Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Something just brought me back.

It's definitely been ages since the last time I shared something with you. I don't really know if there is still someone there to read what I write but there are loads of things I can write about so I'll just go for it.
My teaching world has changed. I have just finished my course of studies and I am now a graduate teacher of English. I know that it's just a certificate and that the way I face the classroom has not changed but, still, there is something different. All those years, all those hours I spent commuting, all those never-ending assignments, all those essays, all those final exams are now over. 
I've just said that it's a certificate. That it's a piece of paper. Well, now that I think about it, I'd say it's not. It's something that will always remind me of all those wonderful teachers and classmates I grew up with. All those people who helped me be the teacher I am today and I am incredibly happy it all worked out the way it did. 
In the end, however, certificates are indeed mere pieces of paper. When I am in the classroom it's just me and my students. There are no more presentations, no more tests, no more assignments to present. There is no more formal evaluation. But there is a more difficult test to face: to be the teacher my students need. Is that so? Am I the teacher my students need? Well, answering that question can certainly be a tough job if we agree to the fact that we cannot always know what everyone needs. 
So, instead of just sitting here asking myself rethorical questions, I'm decided to keep on learning because if I'm only sure about something it definitely is that when the learning process is successfully taking place we can hardly tell apart the one who is teaching from the who is learning.

The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires. William Arthur Ward

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Why Do I Have To Write This, Teacher?

Probably one of the most obvious difficulties when we ask our students to write something in English is to give them a valid reason for doing so. As a teacher who decided to promote a communicative classroom, I would say that the best way of overcoming such a problem is by means of encouraging our students to write for real audiences. If languages exit so as to help us communicate with others, it is only logical that whenever our students use the target language it should be for the sake of sending and receiving messages. In the particular case of writing, it is sometimes more difficult to find authentic readers than to find authentic listeners (we can carry out lots of speaking activities in the classroom). Depending both on the aims of the course we are teaching and our students' needs it is certainly difficult to find instances of actual communication through writing. Since writing is the only skill that cannot be acquired but must be taught (we all need some kind of help to learn how to write) it is essential for us to find the time and the means to teach our students writing skills. We cannot expect them to magically acquire writing skills by means of just exposing them to model texts and directly asking them to write independently.
There are lots of aspects to take into account if we are to teach writing as a skill to communicate effectively with others.
First, we should bear in mind that writing and, therefore, learning how to write are both a process. We cannot ask our students to become proficient communicative writers overnight. It necessary for us to show them that there are several skills that need to be developed so as to enhance their writing. Students should be given opportunities to plan (i.e. to brainstorm, to create mindmaps, to make summaries of main points to be included in the text or to simply jot down words or ideas that they think are connected with the text's main idea). To develop planning, students can be simply asked to carry out "planning" activities without actually thinking of writing anything but just to practise the skill. Students should also be given opportunities to develop and improve their editing skills. Either as a step of a writing process or as an activity in itself, editing should be devoted enough time for students to become aware of how important drafting is when writing (it is true, however, that editing may not be an essential skill nowadays because most of the writing students do in real life is informal and needs no focus on accuracy: chatting, blog, photoblog, facebook and twitter posting and so on). Once students have planned, outlined and edited their text it is time for them to "make it public." It is essential for us to make it clear from the very beginning that what they are writing is for someone in particular, as Tricia Hedge very well wrote in her book 'Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom', "helping student writers to develop a sense of audience is another important task." Our students need to know that writing in English holds no difference with writing in their mother tongue: when we write we always have in mind the target reader because we always write to someone (even to ourselves but there is always a reader). Consequently, it become essential for teachers to be able to provide students with authentic audiences for them to be able to actually send a message while writing. There are several ways and places in which we can find authentic audiences: with the Internet so accessible nowadays we can help our students find lots of readers and writers with whom they can exchange realistic messages (e.g.: blogs, photoblogs, wikis, forums, social networks...). If access to the Internet were not possible, we could still find audiences within school (students from the same or other classrooms) or outside school (parents, students or teachers from other schools).

