Thursday, May 3, 2012

Looking for Learning

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

Way back at the beginning of the academic year, my school provided a professional development session called “Looking for Learning.”* We watched some videos, did some group work and listened to a speaker talk about his company’s approach to teacher observations. I think no one really likes being observed by fellow teachers or supervisors. It’s nerve-wracking and opens teachers up to criticisms couched as helpful suggestions. Even though I am always looking for ways to improve my teaching, I do get nervous about inviting other people into my classroom. I wasn’t sure the observations demonstrated by the “Looking for Learning” speaker were for me.

The Observation

My job is to prepare a multi-level, multi-age group of students for their mainstream junior high school classes. One of the biggest obstacles has been trying to figure out exactly what the students are learning and expected to produce in these classes. Ideally, I would have a free hour here and there to observe other teachers, but I was literally teaching 6 periods a day with no free time to drop in on my students in their mainstream classes. So, when the Head of Secondary announced that he was looking for volunteers to observe a teacher in a pilot of the “Looking for Learning” process, I might have actually pushed people out of the way to sign up.

First, all the teachers who were participating in the observation met first with the presenter, who had been brought back to follow up on his original session. He explained the process and repeatedly stressed that we would not be paying any attention to the teacher but rather looking for evidence of learning. “Right, right,” I thought. “Who goes into an observation and then ignores the teacher?”

The following day, I met again with the presenter and the other observer for a few minutes before we went into the music class. During that meeting, we were again instructed not to pay attention to what the teacher was doing. We went into the class and stood at the back while the teacher kicked off the lesson by eliciting from the students the main points of the previous lesson. Then, the students started to work on their compositions on the computers. At that point, the observers started to move around the room and talk to a variety of students. I managed to speak with 4 or 5 in the 20 minutes we had left for the observation. I asked them what they were doing, what they had done the lesson before, what they learned that was new, and if they found it easy or difficult. I got lots of different answers, and I wrote down the students’ names and, as accurately as possible, what they said. As I got caught up in interviewing the students, I forgot about the teacher entirely.

The next day, we met again, this time I was with the presenter, the other observer and the teacher. In this meeting, we simply reported back what the children had said. Upon listening to our notes on one student, the teacher had to place him/her on a grid to say whether the child was “learning,” “treading water” or “drowning.” At times, the teacher was not surprised by what we reported a student had said. At other times, the teacher had not anticipated the comments of a student. For instance, one student, a girl the teacher considered one of the top in the class, actually said she found the computer program that they were using in the class quite difficult. The teacher hadn’t known that before, as the student had always produced quality work.

In the end, the strangest thing about this observation was that we did not comment on the teaching at all. We were not permitted to offer any kind of judgment (positive or negative) about the lesson or the approach of the teacher. As observers, we were merely reporters, trying to find out if the students were learning or not.

Move Over “Do you Understand?”

The benefits of this approach are, in my mind, twofold. First, we all know that the students learn both because of us and in spite of us; just because we have a great lesson plan, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all the students in the class are learning. Second, even though I have an overall idea of my students’ abilities (especially since I have a comparatively tiny class and I see the students often), I don’t always know I would be able to completely accurately assess my students “learning” at any given moment of a lesson on any given subject.

How has this changed my teaching? Not drastically, really. I am still pretty much the same instructor that I was before I stepped foot in the music class. However, I do try to make it a regular practice to stop mid-way through a random lesson (whenever I think of it, actually) and ask a few students what they are working on and if they find it easy. I have learned that it is not enough to ask students IF they understand; I have to ask them WHAT they understand.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Thoughts on Teaching Listening (Part 2)

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

Pronunciation is one element of language courses that often gets overlooked. Part of the reason for this is that experienced teachers know how difficult it is to learn the sounds of a foreign language as an adult, especially if that language is nothing like your own. This basically means we accept that Japanese students will always have a Japanese accent, that Koreans will always have a Korean accent, and so on. Incidentally, I always used to think in terms of learners “gaining” the accent of a foreign language, but I remember hearing a friend talking about a Japanese person he knew who had managed to “lose” her Japanese accent. That is an interesting way of looking at it. I wonder which viewpoint is more common among teachers?

