The Basics of Course Planning

As the new academic year comes closer, many of you will be starting to plan your upcoming courses. Educational courses are usually governed by the basic principles of Curriculum Design and language courses are no exception. These principles included, among other things, the following:startup-593327_1280

  • Course goals
  • Course objectives
  • Course materials

However, for many in the English Language Teaching world course design isn’t an integral part of planning and preparation, though it probably should be. Most language teachers simply receive a coursebook from the school and are told to teach it over the course of the year.

The teacher who takes the coursebook and divides it up according to each month of the academic year has already taken a significant step in the right direction. However, this can be taken a little further.

How should a simple language course be laid out? What are course aims? Where does a coursebook fit into a course syllabus? These are some of the questions this post will try to address, so keep reading…  Continue reading

When the Learners Take Over

I can’t remember if it was Jim Scrivener in Learning Teaching or Jeremy Harmer in the Practice of English Language Teaching who said what is important in a lesson isn’t what the teacher does but what the learners do. Either way, it’s a recurring theme in ELT pedagogy, with other notable authors of language methodology referring to the notion of creating an environment which is conducive to learning.team-1480072_1280

In fact, this concept of creating a learning environment in which there are ample opportunities for learning to take place was something I didn’t quite grasp when I first started teaching. However, a few years into the job I came to understand that what is important isn’t what I do, but what my learners do. They are, after all, the ones doing the learning.

It wasn’t until I had finished the Delta that I realised it really is all about the learners. I remember one of my Delta tutors talking about how in a pre-service training course he overheard a trainer describing a committed and excellent teacher is one who runs around the classroom and the school, so much so their clothes stick to them from the ensuing perspiration. Of course, my tutor was quick to point out that if anyone should be sweating from a lesson, it should be the learners – they should leave the room having been pushed to their learning limits.

While that sounds all nice and dandy, it is hard to put into practice. How do you design a lesson which really maximizes learner engagement, so much so that it pretty much removes the teacher from the equation? How do you pass on the learning to the learners to the point that the teacher plays nothing more than a supporting role?

Well, this week I got the opportunity to do just that. Keep reading to find out more… Continue reading

Weekend Traffic Lights

An earlier post looked at learner language and ways it can be used most effectively in-class as a learning tool. However, for a teacher to use Learner Language as a tool for Language Input, the learners actually need to produce some language. The underlying prerequisite to emergent language is that learners be put in a Communicative Situation, so that they can produce language.
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However, getting learners to talk at length about a topic while giving them free reign over what language they choose to use to express themselves is perhaps easier said than done. Not all topics engage all learners, and the ones which do are all often too sensitive or cause divisions, such as politics or religion.

That said, there is one topic which learners are usually willing to talk about at length: the weekend. From the previous post you have 5 ideas for what to do with learner language, so this post will look at a simple classroom activity to get learners communicating and producing some language for you to later feed back on.  Continue reading

Lesson Aims in Dogme ELT

I was first introduced to the concept of Dogme ELT a few years ago. It was a very foreign concept to me at the time, but its attractive promise of an Materials Light approach was invigorating. This was at a time when I wanted to make lessons more Learner Centred and I wanted to spend less time on Lesson Planning in order to spend more time on the learners and on my Professional Development.

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Source: Scott Thornbury’s blog

As you can probably imagine, Dogme seemed to offer all of that and more. Its only requirement was a group of learners and a knowledgeable teacher. Although since then I have learnt far more about the English language then I could have ever thought possible, at the time I felt confident in my understanding of the mechanics of English linguistics.

After purchasing the seminal piece on the topic, Teaching Unplugged by Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings, I immersed myself into the world of dogme-esque ideas, activities and approaches.

Since then I have completed further training, including a course in Advanced Methodology, a Teacher Training certificate, and the Cambridge Delta, all of which has led me to re-evaluate my beliefs and principles about teaching and learning.

As a result, I have found myself coming back to Dogme, with varying results. However, I think this time I have come to a principled conclusion about going materials light. Continue reading

Observing a Real Lesson

There has been plenty of debate in English Language Teaching about the value of observations. Some of the key questions that have come out of the discussion so far have been:correcting-1351629_1280

  • Is the purpose of an observation to develop teachers or check standards?
  • Does a good observer need a plan to understand what is going on in the lesson?
  • Why do schools require written formal plans when this doesn’t happen on a day-to-day basis?

In this episode of The TEFL Show Marek Kiczkowiak and myself got into an extended debate on the subject of preparation, planning and formal observations. In the show, I emphasised how I had always had observations which were focussed entirely on Professional Development and resulted in professional development goals. I also pointed out that I saw the value of formal written lesson plans mainly because this gave the observer a greater deal of insight into the planned intentions of the teacher, which can later be compared with what actually happened during the lesson.

However, this week I had the opportunity to be observed by the Assistant Programme Manager who was quite happy to see a real lesson i.e. no formal written plan, no pre-meeting going over the stages, aims and intended outcomes, just simply watch and observe the lesson.

