Parent power

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First up a bit of boasting. I just walked 799km in 31 days. I’m quite proud of myself. I also had the luxury of stepping away from the world of teaching for a whole month. And not just away from teaching – from the real world itself. When on a long distance trek there are no real decisions to make, you simply wake up, walk, eat, sleep and repeat. Despite this, it took me a good week or so to get out of the habit of looking for things to be stressed about. What if my feet hurt? What if it rains? What if I can’t find a cash machine? What if the next hostel also doesn’t have WiFi and I can’t Facebook my fabulous photos? And what about all those people looking at my fabulous Facebook photos thinking teachers have it easy? All these long holidays, who are they to complain about their heavy workloads? Actually, I don’t think my friends think like that and even if they do I don’t really care, but teachers do have a reputation for making a meal of it, and that is very unfair.

Most teachers I know are freelance, or they have contracts which run October to June, which means it’s almost impossible to survive the year without taking on some sort of summer job. Like any profession, there is a huge focus on professional development with many teachers taking on extra work or additional courses to enhance their prospects. I’m currently working full time on this refugee project, setting up my first CELTA as main course tutor and completing an online course in online tutoring (the IHCOLT if you’re interested). I’m also trying to keep up this blog, enjoy the short time I have in Lebanon, and right now trying to catch up with everything that’s been going on in TEFL while I’ve been off the radar.

Luckily, I stumbled upon a lovely blog post from Emily Hird, who had helpfully summarized the what’s hot and what’s not of YL nicely for me (read her post here). It’s all about current trends in young learner education, all of which require skillful handling by the teacher. It’s a pretty big task teaching a foreign language to a small child, and on top of that we need to remember to develop life skills, creativity, innovation, social values… the list goes on. I love how much good intention there is in primary teaching. A lot of teachers stick to adults and teens, not that those classes can be called easy, but it is generally accepted that to teach primary you need to put in a lot of effort and develop a totally different skill set. Many (admittedly not all) of the essential skills mentioned by Emily are well developed by adulthood, but to incorporate them into the primary classroom can be daunting. These skills call for an increase in communication between students, more collaboration and learner autonomy and a relinquishing of control from the teacher, all of which is brilliant and all of which can lead to classroom management nightmares.

Once you have classroom management under control it’s astonishing how much you can achieve in a young learner classroom, and just how mature young children can be. It’s a joy to see groups of children working on creative projects, supporting each other and taking responsibility for their own learning. There are many ideas for behaviour management, commonly reward systems, which I’m not going to write about here. What I want to focus on is parental involvement. Not in terms of meetings, messages, reporting or responding to problems – things which are time consuming and potentially reactionary. I want to share my recommendations for maintaining open channels of communication with parents via a few time-efficient strategies which have worked for me. When students know you have access to their mums and dads the stakes are suddenly raised and you can often turn your attention to teaching rather than crowd control. Having open communication with parents can also have a dramatic effect on the progress and achievement of your students. When parents show interest in what their child is learning and know how to help practice language at home, the results in the classroom are noticeable.

  1. Lesson summaries

lesson summaryPrivate English lessons are expensive so parents understandably have high expectations and want results. The age for learning a foreign language at school is getting lower and lower and English is seen as a priority to give children a head start in life. When parents know what their child does in class, there are two major benefits. Firstly, they have a deeper understanding of what to expect, e.g. their 5 year old is not going to be having fluent conversations in English after a couple of lessons. Secondly, a large majority of them actually want to help, and when parents practice lesson content at home with their child, there is much less work for the teacher. I always use lesson summaries, which you can download here, as a way of keeping parents in the loop. I put the main lesson content along with the homework task, and a short description of what parents can do at home to further support their child learning English. Not too much detail is required, and in fact I always prepare mine when I’m planning the lesson, so if I’m not sure how much of the lesson I will get through I play it safe and stick to something I know I will cover. I can always add things to the next lesson summary if I miss something important. I use these for all early years and primary students, but they work particularly well for the younger students up to the age of about 10. Older students are more capable of remembering and telling their parents what they learnt, particularly if you use Assessment for Learning strategies such as WALT, or Can Do Statements. I give out my summaries as the children leave the classroom, that way they make it straight into the hands of their parents instead of disappearing into school bags never to be seen again.

