10-step process listening for exam classes

This post is part 1 of a series based on a talk I gave at the IH Barcelona conference on February 8th.

Exam classes always run the risk of ending up the same: with testing, testing and more testing. Whether it’s bad planning, midterm exhaustion, pre-exam pressure from students (is this gonna be on the test?) or simply course books and materials that don’t offer anything but testing, exam classes can sometimes devolve into doing one test prep task after another.

And exam prep listening lessons can often exhibit these tendencies in a more acute form.

Because listening is all in the head. You can’t see it. You, as in anybody, but especially you, the teacher. So how do you know if they’ve got it? You test them. So, as ELT listening expert John Field has written, all listening teaching tends to look like listening testing.

And I’d say it’s even worse in exam classes. When exam pressure and expectations of success come into play, everybody simply chases after the right answers. Did you put A or B? What was the answer? Did you get it right? Two plays, check your answers, and move on to the next task.

2020-02-06 22_12_38-You Say It Like Its A Bad Thing GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

I teach mostly classes preparing students for the Cambridge First and Cambridge Advanced exams. While most test prep materials are good at teaching what Field calls (sneeringly, or so I always imagine) test-wise strategies, which he associates with exploiting loopholes, I’d more charitably call test-specific strategic competence. Students need to figure out the best way to approach each task, how to listen, how much time they have, and what they should do in their precious seconds of reading time.

But the reason Field sneers, of course, is that most of this doesn’t have anything to do with listening. It’s simply knowing and practicing the test.

But what students really need to succeed at listening is the ability to decode fairly fast speech – because without that they can’t begin to do the deeper operations of matching the audio signal to a written paraphrase (in the form of a test item) and distinguish it from similar-looking distractors.

Better decoding is essential. So how do you get better at decoding?

In this series of posts, I’m going to look at a couple of ways I try to help test takers get better at decoding, while (best of all) letting them turn on and tune into the stuff that interests them.

10-Step Process Listening

The upper intermediate and advanced level students – particularly teens – I teach all have their favorite YouTube channels and Netflix series that they watch in English. Do they understand them? Sure! Do they really understand them? Er, yeah?

Learners who can self-select YouTube audio usually get the gist, but there’s so much more they don’t. Listening tasks are designed to take them further into detail, but if you’re a busy teacher and you want them to listen to stuff beyond exam material, you probably won’t have time to make new tasks all the time.

That’s where a process comes in. Processes or routines are great because if you do it right you can give students something that’s materials light, learnable and repeatable (remember, like the PPP method you might have learned in your Celta course, but a whole lot better) and lets students work in relative autonomy.

When students are faced with a video/audio text, here’s the process:

2020-02-20 23_35_02-Sounds like teen spirit - Google SlidesI demo it in class. I just tell them to number their paper 1-10, then give them the list above, then explain what each means, orally. Then, before they it at home individually, I’ll follow up with an email/handout like this:

 

BEFORE LISTENING

1. Look: write down basic info like the title, source, speaker, etc-

2. Predict: predict what the speaker might say (topics and vocabulary)

LISTENING

3. Gist listening (once straight through) What’s the speaker’s main point? BLUE pen

4. Detail listening: listen again for more information. This time you don’t have to listen straight through. Advance, pause, skip around, repeat as much as you need. But don’t use the transcript/subtitles yet. BLACK pen

5. 3 tough spots: Identify three spots (minute:second, e.g. 02:45) that are difficult to understand. What’s so difficult? Performance (accent, speed, etc.)? Words (unfamiliar words)? Or non-explicit meaning (you know the words, but not the meaning)?

6. Dictation: Choose a 30-second section of text and transcribe it word for word

7. Check. If there are subtitles/a transcript, listen to check your dictation and understanding. RED pen

AFTER LISTENING

8. Vocab: 5-10 topic-related words that help you talk about the topic, 5-10 new/useful words/expressions

9. Respond: What do you think about the video? Do you agree/disagree? How is it relevant to your life?

10. Reflect: Think back on the listening process

  • I understood ____ % after the first listening; ____ % after the detail listening
  • What caused the most difficulty? (speed, accent, presentation, topic, vocabulary, etc.)
  • Which steps above helped you most understand the listening? (e.g. 1, 4, etc.)
  • What should you do more of/less of next time?