Since developing a sense of audience is so important, I would like to share with you a presentation created by Gladys Baya, who is an English teacher and teacher trainer. In this presentation, she provides us with several examples of authentic audiences to enhance both speaking and writing skills.

So when your students come and ask you "teacher, why do I have to write this?" you can very well answer: "the why can only be answered once you have decided who you are writing to..."

Post based on "Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom," Chapter IX, Tricia Hedge, Oxford University Press.

Are you interested in TBL (Task Based Learning)?

Do you want to know more about this excellent approach? Have you read Jane Willis's book and thought of asking her questions? Well, this is the website you have been looking for! I was browsing the Internet the other day looking for information and guidelines to support my writing of a TBL lesson plan and I came across this useful site. It is really interesting and helpful because of many reasons. Not only can you get free access to different types of TBL activities and lesson plans but you can also find posts and discussions led by Jane Willis herself as regards many different aspects of the TBL approach. In these thought-provoking posts you can find, for instance, surveys carried out among Language Teachers, information about the advantages and disadvantages of using TBL in large classes and a very interesting interview with Jane Willis carried out by Martin Peacock from the British Council.
The bad news is that it is not an interactive blog anymore because, for some reason, it has been closed. Therefore, we are no longer allowed to leave comments and ask questions. All the same, I decided to let you know about it because I believe that, even though we cannot get in touch with her anymore, what was written and discussed is still useful and worth reading.

I really hope you find it as interesting as I did and please let me know what you think about it!

Thursday, 5 November 2009

What is the role of questions in the EFL classroom?

Here I am introducing you once again to one of my classroom observation reports. I have to say that this must be one of the most interesting topics I wrote a report on! In this case, I focused on questions. As teachers, we know that we are most of the time asking questions but are we aware of what we are asking? What I did was to analyse not only the types of questions we may ask our students but also their implications. What are the different types of questions we ask? What do our learners get from them? What is it that we are asking from our students when we ask them a certain type of question? What is the connection between a certain question and the cognitive challenge (or the lack of it) that they present our students with? I invite you to take a look at this report to see how much we can learn from analysing the language of questions! Enjoy it!

7th Report / Alejandra de Antoni / Classroom Observation / Methods 2 2009

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

“Two monologues do not make a dialogue.” Jeff Daly

After having fostered a Communicative Classroom throughout the year, we’ve decided to try out a new approach to the discussion of Tricia Hedge’s “Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom.” Considering that it takes two to Tango, we’ve decided to discuss speaking respecting its main characteristic: having, at least, two participants.
We will formulate possible aims for a Speaking component of a coursebook following Hedge’s categorization of successful oral communication; and then, we will compare them with the New English File – Intermediate ones.
Our book will have as an ultimate objective to foster the use of language for communication. Upon completion of this course, students will have an intermediate degree of fluency that will allow them to keep up a conversation in the target language including listening skills, taking turn skills and the proper management of interaction. Students should also be able to present information/instructions about defined topics to others in a clear, organized way and to participate in discussion groups.
In order to attain those goals, students should be able to demonstrate understandable pronunciation and an acceptable level of mastery of stress, rhythm and intonation patterns. They should be familiar with conversational skills, register and syntax. Students should have developed awareness in structure and strategies used in meaningful true-to-life conversations.
After establishing the objectives for the Speaking component of our ideal coursebook, we invite you to take a look at the actual ones in the above mentioned book:

Now, let’s have a look at a randomly chosen set of activities taken from the same book, do they actually match either their or our objectives?

