Archive for Tag: Tamara Jones

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Singing the Way to Conversation Success!

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

So, there I was, tearing through the streets of Brussels, chatting away with my taxi driver in my halting French. He was telling me (if I understood correctly) that he had family in Quebec, and I wanted to tell him that even though I am from Canada, I have never been to Quebec. As I was trying to cobble together a grammatically correct negative, the lyrics from a French song suddenly popped into my head. Non, je ne regrette rien. Thanks to French songstress Edith Pilaf, I got my negative right! Je n’ai jamais visite Quebec. As a teacher, I have been using music in my English classes for a while, but this was the first time I had a personal experience that backed up my hunch that singing is a great language learning tool.

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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What am I Doing in this Level?

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

“Okay, get into groups of 4 and we are going to play a game.” For many students, this is a cue to relax and have some fun in a language class. For me, though, when I hear these words in my French class, I actually become nervous and ashamed. I really like playing review games (there is a great deal of brain research that suggests when people are engaged and excited, they are actually learning more easily) and I appreciate that my teacher is so creative and enthusiastic about language learning.

The problem doesn’t lie in the game. Rather, I am averse to participating actively in the class because I am in the wrong level.

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Observations For Teachers and Supervisors

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

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.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Answer Checks Made Clear and Communicative

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

Checking the answers in a homework or in-class assignment can be one of those huge time eaters. It is a necessary evil. After all, there is little point doing an activity if students never find out if their responses are accurate or not. However, calling on students to mechanically read their answers aloud can take up a lot of valuable class time with very little pay off. It is boring, predictable and involves very limited student talk.

My goal when I spend time checking student answers is twofold. First, I want to make sure students get the correct answers. And second, I want to make sure students understand why their answers were incorrect so that they can learn from their mistakes. But how is this best accomplished?

Time for Questions

When I assign homework, I usually provide the answer key. Students do the work, check their own answers, and put a star beside the questions which they don’t understand. At the beginning of every class, I ask the class if they had any questions about the homework. We go page-by-page and students can ask their questions and get a brief explanation. This system has worked very well for me in adult classes which are low-stress. Students have to feel comfortable enough to ask questions in front of their peers without losing face.

Of course, you also have to be able to trust the students to do the work before looking at the answers! One teacher I observed who did not have the same faith in her students put several copies of her answer key on the back wall. Students came early to the class to check their answers; it was a genius way to encourage students to come on time!

Check with a Partner

In a recent edition of Voices, Nicholas Northall suggests giving students time after an activity to check their answers with a partner. “This time allows them to discuss any answers they don’t agree on and to reach a conclusion as to what the right answers are” (Northall, 2010, page 11). This pair work would best supplement, not substitute for, a traditional answer check. Students still need your final word on “right or wrong.” But during this time, the stronger students may be able to explain their own choices to their partner, thereby eliminating the need for as much teacher talk.

Write it on the Board

I once observed a teacher who had her students come up one-by-one to write the answers to the homework on the board. This was SO boring for the students, and it cut into the time the students might be using for a communicative activity. Instead, she could have had the students who came into the class early write their answers up before the class even started. Or, she could have had the students work in pairs, as described above, and then shown the answers on a PowerPoint slide or overhead projector transparency.

On the other hand, I observed another teacher who used board writing in a very valuable way. She played a listening and, as the class listened and took notes, she took her own notes. After, the students were able to compare what they had written with her answers. It was immediately clear to the students if their notes were accurate and adequate.

Running for the Answer

Another teacher I observed turned her answer check into a fun communicative activity. She put copies of the answer key in several places around the class. She put the students into pairs; one was the “grader”, the other was the “runner”. The “graders” sat with both their assignments and their partners’ assignments. The “runners” moved between the answer key and the “graders.” telling them what the correct answers were. This format did take a bit of extra time, but the energy level in the class was high and all the students were interacting, so, in my opinion, the time was well-spent.

How do you check answers in your classes? Do you have any novel techniques for making the most out of this time? How do you make your answer checks clear and communicative?

