Friday, 22 November 2013

Speaking and writing in exam training: blended solutions


I presented this paper on behalf of OUP at the IATEFL conference in Liverpool in April 2013. For those of you who couldn't be there, here's a summary of what we discussed in the session.

Success factors in exam training

When teachers are faced with the task of preparing a group of students for a given exam, there is one known constant: the students, without exception, must attain the level required by the exam. Although this objective – exam success – is clear, there are several factors that necessitate teachers’ attention in the classroom.

First of these is the current level or starting level of the individuals comprising the group. Teachers need measurement tools, both valid and reliable, to efficiently measure students’ level of English in order to establish the starting point for the exam training syllabus. Online and computer-assisted as well as printed placement tests cater for this need.

Another key factor in exam success is familiarity. As one delegate aptly put it in the session: ’there ought to be no surprises in the exam’. Learners need to be familiar both with the test itself (its structure, the types of tasks involved, the amount of time available for each paper and part and so on) and its assessment criteria (to put simply, how candidates can obtain or lose scores as well as the relative weighting of the various papers and parts). The simplest solution is to select course materials designed around the particular exam that learners are preparing for – or to supplement a core course material with such dedicated exam training materials.

Finally, teachers must also provide a balanced coverage of all the language (grammar, vocabulary, functions) and all the skills tested in the exam, both receptive and productive skills. To ensure exam success, the focus should not be on what is easier to quantify and to teach, or what is practical to fit into a lesson timeframe, but on what each learner will be expected to do in the exam.

Potential problem areas for training for productive skills


Writing and speaking both present a number of practical difficulties that teachers must find solutions for. By their nature, productive skills are less predictable (there is often no such thing as ’the’ correct answer) and more challenging to break down into classroom activities.

Writing issues


The writing process proper takes an inordinate amount of time – often more than how much time is feasible in the contact hours available. Writing activities therefore often take place outside the classroom – that is, outside the environment controlled by the teacher. Only the lead-in work, and occasionally some form of follow-up is usually done in class. Task-setting may be done in or outside class, but subsequent monitoring is difficult, impractical, often even impossible. Teachers only find out that some learners got on the wrong track after students have completed their assignments. This then leads to further complications like more unplanned remedial work or a repeat of the writing task, preferably with modified parameters to avoid duplicating the task for those learners who got it right first time around.

Furthermore, if marking is to be thorough, by necessity it will be extremely time-consuming. Conversely, if it is to be done quickly and promptly, it will be superficial.

Speaking issues


All speaking work, on the other hand, is normally done in class – precisely so that teachers can control it. This means learners either have to perform simultaneously, where again the issue of proper monitoring arises, or they perform individually (or in open pairs or groups), which reduces all other learners’ chances to speak. Teachers face the dilemma of providing either maximum opportunity–minimum control/feedback or maximum control/feedback–minimum opportunity.

Blended solutions


Blended learning: the amalgamation of face-to-face and course material-driven approaches with online approaches can provide a solution for the above issues.

The following diagram shows a possible model for covering writing training.



The difficulties caused by the practical necessity of completing writing assignments out of the classroom can be remedied through the use of a Learning Management System (LMS) which allows teachers to set up and monitor tasks remotely. Many online services also offer an automatic (or at least a guided semi-automatic) marking facility for more closed types of writing.

Speaking can also be aided through the use of online learning services (online workbooks, practice tests, etc.), which often offer a speak-and-record facility. Teachers can find similar free-to-use web services online. Embracing social media channels, like online video chat can also enhance exam preparation and extend contact time.

Blended learning may not provide solutions for every exam training issue, but is well worth considering.

Go digital - life is peaceful there... or is it?

Digital was a big thing at this year's IATEFL in Liverpool - some publishers didn't even bring books to their stands! I fondly recall a confused teacher walking up to said publisher's stand, asking: "You don't have any coursebooks any more?" - to which the marketing person replied: "Of course, we do. Have a look in our catalogue." The teacher, relieved, "So, may I have a catalogue then?" Marketing person, slightly embarrassed, "Actually, we haven't got any printed copies with us, but use one of the iPads at our stand to browse our online catalogue." The teacher ambled up to the row of iPads, then stood around helplessly until the same marketing person walked up to her to find out what, if anything, was the matter this time. "Can you show me how to use this thing, please?", the lady said... No comment. 

