2019 European Elections: 3 exam class activities

Before you go “here’s that guy talking again and again and again about why we should talk about politics in the classroom but it’s easy for him to say because he teaches in a liberal democracy and not in country X where I teach,” have you heard the one about the teacher in Palermo who was suspended from her job for talking about politics in the classroom? She has defenders and detractors (many of whom make no attempt to clarify what actually happened in that classroom), but what’s clear is that politics, in our politically charged times, can be tricky even in countries that in no way resemble country X.

But does that mean we shouldn’t try? Despite the Palermo incident, the Italian Ministry of Education says we should. As of this year in Italy, Cittadinanza e Costituzione – citizenship and the constitution – is a set subject in curriculum and on the matriculation exam, which means that government, human rights – and by extension, politics – will be taught to help foster more “active citizens” (and this in a country with higher than average voter turnout where many state schools already teach religion or non-religious morality classes as well as philosophy classes – deep-thinking topics that in my opinion students should be exposed to).

Which brings me to the European elections.

In this last week before the elections I’ve wanted to engage two classes of students on some basics about the elections, including why people (don’t) vote and how to get informed about your choices. Youth voter turnout is terrible (in much of Europe as well as my own country of origin, the US), and the one thing that all educators should agree on is that young people should understand how and where to vote. If that doesn’t sound so controversial, it shouldn’t. If they want to debate policy we can, but I’ve explicitly said that what I’m interested in is how they make decisions, not who they decide for.

Class background

The first is a small group of 5 high school students preparing for the Cambridge Advanced, two of whom are 18. The other group, an IELTS preparation class, has six students, including two 18-year old high school students, two under-24s and two over-30s. These are classes in a private language center, and the students are mostly L1 Italian.

Useful links

Here are some useful sites and documents I found that I’ll refer to in the following activities.

Here are three activities. These were all pretty spontaneous creations — knowing there’s something big like the EUROPEAN ELECTIONS coming up makes me practice avoidance strategies. It’s always something I want to deal with, but the topic can seem too big or overwhelming to start. But a few minutes of googling showed me youth voting statistics and I knew I had my in. The rest are back-of-the-envelope activities that evolved in class (as is often the case, the post-lesson reflection has taken a lot longer than the pre-lesson planning).

ACTIVITY 1

Cambridge Advanced proposal

Set up activities:

  • Guess/predict voter turnout for age groups/countries in recent elections
  • Compare predictions to reality using the charts above
  • Brainstorm reasons as to why young people (or Europeans, or Italians) don’t vote
  • Brainstorm possible solutions

Writing set up. A proposal (but you could equally do a CAE Report writing task)

EU Votes, an NGO, is looking for ways to increase voter turnout among young people for the 2019 EU elections. Write a proposal (220-260 worlds) in which you:

  • Discuss why young people don’t vote
  • Suggest possible solutions
  • Say why these solutions would be effective at increasing voter turnout among young people

 

By the way, the reality of youth voter turnout (28% in the EU overall, and a slightly better 45% in Italy) was a real shocker for my students. All of the voting-age people said they would vote and the high school students predicted 90% of their friends would – which goes to show how outside the norm they are, and how educational the acutal research has been.

 

ACTIVITY 2

Comparing political platforms

When do you decide how to vote? We looked first at the question in the EU socio-demographic index about whether people report deciding in advance or right before the vote. And how do students know who to vote for? One of the suggestions from the writing task was to have a unified comparison site – like the ones you use to compare prices and features on a new mobile phone – where you could compare political party platforms. So we created our own analogue version, using the following set up:

  • Board list of main parties
  • Board list of major issues parties are addressing
  • Students used their phones to look up the platforms for the various parties, e.g. Cinque Stelle, Europa Verde, the Lega, Forza Italia and Partito Democratico and take notes in English (from Italian sources)
  • Due to limited board space, students discuss how to group issues – Abortion with Women’s Rights or the Family; Women’s Rights with Employment, etc. – to create useful categories for comparison
  • Students board information
  • In pairs, write sentences comparing and contrasting party ideas

 

Students were surprised by a number of discoveries, and in the process we talked about austerity and the right to asylum and the students left with larger vocabularies and more practice in useful structures and somewhat more informed about the impending vote than when they came in.

 

ACTIVITY 3

IELTS Writing Task 1: EU Election Voter Turnout

One thing I like about IELTS exam prep is Writing Part 1 task – especially when you can find (or have students find) their own data visualizations to analyze. But here we started with the introduction to the socio-politico index – which I swear is basically an IELTS coursebook in itself (so many charts and graphs, so much IELTS-ready language).

Here’s the outline of the procedure:

  • Make predictions about results to survey questions in the socio-politico index – do more men or women vote, what age group votes most, what professional level, etc.
  • Check predictions in introduction (pp. 3-6)
  • Scan text for 3 examples each of big differences, small differences, superlatives, language for introducing a new topic (e.g. when it comes to…)
  • Then I selected 5 countries from Politico’s awesome interactive chart and had students use the language to make comparisons. Followed by the same task using chart on voter turnout by age group.

Task:

The line graph shows voter turnout in European Elections between 1979 and 2014. The chart shows voter turnout by age group in the 2014 election.

Summarize the information by selecting and reporting the main features and making comparisons where relevant.

 

That’s it. No, there was no challenging of the dominant hierarchies — just run of the mill activities used with authentic materials and some fairly real-world objectives. While most of these documents will be still relevant – or updated – for the next elections, on the eve of this very important European vote I can’t think of anything I’d rather be discussing with my students.

