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.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Teacher's Decisions: What about the options we do not opt for?

In this report, following an excellent observation task provided by Jim Scrivener in his book Learning Teaching, I tried to analyse several actions taken by the teacher I observed both in terms of the decision taken and the other available options that, for some reason, the teacher did not choose.
I found it really interesting to start thinking about the decisions we take and the reasons why we go for a certain option and not another. Managing and organising a classroom is such a challenging task that the best way of approaching it is by means of starting to reflect upon the decisions we take and if they were the most appropriate ones at that moment in that context. It is important, of course, to ask ourselves why we choose a certain option; but, what is even more intriguing is to reflect upon the reasons why we did not opt for te other available options.

Thanks to a very enabling teacher trainer I realised that, in this report, I sounded a bit too judgemental. I would like to let you know that I never meant to write as if I were "crying over spilt milk". I just followed the task and it seems that I sound far too critical. That was never my intention. With regard to the conclusion, I must admit that I did not even think of including one. I thought there was no need for one. But now that I thought about it, it would have been a great idea to include one so as to explain what my intentions were when writing the report. I am in no position to judge any teacher and I never wanted to do so. I guess that when trying to show what my beliefs are, I unwillingly did so by means of comparing them with the teacher's development of the lesson. I am really aware of the fact that every classroom, and within that classroom, each of the lessons is a whole world and it is by no means a valid proof of what actually happens in this classroom.

5th Report / Alejandra de Antoni / Classroom Observation / Methods 2 2009

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

What does a real-life listening activity look like?

Here I'm sharing with you a very interesting report in which I carefully analysed a listening activity that was carried out in one of the lessons I observed at a secondary school in Buenos Aires city. It was a really interesting experience which helped me to analyse and look critically at my own listening activities. What do we do a listening activity in the English lesson for?
Maybe trying to make a true-to-life listening activity is one of the most evident challenges when it comes to preparing and designing activities. In this report, I tried to go over the minumun requirements for a listening activity to be valid in a communicative classroom while reflecting upon the one I have observed.

REPORT 4-alejandradeantoni-classroom observation-methods2-2009

Monday, 17 August 2009

A new learning experience: A very thought-provoking classroom observation

This the 3rd report of my Classroom Observations. In this case, it was a lesson in a state secondary in a town near Buenos Aires City. Analysing this lesson helped me a lot to understand how different classrooms realities can be and how difficult it is sometimes for us, teachers, to adapt our own views and beliefs to match the situation and the students' needs.
I really hope you enjoy this report!
Any comments are welcome! Feel free to react to anything you find in this report (:

3rd Report / Alejandra de antoni / Classroom Observation / Methods 2 2009

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Learn to Read and Read to Learn

In the previous entries I have been discussing what it is like to teach grammar and vocabulary in the English Classroom. The following list shows a few examples of what students say they do when they meet difficulty in reading comprehension, particularly when they meet a new word (Hedge; Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom: 6):
  • "I think about whether the word is important for understanding the whole text."
  • "I think if there is a Spanish word like it."
  • "I study the words around it."
Before analysing the previous four statements, I would like to clarify that I will agree or not with them following my personal view on reading comprehension in the ESL and EFL classrooms. When students are given a text (or when they bring their own texts to the lesson, which is a great way of encouraging authentic and interesting reading), it is essential for them to know that reading in the English classroom needs to resemble the reading they do in their mother tongue. That is why, for instance, when they encounter an unknown word, there is no need for them to panic or desperately resort to an inmediate translation or definition simply because when we are reading a novel, an article or a story in our first language we do not generally need the help of a dictionary. The first idea listed is one of the best ways for students to go about new words in a text. Unless it is a specific type of text, we always read in our mother tongue to get its meaning, ideas and thoughts and not to make an intensive analysis of its vocabulary. It is of great help for the students to know that unless, the unknown word is essential to understand the whole text, it should be paid no attention. I will certainly (and I actually do) encourage this excellent way of approaching a text since it gives words their most important role in a text: to help you understand its meaning. It is important to highlight, however, that this line of thought cannot be applied to those texts used especifically for intensive reading, in which students are asked to conciously concentrate and work on vocabulary, grammar and form. The second one on the list cannot be said to be of my preference. Apart from implying that the student is concentrating more on vocabulary than meaning, it can most of the times be a misleading tool. Even though it is true that there are some words that are similarly spelled in English and Spanish, it is also true that most of the time words similar in spelling are not even close to being similar in meaning. False Cognates (pairs of words in different languages that are similar in form but different meaning; e.g.: the Spanish word "Librería" vs. the English word "Library") can be really misleading when trusted as tools for understanding new words. Finally, the third one is another idea that I always try to foster among my students. Paying attention to the words around a new one, i.e. to guess its meaning through its context, is a very useful and reliable tool when we encounter an unknown word which has already been decided to be necessary for the understanding of the whole text. Even in our first language, when we face a new word, it is certainly the most natural thing to do to try to understand it with the help of the surrounding words and sentences.