Anyway, as well as acknowledging the difficulty of the task of teaching pronunciation, most teachers also realize that even with a heavy accent, the majority of learners will be able to make themselves understood to proficient speakers of English. The combined effect of these two beliefs is that pronunciation often gets relegated to a once-in-a-while exercise with the sole purpose of providing a bit of variety in the course.

There are at least two problems with this way of thinking. The first is that teachers, particularly those of monolingual classes, are often very poor judges of how comprehensible their students actually are to regular speakers of the language. When I lived in New Zealand, I did the examiner training for IELTS (International English Language Testing System). As part of the workshop, we had to watch videos of candidates speaking and assign grades. What soon became clear was that teachers were giving far higher grades to students of nationalities they were familiar with. For example, two teachers who had worked in Korea gave a Korean student a high grade for her speaking, whereas the teachers who had mainly worked with European learners gave her a low one. Their reasoning was, “We can’t really understand what she is saying.”

The second reason why pronunciation deserves more attention in language courses is that a learner’s knowledge of the sounds of a language will directly affect their ability to perceive and recognize those sounds. In other words, having good pronunciation is just as important for listening as it is for speaking. My limited understanding of how recognition systems work is that they compare sensory input with stored representations of a variety of forms. For example, we learn how the word “boy” sounds, and we then create and store a template of it in our brains. When audio signals reach our ears, they are run through the database in order to find matches. The same principle applies to the recognition of words and letters. You recognize “x” as the letter that comes before “z” because the marks on this screen fit the representation of that letter that you already have stored in your brain. Of course, you would probably recognize it if I wrote it as “X” too, and even if I wrote it by hand. The human brain has an incredible tolerance for variation that allows it to recognize shapes in a way that computers cannot. That is the theory behind those weirdly shaped letters you have to input manually on some blogs in order to post a comment. The system works because humans can tolerate greater manipulation of basic forms than computers can.

Even so, there are limits to the tolerance (I am using the word here in its engineering sense) of even the human brain’s recognition systems, and these become stricter when representations of objects or phenomena resemble each other. For example, in many cases, it is impossible for us to distinguish between “1,” “l,” and “I” when written in isolation because they look so similar. When that happens, the knowledge of language and context that I described in my previous entry kicks in and allows us to make inferences that go beyond the information that is being provided by the senses.

When a language student learns a new word, they create a template for it and store that template in their database. It is quite possible that when they reproduce the word from its template, the audio signal that results will be within the limits of tolerance of proficient speakers of the language, so the learner will be able to make him or herself understood. A problem arises, however, when the focus switches to listening. Because the template the learner has created does not really match the signal produced by proficient speakers, and because the learner’s recognition system will naturally have a more limited tolerance owing to their lower mastery of the language, there is a very good chance that they will not recognize what they are hearing. It’s a bit like going to meet someone that you have never met at an airport armed only with a photograph that was taken twenty years ago. If the person doesn’t actually look like the photograph, there is a good chance that they will walk right past you without you recognizing them at all.

Like all language teachers, I constantly struggle to make myself understood to my students. I have often noticed that the reason my students cannot understand what I am saying is that they have learned an incorrect pronunciation of a particular word. The following is a typical example of a conversation in one of my classes:

Me: Can you close the curtain?

Student: ??


Student: Curtain??

Me: (gesturing) The curtain!!

Student: Ah, kah-ten!!

It is almost as if they are correcting my pronunciation to match their internal representation of the word. Every teacher in Japan knows that we can easily make ourselves understood by simply saying a word the way our students say it, and I suspect the same is true of any teacher with experience of teaching a particular language group.

