Monday, October 15, 2018

My 'Principled Eclecticism'

My afternoon class is literacy--refugees either learning to read and write for the first time in any language or learning the Roman alphabet for the first time WHILE learning to speak and understand English. That is a whole other can of worms. I'm hoping to do an online class soon on what works for me with that group of learners. So let's not talk about them today.

Let's talk about an average week with the seniors, the group I blogged about here last week. In that blog post I mentioned some things that have not worked very well.

No more fighting the translators
Because so many of them have set-in-stone study habits when they emerge from forty years of grammar-translation style second language education, I have abandoned all attempts to pry the translators from their hands. I have read and heard a lot lately about the value of those electronic dictionaries, so now I am working with instead of against them. By compromising and allowing a lot of prep before activities designated as 'no pencils, no dictionaries,' I'm seeing much better levels of cooperation when I ask students to put the machines away just for a little while.

What Happened to PPP?
In response to this post, Geoff Jordan said he was happy to hear about some aspects of how we teach settlement English in Canada, but was "not so pleased to hear that [we] were given the PPP lesson plan as a model." You know what? I am feeling vindicated right about now because within about six months of landing my first teaching job, I was starting to feel like either PPP was unrealistic or I was a defective teacher. I remember trying to get students to the 'free practice' part of the lesson by the end of the class period, and in the case of my lunchtime pronunciation class, that meant get there in under an hour! I did it in the beginning, but it never felt quite right. When I landed the job as teacher of a class full of senior citizens who were always begging me to slow down, I made an executive decision to stray from that model.

So if I am not following Presentation Practice Production or Controlled practice, semi-controlled practice, free practice, then what am I doing every day? That's a good question. I'm not sure I really know or can articulate it well. I know that I am continually listening in on what other teachers do (such as by participating in #CdnELTchat on Twitter, being an active member of Global Innovative Language Teachers on Facebook, attending webinars, reading books, and listening to podcasts by people like Joe Barcroft and Scott Thornbury. I bring all sorts of ideas to the classroom and try them out. Some become part of our routine and others don't withstand the test of time. Following are some of the ideas and practices that have stuck, at least for now.

The Structure of a Module
Everything begins with a needs assessment. Not only do I conduct formal ones at the beginning of each five-month semester, but we often do impromptu votes to help me with minor decisions all through the module.

Secondly, I plan out a module on a particular topic that satisfies one of the needs expressed by the students. For example, students voted to study health. Topics voted for included talking to medical professionals, making appointments, etc. When I mentioned meeting a naturopathic doctor over the weekend at a How to Fair, students perked up. "Would you like me to invite him to speak to you?" They were keen. So we are now doing a module on naturopathic medicine as we gear up for his visit.

I decide what the objective of the module is: have the background knowledge and vocabulary to understand Dr. Oake's talk, to ask him a question or two, and to make an informed decision on whether to seek a consultation from an ND. From there I do task analysis: what skills do we need to build up between now and the presentation? That's what I try to give them over a period of one to two weeks. This particular group has requested no writing and grammar only as the need arises. So I plan some listening, speaking, and reading lessons.

For every module, we make a vocabulary acquisition plan. We keep an easel chart at the front of the class where that module's vocabulary is recorded--often colour coded and grouped by part of speech. We are mindful of which terms promise good 'surrender value,' as Gianfranco Conti calls it. We may quickly turn to COCA to check frequency of use and pencil a number next to the term.

A Lesson
Every lesson begins with a warm-up. Cognitive science tells us that it's helpful to prime the brain for the topic. I use a variety of activities to accomplish this. It could be a brainstorming session where I'm secretary with marker standing at white board, or it could be "think, pair, share" or a KWL chart. I like to activate prior knowledge. My class is made up of engineers, doctors, scientists, pharmacists, etc. They have a lot of knowledge to share with me and with each other.

I would say that from there, things get a little intuitive on my part. I have my very rough plan scribbled out in front of me, but it's not unlike me to completely scrap the plan if I start to feel that it's not going over well. I try to tune into the learners and get a feel for what they need next.

As for that old PPP model, I haven't forgotten it altogether. I loosely follow the idea behind PPP if you consider that early in the week I am asking students to do something with that week's text (audio or written) that is more 'controlled.' I'm trying always to be mindful of the cognitive load of a given activity. In his book Input-Based Incremental Vocabulary Instruction, Joe Barcroft points out that if we cognitively overload students during the initial phase of new lexis exposure, we can actually inhibit uptake / long-term retention of new language! Sometimes I just let students have a block of quiet time with translators. Often I give examples of usage; I pantomime, draw pictures, and pull up Google Images.

