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:
Organization. I’m not naturally very organized. And lessons ― when you’re producing one after another yourself ― can tend to vanish into nowhere.
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.
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).
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:
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.
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:
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
And sometimes just as crazy-man-with-a-highlighter lists.
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.
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
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.
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.
Lastly, as Paul Walsh pointed out re my last post, in-company classes put up all sorts of barriers to using tech.
When teaching Business English & ESP a platform is impractical. Too many problems w/ wi-fi, connections, devices. Often a dumping ground for Pdfs & content only.
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.
I teach, and have always taught, mostly adult-student-customers in private language schools. If you’re like me, you teach grammar and lexis, help students developing writing and listening skills, and focus on communication of meaning. Meaning, but not content. Not ideas. Or beliefs. Or values. Or knowledge or ignorance. Because, like me, you’re just an English teacher.
But my wise Delta tutor once made a useful distinction being just a teacher and being an educator, reminding us that we shouldn’t forget about being the latter. What she meant, I think, is obvious to anyone who sticks their head out of ELT for a moment, and pushes aside, if just for a moment, all the talk about exam performance and teacher accountability, and thinks back to the idea of a school teacher that predated our corporate model of an efficient, corporate school measuring its success in spreadsheet-ready KPIs.
Educators are more than just teachers. They’re part of a community, and perform a public service, helping their students think about and grow in ethical, moral and intellectual dimensions.
It’s the sort of description that normally makes me blush, because it feels so embarassingly far from any conception I’ve ever had of myself as a teacher. But last week, with those same adult-student-customers I’ve always taught, I got a glimpse of what it’s like to be both a teacher and an educator, helping facilitate a real eduucational experience and a community service.
Because we spent two class periods investigating and discussing the Refugee crisis here in Italy.
But just to be clear, I’m not the hero of this story. Her name’s Valentina. My only claim is that I got up the courage to do something that seemed daunting to me at first and went beyond my remit as “just a language teacher”.
First I’ll outline what we did over the two, 2-hour sessions, then I’ll relate some of the feedback I got from the students (which, frankly, got me choked up and was the inspiration for the whole preamble above).
Any given Tuesday
Throughout this year my classes have usually taken one of two patterns:
At-home narrow reading + viewing/listing (i.e. a number of articles on the same topic)
In-class pair/small group + T-guided discussion
At-home intensive reading using Reading Circles roles
In-class student-led small group discussion
Usually the second pattern followed the first, with a Reading Circles text based in some way relevant to the narrow reading that preceded it.
In other words, students come to class with at least of minimum of familiarity with and language relevant to the discussion (see my lesson on the French elections for another example).
This time, as in the French elections topic, I gave them more guidance than usual by providing them with a list of questions to consider. I also tried to vary the offered readings a bit more as I received one (valid I think) criticism that the Guardian articles I recommended were so obviously pro-Macron.
I’ve included the pre-reading selection as well as the questions I gave them as a PDF here: Refugee crisis articles
In class, before discussion, we spent the first hour examining a Cambridge Exam-style REPORT writing task (using the sample texts on the pp. 25 & 35 of the Cambridge Proficiency Handbook for Teachers and pp. 33 & 49 of the Cambridge Advanced Handbook for Teachers. We hadn’t done one yet, and I thought it would be a good opportunity since, unlike with other topics, a number of the readings were so obviously reports.
After that, we had small group discussion, where students shared what they read and their opinions about it. The groups were slightly larger this time, with 5 people each, and I realized at once why I never do that.
There were too many silences, or too few people participating in the discussion. I’ve found that large groups need a lot more structure to work well, which is why I love the highly structured Reading Circles. If you’re not doing that, you need to nominate roles ― leader, note-taker, etc. So the discussion ended up a bit less energetic and engaged than I was hoping for.
The homework task was to both more reading and listening and write a report. I asked students to:
Write a report on facilities for asylum seekers/refugees in the area (the Province of Varese, if not Varese itself). You’ll have to do a bit of research. If you know of any informative articles/reports that explain the facts (in Italian, most likely) please share with me.