BEBC didn't refrain from commenting on the subject, though: http://bebcblog.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/so-is-the-elt-textbook-dead-or-not/

So is digital a bandwagon we should all be in a hurry to jump on? I read this thought-provoking article on eltjam.com where Laurie Harrison made a compelling case for iterative publishing - that is, continually updated online teaching materials replacing coursebooks: http://www.eltjam.com/iterative-publishing-in-elt-10-reasons-why-it-will-and-wont-work/

To me, the cons still outweigh the pros. This is where my reservations stem from: digital is simply a different medium, but the pedagogical values and teaching/learning objectives should neither be restricted by the medium's limitations or by its vast technological potential. We shouldn't be doing only what the format allows us to do, but we should mould the format to allow us to do what we want to do. We pay a lot of lip service to "blended learning", but what I'm missing here is old-fashioned (yes, coursebook) values blended with a mixture of media to provide a more stimulating as well as more familiar environment for learners. 

For more food for thought, have a look at Hugh Dellar's insightful blog post into the wider ramifications: http://hughdellar.wordpress.com/2012/10/26/technology-and-principles-in-language-teaching/

I'm not against digital in principle, obviously. Digital media open up opportunities for real communication as well as communication practice, they provide access to vast amounts of information as well as stimulating materials, and they come equipped with the facilities for differentiated, personalised learning experiences. None of which was around when I was a student, then a teacher of English. I had to make do with what limited amount of support I could find around me in a non-English-speaking environment. Before the advent of digital, that wasn't a lot.

Anyway, I just thought I'd throw in this topic for all of us to think more about. I believe there is a way in which digital can work in our favour - but we, teachers, should be mapping the route and leading the way, not technology. What do you think? 

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Monday, 9 September 2013

Nyelvparádé 2013: Egy mindenkiért, mindenki egyért

A 2013-as Nyelvparádén a pozitív csoportdinamika kialakításáról és fenntartásáról tartottam foglalkozást - a más nyelveket tanítókra figyelemmel kivételesen magyar nyelven. Áttekintettük a csoportdinamika négy főbb fázisát, és megismerkedtünk néhány olyan gyakorlattal és technikával, amelyek ezzel kapcsolatban segíthetik munkánkat az osztályban.
Egy-egy közösség sikereinek kulcsa az ezeket alkotó egyéniségek közti ko-operatív viszonyok kialakulása, és az egyének egymásért tenni akaró és tenni tudó közösséggé formálása. Azzal a ténnyel már minden nyelvtanár szembesülhetett pályája során, hogy míg egyes tanulócsoportokban működnek a bevált technikák és ezt az elért eredmények is igazolják, más csoportokban ez mégsem így van - és néha magunk sem tudjuk, miért nem. A pedagógus szerepe szüntelen egyensúlyozás a versengés és együttműködés, az egyénekre figyelés és a csoport minden tagjának mozgósítása, bevonása között. Hogyan találjuk meg tehát a helyes egyensúlyt? Erről a témáról még írni fogok a blogban, addig is az alábbi linkről letölhető a foglalkozás anyaga PDF formátumban: https://app.box.com/s/ovtc7w0yufgg2vm66xxl.
Ajánlom továbbá a blogon már szereplő, hasonló témájú angol nyelvű cikkeket is.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Back to school: Your first class with a new group

September is here - many of us are returning to school, with anticipation mixed with dread about the groups we are going to teach. Some of us will be starting the long journey of language learning with a new group of students. Macmillan's Onestopenglish offers a very helpful article by Melissa Martin on Approaching a first class with a new group | Onestopenglish.
Incidentially, building and maintaining cohesive and supportive group dynamics in our English classes will also be the subject of my talk at this weekend's Nyelvparádé language learning fair in Budapest, Hungary (6-8 September 2013, Millenáris B épület - with my own talk scheduled for the Friday afternoon), so those teachers wishing to attend will find Melissa Martin's article an excellent primer for it. I will be posting again on the subject after the event.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Who's afraid of the summer break?

In the Northern Hemisphere, summer is upon us. For teachers, that also means that the long summer holidays are upon us. Students are already getting into their holiday mindset (that is, thinking ahead to what they will be doing away from school, instead of thinking about what their teacher is asking them to do at school), so they are slipping away from our lovingly crafted supportive learning environment.

After the summer: back to school, back to square one?

If you are a teacher, are you dreading the autumn restart? Are you concerned about how much your students will have fallen out of practice, how much they will have forgotten of everything you taught them over the past months, perhaps years? Do you then, every autumn, drop back the level and re-teach some of what you consider the problematic essentials? Well, that IS the responsible thing to do, but how much better would it be to get your students back with exactly the same level of knowledge they had before the summer break? The same level of practice, already warmed up for further study? How would you prefer progressing from where you left off rather than having to repeat yourself?

Summer assignments - do they work?