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Vietnam workshops Part 1: Story writing–a lost ELT art?

Vietnam was full of surprises, from the amazing food (see gratuitous food porn picture), to being attacked by swarms of motorised humans when attempting to cross the road!

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It was actually thanks to a Twitter discussion that I’d found myself hopping onto a plane to Ho Chi Minh City a few months ago. I’d started said thread with the following tweet:

 ‘It is impossible for a (single) EFL teacher to survive financially without (e.g.) taking a second job or house sharing. Agree or disagree?’. 

I’m afraid I can’t embed the tweet here because when the replies started coming in I went on a rant about the injustices of the TEFL industry, then had an attack of what Lindsay Clandfield recently referred to as ‘techlash’ and deleted my account. But thankfully I’m over it now.

The discussion revealed some interesting stuff. On the whole, teachers or ex-teachers who responded agreed that in Europe, especially in the UK, it’s very difficult to make ends meet if you live alone. Several had given up teaching as a result. Those teaching in SE Asia, on the other hand, disagreed, claiming they had a rather comfortable life, actually. Of this part of the world apparently Vietnam is one of the best places in terms of remuneration v. cost of living. So I thought, why not check it out?

I wondered what ELT- like stuff I could do while I was there. I was going for six weeks- so not really long enough to volunteer as a teacher. I decided instead to get in contact with some schools to see if I could do some workshops, rather like the one Kyle and I did at the wonderful ETAS conference and IATEFL Glasgow.

I managed to arrange three workshops in the capital. Two would be with the teachers of Thang Long School, a vocational centre for teenagers, and one would be at the headquarters of ILA, a massive course provider in Vietnam and one which holds regular professional development sessions for local teachers. The former would consist of Vietnamese teachers with local teaching qualifications and some with Master’s degrees, whereas the latter would be an international crowd with CELTA/Delta. I would have about eight teachers at Thang Long, so a chance to do a nice personalised hands-on workshoppy- workshop. My contact at ILA, though, informed me that he had “…invited all the Academic Managers and Teacher Coordinators from HCMC”, about thirty of them apparently.

Yikes. So no pressure, then.

In my next few posts I’ll share a commentary of the workshops, outlining the discussions that arose. Comments are very welcome! 

Thang Long School Workshop 1: Teaching writing

Thang Long English Language and Vocational Training School is an NGO-sponsored centre for disadvantaged 16-23 year olds. Many of their students have parents or caregivers without a stable income or with disabilities. The school provides them with free, high quality education thus giving them a better chance for the future.

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The teachers had requested that the first workshop be on teaching writing. Since I’m one of those weirdos who actually likes teaching writing, I was full of ideas. 

But I had to guess what reasons the teachers had for this request.  I came up with these:

  1. Students lack motivation. They find it difficult to come up with ideas and get started. Writing isn’t cool!
  2. Marking creates a lot of extra work for the teachers.
  3. Students don’t necessarily learn from or understand the teacher’s feedback (see Kyle’s post on this)

The Short Story

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Out of all the writing genres the short story is my favourite. My interest originates in the years I spent preparing Italian teens for the PET and FCE exams. It had also been the topic of one of my Delta module 2 lessons, actually the one that I failed. I was so distraught afterwards that I told Kyle I just couldn’t face those awful post-lesson critical friend questions – or ‘THE THING’ as we named it – so we just had a few proseccos instead. But despite this, or perhaps because of it, I still love using student-generated stories in the classroom.

If you’ve read other posts on here then you may already know that Kyle and I are great advocates of students creating their own materials. This is because it results in:

  • less reliance on the course book (more potential interaction with other Ss)
  • personalised content (more cognitive engagement with language)
  • individual grading of language according to Ss’ knowledge (suitable for heterogenous classes)

And of course these points all apply to story-writing too, in fact any type of writing, but unlike other genres you have an almost endless range of possibilities to write a story about.

Some may argue that it’s not a common ‘real life’ task, perhaps the reason behind Cambridge removing it as an option in FCE writing part 2. But what about telling anecdotes? Aren’t they just stories in oral form? And learning to write a story before telling it allows more thinking and planning time, which has to be a good thing for our students.

Task 1: Collaborative writing

At the workshop the teachers agreed with my predicted problems (yay!). I managed to glean more information from them too- that most of their learners were CEFR A1- B1, and were young teenagers. Story writing thus seemed appropriate to their age, although Mario Rinvolucri recently said that he teaches even business learners through fairytales. I went ahead with the plan. I started by eliciting the following story components by drawing them on the board:

a flying carpet,  a toad, a unicorn, a wishing well, a wizard, a magic mountain

Teachers were put in pairs, chose two of these and wrote a story to include them.

Why? Supplying elements for the story provides scaffolding, as does the brainstorming involved by writing in pairs or team writing. And as I said before, the possibilities for story writing can be endless, so we need to narrow it down a little.

Why a fairytale? Bearing in mind the context, if students were asked to tell a narrative about something personal, they may feel uncomfortable.  On top of that, younger learners may be lacking in life experience and not have much to share.

After the pairs had written their stories they swapped, then gave feedback on what they liked about the other story  – only positive feedback for the moment.

Task 2: Genre focus: What makes a good story? 

Using excerpts from the teachers’ stories we discussed this question and the following three points emerged.