It is now our mission as teachers to raise awareness among our students as regards the importance of reading in building and recycling knowledge. Regardless of what we are learning or studying it is undoubtedly true that it is mainly through reading that we get most of the input we need to succeed in our studies. When we teach English we are giving our students an infinite number of tools and possibilities for them to increase and polish their knowledge and reading is definitely one of the most important ones. We help them learn how to read for them to be able to learn by reading.

Discussion taken from "Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom," Chapter VI, Tricia Hedge.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

An old friend of us is again in the spotlight: Why should we teach Grammar?

According to John and Liz Soars, authors of Headway, there are five main reasons for them to give Grammar high prominence in their coursebook. They argue that:

1) It is the mechanism that generates the infinite number of sentences that we produce and receive;
2) It is a tangible system, and can provide one element of a systematic approach to teaching a language;
3) It develops students' cognitive awareness of the language. Language is rule-based, and conscious or sub-conscious knowledge of the rules is the key to 'generalizability' and creativity;
4) It conforms to students' expectations of language learning, and meets an often-heard request for 'more grammar';
5) It will be of assistance to teachers in the planning of their lessons.

First of all, I would say that the first statement sounds like an overgeneralization. It's not because I think it's wrong but simply because I don't believe that there is always 'grammar' in everything we produce. It is of course undeniable that grammar is what groups and brings words meaningfully together but what is still arguable is the extent to which we need grammar (with grammar I refer to "grammatically correct" utterances) to successfully convey meaning and put our message across. I deeply believe that grammar is important and essential in a language syllabus but I am also convinced that it is not the only language system and, therefore, should be given as much importance as the other ones i.e. vocabulary, phonology and semantics. A grammatically correct sentence with poor or not properly selected vocabulary, uttered inappropriately and structured with a correct but not adequate pattern can hardly be said to be communicatively effective.

Secondly, it is totally true, and now I definitely agree with John and Liz, that Grammar is certainly a tangible system and, if not the easiest one, one of the easiest to work on. Even though it is true that grammar rules are not always definite and absolute, they are a perfect starting point for students of English as a Foreign language (here I won’t say that dealing with grammar as a system is essential for students of English a Second language because they are immersed in an English context and have to use it daily for surviving; which does not mean, however, that formal grammar teaching is not desirable for it can speed up the process considerably). Dealing with grammar as a system is an excellent way to help elementary and intermediate students grow confident and have something to rely on when they have to speak and write. Since learning a language is an extensive and demanding process, I truly believe that, at some point and especially with adolescents and adults, it is necessary for them to make profit of their meta-linguistic abilities and explore grammar as much as they can. It is our job as teachers to make sure that their encounter with grammar is always friendly and for communicative purposes. Students need to be told that they do not have to be English grammar experts but English speakers that see grammar as a simple tool to build up the messages they want to send.

Thirdly, I must admit that I partly agree with their view on language and the influence that such a view has on language learning. It is totally true that grammar develops students’ cognitive awareness of the language and I believe that being able to understand how the language works is an essential tool to learn and use it effectively (especially, as I said before, for adolescents and adults because children are not cognitively mature enough for such analysis). Knowing the grammar rules and being able to resort to them both consciously and unconsciously is one of the key elements of language proficiency. What I feel is not that easy to teach and, therefore learn, is how to become “language creators”. It is essential for us to provide them with opportunities to use the language creatively, meaningfully and communicatively for them to be able to become efficient and successful communicators. If the only thing we asked them to do was to work on grammar patterns, they would find it extremely difficult to apply all they have learnt to a real-life conversation in which grammar rules are definitely not enough to put your message across.