Many of us set our students summer assignments - like reading texts we think they might enjoy reading, "fun" grammar exercises to fill their time, perhaps a project for them to do while on holiday? (If you do have a successful idea that has worked in the past, perhaps you'd like to share it - feel free to use the Comments feature below.)
Will students complete these assignments? Sure, some will - most probably just a couple of days before they're due back to school, in a rush and without proper care for quality of content. They know you won't have time to check and assess their work properly anyway! You'll be too busy repeating what you taught them in the spring...
Well, there are no foolproof recipes for all this.

Here's an idea: social networking

One thing you can try to do is to capitalise on students' obsession with social networking. Yes, yes, you and their parents would love them to go outside and get some fresh air rather than to sit in their rooms or in Wi-Fi hotspot cafés, facebooking... Resign yourself to this! They'll be facebooking all day long, anyway. 
But how about creating your own network? (Nik Peachey's excellent blog on technology in education might help - here's an article from 2008, most of it still valid: http://nikpeachey.blogspot.hu/2008/06/create-your-own-social-network-7-steps.html - have a look!) Social networks are meant for precisely the same purpose as the whole of language education: communication! Why not let students communicate the way they like communicating then?
If you decide to go with Facebook itself, make sure you create a closed group so only your students and yourself can see the posts in it - your students' safety is your responsibility, and preserving their privacy is vital. But there are other options are to explore - free web services which allow you to create your own noticeboard (check out http://boardhost.com/ or http://www.proboards.com/ or http://www.runboard.com/ for example - note that I cannot personally vouch for any of these three sites, but there are literally dozens of similar services available) where students can post comments, updates on their activities and photos. You can even create your own private social network (for example: http://www.mixxt.net/ or http://www.yooco.org/ - again, note that I haven't personally vetted these two, but have a look yourself to decide whether they offer what you need). 
Here are a few tips to get you going:
  • Don't frame this network project as a school assignment - make it sound like fun. 
  • Don't set too many rules. One rule that is worth setting: English only (or as much as possible).
  • Involve students in setting up the network or noticeboard. You might even like to allow them to pick the service they like best. If the service allows page design, get students to customise your network page - this can even turn into a classroom project as well as proper language work (practising the language of planning and co-operation, for example: making, accepting and rejecting suggestions, should / ought to, modals for obligation, necessity and permission, and so on).
  • You might want to kick things off by writing the welcome message together in class. Discuss the sort of things they would like to see on their network. (NB. Steer them gently towards coming up with the kind of things you want out of it - don't tell them explicitly what to post. Don't worry, you're a teacher, you're good at making them come up with your own ideas.)
  • Encourage students to be active. There's no point in having a noticeboard or network with only one or two boring posts on it.
  • Join in. Be active - post about yourself regularly. Posts don't have to be long (students won't be interested in ALL your holiday snaps, for instance - just pick one or two that will make them laugh or that will make them interested in finding out more), just make sure you're seen. 
  • Don't be TOO active. The network isn't a news service for your students about your life - it's a place for them to share experiences, thoughts, feelings.
  • If the selected service allows it, post comments (or, at least, "like") on what students have posted. Show them you're interested.
  • Don't correct any errors. Make notes of any glaring mistakes students make, but go over them in your autumn revision classes - without mentioning that you've picked up on them in the network.
  • Moderate posts and comments. Make sure things don't get personal or inappropriate - but don't make a huge issue about it all. Use private messaging to warn misbehavers rather than public. Intervene only as a last resort - most conflicts, if any occur at all, can be sorted between your students. It's their network.
Am I saying this will work? Hard to say. But students are more likely to give it a go than to complete a worksheet on, say the third conditional. Who knows, perhaps next summer it'll be them who suggest repeating the experience!

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Children's literature in ELT? Why not?

Although throughout most of my TEFL career I have been working with teenage and adult learners, I now have two "young learners" of my own back home, so I'm learning the ropes through experience. One might think that language teaching is language teaching, irrespective of the age group, but that's not quite true - and this goes beyond the obvious differences in attention spans, activity type preferences, or cognitive maturity... teaching kids turns out to be a different ball game altogether. 
One thing I quite like about young learners is that it is much less result-oriented, and a lot more focused on the learning process itself. Children don't usually question why we're doing something. As long as it's fun, in the sense that it becomes another game for them to play, they're happy to play along. As their teacher (parent, au pair, tutor... whatever), you may set goals and forge plans (which you simply must be prepared to abandon if necessary, as with young children things, as a rule, never go according to plan), but the children don't need to be aware of these. I suppose it's important for them to sense that there is a point to an activity, and sometimes they may even ask what that is - but this is a lot less vital than the actual activity itself.
Another nice thing about young learners is that teaching them is not coursebook-bound. Anything can, and will, become a tool for learning. (A brief aside: but should that not be true for a learner of any age? Why exactly then do we get bogged down in "covering the coursebook" a lot of the time...?) Their favourite toys, furniture, natural objects, people, and obviously, books, too.
I think reading is fun. I also think reading SHOULD BE fun. But how about turning the joy of literature to our advantage in teaching the language? How about setting those goals and forging those plans - while allowing the kids to immerse themselves in a world of imagination, knowledge and inspiration? 
I've only just found out about a new publication called CLELE journal, which focuses exactly on that theme: children's literature in language teaching. Find our more here: http://clelejournal.org/. I'll definitely be following it from now.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Motivated to motivate? Reflections on the ELTA 11th Annual Conference, Belgrade

