Monday, 27 August 2012

Love Spider

A love spider.
I'm not sure how many of you will be winding up classes at summer school at the moment: if you are, let me share my all time favourite last lesson activity with you. If you are just embarking on a new term/session then this is well worth putting up your sleeve and keeping for the end of your course.

 I have road tested this lesson with EFL and ESL learners: with  levels ranging from pre-intermediate through to  upper-intermediate: it never fails to engage and delight. It's also a great way of revising grammar and lexis: particularly character adjectives. 

  • One A4 sheet of paper for everyone in the class (and yourself too)
  • Pens/pencils for all
  • Kind learners (or at least, no bad eggs...)
  • Seats arranged  in a circle/horseshoe formation 
  • Board and monopoly money (for the grammar auction stage)
  • Write your name in the middle of a blank A4 sheet of paper, and draw a circle around it. Draw eyes on top of the circle if you wish.  Encourage your learners to do the same. Tell your class they are going to make a spider. Not just any old spider though: we are talking about a lurve spider.
  • Then pass your piece of paper to the person on your right, and ask class to do the same
  • Draw a "leg" from the name in the middle of your piece if paper and tell learners that this is a spider's leg. At the end of the leg they are going to write something nice about the person whose name is in the middle of the piece of paper (Encourage them to make their language as interesting as possible!) This can be a compliment about the person's appearance, character, mention of a special talent this person has, an interesting fact you remember about this person or a positive prediction about their future.
  • The learners keep passing their bits of paper round until it has come full circle. It is very important to allow the learners time to read the existing comments on the love spider they receive, as there should not be repetitive comments on any spider. 
  • When everyone has written about everyone in the class, collect all the papers in.
  • Hold a quick grammar auction. To do this, write a selection of 8 sentences from different love spiders on the board. Choose a mixture of grammatically correct and incorrect examples. Divide class into groups of four and distribute equal amounts of Monopoly money. Groups have to bid for correct sentences: the winning group is the one which has bought the highest number of correct sentences.
  • Give the love spiders back to their owners and enjoy watching a roomful of faces beam with delight as they read the kind things their classmates have written about them.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

New Year, Fresh Start...

The only thing I really like about January is sitting down and plotting a list of new year's resolutions (although I usually make far too many in the flush of excitement of a new year and fail to keep a good quarter of them.)

There are many more things to like about August: sunshine, festivals, and balmy light evenings... What's more, I always feel that this time of year offers us the possibility of starting afresh: as a teacher I have a whole new academic year stretching out ahead of me and my learners. I do believe it is time to look ahead and make some more new resolutions. Hopefully, declaring them publicly will be an added incentive to keep to them!

Focus on Pronunciation and Listening

As I said in my last post, I  spent much of the summer exploring the link between listening and pronunciation, and bemoaning the approach that so many course books take to teaching the listening skill. This year I wish to focus on listening and pronunciation in my classes. I will look at ways of incorporating some of the listening material on websites mentioned in my last post, and explore ways of exploiting this material to its best advantage. I will also keep a diary of listening activities we do in class, experiment with different approaches and look at ways of measuring learners' success (in a supportive, non-testing way.)

Persevere with my own language learning

For the past couple of years I have dabbled in learning a few different languages, only to bale out when the going got tough. I wish to emulate the dedication and perseverance of my learners and so have decided to choose a language and stick with it!  I have chosen Italian, and am learning it at home with Michel Thomas. His method fascinates me, and I am interested to see how far I can get with it. Perhaps I will reward myself with a jaunt to Italy in the summer - better get saving.

Spend Less Time Reading About ELT

Yes, I am an ELT junkie. I admit that I can spend hours leafing through books on methodology, lexis and grammar. On discovering Twitter earlier this year my level of addiction reached an all time high as I basked in the rush of seemingly unlimited links to further reading and ELT related chat. However, this summer I've had a break from it all, and this has made me feel rejuvenated and freshly creative. Reading outwith ELT has furnished me with fresh ideas for discussions and activities that I can take with me into the classroom with me. Roll on  September!

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Five Things I Learned at Summer School This Year

Lucky for some...(photo courtesy of Photo Pin)
 Summer school is over, and I am back in Shetland.  Before all my experiences get lost in the rush of getting ready for a new term, here are some important lessons I have learned these past few weeks.