It is true, however, that it is students who ask for “more grammar”. Regardless of the reasons why, most of the time, they seem to be craving for grammar rules, it is a clear opportunity for us to both conform to their expectations and provide them with a great tool to enhance their learning. What I would add, however, to this fourth statement is that students need to be warned that, if they want to become proficient and successful speakers of the language, they need to complement grammar with other language systems. Saying it correctly, uttering it appropriately, and choosing their words and the structure carefully and purposefully will help them say what they actually want to say.

Finally, I have to say that, even though planning your lessons according to grammar patterns is one option, it is not the only way. In fact, I think that lessons should be planned not according to a language system in particular but according to the group of students and their needs. However, it is sometimes difficult to write all your plans following your students’ needs because there are other factors affecting your teaching such as the institutional aims of the school/institute you are working in or the particular aims of certain courses (conversation courses, reading courses, courses in which students are to be prepared for an International exam and so on). The most important thing to remember is that grammar is not the only criterion to plan a lesson but just one element in a larger group of factors involved in language teaching.

How and why we teach grammar are probably two key concerns in language teaching. The answers of such questions, in my opinion, can only be built individually for they are intrinsically connected to your beliefs and reasons for teaching. What I deeply believe in is that grammar is nothing without vocabulary, phonology and semantics.

Can we teach our students to communicate in English if we only provide them with one of its four elements?

Discussion taken from "Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom", Chapter V, Tricia Hedge, OXFORD, 2000.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Teaching Vocabulary: a seemingly never-ending task.

How many times have you wondered about the best ways of teaching vocabulary?

"I have to introduce these new words before dealing with this reading activity! How shall I do it?"

Well, in a desperate way of looking for some answers, or at least, for a sort of guide to resort to, we have collaboratively worked on a chart providing some procedures to teach, present and introduce new vocabulary in our lessons.

Please feel free to take a look at our work and leave any suggestions and comments you may think relevant to share with us (since it is a Wiki page and commenting is restricted to its users, you are invited to leave your comments on this blog entry).

I really hope you find it as useful as we meant it to be.

Different Techniques and Ideas to Teach Vocabulary

This project was adapted by Gladys Baya from a task originally taken from "Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom," Tricia Hedge, Chapter IV, OXFORD, 2000.

Are we prepared to have independent students?

There are lots of books, websites and experts talking about encouraging learner independence. It is undoubtedly true that, as teachers, we always want our students to learn (regardless of our teaching approaches), but what is not clearly defined is what we are ready to "sacrifice" to get at that goal.
Are we ready to foster an independent classroom in which students will no longer need to be taken under our wings? Are we ready to promote self-directed learning? Are we ready to admit that some students may no longer need us there all the time?

If we come to the conclusion that we are ready, one way in which we can promote greater learner independence is by helping students to become aware of language as a system so that they can understand many of the learning teachniques available and learn enough grammar to understand simple reference books. In this way, we are helping our students to profit from different learning techniques (to practise vocabulary, phonology and/or grammar) inasmuch as we start little by little showing them how to use those techniques and how to adapt them to match their own learning needs. It is essential for us not to give students the solution to a problem but to give them different tools so that, in the future, when encountered with such a situation, they can use them on their own and for their own purposes. For example, when students ask the meaning of a new word, or its pronunciation, instead of giving it to them, we can show them how to look it up in a dictionary (I personally provide them with different sites, such as the Cambridge Online Dictionary, and, for phonetics, I suggest that they buy/rent/borrow the Cambridge Pronouncing Dictionary (the one with the CD-ROM), in which they can both read and hear the pronunciation and record themselves to self-assess their pronunciation).

And last, but not least, we should do our best so as to convince students that they are capable of greater independence in learning by giving them successful experiences of independent learning. Before providing our students with any technique or tool, we have to be sure that they will be able to use it successfully. For instance, if I decide to suggest that they buy the Cambridge Dictionary I previously mentioned, I need to be sure that they will be able to afford it. If I constantly provide them with tools they cannot get access to, they will definitely reject independent learning because of the feeling of frustration brought about by their impediment to get them.

It is really important for us to be in contact with our students' needs all the time. Helping them find their way out is as important as giving them useful but at the same time accessible tools.

Based on Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom, Chapter III, Tricia Hedge, OXFORD, 2000.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Who has and who should have power in the classroom?

