensuring anonymity, something that has been touted as especially handy in the case of shy students who may be encouraged to contribute more freely. I’m not sure if providing such opportunities will be so beneficial to these students other long run, but perhaps commentary or discussion between consecutive lessons could be a way of maintaining continuity.

Another use that has occurred to me is for collaborative writing exercises. Students could write a few sentences at a time in a sort of rolling contribution at the end of which several short stories or other compositions could have been created. Other activities, like anonymous, whole group correction may be another possible use. I would be wary though of providing a so-called ‘back channel’ at the expense of developing the confidence of more hesitant students to participate in the ‘fore channel’, as it were.

Tristan Francis
Director of Studies

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IATEFL/ LAMSIG & LONDOSA Conference 2014

I was sure that my phone was sufficiently charged, to get me to my hotel at least where I could charge it up fully. I was counting on it, or rather, on Google Maps, to direct me to St. Giles International, venue for the Developing Managers in the Digital Age (28/29 Nov) conference, but I had got the ‘very early’ coach from Cardiff, and had left home at a silly hour so the phone had been on all night. That long walk around The Serpentine was probably ill-advised too. Anyhow, I was relatively near to my destination when it ran out of charge and I had the Dickens of a time trying to find St. Giles. When I did eventually arrive, the receptionist kindly printed, on good old paper, a map of the area and marked out, in good old Biro, the route to my hotel.

The question of perceived reliance upon technology and gadgetry, and the possible ramifications, constituted a significant undercurrent to the proceedings over the next evening and following day, if not of the actual presentations then of  wonderfully stimulating discussion groups that took place over the Saturday afternoon. For the most part, the talks were aimed at helping the assembled academic managers to think about how to best incorporate tech in our schools, what tools might be most beneficial and how an effective ICT framework can be developed and incorporated.

A host of speakers, including Nik Peachey, Rachael Fionda and Shaun Wilden among others delivered their talks to much interest and engagement, and a refreshingly collaborative atmosphere manifested from session to session. In conversation with other attendees during breaks, I was somewhat relieved to encounter both the same enthusiasm and caution with which I generally regard the apparent rush towards the technological classroom. While some of the attendees I spoke to were pretty far down the line, using class sets of tablets for students and employing a range of little-known apps on an everyday basis, others, to the question of “What is the most useful app for learning English?”‘ echoed with the answer “the teacher!”

Where most seemed in agreement was on the usefulness of online tools such as ‘mailVU’, introduced by Mr Peachey, in bringing notions of the ‘flipped classroom’ into actuality with the use of recordings, and how those teachers reluctant to take the plunge, or even dip a toe into the possibilities of the technological classroom will only be persuaded by demonstration of how such changes and additions can benefit their students’ learning.

I think most will have come away from the conference, as I have, with lots of ideas and be looking forward to putting them to the test in 2015!

If you or anyone you know attended the conference, please do leave a comment and let us know how it was for you.

Tristan Francis
Director of Studies

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‘Noticing’

My students are an observant lot. Certainly, they know when  I’ve had a particularly poor night of sleep despite my best efforts to conceal the fact with inordinate quantities of Nescafe Azera. We are in each other’s company a lot so I suppose noticing subtle nuances of look or behaviour is to be expected. But one particular individual, possessed of Sherlock Holmes-like powers of observation, managed to point out the other day that I wasn’t wearing my usual pair of shoes. Unremarkable, if the pairs had been of an obviously different colour or style, but these two pairs are SO similar, near identical in fact, but for some irregularity in the patterns of scuffing!

FCE Use of English part 3 (you know the one, changing the form of given words to fit gaps in sentences) has been a bit of a sticking point for my exam preparation group of late. In a recent lesson, a can of worms was inadvertently spilled when a question about the rules relating to the use of a particular prefix lead to my attempting, in as clear a way as possible, to map them out on the board. What we ended up with was very colourful (I used different colours for the various rules) but so convoluted and obscure that it seemed to single-handedly trounce the former enthusiasm for learning the very rules it was intended to elaborate.

Enter the inductive learning method. For those not acquainted, inductive learning places the prerogative for understanding new rules (e.g. of grammar) upon the learner themselves by the performance of tasks through which they are able to ‘notice’ the rule that underlies them. It contrasts with the more commonly seen situation, that of deductive learning, whereby rules are learnt (from a teacher) before the practice takes place. Apart form providing common grounds for discussion with a ‘puzzle’ for students to solve collaboratively, inductive learning, it is supposed, also aids retention, as the students recollect the process by which they arrived at their conclusion as to the nature of the rule as well as the result.

As with any other approach, the facilitation of inductive learning is not meant to be exclusive in the classroom but rather used in combination with other approaches. In the case of Use of English part 3, I can see real potential in   having students work together to try to ‘notice’ the rules of word mutations through very specifically arranged tasks presented, not as part of the exam, but as puzzles.  It’s something I’m intending now on trying out in the coming week, in a bid to harness the proclivity existent in the class for noticing the little things…

What experience do you have of inductive learning? Are there particular aspects of language learning (or particular tasks, as above) for which you can attest to the effectiveness of the inductive method? Write in and let us know!


