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From Can’t to Can: changing thinking about exams #iatefl2017

12 Apr

Recently I was lucky enough to run a workshop at IATEFL Glasgow on helping students in language exam classes feel more confident in their abilities.

As promised in the session, here are the slides from the session, which I re-titled as the slightly more pithy “Exam Whisperer”.  Apologies for any confusion that may have caused!

 

And for those that are interested, here are my notes and handouts.  I’m not sure how useful they are as I have used my own personal shorthand, but perhaps they might give a bit more information on the slides and how the whole thing hangs together…..

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And finally, I used tasks from the Cambridge English: Advanced handbook for teachers during the session.  You should be able to find that in pdf download from their website: http://www.cambridgeenglish.org/exams/advanced/

What should Advanced materials involve?

25 Jan

I was recently asked what features I thought good C2 materials should have.  It’s quite a good question, especially because there aren’t any good GE materials at C2 level.  There are a number of books aimed at preparing students for the Cambridge English: Proficiency exam and of those, there are two that I rate highly:  Objective Proficiency and Proficiency Expert.  However there is, as far as I know, nothing for the more generally focused student and so that is an obvious, if somewhat niche, area to move into.

So what would my ideal book contain?

(1) Cognitive challenge

These are high level learners.  You don’t get to be a high level learner unless you are already pretty good at the language and unless you already have a relationship with the language that exists outside of the classroom context.  Most higher level learners engage with English by watching TED talks, films, listening to music, engaging with literature or by using English in some way for their jobs or studies.  Asking them to come into the classroom and read a text and answer some questions or to listen to a text and answer some questions is pointless – it doesn’t reflect what they do in real life and at this stage of their learning is probably of very limited use developmentally anyway.  What would be nice to see is to engage the learners in some kind of issue or problem that they can “solve” in class and where the input, text or audio, provides further food for thought or further content input (NOT solely linguistic) in relation to completing the task.

brain-954823_1920

(2) Authenticity and Analysis

A shift in focus from input based language tuition to analysis and emergent language.  Again, at higher levels, the learners are probably more familiar with the standard grammatical syllabus than their teachers are (!) and they don’t really need to look at the meaning form and pronunciation of mixed conditionals for what is probably the fourth year in a row.  What they do need, is to develop meta-linguistic skills that will help them get the most benefit from their exposure to English, wherever that might come from.  So this would involve working with authentic texts/audio and then looking at these texts from an analytical perspective, possibly involving aspects of socio-linguistics, so that the learners are looking at what speakers choose to say and why.  Confrontational interviews (e.g. BBC Hardtalk) are quite good for this…  But the idea is that the learners look at what is said, try and determine the function or purpose of what is said and then look at the language patterns that emerge.

A structure that might exemplify what I mean here is something like:

  • Work in pairs. Think of five different ways of apologising to someone.
  • Feedback – T focus on intonation and pron – sounding sorry as well as saying it!
  • Input – watch Basil Fawlty apologising sarcastically to customers
  • Assess Basil’s performance – effective, why? Why not?
  • Listen again – note phrases for use.
  • Look at language patterns – modal distance / past tense distance etc
  • Analyse intonation
  • Students create some kind of apologetic role play

 

(3) Production and feedback

My single biggest issue with the majority of ELT materials is that there is often very little opportunity for the learners to DO anything with the language they’ve been learning in the class.  The learners may or may not choose to actually use the language from the input or analysis, but the opportunity should be there for them in every lesson.  This means a well-designed, engaging, productive task.  And it also means opportunities for feedback where the teacher is helping the students to notice what they could be saying better (or differently at least), either by using ideas from the input/analysis, or just in a more general sense (i.e. feedback doesn’t need to be limited to a focus on the lesson content).

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(4) Proper topics

At this level, students should not be treated like they are imbeciles who can’t cope with the cognitive or linguistic nuances of expressing themselves on uncomfortable or controversial topics.  At this stage of their linguistic development, these are some of the few areas for them left to cope with.  Materials should move away from the “safe areas” and should embrace the real world.  There are ways of dealing with PARSNIP type topics so that they don’t cause discomfort with teachers and learners and these are aspects of our world where it can be difficult to understand alternative viewpoints.  With language and culture so tightly bound together, learners need the tools to discuss the differences between their own cultures and those around them, even if they don’t agree with the choices that other cultures make.

 

(5) Taking learning outside the classroom and bringing the outside world in.

Again, many higher level learners will probably do this already as this seems to be a habit they have.  Materials need to reflect the ways in which learners might engage with the language outside the classroom and where possible should bring the outside world into the class.  This represents language exposure and encounter in the real world, and the classroom is then a place to explore and analyse real world language use and a way in which the class can use real language to extend and develop their own lexical and grammatical resource.

