Posts Tagged ‘feedback’


Every teacher has their own favourite activities and methods, and the thing that I’m very passionate about is language feedback (or ’emerging language’, as it is sometimes called): capturing what the students say, upgrading it, and revising it extensively (I guess up to 20-30% of most of my classes are spent working with the language earlier ‘captured’ during the students’ production). I’m a big fan of the posts about error correction by Jonny Ingham (e.g. this one and this one) in which he shares his highly visual way in which he approaches feedback. But I personally do it slightly differently, using a few software tools.

A couple of months ago I learnt from this post of Tekhnologic how to consistently approach revising a database of questions in a fun way that involves no extra effort in terms of lesson preparation, using an Excel template that produces revision games. I wrote a post about the template, but what I’ve since found talking to colleagues was that most of them prefer to hear about the template and the games from me, and see an example of how to use it, and not read an email or a post. So yesterday, after I actually chatted about it three times with three different people, I got the idea to record a video showing how to work with the template and how I personally approach feedback. I’m not sure it wasn’t a disastrous idea, but it has been made, so here it comes!

Part 1 (~15 mins) basically just summarizes the previous post (how to produce cards for games using the Excel template, how to import flashcard sets from quizlet, and the rules of the games themselves).

Part 2 (~15 mins) is about my way of dealing with feedback consistently (I show what my feedback database looks like, how I share it with the students using cloud storage, and how I approach revision). My routine is pretty basic. I think some people will recognize what they are doing, and probably others will think it won’t work because it’s boring. Regarding this second point, it seems that at least my learners (adult Business English students) find it not boring but predictable (which is good) and, going by the surveys that I conducted, most of them see this work as the most valuable element of the course.

If you watch the video, let me know what you’d do differently and why, and how you personally approach this issue in class.


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’:


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.


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.


BESIG Summer Symposium in Graz finished yesterday. This was my first ever BESIG event – and my first ever conference where I was torn between talks to attend almost every parallel session. All in all, these were two very interesting days.

Below are summaries of the two talks that became the highlights of the conference for me. Both of them gave indispensable insight into designing a customized course. 

Simona Petrescu. TIP – a proposal for customised business English syllabus design (a workshop)

Simona started with the concerns she had designing a customised syllabus:

  • How to ensure that there is a connection between what I do today and tomorrow? (Some approaches used at the moment: from easier to more difficult language structures; around skills; around tasks – tasks focussed on in no particular order.)
  • How to ensure that no areas identified during the needs analysis are overseen/accidentally left out ouf the resulting course?

She’s looking for a framework for course design that can be reused again and again.

A task for the audience:

You’re going to move to a country where you don’t know the language. You have a native speaker friend who is not a professional language teacher who’s agreed to teach you. Create a syllabus: 1) what you’d loke to be taught 2) how should these topics be sequenced?

My partner and I came up with

  • language used in particular situations, e.g. ‘buying food’, etc
  • language to compensate for gaps in knowledge
  • expressions to organize speech: conjunctions, stance markers, etc

We didn’t come up with any ideas how to sequence them logically.

Other ideas coming from the audience: 

  • Starting from ‘life skills’ and breaking them down?
  • Not much on order – maybe use some input from psychology on what makes a situation ‘simple’ or ‘complex’Ы

Simona Petrescu’s approach:

  • What to teach? – the building blocks of the course: tasks (what will I need to be able to do in Arabic?) A ‘situation’ is static, a task involves whether you’re achieving your goal; tasks directly emerge from needs analysis
  • Sequence?
    Take your customer’s business process and replicate the flow (an approach adapted from the way IT business analysis approach designing the system by understanding the management and the flow): the task that follows the current task is going to be the next natural step in the business process; everything in our life is based on a flow – just reuse it and there are very good chances that we’re having a systematic flow
    Example 1: you first enquire about a product, then make an order, then complain
    Example 2 (for the case study given earlier to the audience):
    >Travelling: checking in, asking for directions, …
    >Settling in: meeting my neighbours, shopping, opening a bank account, finding a place
    >Starting work: introducing myself, talking about my experience, …
    Example 3: materials Simona designed for an HR course, again based around their workflow – she won the 2011 ELTONS-Macmillan Award for Innovative Writing for these materials
    >Recrute (design job descriptions, explain contract provisions) etc – coursebooks don’t look at them as tasks, that is, what does an HR managee have to do?
    >Train: induction/explaining procedures (what to avoid, who to report to etc)
    >Appraise (review business indicators/figures and numbers, interpret figures)
    >Implement the strategy and develop the staff
  • Added benefit: this provides you with a template for needs analysis. ‘Brainstorming’ needs, on the other hand, is just not good enough because the results will never be comprehensive and systematic.