My point is that learners need to learn words as accurately as possible so that the template they create reflects the audio signal that is produced when proficient speakers of the language pronounce that word. If a learner creates a template that is significantly different, it might be close enough for their recreation of it to be understood by proficient speakers, but it may not be close enough for them to recognize the word when they hear it.

As teachers, I think we need to start realizing that pronunciation is just as much a listening skill as it is a speaking one, and we need to start giving it greater prominence in our courses.



Thursday, April 12, 2012

Keeping Our Eyes on the Testing Prize

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

All during our years of education and career training, one of the most important lessons driven home was that we need to stay focused, we need to keep our attention on what we’re doing, and we need to make sure not to get distracted. Nobody would disagree with any of this, right? Well, sometimes it’s not so easy to keep our eyes on that prize when it comes to testing.

One area where this became obvious to me in my early years of teaching ESOL was in testing listening comprehension. I realized that the tests I was given to use, created at various US universities and sold to schools like the ones I taught at, weren’t exclusively testing what they were supposed to be testing. Those tests almost always ended up inadvertently testing reading comprehension along with listening comprehension. Was that fair to my students? Not at all! If I want to test reading comp., I’ll test reading comp. But if I want to test listening comp., well, I shouldn’t be making my students read three or four sentences quickly and decide which written item reflects something they’ve just heard. I’m sure you see my point. For example . . .

The students hear: “There are quite a few students who have won scholarships this year.”

Then they quickly have to read the following and choose which sentence reflects what they’ve just heard:

  1. Many students won scholarships this year.
  2. Few students won scholarships this year.
  3. A relatively large number of students won scholarships this year.
  4. A few students got one scholarship this year.

The correct answer is 3, but it’s obvious that it wasn’t just listening comprehension that’s been tested; reading comprehension has been tested as well – and that’s just not fair.

So how do we overcome this problem of inadvertently testing reading when we really just want to test listening? It’s actually quite a challenge to accomplish because we need to rely on visuals, not reading, to avoid the problem. We need to come up with drawings, photos, and other kinds of graphic material that will reflect and not reflect each item that the students have heard. Here’s an example of what I mean.













The students hear the sentence and then look at the two pictures. They decide which one reflects accurately what they’ve just heard and that’s how they choose their answer. No need to inadvertently test reading comprehension, right?

Here are six more examples that I’d like to share with you.



















































So if you do test listening comprehension, do your best to find test items that will not accidentally test  reading as well. True, sometimes a small amount of reading can’t be avoided, such as in the “How much does it cost?” example  above, but I know you understand my point, and I hope you’ll be able to give your students fair listening comprehension tests if you decide to test them on this skill.

One other thing to keep in mind is the complexities of grading your students’ work in a writing class. How do you decide beforehand on how you’ll grade their work? Do you base your grading solely on their skill with the writing form you’ve just taught, e.g., a business letter or a basic composition, or do you grade them at the same time on the mechanics, such as punctuation and capitalization? And what about their grammar? Is it appropriate to judge them on their grammar in a writing class that focuses on forms of writing? Not such easy questions to answer, are they?

Well, I hope I’ve given you some food for thought. Let’s keep our eyes on the testing prize.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Teaching Objectives or Learning Objectives?

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

One day long ago my student teaching practicum supervisor, the one with the fine-toothed comb, asked me “Why are you planning to start your lesson with this jazz chant?”  I replied “Because it will be fun!”  At that, she sighed… not out of relief, mind you, but out of discontent.

My answer revealed that I had not fully grasped one of the key points about learning objectives: that they must allow us to measure what the students have learned.   “Fun cannot function as an objective of learning,” my practicum supervisor continued.  “How would you measure that fun?”  “What would your students learn from that fun?”

As I began my teaching career, those key questions continued to swirl around in my head, and even though they seemed relatively easy to answer, formulating learning objectives which were both specific and practicable (unlike some larger instructional goals) was not an effortless task for me. Often, the objectives I devised sounded fine, but after a second look, they turned out to be flawed, partly because they were more about what the teacher wanted than about what the learner needed.  Here are some examples.

