2014 take-aways – and a few resolutions

Posted: January 3, 2015 in ELT methodology
Tags: , , ,

This is a ‘year in review’ post and I mainly want to write not so much about my own year as about the teaching ideas that I learnt in 2014 that struck a deep cord with me and really helped me in my work. There have been a lot of insightful, illuminating posts and lesson plans in the blogs I follow, not to mention Teaching English British Council facebook page which have been an incredible source of inspiration, but there also were a few ideas that I’ve been returning to almost on a daily basis, and I want to stop and gather them in one place. So basically this post is a long-winded rehash of ideas you might have already read/heard either elsewhere or on this blog – and it’s also the opportunity for me to ask you:

What were the most important ideas you learnt in 2014? How did they change your teaching?

Actually I almost discarded the idea of this post as it seemed inappropriate to retell other people’s ideas, but I just can’t get this ‘list’ out of my head (and also I find myself retelling those ideas anyway to anyone who’ll listen), so I’ll probably have to get it written after all. So, here goes.

1. Lesson planning from the heart. I remember very well how in my first year of teaching I was teaching a lot of grammar points in a PPP fashion and was really struggling to come up with engaging communicative tasks that would allow the students to use the grammar point that had been introduced earlier during the lesson: time and again, the group ended up using anything but the target language. Back during my Delta Mod 2 course, our course tutor Anne Timson, in one striking sentence, summarized the entire solution to this problem: you don’t plan to teach the language and then throw in a task that will fit your lesson; instead, you pick the task and then teach the language that will support the students in carrying out the task. With this approach, the language that you feed is a lot more likely to be inherently needed to the task; what’s more, you are likely to go far beyond simply teaching a grammar point (e.g. for asking for and giving suggestions one needs not only a range of expressions for giving suggestions (e.g. modals – you should/you might want to and functional exponents, e.g. why don’t you / try +ing), but also spoken discourse (expressions for broaching the subject; for sympathizing; the ways to react to a suggestion – either positively or negatively, explaining why it wouldn’t work; possibly some collocations, e.g. ‘I’ve run into a bit of a problem with..‘, and so on and so forth).

Back in August as I was preparing to teach my first ever teacher training course, I stumbled upon an article called Lesson planning right from the heart by Duncan Foord (English Teaching Professional, 93, July 2014 – the article is available here if you’re a subscriber), and the idea suggested there struck a deep cord with me; we discussed the article with the trainees on the very first day of the course, and I think it sent a very important message and made a lot of difference to the outcome of the whole course.

In his article, Foord suggests planning the lesson in a way that reflects the approach outlined above, by stepping away from a ‘linear’ lesson plan (in which the task comes at the end and might easily get sacrificed for time reasons) and instead thinking of the plan as a heart (the task, which is the lesson aim) – supported by activities, all of which are valuable, and yet ‘droppable’:

DFoord_Lesson_planning_from_the_heart

I think this is a very powerful idea, one I wish I’d been aware of from day one of teaching, and it’s probably my favorite idea of 2014.

2. In her workshop on writing effective classroom materials, Rachael Roberts suggested a way to phrase tasks to encourage the students to talk more and to really engage with the task. Ever since watching that talk, I’ve been formulating tasks differently in almost every single lesson. (A handout f the workshop, as well as a full recording, is available here; do check it out if you’ve missed it.)

Here are some of the notes I made during the webinar:

Making tasks more concrete: list/rank/sequence/categorize/similarities and differences; give reasons and justify
Examples of how tasks can be reformulated:
What countries would you like to emigrate to? Why? -> Make a list of three countries you would like to emigrate to. Think about why. Then compare with your partner and agree on three countries together if possible.
What would you miss about your home country? -> Work in small groups. Make a list of 5 things you would miss about your home country. Put them in order.
Do you think most people emigrate because hey want to or because they have to? -> Work in pairs. Make a list of 6 reasons why people emigrate. Looking at your list, do you think most people emigrate because hey want to or because they have to.

3.  Horizontal alternative to vertical list, a blog post by Leo Selivan, in which he suggests adapting lists of semantically related words presented in coursebook (e.g. colours, transport or anything else) so that each item is presented in an associated (preferably, high frequency) chunk. I remember reading this post one morning in March and immediately scrapping the material I’d created for a class I was going to teach that day (a list of useful vocabulary from a chapter we were about to read with a group of teens) and rewriting it ‘horizontally’. I haven’t managed to take this idea on board as fully and consistently as the previous two, so ‘consistently (pre-)teaching and recording vocabulary in expressions, as opposed to individual items’ seems like a good New Year resolution.

4. Positive feedback.

samuel-67198_640

Feedback was one of the main recurrent topics of the talks I went to at Summer BESIG Symposium in Graz. It was a bit surprising for me to hear it mentioned so frequently, and one thought that was particularly surprising was Marjorie Rosenberg’s remark that negative feedback to a presentation was often worse than no feedback at all (because e.g. if you tell a person they were fiddling with their hands during a presentation, next time they won’t know what to do about this and might end up with even more inappropriate body language). Her point was that what was really valuable was positive feedback that reinforced successful behaviour/language.

Later on, as I was preparing to do my first ever ‘proper’ teacher observations, I dug up teaching practice feedback that our tutors gave us during CELTA and here it was again – a wealth of positive reinforcement, dozens of ticks and smiley faces for every single successful classroom decision I’d made.

CELTA feedback by Simon Brown (British Study Centres Oxford)

A snippet from CELTA feedback by Simon Brown (British Study Centres Oxford, 2010)

I adopted the same approach to giving teacher practice feedback during the teacher training course I taught (I actually had a smiley face and a tick copied to the buffer, inserting them into the feedback form every few minutes.)

I believe this worked really well, making input tangibly more digestible, so the list of take-aways the trainees wrote after the 5-day course was really impressive.

One of the teachers who participated in the course has recently also started collecting post-it notes from the students with things they liked/disliked about the lesson after every lesson, and she’s been finding this feedback loop very motivating and helpful.

Having tried giving lots of positive feedback to teachers, I’ve also changed the way I provide feedback to my students’ writing: now I type a sentence-by-sentence commentary (with ticks and smiley faces of course), painstakingly praising all good lexical / grammatical / discoursal choices (but also prompting the students to improve what was wrong), and again I think it’s been working very well.

On the flip side, I haven’t been giving any more positive feedback to speaking, so another New Year resolution for me will be thinking more about feedback and perhaps finding more ways to give positive reinforcement in class.

____________________

As for the other tweaks I adopted this year, I think the most important one was asking the students to organize target language in a ‘brain-friendly’ way and then reproduce it from memory in writing, and then reproduce the model before actually trying the language out in their own production (I wrote a blog post outlining the lesson shape outlining this approach back in spring). This has worked quite well with functional language (with coursebook listening passages working as a model), but my favourite use of this technique has been teaching linkers to lower level students (as in the sample lesson plan here). I also can’t wait to get the chance to teach an exam student or group again, as I think this approach will work with teaching Speaking for exams quite well too (structuring extended monologues and using functional language to maintain a discussion).

So, these were some of the ideas that made a difference to my year – I now want to go back to the question I asked at the beginning of the post: what were the ideas that were important to you?

Happy teaching in 2015, everyone.

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