1. The climax

Short stories tend to follow a narrative ‘arc’ of which there are said to be five key points: exposition, conflict, rising action and denouement (see Hale, n.d.). For the very short stories written in the classroom this can be simplified of course.  Basically, some problem has to occur, which is resolved at the end in some way. Many students don’t realise this and write stories that go a little bit like: 

I got up and went to school. Then it was lunch break and I talked to my friend. After that I had two more lessons and I went home.”

The teachers’ stories were, of course, much more entertaining. I think one was about Cinderella* not having enough money to buy her groceries and having to ask for help from a talking toad! 

2. Flashback

This section of a narrative presents actions occurring before the main events and thus non-chronologically. The following silly examples are mine:

“Cinderella couldn’t buy her groceries because she’d spent all her money on beer the previous night. She’d got so drunk that she fell down the stairs and twisted her ankle. When she woke up in the morning it looked like a tree trunk. Now she was limping pathetically to the corner shop with only 5p in her pocket, hoping that someone would help her.”

This technique of course adds variety to the narrative structure and allows the introduction of information only when it is relevant to the main events.

The start of the flashback is indicated by the past perfect. The writer uses a time expression like ‘now’ to indicate going forward to the ‘present’ time of the story.

3. Dialogue

Dialogue adds depth to the characters and drama to the story. It can be represented by direct speech:

“Please help me, I have a stinking hangover,” Cinderella pleaded. 

“Serves you right,” said the toad.  

Reporting speech verbs can be used to summarise what was said:

He accused her of being an alcoholic, which she denied. 

Or the character’s words can be reported.

She asked him to buy her some more beer. He said he wouldn’t.

It has been suggested that the long and complicated ‘rules’ of transferring direct to reported speech need not be actively taught (see Lewis, 2002). But how many of you know from experience that even (especially?) the most common reporting verbs ‘said’ and ‘told’ cause problems for our students. What other way to practice them in written contextualised form but in a story?

Discussion:

The teachers asked a couple of questions.

  1. In a flashback scene why is the past perfect only used at the beginning? 

Using the past perfect for the whole of the scene, especially if it’s a long one, would be awkward (see Kress, 2008). Compare:

“Cinderella couldn’t buy her groceries because she’d spent all her money on beer the previous night. She’d got so drunk that she’d fallen down the stairs and had twisted her ankle. When she had woken up in the morning it had looked like a tree trunk. Now she was limping pathetically to the corner shop with only 5p in her pocket, hoping that someone would help her.”

Which one sounds better?

2. Can you use the present perfect in a story?

Hmmm. Not in the narrative, since it’s not a narrative verb form. But you can use it in direct speech, or as the ending phrase or coda, e.g.

“I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life!”

Focus on the writing process 

All writing, indeed like this blog post, needs to be revised, edited and proof-read, before being submitted/published. In the classroom, however, this is often overlooked. Learners submit work which is actually a first draft. In my experience, teenagers in particular will expect the improvement of the text to be done by the teacher. But is it useful? They seem to pay very little attention to their written work once it’s been corrected. Time elapsed between the input session, the writing of the text, handing it in, the teacher marking it, and the student reading the corrections, can also make teacher correction ineffectual, since the writing process is no longer fresh in the student’s mind. (see Hedge,2000).

The process approach to teaching writing is a potential solution. Keeping it very simple, it goes something like this (apologies for low-tech image and free advertising).

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There could be more arrows here. For example, the final version might be given back to the student for revising. After revising, you may need to go back to brainstorming new ideas etc. etc. Some of the teachers at Thang Long were already familiar with these processes, so I was able to elicit the stages. However, they admitted that they did not use it in class and that the writing task was usually set as homework and handed in for marking the next lesson. They also feel pressure to correct all of the student’s mistakes. Assignments were handwritten on paper since their students don’t have access to laptops.

Elements of process writing could therefore be used to resolve the three teacher issues with teaching writing. Its collaborative nature scaffolds the task (problem 1) while also putting the onus on the students to correct their own work (problem 2).

With the advent of technology, process writing could be criticised as outdated since now there is a plethora of apps that could do the job of proofreading for you, and even correct your grammar mistakes. But as my experience at Thang Long school shows, there are still countless contexts around the world in which technology is an unattainable luxury.

Pure process writing, of course, does not take into account the genre-specific elements of task 1, since it focuses on how the learner is writing, rather than the product, or what the learner is writing. This is why I use a combination of approaches which takes into consideration the function of the text, what Badger and White (2000) call ‘Process-Genre’. 

Task 3: Collaborative correction

To deal with teacher-problem 3 my suggestion was to use a marking code. I have a Google Doc link  to my code that I share with my students which explains how it works. I had the teachers practise using it with some samples of students’ stories. 

A marking code is nothing revolutionary of course, but teachers may fear that stakeholder expectations won’t be met if students are asked to correct their own work. My aim was therefore to give the teachers confidence and tell them what I wish someone had told me when I started teaching: “It’s OK!”. That is, actually, it’s BETTER for the students to work harder to understand where they went wrong. It’s also OK for the teacher to find a way to make their workload lighter. I remember it took me years to realise that my energy would be much better spent on teaching a lesson, rather than spending hours preparing it and being exhausted before it started! 

Discussion:

About the correction code and the revision process. Doesn’t it create more marking? 

Actually this a good point. If a class of 20 re-submit their work, then it would appear that there is more marking to do not less. My advice is to give fewer writing tasks, spending much more time revising the same piece and do so in the lesson.

What if they don’t understand what the mistake is?

You should only use the marking code for language points that you know your student should know. These are mistakes rather than errors – features of the learners current level or stage of interlanguage. 

Should we correct everything?

