EFL Listening lesson: what one class learned (and taught me) about learner autonomy

This is a story about listening. About about how, in an effort to encourage learner autonomy, I helped some students start to overcome their fears of tackling authentic listening texts. But it’s also about what I discovered from listening to my own students about the strategies they used for tackling authentic texts. And finally, it’s about listening to feedback ― the best kind of feedback a teacher can get.

The story starts in 2015, when I taught four different groups, back to back, at a single company. The first group, Level B2 on the register, made it clear to me from the outset that the one thing they didn’t want was to suffer through another year with a coursebook (business or otherwise) that missed the mark. So we plunged in without one.

Lessons were a combination of articles they found, topics that came up in class, grammar that reflected challenges I picked up on in conversation and writing. Not having a coursebook also freed up time for developing, practicing and doing presentations, which they loved.

Sounds like trouble

The thing that absolutely terrified them, however, was listening. Even with graded listening activities for homework from BBC Learning English, they’d come back agonizing over the accents and lamenting how much they’d missed. We duly worked on individual sounds and connected speech, did targeted dictations and more in-class listening exercises. And I also encouraged them to do individual homework tasks listening to things that interested them.

They soldiered on, but when I asked them to watch some PechaKucha presentations online to get a feel for the format (before doing it ourselves), this group practically went into crisis. It was two American college girls talking about a canoe trip that apparently pushed them over the edge. The students swore they didn’t understand anything. I flipped on the meeting room computer and tried vainly to firefight by revisiting the presentation. Between accent, lexis, speed and sound quality issues, it was a difficult presentation. But at that point it was foolish to even try. Panic had set in. In Krashen’s terms, their affective filters were solidly up.

After the next week’s class, the company’s training manager asked to meet with me so I could justify my methods. She was very polite and understanding while I explained my case, but I was still a bit taken aback by the fact that she’d been called on to intervene at all. It seemed that word was spreading around the company that I was torturing the groups with authentic ― and for that read: impossibly difficult ― sources.

Listening for signs of hope

I had given the same assignment to all four groups, from Pre-Int to Advanced, and I was happy to report to the training manager that not everyone had given in to despair. While there was some of the expected grumbling about not understanding everything from the lower levels, there were two particular students in the B1 group whose reactions interested me. Both had done the homework. But both had taken difficult speakers in stride. Because both had applied different strategies for choosing which presentation to listen to.

The first said she loved bees, and so she listened to a presentation on beekeeping something like 10 times to understand as much as possible. In other words, the topic had intrinsic interest. It was motivating.

The second said he tried one presentation and found it too difficult. He found another too difficult, and another, and kept trying until he found one he could understand. He listened to it a few times ― not as many as the woman ― but enough so that he could complete the task. In other words, he self-selected for difficulty, and found a presentation that was a right fit for his competence.

Both did something I as a teacher would have struggled to do with them individually ― in the first case, find a task that pinpointed a highly motivating interest I hadn’t known existed, and in the second, find a sort of Goldilocks just-right gradation of listening text. Both did something it would have been impossible to accomplish had I imposed a single listening text on them as a class.

Making strategies explicit

I took these revelations home with me and typed up a sort of guide with some tips for grappling with authentic listening texts. The next meeting with the first group was full crisis-management mode, and I shared the tips and we talked calmly through what makes authentic texts hard, but what can make them easier.

The biggest revelation for them, I think, was that they had the power to choose. Rather than torturing themselves with the first listening text they found, they could self-select. Select for interest or select for difficulty. But it was up to them.

After that, we tried a number of the usual authentic sources, including one of my favorites, The Week’s This Week I Learned podcast by Lauren Hansen. It’s 12 minutes or so of summaries of the sort of random, interesting things you expect to find around the internet on any given week. I like it because each piece averages about 3 minutes, the production quality is very good, it’s downloadable and there’s something for everybody. (To be fair, it serves up exactly the sort of the pub quiz trivia that gets shoehorned into the already overcrowded columns on your average coursebook layout, but the advantage of sending students individually to the podcast is that they can choose what actually interests them.)

Building confidence

I told them to each listen to what they wanted and then come back and share what they’d learned. When they wanted more community support, they agreed between them to all choose and listen to the same text each week ― a sort of listening club. To keep it fresher, however, I encouraged them to form two teams, write up some questions, and quiz each other. The game-aspect seemed to motivate them even more to understand and stump the opposing group with their questions. Autonomy doesn’t necessarily mean go it alone.