For example:  If the materials are presented on a double page spread, the final section can be a “task for next time” which either asks learners to go off and research an aspect from that lesson’s materials which they can bring back for the start of the next lesson – OR – can be a task that asks learners to pre-explore a topic and to come back to class next time with the information and language they encountered in their research.

 

Actually…..

Shouldn’t ALL materials involve these criteria?

Answers on a postcard please!  wish you were here postcard

(Or failing that, in the comments section!)

Processes and Passives

18 Jan

This is a lesson I did with my advanced class the other day as part of a review of passive structures.  I’ve typed it all up into a full plan and procedure which you can download in pdf through this link:  teflgeek – A lesson on processes and passives

It is based around a short advert that I found on Larry Ferlazzo’s site from the company Target:

In the lesson, the learners listen to the video without watching it, and predict what they think is happening.

They then watch it and extract as much language out of it as they can, before using the vocabulary they collected to write up a description of the process.  As it is a process, there is a nice mixture of active and passive structures that can be used and the lesson also contains some input on using the passive.

They can then use these skills to describe other contraptions and processes for homework, such as the image below.

I used this mostly as a vehicle for working with the passive, but it should also work quite well as a lesson for teaching IELTS part one writing.

 

Professor_Lucifer_Butts

Parsnips in ELT: Stepping out of the Comfort Zone

10 Aug

most requested ebooks

The concept of Parsnips in ELT has always intrigued me.  These are the things that you’re not supposed to talk about with your classes, the taboo topics that might get you into trouble or which your students might protest at.  These are the topics that mainstream coursebooks leave out.

And for a very good reason – coursebooks are market dependent and they rely on economies of scale to make a profit.  A coursebook that cannot be used in an entire region of the world because it touches on political issues that might offend ruling regimes means potentially losing money in sales.  But this leads to some interesting omissions and to a one size fits all policy that essentially has us teaching to the lowest common cultural denominator. And to what someone once described as “in-flight magazines for the grammatically challenged” (Scott Thornbury I think…?).

Personally, I see no problem in touching on Parsnip topics in the classroom.  The acronym stands for Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, -Isms, Pork.  I think I’ve probably done lessons on all of these at one point or another and you can find at least two lessons on this blog involving pigs….

The key with anything like this is (a) common sense and (b) sensitivity.  If, for example, you happen to be teaching English to the highest cadre of the ruling junta in the benevolent dictatorship of wherever, then a lesson on freedom of speech and the democratic principle might not be advised (although some would argue that it was the perfect opportunity).  Equally, if you are teaching a lesson on a topic and notice the students are unusually silent, be prepared to ask them if they would prefer to do something else instead.  It is not our job to force our opinions upon our students, but we are not doing our jobs properly if we deny them the opportunity to discuss the issues of the day.

If you do enjoy spicing up your standard ELT menu with the odd root vegetable, then help is at hand in the form of a new e-book:  Parsnips in ELT: Stepping out of the Comfort Zone (vol. 1).  This ebook is free to download and is available in multiple formats (epub, mobi & pdf) and contains one lesson on each topic from a collection of authors including myself.

Parsnips in ELT Cover

Not everything in it might be to your taste and if so, you can do what my children do with their vegetables – push it to the side of your plate and leave it for someone else to deal with!  There is, however, enough in there for you to find something you like or to at least start you thinking!

The book has an accompanying blog where you can find some of the ideas from the book as well as a range of shorter ideas to stimulate discussion on the Parsnip topics with your classes: http://imagearies.com/wp-parsnips/.

If you try any of the lessons in the book, do let us know how they go!  We’re always keen to get feedback on the ideas!  Either leave a comment here or on the Parsnips blog.

Above all – have fun!

Words with Multiple Meanings

19 Feb

Here’s a nice infographic from the Kaplan blog about words with multiple meanings.  I can think of three immediate ways to exploit this with a class:

(1) Prediction – give students the keywords.  Students then think of as many phrases or uses of the keywords as possible and then compare their ideas to the infographic.

(2) Identifying parts of speech – black over the labels on the colour coding key, and ask students to look at the phrases in provided and get them to come up with the categories.

(3) Make your own posters – either you or the students choose your own set of keywords and they then create their own phrase based multiple meaning poster / infographic.  This would be a perfect opportunity to introduce learners to working with corpuses – like corpus.byu.edu.

I can see this working particularly well with exam classes – and in fact if you combined all three activities, you would probably have the basis for quite a nice lesson!

words with multiple meanings

The WHY Game – for practicing clauses of reason and purpose

4 Feb

 

This is an activity I did with with an intermediate group of young learners – who absolutely loved it.  It led to what was easily the longest conversations they’d had in English all year.  It probably wouldn’t take much to adapt it to higher levels or older classes.

