Category Archives: Learning

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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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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‘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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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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2B or not 2B?

Is an ESL course book as valuable a resource as it once was? Our publisher-friends would doubtless assure us that it is, but I have found increasingly from speaking to other colleagues that schools are adopting a more flexible approach to their use of teaching materials. In an age of unprecedented access to information at the swipe of a screen is it necessary, or preferable, to be ploughing through units of exercises and tasks according to a scheme devised entirely by someone else?

Whoa there, hold your horses… Let’s just remember for a moment all the things that the course book has going for it. For a start, there is a valid point to be made about convenience. Most course books present a similar, tried and tested sequence of learning objectives that most fallible, human English teachers would be hard-pressed to come up with by themselves. Not because we don’t have the capacity to, but because our time-contraints are already such that an endeavour of this sort would seem an unlikely proposal. Besides, if we all had the time to be writing material akin to course books we would be course book-writers, wouldn’t we (at least on the side)?

Course books then give use structure, coherence from lesson to lesson, and, if you’re in the habit of requiring your students to buy books too, they provide a secure awareness of these very things for the students themselves. But let’s not forget also the expertise and experience that has gone into the writing of the course book. Sure you can browse the net for effective ways of introducing negative adverbials with inversion to a group of upper-intermediates, but anyone, as we know, can put anything online, and with the lack of responsibility that anonymity affords.

I personally feel that the course books that stand upon our resource shelves are invaluable, and should not be sidelined in the rush towards flexibility and differentiation of lessons. Although we do not follow books as such at Peartree, we have our favourites, as I’m sure you do too, books that we know and trust. Those that we use, however, are employed in the service of our own curriculum, and adapted to meet the needs and learning objectives of our students.

So let’s here it for the humble course book… this is your chance to wax lyrical about your favourite and explain to our readers what puts it above the rest!

Tristan Francis

Director of Studies

Students divided… over Scotland (?)

I wonder how many Scots considered while counting down to the New Year that it could be the last time they’d do so as members of the United Kingdom. Now, with Hogmanay long-gone and gotten over the reality of the impending decision that our fellow-islanders are due to take this September must be looming large. David Cameron was evidently feeling it this week when he was compelled to urge the rest of us to lean on our Scottish friends and dissuade them from doing ‘the unthinkable’.

My own thoughts on the issue of Scottish Independence are not particularly interesting so I will spare you having to read them. My students, on the other hand, are up in arms.

A week ago I set the students an essay along the lines of ‘Scotland deserves to make the choice… Discuss’, as the topic related loosely with something we had been doing in class. I had not spoken to the students at any great length about it and was expecting some discursive essays with model, balanced-view structures of the sort we have covered in class many times before. What I received, however, was so exhilarating to read that I reintroduced the topic in the following lesson and had the authors explain their differing viewpoints.

With his kind of thing, one always has to be a bit careful about ‘stoking the fire’, as it were, among representatives of different factions embroiled in a similar debate in their own country (Spain being the obvious one). The debate that followed in our class, heated though it was, took place among students of various nationalities who I felt I knew well enough to entertain such a consideration. Indeed, the arguments, though passionately articulated, were not as black and white as one might imagine, and demonstrated a keen sense and understanding of the issue at hand. The anonymous correction that we did together at the end was a nice way to bring everyone back together and regain some distance from a subject which, as a few students commented jokingly later, doesn’t really effect them much anyway.

Have you broached this topic with your students yet? What was the response? Has a debate ever got out of hand and if so, how did you deal with it? All experiences and opinions are welcome ad ever!

Tristan Francis
Director of Studies

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Resolutions

The age-old tradition of making New Year’s resolutions seems to be somewhat out of favour in our strenuously modern age, but for the predictable fortitude of health and fitness evangelicals who, following weeks of guilt-inducing gluttony, contribute briefly to the annual, January surge in gym membership. By mid-February one’s festive over-indulgence is but a distant memory and the determination to eat more broccoli and goji berries tends to have waned.

In any case, I’m sure the question of “Have you made any…?” has been put to a good many students already in the hope of eliciting some language to build upon or simply to get a discussion going. You may have been fortuitous enough to receive such heart-lifting responses as “To dedicate more time to serious study of grammar” or “To read a novel in English”, or you might have been met with quizzical expressions all round. If these considerations haven’t made their way into your lesson plans as yet, you can negotiate the latter occurrence by facilitating the invention of resolutions as part of the lesson.

Encourage students, in pairs or groups, to talk together about any aspects of their lives they would like to change if they could, then have each invite suggestions from their classmates as to what they might do to make the desired alterations. Give students time to think about it- perhaps in a break or over lunchtime- so that they can be confident in their answer and offer some detail as to how they are going to achieve whatever it is they want to achieve. They are of course not required to express a genuine intention but rather to formulate an accurate answer to the question, utilizing the correct future tense, vocabulary and so on.