Simona Petrescu’s blog.


Charles Rei. Taking business English agile: Applying research on complex systems to teaching methodology


Charles started by outlining the problem: designing a truly customized BE syllablus is immensely complex; it’s impossible for a starting BE trainer to find their footing. A simple calculation yields that designing a truly customized course for a group of 5 people requires so much time that the cost is miles beyond what their company would be prepared to pay.

His solution: Look at the most complex industry – IT – which faces a similar challenge: in the current market companies cannot afford a year to design a product, time pressures are incredibly high. How did they change the way they manage projects in response? How can we adopt their approach?

Approaches to project management in IT (and implications for syllabus design)

  • ‘The old way’: Waterfall
    Plan then implement; planning takes around 1/3 of the development cycle; after planning ‘you hope and pray you’ll be able to follow your plan; you won’t, but you can hope and pray’. This is what a coursebook is in IT terms. The resulting product has a lot of features that any specific user will not need: you never use 60% of functions available in Microsoft Word – same with coursebooks.
  • In response to the pressures of the market: Agile Manifesto
    >> individuals and interactions over processes and tools
    working software (language) over comprehensive documentation. The only thing to care about is what the students are able to do
    >> customer collaboration over contract negotiation – asking the students to sign that they will do homework is meaningless; deliver value or they won’t show up
    >> responding to change over following a plan

Charles Rei’s process

  • Needs analysis. Charles starts the course with ordinary needs analysis – typically, each student is given post-it notes to write their needs on. Then he creates an Excel file (Backlog) where the needs are logged. This file is open during every lesson and whenever it becomes evident that there is an issue with student production (e.g. ‘the group makes a lot of mistakes in comparatives’; ‘the students do not use backchanelling’;) Charles points this out to the group and immediately adds this need to the backlog. Students can also add areas they would like to focus on. Each entry in the backlog comes with Type (V[ocabulary]/S[kills]/F[unctions]/G[rammar])/Topic/Subtopic/Submitter
  • Iterative training. Like in Agile, the course is divided into parts (Sprints). Each sprint lasts 7 weeks. Before the new sprint, the group and the trainer examine the backlog and choose priorities for the next 7 weeks. After these 7 weeks the students have working skills. Week 8 is reflective – the group and the trainer reflect on what to add to the backlog.
  • At the level of a lesson: task-based, informed by the backlog
    >>a task aimed to identify a performance gap (e.g. functions are missing? communication style is not appropriate? no self-confidence? technology?); the trainer can add variety or tweak the level bychallenge by adding Condition and Standard to the Task
    Example 1 (high level of challenge). Task: Give a presentation about a new product; Condition: everyone in the room is A2; Standart: at the end, they will want to buy your product
    Example 2 (less challenging). Task: Give a presentation about a new product; Condition: the audience works in your company; Standard: they have only basic understanding of this produce
    >> if the performance gap can be dealt with in this lesson, this takes the form of a timeout in the middle and then
    >> the students carry on with the task taking the feedback they’ve just got on board (refined production);
    if the gap can’t be dealt with in the lesson, it goes into the backlog
  • Results: after introducing this model, Charles has noticed visible improvement on all counts (higher customer satisfaction, 4x higher referral rate, higher attendance figures, etc)
  • Added benefit: this process educates the learners to formulate their needs more precisely

Charles Rei’s blog.

To sum up, these were two immensely valuable talksInterestingly, both of them looked at adopting IT practices: Simona Petrescu adopts the way IT business analysts analyze customers’ work processes; Charles Rei, the way IT companies organize their own work. 