At the end of the course they not only delivered great final-day presentations, but gave me a wonderful and generous send-off, with a pizza party and a Christmas basket to boot. And then the classes stopped.

The company didn’t start lessons again. Had I done the right thing or scared them off English? I wondered. Until about a year later.

The sound of learner autonomy

While browsing through the toasters in a big electronics megastore one Sunday morning I bumped into one of the women from that B2 course. We chatted about our holidays. And when I asked if she saw the others much her response made me grin from ear to ear.

Every week, she reported. They contacted each other to pick a listening activity from This Week I Learned, listen together, and discuss. What I’d dubbed their listening club was continuing as before, alone, without the aid of a teacher.

It’s the best feedback a teacher, or rather an educator, can get: the knowledge that their time with you actually made a difference in their educational development. Not in the sense of she can use the present perfect a little better, but as in she’s left the class better equipped to pursue her own education and development in English.

Because that, I thought, the grin still plastered to my face, sounds like learner autonomy.

The moral of the story

The moral, I think, is that if we want to encourage learner autonomy we have to

  • get our students to practice it by giving them space on the calendar/syllabus and opportunity through individual or group choice of texts, topics, etc.
  • find out what strategies they’re using and help those not using good strategies to do so (my “listening plan”, mentioned above, is one such attempt). If this information and encouragement comes from your students and not you, even better.

 

How do you encourage students to deal with authentic listening texts outside – or inside – class?

How to use the internet to improve your listening skills

Are your students struggling with authentic listening activities?

Below is a brief guide I wrote to help my EFL students overcome both confidence issues and poor strategic choices when doing independent listening at home (the full story of which can be found here).

In addition to coaching them on how to choose what to listen to, the point was to make the structure of standard-issue listening activities visible to them so that they could make it part of a self-guided listening routine.

For the record, this is not a replacement for doing regular listening work in the classroom, whether it’s activities you’ve created, canned coursebook texts or ad-hoc micro-dictations. But this guide gives students one more tool for developing independence and autonomy in their learning.

Since I first created it, I’ve used it with a number of groups from lower intermediate to advanced level. Sometimes I’ve read through it in class, point by point. Other times I’ve just handed it out and had the students read through it (and apply it) at home. But in any case I regularly have students bring in the results of their independent listening to share and guide discussion in class.

Feel free to use it or adapt it as you like for your classrooms!

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

How to use the internet to improve your listening skills

Do you get nervous at the thought of listening online? You shouldn’t! When you listen to anything online, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Be selective

First, be selective about what you listen to. You’re going to spend 10-20 minutes on this, so don’t just force yourself to listen to the first thing you find. Being selective means you should prioritize:

  • Brevity ― a 2-3 minute selection will probably be more doable than a 10 minute selection because you’ll be able to go back and re-listen to it.
  • Difficulty ― choose something that’s a good challenge, but not impossible.
  • Interest ― a topic you’re really interested in will usually motivate you to try to understand more. (Also, you might already know something about the topic, which will help.)

Don’t stress about catching every word

Next, don’t stress about not understanding every word. Remember, in real life, when you listen to the radio in the car or at home, you probably don’t pay attention to or hear every word. You hear some important points and then later reconstruct a memory of what you heard. Also, remember that a lot of things like pop music and talk radio can be difficult for even native speakers to understand, because it’s fast, the sound quality may not be good, people don’t always speak/sing clearly or the speaker’s accent might be unfamiliar.

Have a plan

Finally, have a plan for when you listen. It’s important to listen more than once and think about different things each time. My listening plan would look something like this:

 

Listening Plan

  1. Before you listen, look at the title and (possible) summary. Think about the following questions:
    • What do you know about the topic?
    • Have you heard anything about it in the news?
    • What do you think they’re going to talk about?
  1. Listen once:
    • Who? What? How? Where? When? Why?
    • Briefly summarize (out loud or in writing) what you heard/understood. Realizing what you understood/didn’t understand should help you focus on what to listen for next.
  1. Listen twice for more detail about the previous questions.
  2. Listen three times:

Write down some key vocabulary. I’d try to put key vocabulary in 2 categories:

  • Key topic-related vocabulary (if the topic is “Scientists discover water on Mars”, topic-related vocabulary like: spaceship, astronaut, space probe, atmosphere, etc.)
  • Other interesting/important/unknown words you hear. It can be words you know, or words you don’t know.