No. This would be demotivating and creates more work for you. Correct the most important things such as what they’ve already studied or something that makes the text difficult to understand. You should give some positive feedback too. 

Should the students use it to correct each other’s work?

Yes, why not. But they would need training in this, and a simplified version could be used. The good thing about this of course is the language discussion that would come up. Careful though because their corrections might not be right! So you would need to monitor closely and use reference materials.

Round up – Solutions to the teachers’ problems: 

1. Scaffold the task by process stages of brainstorming ideas. Personalise the tasks. Team/pair-writing.

2. Use a correction code. Have students peer and self correct.

3. Do writing correction in the lesson. Use peer correction. Keep working at the same piece for longer.

My last thought was this: 

Remember…it is the students who should be doing most of the work to improve their writing NOT THE TEACHER! 🙂

 

(*Note: I did not use a picture of Cinderella since I object to the fact that she is always portrayed as white, blond, skinny, not to mention pathetic, seeing as she has to be ‘saved’ by a guy. I much prefer the idea of her going out partying and meeting talking toads in the forest.)

References:

Badger, R., White, G. (2000). A process genre approach to teaching writing. ELT Journal, Volume 54, Issue 2, April 2000, Pages 153–160,

Hale, A. (n.d.). How to Structure a Story: The Eight Point Arc. Retrieved from: http://www.dailywritingtips.com/how-to-structure-a-story-the-eight-point-arc/

Hedge, T. (2000). Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom. Oxford: OUP

Kress, N. (March 11, 2008) 3 tips for writing successful flashbacks. Retrieved from: http://www.writersdigest.com/qp7-migration-all-articles/qp7-migration-fiction/3_tips_for_writing_successful_flashbacks

Lewis, M. (2002). The English Verb. Boston MA:Thomson Heinle

 

 

 

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First Certificate Speaking Part 3: More bang for your paired speaking task buck

Like any other speaking exam, the First Certificate Speaking Paper attempts to get natural speaking performance from a highly artificial situation. With rigorous timing, set questions, obligatory interaction patterns, and an interlocutor who has to stick at all times to the script, there’s no wonder it feels almost miraculous when candidates manage to surmount all this and actually sound like two human beings.

But today I discovered that starting to overcome some of these problems (3 specific problems, in fact) was as easy as banging my fist on the table.

If you don’t have time to read all my revelations as they came to me here’s your executive summary:

To encourage more natural turn-taking in pair speaking exam tasks (e.g. First Certificate Speaking Part 3), signal when candidates have to abandon their turns by banging loudly on the table every 15 seconds. The surprising benefits of this are:

  • More turns taken
  • More coverage of obligatory talking points (prompts)
  • More range of agreeing/disagreeing language
  • More cooperational support given by each candidate

Keeping reading for the long version.

Problem 1: Monologues

Take First Certificate Part 3. My 18-student group today was decimated (no not literally) by illness, school trips, and school exams, which left only 6 of us. I got a pair of guinea pigs for candidates (no not literally) while the other four watched. Part 3, if you’re not familiar with it, requires students to have a conversation about a set topic – really, to answer a set question – using a series of prompts to help them discuss. They’ve got two minutes before they’re interrupted with a follow-up question.

What I got, today, was this:

Candidate A: Monologue, monologue, monologue. Monologue, monologue. (45 seconds)

Candidate B: Monologue, monologue. Monologue, monologue. (45 seconds)

Candidate A: Monologue, monologue. (20 seconds)

Candidate B: Monolo– (10 seconds)

Me: Thank you.

Why does this happen?

Because the situation is highly artificial. Because they’re afraid to interrupt. Because they don’t know what to say. Because they’re afraid of the other person not saying anything, and so they keep talking. Because they’re not listening to each other, just talking in a vacuum.

So today I did something different. I told the students:

When you hear me bang on the table, your partner takes over. I’m going to bang on the table every 15 seconds.

The same pair went again. Wham. Bang. Boom.

Both students clearly felt they were under the gun. They were talking faster, tenser, and nervouser. (Yes, I just wrote that). But they each took a lot more turns.

Then I got all three groups working on their own activity, and I kept banging on the table. The high school classroom where I was teaching is basically cinder block, there’s no sound dampening anything, and the desk jarred and jangled on the floor. Really satisfyingly obnoxious.

But the thing is, each student ceded their turn when I banged. Which meant that each student contributed more, and it was much easier for students to use 5 of the issues, rather than only two or three. And as I tried to explain, rather than feeling like they’re under the gun, like they’re prisoners of my maniacal table-banging, a 15 second turn is the opposite. It’s not imprisoning; on the contrary, it frees you of the responsibility of filling the silence. Because you only have to speak for a 15 second run, not 30 seconds, or 45, or one minute, or as long as you can because you’re terrified your partner’s not going to say a thing. 15 seconds isn’t confining, it’s liberating.

And by creating moments of transition, it suddenly opened up space to confront another problem.

Problem 2: I disagree with you, sir. And I with you, madam

This is the over-use of a few brick-heavy stock phrases, particularly I agree and I disagree. Yes, we do say these things, but they can also come across as heavy, provocative and final. In conversations we often seek agreement, and soften disagreement. I usually try to get my students to say things like:

Agreement

  • Totally
  • Definitely
  • Sure
  • Uh-huh
  • Yeah

Disagreement

  • I’m not so sure
  • I don’t know
  • Maybe, but
  • Well, …

Tone is key. Particularly with disagreement. We drill these expressions. I try to get them to use the agreement expressions as backchannel input, and often to signal to their partner that they’ve got a contribution to make. But students don’t always produce them when they have to (in exam simulations).

