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

Learn English in Wales Conference 2014

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Yikes- I knew I should have had a shave…

On March 1st, teachers, directors, managers and all manner of other EFL-related professionals from across the country descended upon Cardiff and Vale College (formerly Coleg Glan Hafren) in Cardiff to participate in the second Learn English in Wales conference. A day to remember indeed, from the broad spectrum of innovative elective sessions to the intriguing plenary talks of the two key-note speakers- Sam McCarter and Jeremy Harmer.

The first session that I attended was delivered by David Greenslade of Cardiff Metropolitan University, on the use of the topic of ‘money’ to facilitate learning in class. The session was well attended and saw David explain the vast array of uses that money could have to this end. It was a topic that all were to some degree familiar with, but this was in fact the point as David was able to present examples from his own experience (and literature) of how this familiarity can be turned to the teacher’s, or rather the students’, advantage.

The next session I saw from a very different perspective to the first, as I was presenting it. The title, in hindsight a little obscure though I think those who came got the general idea, was ‘The Power of Reflection’, and drew upon a personal project that I have been undertaking for just over a year looking at how teachers can use self-evaluation as a means to professional development. The talk was well-attended, something I was glad of once the initial nerves had settled, particularly by academic directors in a similar position to my own. I met a good number of them later during the delicious lunchtime refreshments and was delighted to be able to discuss some of the points from the talk at length and explain other s in finer detail.

After coffee and a viewing of the posters on display it was on to the third and final elective session. I chose a presentation by Georgeta Bradatan of WE-Bridge International as the subject matter, utilizing images in lessons, is something that I already do a lot with my own students, not least those taking the FCE exam, and I hoped to pick up some ideas from Georgeta and other attendees. The session built upon the idea of the photograph as a source of idea and language stimulation and explored how a seemingly innocuous image can be worked into lessons for students at various levels of ability.

The lunch break was a fantastic opportunity to meet and talk with others, including the publishers’ representatives who had set up stalls in the main corridor. The food, as mentioned, was first-rate and testament to the hard-work of the team of caterers, who also diligently kept everyone’s teas and coffees topped up throughout the day.

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Sam McCarter, with his characteristic soft-toned eloquence, addressed the whole conference next with his talk on developing IELTS reading skills. I had attended a similar presentation by Sam a few years ago, and again I was struck by his obvious wealth of knowledge and the logic of the teaching strategies that he divulged. I, like many around me, was scribbling every other word down and his generous pace allowed this to happen without much being missed.

The final session was delivered by Jeremy Harmer, whom I had also witnessed before ‘in action’ but not to such a large audience. Beginning with the striking and evocative question of ‘Why do we need teachers at all?’, Jeremy proceeded to take the hall on a roller-coaster ride of inquiry that meandered seamlessly from Sugata Mitra and an experiment with a computer set into a street wall in India to see if uninitiated children would be able to learn how to use it independently to the unlikely philosophical profundity of US songstress Sheryl Crow.

Later, following a question and answer session with the two eminent speakers of the afternoon, Jeremy returned to the stage with virtuoso violinist Steve Bingham to entertain the attendees with some stirring poetry and music. It was a wonderful way to round off a wonderful day, characterized, as many others have commented, by a general cheeriness and good will that seemed to permeate, perhaps inspired by the knowledge among participants that it was St. Davids Day and the beautiful welsh daffodils that elegantly adorned the main hall to mark the occasion.

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Tristan Francis
Director of Studies

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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?

Radio Gaga

I’m always telling my students to listen to the radio, so much so that it’s become something of a joke between us and they know what’s coming each time we get into a group discussion about improving listening skills outside the classroom. A while ago and on the spur of a moment, as the laughter was just petering out following one such occasion, I flicked the CD player to ‘radio’ for the first time and tuned in to a discussion programme on BBC Radio 4.

In fact, it was only the tail-end of a programme, but long enough for the students to pick up the gist of things so that a meaningful follow-on discussion could ensue. ‘Gist’ listening, set against that of ‘detail’, which most course-book exercises are concerned with, is a skill somewhat looked over in my experience. Understandably, when one considers the gambit of ‘detail’ questions and tasks that appear in the internationally recognised English exams we all know and love.

But if listening for detail or ‘specific information’ is a survival skill that enables the learner to ‘get things done’ in the real world, then gist listening is an integrating, socialising one, imperative to participating in even the most mundane of conversations in the street, cafe or bar.

‘Listening for gist’, however, is rather a shoddy and unbecoming name for the actual skill in that it assumes no detail is in fact listened for, and suggests a vagueness that is altogether unattractive to the learner (exam candidate) bent upon honing their powers of listening. Further thought might suggest the opposite is true. To capture the gist of a recording, the learner is required to take the initiative in filtering what is heard in order to retain those elements most beneficial to the reinforcement of their understanding. This is done without the help of gapped-sentences or summary completions to indicate precisely what is important in the recording and what the learner ought to be waiting for.

With regard to setting up an interesting discussion with a class, the teacher may be well-advised to reach for the frequency dial before the course-book CD on occasion. With the freedom of each student to listen to a programme excerpt without stricture, different ears will pick up on varying points of interest and give students the opportunity to explain to their classmates exactly what they themselves heard and understood that the others might have missed or taken differently.

The teacher could even select a particular programme online so that it’s featured debate or monologue could be factored into the lesson, or the lesson otherwise built around it. Alternatively, a three-minute listen randomly selected from the static, followed by twelve minutes of discussion, error correction and vocabulary building, can make for an enthusing and productive final fifteen minutes of a lesson.