 

Note to the teacher:

The first 4 steps all work together, with each step creating the reason for the next. You look at the YouTube video/webpage and write down some details. This leads to prediction, where students write down what they think the speaker will say (based on their own outside knowledge).

Now, this is not a very exam-useful skill (exam takers have only a short amount of time that they have to spend reading the test items, not predicting – and anyways exams are designed so that outside knowledge shouldn’t be a factor). But it is a very useful life listening skill, and as I said it sets up the point: gist.

In this process, listening for gist is basically checking your predictions. Were you right? And detail listening is checking your gist understanding. Were you right when you listened the first time? What more would you add?

Make sure you tell students they can listen as many times as necessary, backing up, skipping, jumping forward, to get the maximum out of it. That’s detail – real detail.

This is usually the maximum of most listening, but the idea here is to get students to listen further, beyond gist, and start figuring out how the listening is succeeding or breaking down for them.

Ah wait, and the pens. If you can get them to use different colored pens, it’s another way to make the listening visible – to show both them and you how understanding is deepened with each task.

3 Tough Spots

To help students (and you) understand where they aren’t able to decode, have them write down 3 spots and try to determine what made it difficult. This isn’t an exact science, but it will help students try to pinpoint difficulties to get beyond simply “I don’t understand”.

Dictation

Choose a 30” spot and transcribe it word for word. This is way tougher – and takes way longer – than you might think at first (Try it yourself!). The beauty of this is that listening really becomes visible here, as you can see what they hear, and where even their own understanding of English and the topic is not sufficient to compensatorily fill in the gaps in their own decoding.

You might find that while students are getting the content words, they’re missing out on the functional stuff like auxiliary verbs and articles and prepositions that allow listeners to get more than a Swiss-cheese understanding of the content words. And can easily form the basis for many listening lessons to come (stay tuned for the next blog post on that).

Response

This is simply getting students to express why they picked this listening and what they personally learned from it so they can better share in class (or help you understand their choices).

Reflection

Like the tough spots, this part is simply to get students to think about how much they understood and why, so they can think strategically about the listening texts they choose, and what they can do themselves to keep improving.

How do you set it up?

This is really an at-home task. There’s no set-up for me (no writing test questions, yay!), students can choose their own texts, and I just take a peek at the results. But the first time, definitely go through it in class. In a small class, you could have somebody control the computer for a whole class listening. In a bigger class, with equal access to personal tech, you could have everybody listen on their own device with a headset.

Model what you want them to do at home, and let them work in pairs for the dictation and other steps.

When they do it at home, they could either bring in their work next week or (better I think) email it to you – with the link to the audio they listened to. Check to make sure they’ve done it right, and then look into a couple more deeply. What kind of texts did they choose? What were their tough spots? Where there common language features in their dictations?

2020-02-20 23_33_15-Sounds like teen spirit - Google Slides

Exam task extension

10-step Process Listening works with YouTube, but it also works with exam tasks as well – and helps you get beyond two-listens-and-done.

In this version, prediction is simply the test strategy of listening, and the first and second listening are played straight through normally. But the rest of the process is kept in place (with a series of steps before students even check their answers – remember, this is not a test, but test prep!).

One feature I add to doing this process with exam tasks is asking students to say how confident they are (0=not at all, 2=confident) with their answer after two listenings. Why?

The one “cognitive style” said to influence exam success is risk-taking (Note: I’ve got a source for this I’ll add soon). In a multiple choice test, where wrong answers are marked the same as no answer, there’s no reason not to guess. But risk-averse people may not do it. Conversely, risk-takers may guess too easily and frequently, confident the odds are on their side as a short-cut to improving their listening. So the idea with putting their confidence level is simply letting them see if their own estimates are correct – while encouraging both types to see the weakness (if any) of their habitual strategy.

2020-02-20 23_34_13-Sounds like teen spirit - Google Slides

If you students are using a test prep coursebook, have them try this at home to go beyond simply chasing after the right answers and get more out of their listening prep.