Speaking Activities - NEF Intermediate - Methods2 - 2009

As far as you can see in the activities, the book is coherent with its objectives. It provides students with a wide variety of speaking, listening and pronunciation exercises that pay the way for successful completion of set goals!
What this well-known coursebook proposes is to give students the necessary tools for them to be able to speak fluently, accurately but, most importantly, confidently. Considering the variety of activities that we selected from the coursebook, it can be said that students are provided with interesting topics that will motivate them to speak (mobile phones and money) as well as useful phrases and to-the-point guidelines for them to have a starting point from which they can start to speak more freely. Each speaking activity (as well as the listening and pronunciation ones) is organized in several steps which, in turn, give students enough time for them to organize what they are going to say.
Another useful tool provided by this book is that students are given opportunities to practice and improve their pronunciation in terms not only of sounds but also stress and intonation, which are two of the most essential aspects for a student of English to learn so as to become an effective communicator.
All in all, it is important for us, as English teachers, to keep in mind that speaking cannot be taught as if it were an isolated skill that can be improved only by means of working on grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation. We must show our students that speaking is an essential tool for us to be in contact with others. Speaking, as a tool for communication and social interaction, must be dealt with in class following its most important characteristic: interacting with others. There must always be a coming and going of messages in speaking and, therefore, we should give our students as many tools as possible to help them face that thrilling challenge of interacting with others in a foreign language. Our students need to be able to speak both fluently and intelligibly and for them to achieve such an objective we must provide them with a balance of grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary and listening activities as well as a wide range of opportunities to develop communication and negotiation skills.
Our students must be taught pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary not because we want to form language experts but simply because they are the tools they need so as to become efficient communicators.

Discussion Topic taken from "Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom," Chapter VIII, Tricia Hedge, Oxford University Press.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

The more we observe others, the more we learn about us!

Hi there! I'm here again sharing with you another classroom observation report. In this case I observed a lesson so as to concentrate on what students actually do while doing the different activities they are assigned.
It was a really enriching experience since I learnt a lot about my own teaching. I was able to go back to my own lessons to analyse the balance of different kinds of activities I give my students. With this analysis, I realised that it is important to bear in mind our students' learning style when it comes to preparing a lesson. What is the main type of activities we always give to our students? Are they cognitive, affective or physical? Are these activities compatible with our students' learning preferences? Are we ready to sacrifice our own teaching preferences so as to match our students' learning style?
So here goes the lesson observation report in which I did my best so as to start answering these questions. Hope you enjoy it!

6th Report / Alejandra de Antoni / Classroom Observation / Methods 2 2009

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

What makes a Listening Task motivating, relevant and useful?

The most important and useful tool teachers have to enhance students' listening skills is the quality of listening tasks they are given. But what makes a good listening task? In order for me to try to find an answer to such a difficult question I decided to analyse a listening task randomly chosen from one of the coursebooks I currently use in one of the courses I teach. I will evaluate the listening task against the criteria provided by Tricia Hedge in her book "Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom." I believe that while analysing this listening task I will be incorporating the evaluation criteria in such a way that it will help me make well-informed decisions while choosing future listening tasks for my students.

Evaluation Criteria:
  • the extent to which learners are given a reason to listen;
  • whether appropriate contextual information is required;
  • in what ways a pre-listening stage prepares students for the language of the text;
  • in what ways a pre-listening stage activates prior knowledge;
  • the usefulness of any while-listening work;
  • the relevance and range of any post-listening work.
The Listening Task: (taken from the New English File Pre-Intermediate Student's Book. NB I do not own this activity. It's copyrighted by Oxford University Press. I just posted it to analyse a listening task so as to enhance my teaching skills.)