Northall, N. (2010) What’s the answer to question 5? Voices, 216.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Guilt-Free Private “Conversation” Lessons

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

In addition to classroom teaching, I have also taught private lessons for most of my career. Although I felt justified in charging the going rate for tutoring children or teaching specific grammar or pronunciation lessons, I had always felt a twinge (albeit an extremely small twinge) of guilt when taking someone’s hard-earned money for an hour of “Conversation Practice.” My time is valuable to me, of course, but I sometimes found it hard to charge someone to talk about things I talk to my friends about for free.

In the past few years, however, I have had three experiences that have helped me reconcile the fact that I am, indeed, earning the money that private students seem to happy to pay me: I taught, I learned and I read.

I Taught (my Friends).

When a group of my friends were dissatisfied with their English lessons, they asked me if I could teach them privately once a week. Specifically, they wanted more Conversation practice. At first, I wasn’t sure about how it would work. I was their friend. Was it right to take their money just to sit around and talk? However, after a few weeks, it became apparent that I was doing much more work during our lessons than I was when we went out to eat together.

First, I came to our lessons prepared. I planned our time together, I brought activities and lists of interesting questions to prompt conversation, and I gave them homework to reinforce troublesome grammar items or to teach conversational language such as phrasal verbs and idioms.

Second, during the lesson, I wore the hat of the teacher, not the friend. I corrected the grammar and pronunciation errors I heard (both on the spot and by writing the errors down and correcting them later as a group), something I would never do when we went out for dinner. I also gave mini-grammar lessons as the need arose, and I could see they felt more comfortable asking questions than they would in a social situation.

I Learned (from a Friend).

However, it wasn’t until I decided to start private lessons to boost my French conversational skills and vocabulary that I really learned how valuable one-to-one Conversation practice really is to a student. My teacher, Isabelle, is also a friend. We chat about things like family, food and books, all the great topics. In this way, I get one hour every week devoted solely to my French. I don’t have to apologize for my mistakes, and I don’t have to self-consciously hurry through a halting sentence because I think she could say it better in English. Instead of writing my mistakes down, as I do with my students, Isabelle writes the corrections, along with new vocabulary and tricky grammar. Being on the other side of the table, so to speak, I know that Isabelle is worth every penny I pay her for her time.

I Read (in Voices).

Kristina Noto recently published an article in IATEFL’s Voices newsletter called “One-to-one lessons become ‘121 Professional feedback sessions’.” In it, she outlines some strategies for successful and meaningful private lessons, or “sessions” as she calls them. During the session, Noto recommends that the student or, in her words, the “client” guide the conversation. She also suggests correcting only pronunciation errors on the spot and asking for clarification when communication breaks down. Grammar errors should be treated, according to Noto, in a following feedback session.

After the session, Noto reads through her notes or listens to her recording of the conversation. From this, she types up a feedback sheet for the student. “The feedback sheet is a way for the learner to have a record of the lesson, review the vocabulary, and have a space in which to have a second chance to correct the sentences with errors.” (Noto, 2010, page 10) She divides her feedback forms into 4 sections: Vocabulary Learned, Pronunciation, Phrases to Make Better, and Positive Points.

Private lessons can be a significant investment for students, both in terms of time and money. I have always felt a burden to make sure that the students’ individual needs are met, even more so than in a classroom setting. However, as Noto points out, this means that private lesson teachers may need to invest more time than usual in planning and writing up feedback. In fact, she says that for every hour of lesson, the teacher works 2 hours in reality, and that is nothing to feel guilty about!

Noto, K. (2010) One-to-one lessons become ‘121 Professional feedback sessions’, Voices, pages 9–10.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Is the Customer Always Right?

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

“We aren’t happy with our new English teacher.” This was the emphatic opinion of several of my friends who study at the same institute where I teach English. After listening to a few minutes of venting, I suggested they speak with the teacher about their concerns. They felt they couldn’t do that, so my second suggestion was that they meet with the director of the program. They did complain to the director, who spoke to the teacher, who then felt undermined and insecure for the rest of the semester.