When teaching, have we ever stopped for a minute to think about who takes the decisions in the lesson?
Who decides what is taught? Who decides how and when it is going to be taught?
Are we ready, as teachers, to hand over some power? Or is it precisely power what makes us different from the students?
To me, teaching is all about sharing and negotiating with the students. How am I going to help them if I only teach what I think is relevant and not what they really need? How am I going to help them if I can only rely in one way of teaching?
After observing a lesson at a Secondary School in Buenos Aires City, I wrote a report focusing on power. I analysed what decisions were taken by the teacher (and/or by the students) and which were the general tendencies. Were students given opportunities to take some decisions? Or everything was set and established by the teacher?

I invite you now to go over my report. I really hope you enjoy it as much as I did while writing it. I can assure you it will be a great opportunity for you to reflect on your own teaching. It really helped me realise how important it is for a teacher to be aware of the decisions we take (or let students take). As you will notice while reading the report, I tried to analyse both aspects of classroom power: who does and who should take the decisions (this was done, of course, following my own heart and my personal views).

2nd Report / Alejandra de antoni / Classroom Observation / Methods 2 2009 2nd Report / Alejandra de antoni / Classroom Observation / Methods 2 2009 alez_avrill This is a report of a 40-minute lesson I observed at a secondary school in Argentina. It was a class of 12 and 13 year-olds. They are learning English as Foreign Language and their level is somewhere between elementary and pre-intermediate.
The object of analysis of this report is Power. Who is in charge of taking the decisions in the classroom? The teacher? The students? Or both?
What are the implications of handing over some decision-making and what consequences it brings about in the activities' outcomes and students' learning process?
I really hope you enjoy my reflection and, of course, your comments and reactions are welcome! (:

After writing my report, I came to the following conclusion:

I generally share some decision-making with my students. I don’t generally let them decide everything simply because there are some things that have to be done in a certain period of time (this is related to what I explained in points 5 and 6 above). Of course I know that there are certain aims that we should achieve in a certain period of time but, at the same time, I know that we can sometimes negotiate the way in which we are going to do so. I know that sometimes I put at risk some short-term goals (for instance, practising a certain language topic in a given activity) while letting them decide on the way they will carry out an activity or the topics they are going to talk about. It’s definitely more demanding and risky for us to hand over power but, in the end, it is a lot more rewarding because they will not only enjoy what they are doing but they will also remember it! The key is M & M: Motivating and Memorable!

Friday, 29 May 2009

Lesson Observation Nº1: We All Teach What We Are!

After observing a lesson at a Secondary School (Buenos Aires City, Argentina) I tried to take a deep look into the organism that is given birth through the interaction of a teacher with her students.
Since the classroom is like an organism, there are many different factors that play an essential role in its functioning.
But, what are those factors and what is their contribution to the lesson?
The following document is the report I wrote after observing the lesson in which I analysed some of them.
Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed being in that classroom!

1st Report / Alejandra de Antoni / Classroom Observation Methods2 2009 1st Report / Alejandra de Antoni / Classroom Observation Methods2 2009 alez_avrill This is a report of a 40-minute lesson I observed at a secondary school in Argentina. It was a class of 12 and 13 year-olds. They are learning English as a Foreign Language and their level is somewhere between elementary and pre-intermediate.
The analysis carried out in this lesson is global since it's not focused on particular details but on the lesson as a whole (there is, for instance, an overall analysis of behaviour, attittude and talking time both from the students' and the teacher's point of view)

Monday, 25 May 2009

Pair and Group Work: Two Powerful Allies to Promote the Communicative Classroom

Discussion taken from "Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom." (Tricia Hedge, Ch. 2)

Aim: to analyse and discuss two main reasons for using pairwork and groupwork in the communicative classroom.

