IH are running another one of their increasingly popular Online Conferences this weekend: or at least Friday 24th May and Saturday 25th May.
It’s a slightly different premise this time however, as the speakers are being limited to ten minute slots and there’ll be 60 speakers over the two days.
It’s free to attend and is open to anyone and everyone – you don’t need to work for IH to take part!
I’m speaking at some point around 4pm on Saturday afternoon and I’ll be looking at “The Tai Chi of Reading” – a phrase which had my Tai Chi instructor twitching slightly – but essentially the session borrows some of the movements and forms from Tai Chi and Chi Gong and looks at how to use them to help learners remember and use reading strategies.
If that’s of little or no interest to you, there’s another 59 speakers who between them will be looking at pretty much everything ELT. My personal choice list includes: Barrie Roberts on teaching reading, Matt Kendrick on the “oomph factor”, Alex Purcell on Ipads & Edmodo, Sandy Millin on “10 blogs in 10 minutes”, Shaun Wilden on “Appetising Apps”…. and that’s just from Saturday. I’m hoping to watch as much of Friday as possible as long as work doesn’t get in the way…..
Following on from the extensive revision of the Proficiency(CPE) exam in March this year, Cambridge have just released a revised handbook for the changes they’ll be making to the First exam (FCE) from the start of 2015. Similar changes are also likely to take place to the Advanced exam (CAE), though details on this aren’t available yet.
The big news is that the Reading and Use of English papers are being squeezed into a single paper. The combined version weighs in at 1 hour 15 minutes (half an hour shorter than the current combined lengths) and contains exactly the same tasks as the current versions, though each section contains fewer questions (about 20 fewer questions overall). From a practical point of view the skills, sub-skills and strategies learners might need for the tasks won’t change, and other than changing the frame of reference for the tasks, it appears little else does either. That said, the descriptions of task focus in the handbook have improved – rather than referring to “lexical / lexico-grammatical” as with the current handbook, the 2015 version offers a bit more detail: ”The main focus is on vocabulary, e.g. idioms, collocations, fixed phrases, complementation, phrasal verbs, semantic precision.”
There doesn’t appear to be any difference in the new listening paper, though the number of possible text types has been reduced – this is, I suspect, simply acknowledging the reality of what is actually used rather than providing a list of possible sources.
A few minor alterations crop up in the speaking. In part one the timings are reduced from 3 minutes to 2 minutes, but in practice I doubt this will have much effect. In part three, currently candidates are asked to “talk together about how _________ might be. Then decide which two would _______” and have three minutes to do this. The new version separates these two tasks out. Candidates are given two minutes to discuss the pros and cons of the options and are then interrupted and asked to come to a decision about which option is best in one further minute of discussion. It isn’t clear whether candidates are required to actually reach a decision – the assessment scales for interactive communication describes “negotiation towards an outcome” but not necessarily reaching it…
Finally, changes to the writing paper. Possibly to make the exam more marketable to academic institutions, possibly because a change is as good as a rest, but the mandatory Part One task is switching from the letter / email to an essay providing and justifying an opinion. A title (and therefore topic) is given, along with two ideas to write about, but the candidate is also required to provide one idea of their own. The possible text types for the Part Two task have also therefore changed and are given as: article / email or letter / report / review. So no more stories and also – no more book questions! At least the Part Two I’ve seen makes no mention of set texts and there are only three questions in the sample tasks provided, but this, it seems, has been quietly dropped. Which I have mixed emotions about – I’m glad because there’s nothing worse than reading someone’s opinion of a book they’ve clearly not read and because there’s always someone who tries to blag it; but at the same time it seems to reflect a trend away from extensive reading or the inclusion of reading for any purpose other than information gathering – whether this leads the trend or is simply reflective of it, I’m not sure.
Other important changes to the writing paper include word lengths, which are now the same for both tasks: 140 – 190 words. This represents an increase for both tasks, while the length of the writing paper hasn’t changed – so more writing required in the same amount of time.