What I discovered, however, was that by forcing more transitions (bang bang bang), it suddenly opened up space for the use of a variety of agreement/disagreement responses. I brought this to their attention, and when we did the next round of table banging, I started hearing more and more nice noises: yeah, totally, I’m not so sure, well…

Problem 3: Blah blah blah

The last problem is just simply candidates not listening to their partner. I think, in part, this is caused by the fear of the endless turn. If you think your partner’s going to blather on forever, and you’ve just got to get your say in before the clock runs out, you don’t really care what the other person says.

However, when you know your partner may get cut off (bang) in the middle of the sentence, then you’ve got to be listening to paper over the awkward transition. So in addition to students suddenly using more language of agreement and disagreement, I said bang might be a good time for not just agreeing or disagreeing, but:

Supporting your partner’s statement/opinion with

  • a) exemplification: yeah, like X or Y
  • b) continuation: just finish your partner’s sentence, then add more

And they did. I don’t have any recorded evidence, but you once you give students permission (bang) to pick up the utterance their partner dropped, they will. They’ll finish the sentence, add to it, run with it.

Conclusion

In the end, it was by forcing artificial breaks into a conversation that suddenly made it sound much more like a conversation. It’s a silly, ugly technique, and like all training wheels should be taken away as soon as possible, but it sure got results, and fast – a lot faster than simply interrupting the activity to say, Come on, let’s try to do a bit more… and letting them spin on for two more minutes. Banging away got me:

  • More turns taken
  • More coverage of obligatory talking points (prompts)
  • More range of agreeing/disagreeing language
  • More cooperational support given by each candidate

So if you’re prepping students for speaking exams, try it (bang) and let me know if it works (bang bang).

 

Reading texts as writing templates

Texts, any texts, can serve as models for writing. Not just the long-form, formal writing tasks that students have to do on exam tasks, but as sentence or paragraph frames, or templates.

As Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein explain in They Say, I Say, their really awesome book on academic writing, templates

have a generative quality, prompting students to make moves in their writing that they might not otherwise make or even know they should make…. In showing students how to make such moves, templates do more than organize students’ ideas; they help bring those ideas into existence (Graff & Birkenstein, 2014:xxi).

Last week students in my IELTS prep class were discussing issues from the reading homework (from a text called “Walking with dinosaurs”, in the Cambridge IELTS Trainier book) when suddenly the structure of the first paragraph jumped out at me:

The media image of palaeontologists who study prehistoric life is often of field workers camped in the desert in the hot sun, carefully picking away at the rock surrounding a large dinosaur bone. But Peter Falkingham has done little of that for a while now. Instead, he devotes himself to his computer. Not because he has become inundated with paperwork, but because he is a new kind of paleontologist: a computational paleontologist.

What got my attention was the series of moves made by the writer:

  1. Introduce a commonplace idea
  2. Introduce a contrasting idea (first as a teaser, delaying the full explanation)
  3. Develop the contrasting idea
  4. Offer a supposed rationale for the contrast
  5. Overturn the supposed rationale with the true one

And there are a series of clear and reusable frames – a template – that could easily be used by students:

The media image of palaeontologists who study prehistoric life is often of field workers camped in the desert in the hot sun, carefully picking away at the rock surrounding a large dinosaur bone. But Peter Falkingham has done little of that for a while now. Instead, he devotes himself to his computer. Not because he has become inundated with paperwork, but because he is a new kind of paleontologist: a computational paleontologist.

My rationale for all this is that one of the challenges of academic writing (ok, some of you might debate that Cambridge and IELTS exam writing is true academic writing) is getting students to deal with opposing viewpoints, offer differing views, and develop, even if to dismantle, contrasting arguments.

So I boarded the language of this template but substituted:

The media image of Italy is often of…

They brainstormed a series of possibilities, including the Mafia, mothers, fashion, food, and work habits.

Then they worked in pairs to write and revise their paragraphs. Hopping from group to group I got to help them a series of interesting issues, mostly around the idea of the expectations you set up with each sentence and how to satisfy them in the successive sentences to make the argument flow (moving from general to specific, setting up contrasts, exemplification, etc.).

The only student example I’ve got written down is a fragment on my whiteboard photo:

….Not because the media’s depiction of us as addicted to pasta isn’t true, but because Italy also has a whole host of other food traditions to choose from.

I’ll certainly be on the lookout for more reading-text-as-writing-template opportunities.

 

Further reading:

They Say, I Say: The moves that matter in academic writing. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, 2014.

Use Google Drive to co-create an a posteriori syllabus

So if you’re not using a coursebook, and you can’t wait for some super duper platform with all the bells and whistles like I proposed, then what are you using? 

While I’ve never used Blackboard or Edu-whatever-it’s-called or any of the big brand name edtech platforms, I have tried a few smaller, freer ones, including the now-defunct collaboration tool Wiggio and a sort of Post-it note board whose name I can’t remember.

But when I made the switch from Word and USB-sticks to Google Drive about 5 years ago, I discovered that it was easier to share links to “living documents” than send the files themselves. Sharing a link to master documents means you can always update them, improve them, and most importantly, spell check them (I can proofread other people’s stuff but I’m often totally blind to my own last-minute spelling errors). And you worry much less about whether someone’s got the “right” version.

Then I took the next step to start creating and sharing a Google Doc to collect all the links in one place (which all but eliminates email sending).