I encouraged students to read the local papers, and a number of students posted links to relevant articles (that in many ways revealed their feelings about it). I have both aspiring C1 and C2 students in my group, and so I gave them each a slightly differentiated task:
You have been asked by a visiting commission from the European Union to write a report about facilities and accommodations for refugees in the local area.
Your report should explain what facilities and accommodations exist, describe any problems with the structures/situations, and suggest any improvements that should be made.
Same as above, but: Your report should explain what facilities and accommodations exist, describe any problems with the structures/situations, and evaluate whether this system is adequate to dealing with the influx of asylum seekers as a whole.
Just to demonstrate it is possible to produce high quality Cambridge-exam-style writing with a very non-Cambridge style topic (which demanded some research, as well), I’ll share two very good examples (without my comments), one of each.
In a fit of Victorian coyness I’ve removed the names of the cities because in fact I didn’t verify if the numbers are exact (though perhaps, considering the point of this was to get to the facts, I really should have!)
Report about facilities and accommodations for refugees in the local area
Introduction This report aims to provide an overview of the current situation in hosting refugees in the province of V. It is based on the information published online by local press and institutions.
General findings The Prefettura, which depends on the “Ministero dell’Interno”, is in charge of the reception of refugees on the territory and has the power to sign agreements with local operators that provide facilities and housing. At the moment it seems that approximately 1500 people are accommodated in this way. Additional accommodations are provided directly by the “Ministero dell’Interno”: 25 in V., 26 in M. and 35 in C.
Issues The number of places available in these facilities is not enough with respect to the increase of refugees in Italy. Furthermore it is worth considering that people accommodated in these structures are those who have requested asylum, which are a small part of the refugees coming to Italy, and not all of them will get it. People who do not get the status of political refugee join the economic migrants that are not entitled to receive help from the institutions and are assisted by charitable organizations. I wasn’t able to find any news about the number of economic migrants in the V. province and where and how they are assisted.
Conclusions Firstly institutions should plan in advance how to increase facilities to host the refugees even if it is difficult to forecast the needs. An increase for the next three years at least should be considered, because it appears unlikely that the immigration trend might change. Then it is recommended an improvement in the way of managing economic migrants with the aim of improving security and control of the territory.
Facilities and accommodations for refugees
A growing number of refugees: Italian facilities in the spotlight In the last five years the growing influx of refugees and asylum seekers landing mainly in the Southern coasts of Italy has put a strain on the whole nation.
The Italian government, already weakened from the political and economical uncertainties, is trying to come up with a solution to the big issue of finding an accommodation to the asylum seekers that have landed in Italy.
The problem is due to the large number of immigrants reaching the Country and the consequent need to find decent facilities to host them with dignity.
Case study: V. and its province To illustrate how the problem has involved towns and villages all over the Nation from North to South, our team has monitored the reception of immigrants in this city and in its surroundings. For example in the town itself one of the biggest facilities is an old hotel which hosts 80 migrants and that it is managed by a local charity foundation, while in the province of V. the reception centre located in B. hosts about 180 people and it is headed by a private cooperative. Almost all the accommodations inspected resulted in old derelict buildings that previously were used as hotels. During the inspections refugees complained of being forced to live in rooms for 6-7 persons each and to have only one bathroom every 25-30 people. The quantity of food provided was also questioned, together with the lack of activities to keep them busy during the day.
Unfortunately this is only the tip of the iceberg because the real problem is that these facilities should be a short-term solution but the red tape and the bureaucracy make refugees’ stay longer and harder.
It is clear the complexity of the situation and that the influx of migrants is not going to slow down in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, this problem has to be faced as soon as possible to give refugees a ready answer to their needs while respecting their dignity. This answer should come from the EU which should provide faster procedures for the initial screening and referral of the migrants as well as the allocation of specific funds.
Day 1 conclusions:
Everyone seemed to agree that this was a big, nay, overwhelming topic. And it was difficult to get to the actual facts about the local situation, let alone the national situation. The local press is full of very opinionated reports and attention-grabbing headlines, which often didn’t make it easier to follow the story.