It has been quite an experience and has made me question how observations are currently executed. Keep reading to find out more… Continue reading

5 Good Learning Habits in the Language Classroom

A while ago I wrote a post about 5 good teaching habits that all teachers should strive to get into if they want to be effective at what they do. Given that learning and teaching is a two-way street and it takes two to tango, I think it is now time to look at what makes for some good learning habits inside the language classroom from the learner’s perspective.

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Each person has their own way of learning. This means that it is difficult to specify universal approaches which would work for everyone. The one-size-fits-all model simply doesn’t work in education, as it is a highly personalized sphere.

However, there are some behaviours which can generally help learners to develop a positive mindset and approach to the Learning Process. While each one might not work for everyone, they are generally good habits to develop in the classroom and the vast majority of learners will see benefits from them.

(1) ASK QUESTIONS

Learning is no mean feat. It would be an understatement to say that learning is not a spectator sport. This is particularly true for Language Learning which requires you to not only acquire new words and grammar but also to be able to apply this knowledge in rapid speech and quickly understand it when listening and reading.

The learning process is greatly enhanced when you are engaged in it. This means not just listening and doing your work but also questioning and querying the tasks you have been given by your teacher.

At any point in a given lesson, for sure you will have plenty of questions buzzing around your head about the topic of the lesson. Just put your hand up and ask. Get into the habit of asking and you will see that your understanding of the language will become deeper and deeper.

One of the great things about questions is that even if a question is initially fairly simple, it often leads to other related questions, which help open up the topic to discussion and thus deeper understanding.

(2) USE EVERY OPPORTUNITY TO PRACTISE

While it might sound cheesy to say it, the old adage of practice makes perfect has never been truer, especially in the case of language learning.

As language is all about communication, becoming an effective communicator, be it in written or spoken form, requires you to be harness and develop that skill.

Effective communication doesn’t develop itself: it comes with plenty of regular practice. Starting and participating in conversations in a foreign language is not initially easy, but if you take every opportunity to practise, then this will become second nature to you.

Opportunities could mean going out and finding someone to practise with, such as in a tandem exchange, but they  can also mean simply making the most of the pair and group work activities your teacher sets you in class. The reason why teachers ask you to work in pairs is so that you have the opportunity to practise communicating at every stage of the lesson.

(3) FOCUS ON THE LESSON, NOT THE NOTES

Too many learners spend a huge portion of their time on writing out excellent notes which are both neatly legible and exhaustive of every word spoken in the lesson. However, this sort of level of note-taking requires a significant amount of energy and focus. In order to do this, you will have to sacrifice a huge part of your lesson time on this activity.

Don’t do this. Language learning is a neurological process requiring plenty of exposure and ample practice. What’s more, real-life communication isn’t conducted on the basis of well-stored notes and vocabulary banks: it’s all about spontaneous reactions and quick-thinking responses.

This means that you should put your efforts in lessons into making only the most essential notes and maximising as much time as possible to activities which help your brain to acquire the language you’re learning, which includes but is not limited to notes, exercises, asking questions and getting plenty of practice.

(4) HANDWRITTEN NOTES ONLY

Recall is a very important factor in learning something, as it’s all about your ability to bring to the front of your mind information and knowledge which is perhaps buried somewhere in the back. That is why revision sessions focus so carefully on how effectively and precisely you recall information from previous lessons.

However, unlike most things in education, recall is not always amplified by technology. In fact, as reported in Scientific America, learners who write notes out by hand outperform those who type their notes on computer, laptops and tablets by a significant margin in exams.

While notes are important, I would recommend trying to get into the habit of making only the most important notes during a lesson and then come back to those notes after the lesson has finished and see if you can use your memory to expand on them and develop them further. This will encourage recall, understanding and application of knowledge.

(5) REVISE, REVISE, REVISE

While a lesson can function as a stand-alone unit on a given topic, learning, recall and applying knowledge does not and cannot work in single unit isolation. Attending a lesson on the Present Perfect most certainly won’t mean you will be able to correctly and effectively both use and understand the Present Perfect tense after one lesson.

That is why it is so important to go back over lessons afterwards. I strongly recommend going over a lesson at least 24 hours after it finished, then once again in the week, and then again in the month.

 

Big Data in Education: Is it now all about the Small Data?

Big Data has been a bit of buzz word for a few years now. As a tool for collecting and processing information en masse, Big Data is supposed to be the solution to marketing problems. By using computers to processes information at a level and rate humans simply cannot, computers can provide companies with detailed information about ourselves, including where we shop, what we search for on the internet and our all our Facebook likes. library-1269924_640

It sounds great if you’re the director of a big corporation looking to make the company’s marketing strategy more effective. But it has ramifications beyond the corporate sector. Some in edtech realised Big Data could be applied to education and jumped on the band wagon. By collecting lots of information about learners and getting a computer to process it, the end result might turn out, thanks to Big Data, to be greatly insightful to the learning institution.

So, has it turned out like that? In short, not quite. Keep reading to find out more… Continue reading