 

Mars/space vocabulary Other
spaceship

astronaut

space probe

atmosphere

find out

seek out

investigate

 

(If there’s a script, listen a fourth time with the script. Check your vocabulary list against the text and add to it.)

  1. After listening:

Say or write a brief summary of what you heard, using the key vocabulary you wrote down. Look up any unfamiliar words. Then, go and listen to something else on the same topic ― you might find a lot of similar vocabulary, and maybe even find you understand more!

Conclusion

At first, it may seem like a lot of steps, but the better and better you get, the fewer steps you’ll actually have to do. The goal in the end is to automatize the whole process so you listen consciously and effectively but without the stress. Follow these tips and you’ll be healthier, happier, more confident and have stronger listening skills.

The Flipped Language Classroom: a case study

I’ve been pretty busy with my MA over the last few months, but have taken a sneaky couple of hours off essay writing to share this. 

In the not-so-distant past I was DoS in a private language school. I was asked to write a new set of syllabi, and the management team decided that these should follow the principles of the flipped classroom.

The students and the course package

Our students were mainly adult working people who were attending lessons in the evening. Courses were comprised of three elements: a group lesson for two hours once a week (60 hours an academic year); unlimited access to free group conversation with a fluent English speaker; and an online platform provided with the coursebook used in class.

Why change your syllabus?

These were our reasons, some of them will sound familiar:

  1. Our students expected to complete a whole CEFR level during in the short academic year which ran from October to May, while only coming to class once a week.
  2. EAQUALS accreditation requires that syllabi are mapped to the CEFR, our old syllabus was not.
  3. We had no scheme of work. If students missed lessons, it was difficult for the admin team to tell them what they needed to catch up on, ditto for late starters.
  4. Our old syllabi were heavily grammar or function focused. Skills were largely absent.
  5. End of module tests often assessed students on discrete language points that hadn’t been taught (because there was no scheme of work).
  6. Often the teachers didn’t have time to get to the practice part of the (usually PPP) lesson in the course book, or to use the teacher’s book activities. Being (in my opinion) the most useful and fun part of the lesson, and the only part that the students couldn’t do on their own, it was a mistake for them to be neglected.
  7. Students had commented that the group conversation element was not relevant to what they studied in class.

 

How we did it: getting rid of the grammar

As we were already offering a blended course, we decided to ‘flip’ the online platform content i.e. learners would use this to study and practise grammar points before coming to class.

I designed a scheme of work detailing the content of each lesson for each level. Explicit grammar presentation was removed completely. We instructed the teachers to refer students to the grammar reference part of their books and study it at home.

The productive practice (speaking) exercises for language systems in the course book became the main focus of each lesson, thus our syllabus became predominantly skills based. Teachers were encouraged to have students repeat tasks, and were given training on how to personalise and extend activities in different ways.

Although a scheme of work may sound prescriptive, we allowed for some flexibility to avoid the dreaded ‘teaching from the book’ syndrome and adapt lessons to students’ interests. In each module there was a Dogme-style lesson, when learners brought in their own texts. Another was simply ‘a YouTube video’. Teachers were given freedom in terms of content, but support with lesson planning and staging.

The group conversation element of their package was integrated with the syllabus, and used as practice for specific skills or language points, using the teacher’s book materials. Extensive reading was also encouraged by asking learners to borrow graded readers and discussing their reactions to the text.

 

Resistance- Teachers’ comments:

“It’s a lot. I think they’ll feel overwhelmed. I don’t think all of them will do their homework.”

 

“It’s very different from the education system they’re used to.”

 

“They might get used to it by module.”

 

“It’ll be a bumpy beginning.”

 

We had a pretty good idea that the teachers wouldn’t be happy about the changes. The biggest adjustment for them would be giving up their trusty PPP framework.  The students, too, would no doubt feel that a complete absence of grammar from the programme was too radical and destabilising. To counter this, the scheme of work included a ‘Grammar SOS’ session every 5 weeks. This was a 20 minute slot of lesson time dedicated to extra practice or clarification of grammar points. Students were asked to prepare questions for the teacher in advance of the lesson.