However, a number of students were able to produce excellent reports. In the future I’d like to actually spend more time fact checking, or at least checking sources. I don’t teach EAP; I teach CAE, and everybody knows that on Cambridge Exams there is no obligation to the truth. What matters is your ability to argue. It wouldn’t be such a step for me, in this case, to simply ask that students provide a list of references and insist that they be as accurate as possible (even when inventing an inspection-report style as in the second writing sample provided above).
In addition to the articles from the local papers (in preparation for writing the report), I had students do a guided listening on The Palace of Shame from BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent . (If you want to have a listen, the report is from 1’30” to 7’20” in the recording. Here’s my activity as PDF with my own transcript 90PalaceofShame)
It’s a report from 2012 that I’d only used once before (more on that below), on the plight of asylum seekers coming to Italy, many of whom, once they got refugee status, had little choice other than to find lodging (illegally) in a massive squat in Rome. I asked students to consider what had changed, and what hadn’t, in the intervening years (based on their reading of EU/Italian policy, institutions and accommodations, laws, etc.)
In class I planned to discuss the listening, but most of the class would be devoted to interviewing our special guest.
I was extremely lucky to be able to call on the help of a friend (and former student) named Valentina who has a master’s in immigrant and refugee law and currently works in a local reception center.
An aside: on special guests
Scott Thornbury had mentioned it in various Dogme-style contexts, but having a “special guest”, an authority on some topic, always struck me as something you did for elementary schools, or if you lived in an L1-English country (where special guests are a dime a dozen). But two things changed my mind:
IATEFL 2017 scholarship winner Katy Muench mentioning it again in her IATELF presentation on challenging stereotypes in Turkey. You don’t have to lecture to your students, she was saying ― just bring someone else in to do it ― or to testify to the reality your students barely know. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard it, but it suddenly seemed like something I just had to do.
Look carefully at my self-justification above (...if you lived in an L1-English country where special guests are a dime a dozen) and you’ll see reason number 2 quite clearly: I thought a special guest had to be a native speaker of English. But thanks to this year’s pushback against native-speaker hegemony (by Marek Kiczkowiak, TEFL Equity Advocates, and the many, many people on Twitter who sympathise with and advocate for the cause) I finally woke up to the fact that so-called “native-like proficiency” didn’t have to be a prerequisite for a special guest with authority and topic knowledge.
I’ve known Valentina for five years (and she’s been personally and professionally passionate about refugee issues for all that time). And I’ve been wanting to really dig deep into this topic with my students for the last two years. But until IATEFL 2017 I’d never put the two together.
Finally, with the scales fallen from my eyes, I asked Valentina (who, in her defense, is a highly proficient speaker of English and, what’s more important, clearly an authority on this topic) to come and speak to the class.
CASses, SPRARs, and other official acronyms
After some preliminary discussion of the Palace of Shame listening (in which Valentina joined one of the groups), Valentina stood up to introduce herself and answer questions about the situation for refugees and migrants in Italy.
Throughout the discussion, I functioned as a kind of secretary boarded the points from her explanations.
Students had questions answered about different legal statuses and treaties that migrants could be granted, the various types of structures refugees are housed in, the regulations that established them, why some towns have some and others do not, the process (or lack of one) guiding integration, and much, much more.
What amazed me was how little many of them actually knew about the local reality behind the screaming headlines (and where I live and teach, there are a lot of screaming headlines ― we’re sort of the spiritual homeland for the anti-refugee, anti-open borders movement). It’s not that all ― or even most ― of the students had negative feelings about immigration, it’s just that they had so little definite information about it which with to try and form an informed opinion.
With ten minutes to go before the end of class I asked them to write down their answers to the following questions:
What did you learn?
How will this help you?
How useful is it to talk about “serious topics” like this in class.
There were 10 students in class ranging from upper high school aged (18/19) to about 50, with each decade in between well-represented. I’m going to quote them at length because I found so many of the answers thoughtful, eloquent and moving. My conclusions follow.
What did you learn?
Many of the information provided in the classes were completely unknown to me. I have learned what journalists mean when they say that Italian bureaucracy is not helping to solve the immigrant issue.