Now I use Google Drive to

  • co-create an a posteriori syllabus
  • share teacher- and student-generated documents and links
  • post (and give feedback on) writing homework

My tech approach is by no means revolutionary — in fact, I’d call it a pretty low-tech tech option. But it is what I’m using for the time being.

So in this post I’ll go through these tasks one by one and then mention a few obstacles you might have if you want to try it yourself.

 

The a posteriori syllabus

When I shifted away from coursebooks I ran into a series of problems:

  1. Organization. I’m not naturally very organized. And lessons ― when you’re producing one after another yourself ― can tend to vanish into nowhere.
  2. Emergent language. Coursebook or not, I’d always wanted some way to keep track of all that great stuff that comes up in class, because whenever you use a coursebook the emergent language seems to fade into the background. It’s hard to compete with Useful language boxes on glossy paged spreads.
  3. I’m also someone who comes into class with a few big events in my mind ― what I think could happen and how long it might take. But I’ve often got more events, or the events expand to bigger than, I’ve planned. So I wanted a place to keep track not of what we were supposed to do, but what we actually did.

For each course I create a Google Doc that I store on in a folder on Google Drive. I create a reference section with few permanent links (and stuff gets added throughout the year).

2018-02-13 22_15_03-Wednesday Class Record - Google Docs
At the beginning of each course (or as new students are added) I get their email address and share the link. I set everybody’s permission to edit, because I want them writing on it, too. (Nobody actually has to have a Gmail/Drive account exept you.)

Then, as we go, we write up what we did in class. The result looks something like this:

2018-02-13 22_06_35-Wednesday Class Record - Google Docs

What we do is, each week I copy and paste the syllabus template, and the students take turns writing up the Class Summary and Whiteboard notes (literally what was on the whiteboard) and adding a (hopefully) catchy title to that week’s class.

I always include links to things we might have used in class. I write the homework in the appropriate box, immediately after class. (In this Class Record the page references are to a grammar books, Grammar and Vocabulary for First.) I also link to a lot of activities that I’ve developed over the last few years, like these listening activities.

2018-02-13 22_51_32-Daily Listening - Google Drive

Learner training

I used to insist that students students get it right and I was very specific about what I wanted. I even created this guide, Writing the Class Syllabus (download Word file), and this activity, Writing a class summary (download Word file), to do on the second day of class. In a nutshell, it trains students to write the correct form by comparing and improving two sub-par class summary texts, like you might in a exam writing task.

I generally don’t do this anymore because I find that students get it, more or less, without this, and I’d rather have them think more about the other students and less about whether they’re following all the rules. Also because exam prep is so product-focused I don’t think they need to worry about getting yet another format picture perfect. But I might be wrong.

If you want to try this yourself, here are a few tips:

  1. To decide who’s doing the Class Record for that week, just go in alphabetical order based on who’s in class that day (it’s the easiest way, trust me).
  2. If you use the How to write… task above, finish the task by having students write up a summary of last week’s class (i.e. writing up Day 1 on Day 2). Then put everybody’s work up on the wall and get students to circulate and check who best fulfilled the task. The “winner” gets to actually put their summary and notes online. This makes for a not a bad start to the year if you want to get students reading and evaluating each other’s work.
  3. If you’re not going to use the How to write task, do the Class Record yourself for the first few classes then give them feedback right away on the first time. If you’re slack, they’ll be.
  4. Encourage the student writing the record to take a photo of the whiteboard for later. You’ll still be amazed at what comes out sometimes in the student’s version of the notes.
  5. Set deadlines for when the students should post the summary/whiteboard notes if you like, but I’m more lenient these days. But always be strict with yourself about putting up the homework right away.
  6. Refer back to the Whiteboard notes for in-class review. I’ll often dictate sentences with stuff from the previous week. It’s always a way of helping the person writing up the Class Record feel their work is worth something.

The Writing file

Another standard feature of my courses is a shared Writing document. It’s linked from the Class Record (see the box at the top of the first image above) and the students post their “formal” writing homework there (stuff for more careful marking and review).

I use the same document to put up a model task and tips, sometimes in the form of comments, as you can see here…

2018-02-13 23_19_06-Saturday Writing - Google Docs

And sometimes just as crazy-man-with-a-highlighter lists.

2018-02-13 23_26_42-Wednesday Writing - Google Docs

BTW: I still tend to over-mark (my New Year’s Resolution is to step back from that cliff).

But one thing the Writing doc has saved me from is repeating the same issues that I used to repeat by private email. By having one shared doc I can say “look at what I wrote on Marco’s text”. And it works well for positive elements, too.

 

Other student contributions

I’ll also create and link blank docs for students to:

  • Create vocabulary lists
  • Create exam-style speaking activities
  • Write writing cheat sheets (summaries of the genre types on the exams)
  • Share Reading Circles contributions

One thing I’ve not been successful at is getting students to comment “socially” ― on each other’s work, or whatever. But Google Docs is for collaboration (I use it for collaborating on copywriting at my other job), so I’m sure there are plenty of more opportunities for the eager teacher.

Other programs

And of course, there are other useful (but standard) programs in the Google Drive suite, all of which I’ve used at various times:

  • Google Forms ― you can use to make surveys, homework activities or feedback forms.
  • Google Sheets ― like Excel, and I always make attendance forms that automatically total up days in class, etc.
  • Google Slides ― like PowerPoint, and we always use them for storing and running Pecha Kucha presentations

Some obstacles

Technical

There are some technical issues with Apple users. I’m not an Apple user, but I believe things work much better if they download the Google Docs app for iOS (but they still might have issues viewing comments).