I would say that my teaching style is very activities-based. Once I know what is to be achieved in a particular stage of the module, I reach into my grab bag of activities and choose one that I think fits the need while matching the current mood and interest of the class. If we just did a Dictogloss last week, I probably won't repeat that one this week. Some of my go-to activities are:

  • Each one teach one (Divvy up new vocab two terms per partnership. Each pair produces a small poster with definition, pronunciation, example sentence, illustration. Partner A stays with poster while partner B circulates around room as a student, then As and Bs switch roles.)
  • Jigsaw
  • Dictogloss
  • Conversation groups with photo prompts
  • Extemporaneous speaking (E.g., Students line up As across from Bs; I give each A or perhaps both sides an index card with a topical question and they begin to chat. I ring the bell and Bs move clockwise.)
  • Read aloud with focus on good prosody (linking, phrasing, sentence stress, intonation), remembering that English is a stress-timed language a la Cows Eat Grass.
  • Back to the Well with graphic organizers I developed with John Sivell, Professor Emeritus, AppLing, Brock University.
  • Read or tell a short interesting story then do 'circling,' i.e., yes questions, no questions, which/binary questions, wh- questions
  • projects, presentations, posters
  • role plays
  • pair work
  • group work
  • guest speaker
  • one hour of computer lab per week (buffet-style choices, self-directed)
  • field trips
Team 3 - Teaching us how to fish
While I'm stitching together this patchwork of activities with more scaffolding at the beginning of a module, there are certain principles I'm attempting to adhere to. The whole thing might appear to an observer to be heavily influenced by dogme.  Even though it was just my undergrad minor, I feel confident when it comes to applied linguistics. Having studied ten languages and having aced advanced English grammar courses, I feel able to respond in the moment to intriguing questions about a grammar point or even a trivia question. I try not to let these raised hands hijack an entire 2.5 hour class, of course! I check in with the students to see if the majority want the tangent. If not, we may put it in the parking lot for a dedicated lesson. But if it's desired by the majority, I often give 'pop-up' grammar or pronunciation lessons.
field trip
Within the last year I've become aware of The Learning Scientists' website and materials. I've shared them with my students and together we've made it a goal to incorporate the six strategies for effective learning in my teaching and their practice. So for example, instead of three solid weeks of health, we did a week on reviewing parts of the body and organs followed by a week of their second chosen topic, Canadian culture (Thanksgiving), then a return to health. That's interleaving. We also have two fun games we play for big review, a way to revisit past pages of that big easel chart. Supposedly this is going to help us get new language into long-term memory!

You will notice that not once have I had to mention Portfolio-based Language Assessment. That's because I wrote a proposal asking for the seniors to be exempted, and this was granted. :) We still have the big white useless binders that I force the seniors to lug home over the summer break. We maintain the About Me section and sometimes even create artifacts--not an easy task since their abilities span CLB 2 to 8.

In putting together modules for my learners, I tend to create or find one simple audio or written text and use it in a gazillion different ways throughout the week. I long ago learned to, as Leo van Lier once said, "cover less, uncover more." That one text could be from the LINC 1-4 Classroom Activities binder/pdfs or from the Citizenship Resource. It might be a true story about me or a set of pharmaceutical labels. Sometimes, though not often, I do give an explicit grammar lesson, but it is always driven by a need that has arisen while we were using the language, and I always allow students to vote on whether or not to pursue the grammar formally with rules and exercises and all of that. I'd say we agree to that about twice a year. Otherwise, we focus on grammar in context.

Edited to add: I wrote this quickly without much revision or proofreading. Please point out my typos or errors. Also, I notice I didn't say anything under PRINCIPLES about comprehensible input or bottom-up listening activities. These concepts have made it onto my radar but are not yet a fully-formed conscious part of my teaching approach. I'm still studying. I will attempt to blog about emerging practices and principles very soon.


  1. What happened to PBLA? Is it DEAD? Oh, wouldn't that be great news!

  2. This particular class has received permission not to fully implement it. I wrote a proposal with strong reasoning and this was passed up the chain to ??? The answer came back yes, seniors can do a very watered down version.


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