Wednesday, 26 September 2012

An UP- beat Writing Class

My class and I were in the process of filing back into class after coffee break when I announced that we’d be doing some writing in the second half of the lesson. I am aware that we’ve neglected writing these past few weeks, and I am keen to integrate this skill into our lessons on a regular basis. What’s more, as many of my learners exhibit the “spiky profiles” so common in ESOL, it seems sensible to tackle the writing skill head on. 

However, my announcement met with groans all round. A few expressed a sudden desire to go home, while others just looked mutely miserable. Their reaction did not dishearten me. I have been teaching writing in the ESOL class for several years, and I am used to learners' initial reluctance.  Yet, my experience has also taught me how this initial attitude towards writing can change when learners realise they are not being "tested" or expected to produce a perfect first draft.
What We Did

This lesson was diagnostic, and when I set out I had no definite idea of what area of writing I would be focusing on. However, I did have two clear aims:

  • To make a diagnosis of learners’ writing needs based on a longer piece of free writing.
  • To show learners that writing need not be a lonely and stressful activity 

We watched a short clip from the animated Pixar film: Up. This clip has no dialogue at all, and once learners realised this they visibly relaxed!

  • After watching the film, we brainstormed some of the vocabulary the learners thought they might need if they wanted to retell this story. We came up with: to save money, to break a leg, to fall in love, to be in love, to get married as well as adjectives such as caring, adventurous etc.
  • I gave learners fifteen minutes to write the story of what they had just seen. Everyone had to write, but I encouraged groups to confer and share ideas.
  • After fifteen minutes, some looked as if they might be about to run out of steam. I collected in a few pieces, and quickly skimmed them, looking to see if I could find a common writing need. This was easy enough. Below is a fairly representative writing sample:

 They got married in a church.  They fixed their house. They lost a baby and were very sad. They start saving money for them holidays, but it wasn't good adea cos was always something happen to them and they had to spend their money for this problem. The old lady got sick and died. 

This short sample shows a common problem in learners' writing: that of coherence. Quite often, I have found, learners produce pieces of writing in which the sentences are grammatically correct when viewed in isolation but just don’t “hang together” very well. (Raimes, 1983 p.56)

After typing this sample onto the interactive whiteboard, I read it aloud. I told learners I was confused. Who were "they?" When did "they" get married? When and why did they fix their house? The learners were easily able to answer these questions, and working together we produced the piece of writing shown below. I highlighted the time expressions and linking device, to further raise learners' awareness.

A long time ago, two young people got married in a beautiful church. They had a lovely wedding and most people were very happy. After their wedding they were still very happy, and they renovated their house. It was the house of their dreams.

One morning in their favourite place, they were looking at the sky and they decided to have a lot of babies. After trying very hard, the doctor told them the bad news: they couldn’t have children.
For a long time they were very sad, but they realised that their lives had to continue. The husband showed his wife her old adventure book, and they decided to save money for an adventure. But they had a lot of problems. First, the car broke down. After that, the house was damaged in a storm.  Then the husband broke his leg. They spent their money on fixing these problems. 
They got older and older, and they never got close to their dream. At last, the husband bought tickets for their dream trip.

Finally, the old lady got sick. Sadly, she died, and they never went on their journey.

I photocopied and distributed our revised version of the story, so that learners could compare this version to their original at home. We will do more work on cohesive links and writing in next Tuesday's class. This short film activity was a very good starting point, and will hopefully have gone some way to banishing learners' writing reluctance!

Further Reading 

White, R and Arndt V, 1997 Process Writing, Longman
Raimes, A.  1983 Techniques in Teaching Writing, Oxford University Press

Sunday, 23 September 2012

#eltchat summary: First Lesson Activities

First lessons are equally significant for teachers and learners, as it is here where the initial steps towards establishing a supportive group dynamic are made. So what can teachers do to ensure that their first lessons engage learners, and at the same time create a positive and productive learning environment? This was the topic up for discussion on Wednesday the 19th of September at 9.00pm GMT,
Icebreakers etc!

This chat was expertly moderated by Marisa_C, and the participants were: @vickihollett, @shaznosel, @SophiaMav, @klizbarker, @MarjorieRosenbe, @ShetlandEsol, @affreshair, @hmbaba, @eltknowledge, @cfozcavan, @SueAnnan, @chiasuan, @sandymillin, @steve4eld


"We have to show enthusiasm and jump right in" (@vickihollett)

This statement met with agreement from @Marisa_C and @shaznosel. But what of the old adage of not cracking a smile till Christmas? @Klizbarker and @vikihollet did not agree with this at all, maintaining that it was important for the teacher to let his/her personality shine through, and that maintaining  a stern grimace would be “very hard and very peculiar” @vickihollett. “Strong, but not mean” is surely preferable, said @klizbarker

Take time to learn names

It was agreed that any time spent learning names is a worthwhile investment. @Marisa_C suggested the activity “Guess my name – and why?” as a good and simple first few minutes activity. Meanwhile, @vickihollett has a great idea for classes with mixed Asian and European learners: Asian learners write their names on the board, and other Asian learners in the class work out characters: guaranteed to fascinate European learners.