Tristan Francis
Director of Studies

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Mistakes, I’ve had a few…

A few days ago I received a piece of written work, an essay I had set as homework in the previous week, from a student who attends upper-intermediate general English classes here at Peartree. The student was already known to me to be meticulous in their production of such compositions, but on this particular occasion I found that a peculiar strain of error, that of article usage, which had emerged through her recent submissions and which had informed the focus of a recent lesson on this very topic, was curiously missing from the particular piece.

Agent 2

My first impression was that the student’s difficulty had been overcome, but when I spoke to her about it to commend her for her near flawless work, she revealed that her 150 word essay had taken her half a Sunday to compose. My assumption that, because of it’s quality, her essay was testament to some epiphanic improvement and surmounting of a noted grammatical problem was made in error. The student had written the essay, as I have no doubt others do, with a very well-known and well-referenced grammar book splayed open at the relevant unit on ‘articles’.

My second mistaken notion was revealed when I then took a copy of the grammar book in question down from our own shelves and gave the student an impromptu quiz on the same unit she had used to reference her work. The result demonstrated that the student had not actually understood (or at least not retained the knowledge of) the grammatical rules which she had so faithfully followed, like a recipe that produces a delicious cake without a single air bubble only to be forgotten when those it’s served up to ask you how you made it.

On the topic of mistakes, I’ve also recently been conducting surveys in class about language difficulties that students perceive a) prior to studying with us (and in the UK) and b) after they have been studying here for a period. On Friday (5th) Peartree languages welcomed a group of non-student (but non-native English speaker) guests from variety of countries (including Italy, Russia, Ukraine, New Zealand, Brazil and Taiwan) to our school and the members of the group were good enough to share their opinions on the first question. The responses were strikingly similar both to each other and to those I have received from my own students- that simply communicating what they know and understand is a difficulty in itself as in their own countries and in the systems of education, both state and private, through which English is learnt, communication with native speakers is limited.

Agents 1

After having studied with us for a period of time students respond with much more varied answers, from particular tenses or other aspects of grammar to colloquial expressions (and just occasionally, Welsh accents!).

Tristan Francis
Director of Studies

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Time Capsule

What you will need;

1. a container (something cylindrical like a poster tube is perfect)
2. pieces of card
3. pens
4. a spade

… no, scrap that last one, this time capsule is going to stay above ground.

If you’ve ever done this activity with your students before you will know A) how adaptable it can be in terms of the language/ grammar you wish students to practice, and B) how much language can come out of the activity.

The idea is that students are put into pairs/ groups and told they are going to make a time capsule. There are numerous entertaining videos online that explain the process, not least some of hysterical Blue Peter presenters in 2000 prematurely digging up the capsules that their forerunners had prepared in 1971 and 1984.

You can give the pairs/groups categories for the items they wish to submit and a specific number to be included, or simply let them go wild and pick what they want. Once they have written the names of the items (this is where the cards come in- nobody will be prepared to part with their I-Pad for real) on the cards they put them inside the container and hand it in to the teacher.

At this point, the teacher can introduce the grammar/ language they want to see employed, be it past modals, probability or expressions for giving/ inviting opinion.

If past modals are the order of the day, then the teacher can redistribute the capsules to different groups and have students, role-playing as people of the future or Martian conquerors, speculate about what these strange antiques might have been used for. If it’s modals for probability you’re after, then those opening the capsules can speculate about what alternatives to the items from inside might exist in 10, 50, 100 years.

I would love to be able to caption a photograph with that immortal BP line “Here’s one I made earlier”, but I forgot to take one. Never mind. Try it yourself and let us know how it goes.

Tristan Francis
Director of Studies

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More than words

The last time I delved seriously into learning styles was during my PGCE course a few years back, but something popped up in a great course book exercise (see April post) recently that led me to donning my theoretical hat again and looking into the topic anew.

A little research revealed that Kinesthetic is the most prevalent style among adolescents and adults, with Auditory coming in second leaving Visual close behind. I have to admit to having been a little surprised by the closeness between the stats for each style and the fact that the gap between Visual and Auditory doesn’t present as larger, for adults especially. Surely adults learn through listening and doing much more than seeing or watching (as I myself do). Only marginally, it seems.

These rates in learning styles have given me cause for thought about how much visual input I include in lessons, or rather how far visual learning is accounted for in my planning. There are the glossy images from the course book pages, and the flash cards, or course, and then there’s the doodling on the board. What I have realized is that imagery is generally utilized either for the purpose of eliciting, or teaching specific vocabulary, or for stimulating speech.

I once drew a picture of a stag on the board after a discussion about marriage traditions (and the attendant pre-nuptial celebrations), and the instant recognition it enjoyed, (something that couldn’t be said for most of the drawings that find their way to my whiteboard) encouraged me to make use of the drawing in other circumstances, for example, a lesson segment on animal related idioms which led to animal body parts.

I have since read an interview with teacher trainer and author of Visual Grammar, Jim Scrivener, which has caused me to consider more possibilities for my stag, but more generally for visuals in the classroom. Scrivener explains that imagery can be more effective than text when trying to recall items of language, including grammar, that students may have previously studied. This would seem entirely sensible when we consider the way in which visual stimulation is harnessed to ‘draw out’ that which is already known or assumed in other contexts, like advertising. The classic timeline employed to give visual context to verb tenses would be a rudimentary example of Scrivener’s proposition, but the limits of imagery in a grammar – learning context is an area that seems ripe form exploration.

What do you make of all this? How much do you make of visual material in your teaching? How do you use it, and to what end?

Tristan Francis
Director of Studies

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