Also, I completely take on board Charles Rei’s idea to make syllabus design interactive and transparent for students. English teachers do adapt the course in response to the students’ weaknesses, but is this always evident to the students? In my own experience, when I simply started to provide language feedback in electonic form and use it as a basis for homework and tests, the students’ attitude to homework immediately changed; so it’s very likely that the approach Charles Rei suggests will bring perceived relevance of the course to an entire new level.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my tortuous path in learning German. It seems to be a showcase of  non-mainstream techniques and absolutely none of it was ‘traditional communicative classroom’ learning. I owe a large proportion of non-standard techniques and little tweaks that I use in my teaching to that experience. However, I also probably owe it a bunch of teaching insecurities and a lot of my own bias against some (possibly, effective) techniques. I was going through some of my German notes recently, and what I noticed there prompted me to write this post.

Period 1. ‘Grammar-translation’. I studied German for 3 years in secondary school (grades 5, 6 and 7). I don’t remember much about the lessons but I do remember we did some grammar exercises, some coursebook reading and some dictations. I remember lexical notebooks with lists of words with translations (the reason I remember that particular notebook is that there was a ‘cartoon’: if your flipped through the pages fast enough you could see a figure ski down a slope). The only lesson I remember was our teacher inviting a native speaker to give us a dictation. The whole group was in a state of shock: we couldn’t understand a single word. He read the 3-sentence text once or twice (totally incomprehensibly), and then our teacher read it again and it was crystal-clear. The second thing I remember was a poetry reading contest. I spend several days memorizing a 3-stance poem (it went ‘Der Sommer ist die schönste Zeit.. and then something else).

The outcome? During summer vacation after the seventh grade I made friends with a boy who was Russian but looked distinctively foreign. He told me that he knew English and that, whenever someone was criticizing him on the bus, he’d reply in English and pretend not to understand. This aroused my curiosity about foreign languages and I started reviewing what I myself could say. With English (which I had been studying since 2nd grade), it turned out I knew something like 100 words, could use only present simple, and also I was unsure how vocabulary was to be spellt (e.g. ‘cup’ or ‘cap’?) With German, the only thing I could say was ‘Ich heiße Olga’ (My name is Olga). So much for 3 years of studying.

Lessons learnt. As a teacher, this experience made me painfully aware of just how inefficient some teaching methods can be. In particular, it made me very wary of teaching anything that’s not perceived as relevant by the students. It also made me very wary of doing anything that didn’t comply with my teaching beliefs, which came from my subsequent successful English-learning experience and went along ‘language should be used for communication and students should be encouraged to think in English’. As a result, in my first years of teaching very often I just couldn’t bring myself to doing a sequence from the coursebook, in part because some of that content was seemingly irrelevant to my students, and in part because in my opinion some of those exercises didn’t make methodological sense. It wasn’t arrogance of any sort – more like I mistrusted the materials so much that I felt my students would sense that and I just wouldn’t be able to pull it off.

Period 2. Grammar-translation + motivation + a bit of audio input. The second time I attempted to learn German was when I made a German friend at a student school. I knew I’d meet him again in 6 months so I decided to learn some German while we chatted online in English (ironically, I suspect that it was these 6 months of chats that really boosted my English from B2 to around C1-C2). What I did was read a bit (this proved very effective for learning the initial stock of around 300 words in no time), take around 10 hours of lessons with a private tutor (grammar-translation type of lessons again – and despite the 3 years at school we had to start from scratch), attempt to work with some grammar books and memorize vocabulary. I also listened to an audiocourse for German learners based around funny sketches (called Wie so nicht?) and ‘spoke’ to myself in German quite a lot.

The outcome. When I went to the second student school to Germany after six months of studies, I didn’t feel that I’d progressed enough to communicate. I did try to speak once (not with the friend who inspired the learning, though) and apparently I could say something but my grammar was atrocious.