In the next post I’ll go into some different ways to recycle your listening exam tasks and extend them for teaching.

Tried it out? Let me know!

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.

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.

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!

 

“I don’t understand your writing feedback and correction.” Oh, the horror.

Imagine the horror: a few days ago, with three weeks left before the end of the course and the Cambridge First Certificate exam, I found myself sitting across from a student who told me that she did not understand my writing correction system.

“What do you mean?” I said. She had submitted her FCE writing task – a report – as a Google Doc and she was looking at the marked version on her phone as we waited for the other students to arrive.

“The colors. The green stuff. The red stuff. The orange stuff. What does that mean again?”

My blood ran cold.

No, I’ve never actually written or typed or even said that egregiously clichéd sentence before but that’s just what happened: My blood ran cold.

I explained what the colors meant. Then we went on talking about the goods and the bads of her report and did a bit of brush-up work on her use of comparative forms. But the whole time there’s a sort of ringing in my ears and a pit in my stomach and suddenly I am the guy in the movie who’s just got the message in the Sex Pistols font that there’s a bomb in the building and I’ve got to keep it together and keep everybody blissfully unaware until I can calmly slip out and defuse it before the whole thing blows up and kills us all.

After class I found myself repeating the student’s question. What does that mean again? What does it mean that she said she didn’t understand the marking system? That she’s never read any of the corrections and comments I’ve given? That she had, but had no idea what I was trying to say?

Like some character from Dostoevsky, ill-prepared for the weather, I skulked home, umbrella-less in the cold rain, feverishly gripped by a sort of existential fear that nothing I had done as a teacher that year had any meaning whatsoever.

But thankfully that part of my mind that was as far as could be from Russian existentialism, the part that had been trained and brained in my years in all-American sales, shouted one thing to me loud and clear: Action Cures Fear (and yes, there’s an inspirational poster for that).

So on Saturday morning I stormed into my other First Certificate class. They had wanted a review of the Writing Paper (which I’ll explain in the next post), but first I wanted to get one thing clear.

I improvised a sort of Likert-scale questionnaire with never/sometimes/often/always:

writing_correction_dynamiteelt

1. I read the corrections you make on my writing (in the writing file)

2. I understand the corrections you make

3. I ask if I don’t understand the corrections

4. I read other students’ writing on the writing file

5. I take action to avoid making the same mistakes again next time I write

Just to clarify, the “writing file” is a shared, scrolling Google Doc where all writing homework is posted, and “public” for the rest of the class to view. I often make cross-referential comments. So if there’s a common problem, e.g. excessive use of “a lot” in formal writing, I explain the problem on the first piece of writing, offer alternatives, and then tell any other students with the same problem: See what I wrote on Cristina’s about a lot. I do the same with positive things as well: Elisabetta used a lot of good formal alternatives. I’ve highlighted them in blue. Read hers for some other ideas.

They discussed the statements in small groups. And then I added a sixth item:

6. What could Kyle do to improve the corrections? (Give me some ideas!)

 

I collected their answers to the survey, and their suggestions for part 6.

Unlike a lot of the feedback I ask for, this time I wanted names. I sorted them into two groups: frequent writers and infrequent writers. Because there are a couple in the group who never do the writing homework, and their feedback obviously has less weight than the ones who actually use the system. (Why some students never do the writing homework is a useful line of inquiry, but I don’t think it applies to trying to find out if the feedback system is functioning – unless, of course, you posit that the feedback system itself is to blame for their entire lack of writing, but I’m not willing to go there right now.)

Out of 10 students:

8 students said they always read the feedback, with only 2 (very) infrequent writers saying they sometimes did.

7 students said they always understood the feedback, with 2 frequent writers saying they often did and 1 (very) infrequent writer saying they sometimes did.

3 frequent writers said they only sometimes asked if they didn’t understand the corrections, along with 3 infrequent writers.

2 frequent writers said they always read other students’ writing, vs. 1 sometimes and 1 often. The infrequent writers mostly reported they sometimes did.

2 frequent writers and 3 infrequent writers said they always take action to try to avoid making mistakes the next time, whereas 2 frequent writers and 2 infrequent writers said they often did.