Firstly, I don't really know up to what extent students are given a reason to listen. I mean, the reasons why they may want (or need to) listen to this text are only classroom-bound ones (i.e. created by the task itself -or the teacher- and not because students really want to listen to these two people being interviewed). It is true that through the pre-listening stage students are introduced into the text's topic and that some interest must be created. That is why I will still say that it does give students a reason to listen because of what they are asked to do in the second pre-listening stage. Students are asked to decide if some sentences as regards singing are true or false. They are very general thoughts that will certainly make students provide answers following their own beliefs on singing and singers. Once the students have discussed the sentences, I really think that they will be definitely interested in learning what the true answers are in order to check whether they were right or not and that is the perfect reason for them to listen to text.
Secondly, I think that no specifit contextual information is required for students to be able to sucessfully understand the text and carry out the activity since the text is about a teacher and a student from a music school and the interview is not restricted to musicians or singers (it actually claims that anyone can learn how to sing well in one day without previous training or experience).
Thirdly, as regards the pre-listening stage, I think that it successfully prepares students for the language of the text. When they are asked to decide whether the sentences are true or false they are presented with the core ideas that the teacher and the student will discuss in their interview. This helps students get hold of the language they will encounter (which is, by the way, not very difficult and it's not restricted to a specific grammar form) as well as the main ideas that will be tackled in the text. The seven sentences provided by the second pre-listening activity provides the students with an excellent background for them to be able to understand both the language and the content that will be present in the text.
With regard to the students' prior knowledge, both the first and the second pre-listening activities help its activation. In the first one, students are asked about their own singing experiences which is something useful both to get them involved and to 'force' them to retrieve any language related to music (which will definitely help them to set their minds into the task and to understand the text better). In the second activity, furthermore, students' prior knowledge of certain English structures (such as relative clauses and comparatives) is activated together with their own beliefs on singing which will help them, again, to understand the text better.
When it comes to the while-listening work, I have to say that the two activities provided by this task can be classified into global and specific while-listening ones. The first one, in which students have to listen to the interview to check their whether the seven sentences from the pre-listening task were true or false, is a global while-listening activity because students are asked to listen to the text as a whole and to focus on its main ideas. I think that this activity is very useful because it helps students to learn how to listen to something without concentrating on every single word but just on main ideas. Furthermore, it promotes the need for texts to be listened to more than just one time as well as the belief that students cannot be asked to focus on very specific and detailed information the very first time they listen to text. Listeners need a first listening to become familiar with text's gist and the speakers' accents and voices. That's why I believe that it is always better to ask our students to go first for the core of the text and then to focus, if necessary, on details or specific language forms or vocabulary. In the particular case of this listening task, students are asked to listen to the text for a second time so as to complete some sentences (it's a restricted cloze in this case because students are given three options to choose from in each blank). In this second (specific) while-listening activity students are asked to listen to the text to find specific information and, in this way, they are also helped to developed their "bottom-up"* listening skills (e.g.: their ability to "retain input while it's being processed, recognize word divisions, recognize key words in utterances, use knowledge of word-order patterns to identify constituents in utterances"* and so on)
*'Bottom-up' Listening Skills; Richards (1990) quoted in "Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom," Tricia Hedge.
Finally, as regards the post-listening work, there is no need to say that there is none provided by this task. However, I do believe that post-listening work is essential for student to make a connection between what they have listened to and some aspect of their lives so as to make it memorable. A post-listening activity can be simply to ask them if they think that it is possible for a person with no experience at all to become a good singer in just one day (why / why not?). They can be asked if they would like to go to such a school (why / why not?) and if they think they will become good singers or not and why. They can also be asked to say if they agree or not with what the teacher says and his methods. The teacher could also ask them to think of any other ability they think that can be taught and learnt in one day. The post-listening stage doesn't need to take more than five minutes and it can be a very good opportunity for the students to make a relevant and valuable connection between the text and their lives.

Give them a reason to listen. Help them to succeed in the task: provide them with appropriate contextual information and activate both their prior knowledge of the topic and the language they need to understand the text. Step into your students' shoes: are the while-listening activities useful and relevant? Let them know why they are doing this or that activity. Make it memorable: use a post-listening activity to make a connection between what the students have just listened to and their lives. We always remember better what is related to our feelings or thoughts than what is said by someone else.

If you are interested in the analysis of listening tasks, please take a look at the lesson observation report I wrote in which I intensively analysed a listening activity carried out in one of the lessons I observed in a secondary school.

Discussion Topic taken from "Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom," Chapter VII, Tricia Hedge, Oxford University Press.