Period 3. Input flood + some grammar awareness. I gave German up for a few years and when I took it up again, I listened to a few ‘stage 1’ graded readers, loved them and then just found a Harry Potter audiobook that I knew almost by heart in English and tried to listen to it over and over again. Initially, when I played a random file I could only roughly guess which scene it was. I kept listening to it on my way to and from work, 2 or 3 hours a day and bit by bit I understood more and more. It was a like one big puzzle: I suddenly understood what this or that expression must mean and then understood it later on, which would give me enough context to guess what something else meant. By the end I was more or less able to understand every sentence, and I started listening to other unabridged audiobooks created for German children. The only productive practice I had during that period was predicting the next sentence in the audiobook and doing an acclaimed audio course by Michelle Thomas (I absolutely loved that course. It’s mainly based on oral translation exercises). I also tried to learn some vocabulary, in particular word genders, using Super Memo (spaced repetition) software, but it wasn’t that successful.

The outcome? A few months of listening to audiobooks boosted my passive vocabulary (although it was incredibly difficult to recall words when I wanted to say something and I was never sure how to conjugate verbs or gender the nouns where). This also brought my Listening (and Reading) skills to around B1 (I coped easily with graded audiobooks at that level). Moreover, in contrast with my previous attempts to learn the language, the skills seemed to stay with me and I still could understand German speech after another long break in studies.

Lessons learnt: One of the biggest challenges of teaching in a monolingual environment is that very often students don’t come in contact with any English between classes. Moreover, when they come to private language schools they expect the class itself to be mainly based around speaking activities, so they do not encounter long texts or listening passages in class either.  I spent months reading ELT literature trying to find proof that extensive input was a pre-requisite for successful language learning. Most researchers just write something along these lines: ‘It’s widely accepted that learners need a rich and meaningful exposure to language in use’ but ‘widely accepted’ isn’t convincing enough to persuade my super-busy Business English learners to find time for reading and watching videos in English. The consideration that does work for them is that that the parts of the brain involved in grammatical processing are not the same parts of the brain where ‘grammar rules’ are stored and, as it turns out, acquisition of grammar requires extensive input, as grammar processing is in part developed by a ‘pattern recognition’ mechanism which feeds on input and requires noticing language in input. This is an argument they buy – and once they do, I suggest a few specific strategies for them, which are outlined in this post.

With my secondary school students, I just established an ‘extensive reading programme’: I bought some 30 graded readers and around 15 unabridged books and I ask them to pick a book at least three times a year, read it and give it a rating and/or write a short review.

Lessons not learnt: I absolutely loved Michel Tomas’s course, and it showed me that oral translation exercises of incremental difficulty are both useful and enjoyable. I felt that three aspects of the course were extremely significant: first, I was formulating full sentences, not just conjugated the verb to fill a gap. Second, I translated orally. Third, I got immediate feedback. Fourth, I was able to control the pace and replay/redo some lessons if I felt I hadn’t mastered the topic. However, for some reason (mainly because I’m not sure how to implement that working in a group) I haven’t incorporated translation or the other principles into my teaching. Initially I was very enthusiastic about creating an adaptive learning environment for my students, but I never figured out how to approach this.

Period 4. Community language learning + the keyword technique In the summer of 2012 I attended a fascinating workshop on the Keyword technique, which is a vocabulary learning technique based on visual associations. The trainer , who’d developed his own variation of the technique, made a claim that was quite difficult to believe, saying that using the technique it was possible to memorize around 100 words an hour and, with the right approach to revision, retain most of that vocabulary for a long time. By that time I’d started teaching English so I decided to revive my German  in order to experiment with the technique and maybe teach it to my students.

To do that I found a native speaker to talk with over skype. Because my primary goal was to test the vocabulary learning technique, what I was trying to achieve was have a (longish) list of vocabulary to learn after each lesson. What we decided to do was to talk and, as soon as I needed an expression, I’d ask for it and Sevi would write up a German equivalent in a Google document. If I wasn’t sure how to use the expression, I’d try it out in my own examples/ask Sevi to give me some more examples. Then I’d learn that vocabulary.

