Little pieces of paper

Pieces of paperOne of my favourite ways of capturing and recording language while working with small groups of up to about six language learners is on little pieces of paper. When these pieces of paper have featured in some of my posts, people have remarked on their use and, consequently, I’ve become more aware of how I use them and thought I’d try to write about them in a bit more detail. While possibly too simple a thing to write about, I’ve found them to be a very efficient, flexible and satisfying way to work with learners and their language. So, this is a this-works-well-for-me-it-might-for-you kind of post.

A few years ago, I was meeting with a group of learners in a room without a white board. A brand new building, great facilities, but I got the room without a white board! I brought a portable flipchart with me. I used it much as I would a white board and it was fine. It wasn’t ideal, though. The pages quickly filled up. I couldn’t erase parts of phrases to replace them with alternatives. I couldn’t quickly get rid of evidence that I had made a mistake! And, recovering and reviewing earlier language meant flipping frantically back through the previous sheets. So, not very efficient and not at all flexible.

While working with the learners, we all sat around the same table – much as a group sitting down to dinner would – and when a learner asked about something, or needed a word or phrase, I jumped up to write it on the flip chart. I didn’t mind doing this, but some learners seemed to feel they were putting me out by asking a question, some saying “no, no, it’s ok, you don’t need to write”. So, not very satisfying either.

During one session, I stayed at the table more and wrote the language on paper and put it in the middle of the table so that everyone could see. This had the advantage that I wasn’t using as much paper. To add flexibility, I tore the paper into smaller pieces. I realised that this meant that I could quickly retrieve language used earlier in the session and use it in new contexts. I could also bring similar language together to allow patterns to be noticed. The flexibility meant that learning opportunities were more accessible and exploitable. What might have remained a chaotic list of words and phrases on sheets of A1 paper, became language we could move around, discard, and add to easily.

I started to bring pre-cut paper into sessions with me but when I got the chance to use a room with a white board, I took it, relieved, and started once again to use the board. My board work, however, has always tended towards the chaotic. I start with good intentions, with images of colleagues’ well-organised boards in my head, but it quickly gets out of hand. The board needs to be cleared regularly – after having taken a photo of it, if I remember – and the language at the beginning of the session exists only in memory or on my phone (and, possibly, in the notebooks of learners!)

With small groups, though, I now hardly ever use the board any more. I have my pieces of paper in every session and I use them according to what’s needed with any particular group. I first mentioned them in my first ever post writing about my Tuesday evening ESOL group. They also featured when I wrote about what I had planned, but not how I planned it.

Most recently, I used them with a beginners group of Polish learners when the topic of what they do at Easter came up. Using a version of the language experience approach – putting the learners’ ideas into English – and with the ideas on using translation from George Woolard’s recent publication in mind, we gradually built up and captured their story on the bits of paper, breaking the sentences up into phrases. We read it through and focused on pronunciation. One person was there for the first time and didn’t want to speak in English but had helped to build up the story using L1. Then, I kept the beginning of each sentence where it was and we mixed up the rest of the pieces of paper. Using Google Translate (carefully), I played a translation of a sentence (and variations) in their language for the learners to reconstruct in English using the pieces of paper. We checked the result by playing the sentence in English on Google Translate. (I could have said it myself, but it seemed to give the learners a bit of a boost to hear their sentence said by another voice.)  The new learner participated in reconstructing the sentences by helping to select and arrange the language needed, seeming more confident as the session progressed.

Having the pieces of paper in the middle of the table meant that this was a very collaborative activity, with learners having to work together or at least monitor what others were doing or saying. We were able to start with what the learners wanted to talk about and work with that and, by doing so, the meaning was clear to them from the beginning. I just needed to check that I understood properly before providing an English version for it. And, I now have the set of pieces of paper that I can bring in next week to review and expand the language we encountered.

Following this, a learner wanted to know the word for ‘daffodils’ in English. We found it and I said that this was my favourite flower. For the last 15 minutes we asked and answered questions about our favourite flower, sport, colour, etc, all with the support of a substitution table made of little pieces of paper!

So, this is what I do. I often think that what we choose to do in class is guided by our personalities and how our mind works (or doesn’t). I need to keep things simple! I’d be very interested to hear what you do – either using pieces of paper – or in dealing with chaotic white boards!

What I had planned, but not as I’d planned it!

Thursday found me in a particularly reflective mood and my morning session with a small group of Polish beginners got me wondering about many aspects of my practice. I wondered how I would have done things differently if I’d been being observed and whether I’d have been right to do so. I’ve been wondering about the role, the format and the necessity of a plan and about the use of L1 in a language learning situation. And, today, after reading Phil Longwell’s post on mindfulness I’ve been thinking about how I pay attention to and respond to what’s happening at the present moment.

I was going to expand on some of those wonderings here after sharing an account of my Thursday morning, and I had actually started to but it was getting too long (and I was getting too tired) so, for now, here’s just what happened for anyone who might be interested. I hope it makes sense! I may come back to the ‘clever’ bits at a later date!