This experience is a consequence of the student/customer divide. As teachers, we often think of the people our classes as students. We are the experts, and our teaching is informed by current and past methodologies, our own experience as language learners, and our cultural backgrounds and beliefs. Increasingly, however, in the minds of our administrators and, often, of the students themselves, they are customers. They have paid money to be in the class, and they have certain expectations about what they will learn and how they will be taught.

Not Always!

Yes, to some degree my students are customers. I work hard to meet their needs and expectations. However, ultimately, I am the teacher, and I make decisions that they may not agree with, but I believe are for the best. For instance, several years ago, when I was a much less confident instructor, I taught an Advanced Grammar class. On the first day, I had planned for the class to do an ice breaker, a survey activity. After I had demonstrated it, one student raised her hand and said that she thought they should not be wasting time with this activity. They were all adults and they wanted to learn grammar not make friends. I reacted by snatching up all the cards, my cheeks burning, and moving on abruptly to another activity. In retrospect, I realize that I should have described the benefits of lowering the affective filter at the beginning of the term and explained that in the class we would be doing a lot of pair work, so this was a necessary activity. From this experience, I learned that if I believe an activity is valuable, I need to explain its benefits to my students so that they know we are not just wasting time.

But, Sometimes!

However, I also think it is important for teachers to remain open to student suggestions. Although I am the expert, I also believe students have legitimate ideas about how they want to be taught. For instance, several years ago (around the same time as the previous example, actually) I was teaching a Conversation class. We were learning idioms and listening to a dialogue from the text. I was about to move on to the next lesson, when a student raised her hand and suggested that the class read the dialogue with a partner before moving on. My reaction was the same as before; with burning cheeks I agreed. (I don’t know why I felt so challenged.) Unlike the previous example, however, this was the right thing to do. As soon as I saw how engaged the students were as they read their dialogues, I realized that sometimes students do really know best.

Evaluations

One way to gauge whether or not your students are satisfied customers is by giving them a chance to anonymously evaluate you. In fact, this is a built-in aspect to end-of-semester activities in many programs. However, I have long felt that if you wait until the end of the semester to find out how your students feel, it is too late to do anything about it. I do not believe that teachers always know if they are teaching well. In my experience, some of the classes that I felt the most positive about gave me the lowest of my evaluations. So rather than be surprised at the end of the year, I give students the chance to voice their opinions several weeks in. If a student complains about something, I will either adjust what I am doing or explain to them why I won’t. For example, when I taught a TOEFL Prep class a few years ago, I would occasionally get requests for less homework. I explained to the class that they could always choose not to do all the homework, but, as they were preparing for a rigorous exam, this was what I felt was necessary to ensure their success.

So, are your classes made up of students or customers? Maybe, like me, you try to strike a balance between the two. I would love to hear your experiences. I would also love to hear interesting ideas for conducting class evaluations. I tend to rely on the anonymous questionnaire, but I would love to spice things up a little.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Not HER Again!

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

A couple of semesters ago, I had a problem in my French class. It all started on the first day of the class. I wandered in and took a seat. The seat next to me was empty, but before the class began, a student (I’ll call her Ms. Steam Roller) came in and sat beside me. She seemed nice and her French was good, so I felt like I could learn from her. However, by the mid-semester point, I had found that I did not enjoy working with her at all. Because her French was better than mine, she ignored my suggestions when we had to write dialogues. Doing pair work with her was like standing in the path of a steam roller. Sure, she was a nice person, but if I had to keep working with her, I was going to scream.

So, after the class, I approached my teacher and said that I would like the chance to work with other students. She asked me why I didn’t just change seats the next class.  But I felt that, since I had been sitting in the same place for months, it would be a bit rude to change that late in the game. I needed another solution. My French teacher was great. She worked out a system that allowed us all to change partners every class, so I got away from Ms. Steam Roller without hurting anyone’s feelings.

Changing it Up – Why Bother?

This experience has impacted my own classroom management style because I now go out of my way to make sure students don’t always work with the same partners. I know from experience that students, for many reasons, may not want to work with the same person class after class. There are other reasons, too, to change it up a little.