This came as a freer practice activity after we’d already dealt with the input – in this case we’d been working with:

  • to + infinitive
  • in order to + infinitive
  • so (that) + subject & clause

I asked the class to write down five things they’d done today and five places they’d been to recently (but not today).

I then asked them to build these out into sentences with time references.  e.g. “This morning I brushed my teeth.”  /  “Last weekend I went to the park.”

Once they had their sentences I picked one of the stronger students and asked him to tell me one of his sentences.  Our conversation went like this:

  • John, tell me one of your sentences.
  • Uh.  OK.  Last week I went to the theatre.
  • Why did you go to the theatre?
  • It was a school trip.  I had to.
  • Why did you have to?
  • Because the school made me,
  • Why did they make you?

…..  and so on.

You may have noticed this modelling didn’t lead to much production of the target language.  But at this point the rest of the class knew what was expected of them.  I drew their attention to the target language and told them to try and use it.  I also told them they would get one point as soon as their partner gave up, said “I don’t know” or told them to shut up (or similar).  I then put them into groups of three and off they went!

 

whyAs I said, the class loved it.  They really went for it and some die hards were still on their first sentence after about five minutes.  I noticed some students were using the target language, some weren’t, but they were all speaking English and were really on task and engaged.  I think in future I’d set a time limit per sentence of two or three minutes, after which the victim wins a point, to try and avoid one student over-dominating the group.

Clauses of reason and purpose and result come into a lot of exam books, so this could be a nice change of pace for some of those classes.

Enjoy, try it out and let me know what you think!

 

CAE Online Resource Directory

4 Jun

For those involved with CAE exam classes – I’ve just put up a directory of online resources which you can access here:

CAE Online Resource Directory

There’s a mix of exam information, online practice exercises and teaching advice, so take a look and see what you think!

Predictably, a lot of what’s out there for “CAE” – or “Cambridge English: Advanced” as we should more properly call it – is just details for various courses run by schools and language training centres.  There isn’t as much out there as there is for FCE.

So – if you know of anything that I haven’t included – please do let me know – you can do this by leaving a comment here, or via the feedback form on the about page.

The Best Education Articles From “The Onion” | Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day…

7 Feb

If you don’t know The Onion – you should take a look – it’s a satirical newspaper that sometimes hits the nail on the head.  It’s also a great source of articles for use with classes – the occasionally puerile sense of humour appeals to teenagers, whilst the (not always) sophisticated parodies of mainstream news events makes adults smile.  Also some great stuff for business English classes and I think they now have short videos which could be used for listening tasks.

Anyway – this was all prompted by a post from Larry Ferlazzo – The Best Education Articles From “The Onion” – with well – these are Larry’s picks for the best education related Onion material.  My favourite is the cost cutting decision to remove the past tense from school curricula….  after all – who needs to talk about yesterday?

Using Haiku for Summary Tasks

12 Jan

Summary task woes
Unfound ideas from the texts
Lacking clarity
 
What is a Haiku?
Distillation of ideas
Concisely worded 
 
This could go quite wrong
Haiku for summary tasks?
Might be worth a try 
 
 
 

Learners at CPE (Proficiency) level frequently have issues with the comprehension and summary task on the Use of English paper (click here for Cambridge ESOL’s candidate guide).

Answering the comprehension questions can be difficult enough, but the summary task is enough to turn teachers and students into gibbering wrecks, sobbing in the corner of the classroom and wailing at their own percieved inadequacy.  The truth is that they aren’t inadequate in any way – they just need some training!  Using Haiku is an approach I’ve used to try and help learners access the core ideas of the texts in a simple and succinct way.

Continue reading

The zombie apocalypse and its role in the ELT classroom

6 Jan

From the always interesting yearinthelifeofanenglishteacher comes what is clearly the best blog post title of 2011:  “The zombie apocalypse and its role in the ELT classroom“.

I missed the original post in June, only picking up on it via Tyson Seburn’s 11 posts I wish I’d written  in December, but it is a truly inspired way of teaching speculative language – mainly focusing on conditional forms – through the medium of you tube “choose your own adventure” style videos.

The original post features the Zombie Apocalypse (courtesy of a New Zealand pizza company ad campaign);  the time travelling adventures of office-bound Chad, Matt and Rob; and a UK anti-knife crime campaign.  This last features incredibly authentic North London dialect – while making the choices will be accessible to all levels – the language from the participants will not!  Also worth watching it all the way through (as with all the videos) to check for suitability!

That last point is also worth making of all these type adventures, it’s not always necessary for learners to understand everything the characters in the videos say – unless you specifically want to work on listening skills – the choices, as you see from the picture above, are quite clear and these should prompt the discussion, which will in turn probably clarify any areas of confusion relating to the events on screen.

Finally – it’s also worth reading through the comments section below the post – some great ideas and further links from the commenters.