Flipping the grammar input also meant that things got tricky for the teachers if the students hadn’t studied at home. We encouraged them to soldier on with their lesson in this case, thus forcing the students (we hoped) to become more independent learners.

Assessment

The fact that the syllabus was (in part) a-posteriori, and not structural, meant that we could assess our students purely through skills. Unfortunately, this made marking (of the productive skills) more time consuming, and also more subjective. We had to produce our own set of assessment criteria and carry out standardisation, since the teachers would eventually be marking their students’ work.  

Outcomes

Implementing a flipped syllabus meant that there was much more onus on the learners to study independently. Some protested about this of course, but as we explained to them, this was the only way they would get the results they wanted in the time they had available (i.e by attending school only once a week).

After the predicted bumpy beginning, when we asked for student feedback it was 90% positive. Most students said that they didn’t mind studying the grammar at home, and that they understood and appreciated the methodology we were trying to deliver.

What do you think?

How would your students react if they had a flipped syllabus thrust upon them like this?

How would you react if you were told not to teach grammar?

First lesson routines: get beyond getting to know you and start building class culture

What is your first class or first lesson for? Getting to know you? Or just getting through the first page of the coursebook? In Planning Lessons and Courses, Tessa Woodward says that first lessons are an opportunity for:

  • Name learning
  • Building a sense of community
  • Understanding student expectations
  • Assessing level

While I agree, I would add three things:

    1. Materials distribution: Decidedly unsexy, but if you’ve got admin duties like passing out coursebooks you’ve got to schedule time for it.
    2. Grammatical or lexical improvement: it might sound obvious, but I have previously been guilty of forgetting that students should both learn and practice new language on Day 1, of forgetting that when students think “What did I learn today?” they’ll be thinking in terms of discrete grammar items (and not in terms of community-building).
    3. Establishing class culture

Number 3, I think, might need some explaining. What is class culture? To paraphrase a great definition from a different context (by Jason Fried, founder of program management app Basecamp), [class] culture is the by-product of consistent behavior. In other words, from how you teach, to what you teach, to how you interact with students and expect them to interact with each other, your class culture will be the result of what you do everyday. Whether your classes are conversation-driven or lockstep by-the-(course)book, whether you’re up scribbling at the whiteboard or hovering over their busily working pairs, whether you’re assigning day one homework or giving them the night off, your first lesson routine should exemplify the principles you teach by. Day one is never a one-off.

And in order to be true to the kind of culture I want to help foster in the classroom, some years ago I decided the best way to start any class is engage with my students, with nothing more than a pen and paper.

My first day routine goes something like this:

PART 1

Take the focus off you with a mingle activity

I really don’t like the me-centric, time-killing forced conversations you go through when waiting for the class to arrive and settle in. So once the proverbial bell rings (or the real one, if you’ve got one), I switch the dynamic, no matter how many students are still missing.

Get up and find three things in common with each of the other people in the class. The following things do not count:

  • anything with the words Italy/Italian
  • evident physical similarities
  • where you live or went to school

Why? I teach mostly monolingual Italians, mostly who come from the provincial city in which I work (which means they mostly go to the same schools). And evident physical similarities ― we both wear glasses, we’re both wearing jeans ― are just too obvious. I want them to dig a little deeper.

“Find X things in common” is great because it forces them to ask questions, and lots of them. And any mingle activity is great because it gives you lots of opportunity to hear them talk, and note down good/improvable language. And as the late arrivals filter in, you can shove them into the mix.

Stop the activity at an appropriate time. While they’re still on their feet, tell them they’re going to have to tell the class what they have in common with other people. And they’re going to have to name names. So give them one last chance to double check names with the people they talked to. Have them sit down. You might want to give them some whole-class feedback about positive/problematic structure, lexis, etc., particularly if you think it will be important in sharing what they have in common. Or you might want to put it on the back burner until later.

Ask everyone to share what they have in common with one other person, introducing that person by name. And tell them to pay attention, because there’ll be a quiz. As the chain of contributions advances, you should repeat the names as much as possible, both for yourself and for the sake of the students.

Finally, quiz them: Who studies Engineering? Who also speaks German? Who went to France for holiday? etc.

PART 2

All about me: getting to know the teacher

Now I give them the chance to do what they’ve been dying to, which is find out something about me, the foreigner.

Now, it’s your turn. You can ask me anything you want. Personal, professional, whatever.