First, students need exposure to different kinds of English and different levels of ability. If a Korean student always works with a Brazilian student, both students will eventually become accustomed to each other’s pronunciation and errors. That can feel more comfortable, certainly, but we all know there are a wide variety of different accents and a huge continuum of abilities, even in one class. It is better, in my opinion, for students to be exposed to different kinds of English so that they have to work at negotiating meaning, which, according to Folse (2006), is an important part of language learning.

Also, working with students of different levels allows for a wider variety of learning opportunities. When I had to work with Ms. Steam Roller, I constantly felt like the slow student. However, when I worked with other students, I sometimes got the chance to teach them, which helped me learn the skill better myself. I don’t always want to be the “helper” and I don’t always want to be the “helped”. It’s nice to have a little variety.

Changing it Up – The How To

I try to shuffle my students at the beginning of class. Sometime, I just count off. If I have 12 students, I count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. The 1s get together, the 2s get together, the 3s get together you get the idea. They actually pick up their books and move everything to sit with their new partner. At first, this takes a while, but after a few lessons, students expect to have to move and it only takes a minute.

If I am feeling more creative, I work the shuffle into my warm up. I might have a set of index cards, one for each student. Half the cards have pictures or definitions or gap fills (depending on the level of the class) and the other half have vocabulary words. The students stand up, walk around the room and say their word until they find their partner. Then, they move their stuff and sit together for the rest of the lesson.

A couple of years ago, I went to a session at TESOL called “Get into Groups Made More Efficient and Effective” by Kitty Purgason. She suggested doing the above activity with questions and answers or using common idioms or phrasal verbs cut in half. In Maryanne Wolfe’s presentation at TESOL 2010, she suggested an interesting activity if space permitted. She gives each student a card with some information (in the demonstration, the information on the cards was the life expectancy in a number of different countries) and told students to put themselves into a line from the longest life expectancy to the shortest . Then, once the students are all lined up, she folds the line in half, like you would fold a string, so the students at the end meet up and become partners, all the way down the line. What fun!

Students deserve to have a little variety in their partners. They may seem to be happy working with the same person day after day, but I bet that many of them will welcome a change. The class gets to know each other better, the affective filter is lowered, and students develop new friendships. It’s a win, win, win!

Folse, K. (2006) The Art of Teaching Speaking, University of Michigan Press.
Olson, K. (2010) Movement and Learning, Paper Presented at TESOL 2010: Boston.
Purgason, K. (2007) Get into Groups Made More Efficient and Effective, Paper Presented at TESOL 2007: Washington.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Could You Repeat That?

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

I just finished a 3 week scuba certification. In addition to learning all sorts of things that will (hopefully) keep me alive in the water, I also, unexpectedly, learned a lot about teaching.

You might know from reading some of my previous blogs, that I am studying French, as well as teaching English in Belgium. My experience as a French student has already provoked a great deal of reflection about my own teaching and caused me to revisit and, in many cases, change the way I do things in the classroom. However, I was not prepared for the same consequence of taking a scuba certification class.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

First, I learned that repetition is the most exciting thing you can do in class. This might be overstating it, but not by much. In my scuba class, we read from a text, we watch a video that tells us pretty much what was in the text, and we attend lectures that repeat what was in the text and video. And you know what? I STILL go blank on important information from time to time. There is just SO much to remember, I need all the exposure I can get. Sure, by the third go-around, I am not exactly on the edge of my seat, but I know it is important to learn, so I pay attention.

One More Time

My teacher, Angelo, understands this.  So in his lectures, he repeats key information several times. For instance, he might say, “You ascend at a rate of no faster than 9 meters per minute.” Then, immediately after, he will repeat or rephrase that information. “So, you should not ascend any faster than 9 meters per minute.” And then, a few minutes later, he will ask us how fast we should ascend.

This is something I started doing in my Pre-Intermediate English classes with great results. I know that as a French student, I don’t always catch something the first time I hear it. We play recordings in listening activities multiple times for our students; why not do the same when giving important information or instructions?