This topic helped me to become more informed about a problem that our society is facing. I listened to views but I didn’t know very much about immigration. I’ve learned much more about the difficulties to cope with the situation and I am more of aware of what has been done and what hasn’t.
Today I’ve learned that in this world there are many people struggling for the rights and the facilities I’ve always had. Here, in Europe, we are very lucky, but sometimes we forget how lucky we are!
I did not learn new things, but surely I have a deeper vision of them. That will help me because it is very important to think and behave considering the opinions of the people you get in touch with. (NB: In this student’s defense, they were rated as “already extremely informed” about the facts of the situation by other students; I interpret “did not learn new things” as I was already very informed about this issue.)
This lesson I learned a bit more about the law process of the asylum seekers and I understood how it is difficult to explain it to people who aren’t dealing with it in everyday life.
How will this help you?
Based on the information I have acquired, I will definitely read or watch the news with more awareness about the issue, even though we only scraped the surface of this topic.
I often read articles about this kind of topics but it’s easy to look for news which supports your own opinion. Talking with different people lets you see the problems from different points of views which is very useful, both for discovering new aspects and for finding good arguments to support your opinion.
This lesson helped me to organize better my idea about the issue and has been very useful to learn the specific language.
This issue will help me in order to approach this people in a different way. It will help me to clarify my opinion about immigrants and refugees. To talk and discuss this topic in this way helps me also in not having common ideas of mistrust and distrust.
This experience has been very useful for me because my knowledge of this topic was very bad, especially about technical aspects of reception centers, process related to asylum, timetable and people status. I’ve never gone in depth of this problem maybe because the news explains always the problems and I wasn’t interested to understand the topic, but the testimony of a person who works everyday in contact with this situation has given me good input to analyse the problem.
What I’ve read about immigrants and refugees, what I’ve heard this evening from Valentina… will surely help me in the future to appreciate the social welfare I can enjoy here in Italy. It will also help me recognizing the need of the others, wherever they come from.
How useful is it to talk about “serious topics” like this in class?
It’s difficult to talk about serious topics in a foreign language because you don’t know the vocabulary and you do not feel at ease to express your opinion in a polite way.
In my opinion it is very useful to talk about serious issues like this also during a language lesson because it can help you understanding…
For me it is absolutely necessary to talk about real issues in order to learn English because only if I’m involved and determined to know or to express my opinion, I’ll be able to improve the language. That has always been my experience.
I think talking about “serious issues” like immigration is fundamental to create an elaborate and not ignorant opinion, especially because these topics happen to be controversial and therefore a great source for debates to spread new ideas and improve or develop the ones we already have.
Talking about serious issues like immigration, politics, etc. it is really important in my opinion firstly because it is necessary to be aware of “what’s going on” in the world and secondly because opinion exchange helps with opening our minds and learning new things. For example, thanks to Valentina, this evening I’ve learnt and thought about issues that I barely knew before…. It was all relevant information that as a citizen I should have known before.
Discussing serious issues is better than discussing lighter topics because you are forced to express your opinion and it is more likely to find someone who disagrees with you.
Before this class, I thought that this issue would have been too difficult for me, because it’s really complicated and hard, but now I can say that I really learned something thanks to my classmates and our special guest.
I think that it is useful talk about real problems during class, especially as I’m not a good reader. This is a way to forme me to inform and even if it takes energy it’s interesting. This is useful and I like this way to learn new vocabulary and expressions.
Sometimes in English teaching it’s easy to forget that education is anything more than teaching grammar and vocabulary. But consider a comment like this, from above:
…thanks to Valentina, this evening I’ve learnt and thought about issues that I barely knew before…. It was all relevant information that as a citizen I should have known before.
Reading this after class, and re-reading this again as I write, I get a lump in my throat . That’s English class the student is talking about.
And for me it’s the difference between “just teaching English” and playing a small but real part in a person’s education.