Here’s what this typically looked like:

+Ich mache alles auf den letzten Drücker.= at the last minute
+Ich brauche diesen Zeitdruck
+der Zeitdruck= pressure of time
+Das ist kein Thema. that’s ok
+etwas verschieben put off
+auf einen späteren Zeitpunkt verlegen
+Wegen des Regens, …
+es is Sehr lange her way back
+die Handlung plot
+Es ist lange her, dass der Film gedreht wurde.
+Der Film wurde in XXX gedreht.
+das dauert 5 bis 10 Minuten je nachdem, ob ich …
+befassen sich mit (deal with)
+Fachbereich – факультет
+ich studiere in Fachbereich A
+im Allgemeinen in general
Here’s the rest of the file: Deutsch with Sevi

The outcome. The outcome was exhilarating. Before the first lesson I was terrified because that was the second time ever I’d try to speak to a person and I didn’t really think I’d be able to say anything. Within five or six 60-minute lesson I started to feel quite confident talking. It was pretty easy to memorize the expressions using the technique (I never sped up to 100 words/hour, more like 65 expressions/90 minutes, but then those were full expressions and not separate words). There were three interesting things I noticed. First, in the second and third lessons almost every single sentence I was trying to say contained a bit learnt in the first lesson. Secondly, sometimes there were expressions that I couldn’t remember but as soon as Sevi told me I realized that I knew them. Initially I told her not to add those to the file. Soon though it became apparent that I’d need for such an expression to come up five or more time to stop forgetting it, whereas the ones that I’d memorized and revised I was able to retrieve. So deciding not to learn & revise a word because you ‘kind of know’ it is really counterproductive. The same went for correction: she would correct the same mistake over and over again, and the way for me to progress was to write an expression down and learn it.

Also, in my search for vocabulary to learn, I tried to look for some interesting vocabulary in films / the first Harry Potter book. I brought those to lessons and we would discuss how to use those expressions. In general, I’d say that that was much less efficient and that language was definitely much less memorable and more confusing than language that came out of our conversations.

Lessons learnt. Around that time I was teaching a Business course in-company and attendance hit a record low, with only one student attending for 3 or 4 classes. That particular students had severe problems with accuracy (which was below the level of the group and I hadn’t been able to address that previously very well when there were other people attending). So I seized the opportunity to do a lot of mistake correction with  him and capture his output in a Microsoft Word document, along with ideas how to upgrade his language, in a similar way to how Sevi was capturing mine. This resulted in a mini-miracle: the student started to speak much more confidently and more accurately in a matter of several classes and he was extremely happy and enthusiastic about getting this kind of feedback. So when another three course participants finally started attending I had no other choice but to keep doing the same thing with the group.

Since then I’ve started capturing learner output with all my adult groups, and I’d say this is one most important tweak I’ve done to my teaching as a result of my own language learning experience. I was a bit wary of doing that because typing something on a laptop while students are talking would look a bit odd, but as soon as it’s clear for them what I’m doing they start to expect me to type the feedback an not slack off :). Here’s what typical output looks like:
It’s used at the end of the lesson as a bit of review and at the start of the next lesson as a mini test – a routine that the students respond very well to. What impressed me the most was that, while my adult students consistently refuse to do any homework from coursebooks, most of them do find the time to revise this personalized feedback and do cope with the mini tests/reuse this language in speech.

Lessons learnt only partially. Learning that much vocabulary relevant for me in a matter of weeks was only made possible because I constantly code-switched (switched to English to explain what expression I was looking for). I do allow my students to code-switch occasionally, making sure that that language makes it to the file with feedback, but for my students lessons have never turned into what my German lessons were for me: actively using communication to identify as many gaps in my knowledge as possible and immediately getting feedback on how to fill those gaps.

Lessons not learnt. Recently I was looking through the notes of my first ever lesson with Sevi and this was the first time I analyzed what language came up in her feedback. There are several clear groups of expressions.