Another technical issue might be that students, with editing power, can delete everything on the doc. But I’ve never had that happen, whatever age the students (I’ve taught from 13 years old on up), and even if it did you can always view and revert to a previous version in the Version Control menu.

Affective

I’ve never had any problems with say, a shared writing doc that everyone can see. Everybody gets into it. And knowing that everybody can see your comments means I’ve become much more careful about not sounding too negative. It’s made me more human. But you know your situation better than I do so you be the judge if it would work for you.

Business

Lastly, as Paul Walsh pointed out re my last post, in-company classes put up all sorts of barriers to using tech.

I’ve had companies that block Google Drive, companies that let employees look at Google Docs but block any further links from those docs, and companies that gave me permission (but not the employees) to access it, though I quickly found out that the wi-fi was terminally malfunctioning and useless.

The good thing about Drive is that you can set documents to be editable offline. So even if you can’t connect, you can come into class with the doc open, add the homework or whatever without the connection, and it will automatically sync when you return to digital civilization.

But, in reality, I mostly don’t use the Class Record in class. The Class Record is there to keep us all together when we’re not right there in front of each other. Because that’s where the teaching and the collaboration and conversation happens, and I don’t need an app for that.

 

I’d love to hear if you’re using Google Drive and what for or if you’ve got better ways to give your course a little backbone without ever cracking a coursebook spine.

 

 

The coursebook I want

I and a lot of ELT teachers I admire spend a lot of time dissing, cutting down, criticising, mocking, disparaging and complaining about coursebooks. So I’d like to look at the other side for a moment: what kind of coursebook would I want? Well, glad you asked:

A platform

My ideal coursebook wouldn’t be a book at all, but a platform. I love opening books, but when it comes to a collaborative learning experience the one thing a book is is closed. In terms of platforms, I want something simple, accessible, sharable and open. Something like Google Drive. Wait, not just like Google Drive, but maybe Google Drive itself, because there’s nothing I hate more than proprietary platforms that want to gobble up your time, energy and resources and then collapse, or not get updated, or just plain suck. Google’s not going anywhere, it gets updated, and lots of people like myself already use it for a lot of other stuff. So, if not Google, my coursebook would work within a popular, easy and ubiquitous platform (not simply try to imitate one).

Curated

The pro-coursebook argument that’s hard to beat is that it saves the busy teacher (or the one keenly aware of how much her out-of-class time is really worth) time. So I imagine a sort of expert teacher working in each country as content curator, finding and publishing a curated selection of 5 or so new texts a day. But of course you’re not bound to use the curated texts: you could do it too.

Connected

This daily list would continue to grow until it contained hundreds or thousands of texts. Or rather, it wouldn’t contain them, but link to them, because I want my students seeing the contexts in which these texts ― academic articles, opinion pieces, blog posts, film scripts, poems etc. ― were really published.

Customizable

At any point in the term you set a number of filters based on your location, student preferences, or favorite sites, and the coursebook would indicate texts and sources that might be of interest (and show you fewer or no texts outside your areas of interest).

Automated to help text selection

Any text “imported” (linked) into the coursebook would be cataloged and automatically tagged with an estimated CEFR level, word-count, estimated reading time per CEFR level (how long would it take a C1 student to read vs a C2 student), as well as a number of useful searchable tags relating to topic, variety of English, register, occurrence of grammar and lexis. This would all make the task of finding texts within the system much, much easier for the busy teacher.

Automated to help task creation

In one click, you switch from the text at its original source to a bare-bones, text-only “workshop” version that you could manipulate at will. The platform would also come with a series of tools that allow you to instantly create a variety of different activities, including gap fills based on various parameters (e.g. removing prepositions, auxiliary verbs or all function words). A variety of exam formats would also be supported, like the Cambridge Use of English tasks.

You could work with these text-activities online, in class, if your students use tablets/computers, or you could print them out. Or could link them as homework tasks on the evolving syllabus.

Flexible

Of course the coursebook would have no chapters, or order, but teachers could make intelligent decisions about what texts to use based on class interest or language issues that need addressing. From one week to the next the teacher could share the texts with the students to create an evolving syllabus.

Simple interface for students

This evolving syllabus would be the user interface i.e. what students see ― basically a formatted document with links, texts, etc. the teacher has placed for each lesson. Layout would be basic ― you don’t want to spend your time worrying about pagination. And you don’t want to just replicate the jam-packed tiny-font landscape of a typical coursebook spread. Just a single-column format, like a blog. But you could also give students “creator” status so they could do the same operations on a text by using the same tools that you do.

Emergent

Because the search functions work so well, when something comes up in class, like a student sees examples of inversion, and asks about, or you realize that students don’t have much vocabulary for topic X, you could easily search and find a text that would offer a context for addressing the gap.

Repetitious

You could create and share word lists from texts you’ve read. And the platform would have a series of reminders that would encourage you to recycle vocabulary/texts at set intervals. You might work on a text in class, and then 3 weeks later the platform reminds you to either recycle the vocabulary, or create a new recall activity based on that text.

Productive

The platform would also have a catalogue of communicative task types like debates, roleplays, etc. Rather than fixed any activity to that particular text, the teacher could choose an activity type and the platform would prompt her with suggestions for how to create that particular activity, including a framework for various stages. And templates would make actually writing up activities for distribution (either in paper or electronically) to students faster and easier.

