“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.

 

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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!

Long Live Exam Prep!- Part Minus One: The First Lesson.

 

Whoops! I really should have started at the beginning. So here’s part ‘Minus One’.

The majority of exam classes (at least in Italy) take place in secondary schools. This post is mainly aimed at teachers of these courses, but could be applied to any exam prep class.

Usually Italian kids who have chosen to do PET / FCE / CAE / IELTS stay on at school after their normal lessons for another couple of hours. You often have a 20 hour course to prepare them for PET, 30 hours for FCE or CAE or IELTS. The students tend not to be from the same class or year group. So some of them know each other and some of them don’t. Sometimes they’ve done a test to establish their level before being accepted on the course…sometimes they haven’t.

What can occur as a result is the stuff of TEFL nightmares.

A scenario

  • You get lost driving to the school because your GPS sent you through a field half way up a mountain. You arrive late.
  • You get to the room and there are no students. You realise you’re in the wrong building (nobody told you there were two buildings!) you run to the other building and you’re even more late.
  • You walk into the building and the caretaker doesn’t know who you are or what course you’re talking about.
  • The caretaker speaks to you in the local dialect and you have no idea what she is talking about
  • The students stand up as you walk in and you look at them blankly because you wonder if they’re going somewhere.
  • You have to give out books and collect money and you forget how many books you have and who’s given you the money and this is all eating away at your lesson time.
  • There’s no IWB.
  • There’s no WiFi.
  • There’s no CD player.
  • There’s only a blackboard and there’s no chalk.
  • You have to try to remember the names of 25 kids, and 5 of them are called Marco.
  • Students come and ask you if they can change classes/how much the course/exam is and you really don’t have a clue (or care! you’re desperately trying to get on with the lesson you’ve planned).
  • You realise you can’t do the Reading part 1 you’d spent hours planning because 10 of them forgot to bring the money for the book.
  • Now you’ve got their attention. They’re sitting in front of you in rows. Nobody says anything in English. There’s a deathly silence that’s making you sweat.
  • A kid at the back says something in a dialect that you don’t understand and everyone laughs. You go the colour of a beetroot and yearn for the green pastures of home.
  • A person (you have no idea who it is, they don’t bother to introduce themselves) walks in and starts talking to the class. They all stand up again. You wonder if it’s a fire drill or something.
  • You ask them to ‘work in pairs’ and they look at you blankly.
  • You realise that two of the students you thought were reading are actually asleep.

A conclusion

After living this scenario (or parts of it) for several years I came to the conclusion that to have a successful first lesson in a state school you should:

  • get there really early
  • move the desks
  • use little or no resources.
  • not rely on any technology
  • get them talking immediately
  • establish appropriate classroom behaviour immediately (working in pairs, speaking in English, level of formality between teacher and student)
  • learn their names as soon as possible
  • make it student focused not book focused
  • not let the pace drop for too long (or they will literally fall asleep)

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In Part Minus Two I’ll suggest a handy lesson plan that can be applied to all mainstream exam prep courses B1-C2.

 

 

Long Live Exam Prep! (part 2)

WP_20160205_14_15_21_ProLong Live Exam Prep! Part 2

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

  1. 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

  1. 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.
  1. 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. No way!
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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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

Discourse Management

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.

Communicative Achievement

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.

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Would this approach work with your students?

How could you adapt it for your teaching situation?

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In part three I’ll suggest some writing activities for Cambridge English:First (FCE) and Preliminary (PET).

 

References

Multiple authors (2015). Cambridge English First:Handbook for Teachers. Cambridge:UCLES

Retrieved from: http://www.cambridgeenglish.org/images/cambridge-english-first-handbook-2015.pdf

Long Live Exam Prep!

PART 1

 

Sound familiar?

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.

An example…

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:

Language

  • exponents for agreeing and disagreeing
  • discourse markers for contrast, cause and effect, adding points
  • exponents for interrupting

Sub-skills

  • effective turn-taking
  • 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!

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