There’s usually a moment of silence as everyone (or at least the most courageous) starts mentally scrambling for what to ask. Then I add:

Ok, I’ll give you some help. You’ll have some time to think of the questions you want to ask, and write down the questions. And you can do it in groups.

Put the students into small groups. You’ll want to have at least two.

Write 5 (or 7, or 10 ― in inverse proportion to the number of groups) questions you want to ask me. But your group is your team. The goal is to ask me the original questions. You get a point for each original question you ask. If they other team thinks of the same question, you don’t get a point.

Why? Because, just like my list of too-obvious similarities, this point-per-original-question system eliminates the usual small-talk list of questions. It will give them some often juicier things to remember about you. And it may reveal a lot about their personalities and preoccupations (I’ve had students ask me things like “How many girlfriends have you had?”)

I will, however, give them another chance at the end to ask me anything that we didn’t talk about during the game (where I’m from, etc.).

When they’ve got their list of questions, I say:

You’re going to ask me your questions. But I’ll only answer “grammatically correct” questions (more on this admittedly problematic term in a future post). Double-check to make sure your questions are grammatically correct.

Give them a few minutes to check their questions again (without asking you for help). As they finish checking, ask each group for a team name. I usually suggest silly American-pro-sports-type names like the Jaguars or the Tigers, but they can choose whatever they want.

Let the teams take turns to ask questions, and after you answer them, award one point per original question. Tell groups to shout out if a group reads a question that they’ve also written (in which case no point is awarded).

Dealing with grammatical incorrectness

The best way to deal with a grammatically incorrect questions is simply don’t hear it: play deaf. What? Sorry? What? Students quickly realize they’ve got to reformulate. Give them a number of chances, then help nudge them in the right direction. Then, after you finally “hear” the question and answer it, ask them to repeat the original (as-written) question again and explain the problem.

Getting beyond accuracy

Some other things I “correct” for are appropriacy, register, intonation and idiomaticity. For example, I make it clear that questions like With whom did you go on holiday? are accurate, but sound strangely formal in spoken English. I also make a point about the inappropriacy of the age question (they always ask). Admittedly, if I’m encouraging students to ask me about my past girlfriends on a first meeting, they might as well as me how old I am, too. But does any adult, in any culture, really ask “How old are you?” ― or volunteer that information ― the first time they meet someone?

You can board the problems in shorthand (pres. perf vs. past simple, preposition position in questions, final -s, etc.). When someone makes a similar mistake, help nudge them toward a better question by referring back to the original group who made and explained the mistake ― and let them re-explain it ― or point to the board to show them the problem.

And by boarding such a list, you’re taking the first steps toward creating the kind of grammatical syllabus that addresses their specific needs, not those simply generalized in a course book list.

Follow up

Once you’ve tallied up the points and declared a winner (even though the focus is clearly on the process, and not winning points, it’s still important to keep up the pretense of the game all the way to the end) the first thing I like to do is see what they remember. I say:

Now, with your partners, quickly write down everything you remember about me.

I like including a step like this in any teacher-class or student-class interaction (like presentations) because it allows them to communicatively and communally (re)construct what they’ve learned. And gives those who may not have been paying attention a chance back in.

You can quickly check a few facts, based on their questions (What did I say my most embarrassing moment was?) or let them quiz the other groups.

Turning on each other

Now tell them they’re going to ask each other the questions they’d written for you. Give them a minute to edit their question list ― if any deal with you explicitly as a foreigner, or based on some specific knowledge ― and rewrite those that would inappropriate for their classmates. You can model and then elicit some changed questions.

Monitor and get whole-class feedback, asking each student to share the two or three most interesting things they learned about their partner.

PART 3

Writing: my personal profile

The next step is to get students to write a personal profile. I’ve written my own example as a model. Below is the B2 edition, at Cambridge-First-appropriate 140-190 words. I’ve also got other exam-appropriate editions for other levels. Before giving it to them, I ask:

When would you write a personal profile? (e.g. specific social media contexts)

What info would you include in a personal profile to share with your classmates? (e.g. name, date of birth, reason for taking the class etc.) Board their answers.

Then I hand out my profile:

personal-profile-text-image

I tell students to quickly scan for the information thought they might find. What was included? What wasn’t? Then I ask them to check if I’d answered any of the questions from the getting to know me game.