  • “Students will understand how to use possessive pronouns.”
  • “Students will know how to talk about their personal life.”
  • “Students will practice formal and informal greetings.”

Such objectives were decent and useful enough, I thought.  I wanted the students to understand this, to know that, and to practice those things, and I assumed that they would learn from the activities I had planned, but those activities were nowhere apparent in those objectives.  Worse, those objectives, as stated, were not measurable. How could I measure “understanding or knowing”?  What about “practicing”?  Was that measurable?

After some revision, those objectives became:

  • “Students will use possessive pronouns accurately.
  • “Students will answer correctly at least three questions about their personal life.”
  • “Students will demonstrate that they know the difference between formal and informal greetings.”

In these forms they seemed more exact, more task oriented, and, quite naturally, more measurable too.   

As the years passed, and I got better at orienting my objectives more toward learning than teaching, I created a strategy for deriving a learning objective from a “language carrot.”

A “language carrot” is a potential result of a lesson’s or week’s work, and a view to the details (perhaps rather, in keeping with the metaphor, composition) of that “carrot” can direct a teacher to a precise formulation of a learning objective.  The objective can, in turn, guide a teacher to exact instruction which results in measurable learning on the part of her students.

The first time I “dangled a language carrot,” it went like this…

I presented my students with a seven-sentence narrative in which all the sentences began with a grammatical subject, and beside it I placed a similar narrative including several sentences which began with present or past participle phrases.  (Enter the “carrot”…)  I then asked my students which narrative they preferred. To this, some responded “The one that’s not so boring!” but some also responded “The one that’s not so repetitive.”  At that point, I seized the moment and asked them “How would you like to learn the ‘tricks’ to writing the better one?”

The learning objective derived from that “language carrot” was:  By the end of this week’s unit, students will be able to write a narrative composed of five to seven sentences, at least three of which exhibit correct usage of present or past participle phrases before subjects.  

Have you had any adventures in developing your own learning objectives?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Survey Review: Grammar Faux Pas or Language Change?

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I want to thank all of you who took the time and put in the effort to respond to my little survey. I really appreciate the help you gave me and the insights that I received from looking over your acceptances or rejections of certain items and your comments on things. By adding them to responses I’d gotten from others, some very interesting observations and conclusions emerged.

Let’s review the 15 items listed in the survey. I hope it’ll be interesting for you to compare what you decided to change or let stand as is and see what my thinking is about each item on the list. I’m sure you noticed that I deliberately placed the same kind of discrete point in different environments to see if you’d perceive a difference in accepting or rejecting it depending on where you came across it. That was very telling. In what follows, you’ll see that I’ve highlighted “grammatical issues” in red and put any changes I felt necessary in blue within brackets.

1. You never know what psychopaths look like. They can look like you or I [me].

It’s a standard rule of grammar that a noun phrase or personal pronoun following a preposition or verb is considered the object of that preposition Read more »

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Survey: Grammar Faux Pas or Language Change?

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I’ve written a couple of pieces for “Teacher Talk” dealing with my observations on how more and more educated English speakers seem to be using the language these days. For the most part, I avoided judging what I listed; I just wanted to point things out and have you think seriously about whether or not the discrete points I focused on should be taught or at least mentioned to students at the appropriate level and time.

What I’d like to do now is offer a little survey to find out what you guys think about 15 items I’m going to list. Please read over each of the following sentences that are reproduced verbatim from what I observed educated English speakers saying on numerous occasions. Then decide whether each sentence sounds acceptable to you or unacceptable. (I know you’ll be honest!☺) Of course you can add any thoughts you have about each sentence or a particular part of each sentence. Your thoughts will be most welcome! Read more »

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

How Champagne Changed my Teaching

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

Two Tours in Champagne

Although neither my husband nor I are Champagne experts, we do like a glass of bubbly from time to time. So, over a recent long weekend, my husband and I drove to the Champagne region of France. Our first stop was at the famous Tattinger Champagne house in Reims. There, we took a tour of the caves lead by an English-speaking guide. We learned where the grapes for Champagne are grown, how the bottles are turned periodically, and how they get the bubbles into the bottle.