  1. Monthly portfolios

portfolioSomething interesting happens when students know you have a way of contacting their parents. I don’t like to use the whole ‘Do you want me to contact your parents?’ threat because unless you follow it up it is fairly useless, and in following it up you give yourself (and potentially your colleagues) a lot of work. When I introduced monthly portfolios (download here ) it was a way of getting my students to reflect on and celebrate what they had learnt. It was also a way for me to get feedback. It works excellently in those ways, but it is also a good way to keep in touch with parents and again show them the value in their child’s lessons. Each month I choose 3 different criteria to reflect on, such as new words I learnt, my favourite topic, the funniest moment, my new skill, my best piece of work, how my teacher can help me, my ideas for next month. Students fill in the boxes by writing and/or drawing, and I collect them all in to comment on. Once I’ve commented, the students take them home, show their parents who sign and bring it back to me. It is also signed by the student before being stuck in their notebook. ‘Do you want me to contact your parents?’ turns into ‘remember I’ll be commenting on your portfolio soon’ and the students know you mean it. It’s a routine and easy way to increase communication with home in a non-threatening way.

  1. Behaviour certificates

behaviour certificate imageSometimes certain students need a bit of extra motivation to keep on track in the classroom. I’m quite liberal with certificates, I have them for all sorts of things – helping my partner, working hard, arriving on time – whatever is needed. Children with behavioural issues, for whatever reason, often struggle to get generic rewards such as these, or stickers or points depending on what system the teacher uses. One of my favourite ways to keep a problematic child on task is by introducing a behaviour certificate, which I personalize for the child in question by writing specific achievable targets. To set up in class, I find a quiet moment at the start of the lesson to show the certificate to the child in question and go over the expectations. I usually ask the child how they are feeling and if they think they can meet the targets. If the targets are met during the course of the lesson, they are ticked off and the student chooses a sticker for the blank space and takes the certificate home. If I can’t tick all the boxes we keep it and continue in the next lesson. I have never had issues with jealousy or competitiveness from other class members, as children are usually very discerning and understanding. Someone being naughty is all part and parcel of being a child, and if someone needs extra reminding or help they tend to accept that. As long as they feel they are being fairly rewarded for their effort and contributions there shouldn’t be a problem. This one doesn’t relate directly to parental involvement, but certain children never get the rewards or the stickers, only nagging and complaints from the teacher. Getting a special certificate sends a very positive message to the child and the child’s parents. It shows that the teacher is offering help and acknowledging good work and progress. Download the template here

Teachers do have very heavy workloads, since the business of teaching is a very serious one. Clear and transparent communication with parents takes some of the responsibility and strain off. It can improve behaviour in the classroom, and increase the amount of support and language practice your students get outside the classroom. Additionally, parents love to know what’s going on with their children, and arguably have a right to know what they do in lessons. Why not try some of these strategies and see what works for you? I’d love to hear how you get on. Perhaps you have other ways of keeping in touch with parents in a positive and time-efficient way which you could share with us. If so please comment below.

A word in edgeways

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I am a bit of a reluctant writer. I very much enjoy writing, but I’m deeply aware of the over-abundance of words written about anything and everything and am loathe to contribute yet more to the never ending stream of information. I have an image of this blog post eating itself. If the content focuses on the complete superfluity of words, does that somehow negate the words I use?

I remember very little about my grandfather, but I do remember one thing. When visiting one weekend I must have been sitting mutely as he commented ‘that one is a thinker’. It stayed with me. Firstly because I took it as a compliment. Secondly because at that moment he was right. I will never purport to being a great thinker, however at that precise moment I was thinking. I was thinking how strange it was that people kept on repeating the same things, the same stories and opinions to different people on different days. The same stuff, changing slightly in detail and opinion with each telling as new angles and shades of meaning became apparent, but essentially the same old things over and over and over again. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to say anything unless it was really worth saying.

Had I decided to live my life by only saying things which were new and significant I doubt I’d ever have said anything at all, and I certainly wouldn’t have been much use to all the students and teachers I have worked with. Especially as we know that when learning a language repetition and revision are key to success, and rehearsing what and how to say something is greatly beneficial to students of all ages.

I do stand by the sentiment though, in particular in relation to my current profession. There is far too much writing about teaching which simply repackages what we already know. Now I am freelance and have the freedom to be selective about the projects I take on, I have more time to engage with the many teaching websites, blogs and publications, and some of them are excellent. When I was working full time as a teacher I simply did not have time to sort the wheat from the chaff and was generally mistrustful of blogs. I did however spend a lot of time searching for lesson materials, hoping that the perfect quiz/article/video for my lesson topic would be miraculously waiting for me.

