Homework and other hard choices

choice_homework

How do you feel when you see learners frantically scribbling in their workbooks five minutes before the lesson starts? Before the New Year, we reached that lowpoint with my lower secondary group. The workbook homework had become too quick and easy, and too automatic for them to even attempt doing at home. ‘What kind of homework would you prefer to do then?’ I asked, being the nice democratic teacher I am. ‘Something creative’, they said. ‘We don’t have enough to do at home’. (They are too young to be sarcastic.)

Well, a few days ago I took the great choice board created by Miguel at onthesamepageELT and had a pyramid discussion of which types of tasks they would like to do. We had criteria like ‘fun’, of course, but also ‘helps to learn English’. They quickly dispensed with all tech-related tasks like making a recording and sending it to the teacher, and selected crosswords, stories, synonyms and acrostic poems – go figure. So, each week I will bring the modified choice board up on the IWB, and we’ll choose several options for them to go through by next Monday. Exciting! I’ll let you know how things go.

What do I get from this? Differentiation of course, and a little more engagement because of student agency.ย  And, frankly, I just love watching them make their own decisions ๐Ÿ™‚

P.S. By the way,ย  here’s an inspiring article about differentiated learning: it’s one of those texts that give you the creeps first (no way am I ever going to find the time for this!), and by the end of the article you’re choosing the date to start.

P.P.S.ย Homework to fire up minds is an old post of mine about an excellent article describing homework alternatives – you might want to check it too!

Letters to future students

I finished a course last Sunday with a lovely group of teens preparing for IELTS. Sunday groups are special: they are often miserable at the start of the day (Sunday! Morning! Nooo!), so it’s an interesting challenge to make sure they learn well and have a reasonably good time doing it. For the final reflection, I asked them to write letters to the future Sunday group, and here’s what I saw:

weekends

I think it illustrates their conflicting views on the course very well ๐Ÿ™‚

“from now on you will have to do all the homework and work a lot. … I hope we inspired you to be a nice student of Kate’s class. P.S. She’s very great and informative”

“If you read this you are a victim of IELTS test… If you start this course from the beginning, never you hear NEVER allow yourself forget about homework.”

Now they are saying they should have done their homework!

“You should be concentrated…. Your lessons will not be tedious, I promise… Your teacher is a really proficient and friendly” “You’re very lucky person because you take part in effective course”

The ‘effective’ course taught them nothing about articles!

“Remember, you should write tedious vocabulary tests about graphs… Also, you’ll do worthwhile tests for for reading and listening but of course it will be funny because Kate is so friendly teacher”

Nice vocabulary, but where are my articles?

“The whole ritual of waking up early is actually worth the course. … Most of the times the more boring the task is, the more info and practice it gives you… Watch out for vocabulary tests, they are pretty annoying”

Ha, ha ๐Ÿ™‚

So, my conclusions?

  1. Next time, I need to have a better mechanism for accountability, to give them extra motivation to do their homework on time and not regret it later
  2. Do more vocabulary work so that they learn a few more words apart from ‘tedious’ – and more tasks to practise articles!
  3. Continue to annoy them with tests ๐Ÿ™‚

To get more out of it, I would also provide a bit more scaffolding for this activity. Here, for example, is a useful post by Jen Wieber with templates for younger kids that can be reworked for language learners. As it is, I had to have another reflection task to focus on the contents and tasks of the course in more depth, whereas better scaffolding might have saved the time.

And what about you, do you ever ask your students to write letters to future students? Do you give the future students the letters afterwards? I certainly will.

 

The ABC book of progress

letters-ABC

Making an ABC book together – what a great idea for a final project of the term or year! You can find a lot of examples and suggestions in this article at Education World. What I particularly like about ABC books is a great sense of completion they can give. After all, there are only so many letters in the alphabet. As for topics, I suppose vocabulary is the obvious choice for ELT contexts: for example, weather or free time activities could work well? And of course all of this can be digitised (or done digitally) and proudly demonstrated to parents ๐Ÿ™‚

Vocabulary menu handout

vocabulary menu

Do you like vocabulary cards as much as I do? I routinely use Quizlet online and in printouts, good old paper cards, vocabulary organisers – but sometimes I want to do something new (preferably low-prep, paperless, engaging, student-centered and of course effective – well, never settle for anything less :)). Here’s what worked in one of my lessons yesterday: a simple menu of activities that students can do in small groups. It can be as fast or as slow as you like, and it leaves you free to monitor and make notes of which words need more practice. It worked so well that I couldn’t resist and had to put it into a handout/poster that you can download and use here.

It’s set up the usual way, when students pick a card one by one from one stack or theirย  own sets. And now the most important thing: it’s not the student who has the card who does the activity. If you take the word, you ‘own’ it, and you are the one to choose an option from the menu and ‘test’ another student. It adds just the right element of control and tension! (Alternatively, you can use 12-digit dice for this, but student agency is also nice, isn’t it?)

Do let me know if any of you have found it useful. Now I’m suffering from writer’s remorse because I’ve spent so much time making the poster!

Exit highs and lows

entry-exit

Here’s a very good description of several end-of-lesson reflection activities from Catlin Tucker: ‘highs and lows’ (when the learners share which tasks they feel the most positive and the most confused or frustrated about), exit tickets and other useful strategies, including sketching and tech solutions. The descriptions are very practical and can be taken into the classroom straight away – and there is a bit of theory behind it, too.

P.S. I’ll definitely add it to my collection of exit strategies! Looking forward to doing another training session on this.

English for five minutes a day

five_minutes

What a nice articleย for learners by Sandy Millin! Simple no-nonsense advice for learners who have other things on their minds than English, but would still like to improve in an efficient and fun way. I like how Sandy emphasises the idea of habit formation: if you make English part of your daily routine, you don’t need to spend so much willpower on learning and will keep it up in the long run. She has quick study tips for developing all the skills, as well as for building up vocabulary and grammar: for example, how to review coursebook pages, or how to practise speaking without a speaking partner. I think it’s a good idea to share it with all students!

Sandy, how about Part Two? ๐Ÿ™‚

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?