Recently a colleague emerged from a particularly trying cover class experience, having decided that all of the problems that were experienced in the lesson could be traced back to a single overriding fault – the teacher’s lack of passion for the teaching. Vainly it was pointed out that (a) this particular class has a bit of a reputation for being tricksy (b) their regular teacher has huge amounts of experience as a young learner teacher and teacher trainer and still finds them a bit of a handful (c) what they really need is to to be suspended from the ceiling by their thumbs until they’re willing to behave.
Which got me wondering…. Which other professions require “passion” from their practitioners? Is a passion for teaching a pre-requisite for the job? Or just an optional extra?
I think if you look around at other careers, passion is possibly a nice thing to have but not necessarily a requirement in the same way that it is perceived to be in teaching. Anyone who’s been anywhere near a hospital emergency room outside daylight hours will be able to confirm that while medical staff may treat you with practiced efficiency and considerate empathy – passion is not often in evidence. Then there are those professions where passion could be a definite drawback: a passionate accountant anyone? Or a a passionate undertaker?
Curiously flattered by the number of students wishing to attend the class that day, the teacher rushed off to the copy room to make an extra set of handouts.
Alright – no matter how much it might sometimes feel like dealing with a bunch of corpses – teaching and undertaking require somewhat different skill sets. But the point is still valid: almost every job, profession or career requires competence and professionalism. Why is it then that teaching also requires passion?
I have written before on the unreal expectations placed upon teachers and the nobility of purpose that pervades the profession. I think perhaps that the requirement for teachers to display a passion for our profession is tied into that. Essentially it comes out of good customer relations. Students, or their parents, wish to entrust their education to someone who cares. The teacher is therefore required, by convention if nothing else, to demonstrate that they care. Hence the belief that passion is required to be a good teacher arises and consequently teachers are judged on whether they are good or not by whether they clearly demonstrate a passion for the cause.
Which is possibly unfair. I suspect that if most of the people reading this take a moment to think their way around their staffroom, they could identify colleagues who are extremely able, experienced and professional – but for whom “passionate” is not an adjective that could be applied to their working lives.
If I think back over the academic year so far, I’m not sure that passion has applied very much. Hopefully the experience, ability and professionalism have been in evidence – I’m fairly sure there have been occasional bursts of enthusiasm and creativity and with any luck everyone has taken something out of the lessons that they didn’t have before, but passion? Maybe not.
The new DoS had spent some considerable time perfecting her “teacher’s look”.
Does that matter? Also not sure. I think this differs from teacher to teacher and different experiences and standards apply at different stages of a teaching career. For some, the passion they have for the profession provides a guiding light, a light for them in the dark places when all other lights go out. We all have moments in the dark places of teaching and if you have that light, so much the better.
For others however, the passion is like paint and plaster over the face of a wall seated on a shaky foundations. It can cover up a multitude of pedagogical sins and ultimately if these problems are not addressed the whole edifice can come crashing down.
Personally, I don’t think I’m in a professional place where a passion for teaching is that important to me. Don’t get me wrong, I care about what I do and try to do the best I can with the time I have available – but, well, maybe I’m thinking too deeply about the word passion, but I’m not sure I can summon up much of it for the classroom these days and I’m not completely sure I need to either…
IELTS teachers will be glad to know that The Economist has a “Daily Chart” section on their blog pages called Graphic Detail.
Featuring “charts, maps and infographics”, not all the content is useful for those IELTS Academic writing part one tasks – the recent retrospective of Margaret Thatcher’s career in Economist covers being an example – but a lot of it is indeed very useful: see yesterday’s exploration of changes to the minimum wage (pictured) as an example.
The sheer wealth of information that The Economist publishes in this way means that there should be something for every IELTS lesson, or at least that you can build up quite a nice collection of graphics for use with your classes.