It’s Still Not Getting Old

Still, only reading and hearing about something is not the same thing as actually doing it, as anyone who has watched students struggle to accurately use the grammar they have learned knows. After reading and watching and hearing, I was excited to do the things I had learned about in the pool. However, one practice mask-clearing was not nearly enough. I wanted to go through the motions again and again until it felt natural and automatic to clear my mask underwater. I didn’t get bored; I was so focused on what I was doing, I could have repeated the same movements until my fingers got too wrinkly to lift my mask.

The light went on! I realized that my students need the same repetition to master English skills. It is not enough to have students repeat a new word once and then move on. They need to repeat again and again until it is natural and automatic for them. Of course in the limited time I have with them, I can’t make them repeat something chorally all throughout class, but I have become much more conscious about giving them a lot more repetition. For example, in an activity I learned about from a former colleague at Howard Community College in Columbia, MD, students have 3 minutes to tell a story to their partner –  maybe about a scary experience they had as a child or a wonderful party they attended. Then, after the student has told his/her story, he/she meets with a new partner and tells the same story to his/her new partner, this time for only 2.5 minutes. Then, the student meets with a third new partner and (you guessed it) tells the same story again, this time for 2 minutes. When I first heard about this activity, I thought the students would find that much repetition too boring. However, after my scuba experience, I know that repetition is a key step toward automaticity.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Life Cycle of a Teacher

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

Do you remember those “The Life Cycle of the Frog” pictures we often had to study in science when we were kids? You know, “the egg to tadpole to tadpole-with-legs to frog” graph? Well, wouldn’t it be handy for ESL educators to study a graph that shows the life cycle of teachers? Tessa Woodward thinks so. I was fortunate enough to watch her presentation, The Professional Life Cycles of Teachers, at the IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) 2010 Conference in Harrogate, England in April, and her comments really resonated with me. Basically, she distilled several researchers’ observations about trends associated with years of teaching experience into an hour-long lecture which made me think about what I expect professionally from myself and what supervisors can reasonable expect from their teachers.

The “Novice to Committed to Activist to Authority to Disengaged” Graph

According to Woodward, who was citing Huberman (1989), there are usually 5 basic stages of a teacher’s professional life cycle. Obviously, the time line varies from person to person and upon reaching one’s third year of teaching there is not a dramatic shift from stage 1 to stage 2, just as a tadpole’s new legs don’t just pop out on the Monday of their fifth week of life. These are merely the trends Huberman observed.

  1. 1-3 years: The novice teacher is usually overwhelmed and overloaded and struggles just to survive. On the plus side, this is a stage of great discovery for teachers. In this picture of the chart, I imagine myself sitting up in bed at midnight and cutting out an endless supply of flash cards.
  2. 4 – 6 years: This teacher has entered a period of stabilization in which they make a commitment to teaching (as opposed to “teaching so I can travel abroad”). In this portion of the graph, I imagine myself considering my MEd options and pulling from a box of my favorite, “go-to” flashcards.
  3. 7 – 18 years: In this stage, teachers do what Woodward refers to as “pedagogic tinkering.” This is a period of experimentation and activism; however, teachers at this stage are also at risk of burning out. I am currently in my fourteenth year of teaching, so I don’t have to be too imaginative. I see myself branching out to learn new teaching skills and excited about motivating other teachers to be involved in professional development.
  4. 19 – 30 years: This teacher has entered a time of serenity (the promise of this ought to keep many of us going!) and authority. This teacher makes an excellent mentor; however, may tend toward a conservative rejection of innovation. I imagine myself at this stage in kind of a serene yoga pose and being more confident in the class and with other teachers.
  5. 31 – 40 years: At this stage, teachers are becoming disengaged from the profession. This can take a positive form of acceptance and an adventurous (“nothing to lose”) approach to new methodological trends. Unfortunately, on the other hand, this teacher might be disenchanted or already mentally retired. At this stage, I imagine (optimistically, maybe) I am motivated by the enthusiasm of my less-experienced colleagues and still interested in how research can inform my teaching.