Guiding questions:
  • Do you agree with them?
  • Would you add any from your experience?
  • What do you think are the disadvantages of pairwork and work in small groups?
  • Would you place any conditions on their successful use in the classroom?
Reasons for using pairwork and groupwork:
  • It enables students to take risks with the language and to see if they can negotiate meaning.
  • It gives students the opportunity to monitor how well they understand and are understood.
First of all, I have to say that I do agree with both reasons. I think that giving students the opportunity to take part in student-student interactions (in contrast with student-teacher interactions in which the "communicative" relevance of the message is most of the times blurred by a feeling of being tested -a feeling that, of course, can be washed away through fostering natural interaction with our students.-) is a not only a great way of helping them build their communicative skills but also a must if we want our classroom to be a communicative one. This idea of student-student interaction is what allows our students to take risks (it is always more relaxing to make a mistake while talking to a partner than when talking to the teacher no matter how communicative we may be) and to see if they can negotiate meaning. However, there is one problem that may arise and it's what makes a connection between making mistakes and negotiation of meaning. When it comes to mistakes, they can always be overcome by students if they do not hinder communication. If students understand what they say regardless of its language accuracy, they will probably not care about the accurate version of the message simply because that is not their concern. So, if our aim as teachers is to foster fluency and communication, how and when are we going to focus on the accuracy of the messages our students are sending? When students are carrying out the activity, they will certainly find a way of making themselves clear even if they have to resort to their mother tongue. Therefore, if they were to be in such a situation but in a real context with native speakers, how can we be certain that they will understand and be understood?

The answer, I guess, must be balance. As it is generally the case, extremes are not good. Of course we do teach communication (if not, what would we be teaching a language for?) but, whether we like it or not, we need to, somehow, find a balance between fluency and accuracy. It's true that when it comes to pairwork and groupwork activities, students do not generally have the time to sit down and analyse not only what they are going to say what how they are going to say it due to time constraints. That is why paraphrasing, monitoring and process writing and speaking are so important! Gradual and process writing and speaking are a perfect opportunity for preparing not only the content of the message but also its form in a guided way. Monitoring is also of key importance since the teacher needs to be there with the students, ready to help them but, of course, without invading them: suggest! Do not impose! That is why, from my personal experience, I really think that they work wonderfully when they feel they are free enough to explore and self-discover answers but when, at the same time, they know you are there to help them. Finally, it is essential for us to teach them how to monitor themselves. We should let them know that monitoring does not mean that they have to self-correct every word they produce but that they have to be ready to spot any unclear message or idea so as to find a way of making it understandable for others. Accuracy is not the perfection of isolated grammatical structures but the appropriateness of a certain language form for putting across a certain message in a certain context. Accuracy is not a weapon to kill fluency but an excellent tool to enhance it.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

1st Discussion Topic: "Learners & Learning, Classroom & Contexts."

Discussion taken from "Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom." (Tricia Hedge, Ch. 1)

Context: at the beginning of teaching a course with a new group of adolescent or adult students.
Objective: create activities (a) to find out their reasons for learning English and (b) to motivate them towards their language learning task.

(a) I would ask them to create a chart called: "My Top Five Reasons for Learning English." If the students are beginners or pre-intermediates this will be carried out in their mother tongue (keeping the English title, of course) because I want them to feel free and be able to write whatever they want.
When it's finished, I would ask them to carry out a survey to find out which are the Top Five Reasons in the class and, finally, I would encourage a short debate about why they think those are the most "popular" reasons in their group.

(b) I would ask them to read the Seven Rules of Motivation (taken from http://www.motivation-tools.com/elements/seven_rules.htm) and encourage them to discuss if they think they may be useful for improving or helping their learning:

Seven Rules of Motivation

  • Set a major goal, but follow a path. The path has mini goals that go in many directions. When you learn to succeed at mini goals, you will be motivated to challenge grand goals.
  • Finish what you start. A half finished project is of no use to anyone. Quitting is a habit. Develop the habit of finishing self-motivated projects.
  • Socialize with others of similar interest. Mutual support is motivating. To be a cowboy we must associate with cowboys.
  • Learn how to learn. When we learn the art of self-education we will find, if not create, opportunity to find success beyond our wildest dreams. Ask your instructors to provide you with tools to enhace your learning.
  • Harmonize natural talent with interest that motivates. Natural talent creates motivation, motivation creates persistence and persistence gets the job done.
  • Increase knowledge of subjects that inspires. The more we know about a subject, the more we want to learn about it. A self-propelled upward spiral develops.
  • Take risk. Failure and bouncing back are elements of motivation. Failure is a learning tool. No one has ever succeeded at anything worthwhile without a string of failures.

Seven Rules of Motivation - Copyright http://www.motivation-tools.com

I deeply believe that encouraging students to talk about motivation (especially with adolescents and adults who are ready to analyse their objectives and goals in language learning) is an excellent way of showing them that, without their really wanting to do it, without any motivation, attending an English lesson will inevitably become pointless.