Ways that I’ve been using these graphics with my current IELTS group include:
A mingle activity where learners each have a different graphic, they mingle and describe their graphic to each other, thus getting a bit of additional practice in using data analysis language. A variation: learners swap their graphics each time, so that they get practice with lots of different graphics and information.
A dictadraw activity using two different charts where learners sit back to back and describe their graphics to each other, draw a representation of their partner’s graphic (based on that description) and when both are done, compare their efforts with the original.
It is, of course, easy enough to design a quick IELTS academic writing part one task based on these graphics.
Each chart is usually accompanied by a short paragraph that describes the chart and the background to it. It’s worth pointing out to learners that the Economist model is a journalistic one – the purpose, tone and content will be slightly different to that required by IELTS. Nonetheless, if you have a large collection of graphics and paragraphs, learners can do a matching exercise or a reading race (where you give learners the graphic and they have to run and find the correct matching paragraph from a selection stuck to the board).
The paragraphs are also useful sources of language and, despite the caveats noted earlier, it is a useful process for learners to mine the text for any and all expressions they think they can pull out and use in their own writing.
I am not impressed. For whatever reason, it simply seems as though both Cambridge ESOL and most of the major publishers seem to have shown and complete and utter disregard towards the students and prospective candidates studying at CPE level.
I published my analysis of the changes to CPE sixteen months ago and it’s proved to be one of the most popular posts I’ve written. I simply do not understand why the corporate stakeholders in the process couldn’t achieve more in those sixteen months than they have done.
I appreciate that it takes a long time to put a book together and that some publishers were doubtless taking advantage of the exam changes to give some familiar titles a much needed overhaul, but I was shocked and frankly unimpressed when, at the start of the school year in September 2012, there were no titles available to prepare classes with.
What went wrong? Is CPE really such a small market segment that you can ignore the needs of the students and teachers like this? Are publishers unaware of when the school years of their target markets start? Again, this is a euro-centric view and school years in other regions start at other times, but I think the first book that arrived on our school doorstep for the revised exam did so in January. In our case, our preferred supplier also consistently lied to us about the imminent availability of our preferred coursebook, which meant that our students were essentially working with whatever adaptations our increasingly skillful proficiency teacher could come up with.
The first session of the revised CPE exam runs here next weekend. The only practice tests for proficiency our students have seen are the two different versions that are available from the Cambridge ESOL website. There is no task specific writing mark scheme available either for the free download materials or for the writing tasks in the handbooks, only a description of how the writing is assessed and some sample answers.
This is not good enough.
If you are an exam body you have not only a duty and responsibility to provide a secure, valid and reliable exam but you also have a duty of care to those other stakeholders who are involved in the exam process. In other words, you have a clear and current responsibility to provide complete information about your exam, examples of the content and a full description of the assessment process. Every coursebook and test book for the revised CPE I have seen gives equal weighting to the four parts of the exam. It is only tucked away in a small corner somewhere in the handbook that Cambridge ESOL say otherwise and give the weighting as 40 / 20 / 20 / 20. It is my view that Cambridge ESOL has let slip some of their responsibilities and it’s reputation as a full and fair provider of exams has been tarnished.
Neither are publishers free of criticism. Why was it not possible to get the materials ready sooner? The first revision bulletin published by Cambridge ESOL was released in October 2010 – was this not enough time to start getting projects ready and writers keyed up? What about April 2011, when the “at a glance” changes to the specifications were published? Let me think, that’s almost an 18 month lead in? Is that really not enough time? I don’t know what the full process of creating a coursebook is, from start to finish, though I am aware that there are a number of stages in the process, drafts and revisions and trialling. I also appreciate that the reticence of Cambridge ESOL to share specifics probably doesn’t help.
Nonetheless – if you are in a materials business, if your core activity is the design, creation and publication of coursebooks, then I would hope that you also would take into account the needs of the people who buy your products and provide them in a timely manner.
