Sunday, April 26, 2015

Why I Love 'Back to the Well'

At the end of May I'll be co-facilitating a workshop once again with John Sivell, TESL educator at Brock University. We'll be talking about the notion of taking students back into the same audio or written text over and over again. In how many valuable ways can we revisit the same passage or dialogue, squeezing it to extract all the juicy linguistic affordances we possibly can before ushering students on to a new text?

I believe in this.
Chart paper helps us revisit lexis.

I have watched as students build their meta-linguistic skills, and with that their confidence. I've seen how this way of approaching the new lexis results in narrowed cognitive burden, and a more relaxed classroom.

One reader of this blog asked me in an email how I can take such a thorough, thoughtful pace and still cover everything I'm expected to cover in a term. That's a good question.  I've answered that question one way, John another.

At my school, we are given the freedom to balance how much we cover with how well we cover it. The answer John has given to this question in Toronto was something to the effect that sure, you can rush through and say you've covered a lot, but where is the value in that if students don't RETAIN any of it?

Back to the well, for me, means doing all the exercises that come with a given text, such as comprehension questions and the like, then going back into the same text with a nice variety of vocabulary, syntax and discourse activities. The aim is to give students' brains multiple meaningful encounters with the new language.

At first we are getting more familiar with each vocabulary word. We look up the definition, note the part of speech, note any irregularities (such as irregular plural form for nouns, irregular conjugation for verbs), list lexical sets of which it may be a member, debate whether the connotation is positive, neutral or negative, jot down as many forms of the word as we can find, use the word in a sentence. We use a website or corpus to discover collocations and discuss what register we think the word falls under (e.g., standard, slang, colloquial).  We make semantic maps and play games like "Each One Teach One."

The middle of the week may find us engrossed in dialogues or correcting each other's parallel paragraphs that we've written borrowing structures taken from our text. We look for useful lexical chunks that can be turned into pattern drills. We might analyse clauses or label all verbs as transitive, intransitive or both--dreaming up three possible objects for transitive verbs.

In other words, by the time we finish with the text, we know the language structures inside and out. We've looked under the hood and we know how this engine works. And we are happily ready to move on, not feeling one bit rushed.

I am now in my second year implementing this way of teaching, and I continue to swear by it. I've seen how it creates a more egalitarian classroom where keen students are satisfied by the depth of exploration while those slower to process are less stressed by a pace that leaves them behind.

What do you think? Is John and Chirawibha's idea of "Sending Them Back to the Well" something you would try out with your learners? Why or why not?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

L1 Use in the ESL Classroom

Scott Thornbury has just come out with his latest blog post, "M is for Mother Tongue," in which he delves into the dicey subject of L1 use in the classroom. I'll give you a moment to go read that, then we'll meet back here, okay?

Welcome back.

So where do you stand on that?

Since my stance varies wildly depending on which classroom setting we're talking about, I can only imagine that each group of students out there in the world whom I might have the pleasure of teaching would end up giving me a different perspective. Already I can think of four different scenarios calling for different sets of ground rules.

  • In a LINC 2 class I taught for one term, I found it frustrating when one little clique of students seemed to be using class time to catch up on the latest gossip...using their first language. I was grateful in that instance that our school has an "English Only" policy on which I could fall back, including procedures for disciplining those who repeatedly broke this rule.
  • In my morning class of 12 students from one country and two from another, I have to constantly remind the majority that our time together is an opportunity for them to hear English and speak English. They have begged me to help them with their listening skills, yet they readily lapse back into their L1 when any concept is difficult for them to convey to one another. I have already lost one student because she, as a member of that minority group, simply got fed up with the constant chatter in a language she can't understand. If you've been following my blog, you know the lengths I've gone to in order to remedy this situation.
  • In my afternoon class (ESL Literacy) on the other hand, I have no problem whatsoever with L1 use. In fact, I encourage it. I invite the learners to teach me words in their mother tongues, and I use as much of those languages as I know to make our communication easier and the lessons less stressful for them. (Learning a language and literacy simultaneously is cognitively very taxing, as we can all imagine.)
  • When I was a teaching assistant, I would frequently use my Spanish to help the Spanish speakers understand points of English grammar with which they were struggling.

easel chart with vocabulary words, Chinese characters written by some
I also realize that the degree to which I tend to encourage staying in the target language varies with the activity. In response to my morning students' plea that I help them develop their listening and speaking skills, we often have designated conversation times during which 100% English is strongly encouraged. This is also a "no bilingual dictionaries, no pencils" time. At the same time, you can see in the above photo that our classroom easel chart is sometimes bilingual or trilingual.

To sum up my position on this, it would seem that my approach shifts with the situation. I'd like to think of myself as flexible, skirting dogma in favour of common sense. And while I feel that my having studied ten languages gives me an edge as an ESL instructor and often comes in handy in the classroom, L1 use that takes the students off task drives me bananas.

How about you? Does your school have a policy on L1 use? Do you? How do your learners feel about it?

NB: The students themselves come up with our classroom rules. This doesn't mean they stick to them after voting for them, though.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Easy Peasy Custom Flashcards

I underutilize flashcards. I know that's a weakness in my ESL literacy teaching and want to address it. A recent post on the ESL Literacy Network blog inspired me to use flashcards to teach personal information with a new iteration of learners who are just starting with me this month. While I was nosing around in the Community - Showcases area of the same website, I rediscovered a showcase by Shelley McConnell called Making Picture Flashcards Using a Template. Mind you, I have visited many websites that offer flashcards as well as flashcard templates, but this one was just so easy to use that I felt compelled to share it here.

Shelley's template has a variety of sizes ready for you to insert the pictures. She also includes one set with an area under each picture for text. The font is 20 pt Century Gothic, perfect for literacy!

My school is about to get a subscription to In the meantime, I discovered that this set of templates pairs beautifully with our Oxford Picture Dictionary software. The software, which we have licensed for each classroom, comes with one WORKSHEETS and one ART folder per topic. The art folder, I discovered, is full of png image files. The way that Shelley has designed her flashcard templates, all you do is click on the picture icon in the middle of the flashcard. This triggers a dialogue box whereby you find the image that you've saved on a drive. When you select the image, it inserts itself into the flashcard with no need to resize! With very few clicks, you're ready for the next flashcard.  I was able to make four sets for the hospital topic for my seniors class, print them AND cut them up with the paper cutter in about twenty minutes. I was very pleased by this time saver. Next time I'll get out our school's laminator to make the set more durable.

I haven't made any flashcards for my literacy class using these templates just yet, but am happy to report that they came in very handy in my morning class. The seniors enjoyed having one set per group of three students so that they could drill each other on hospital vocabulary.

Do you think these templates are a time saver? What do you use to help students remember new vocabulary?

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Value of Observation--for Both!

Recently Sophia Khan and the educator behind the blog ELTCurious each wrote about the experience of being observed. Sophia wrote, too, about the value of observing a more experienced teacher. These posts have inspired me to write about my own experiences--both as a teacher who has had the opportunity to observe many more experienced teachers, and as a newish teacher who recently survived an observation.

Observing Experienced Peers

I consider myself VERY fortunate to have begun my LINC teaching as a supply teacher and teaching assistant. In my supply role, I had a chance to teach every level from beginner to advanced. As a teaching assistant, I rotated through the classes--helping in literacy three days per week and hitting the other levels one class period per week. It was unspeakably useful getting to spend hours seeing how all seven of my new colleagues did their thing.

From M I learned that it's possible to have all of your week's handouts photocopied and paper-clipped together before class starts on Monday. She inspired me to be better organized. The level one teacher showed me some classroom techniques I otherwise would not have thought of. V got me to see how lively a role play can be when the teacher isn't afraid to make a fool of herself. During those months supporting students both in class and by pulling them out for special support, I often kept a notebook handy for jotting down ideas I might use once I had a classroom of my own.

During those months as a teaching assistant, I also had a chance to see what flopped, what sapped the room of its energy, and the ruts into which I should never let myself slip. Watch my TTT/STT ratio! Get up from behind the desk! Admit when I don't have an answer. Be authentic.

All good things come with a price. I am very grateful to now have my own classes--a multilevel class for seniors (older newcomers) each morning and ESL literacy each afternoon. But I miss those days of being able to visit the classrooms of my more experienced colleagues.

Being Observed

My supervisor is not a micromanager. I am very fortunate to work in a school that grants its teachers a lot of academic freedom. Once a year, however, the lead teacher does sit in for an hour or two in order to assess our teaching. Although I dread being observed, I really appreciate that I was allowed to choose the day, time, and which class would be visited. It was also wonderful to be given the rubric against which I would be marked.

Because it is the class in which I feel more at ease, I chose to be observed while with the literacy learners. I thought the class went well, and was pleased when M wanted to go over my marks right then, during the break, eliminating the need for me to brew and stew all that night over what she might have thought.

My observation feedback was good overall and glowing in some areas. That was validating. How curious it was to see myself and learners through her eyes. "Do you realize," she asked, "that you and the students smile at one another throughout almost the entire lesson?" No, I didn't. That's neat to hear.

The valuable part came, I think, in where she found room for improvement. My transitions between activities, she noted, could be better. That's a place where I could slow down and help the learners transition.

Interestingly, I had been striving for smooth segues ever since my practicum--during which my mentor taught me the fine art of seamless transitions, ones that don't allow for students' attention to flag. What I had not realized until my observation last month is that literacy learners are different in this regard. M showed me that the point at which we have finished one activity is a great opportunity to help the learners with binder organization, something I was vaguely aware needed addressing, but which I had continued to procrastinate tackling month after month.

The week after my observation, we started a new routine in literacy class. First, we learned the needed language, "open your binder," "open the rings," and "in date order." Now when an activity ends in which a worksheet has been used, every student opens his/her binder. The sound of rings clicking open and closing fills the air. Binders are no longer overflowing with dog-eared pages turned this way and that. And I am no longer in convenient denial of a responsibility I should have shouldered long ago.

In Conclusion

It's not easy inviting someone to show you what's hovering in your blind spot as a teacher. But if you have someone observe you who is mainly in your court, it can be very beneficial, I think.

Not only can it be helpful to be observed, but--as Sophia pointed out--it can be extremely helpful to be able to observe a good teacher at the helm. Spending a week going from class to class, my supervisor told me later, was an eye-opening experience for her. It was her first time in twenty years getting to see other teachers teach! She said she took so many notes and now has a notebook full of ideas to try in her own classroom.

How about you? How do you feel about observing or being observed?