Apart from ‘topic-specific’ lexis (we were talking about my job teaching teens) there was

  • language to talk about feelings/evaluating experiences (it was ok/worst of all was that../it was terrible/ it was challenging )
  • along the same lines, some sentence adverbs: (unfortunately/ luckily/mostly / also / at least)
  • a lot of meta-language to clarify the use of some expressions and manage the lesson (informal/this isn’t used like that/irregular comparative forms/I’ll delete that/cross that out)
  • a lot of expressions to compensate for lack of vocabulary (this is something like…/the opposite of…/I can’t think of a good English equivalent-word/there’s no equivalent in English)

In my own courses, out of these four groups only meta-language (‘classroom language’) features early on in the syllabus. Compensatory strategies feature too (students play ‘taboo’ and other guessing games), but the range of expressions usually taught is somewhat more restricted.

Summary. My experience learning German was so long and non-uniform that it’s really difficult to draw any conclusions. Regarding methodology, I can see that a lot of what I do in class is still at odds with my learning experience – the fact that pushes me to dig further into methodology books looking for some definitive answers. Where I find that I was proved right by research I immediately let my students know (in particular, I spend the entire first 90-minute lesson nowadays discussing the mechanics of how languages are acquired and the value of revision and input – TED talks made by successful language learners are of immense help here; I also spend 90 minutes practicing the keyword technique in class). In general I’d say that quite a lot of my own intuitions are borne out by research – e.g. a while ago I found this fascinating presentation by Magnus Coney called ‘How we learn’ in which he surveys some 20+ articles and quite a lot of what he found resonated with me: Still, after writing so much on ‘lessons not learnt’ here I’ll probably soon be experimenting again..

This is the first post in series of two posts in which I review my current understanding of how grammar is mastered. In this post I’ll overview some research on grammar acquisition and in the second one I’ll give a concrete example of how some of these ideas prompted me to tweak the way I teach a particular grammar topic (the patterns used with ‘I wish’). To summarize these changes, I have

  • stepped away from the ‘pure’ PPP lesson shape with its initial ‘presentation’ stage
  • modified some of the practice activities in order to change the way the structure is retrieved from memory

What do we mean when we say ‘mastering grammar’?