Tristan Francis
Director of Studies

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A question of temperature

The optimistic T-shirt-wearers of early summer turned out to be right after all. The weather over the past months has been glorious, and I hope it has contributed to those of our students accustomed to such temperatures to feeling that little bit more at home in Cardiff. It is interesting, however, to hear the experiences and opinions of those from even hotter climes on the topic of our recent, prolonged heat-wave.

Living with extreme temperatures and/ or climates necessitates adaptations to lifestyle and everyday routine that we in the UK might find it difficult to envisage. In countries where heat of 50 degrees plus is unexceptional in summer, air-conditioning wapped up in every room of every building and electing to travel short distances by car instead of walking are essential measures for maintaining health as well as comfort. Enduring 30 degrees in a country where air-conditioning is an extravagance found almost exclusively inside vehicles and where all inside spaces are designed to retain heat is therefore no mean feat for someone who is used to dealing with temperature very differently.

There may be more to the significance of temperature for education than typically assumed. Hot, stuffy classrooms are of course uncomfortable, as are those that are cold, but outside the classroom, differences in ‘ideal’ temperatures are likely to depend upon the activity that one is undertaking. For example, most Brits enjoy a day on the beach all the more under sweltering heat, of the sort that would make many other activities, such as working in an office, unbearable.

One of my comprehensive school teachers used to insist that cold, at least at a level just below that which is considered comfortable, was conducive to learning, and would set the radiators in our classroom accordingly. I’m sure that sort of thing wouldn’t be allowed today, but even if it had been true, the learners would almost invariably have grown up with the same British climate so that an ideal ‘bracket’ of temperature could, theoretically, have been asserted.

As a flip-side to the example described at the start of this post, we once accommodated two Siberian students with private tuition at our school during a bout of unusually cold weather. Incredibly, or so it seemed on first encounter, both claimed that conditions in the UK were far colder than they were used to back home, where all rooms in all buildings are heated to a minimum of 25 degrees. We duly heated their classroom to meet their level of comfort and unexpectedly found ourselves teaching in short-sleeves in mid- winter.

Tristan Francis

Director of Studies

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Been and gone

We’ve only reached the mid-way point of Summer School and already amounted enough material to reflect upon to keep us warm through the onset of Autumn (sorry, is it too early to mention this word?). Something which has emerged prominently in the lessons I’ve been teaching over the past weeks is the distinction between the past participles of the verbs ‘to be’ and ‘go’, so much so that I recently devoted a significant proportion of a lesson I had planned quite differently to addressing the issue.

The problem arises specifically from the fact of ‘go’ having two past participles, namely ‘gone’ and ‘been’, the latter being ‘shared’ with ‘be’. Has this ever come up in one of your classes? There consistently seem to be sections of the students in my lessons which are unaware that ‘go’ can have these two different forms, despite them having studied present perfect tense. I have yet to identify whether it is a difficulty relating to translation, but a significant step forward appeared to have been made by many for whom the distinction had previously been unknown.

To consolidate the difference between the two forms of the same verb, I presented a scenario I thought all could relate to, of answering a telephone call on behalf of someone who was not present at that time (“Sorry, he’s not here, he’s gone to the supermarket”), to illustrate the idea of someone having ‘gone and returned’ (been) somewhere as opposed to having simply ‘gone’ (erm… gone). There was some discussion which followed along the lines of ‘why have we never learnt this before? (in students’ home countries), before everyone undertook a First Certificate Use of English part 4-type task in which one is required to formulate a sentence with identical meaning to a given sentence, but re-worded.

One particular question saw the re-emergence of the ‘been/gone’ dichotomy, as students had to re-express a sentence using present perfect tense and, crucially, to choose which past participle to apply. It was either to be ‘I have been in Italy recently’ or ‘I have gone in Italy recently’, both of which were debated over among supporters of each version, until one student settled the matter by suggesting the importance of the preposition collocation (be + in). I was then able to follow by eliciting the common collocation of ‘in/to’ when describing travel experiences, which can be used to denote whether or not ‘been’ is in fact ‘be’ (be + in) or ‘go’ (go + to). As it turned out, the oft-overlooked significance of such collocations was highlighted through study of an altogether different topic.

Tristan Francis

Director of Studies

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Roll on Summer School!

It’s that time of year again- whispered rumours of sunshine in the forecast, optimistic T-shirt wearers in the high street… and for a language school such as Peartree, the excited anticipation of another summer school!

It’s difficult to believe that a year has passed since Summer School 2012 and all the great memories that it brought, but here we are again, readying ourselves for all that July and August might bring. So what exactly is it that goes into making this special time of year special? Is there a secret ingredient that must be added to the recipe of lessons, activities and excursions?

From the teacher’s perspective, I suppose that adaptability is the crucial factor. Things can change at a speed that may otherwise be considered alarming at times and the teacher’s skill at dealing successfully with class changes and sudden influxes of new students into their lessons is all the more vital during this busy period.

The teacher may also be well-advised to be extra-vigilant over maintaining the quality and standard of their teaching at this time, as, for various reasons, the atmosphere of the summer school is often quite different from that of other times of year and a certain ‘holiday’ ambience permeates much of the proceedings. With careful planning and genuine getting-to-know of one’s students however, the teacher can turn this into an advantage and go on to deliver the kind of lessons that will still be talked over at the next staff Christmas party.

The teacher, and all members of staff, will likely be doing things that are entirely familiar most of the time, but at a pace that may not be. It is an approach which may be more akin to a transition to a higher state of functioning than anything else. In this case, it might be suggested that the features of a successful summer school are simply those that have been honed and perfected over the past ten months.

Whatever you are hoping to achieve at your school this summer, the best of luck to you, and I look forward to hearing all your news at half-time (end of July)!

Tristan Francis

Director of Studies