What does that mean again?

While it was quickly thrown together and, like all surveys, limited in scope, in many ways the survey calmed me down a bit. Between it and the discussion that followed I understood that the system was comprehensible to those who use it most.

And, most importantly, the students have shown vast improvement in their writing. Lovely paragraphs. Clearly linked ideas both within the sentence and across the text. Great awareness and application of the conventions of the different genres.

From an FCE writing-product perspective, they – and particularly the frequent writers – are producing some great stuff that is light years from where they started.

And yet…

At the same time, the fact that two frequent writers said they often – but not always – understood my corrections and only sometimes asked me about it means there’s another problem to be addressed.

Writing and writing correction is done via Google Docs. But should I take time in class to go through the corrections with students face to face?

One group suggested as a response to question 6 that there should be social interaction on the writing file in the form of questions and comments. It’s a lovely idea that I’ve never managed to make work. Is it the platform (Google Docs, vs. something more social like Facebook Groups)? Is it just my expectations? (The one student who made this suggestion is the only one who regularly emails me about grammar questions.)

I usually do the corrections the night before class – but often students don’t have or take the time to read them before the next morning. Is it a time-management problem?

These and other questions to be pondered in a further post.

 

What’s your writing feedback/correction system like?

Leave a comment and a link if you’ve blogged about it elsewhere. I’d love to read what you’ve written.

 

Long Live Exam Prep! Part minus 2 B: The Carousel Quiz

 

In Part Minus 2 A (this is getting silly-I’m so sorry!), I explained the first half of a first lesson to use with exam prep classes (or indeed any class over B1). Now comes the nitty gritty focus-on-the-exam bit. To do this I use a multi-skill activity that I call a carousel quiz. You do need some materials for this, but fortunately they are freely available. Here’s the link to the Cambridge English : First Handbook for teachers, which is all you’ll need for this FCE activity. We had a set of them at our school. Cambridge used to send free copies out, but I’m not sure if they do that anymore. You could have the students download it or view it on their mobile phones. Alternatively you could print it out before the lesson.

(There are similar resources for IELTS, PET, CAE and CPE)

The steps:

  1. Ask the students to brainstorm what they know about the exam. Generally this is very little. Accept everything they say and get it up on the board. Guide them with some questions like: How long is it? How many papers are there? How many pieces of writing do you need to produce? What do you do in the speaking test?
  2. Refer them to page 2 of the handbook: ‘Content and Overview’. Give them 5 minutes to scan for the correct information. Elicit what they got right and what they got wrong.
  3. Now tell them to concentrate on one part of the exam per group. So ideally you’ll have 4 groups and they take one paper each (splitting up Reading and Use of English). Tell them to refer to the relevant part of the handbook to read about their section of the exam in more detail.
  4. Explain that they’re going to make a quiz about their section for the other students. You can give them some question stems to guide them like: ‘What do you have to do in….’, or ‘What are they testing in…….’, or ‘How long is……’. Give them a fixed number of questions depending on how much time you’ve got. Monitor and help as needed.
  5. When they have their questions and are ready to go, ask one or two of the students to stand up in each group. Tell them to move clockwise around the room, taking their copy of the questions about their section, and sit at the next table. You should have two students from group A with group B, two students of group B with group C and so on. They ask each other their questions, awarding points for right answers and deducting them for wrong answers. They’re allowed to refer to the handbook. Then the same students stand up and move around again. This is repeated until they’ve spoken to everybody and they wind up back at their own table.

Rationale:

  • It’s student centred! Why spend the evening before making a quiz yourself when you’re the one who’s proficient in English? Let them work on the language.
  • They get a clear idea of what’s expected of them in the exam. Often this doesn’t happen until the exam date is looming, by which time it’s too late. Giving them this information in the first lesson allows then to prioritise and organise their study.

But it’s not perfect….

  • It can get a bit long, and the pace can drop as a result, so have something a bit lively up your sleeve for the last 15 minutes.
  • I’m not sure whether all the vocabulary is actually that useful. There’s a lot of teaching jargon that can be confusing.

Give it a spin and tell me what you think!