Archive for December, 2010

Monday, December 20, 2010

Observations For Teachers and Supervisors

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Very few words strike fear into the hearts of teachers like “Do you mind if I stop by and observe your class next week?” Being observed, either by a supervisor or a colleague is rarely a completely comfortable experience. It is natural to be nervous and, when something goes wrong, it is natural to have a few moments of panic. However, if done with tact and care, observations can be a really positive experience for both the teacher and observer.

I’ve been on both sides of the clip board, so to speak. As a beginning teacher, I observed my more experienced colleagues; as a more experienced teacher, I have been observed by my supervisors and by other teachers; and as a Lead Instructor, I observed other teachers, both new and experienced. I have never failed to learn something from any of my experiences.

For Beginners

As a beginning teacher, the opportunity to observe more experienced teachers was an invaluable accompaniment to the theory I was studying in my CELTA/RSA Certification. I was able to see the methods in practice and decide for myself what I wanted to try and what I might be comfortable with. Teaching can be a very isolating profession, and observations help to bridge the gap between a new teacher and his/her field.

For More Experienced Teachers

As a teacher, although I don’t look forward to being observed (who does?), I really did appreciate the thoughtful comments of my former supervisor, whose opinion I respect very much. I looked at the observations as an opportunity to learn from my supervisor’s many years of classroom experience. Her comments were usually largely positive and the suggestions were clear and based on examples of my behavior in the class. (In my case, they often had to do with slowing down during instructions, something I still struggle with.)

In my previous school, the observer was required to complete a form with plenty of space for comments. After the observation, the teacher and observer scheduled time to go through the form together. I valued the verbal feedback and I was given a chance to explain the choices I had made in the class.

Some teachers may worry that something will go wrong. They are right; it might. I once observed a teacher who sat on a wet chair in the middle of her lesson. She had to excuse herself to dry off her pants. These things happen. (They happen to me all the time, in fact.) As an observer, I was more interested in how she handled the situation quickly and gracefully. In observations myself, I have neglected to queue up the cassette tape and forgotten essential pieces of an activity. Again, these things happen. The important thing is to move on and realize that they have most likely happened to the observer at some point, too.

For Supervisors

As an observer, I have also learned a great deal from my experiences. Teachers often scramble to show the flashier parts of their lesson plans, the games and interactive activities. But I also really enjoy watching how teachers handle the mundane daily tasks, such as roll call and homework checks. I first learned the great benefits of writing the lesson plan on the board in an observation of a less experienced teacher. (Even though I have been teaching for a while, it is possible for this old dog to learn some new tricks.)

In order for the observation to be successful, the supervisor has to be in a position of legitimacy. Trying to offer suggestions to a teacher when you have little or no teaching experience yourself will inevitably cause anxiety. Also, just as with grading papers, the feedback sandwich is important: one compliment, one suggestion, one compliment. (Observations are a great opportunity to boost a teacher’s self confidence.)

Finally, I strongly believe that it is important to offer the teacher a chance to defend his or her own choices. They may have a reasons for what they are doing that isn’t immediately apparent to you. Also, supervisors need to keep in mind that (thankfully) not all teachers have the same style. Your noisy, lively class management style might work for you, but another teacher might be just as successful with a more subdued approach.

As I said, being observed is rarely a completely relaxing experience, but there are a lot of potential benefits. In my current teaching situation, we don’t have any formal observations at all, and I have to say that I really miss the feedback and the opportunity to learn.

Monday, December 13, 2010

So, Who’s Lying, Inspector? The “Perfect” Activity for Practicing the Past Perfect

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

In my last blog I discussed an alternative way of introducing the Past Perfect. I proposed that teachers kick off their set of lessons on this “unruly” bit of grammar by presenting contexts in which the use of the Past Perfect is essential to the intended meaning of a message, and only afterward moving on to sentences in which the Past Perfect can be substituted for the Simple Past.  This, I suggested, would allow students to get a feel for the Past Perfect’s semantic impact, for its force.

I also promised there to share my favorite Past Perfect activity.  The idea for this activity came when I happened on an exercise entitled “The Perfect Detective,” which is included in The Anti-Grammar Grammar Book by Nick Hall and John Shepheard.  Though based on the concept of that exercise, my activity differs in several ways; I introduced some changes in order to allow students to be involved at all stages of the task.

The activity not only encourages learners to identify the real differences in the meanings of various messages, but it tends to engage students quite naturally.

What does it ask students to do?

Solve a crime.


The teacher presents the crime scene, but not by simply telling students what happened.  Instead, the teacher makes this stage interactive and suggestive by offering no more than the list of key words and phrases below, from which students must attempt to deduce the series of events.

John Flitz    9 p.m.    country house    dinner    six guests   midnight   shots heard    Flitz’s body    discover


Students are informed that the guests who attended that infamous dinner party are being interrogated by two inspectors.  In pairs, students compose testimonies for the guests by completing a worksheet provided.  Each student of each pair will complete one version (A or B) of the worksheet in order to create his or her set of testimonies.