Staff rooms are jam packed with resources for teaching every kind of lesson. The internet is a minefield of sites sharing teaching tips, worksheets, lesson plans, games, activities, the list goes on. Many teachers, myself included have photocopies of extra resources squirreled away in folders kept just in case there is some sort of TEFL communicative activity emergency.

You can interpret this as a real commitment amongst teachers to share and collaborate, which is wonderful. But it can also indicate a reliance on extra activities and resources as a substitute for real teaching and learning. It’s easy to blame the coursebook as being deficient, and therefore justify the constant search for something to supplement it with. But I would argue it’s much better to spend time improving the tool you are given than in the endless search for the perfect activity. Doing more with what you already have frees up valuable time to think carefully about your lesson aims, or learning intentions, and how you will ensure that your students take something new away from every lesson they attend. It allows you to really plan how you will clarify new language and improve your students’ skills by helping them to engage with essential language and learning strategies.

Supplementing the coursebook, creating your own worksheets, using authentic materials: these things are all great. But having time to reflect, research, discuss and drink coffee is also great.

To free up a bit of your precious time here are a few of my go to no prep activities using only the coursebook:

Picture quiz

Give students 30 seconds to memorise a picture and then close their books. Put students into pairs and ask quiz style questions (e.g. what colour were the man’s socks? What hand was the woman holding her mobile phone?). Score 1 point for each correct answer.

Text bingo

Tell students the topic of the text they will be working with (reading or listening). Pairs brainstorm a set number of words they expect to appear in the text (content rather than grammar words). Use this as your gist task – the pair who correctly predicted the most words are the winners.

Vocab hunt

After following the usual procedure for teaching reading, put students into pairs and distribute mini-whiteboards or scrap paper and markers. Give definitions for words/phrases in the text which students race to find and write on their mini-boards. Focus on a mixture of the vocabulary you pre-taught as well as other useful words or phrases that your students have encountered before. Make sure you go through the text in order to provide support. The first pair to hold up the correct word get the point. At the end you can ask students to go through the text and highlight all the words you defined, writing short definitions for the ones they found tricky.

Banana dictation

After completing gap fills provide further practice by including a banana dictation. Students take it in turns to read the sentences to their partner but instead of the missing word they say ‘banana’. Their partner provides the missing word from memory. Students can then make up their own gapped sentences using the same structure to provide even more consolidation.

Vocab swap

Students choose a new word, collocation or phrase from the lesson and write it on a scrap of paper. They walk around the room to find a partner and define their word for their partner to guess. Once both students have guessed they swap papers and mingle to find a new partner to repeat the activity.

So what I’m trying to say is say less and do less. Or rather do more with what you already have. Have confidence in your own ideas and creativity. After all, any piece of material is only ever as good as the teacher utilising it.

Performance and progress: some pragmatic pointers (or how to write better student reports)

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Since going freelance I’ve been having problems defining what I do. Some days I’m a writer, others a conference speaker. I’m a teacher trainer and when I get the chance, a teacher. My non-teaching friends are mystified so I’ve gone back to referring to myself as a teacher to them. Professionally speaking my job title is getting longer and longer and therefore more and more ridiculous, and I need to find a snappy title which encapsulates the various things I do. I’m toying with going with Primary Guru, but that excludes all the work I do on CELTA and does seem a little grandiose, particularly considering I now do a fair amount of work from home in my pyjamas. Anyway, last week I was a writer. I love writing and I’m very much enjoying the project, but spending so much time writing for work meant I had no inclination to then spend my evenings writing for Primary Stories. This week, however, I’m zooming around Poland presenting at conferences and there’s nothing better than meeting teachers and listening to their ideas and opinions to get my blogging brain in gear.

If you live in Poland you’ll be aware of the upcoming structural changes to compulsory education. I’m presenting on the curriculum changes which impact primary teachers. Essentially there is a new core curriculum which emphasises amongst other things developing the ‘whole child’ via a holistic approach to teaching, and ensuring children have a positive early experience of foreign language learning to build self-confidence, self-esteem and lay the foundations for successful future learning. If you want to know how to do that, then come along to one of my sessions.

I have spent a lot of time analysing the new curriculum, which is very specific regarding what a child should be able to do at each stage of their formal education. The new curriculum also highlights the need for children to be aware of the learning process, and to be able to self-assess. I think self-assessment is great, however, it seems to me that in order for teachers to successfully facilitate self-assessment, they first need to be confident in assessing the students themselves.

Having a detailed curriculum allows teachers and schools to build up a syllabus for each subject detailing the specific items students will have learnt by the end of their course. Without a syllabus, the task of measuring progress is tricky. Looking back over the many years I’ve taught at private language schools, I can’t actually remember ever seeing a syllabus. There was always a coursebook with a contents page detailing the skills, grammar and vocabulary covered in each unit, and all the schools had created a pacing guide to go with it stating how much of each book should be covered during a course. Using a coursebook as a syllabus is not necessarily bad, but what about if two teachers teaching the same level at the same school are using different coursebooks? Not a big deal as most books cover similar language points at each level anyway. So far so good, although there is a but. Compared to other languages, many of which have a large number of inflections, English grammar is relatively straightforward. Learning the various verb forms is not in itself challenging. It’s learning when to use them which is. Take the past simple. We can use it to talk about the past – I won a swimming competition when I was 6, but we can also use it in conditional sentences to talk about the future – if I won the lottery, I’d buy a new car. We are not referring to a particular failed attempt in the past but alluding to the slight but real possibility that we may win the lottery in the future. Introducing the different usages gradually is absolutely the correct thing to do. The problem lies in the way we articulate what is being learnt. Look at a beginner A0 level coursebook contents page and you will see a unit on the past simple. Look at a CPE C2 level course book and it’s still there. The problem with using a coursebook as a syllabus is that if a student learns the past simple in their first English course, why are they still learning it 10 years later as an advanced student? We know it is different, but how do we successfully and helpfully communicate with students exactly what they have learnt and what still needs to be learnt?

It’s worth thinking about vocabulary too. English has a very large active vocabulary and as such many students struggle more with lexis than grammar. Again, there is some continuity across published materials in terms of what types of words are appropriate at each level, but since most books introduce vocabulary through texts there is a reasonable amount of variation. We often see towns and cities in B1 level coursebooks, but where one teaches cosmopolitan, industrial and spectacular another teaches provincial, vibrant and polluted. Again, variation is no bad thing, each teacher naturally tailors lessons and the material they cover to the needs of their particular students. The problem lies in how we communicate progress to students.

In a world where everything has to be measurable, how are we actually measuring our students? When teachers are asked to use continuous assessment and implement student self-assessment, what guidelines and training are they being given? Is self-assessment done badly better than no self-assessment or is it just a waste of precious class time?

I decided to look back on what input the average TEFL teacher gets on assessing students. CELTA courses are required to include a session on assessment. My session looks at what makes a test good or bad, moving on to familiarisation with Cambridge exams. Both CELTA and Delta include input on conducting feedback, but the emphasis is on conveying answers and upgrading student language during the course of lessons. Trainees on CELTA and Delta are required to participate in group feedback and comment on other trainee’s lessons which is very useful and great practice. But in these cases they are concentrating on one teacher and have specific observation tasks to direct them. When working as a full time teacher I had 8 groups with around 12 students per group, so it was close to 100 students, and three times I year I was required to write reports for them. Some students were remarkably easy to write about – the high flyers and the little monsters. Most students, however, ended up with very generalised comments such as he participates well in class, and she would benefit from completing homework tasks on time.

When I was a CELTA trainer in training, affectionately known as the TiT, I spent every day for two whole months learning how to give feedback to trainees. I learnt what to look for, what to prioritise, how to structure written feedback and how to deliver oral feedback to benefit each individual on the course. It’s not just about knowing whether a lesson is good or not, it’s knowing how to best reach a trainee by taking their individual needs into consideration. Do they need a confidence boost? Will they respond better to direct feedback or a more softly softly approach? Is the feedback constructive enough that the trainee can move forward or do you run the risk of making them feel demotivated and unsure how to proceed? It’s not easy.

The first step towards giving meaningful feedback is gathering pertinent information. When you see students for as little as 2 or 3 hours per week it’s only natural that the task of teaching takes priority, and keeping track of individual student progress takes a back seat. So how can we build up a comprehensive picture of each student’s strengths and weaknesses when dealing with such limited time? In my last school, teachers were required to keep a record of grades throughout the semester for the four skills, grammar and vocabulary. Continuous assessment, rather than basing everything on an end of year test, is widely recognised as good practice. But simply writing down grades didn’t really help me when it came to writing reports and giving useful feedback to parents. All it really told me was whether or not a student was strong or weak in each area, resulting in report comments such as he is good at listening but needs to develop his reading skills. What use is that to any student or their parent? Which skills are we referring to? Are there any strategies the student needs to develop? Which ones? As I said there are countless benefits to using continuous assessment, however, this particular manifestation did not go far enough. What helped me was giving myself a few specific questions to focus on where students were, and what they needed to do to improve. I kept these questions in my register and focused on a couple of students each week, although it very much depended on the lesson. Sometimes there was plenty of breathing space for me to monitor closely and keep a record, other lessons required a much more active teacher role and I’d leave assessment for another day. Only focussing on a few students at a time reduces the tendency to simply compare students to one another and instead analyse each student within the context of his or her own individual learning. I also found I became much better at noticing what was going on in my classes and was naturally much more engaged with every student, not just the strongest most active or those with demanding behaviours. I was able to assess each student ‘formally’ 4 or 5 times during a semester, but this focussed observation also led to me being a better judge of the effect of my lessons on students, and inadvertently to improved teaching and learning.

Here are some questions which helped me, and I hope you can use them as a starting point:

  1. He/she participates and shows interest in lessons
  2. He/she tries to solve problems and complete tasks before asking for help
  3. He/she listens and contributes equally during pairwork
  4. He/she uses language and strategies covered during the course

There is nothing new about this form of monitoring, but what is helpful is to analyse what this information tells us. Question 1 gives us clues about student motivation and how active they are in the learning process. Taking a more active role in lessons would be good advice for a seemingly disinterested student, as well as looking at what you can do to involve that student more, by building in to lessons topics, tasks and activities which appeal to them. Question 2 gives information on independent, or autonomous learning. We want students to develop problem solving skills and to rely on their own instincts, but never asking for help can also be detrimental. Students need to discern when help is needed, and decide the most appropriate place to find that help. Question 3 tells us about a student’s communicative competency. When teaching skills, we tend to have one main aim in mind, the students may be getting a lot of speaking practice but in a listening lesson the ultimate goal is to improve students’ listening skills. In real life, listening and speaking are inextricable. When assessing question 3 we are engaging not only with the amount of participation, but also with a whole range of skills – the ideas being presented, knowledge of turn taking, topic management, coping strategies, repair and so on. In a world where we emphasise learning to learn, question 4 helps us evaluate how well students use the recommended strategies. Some students love reading, others hate it. Some are good and some struggle. As foreign language teachers our goal is not to teach students how to read, it’s to teach them how to do it better in a foreign language. Grading students according to whether or not they are good at reading is not helpful, but looking at how they use strategies is. With this information we can make helpful and practical suggestions.

Gathering this sort of information, I would argue, makes the business of reporting student progress much easier. It contributes to pragmatic, personalised and helpful feedback which will help students move forwards with their efforts rather than simply looking back at what was good and bad about the past semester. After all, as the British Council will tell you – It’s all about the future!

The Pros and Pros of Plurilingualism

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Having gleefully boasted about the wonderful winter sunshine I’ve been enjoying in Lebanon, I got my comeuppance the other day when I was stuck at the supermarket in torrential rain which turned the streets to fast flowing rivers. Seeing that a crowd of people were waiting, I decided to follow their example and wait too. I assumed they knew best and were expecting the rain to ease. Unfortunately it became clear they were actually waiting to be picked up, and concern started to grow about me. Taking a punt on Arabic, an interested couple started trying to ascertain what exactly I was doing. When Arabic didn’t work they appealed to someone who spoke French to see if that was more effective. French, with the odd English word thrown in helped, and by using mime and English I managed to communicate I was waiting for the rain to stop so I could walk home. This did not please the crowd, who then all wanted to drive me home. I live only about a 10 minute walk from the supermarket, but I stupidly don’t have my address written down and only know how to get there on foot. A solution was thought of and they communicated I should call someone who knew my address so I could be driven home. My phone doesn’t work here, so it was then decided someone else’s phone would be used since I did have a number. By this time the rain had stopped and after thanking everyone in as many languages as I could think of I walked home.

Arabic, French and English proliferate everywhere in this city. Any interaction with a new person involves quickly ascertaining which language is most fit for purpose. Even after the language is chosen there is no necessity to stick to it, with speakers switching seamlessly from one language to another. In my office I constantly hear colleagues speaking English, French and Arabic in one utterance without hesitation. The linguistic acrobatics don’t end there. Levantine Arabic is spoken in Lebanon, however for the written form it’s usual to use Standard Arabic instead. Since many TV series here come from the Gulf region, I’m told Lebanese understand spoken Gulf Arabic and would manage well in this part of the world, however people from the Gulf region may struggle to understand Levantine Arabic due to lack of exposure. Everyone here has different competencies in each language in terms of what they can write, speak, and understand, as well as their own personal preferences.

blog-2While many people in Lebanon are truly multilingual, everyone here is plurilingual. Broadly speaking multilingualism refers to the knowledge of a number of languages. Plurilingualism, on the other hand, is concerned with the use all the linguistic resources available to a person in order to communicate. Therefore we are all unavoidably plurilinguals. In a multilingual society, different languages coexist. In a plurilingual society different languages interact and interrelate with each other, with users drawing on their whole linguistic repertoire to communicate. My drama at the supermarket took place in English, French and Arabic and while all the participants didn’t share a common language, we effectively solved my problem of how to get home. In a true pluricultural environment no one language is given precedence over another, and since language is so closely linked to culture it is one which promotes multiculturalism, understanding, respect and acceptance.

The Council of Europe has been promoting plurilingualism in it’s approach to language learning for some time. A plurilingual approach encourages learners to look for and use any clues which will help effective communication, and advocates using words, phrases and whole utterances from any language not just the target language. It values comparisons, non-verbal clues and reformulation. Some of this is very familiar in an TEFL context. Non-verbal clues are used by language teachers, particularly in the primary classroom all the time in the form of mime, gesture, facial expression, images and music to name but a few. Less easily assimilated is the L1 vs L2 issue.

CELTA advocates limiting the amount of L1 used in the classroom and there is sound reasoning. Classes are increasingly multilingual so using lots of L1 would put minorities at a disadvantage, and if the teacher does not speak the students’ L1 then there is no way of them monitoring what the students are saying or even knowing if they are on task. One of the options for ‘experimental practice’ on Delta is to investigate the use of L1 in the classroom. It is acknowledged that L1 has a place in the English language classroom, but it is not fully addressed and is included only as something to experiment with. Schools tend to advocate an L2 only policy in lessons, and one pacifier often given to parents who desire a native speaker teacher for their children is to assure them that whilst the teacher may share the same L1 as the students, they will never use it in the classroom. Teachers regularly penalise children for using L1, and I even observed a teacher who started every lesson by entreating each student to ‘give me your Polish’, which was promptly swallowed by the class puppet. Needless to say there was zero rapport between teacher and the students who basically knew absolutely nothing about each other and were never able to express anything about themselves, their lives or their feelings.

There is a lot of research into the value of using L1 in the classroom and a quick search will throw up lots of interesting research papers, articles and blogs in favour of using it, so I’m not going to go into great detail here. I will say, however, that L1 does have a place in my primary classroom. What I would like to do instead is make a few observations and suggestions as to what we can be doing. I feel it’s particularly pertinent at a time when increased migration, be it through choice or disaster, will definitely impact language learning and teaching requirements across Europe and the rest of the world.

Contextualisation

I recently observed a teacher instructing her students in their L1 to open their books and to complete a matching task while listening to a recording. I was reliably informed that the instructions were short, concise and clear, however, very few children actually did the task and most just lolloped about looking bored. Clearly the language used to give the instructions was not a problem, it was in what the teacher said or how she said it. In the primary classroom contextualisation is best done through visual, auditory and kinaesthetic activities to establish the what, when, where, why and how of the item to be studied. Since the aim here is to activate students’ prior knowledge, the language they use is largely irrelevant. If the class level is low, the teacher has the choice of omitting the activation stage which will in turn reduce the value of the activity, or including it but allowing the children to express themselves in any language they choose. If children can’t complete a key lesson stage such as generating interest in a topic in L2, then surely it’s better they do it in L1 than not at all? By not doing it we all know learning can be compromised. Furthermore, we know young learners can’t deal with lots of language terminology and analysis, so the only way for them to compare one language to another is by using both the languages. Again, should they miss out on this useful strategy due to their age and language competency?

Learner Training

Young children will sometimes inexplicably sit with their hand up for ages because they don’t know how to do a task, or because they want to ask you whether they should use a pen or a pencil. Relying on either themselves, or their peers to solve problems does not come naturally. Perhaps because looking at what their partner is doing is generally (and wrongly) regarded as cheating. Neither does the fact that you have done that exact task type before, you have written a visual reminder of what to do on the board and the book has included an example seem to help. Children forget quickly and don’t always know how to process the information presented. Asking adult learners to create a menu is easy as we all have lots of experience of using them. Young children are unlikely to have ever looked at one in much detail, and would need clear examples as to how to create one.

blog 1.jpgLanguage is ever present in Beirut. As you know I speak neither Arabic nor French, however, navigating the city is not as challenging as might be expected. For example I can ascertain lots of useful information from the pictured sign. I know it’s a tourist attraction from the colour and style. I can see it is a Christian church from the picture. I know how to get there from the arrows. I can guess there is a meeting room, and a place to get information because there are similar words in English. We tend to take it for granted that students will develop the necessary skills of inferring information on their own. However we also know that certain children are regularly completely lost in lessons however well we think we have set up the task. These children tend to become the banes of our lives, and we forget the emotional and social burden this lack of understanding puts on them, let alone the effect on their academic development. Remember to ask yourself if you have provided enough scaffolding, clues and help to allow all children to succeed even though it may seem obvious and old ground.

Going back to my tourist sign, if I had wanted further clarification I could have used google translate, asked a passer-by, looked in a dictionary or simply walked in to investigate. A plurilingual teacher should advocate all forms of input to facilitate learning. We can use phones to teach students how to use online resources responsibly, and to distinguish clickbait from reliable news. We can encourage students to ask each other, or their brothers and sisters and parents when they don’t know what to do or how to do something.  We can encourage different nationalities to integrate their cultural identity into the classroom to enrich the learning experience of all involved. We can treat all people and all languages in the classroom as equal, and nurture informed, plurilingual pluricultural citizens to guarantee our safe future in an unsafe world.

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The Bare Necessities

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One of my life goals for 2017 was to stop putting my successes down to luck and start acknowledging my good decisions and achievements. So well done me for choosing to come to this wonderful, haphazard, endearing city of sunshine. Beirut is wonderful. Visit. But since this is not a travel blog I’d like to tell you about some other hopefully good observations I’ve been making related to the world of teaching instead.

As a CELTA trainer I’m pretty confident in my abilities to nurture complete newcomers to teaching into competent, confident, employable professionals. I’ve even worked with some of the teachers I have trained, and whilst I can’t take full credit for their abilities, I do feel very proud when other academic managers mention how good one of my ex-trainees is. I’ve always sympathised with CELTA trainees for surviving the four week barrage of information, although I’m sure they get some gratification out of the bloodshot eyes, lack of sleep and mental exhaustion. A feeling of ‘I survived’.

But what if you don’t have the luxury of 4 full weeks to learn how to teach a new subject? What if you don’t have 1 trainer per 6 trainees to assist at every step of the way? What if there is no time to write assignments and discuss lessons? What if you have no supplementary materials, no flashcards or CDs, or markers or dice, or teacher’s books? What if all you have is a student’s book and white A4 paper? What if you don’t have anything at all? What if the students attending such lessons are actually the lucky ones? According to UNICEF around 93 million children worldwide currently have no access to education. The majority of these children are girls. I have an overwhelming urge to run out into the world and grab these girls and teach them and empower them and make everything better. However I’m trying to stay sensible and will put that plan on hold, at least for a few weeks.

Anyway, back to the problem which has been consuming me all week – how to help young learner teachers whose intentions are good but whose resources and skills are extremely limited. The answer is simple. You listen, you empower the teacher, you acknowledge their uniqueness and individuality and you nurture what they are good at. In recent years I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating the drive towards standardisation in English language teaching. It unavoidably starts with CELTA where teachers are required to demonstrate a list of criteria to pass the course. Schools understandably want to present a cohesive product to sell to parents, so need to ensure all their teachers are providing the same course content, same methods and quality of lessons, and equal amounts of individual attention and personalised feedback per student. What worries me is that with all these requirements the voice of the teacher is being diminished to almost nothing. The teacher knows better than anyone else what their students need, how they will respond to a particular topic or piece of material and whether they even need to study it. As a teacher trainer and mentor I find I deal with certain issues over and over again, and of course I do my best to help find solutions. These solutions are drawn from my own experience of what has worked for me, and from the advice of published material and general expert opinion. But it seems that if many teachers across various contexts are consistently having the same problems, then it’s time to look at what is not working in the classroom and why. John Hattie asserts that the problem with conducting teacher observations is the risk that all you do is tell that teacher how to teach like you (http://bit.ly/28XQRRn). Whilst that is not the intention it is certainly something that all teacher trainers should give very careful thought to. Also worth considering is, do we do what we do in the primary classroom because we are personally convinced it’s the best way? Or do we do it because we have been told to do it. I’m not saying we’re doing anything wrong, I’m just not sure we’re doing everything right either.

What’s clear to me is that all of us, teachers or trainers or principles or anyone involved in educating children need to look very carefully at the students we are responsible for to assess how effective our teaching is. To try and be a little bit helpful, these are the things I have observed when working with children that I have personal conviction make lessons effective.