1. The horse shoe isn’t always best
I have always loved the horse shoe. After all, what’s not to love? It is open and friendly. I can see all my learners’ lovely faces and they can see mine without cricking their necks.  It makes whole class discussion easy, yet with a bit of chair shifting learners can work in groups too. So, on arriving in my new classroom on the first day of teaching you can imagine how I felt when I found my classroom organised into cliquey groups of four. Oh, horror! I set about rearranging desks in a mad frenzy, so that the good old horseshoe would be in place to welcome my new arrivals. 

Yet, when my course director popped into my class on the second day, she asked me, afterwards, if I had considered rearranging the seating. I assured her that I already had, a little defensive at any implied criticism of my dear old horse shoe. 

However, later on in the week I arrived in class with minutes to spare and an activity still to set up and realised too late, that some rotter had yet again, broken up my horseshoe into small islands. With no time to rearrange things I decided to let it stand…for one lesson. But, do you know what?  I didn’t ever change them back. My Japanese learners (who made up around forty per cent of the class) were visibly more vocal in group discussions. They clearly felt a lot more comfortable a little removed from the spotlight of the horseshoe and a lot less “put on the spot”. I just hope their necks didn’t get cricked.

So will I be rearranging the tables and chairs in Shetland? Probably not. My (predominantly European) learners are confident and sufficiently vocal for me to leave things as they are. But I am now convinced of the value of a flexible approach to seating in different teaching contexts.

2. Listening and Pronunciation are inextricably linked…

Yes, I  know you may well have heard this before. However,  it was a fact that I had never before been so aware of in practice. My multilingual class were studying at upper intermediate level, yet appeared to struggle a great deal with listening comprehension. And their pronunciation needed a lot of work. It was clear that they had difficulty understanding each other and native speaker English, even when lexis and sentence structures were familiar to them. However…

3. Learners don’t always see the value of pronunciation focus

In initial needs analysis, not one of the learners mentioned pronunciation as an area on which they wanted to focus. Not one. The trick then, was a wholly integrated approach.

4. Many course book listening activities are not actually very good at all…
I do believe I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again now, as my teaching experiences over the summer rammed the point home once and for all. The course book listening activities  focused almost exclusively on comprehension. They tested listening, rather than teaching it.  Unfortunately, it was a test that only two out of my twelve learners ever passed. And unfortunately, the school  required us to stick to the course book. My only option then was to stick with the course book texts and change the approach. I typed out the listening transcripts and made them into gap fills, focusing on weak forms, word and sentence stress and connected speech. And seethed inwardly. 

5. There are some amazing websites out there!  Here are a few I enjoyed using...


Monday, 6 August 2012

A Fish Out of Water

Earlier in the year I made the decision to step out of my comfort zone for a few weeks and try my hand teaching different learners in a new location. So here I am, working with EFL learners from all over the world in an Edinburgh summer school. In this school, learners study English in three week blocks: the courses are structured and serious and quite emphatically not "summer fun" courses. My learners come from Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Italy, Russia and the Netherlands: an eclectic mix of backgrounds, ages, needs and expectations.

I was a little nervous about leaving the safety and comfort of Adult Learning, Lerwick behind. me. During the interview, my future employer seemed at pains to stress the difference between what he perceived as the cosy, relaxed world of ESOL with the fast paced, competitive demands of work in the EFL sector. As my start date drew nearer I started to panic: would I be able to handle the many and varied demands of fee paying groups from such diverse cultural backgrounds?

Well, to be honest, I have found the change challenging. (Hence the break in blogging!) However, it has also given me plenty of  food for thought. Over the next few days I plan to keep a brief record of some of the activities I have been doing in class, accompanied with reflections which I can follow up on my return home. 

An Effective Listening Activity

Although my morning class are studying at Upper Intermediate Level, they experience great difficulties in decoding connected speech. Even simple listening texts containing a high proportion of familiar words result in confused stares, particularly from my Japanese and Thai learners. The following website contains graded dictation activities: The texts are short (I chose one which lasted only 19 seconds) and learners have the opportunity to listen several times, guided by the instructions on the website. I asked learners to compare their answers in small groups (thereby minimising anxiety among less confident listeners) and finally learners compared their texts with the correct version. This enabled us to focus on the most problematic areas of the text. Finally, learners read out lines from the text, providing further opportunity to focus on word and sentence stress and features of connected speech.

Over the next few days I will continue to focus on ways in which I can help my learners to  improve their listening skills. As many of them will be returning home at the weekend, I also need to make sure that they are equipped to carry on this work in  their own countries.