Getting learners to think about their writing BEFORE they put pen to paper is a thankless task. Most seem to prefer the “stream of consciousness” approach, where the words flow ceaselessly out of the brain, down the arm and out, via the pen, onto the page. I have, in the past, spent months hammering home the point and process of planning a piece of writing – even to the point of insisting my classes include a plan with every piece of writing they submit. No plan – no grade.
I gave up on that approach after a student came up to me at the end of one lesson and handed me his essay. ”Teacher, I’m really sorry but I didn’t have much time for my homework. I wrote the essay for you, but is it OK if I write the plan later?”
Now, on reflection, what I think is interesting about that comment is that the learner clearly didn’t associate planning with the creation of a successful text. The final product to be assessed was, in his view, more important than the process of getting there.
What I’m beginning to wonder is whether the same view might be more prevalent amongst teachers than it is with learners? When it comes to lesson planning, do we practice what we preach?
Confession time. You might find this hard to believe, but not every lesson plan I write includes aims, assumptions, anticipated problems and solutions, timetable fit, stages, stage aims, timings, procedures, interaction patterns and material references. In fact I think the last time I did any of that was on 6th June 2007, which – not entirely uncoincidentally – was the last time I was observed.
These days, my planning process goes a bit more like this:
What should the learners be better at doing by the end of the lesson?
How will I know if they are better at doing it?
What do they need to know to get better at it?
How can I make the whole process interesting for them?
And then after I’ve spent 45 minutes swearing at the course book for not helping with any aspect of this process, I scribble about six stages down on the back of a discarded handout, do some photocopying and we’re done. Sound familiar?
So here’s my question – am I alone? How does everybody else do their planning? Let me know!
I’ve recently just finished teaching an Elementary business group, as part of which some extensive record keeping was required, and for the first time I actually kept a bibliography for the course. It makes interesting reading and what struck me most was the sheer number of supplementary works referred to. Is that normal? Am I over-reliant on materials? Why so many?
I’ve had to stop and think and go back to some of my other lesson records to check, but it does look like I supplement a lot. Now in this case, the course book I was using was possibly not designed for a course of this length or heft, and wasn’t helped by the fact that the group was mixed ability, so there are two very pragmatic reasons for supplementing right there – to keep the challenge going for the stronger members of the group and basically to make sure there’s enough going on in the lessons (and I’m aware of the in-drawn hiss of breath coming from certain members of the audience as I write that…).
Fundamentally however, I think what I see when I look at that list is that I have a real problem with course books. Put simply, they aren’t up to the job. Two of the course books I’m using at the moment are WOE-ful. WOE-ful in the sense that (a) they cause me sorrow and misery on a regular basis and (b) every time I open their pages I’m struck by the feeling of What On Earth (WOE) am I meant to do with this? Actually, that’s not quite the expression I use but this is a family friendly blog…
So what do I supplement for?
Most of the time it’s to give the learners something to do with the language. It is shocking how few productive activities or tasks are included in course books. Obviously some books are better than others, but by and large if you open any course book to a double page spread there’s not much there to prompt the learners to actually use any of the language they’ve theoretically been learning. Not that I have high expectations of learner production anyway, but if you don’t even give learners the chance? It does rather beg the question what you’re doing in the classroom in the first place.
The other reason I supplement is to find engaging ways of helping the learners get to grips with the target language in the first place. There is a course book I’m using at the moment (not listed below), which I find is terrible for language work. It’s the same approach every time and employs a watered down, dull and un-motivating version of guided discovery which does little in the way of guiding and presents rather than allowing for discovery. It is not a book that deserves space on anyone’s shelf and would frankly be better used as kindling. So given that, I supplement to find more interesting, useful and memorable ways of introducing the target language.
What does it say about my teaching?
Well, that’s quite a difficult one to answer and I think what it says about my teaching is that I use PPP a lot more than I think I do. I don’t know that this is necessarily a bad thing – detractors of PPP are invariably trying to promote their own next big thing at the expense of PPP and I have yet to see any evidence, other than anecdotal, that any particular methodology is superior to any other methodology. Nonetheless, I’m slightly uncomfortable with finding that out about myself. I thought my teaching range was broader.