  • Probably everyone who’s involved in language teaching knows the term ‘interlanguage‘. The idea is that a learner has an ‘interim’ version of the target language that’s being developed to approximate the target. I got deeper insight into the concept of inter-language having read about two types of memory/processing operating in our brain:
    general principles
    Grammatical processing belongs to the so-called implicit knowledge and operates automatically, mostly without recourse to attention, unless the person stops before formulating the utterance and rehearses it in their short-memory. This means that the students do not have access to ‘grammar rules’ while they’re speaking spontaneously. Instead, they use so-called ‘routines’ for grammatical processing, and these routines might not correspond to the rules they know.
  • It has been said that we learn the language in the same way as any other skill: awareness raising -> massed practice -> automatization and that thus Skill learning theory justifies the PPP lesson shape (Dornyei, 2009). However, I personally have found the PPP lesson shape somewhat problematic. The way I see it, the devil lies in the detail – in other words, what happens during the first two stages of PPP might fall through if they do not in fact correspond to the stages outlined by the skill learning theory.
  • The first P (‘presentation’). I’ve been experimenting with my own language learning (learning German) and intuitively I’d say that if the lesson starts with straightforward ‘presentation’ and goes on to controlled practice in which s/s practice applying the rule (whether given explicitly or induced by the s/s from input), this encourages them to start constructing a new routine, completely unrelated to the one that is currently stored in their interlanguage. ‘Eliciting’ the rule does not save the situation here, because when we elicit the rule, the students retrieve explicit knowledge of the rule, and the ‘meta-thinking’ involved does not kick in the routines the students use subconsciously. Also, even in the realm of explicit knowledge some confusion is still possible. One of my students once told me that questions in present simple are formed with ‘do/does’, only to go on and write a few questions for a partner with no auxiliary whatsoever. When I asked the guy why he was not applying the rule, he told me that he was using a different structure. Over time I got convinced that rules should be presented after production has taken place so that the students are
    1. encouraged to connect the new explicit knowledge to the knowledge they’ve already got
    2. have a chance to ‘review’ and modify the routines they are currently using (of course, ‘reviewing’ an automatic routine sounds oxymoronic 🙂 but what I mean is that the s/s will learn to monitor the right routine and ‘weaken’ connections in the brain through self-correction. See also the article by Nick Ellis in Sanz, C. and Leuw, R. ed (2011).
    I like the term ‘noticing the gap’ that Scott Thornbury uses in his books and in fact nowadays, when I’m planning my lessons, I think of the first stage not so much as a ‘presentation’ stage as a ‘noticing the gap and learning to deal with it/getting the crutches’ stage.
  • I tend to think now that it’s ok to give the students ‘rules’ (downright deductively) so long as they enable the students to understand the essence of a grammar point (e.g. through highlighting the way the choice of a structure is determined by discourse, as in the case of the passive voice, or by highlighting the contrast between  structures, e.g. ‘past simple = tied to the past, present = relevant; present perfect = relevant + there’s an element of ‘before’). The main point of the rule is to allow the students to review the language they produced at a previous stage, genuinely see a problem with it and improve it (simply noticing that it contradicts the rule given by the teacher won’t do the trick, of course, but seeing that the wrong choice of structure impacts on the message, if T highlights the contrast of structures, will). However, so far I haven’t come across any theoretical grounding of what type of rules would be most helpful and why.
  • In order for the s/s to notice the gap, some record of their use of TL is needed. I generally prefer to set a discussion question that would require the use of TL. However, such tasks are not so easy to formulate. Alternatively, there are writing activities, such as grammaring, two-way translation and dictogloss. In my opinion, grammaring can be used for any pairs or sets of structures that get confused (e.g. will/going to, the passive vs active voice, past vs present perfect), although, as the choice of form often depends on the discourse/co-text, it’s probably better to give s/s highly contextualized sentences to reconstruct. For instance, students could process a text for meaning and then get a copy of the text with several sentences tippexed out and replaced with the lexical items from these sentences.
  • As for the second P (practice), there are two sides of the coin to think about and these seem to be difficult to reconcile. On the one hand, there seems to be evidence provided by attention theory that practice has to be focused and intensive (as, trying to practice two different routines at the same time, a student wastes a considerable proportion of attention resources). On the other hand, the teacher has to be extremely careful in ensuring that the controlled practice activity really does model the way the skill is operated in the brain. I’m in no way a psycholinguist, but as far as I understand it in real production there has to be some kind of retrieval of the automatic routine and choice going on. If a students is involved, say, in a ‘have you ever’ drill (however communicative), the structure is likely to be stored in their short-term memory and thus the skill is not being practiced. I find it difficult to reconcile this with the fact that practice has to be focused in order to make full use of the s/s’ attention resources (hence ‘distracting’ the student to kick the structure out of their short-term memory is a bad idea). Hence, I think that all controlled practice has to involve a contrast of structures, so that the students are required to make constant choices.
  • In their article called Implicit and Explicit Corrective Feedback and the Acquisition of L2 Grammar in Rod Ellis et all (2009) Rod Ellis, Shawn Loewen and Rosemary Erlam present evidence that when practicing a grammar point, efficient feedback targeting the grammar point
    1. is provided on the spot
    2. identifies the mistake for the student (e.g. the teacher repeats the mistake with questioning intonation)
    3. encourages the student to make the conscious effort to retrieve the correct form
    (e.g. [T: ‘go? you need the past‘] when the student is telling a story in the past and tends not to use the past tense).

That said, it transpires from SLA literature that productive practice is actually not the only, or even the main process through which the correct automatic routines are formed. It seems that a large part is played by noticing the structure in comprehensible input. This means that unless the students are encouraged to read and listen widely, and also re-read and re-listen, directing their attention to the form,  they might get stuck with ‘incorrect’ routines despite practicing grammar in class.  

implicit knowledge_d4

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Sanz, C. and Leuw, R. (editors) (2011). Implicit and Explicit Language Learning: Conditions, Processes, and Knowledge in SLA and Bilingualism. Georgetown University Press

Rod Ellis et al. (2009). Implicit and Explicit Knowledge in Second Language Learning, Testing and Teaching. Multilingual Matters

Dornyei, Z. (2009) The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition. OUP

You can partially view all these books through the ‘click to look inside’ feature.

Also, I’m currently watching a fascinating series of lectures on Cognitive Science – here are the lectures on the explicit and the implicit: