Four strands

As I was listening to a podcast about learning Chinese last weekend (that’s a story for another day), I got reminded of Paul Nation’s famous principles, or as he called them, ‘the four strands’. For a successful language course, you need to have comprehensible input (yes), meaningful output, focus on form and fluency development, and the study time given to these strands should be roughly the same. There are two articles on his website, from 1996 and from 2007. The former is written in more accessible language and has a good description of the 4-3-2-1 activity for building fluency, and the latter has quite a bit more evidence to support the importance of strands.

What can I say? From Nation’s perspective, my own attempts to learn yet another language have been woefully inadequate: self-study gives me loads of comprehensible input and focus on form, but I really don’t want to make myself communicate (or even start a diary!).

As for work, it never hurts to look back on your lessons and ask yourself: did I strike a good balance?

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In positivity we thrive

Here is an interesting article by Katy Asbury from the wonderful LearnJam – you can trust these guys to come up with new approaches to learning, especially learning online! In fact, I had to take a page of notes before I could write this paragraph because some ideas were less familiar to me. In a nutshell, Katy suggests a way to deal with the affective filter by introducing a kind of ‘positive framing’ which helps learners to self-regulate their emotions, cast their learning ‘story’ in a more positive light and thus get better learning results. How exactly can this be done? By constructing a special ‘learner persona’ which describes the goals, motivations and frustrations of the learner.

I suppose having a persona like this will help learners distance themselves somewhat from their learning pains! According to Katy, it will help if learners refer to themselves in the third person. … Hmm, maybe this teacher/blogger should start experimenting with herself and reframe her weak attempts at learning Chinese? 🙂

More proof of the value of pre-watch activities

Here’s an article from the BPS Research digest which describes how researchers explored the testing effect in learning.

Answering prequestions may be a simple and effective way to boost your learning from videos and perhaps short lectures too” – and from reading texts, I bet! I know, it all seems a bit obvious to us ELT teachers, but it’s still nice to have scientific evidence for what we were assuming all along. Also, it might help deal with those doubting Thomases in the classroom…

Finnegan, begin again

I’ve been re-reading this article for quite some time: it’s about the so-called ‘shoshin’, or the beginner’s frame of mind. Apparently, the term related to Japanese Zen, but the idea can be applied to other spheres, especially professional development. Christian Jarrett, the author of the article, explains in a very clear and simple way how overestimating one’s expertise can lead to close-mindedness, and then lists several ways to keep one’s mind fresh and open, like the mind of a beginner. For example, it’s useful to notice gaps in one’s knowledge, develop a growth mindset and – a rather unusual technique of finding things that inspire awe.

P.S. You can laugh all you like, but tonight I was feeling awed by the sheer beauty of English grammar (infinitives with modals of deduction, of all things)!

Business mazes for serious learning

If you’re looking for a serious game for your Business English or workplace skills learners, you might want to check this oldie but goldie: Business Mazes by Joni Farthing (published in 1982, but a few examples have been converted to html and read quite well). You don’t have to be a fan of ‘choose-your-adventure’ stories to enjoy them: the participants are easy to identify with, the dilemmas are more or less easy to resolve but require some discussion. They could even inspire some of the students to write a few mazes of their own!

Team-building activities for the virtual classroom

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Here is a very useful article by Caitlin Krause at Edutopia about ways to build connections between learners when you’re teaching online. She writes from 10 years’ of experience, and the advice she gives is practical and clearly well thought out. First and foremost, we have to think about our well-being as teachers (that should be a given). Then, it helps to start every synchronous session with a connection exercise and an icebreaker (there are good examples linked to in the article). To be honest, I see a few issues with this part: learners are sometimes late (yes, even when they don’t have to commute! :)), so the connection activity will probably be interrupted; also, not every teacher and learner likes this ‘touchy-feely’ mindfulness style, so we need to be careful about how this is done.

Another interesting piece of advice, however, is very close to my heart: Caitlin suggests using team roles for asynchronous learning (one student could take on the role of the ‘lexicon builder’, another a ‘curator’ etc.), which lets the learners use their own strengths and contribute to everyone’s learning. There’s more, about encouraging questions and practising the art of listening (e.g. ‘mirroring’ activities in breakout rooms), so do check out the original post.

How effective can online learning be?

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Here’s a fresh must-read from my favourite Learning Scientists: a post where Megan Sumeracki lists six strategies for effective learning and explains how they can be realised in the virtual classroom. They can be used by teachers in lessons and by learners for self-study, and have been proved efficient by many researchers. Here’s the list, with a few suggestions from me of what it could look like in ELT, both online and offline:

1) Spacing (spread out study sessions over a week, cover one topic in several lessons)

2) Interleaving (integrating several skills in one lesson; projects that require the use of many concepts and areas of knowledge; review questions in online discussions)

3) Retrieval practice (a lot of low-stakes online quizzes, mindmapping)

4) Concrete examples (all kinds of personalisation – works exactly the same as face-to-face)

5) Elaboration (asking ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions – these could be, for example, our guided discovery activities)

6) Dual coding (use visuals, not just speech)

Megan also says that these strategies are difficult and are supposed to be difficult; the results may not be as easy to see, but they work long-term. There’s a lot more there, so do check out the original post!

One-pagers for a sense of progress

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A great idea from Betsy Potash writing for the Cult of Pedagogy: have students sum up their learning in a one-pager, combining verbal and visual information. She mentions the dual coding theory to explain why this technique is so useful; if your learners are not very artistic, there is a workaround too: using graphic organisers which prompt them what to draw and what to write. (I suppose a bit more scaffolding would help too.) You can see a lot of beautiful examples in the post, as well as a link to Betsy’s templates.