I had a plan – of sorts. The week before, we had heard good news about one learner’s son and how one family member was very happy and another was very very happy. We looked at another way to say very very happy and built on this looking at other emotions – one of these being worried. In response to the question, Are you worried? a learner told me that she was worried because she needed another job. In light of this, I thought that the most useful thing for her at the moment would be to be able to tell people what she can do, and that the other learners would benefit from this too. So, we were going to look vocabulary for activities and then at simple sentence structures with I can/can’t and questions Can you? and answers. I had photocopies of a workbook and a printout of a board game to support this.

The learners came in, took a wee while getting settled, and I waited.
When people seemed ready, I asked how they were. They were all ok. Then, there was some discussion in Polish between two learners and out of that came the word ‘mushroom’. One learner, we heard, had been picking mushrooms the day before in the grounds of a big local hotel. I asked if she made soup with them. Yes, I was told. Mushroom soup is very good, another learner contributed. But these mushrooms weren’t only destined for soup. They were also used to make pierogi. There was some more chat in Polish and the English words holiday and Happy Christmas came out of it. Christmas holidays I suggested. Yes. More Polish. I caught tradycja. Tradition, I said. Yes. Pierogi is something they traditionally eat at Christmas – on Christmas eve. What else did they eat at Christmas? What do we traditionally eat in Scotland, they asked. How do they make Polish Stuffed Cabbage? They all chipped in to describe the process, using words they know, dictionaries, pictures, mime and sound. We wrote it down. We checked it was right. We read through it together. We focused on the main verbs – mix, put, fold, pour, boil, eat – and some prepositions – on and in. We separated these from the recipe and then used them to reconstruct the recipe orally – first referring to notes, then from memory.

As we were finishing this, one learner (the one who needs a new job) was looking at a Polish/English picture dictionary and making notes of words related to cleaning. She was still paying some attention to what we were doing as she did this – chipping in now and again – and when we finished she asked me how to pronounce what she had written in her notes. As the need for this was clear, we spent the rest of the session working on this. Writing the verbs on pieces of paper – clean, hoover, dust, mop, polish etc – then adding objects – windows, floor, furniture and so on, all the while clarifying and checking understanding. And then, we added I can, I can’t and Can you?. As the title, says, what I had planned 🙂 but not as I’d planned it! We now had a substitution table made up of pieces of paper and we drilled questions and answers (substitution and chain drills) using the table. Most things the learners could do, so there was little opportunity to practice “No, I can’t” on this particular morning, until, that is, one learner asked another if they could hoover the windows!?!

I plan to do more on this next week…

🙂

Talking Football with Complete Beginners

I’m working with a small group of Polish beginners. We don’t have much shared language but we’re managing each week to communicate through mime, drawings, ELTpics, dictionaries and, increasingly, fortunately, English!

I knew they had recently had a tour around the sports and leisure facilities at the community campus and that they had been really interested in what was available. (I knew because I’d been with them!) So, yesterday, I had planned to work on language relevant to the sports and fitness activities available. I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was going to do – I wanted to see what drew their attention, if anything – but had thought that they might like to understand what activities were available, that it would be useful for them to be able to ask about and understand prices and to learn some vocabulary around swimming – lanes, public, adult, lockers, changing room, lifeguard, towel. So armed with some leaflets from the recreation centre, a laptop from the library – because that might be a better way to show what Zumba was than any mime I could do! – and my ideas, I was ready to see what happened.

The first learner came along. We greeted each other. I asked how he was. He was ok, very very ok. The was a brief silence and he filled it. He asked me if I had watched the football. I hadn’t but I knew about it, just! We started to discuss it and I recorded the lexis needed on my slips of paper. When the other learners arrived I asked if they had watched the football. They had and so we continued. I found out that one of the matches went into extra time and then a penalty shoot-out. I asked if it was exciting. Slips of paper and footballThey didn’t know that word. I mimed but also found it in the Polish-English dictionary. Yes, they all agreed. It was very exciting. Using drawings and mime, they asked how to say goal, goalkeeper and kick. They looked up save and using a variety of sources and strategies we built up a set of football vocabulary – football pitch, referee, whistle, score, half-time, corner, team, red card, yellow card etc.

Two learners had been to Glasgow at the weekend and had seen the Celtic and Rangers stadiums. This took us to a discussion about the weekend. We touched on food too. I’m not sure how this linked to what we were talking about other than one learner remarked that there was no English for bigos in the dictionary. They told me how it was made and what other foods they liked. This part of the conversation served to recycle language from previous sessions – food, like/don’t like, simple sentences.

To review, we came back to the football vocabulary and recapped our discussion and I learned a bit more. I found out that the final is going to be on 19 May, so I’ve told them that after the 19th, we’ll use all the language we found today to talk about it. They asked me if I would watch. I said I would. I will! Who should I support? They said Chelsea.

I enjoyed our session and I think they did too. They took lots of notes, asked questions and introduced new topics. They were interested in the topic and it was relevant to their lives. They’ll have opportunity to use it again soon and, hopefully, it means they’ll increasingly be able to have conversations with English-speaking colleagues and neighbours.

