Human and humane feedback online

Here’s a post with a rather nifty infographic with 5 ways of giving feedback in the online classroom by Aoife McLoughlin from ELT-Connect. The suggestions are not totally unexpected (e.g. record your video or audio with annotations), but they are presented very nicely. I have a question about ‘feedback buddies’ though: the recommendation is to pair stronger students with the weaker, and we all know how it can go! Also, there will be less reciprocity in this type of feedback – use at your peril. Nevertheless, the infographic is quite useful, and I can totally relate to this thought: traditional written comments can be misinterpreted, so using your voice and visuals is one way to avoid discouraging learners too much and perhaps will result in better learning, And what do you think?

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The CEFR event: my own view (4 of 4)

CEFR mix

My first attempt to use CEFR happened back in 1998, when I was in my fifth year at uni: one of the teachers brought the self-assessment grid to us, near-graduates. Of course, everyone put themselves at the top of the scale 🙂 Only six years later, on an in-service teacher training course at Moscow Linguistic University, I found out about the descriptors, the portfolio, and most importantly, about the ethos of the European Language Portfolio.

From my own (admittedly simplistic) perspective,  the Common European Framework of Reference for languages as part of The European Language Portfolio has two very important functions:

  1. It shows that people who speak very different languages want to talk about the same things.
  2. It can give a great sense of progress to learners (and teachers) of languages.

This February, more than 20 years later, imagine me sitting in the very centre of London and hearing from all these amazing  experts first-hand how CEFR has grown and evolved over time! Feeling lucky? Yes, and also happy that in spite of all the changes CEFR is still about the same: the sense of unity and the sense of progress.

The updated and improved descriptors describe what we ‘can do’ more precisely; the addition of sign language makes CEFR even more unifying and inclusive; plurilingualism and mediation finally acknowledge what a person speaking several languages actually does when communicating. And, of course, we have official CEFR updates for young learners – how cool is that?

What does that mean for an English teacher? Exciting times ahead 🙂 Now that the updates (the CEFR Companion Volume) are out, there will be more and more new coursebooks, resources, curricula and research opportunities.

CEFR future steps

That said, there is a lot we can do even now, before all these changes trickle down to classrooms:

  1.  Consider how you can foster a plurilingual atmosphere in the classroom. If students want to use L1, encourage translanguaging, mediation, exchange of different L1 (if you’re lucky to work in a multilingual environment). CEFR can help you make plurilingual skills part of your learning objectives – after all, research shows that it gives great cognitive benefits, so why should your learners miss out?
  2. When teaching pronunciation, look at the new phonology scale: isn’t it great how it acknowledges accents at all levels and encourages focus on intelligibility?
  3. If English is not your first language, check out the changes in C2 descriptors: perhaps there is something that can become your own learning goal? English means a lot to me on many levels, but it’s also my work instrument, which I like to keep sharp 🙂
  4. The whole Companion Volume is a long read at whopping 235 pages, but you can open it to any random page and find real gems. For example:
  • descriptors for online interaction p.97 are great for justifying all the time you spent on edutech 😉
  • descriptors for online collaboration p.99 can be useful for planning a professional skills course
  • descriptors for describing data p.110 can help with IELTS preparation

There’s much more of course, so let’s start using the good old CEFR in new ways! This is what it is meant to be: not a prescriptive set of requirements, but a tool to use and adapt to our contexts, learners and their needs.

P.S. You can read my previous posts in the series about this event here: 1 2 3.

 

 

 

The CEFR event: discussions (3 of 4)

I’ve debated with myself for quite a while: shall I just give you a brief digest (one slide, three bullet points)? But since this is a blog, I’ve finally decided to group the comments into categories and share them as they are. The discussions were incredibly fun,  and the pictures don’t show all the excitement. So, these comments may give you a better idea of how it all happened.photo_2020-02-08_01-19-56photo_2020-02-08_01-19-48

Important caveat: I was taking notes very quickly, and I took down the names of just a few speakers. Consider this just a blurry snapshot!

Understanding CEFR

CEFR is not a rating scale, it should inform curriculum development, task design and only then follows assessment. (Brian North)
Not everything can be pinned down or scaled; we should not forget about the big picture. For example, while mediation is generally useful, mediating too early can be annoying.

Plurilingualism in the new CEFR was brought about by globalisation, and it’s globalisation that caused the same shift in education, not CEFR.
Overall, CEFR and CV is synergised with the values of the European Council.

If we need to understand the difference between action-oriented and task-oriented approaches, the action-oriented approach in CEFR gives the power to the learner. It’s about learner agency and empowerment

Implementing CEFR

CEFR is meant to be adapted.
There can be a stronger and weaker form of implementing CEFR.
There is tension between localisation and commonality. The way to align them is to use the top overview level. (Elaine)
It’s not the experts who should be simplifying the framework, but the local experts.
Can CEFR be used in Tunisia? Adopt it or adapt it (question asked by Dave Allan, Nile)

We need to learn how to speak to policy makers
LESS IS MORE
The COD principle (Barry Sullivan quotes): Capacity, Opportunity, Desire

How do we change public attitudes to CEFR?
There must be a continuous and on-going dialogue with parents.
We need to encourage whole-school policies.
We need to align people, not just systems.

We need more collaboration with psychologists, sociologists; between different associations.

The role of teachers

We need to start with teacher education.

Teachers have a duty to know what students are interested in and what they ought to be interested in.
Communities of practice and an online platform they have been using (Bessie)
Action research for teachers
joint SIG event with success stories (Dave Allan)

The role of materials

Why isn’t there a CEFR manual for materials writers? (Me, silently: hey, what about the core inventory?)

There’s no recycling in coursebooks, just chapters full of throwaway content (sic).
If we can’t influence publishers, let’s have language policies at unies.

Perhaps revisit the portfolio system?

Assessment

We need to develop assessment literacy

Tests are reductionist
The washback effect can be quite unpredictable
Should we be scaling at all?

Let’s grade the behaviour instead of the task

What about the learners?

Shouldn’t we ask the students?
Learners see things differently from teachers.
We need to focus more research on the learners (Chris Brandwood)

In the inclusive approach, if we use screen readers for the visually impaired, are we testing reading or listening?

A dog needs to do something 17 times before it learns to do it. A human needs a lot of repetition, too.

We need to take EQ into account (Cliff Perry)
We need to take cognitive development into account
If we have just 3 hours a week, how can we hope to take anything into account?

We can use the scenario-based approach (Armin)

Tech may be the answer.

Phew 🙂 The next and last post in the series is going to be about my own takeaways from the whole event – stay tuned!

 

 

The CEFR event: Day 2 (2 of 4)

This post continues my account of an event I’ve recently attended.

Wow, that was a really full day! Three symposia (symposiums?) with three speakers each, followed by discussions, comments and more discussions… I’ll only focus on the presentations here, and have a separate post about the discussions.

The first two talks of the first symposium (about the action-oriented approach) were packed with theoretical information. So, if you’ve been wondering if the new companion volume represents a new paradigm, if mediation is really a construct and if plurilingualism can be reliably tested, the speakers are a much better source of information than this blog. My own takeaways are literary rather than academic:
Constant Leung (King’s College London):
‘You’re opening plurilingual spaces: new dimensions, unpredictable and contingent.’

John de Jong (Language Testing Services):
‘Let’s fight hypnosis through scales and levels.’

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Mark Levy (British Council, Spain) took a less theoretical stance and told us about the introduction of CV in Spain. Did you know that there was a Royal Decree about teaching and testing mediation?


From that point onwards, more and more words were said about the role of teacher training and development. As Mark said, in times of stress, even if we have developed and changed our habits since, we tend to revert to our original teacher identity formed at the moment of training. This means that teacher education is even more important – but isn’t the responsibility a bit frightening, too?

Symposium 2 was about plurilingualism, plurilingual education and mediation (again).
Peter Lenz (Institute of Multilingualism, University of Friburg) used ESP skills assessment to demonstrate how mediation can be measured.

photo_2020-02-09_22-49-18
Bessie Dendrinos (National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece) gave a very comprehensive presentation about how multilingual learner corpora and other tools are used in Greece to exemplify CEFR levels.

Déirdre Kirwan (Formerly principal of Scoil Bhríde (Cailíní), Blanchardstown, Dublin).
Déirdre’s talk was perhaps the most memorable of them all: from the bird’s eye view we were transported onto beautiful school premises in the heart of Ireland. Here is a great example of how plurilingualism can work in a certain context provided all stakeholders are involved and on board. Bringing all the richness of multiple cultures into the classroom – makes me wonder if something like this can ever be achieved in our monolingual environment.

Symposium 3 was about descriptors in curriculum, classroom and assessment.
Elaine Boyd (University College London) spoke about CEFR from the position of a materials writer.

photo_2020-02-09_22-49-06
Armin Berger told us about a project to adapt CEFR to high proficiency levels at his university in Vienna.

And Elif Kantarcıoğlu from Ankara spoke about the challenges (and improvements) the new CEFR has brought to assessment.

At some point Barry O’Sullivan, who chaired the first symposium, told us an inspiring story. ‘A single shape with a graphic and 3 bullet points’, that’s how we need to communicate with stakeholders.

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And this is what this post should have been – but I’m sitting at the airport and my higher order thinking skills are slightly impaired 🙂 To be continued!

The CEFR event: Day 1 (1 of 4)

That’s where I am this weekend: Trafalgar Square, St Martin-in-the-Fields, The CEFR: a road map for future research and development

What can 130 language teachers, assessors, professors and other experts do in a church crypt in the centre of London?

