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...


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