ELTA, the association of English language teachers in Serbia, organised its annual conference last weekend at the Pedagogical Faculty in Belgrade. Despite the hot weather, lots of teachers attended (and hopefully enjoyed) a wide range of plenary talks and workshops. I wouldn't personally have expected to participate in any "Bollywood dancing", for example - if you were there, you know what I'm talking about. 

I had a double slot before the lunch break on Friday, starting with a 45-minute workshop on classroom dynamics, followed by a 60-minute plenary on teacher motivation. 

Although devised as a workshop, my first session (All for one, one for all) didn't really work as such. We were given the main lecture hall, which meant that on the stage I was separated from my training group by several metres and I had to use a microphone as well because of the big space - not really conducive to good two-way interaction. I'd planned several questions where I was going to elicit trainees' responses first before exploring the issues myself, but standing on that stage, I simply couldn't hear them... Note to self: perhaps next time try to find out which room I'll be given further ahead of time so I can plan accordingly? Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, I hope teachers benefited from the content.


The workshop was organised around activity ideas for each stage in the formation of a working group from Forming to Storming to Norming to Performing (terminology from Tuckman, 1969, quoted in Argyle: Social Interaction. 1969, Tavistock Press, London - in case you wanted to know) which I encouraged teachers to consider trying in their own classes as they start in their new groups in the next school year.

For anyone wanting to download a handout copy of my workshop (with said activity ideas and a short recommended reading list), follow this link: https://www.box.com/s/24r3zzdwpemkewohmxv7.

In my plenary, the focus was on teacher motivation: where it comes from, and what teachers can do to maintain their own motivation. The idea actually came about as an extension of a talk I did on 23 February at the OUP Day at the Sava Centar in Belgrade. The February session explored student motivation, which got me thinking about how this was connected (assuming at that point that it was) to teacher motivation, then I shared the results of my further research with the delegates at ELTA. For anyone wanting to explore the subject further, here are a few recommendations:
M. Praver and W. Oga-Baldwin: What motivates language teachers. Investigating work satisfaction and second language pedagogy. In: Polyglossia Vol.14, February 2008.
G. Demes da Cruz: From limitation to motivation: fourteen tips on how to enhance motivation in the EFL class. From www.developingteachers.com.
L. Bartlett: Teacher development through reflective teaching. In: J.C. Richards and D. Nunan (eds): Second language teacher education. 1990, Cambridge University Press.

I have also contributed a short article on student motivation to the April issue of the ELTA Newsletter, and those interested can check it out here: http://www.britishcouncil.rs/predavanje-engleskog/elta-e-bilten/april-2013.

I really enjoyed ELTA - Serbian teachers are always a joy to work with. Look forward to my next opportunity to re-test this impression. :-)

Friday, 19 April 2013

Consonant finds a voice


What is 'Consonant Voiced'?

Due to popular demand, I am creating a blog space, mainly for my activities within English Language Teaching.The blog will feature articles, news and updates on my activities, any relevant media appearances, and materials for sharing - and that's just the basic plan.

Why 'Consonant Voiced'? 

Consonant is the name of my own limited company, which I set up at the beginning of 2012 to provide a range of services to clients, primarily in the fields of publishing and language teaching. 

Playing on the meaning of the word 'consonant', I chose 'voiced' - to suggest this blog will become the soapbox for all those themes connected with what I do on behalf of my company.

For those of you who have never succumbed to the elusive charms of phonetics, consonants (that is, to use the simplest definition, all the speech sounds which aren't vowels: A, E, I, O, U) can be voiced or unvoiced. An unvoiced consonant doesn't produce vibrations in your vocal chords - unlike voiced consonants, which resonate.

I sincerely hope that many things you'll read here in the future will resonate with you, in the best figurative sense of the verb...