  1. Gamification is key, but it’s much more than playing games.

Gamification done badly intensifies competitive behaviour and lowers co-operation. We all know we need to provide a safe environment to enable children to learn in, and a certain amount of competition is healthy. However, too much creates high levels of stress. Gamification has entered the classroom in many ways including in the form of points based rewards systems. Students who stay on task, produce good work, speak English, help their friends or achieve good marks get points; whereas students who misbehave or underachieve lose them. Whether awarded to teams, pairs or individuals, the result is an increased number of disputes and disagreements which the teacher inevitably has to address. It also compels teachers to compare students to one another instead of assessing each child according to his or her own potential. Primary teachers are encouraged to include stirrer or filler stages in their lessons to allow students to move and burn off energy. All too often these stages are simply games which test how much vocabulary  or grammar from the previous lesson or lesson stage the students can remember. If they remember the word they are not being stretched, if they don’t remember they will not learn it in the highly charged atmosphere of a game. Very valid in terms of letting children release energy, not so much in terms of improving their English. Gamification works best when it is directed at lesson content. If the tasks you set feel like games you’ll find that there is less call for reward systems in the first place as the students genuinely want to do the work, and there is also less need for additional stirrers and fillers. In fact, where children are concerned learning is a game in itself. Children spend hours working things out for themselves, trying to navigate the world by solving immediate problems. They can make a game out of anything, but conversely if something doesn’t catch their attention there is little you can do to persuade them to do it. My advice is to gamify your lessons by ensuring interesting content, a high level of challenge and a reason for every child to participate. Ask yourself the following questions when planning your lessons: is this activity interesting for my students? Is it too easy for them? Does it allow everyone to participate? You wouldn’t play a game if it didn’t meet those criteria, so why expect your students to enjoy a lesson which falls short of them.

  1. Praise given with specific feedback is more powerful in terms of motivation than any other reward.

I need praise. I don’t think teachers are praised enough. I also need feedback. Observed lessons are one time during the academic calendar that teachers get feedback, and apart from that you may get a pat on the back if a student leaves positive feedback about you. Sadly, I think a lot of teachers live in fear of getting a complaint. There are usually very rigorous procedures for dealing with complaints but less so for excellent work. Students, even young students, need feedback and praise. Teachers are great at giving praise, but this is usually directed towards the whole class. In an EFL context the teacher has a limited amount of time with their students, possibly only an hour or so each week with each class so it is hard to go into great detail about every individual student, even when writing end of semester reports comments tend to be general. Still, praise and feedback given little and often will make a huge difference to your students. As you monitor point out good work or good behaviour as you notice it, telling the students what they are doing well and why you like it, e.g. ‘Thanks Anna for helping your partner, you’re very kind’ or ‘Good work Piotr, your sentences are very funny and made me smile. Can you write more neatly?’ The same with marking writing. You don’t have to comment on every good and bad thing, but you can definitely comment on something that was good and one thing to improve, and this will make a huge difference to each student you teach. Specific, meaningful praise and feedback will mean fewer classroom management issues and better student engagement, as the students will know what you expect and how to succeed.

  1. Children learn better when they know where they are going.

It’s frustrating going to a meeting when you don’t know what topic you will be discussing, what you will be asked to do, or even when you will be able to leave. I’ve never actually been to a meeting like that because it would be completely unreasonable and I wouldn’t go. So don’t expect your students to tolerate the same. You can involve your students in the learning process in a number of ways, and it’s up to each teacher to find something which works for them. I’m a big fan of lesson menus, both visual for pre-literate students and written for older children. Wording your menu simply and cleverly can help you to build anticipation for the lesson ahead. Students who know what is coming up can take more responsibility for their learning – they can reflect on what they already know and address what they need to learn. Children who have an idea of the order of upcoming tasks are less likely to constantly ask when the break is/how long till home time. They enjoy knowing where they are in the lesson, where they are going and leave with a much clearer sense of what they achieved. A child telling their parent they did ‘nothing’ in class is one of the most depressing things to hear when you know just how much work they actually did. A child telling their parent a list of things they did is music to most teachers’ ears. The first child probably knows they learnt something, they just didn’t know how to verbalise it.

Well, that was longer than expected and posed more questions than it answered. If you have any thoughts on this post then please leave a comment or get in touch. I may not have listened to teachers enough in the past, but I’m planning on doing lots of listening and learning in the future. So on that note I’m off to dice with death on the pavementless streets of Beirut in the pursuit of hummus. Thanks for reading to the end!