Writing the student profile

The next step is for students to write their own profiles ― whether in class or at home. To get them prepared for the activity, make sure to highlight:

  • Organization ― paragraphs, headings, title
  • Content ― I want background and course goals, but the specifics are up to them
  • Word count, if relevant

Next steps

What do they do with the profile? I text like this is meant to be read by others, so the worst option for you would be to collect them and comment on them in private. Instead, I’d recommend:

  • Live carrousel: Students tape their completed texts to the wall. The class circulates and reads. I like to have students comment on other texts in some way to generate more discussion. You can have students put their initials next to things they have in common with the writer, or put their initials + a question mark about something they want to ask. When all the texts have been read, the writer takes down his or her profile and then finds the people who’ve written their initials to discuss commonalities or answer questions. As the teacher, you can underline examples of good and problematic language (you didn’t pick up while monitoring the writing phase) to be discussed in group feedback. But don’t forget to put your initials to commonalities first (sometimes it’s easy to forget that the profile was written for a real purpose ― to introduce the writer to you as a reader ― and that you’re more than just a red pen!)
  • Virtual carrousel: Increasingly, I use Google Docs to share class work, and any similar cloud-based document sharing app will do. Essentially, the idea is to have students post their profiles on a shared document, and to leave comments as above. Profile writers can respond in the comments.

Conclusion

As of this writing, that’s my day one routine. Like all great routines, it focuses on the big blocks and leaves lots of room for improvisation where it counts, like getting feedback and working with emergent language (but make sure you plan for the worst, as well). And it, along with my day one reading homework, serves to set expectations for the kind of contributions I expect from the students, and what they can expect from me. And crucially, it’s not a one-off or something to get out of the way, but the foundation for the consistent class culture I hope to establish.

Now, over to you: what’s your day one routine?

 

References:

Woodward, Terssa. Planning Lessons and Courses. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Thoughts from Greece 2. Why do we need grammar?

It’s all Greek to me!

dsc_0150

I’m sitting in a bar on a remote island. There are very few English-speaking people around (just what I was looking for) and I’m trying to ‘acquire’ more Greek. But it’s not really working. I decide to whip out my iPad and amuse everyone by reading out loud the bizarre selection of words that my app has sent me:
‘textile’
‘tzaziki’
‘elastic band’
‘button’
‘coal’
‘Yiannis Parios’ (He’s a Greek singer, my waiter tells me- old people like him)

Apart from the questionable utility of the vocabulary, I find that I’m puzzled by the change of form of some of the words in the sample sentences. The verb for ‘see’ is βλέπο or ‘vlepo’ so why doesn’t the sample sentence (‘she can’t see without her glasses’) contain any word that remotely resembles ‘vlepo’?? And if ‘nostimo’ means ‘delicious’, then why does ‘itano stimotato’ mean ‘that was delicious’?? Which bit means ‘that’? Why does the adjective change? Do adjectives have a past form in Greek? Although the guys in the bar are very friendly,  I think these questions may be a tad annoying. So I don’t ask. 

The Lexical Approach

I find that I want and need someone to give me the ‘rules’. This a surprise for me, because I’m a great advocate of Lewis’s Lexical Approach to teaching grammar. He suggests that grammatical ‘rules’ should emerge from samples of authentic written or spoken language, rather than be taught. I have to say that it’s not working for me in Greek. I guess this is probably because:

  • There aren’t enough contextualised samples of the same lexeme/chunk/verb.
  • There’s no teacher to direct my attention to the samples and encourage “noticing”.
  • There’s no teacher to ask leading focus questions to help me work out the patterns, such as ‘Is it singular or plural’, ‘Are we talking about the present or the past?’.
  • Greek’s bloody difficult- many of the Greeks I’ve met have told me I should give up!

Conclusions

We still need grammar! It seems to make the whole language learning process a lot faster, especially in the beginning, so not using it would be pretty silly. As a beginner you are impatient to make sense of the new language and join its parts together. I see grammar as a network that connects the pieces of what would otherwise be a confusing maelstrom of lexemes. Perhaps grammar teaching should/could be seen as a ‘stabiliser’ that can slowly be removed as a learner progresses?

We still need teachers! 🙂 Over time…eventually…I’d probably acquire Greek, but a teacher can direct my attention towards the useful stuff, like how to conjugate the verb ‘see’, and away from the useless stuff, like Yiannis Parios!