Once the two versions of the worksheet are filled in, students are told that four of the six guests had plotted the murder, and that those guests gave testimonies which contradict one another.  Students who completed version A of the worksheet then compare their testimonies with students who completed version B of the worksheet.  By paying close attention to the meaning changes caused by the alternating uses of the Past Perfect and the Simple Past in their sets of testimonies, students will be able to determine which guests are telling the truth, and which guests are lying and may well have plotted the murder of Flitz.


After students have decided, in pairs, who the four suspects must be, one student from each pair reads out the suspects’ names.  The teacher writes on the board the names read out for each pair.  Students are then asked to justify their decisions, highlighting the meanings conveyed by the use of the Past Perfect in some testimonial statements and the use of the Simple Past in others.

It seems to me that the force of the Past Perfect is illustrated quite vividly in this activity.

OK, so students won’t be thinking that they’ll necessarily be incarcerated for using the wrong construction, but they may well come to realize that getting a handle on that unruly old Past Perfect is worth their time.

Hall, N., and J. Shepheard. The Anti-Grammar Grammar Book. Essex: Longman, 1991. 131-132. Print.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Chocolate Museum

Photo courtesy of EuroMagic, available here.

Recently I had the good fortune to do some curriculum advising and teacher training at a large English language institute in the Middle East.

One area of concern for many of the teachers was teaching reading; many of the students didn’t read much in their own language, and didn’t have any particular love of reading in English either. We talked about both intensive and extensive reading, and pre-, during, and post-reading strategies, all that good stuff, and then had some time for questions and answers.

One teacher asked about how to handle a reading selection that was part of her textbook. Every term, she said, she got to that same passage, and students were never interested in it. Yes, chimed in other teachers, they’d struggled with that one too! The passage in question, from Interchange Third Edition, Level 2 (Richards, Hull, and Proctor, Cambridge University Press, 2005), is in a unit called “It’s Really Worth Seeing,” which as a topic covers landmarks and places of interest around the world. The grammar of the unit is the passive voice, and of course there is target vocabulary and a pronunciation point and a writing assignment and the usual things you’d expect to find in a coursebook.

The reading passage is a called “A Guide to Unusual Museums,” and describes the Kimchi Museum (Seoul, Korea), the Gold Museum (Bogotá, Colombia) and the Chocolate Museum (Cologne, Germany). I asked what the problem was. Vocabulary? Sentence structure? Level? Length? No… the problem was that students simply weren’t interested in any of those museums. (And no, it doesn’t matter that I happen to like chocolate and gold; the point was, they weren’t interested.) What to do about that? the teachers all wanted to know.

I’ll pause here for a bit to let everyone come up with his/her own answer. You have the question, right? Here is a reading passage that will come up every term, on the Chocolate, Kimchi, and Gold Museums, and you know there is a good chance students won’t be interested in any of them because students in your past classes haven’t been interested in them. What are you going to do about that?

Got your answer? OK, I’ll share mine too. Nothing. That’s right—I’m not bothered by students who aren’t interested in the Chocolate Museum, because we’re not on a tour. This isn’t a class on museums, or even landmarks. We’re not taking a field trip, and we’re not voting on destinations. It’s an English class. Now, if the reading is at the wrong level (which it isn’t), or it doesn’t work on reading skills (which it does), then we have a problem. But if students don’t like one topic, one day, in one reading, in their entire study of English—no, I am not bothered by that, and I don’t think they should be either. If whether they personally would or would not want to visit the Chocolate Museum seems important, then it’s the teacher’s job to gently remind them what they’re doing in class—learning a language, and learning how to learn that language, and that is going to involve meeting new words and new topics. They’re not going to be riveted by every sentence, and it doesn’t matter. Language isn’t about one sentence, or one reading passage, or one topic. It’s so much larger than that.

Now, I’ve written a number of textbooks, and worked as an editor on a good number as well, and I can assure you that authors try to choose engaging topics around which to weave their language points. There probably isn’t a topic that interests every student in every country, but still, no one begins writing a reading passage by saying, “Well, this is going to bore them all to tears.” Of course not.

However, “an interesting topic” is not the only consideration. For many writers—and for me—it isn’t the most important consideration. A reading passage that helps students learn and practice English, and learn and practice reading—that is the most important consideration.

Does an interesting topic make it easier for students to learn English? Perhaps. It could increase motivation, and that can make learning easier. But perhaps we do our students a disservice if we focus too much on entertainment and pleasing them with every topic, and keep them from the inevitable work of learning. What if students learned to find the joy in the learning itself, and in the results they achieved, and not the topics of the passages they used to accomplish those results?

I’m not suggesting that you not endeavor to make your classes interesting. Before you launch into a reading passage, activate students’ background knowledge with discussion questions on the general topic. Give them prediction questions so they’ll feel they have a reason to read. Give them adequate time to digest and then discuss the reading passage. However, make sure they also realize how they’re recycling vocabulary they’ve already studied, and learning new words from context. Let them see how the grammar they’ve studied in isolation is now used in a fluent whole. Guide them to respond emotionally and intellectually to the content of what they’ve read—even if that emotion is “I would never want to visit that museum”—because then they’ll really know that they can read in English.

And isn’t that what your reading lesson is all about?

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net