Because education is about more than verb tense. It’s about more than phrasal verbs. It’s about what all those students said, and did. About investigating. About inquiring. About learning new modes of expression and new ways of seeing. About acquiring the ability to assess and interpret new information and opinions. About opening your mind to new possibilities and new realms of knowledge. And about being able to use all these things in your confrontation and collaboration with other people and the society around you.
And the students in my class did all that while learning and practicing new vocabulary and Cambridge ESOL-approved written discourse (see those reports for examples of both).
Like I said, I’m not a hero. But to me, Valentina is. And my students are. As are all those educators like Katy Muench and Steve Brown and Linda Ruas and Judy Boyle who insprired me at IATELF to get off my ass and try to make it happen.
Did these two sessions change anybody’s world? I don’t know for sure. But the student feedback is eloquent testimony to how the same-old English class may be the perfect vehicle for just that.
I’d definitely like to work on improving some of this for next year (call me crazy but I don’t think this refugee crisis is going away any time soon). Of course, what made this so magical was Valentina’s participation ― and I don’t know that I can guarantee that for the future. What else can I do?
It would be interesting to actually begin the unit with a survey of beliefs and understanding about the topic in order to see to what extent these things change. Clearly, the feedback was all positive in this regard, but it would have been interesting to get a statement from the beginning.
Or, perhaps, better: rather than providing students with a list of questions I’d like to have the students create their own list before we started. We’ve done that with other topics: we spend 20 minutes at the end of class generating questions to guide their research on a topic. (It also helps me select pre-class reading texts). By starting with questions rather than opinions (as in the proposed survey) students aren’t forced/encouraged to take a position. Of course, it takes some knowledge to ask good questions, but it’s still a start.
Find/refine the source list. Especially lighten the load a bit. It would also be interesting to compare and examine claims in competing articles. That was surely a byproduct of the day 1 discussion, but I’d like to critically examine some of the claims as a class. (Although I definitely avoided populist dailies or alt-right news sources, which obviously would have created a different dynamic in terms of critical reading).
Modify the report task in a more EAP direction to get students to cite sources and compare them (even using Italian-original sources).
Provide new opportunities for writing and feedback. Only half the class actually did the report task; I’d like to include other non-exam style options for the others.
Roleplay: I’ve had this idea for some time of a role play based on the very real issue of settling refugees in the local community (a mayor of a nearby town was just in the papers saying he would refuse refugees by “chaining himself to the gates” of the disused school that was intended to house them). A recent blog post by Anthony Teacher got me thinking about preferring that to a debate-style task for actually helping the students examine different sides of the issue. I jettisoned an early idea when Valentina made me realize how little I understood of the situation. I hope to develop it ― with her help ― into something both realistic and useful.
And that’s it! Well, almost…
P.S. When I was looking for an authentic listening task for the students I remembered I had done something with the Palace of Shame text from the BBC ― when it was first broadcast a few years back ― but I didn’t remember I’d actually used it with a class. In fact, I had, with a group of post FCE high school students.
I found their post-listening writing. The task was simply to write a letter to the BBC expressing their opinion about the broadcast. Here’s one particularly eloquent final draft:
To the attention of the BBC reporter Alan Johnston,
Recently I listened to your report about migration across the Mediterranean Sea, entitled “Palace of Shame”, and I would like to express my appreciation of its humanity and of its timeliness.
As an Italian resident, I hear news about boats sinking, countless arrivals and the growth of illegal immigration in Italy almost every day and I think that telling and informing people about the existence of this reality is of great importance if we hope to improve the situation. In fact, this is not only an Italian problem; all people able to do so should contribute in order to solve this situation in a way that is favourable for everyone.
In recent years, more social, political and religious problems led to the outbreak of wars in many of North African countries and, as a consequence, to the increase of migration of people that hope to find peace outside their country. In addition, on account of the disproportionate distribution of food and prosperity, Africans are the most inclined to leave their continent for better prospects.
Your article, denouncing the difficult situation of these people, also through personal experiences, induces us to reflect on its gravity and to ask ourselves what is our contribution to its solution( if one does exist) and if it is fair to mention the word ‘equality’ nowadays.