 

Learning or acquiring? More thoughts from Greece.

image

In my valiant attempts to learn Greek, I’ve been reflecting on the role active study and technology can play in language learning.

My memorised sentence

I have an app…it sends me a Greek word every day with sample sentences and translations.  It’s the free version, so it’s pretty limited. I’ve been flicking through these words for a couple of years now, basically since my last Greek holiday, but have only managed to remember a single sentence, translated by the app as: 

‘The station is far from here.’

(Actually we would probably say ‘a long way’,  but that’s another article 🙂 )

In Greek: 

‘Ο σταθμός είναι μακριά από εδο’ (I think!)

Or with our alphabet:

‘O stathmos ine makria apo etho’

Apart from that, all the Greek I could remember was chunks of language that I’d actually used with real people on my first holiday here like: ‘Where’s the toilet?’, ‘How much it it?’, ‘A glass of white wine please’. This would seem to confirm Vygotsky’s theory that we learn socially, through connecting with other people. So if that’s the case, then is there any point in studying grammar rules and memorizing lists of vocabulary? Was Krashen’s acquisition theory on the nail?

Going back to my Greek sentence, what I’ve noticed is that it did give me a few tools to decipher more langugage. I guessed that:

  1. ‘O’ is a definite article (the), but probably this changes according to the gender of the noun, as in many languages?
  2. stathmos = station
  3. ine = verb ‘be’ – ‘it is’
  4. makria = far (the key word and translation of ‘far’ was ‘makrinos’ so maybe it changes according to some other factor?)
  5. apo = from?
  6. etho = here?

A quick check in the dictionary confirmed my translations. The sentence gave the language a context and (I guess) made it easier to remember.  So when I got off the plane and spoke to my first real Greek person (a taxi driver), and I told him where I wanted to go and I heard ‘ine makria’, I was pretty chuffed with myself that I knew what it meant, and of course knowing how to say ‘it is’ in any language is enormously useful. That said, it has to be taken into consideration that I’m a language teacher and deciphering and analysing language is what I do. Nevertheless, my experience would seem to suggest that theoretical linguistic knowledge and awareness can help our learners. 

Individual words

Listening to the bus drivers’ chat during my journey yesterday, I noticed that I could recognise some of the words from the app in their fluent speech.  I couldn’t necessarily translate them immediately though: ‘imerologio’ I knew was something to do with time- year? clock? (It was ‘calendar’). And when on the next bus the driver put a football match on the radio, helped by the context I heard the words for ‘head’ and ‘zero’, among others.  After that happened, as with the taxi driver, I felt that I would  be confident enough to use the language in conversation. It was as if it ‘clicked’ into place in my head. You could say that theoretical study of language is useful for receptive awareness, but this knowledge is transferred to the long term memory/speech (?) part of the brain only once you’ve had the language ‘confirmed in real life’ by a fluent speaker??

Another point of interest is how at this stage I am relying very heavily on translation, a fact which makes me feel rather shamefaced about how often I’ve said ‘Don‘t translate!’ to my poor students!

Authentic questions

 

I’m on my jollies in Greece at the moment, but keep thinking back to my lovely summer stint at Stafford House and these guys…

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One lesson, they became curious about my family, specifically my brother. Non grammatical questions came tumbling out like:
‘Where live your brother?’
‘He have wife?’
‘What he job?’

My reply was ‘OK guys, I’ll tell you, but first you make correct questions’. In pairs I got them to write them out, reminding them of the QASI syntax rule for present simple and inversion of subject and ‘has’ for ‘has got’, which we’d just studied.

After a while, we had a list of things to ask my unsuspecting brother, because now came the surprise. I got out my phone and recorded this message to my bro on WhatsApp: ‘Hi Ryan. My students want to ask you a few things.’

I had a few looks of shock at this point, so I reassured them they’d only ask one or two questions each and they’d have time to rehearse them first. I reminded them they’d be transforming them into the second person ‘you’, since they’d be talking to him directly.

The result was intense concentration on getting the pronunciation and form right. It was also a way to deal with their not-so-sneaky Whatsapp use during lessons. If you can’t beat them join them!

Unfortunately poor Ryan was at work and didn’t have time to even listen to the 20 odd voice messages we sent him, nevermind actually answer them! So in the end I did it on his behalf.

Shame… because I was curious to hear his answer to this one: “Is your sister a little bit crazy??”