For my part, I resolve to limit my TTT (Teacher Talk Time) still further by implementing a more committed task-based approach in lessons- not so much a New Year’s resolution in fact, more an ongoing battle with intermittent, alternating periods of relative peace and skirmish.

And so, as 2013 draws to an unseasonably mild close, it remains for me and all at Peartree Languages to wish you a very merry Christmas and a prosperous new year.

Tristan Francis
Director of Studies

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No phones in class (?)

Who attended the recent English UK Teachers’ Conference? What did you think of it? I thought the event offered a very interesting selection of elective sessions, but wasn’t the only one attending to note the general lean towards topics related to technology. But for a very practical and educative workshop with Jonathan Betts based around the question of how to get more, and the most, out of coursebooks, the sessions that I joined were predominantly tech-focussed.

Following his very involving opening plenary, Russel Stannard went on to divulge how various online ‘tools’ can be utilised in the delivery of task-based learning to the end of encouraging students to speak more in and out of class. Russel’s thread was picked up on later by Paul Gallantry, who was standing in for Jane Willis following the sad passing of her husband, ELT luminary and task-based learning pioneer Dave Willis. Through group work with my fellow attendees, I found that the vast majority of those I spoke with were ELT professonals interested in the potential of broadening their media horizons by incorporating more use of technology in their lessons and schools, much like myself.

More than one academic director that I met either in the sessions or over the veritable banquet generously laid on for lunch spoke of being ‘sent’ to the tech-talks, either because it was the direction that their own school, or the competition schools in their area, were headed in or because it was a trajectory that their manager wanted them to pursue. For whatever reason, while the motivation for some was about assessing the advantages and potential drawbacks of hand-held devices in class and online resourcing, for others such matters had clearly been settled.

The high drama of Hugh Dellar’s thought-provoking closing plenary, which set the current drive towards the ‘techological classroom’ against the need to maintain teaching principles (including some alarming examples of the former treading upon the latter) in our profession, was an appropriate end to the day and must have prompted more than one attendee to question their own attitude to the issue.

This year I have been steadily introducing smart phone use (for internet access, not calls) in my lessons. Most if not all have one about them, and it seems like a waste of a resource when an image or video can be so easily brought up and shared with classmates. Students locating and showing material themselves is also obviously more proactive and participatory than having something simply shown to them by the teacher. I am aware, however, of the danger of relaxing the former ‘no phones in class’ rule in favour of MSP (mobiles for specific purposes), but so far the slope has thankfully proved to be decidedly unslippery.

Have you, or do you encourage your students to use their phones in class? Would you prefer them to access an online or a paper dictionary, and for what reasons? I would love to hear some ideas on this topic, so do get in touch and leave your comments.

 
Tristan Francis
Director of Studies

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A Matter of Time

Changing the clock back to good old GMT is one of those Autumnal pleasures, like kicking up yellowing leaves on the pavement, cosy evenings in when the wind is picking up outside and awaiting the first frost of the season (no laughing…). The reasons for my preference of this season over daffodil-strewn Spring and the sticky heatwaves of Summer (I didn’t dream it, did I?) are multifarious and rather too long-winded for a public listing of them, but changing the clocks back just gives that sense of being ‘back on track’ after the temporary excursion into BST.

I wonder whether your students, if you and they are in a country that adheres to the practice, remembered to put their clocks back and arrive at their lessons on time. The subject of ‘Daylight Saving Time’ or changing the clocks for summer evolved into a very involving discussion with my students earlier this week, when each speculated over the origin of the measure before researching the answer online. We then set about brainstorming ways in which time alterations could accommodate people for reasons other than saving on incandescent lighting, the original motivation behind the switch to summertime. The great tradition of the Spanish siesta inevitable reared its sleepy head, as did the topic of work and study time.

As I mulled over the lessons of the morning I began thinking about the way that the time of a lesson, as well as its position amongst other lessons of the day, is/ should be reflected in the teacher’s planning. An aspect that I personally find very interesting to consider is that of the pre- and postprandial nature of a lesson approach, taking into account the ‘dip’ that typically occurs following lunch (perhaps especially for those hailing from parts of the world where a sandwich simply will not do). When I am due to deliver both morning and afternoon lessons in the same day, and with the same students, my lesson plans generally attest to a firmer focus on grammar, study skills and the nitty-gritty aspects of a topic that post-lunchtime sees more language activation and practical application.

The funny thing is that, although I can now safely theorise about the advantages of this strategy, it didn’t actually begin as a strategy, nor was it conceived of in any conscious way at all. It has, rather, emerged, without a definitive ‘green light’. My validation now begins with the notion that most students, even those who might have missed breakfast, are likely to be more ‘switched on’ in the hours (immediately) preceding lunchtime than in those that follow it, while more communicative tasks enable us to take advantage of the energy stores recently bolstered by the midday meal.

The question that I am interested in is how others, either deliberately or otherwise, feel that their lessons are influenced by the time of day that they take place. Has a lesson you have given turned out differently from a plan due to this factor or some aspect relating to it?