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Discuss teaching and assessing of course – and it’s not boring at all. The whole vibe reminds me of IATEFL, with lots of people who clearly love what they do and are happy to see old friends and make new ones.

photo_2020-02-08_01-20-28

Between the coffees and conversations, we listened to several excellent talks about the CEFR (Common European Framework) scale, especially the new CV (Companion Volume).

And the real question behind it all was: how can CEFR help us in the classroom, with the curriculum and with assessment?

This little blog is awfully (and woefully) inadequate for giving you any kind of detail, but here are a few random takeaways:

1) Brian North spoke about the Companion Volume. They added YL descriptors, mediation, phonology, sign language, and made other important updates.

photo_2020-02-08_01-20-21

Mediation (and plurilingualism) deserves its own blog post, or even series, so watch this space.

Oh, and do you know that they have got rid of ‘the ghost of the native speaker’ in the descriptors? It’s ‘proficient user’ throughout, just like in IELTS descriptors.

photo_2020-02-08_01-20-37

Even though he repeated a few times, ‘It’s too early to tell’ when speaking about achievements, it seems that CV has helped the CEFR cause a lot. The question is, how do we let all stakeholders know about it?

2) The panel with Barry O’Sullivan, Masashi Negishi and Meg Malone, chaired by Jamie Dunlea was in fact three more presentations.


For me the biggest realisation was that CEFR is a truly international phenomenon and that it’s actually ok to adapt it to different languages and cultures (e.g. in Japan there are a lot of elementary learners, so there was a need to have a more detailed subdivision of levels)

3) David Little gave his own take on CEFR and its perspectives, related to plurilingualism, proficiency levels (yes, we’re finally talking about how diffferent they are in terms of hours needed to reach them and in terms of which contexts of use they presuppose).

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I took pictures of every slide (until my phone died), and then started scribbling with a pencil. I have to say that nothing beats a good speaker: you hang on their every word, you laugh at their jokes. (Language learning is like a relationship, it has its ups and downs. Meg Malone)

David Little: ‘Reading this is a challenge for breath control, but I’ve had practice’.

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Group discussions were quite exciting too and deserve a post of their own – to be continued!

P.S. Did you know they call the intermediate plateau ‘terminal intermediate’ in America?

Adjusting your marking practice

fountain-pen_marking

Here is a great post from Teachers on Fire by Katelynn Giordano which tells a story of how the author, an experienced teacher, was reminded to adjust their principles to meet the needs of a particular student. It all happened on a parents’ day (they call it a parent-teacher conference, and as a bonus you can read about an interesting student-led format for this day): a student and the teacher had different views on marking. In short, the student wanted to see corrections in her submitted paper, and the teacher had strong beliefs about not discouraging students with a paper full of red ink. It’s great that they were able to talk and find a solution that would help the student and not discourage her.

And I’m wondering now how many times my beliefs have stood in the way of learning for this or that particular student… I just hope they will keep telling me what exactly they need!

How to write a great quiz

book-quiz

Here is a very interesting article from Moodle about best practice for test writing, not necessarily on Moodle and not just for languages. Whatever you are testing, it seems that the key is to consider how the students are going to do the test and what you can improve to get more reliable results. There’s practical advice about introducing quick low-stakes checks, using mock tests, preventing cheating – a riveting read!

Testing your creativity

cacti-creativity

If your students don’t mind personality quizzes, how about giving them this amazing test by Adobe to determine their creative type? It reminds me of Meyers-Briggs and Belbin, only it’s visually much cooler. The questions are easy enough for B1+ (better if they are adults), and the results warrant loads of fun and discussions. There’s even an article about the test was made – really great stuff for those who’d like to question the results or simply find out more. And the best thing about this test is that it brings home a very important message: we can all be creative in our own special ways, even if we don’t dance or paint.

Have you tested yourselves yet? Apparently, I’m a cactus.

Cold and learning

sparrow-cold

I was dealing with a minor cold last week, and I got reminded how much a small thing like that can affect our cognitive functions! Apparently, researchers knew it all along. They found out that the cold virus changes our brain chemistry for a while, and our reaction slows down, our learning ability goes down and we can’t even retrieve information the way we normally do. Well, I couldn’t even make myself write a paragraph of text!

So, what do you do if a student comes in for assessment and they are a bit under the weather? Perhaps it would be a good idea to let them re-write the test, or give them a slightly higher grade? Or just let them brave it?

Thoughts about ultralearning

brain-ultralearning

Scott Young writes about this method of learning that is ‘aggressive’ and self-directed (there is a new book coming out, and his posts are advertising it – not that it reduces the value of the ideas in any way). His research shows that difficulty, direct practice and opportunity for retrieval are what can make learning more effective.

Ok, then if this is applied to more or less traditional ELT, what have we got? The communicative approach gives at least some direct practice e.g. in role-playing games and simulations – check. Opportunities for retrieval practice are there provided the teacher does review activities, mini-tests and so on. So — not always. And desirable difficulty is a big pain point, isn’t it?