Getting to Know You Activities

 Participants were happy to suggest their favourite activities, and agreed together that these activities perform several functions: to break the ice, diagnose, conduct an informal needs analysis, to establish rules and to motivate.
  • @Marisa_C suggested the “tribes” activities from Jill Hadfield’s Classroom Dynamics, in which learners decide on a symbol, name, badge, motto song or rap for their group. Participants who had tried this out in class testified to its success in creating a bond between learners. @Marisa_C also suggested “three truths and a lie” as a good way of learners getting to know each other. 
  • @SueAnnan likes to write information about herself on the board: learners have to guess the questions which elicit the answers. @MarjorieRosenbe creates a personal mind map and gets learners to ask questions about it. Learners then draw their own mind maps and do the same with a partner. In @Shaznozel’s “my world” she draws a circle with five bits of personal information in it, and then learners guess their significance, before going on to do the same for themselves – this is good for  eliciting wh – questions. A variation of this is @eltknowledge’s star; where the teacher draws things that define her at the end of each point – learners discuss their significance and then go on to do the same for themselves.
  • @SueAnnan mentioned a speed dating activity which a colleague uses in first lessons. However, @ShetlandEsol had been on the receiving end of such an activity as a learner, and had not enjoyed it all. It can be interesting for teachers to experience “icebreakers” when they are themselves in learner mode!
  • @hmbaba gets learners to set up edmodo accounts and post their favourite picture or clip from youtube, while @SophiaMav gets learners to create animoto videos about their summer holidays to present in class.
  • @MarjorieRosenbe asked learners at a one week training course to bring baby photos and guess who was who. This led on to an activity in which learners created information sheets about who was who.

Establishing Ground Rules

This is an important feature of any first lesson, as learners need to be aware of what is expected of them. However, this does not need to be done in a stern, inflexible way: a spoonful of sugar can help this medicine go down a treat, and the #eltchatters had loads of good ideas on this front:

  • @cfoxcavan uses a learning agreement in the first lesson. @Marisa­_C suggested making a poster of agreed rules or writing up a classroom contract. This works particularly well with younger students, and can utilise co operative learning techniques. 
  •  @ShetlandEsol chooses her most important ground rule and turns it into a running dictation activity. 
  •  @SueAnnan highlighted the importance of the local environment, by referring to beach safety rules she incorporates into her first lessons. @shaznozel thought it was a good idea to bring local issues into the classroom, as learners might feel more confident discussing local issues. 

Learner Training

The first lesson is the perfect time to encourage good learning habits, and #eltchatters  have no shortage of ideas on how to go about this! @hmbaba suggested brainstorming learners’ problems with learning English, and then facilitating a discussion on tips and learning strategies. @shaznozel suggested asking learners to share their email or facebook addresses so that they can continue to work collaboratively outside of class. @ShetlandEsol also asks learners to work together to list different ways in which they can learn English outside their lessons.

Writing in the First Lesson
Up until this point, the chat had focused mainly on speaking activities. However, it can be very useful to get learners writing in the first class. This gives the teacher something to take away and can be a useful diagnostic tool for planning future lessons.

@sandymillin asks higher level learners to do “buzz writing” by answering the questions “How have you learned in the past? What do you need English for? What kind of lessons do you like?” The texts the learners produce are usually about 150 words in length, so Sandy has plenty of useful information about her new learners’ lives and their linguistic needs.

Keeping things fresh.
First lessons with a new class are fun, aren’t they? As @shaznosel observes “every now and then when time permits, it’s great to throw in an activity that breaks the routine, not the ice!” It’s worth bearing this is mind, as we return to our teaching routines.

Thanks to everyone who participated in this most informative #eltchat. I’m sure we all came away with new first lesson tricks to store up our sleeves – or even just to keep for a those rainy days when teachers and learners need a little energy boost!

Further Reading:
Jill Hadfield 1992 Classroom Dynamics: OUP (great ideas for “bonding” activities)
Meddings and Thornbury. 2009 Teaching Unplugged – Dogme in English Language Teaching, Delta Publishing (some good Dogme first lesson activities)
Marisa Constantinides, Storming Out or Norming In: _ (Some great first day tips here.)

photo credit: <a href="">Neal.</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>