Kind regards, Beatrice
Which goes to show what Judy Boyle, with her NO Project, and many others (except, perhaps, coursebook publishers) already know: that high school kids may be sufficiently capable, mature and ready to thoughtfully deal with “serious issues” like this too.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As I explained in Part Minus One the first day of an exam prep class can be the stuff of TEFL nightmares. So here’s a suggestion for how to avoid unnecessary stress.
Before the lesson
Get there early. Move the furniture around. Groups of 3/4 desks together is usually best. Stick a post-it note on each desk with a marker pen for them to write their first name when they come in. Write your first name on the board (if appropriate- I know in some countries it wouldn’t be), and ‘Please try to speak in English’.
Starting the lesson
Introduce yourself (just your name) and ask the students in their groups to guess where you’re from, what you do in your free time, if you’re married/have children/have brothers and sisters, what languages you speak, etc etc. You then elicit their ideas and write them up on the board. This is what my FCE students came up with the other day (my IWB wasn’t working!).
I have to say that the life they invented for me was much more interesting than my real life! And they made me 5 years younger 🙂
You then tell them how many things they got right, but not which ones. In this case there were only three. Ask them to decide in pairs which ones they think are right and highlight these (I outlined them in blue in the picture). Then tell them how many they got right (green in the picture).
Now they write some questions to ask you to find out more information, but give them some restrictions in terms of grammatical forms so as to push them a bit. My students were B2, so I asked them to use:
a future form
They came up with:
Why have you chosen to teach at this school?
If you could live in any country in the world, where would you go?
What will you be doing in 5 years time?
When you’re eliciting the questions you can work on the pronunciation of connected speech and weak forms.
They then ask you the questions and you give your answers. After that, a B1 class would benefit from a spoken recap in pairs. That way you can check they’re following you and give them a little more practice.
Now it’s their turn to ask each other the questions, but they may need to change couple of things (like ‘teach’ in question 1). Give them time to do this, then get them up on their feet mingling and talking.
Use this as a diagnostic activity to see what they’re capable of. Monitor and collect examples of good and inaccurate language. Give some feedback and work on corrections.
After all that ask them: ‘So what does all this have to do with your exam?’
The answer is that they’ve just practised Speaking Part 1 without knowing it. They’ve also got to know their classmates, they’ve got to know you, and you’ve got a better idea of their ability.
In Part Minus Two B I’ll outline a similar idea to Kyle’s carousel to provide learner-centred instruction from day one.
In part one I outlined some of the problems students and teachers alike have with EFL exam preparation. As promised, here are some speaking activities that aim to help build and develop the sub-skills needed for the Cambridge English: First (FCE) speaking part 3 collaborative task.
Activity A- agreeing and disagreeing
Ask your students what they want to talk about, tell them they can choose any topic they like, and board the topics they suggest. You’ll probably end up with something like this:
music, food, films, sport, fashion, travel
Ask students in pairs to quickly give each other an opinion on each of the topics, saying for example who their favourite actor/football team/singer is and why. This gets them thinking about the topics and ‘scaffolds’ the main activity. As they’re talking, monitor and give support.
Cut up and distribute the following expressions so that they have one each. You can add your own to this collection as you think of them.
You’ve got a point.
I’m not so sure
I’m with you there.
I see where you’re coming from.
I can’t agree, I’m afraid.
You might be right there
Actually, I’m not convinced.
Ask students when these expressions would be used (to agree and disagree). Elicit which ones are which and help anyone who isn’t sure. If you make multiple sets, you could have them sort the expressions into two categories. Drill them as necessary for intonation and word stress. I use finger clicking to highlight the stress patterns.
Now they stand up, mingle and find a partner. You shout out one of the topics. They give their opinion on the topic in pairs, agreeing or disagreeing with one another regardless of their real opinion, using the expression on the card. Monitor and collect examples of accurate and inaccurate learner language, but don’t interrupt the activity.
After a few minutes, stop the discussion and ask them to exchange cards so they have a different expression. Then tell them to find a new partner. Call out a different topic and repeat. Keep going until they start to lose momentum.
Deal with any language issues that came up and give some positive feedback too.