In addition to the obvious fun/engagement factor, they help learners stay focused, remember the material better, develop their cognitive skills – what’s not to like?

Can we do one-pagers in the digital world? You bet 🙂 In fact, doing them digitally can solve the ‘art problem’: it’s much easier to use Canva or at the very least grab a copyright-free image on Pixabay.

P.S. Betsy has an interesting podcast, by the way. The episodes are medium-length and quite conversational, so you can listen to them while doing something about the house and still get a lovely dose of CPD 🙂

Are you Into Film?

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You’ve probably known about this resource all along, but I only heard about it a few days ago at Gareth Rees’s webinar at the IATEFL Get-Together. It’s a charity in fact, an organisation that provides support to young people and educators who are interested in film viewing and film making. They have clubs, training events and many other things, but to me as a teacher their website is first and foremost a great collection of ready-made film-related activities, from pdfs to ppts to film guides and articles: definitely not to be missed. You have to register to access the resources, but you don’t have to pay. I started with a great PowerPoint about the Wonder Woman (really high quality visuals and good discussion questions), and then stumbled upon this collection of guides (perfect for a remote homework pack), and then read Home Education tips from a teenager – really good advice!

Have any of you been using this website? How does it work in your lessons?

IATEFL 2020 – Global Get-Together, Day 2

The second day began with a thought-provoking talk by Catherine Walker. She spoke about the recent changes in education, about inclusivity and how synchronous lessons by their very nature exclude people with special needs or lower income (no devices, low bandwidth.) Asynchronous learning is more inclusive and allows us to support these categories of learners a lot more, so perhaps this is the way to go. ‘We do not support technology, technology should support us’ – can’t agree more. It’s interesting how some of the presenters truly practised what they preached – for example, Catherine described every picture on her slides to support the visually impaired (incidentally, it also helped me because I was listening and cooking :)).

Then I watched Alex Warren’s webinar, or rather, workshop. It was so engaging that I dropped my spoon and started taking part in the polls 🙂 He spoke about using TED talks and offered a very workable model based on flipped learning. In short, after the learners have watched the talk at home, in the lesson the learners are asked to talk about what they remember, there is a quick comprehension check (Alex demonstrated how he uses Zoom tools for that), then there are critical thinking tasks, then creative assignments of various kinds (comment boxes on Padlet, ‘interview the speaker’, all kinds of written and spoken responses). One more important takeaway: if flipped learning doesn’t work very well for you because the learners don’t do their pre-lesson homework, stress the benefits of personalised learning they can get when they view the talk on their own. (They can slow down, use the subs, re-watch as many times as they like etc. )

Gareth Rees began his presentation with a photo of a urinal (!). The urinal was equipped with a video screen, so the idea was ATAW (viewing anytime, anywhere) – really memorable 🙂 There were lots of interesting examples from his own experience and materials, techniques that fit into a neat model (DARE: description, analysis, reflection, evaluation) and useful recommendations. Teacher’s video selfies, students making videos of the teacher demonstrating a pron task, students’ video responses – the idea was that videos work best if they become almost unnoticed everyday practice.

I had to skip Adrian Underhill’s talk and part of Laura Edward’s presentation – looking forward to the recordings. A few ideas gleaned from Laura’s talk: invite guest speakers to online lessons, use chat for more informal feedback and backchanneling, use rubrics for peer assessment that students can copypaste into the chat.

Then there was the panel about sustainable online teaching and learning with representatives of several sigs, including Andy Hockley, the Coordinator of my own LAMSIG. There were a lot of interesting thoughts about how we can move to real, not emergency, online learning, and I really liked how Sophia Mavridi expressed hers: ‘After the emergency, experts need to come to the fore’. I totally agree: eventually we need to stop focusing on the tech tools and start thinking about pedagogy, instructional design and materials.

Another panel I watched, Moving to Teaching Online, focused on the practical side of teaching in this new reality. I was happy to hear how optimistic the participants were: like Andy Johnson said, ‘You should never waste a crisis’ 🙂 Sandy Millin shared a lot of practical advice, especially useful for the teachers who are still learning to teach online; Joshua Underwood suggested that it would be useful to develop our (and our learners’) camera literacy: he recommended a webinar called ‘Own the screen’ or something like that, but I haven’t been able to find the link yet. In a nutshell, we need to learn how to be more comfortable standing up, moving around on Zoom, and teach our learners how to express themselves physically in the virtual environment. I also enjoyed the participants views of the future: Heike Philp suggested that one day, after we go back to our face-to–face teaching, we will start developing the online world again and create a rich online environment, maybe VR, 3D or something equally exciting. Sandy said that her school will probably move to a mix of online and f2f in September (this is what most of us expect, I think!); Andy expects a backlash with more physical teaching for some time, but then online teaching will be here to stay. Josh hopes that when we’ll go back to physical classrooms, we’ll improve them and make them more inclusive – and that generally things will get better. Hear, hear!

And then – too soon! — Gabriel Diaz Maggioli closed the event.

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Now, I might be biased (and in case of IATEFL I most certainly am), but this was the greatest online event I’d ever watched. It was supposed to replace the physical conference, but it did a lot more: it engaged and supported a lot more teachers all over the world who had not been planning to come to Manchester. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still looking forward to Harrogate 2021, the organised chaos of the registration queue, lotteries, meetings, workshops and exhibitions, the friendly conversations with strangers and old friends at lunch or over a pint – but the Get-Together was totally worth it and I hope it will happen again, not to replace the conference, but to add to all the wonderful things that IATEFL does. Ahem, sorry 🙂 Time to stop singing praises and get back to work!