After our tasting, we left the city of Reims and began to drive along the touristic Champagne route described in our guidebook. It is a beautiful drive, peppered by plenty of smaller Champagne houses along the way. After passing a few of them, we decided to stop at the Bernard Chauvet et Fils Champagne house. Our experience was completely different at this Champagne house. The tour was shorter, the tasting was free, and the proprietor spoke no English whatsoever. The tour and demonstration was entirely in French.

Now, as you might know if you are a regular reader of this blog, I have sporadically been studying French. However, my vocabulary is certainly not technical enough that I would have been able to understand what the proprietor of the smaller Champagne house was saying had I not seen a similar demonstration at the Tattinger house earlier that day. Read more »

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Food isn’t Just for Eating

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

If you’re like I was in the classroom, you’re always looking for fun ways to teach something about English that your students need to recognize, understand, and internalize if they’re to master the language one of these fine days. It doesn’t matter if you’re teaching elementary school kids or adults; everybody wants to have fun while learning, just as we teachers want to have fun while teaching.

So let’s take a look at one of the most daunting items of English, the prepositions. “Oh, no! Not those!” you say with a shudder. “Anything but prepositions!” Yes, I know how confusing they can be and how exacting they can be.

Well, I’m here to tell you that there are indeed fun ways to introduce, demonstrate, and successfully teach English prepositions. The way I used to enjoy the most was teaching those little bugaboos with hands-on activities, one of which was preparing food. Sounds weird, eh? Well, not so weird. For the following lesson, the prepositions that I’m going to target are at, down, in, into, off, on top of, over, to, under, and up. Read more »

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

I always felt cheated as a child because my mother would never follow the advice of that lovely nanny, Mary Poppins. (She also refused to fly, too, to my great irritation.) In the movie, Mary Poppins has asked her charges to clean their room. The boys don’t want to, but she convinces them that a little fun can make a dull task palatable by singing that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Well, I am no flying nanny, but I can certainly appreciate Ms. Poppins’ message now that I am teaching young learners.

Grammar?!? Again?!?
After years of teaching adults who masochistically yearn for the pain of English verb tenses and the passive voice, I assumed that everyone cared as deeply about grammar. Not so! Have you ever tried to convince tired tweens and teens that the answer to their prayers lay in memorizing the simple past form of irregular verbs? Let me tell you, it is easier said than done. I tried everything from practice worksheets to tests to flashcards and more. Nothing could make these students learn their lists of irregular verbs. Nothing, that is, until I broke out the dice and the markers. Apparently the nanny was right all along; turning grammar into a game makes learning easier. The trick is to make the games as easy on the teacher as possible; no one wants to be cutting flashcards at 3:00 in the morning, that’s for sure! Following are some of the easiest games I know that have tricked my students into learning grammar again and again. Read more »

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Thoughts on Teaching Listening (Part 1)

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

I can’t remember who said it (I have a feeling it may have been Penny Ur), but I remember hearing a quote about teaching listening once that really made me stop and think:

We don’t really teach listening; we just keep testing it.

Whoever it was, I think he or she had a very valid point. Our standard methodology for teaching listening is a cycle of giving listening tasks and then asking questions in order to test the learners’ comprehension of what they have heard. In our defence, of course, it is difficult to see how we could do otherwise. Like reading, listening is a receptive skill that can only be developed through repeated practice, so there are good reasons for teaching it the way we do. Anyway, I was recently asked to do a presentation on this topic, and I started thinking about aspects of listening that do actually need to be taught rather than simply practiced. The first thing that came to mind was a list of general principles of which learners often seem to be unaware, and I want to write about the first of those today.

The first point is that we listen with our brains, not our ears. Read more »