Maybe it’s time to do some more experimenting…
Ultimately though, and as Richards points out in “The Language Teaching Matrix”: “Studies of the effectiveness of specific methods have had a hard time demonstrating that the method itself, rather than other factors, such as the teacher’s enthusiasm or the novelty of the new method, was the crucial variable” and I think that what this course bibliography really says is that I spend a lot of time trying to find interesting and engaging ways to help learners learn. Which is probably more important than “slavish adherence to a method” anyway. Right?
Clarke, Simon. (2010). “In Company Elementary Student’s Book – 2nd Edition”. Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Oxford
Cotton, David; Falvey, David and Kent, Simon. (2007). “New Edition Market Leader Elementary Course Book”. Pearson Education Ltd: Harlow.
Cunningham, Sarah; Moor, Peter and Eales, Francis. (2005). “New Cutting Edge Elementary Student’s Book”. Pearson Education Ltd: Harlow.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
19,000 people fit into the new Barclays Center to see Jay-Z perform. This blog was viewed about 81,000 times in 2012. If it were a concert at the Barclays Center, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.
Muzy is one of my many “takeaways” from Shaun’s session – and for want of a better description is an online photo collage generator. You can select from a number of different layouts, add your pictures in, give it a title and then you’re done!
There are a number of different ways that you can add your pictures – you can select them from your facebook account, upload them directly, take a webcam shot, paste in a URL or there’s an in-built google image search feature.
Obviously all of these options seem to pay little attention to issues of copyright, though you may want to focus on it more. There are a number of royalty free image sites as well as sites like ELTPics where the images are available under a creative commons licence. Another great image resource is the Wikimedia Commons, which describes itself as a database of “freely usable media files”, though I’m not sure what, if any attribution requirements they have.
In Shaun’s webinar, he suggested using the Muzy Photobox app to create FCE and CAE style picture speaking tasks, so the other day my learners did just that – which perhaps predictably resulted in a selection of grisly images with the two questions “How do you think the idea of dying affects the way you live?” and “Which of these ways would you prefer to die?” It was though, the outcome of a useful lesson in which the learners did some in depth analysis of what’s being asked and what’s being looked for in a picture task, before creating their own versions.
In order to get hold of the images once you’ve created them, the learners will be asked to either sign up to Muzy or to share via their facebook or twitter accounts. We just used the Snipping Tool feature of Windows 7 to cut and past the images into a word document.
While the photobox app is the one that comes up when you first go to muzy, there are a number of other apps on their website which play with the idea of combining words and images. There’s a comic style editor which is easier to use, but not as versatile as Superlame, a meme generator, a text as photo app and perhaps simply, but most relevantly to ELT, there’s a picture and text writing app. Though why you wouldn’t just use a word document I’m not sure. Perhaps if you wanted to post the results to a class blog, it might be easier this way.
Pathways to America: Teaching About Immigration Changes is a very thorough lesson plan from The New York Times Learning Network. I’m adding it to The Best Sites For Learning About Immigration In The United States.
I’m adding ‘It’s just our job’ — teacher who saved students from tornado from The Washington Post to Teachers Putting Children First In Oklahoma. And here are some new additions to The Best Multimedia For Learning About The Midwest & … Continue reading →
The end of the school year is here or soon to be here which means it's a great time to reflect on what your students have done this year. Here are five ways that you can create some digital celebrations of the year. Make a video. Animoto makes it very easy to cobble together a set of pictures and add some music in the background to show off what your st […]
Dictionary of Numbers is a neat Chrome extension that "translates" large numbers into terms that are easy to visualize. When you have the extension installed any time that you encounter a large number on the web you can highlight it and get a simple explanation of just how big that number is. For example, if you came across the number 238,900 you w […]