Activity B- contrasting (to be used after activity A)
Repeat the above activity, only this time student B has to add another contrasting piece of information after the agree/disagree phrase using ‘Having said that.…’ . For example:
Student A- I’d say that fashion is a waste of time.
Student B- You’ve got a point. Having said that, I do appreciate good quality.
Remember to drill the stress: ‘Having SAID that…’.
Why (I think!) it works
Meeting the Exam Criteria
To achieve B2 in this marking category a speaker must be able to use ‘a range of cohesive devices’ (multiple authors, 82:2015). Using the contrasting expression ‘Having said that…’ helps achieve this. It also gives them a useful tool to weigh different arguments and produce long developed answers.
Being able to agree and disagree in a variety of ways would come under ‘initiates and responds appropriately’ (ibid.). While activity B helps them to ‘maintain and develop the interaction and negotiate towards an outcome’ (ibid.).
Repetition without being boring
Students get to talk about different topics and use different expressions, but are learning/developing/practising the same skill(s). The repeated use of only one linking expression means that it is more likely to be remembered. How many times have we expected our students to memorise endless lists of linkers? Very rarely are they able to reproduce this vocabulary in spontaneous speech.
Personalisation and focus on the learner
Learners get to choose the subjects that they’re interested in instead of being forced into an unnatural discussion about an imposed topic. Using a mingle activity means this discussion takes on the characteristics of an informal chat with one of their peers, rather than formally practising (yawn!) for an exam.
Focused on specific skills
The performance load is limited and therefore more realistic, giving the students a higher chance of success, resulting in (we hope) a higher level of motivation.
Similarity to L1
I chose having said that because my students were all Italian and their language has a similar parallel equivalent (detto questo- literally said this). As a result, I found that after this short activity the students were immediately (yes, immediately!) able to use the expression spontaneously in both written and spoken production. Success! It certainly seems like a monolingual group benefits if you adapt the target language as necessary.
Would this approach work with your students?
How could you adapt it for your teaching situation?
In part three I’ll suggest some writing activities for Cambridge English:First (FCE) and Preliminary (PET).
Multiple authors (2015). Cambridge English First:Handbook for Teachers. Cambridge:UCLES
I’ve been preparing students for EFL exams for 10 years now, and sadly there is still the perception that exam prep should consist of (frankly) mind-numbing ‘fill the gap’ or ‘read/listen to the text and answer the questions’ exam practice activities. More often than not learners end up staring at or hearing texts written by some unknown entity, rather than interacting with each other, or with the language itself. Adding insult to injury, these materials often have very little personal relevance to our students.
On top of that, it’s debatable whether using testing materials for teaching does any good at all. The name ‘practice activity’ should speak for itself. Surely if it’s ‘practice’, then the skill in question has already been developed. How is it possible to practise something you haven’t learned yet?
So why is it that we don’t practise (!) what we preach when it comes to exam classes? In my experience, most informed teachers are aware that this approach is flawed, but are unsure how to remedy it.
‘But what about if they’re already at the right level?’ I hear you cry. Agreed, this is often true, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they have the right set of sub-skills to perform successfully in all parts of the exam. If that IS the case, then maybe they don’t need to be doing an exam prep course in the first place.
In terms of what to teach, I’ve learnt a lot from noticing what the learners are NOT able to do. Let’s take the FCE speaking test part 3. Performance in the collaborative task is often unbalanced and disorganised. They talk too much or too little. They don’t link their ideas to those of the other speaker. To overcome this they would need:
exponents for agreeing and disagreeing
discourse markers for contrast, cause and effect, adding points
exponents for interrupting
initiating and concluding
encouraging contributions from other speakers
We know that developing automaticity requires repeated input and opportunity for focused output, so expecting students to perform such multiple skills simultaneously by thrusting a test book at them is clearly not going to work. I would therefore argue that the solution is to first use activities which develop these skills and language in isolation.
In my next post I will outline some tried and tested speaking activities related to Cambridge English: First, speaking part 3. What’s more, in this series I plan to debunk the myth that exam preparation is boring. Long live exam prep!