Social

Each of the texts would come with an “access community” feature, and you could share what you did or see what other teachers have done with a specific text, as well as what texts were used before and after it. Teachers could comment and share opinions, difficulties, and classroom reactions to texts. Texts that generate a lot of interest might get more visibility on the platform, while others, that generate no interest or uptake, could get phased out.

Supportive of teacher development

To start with, the platform would offer tips and suggestions to teachers about how to set up activities, prompts for writing comprehension questions, what texts to pair together, and even offer reminders to try other activity types. But, with the teacher’s consent, the platform’s “voice” would gradually get muted as the teacher grows in experience and internalizes frameworks or task types.

But even with the training wheels off, formatting options would still be accessible so you could create e.g. exam task activities that look like the real thing.

Conclusion

Yes, there’s a learning curve with any platform (or any new coursebook series), but the idea would be to help teachers save time sourcing texts and creating tasks, so that they could have more energy to devote to being in the class itself (discussing, debating, revising). And the tags, reminders and search functions would help teachers build internal consistency and repetition into a course that’s not fixed in advance but evolves as it goes.

 

Well, what about it? Is that the kind of coursebook you’d use? Or have you got something better?

 

 

Dynamite at ETAS 2018. Zofingen, Switzerland

Kyle and I have just returned, full of inspiration, from the excellent ETAS Conference (English Teachers Association) in Switzerland. Compared to our last gig at IATEFL, we both agreed that the smaller venue was much friendlier and we felt totally relaxed and very welcome. So thank you ETAS!

We were lucky enough to do a workshop demonstrating our ideas for teaching exam prep, some of which we have written about previously here on the blog.  I thought it would be a good idea to summarise the activities for anyone who wasn’t able to attend, and also to share the slides from the presentation (here: Long live exam prep!)

For the purposes of the workshop we took the Cambridge English: First (CEFR B2) as an example for how our activities can be linked to the sub-skills and language points required for success in the exam. However, the activities can easily be adapted and graded for pretty much any mainstream EFL exam.

The ‘Dynamite’ philosophy is that exam oriented teaching should be…

  • Scaffolded: individual skills or language points required for exam success are first practised in isolation
  • Student-generated
  • Student-centred
  • Low-prep
  • Personalised
  • Learner focused not book focused

 

Activity 1- First lesson- FCE Speaking part 1

The activity aims to generate questions similar to those in FCE part 1, and also doubles as a get-to-know you activity in the first lesson with a new class.

Students guess information about the teacher, which gets boarded whether it’s right or not. Then students are asked to write questions for the teacher to find out if the information is true or false.  In order to make this more challenging they are asked to use specific structures such as a hypothetical conditional, or the present perfect. The students ask the teacher their questions, and then use them in a mingle activity with each other. See here for a more detailed description.

Activity 2- Photos- FCE Speaking part 2

Students find a photo on their phones of their friends doing something interesting or funny. In pairs they look at each other’s pictures and find the similarities and differences.

Using personal photos means that students are more likely to be engaged and motivated, and can focus their attention on the comparative aspect of the task rather than falling into the trap of simply describing the pictures.

Activity 3- Agreeing and disagreeing- FCE Speaking parts 3 and 4

Students come up with some topics they’d like to talk about, such as music or sport. They work in pairs and give an opinion on each of the topics, giving a reason for their opinion. These cards with exponents for agreeing and disagreeing are then distributed:

dsc_0895.jpg

Students mingle, giving their opinion on each topic and agreeing or disagreeing with their partner by reading the expression on the card. They then swap cards and change partners and repeat.

Activity 4- Expressing concession- FCE parts 3 and 4

Students repeat the activity above, but extend their answers, using the expression ‘having said that‘ . For example:

SA- I think Prince was the best musician own the world because his music is sexy and raw.

SB- You’ve got a point. Having said that, I didn’t like Purple Rain much.

In this way the exam task is scaffolded step by step: first the students generate ideas, then they learn and use target expressions for agreeing and disagreeing (thus, we hope, avoiding the dreaded “I agree”). Once they are comfortable with this (it may take a few lessons), difficulty can be added by asking them to extend their answers by adding contrasting information.

For a more detailed description of these activities see here.

Activity 5- Bus stop conversation- FCE parts 3 and 4

The bus stop conversation can be used to practice pretty much any structure you want your students to practice. To make them focus on the target language you can use cards (as above) or write the information they need to include in their conversation on the board. For a more detailed description of this activity see here.

Activity 6- Gimme Five- FCE part 3

If you’ve talked about any topic in class you can swiftly and easily turn it into a FCE part 3 speaking task. Just tell your students “Gimme 5!” That is, 5 items related to the topic. Then board them and pose a question about them. If you’ve just read an article on e.g. why New Year’s Resolutions seldom work (an old post-New Year favourite of Kyle’s) just ask them for 5 reasons why they don’t and board the question “Why don’t New Year’s Resolutions usually work?” Once this becomes routine students will be better at thinking of input and questions. And you can use it to input the kind of conversational language discussed above. You could run this routine for months before you tell the students it’s actually “on the test”.

Further reading

For more opinions on exam-prep, see also: this article in HLT Mag by Alex Case, Professor Costas Gabrielatos’s critique of exam-oriented teaching in Greece, and Marisa Constantinides’s discussion in ELT Chat.

On a different topic, keep an eye out for the article coming up in the summer edition of the ETAS journal  about my workshops with teachers of refugees in Athens, adapted from a previous blog post.

Thanks again to everyone at ETAS for giving us the opportunity to share our ideas. It was wonderful to meet you all!