Where are you?

Where are you in “The Life Cycle of a Teacher” graph? Are you the overwhelmed novice still spending hours creating materials? If so, take heart! If you commit to this profession, you will develop a rudimentary repertoire of teaching routines in just a few years. All the time you are investing now will pay off! If you are in the twilight stages of the life cycle, your less-experienced colleagues may benefit from your knowledge. Consider being a mentor and/or sharing some of your materials.

Where are your Teachers?

However, although this graph is useful for teachers, in my opinion, it is even more useful for administrators. If you look at your staff, do you see as much grey as brown or blonde? Having a balance of more-experienced and less-experienced teachers can benefit your entire program, especially if you have a mentoring system in place. Coupling experience with exposure to new trends in education can help all teachers to grow and stay positive.

Huberman, M. (1989) The professional life cycle of teachers, Teachers College Record, 91(1).
Woodward, T. (2010) The Professional Life Cycle of Teachers, paper presented at IATEFL 2010, Harrogate, UK.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Move Over Learning Curve! Bring on the Learning Square!

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

In the middle of a lesson about the second conditional, I was calling on students to check a routine grammar exercise from the text that they had just completed in pairs. One student, Guy, shared the correct answer and I praised him, “Well done!” At this, he assumed a slightly philosophical air and said, “Well, yes, it is correct. But this is difficult when it is not in the book.” In other words, Guy was making the complaint I have heard many time from students; filling in the gaps is (sometimes) easy, but remembering grammar rules when one is in the middle of a spontaneous conversation is an entirely different matter. Guy and all the other students who have similarly grumbled are absolutely right. This is usually the point in the semester when I dust off my handy Learning Square.

The Learning Square?

I learned about this depiction of the learning process from Linda Grant (2008) in her talk about how to teach pronunciation. However, she said the chart was not her own invention. Rather, it came from somewhere completely unrelated to English Language Teaching, and is applicable to mastering any new skill in general. Once I get up on my little Learning Square soapbox, I remind students that if they are learning any new skill, it takes time. For instance, if they decided to take up fencing out of the blue, they would go through a similar learning process as they are with learning another language.

The Goal: Unconscious Competence!

The Learning Square looks like this:

Stage Consciousness Competence
4 - +
3 + +
2 + -
1 - -

My explanation (which I must caution might be a distortion of what Linda Grant said two years ago) goes like this:

  • When a student is just beginning to learn new target language (for instance the second conditional), he/she doesn’t know the rules and can’t correctly use the target language. This is stage 1.
  • After a while, the student learns the rules, but still has trouble using the target language accurately in either written exercises and/or conversations (stage 2). This is the stage Guy is at, in my opinion. He knows how to form the second conditional (if + simple past + , + would + base), but he still has questions when he does his homework and he has trouble remembering the form in the less controlled conversation activities I assign in class. (For example, If your house was on fire, what one item would you save?)
  • The third stage is reached when the student is consistently accurate whenever he/she is thinking consciously about the grammar rule.
  • The fourth, final and most coveted stage is when the student uses the target language correctly without thinking about it, or unconscious competence.

Quality Input

Progressing up the ranks from level 1 to level 4 depends on continuous quality input. In terms of language learning, this could mean continuing to take ESL classes or it could mean listening to the radio or making English-speaking friends. Of course, this square does not describe the learning process of ALL students. Moreover, a student might be at a level 3 when it comes to the present progressive, but a 1 when it comes to the passive voice. Also, a progression up the chart is never assured. Even when they receive quality English input, we have all seen fossilized students who never progress past the second level; and there is no “schedule” by which the Learning Square operates. One student may jump from 1 to 4 quickly, while another student might be stuck at a 2 for years. However, the Learning Square helps students to see that even if they can’t master a skill completely within 2 or 3 lessons, there is still hope for them. If they continue to receive quality input, at some point, they may find themselves unconsciously competently using the second conditional.

Grant, L. (2008) Teaching Pronunciation: Meeting Individual Needs, paper presented at TESOL 2008, New York.