Perhaps, next week we’ll do what I had planned for yesterday…

ESOL Reading Groups

I’ve believed in the value of extensive reading for language development since reading helped me to improve my French while living and working as an au pair in Reims. Reading the books found at the house helped to nudge me out of a period of stagnation. It helped immensely. Not only did I finally find out how Ça y est! was written – something that had been puzzling me for months – but I also felt more fluent. There was more French in my head.

Other people think it might be quite a good idea too. An overview of investigations into extensive reading programmes in Day & Bamford (1998:33) showed that:

Students increased their reading ability in the target language, developed positive attitudes toward reading, had increased motivation to read, and made gains in various aspects of proficiency in the target language, including vocabulary and writing. These programs were in a variety of settings with diverse populations, from young children to adults.

So, now I encourage the ESOL learners I work with to read extensively. I schedule a slot for a reading group and provide, or point them in the direction of, suitable books. It doesn’t take a lot of extra work on my part. The learners do most of the work between sessions, which works out quite well since they’re the ones who want to improve their language!

I’ve had an ESOL reading group for a couple of years now since I proposed starting one to take part in the Six Book Challenge. The idea of a challenge, and the prizes, encouraged the more reluctant readers to give it a go. Participants had to read six books, of any length, in six months. They could choose what they wanted to read. They could choose to listen rather than read. They could even choose to read in their own language (a detail I decided to keep from them!) If you’re in the UK, it’s worth finding out about the challenge because I’ve found it to be quite motivating for lots of different learners. Your local library may be able to support it.

The reading group usually gets together once a month – sometimes more often – to discuss what we’ve been reading, why we haven’t been reading, what we’d like to read and anything else prompted by the stories or books themselves. We started using the graded readers and the Quick Reads from the community library, and have since been slowly building up our own collection of Cambridge English Readers following enthusiastic recommendations from Jez Uden. Learners choose what they want to read to suit their level and interest. It’s completely up to them but I recommend that they choose something that they can read without needing to use a dictionary. Otherwise, they may soon lose interest and motivation. We don’t use any of the exercises that might be included in the books.

Every session is different and we’ve had some really interesting discussions – hearing about one participant’s inspiration for her own novel-writing in her own language, finding out about rationing in Romania, as well as discussing which books we’ll order next with some of the leftover money in the budget! I help out when people need language for the discussions but I try not to correct or focus on language too much during the sessions. I want the feel of the sessions to be different from the language learning sessions. In my mind, the purpose of these meetings is to encourage reading between sessions, by giving a reason and motivation to read, rather than for specific language work during the sessions.

Learners have said they feel that reading has helped them feel more confident about grammar, vocabulary and spelling. By listening along to a CD while reading, they see how words that they know orally are written (or vice versa). They get a boost when they see that the book they’ve just read quite easily shows that they know over a thousand words in English. They are aware of their own progress as they realise that level 2 is now too easy for them and they move on to reading books at level 3. And, they get to use the English they have to discuss their reading and their thoughts with others.

So, that’s what we do! Jez Uden, mentioned above and below, meets in cafés which sounds perfect! I’d love to hear about your experiences of extensive reading for language development – either your own or your learners – or about the thoughts you’ve had about introducing it in your context.

And, if you’d like to explore extensive reading and reading groups further, you might find these links useful to get you started. These include a really interesting British Council Seminar by Jez Uden about the importance of reading for pleasure, a presentation by Richard Day on the Value of Extensive Reading, an article from Alan Maley on the Teaching English site about why extensive reading is good for our students, and advice on how to use graded readers from Rob Waring on the Oxford University Press ELT pages.

Reference:

Day, R. and Bamford, J. (1998) Extensive Reading in the Second Language Classroom, New York: Cambridge University Press

My Tuesday Evening ESOL Group

As I find my way around my new blog, and come to terms with the idea of blogging, I just thought I’d post here my recent contribution to the ELT Dogme yahoo group. I’ve been following the group since I discovered it, and Dogme, at the beginning of 2009. There are lots of interesting discussions there and the posts which have been most helpful have been accounts of work with learners. I thought I should make a contribution. So, this is what I wrote about my group of 13 March 2012…

“It’s a long time since I’ve contributed to this group but I felt it was high time that I shared some of my experiences as I’ve really enjoyed the stories from other members. What follows is a very simple account of a session with one of my ESOL groups. There’s nothing clever or fancy about it, but I do believe that, for this group anyway, it was useful and effective. These particular learners are very positive about their language learning in the group, and that has given me the confidence to finally post something. So…

It had been a busy day, I had arrived home at 5pm and left again 15 minutes later. As I arrived at the library door, two of the learners were waiting for me. Inside, rather than sitting around our usual table, one of them suggested we sit in the armchairs arranged in a circle in the other corner. We sat and started to talk about our day. My contributions prompted questions from the learners that were just beyond their current language abilities, but by using gestures, other words and examples, they communicated their meaning, I supplied the words, wrote them on slips of paper, answered their questions and we continued.

As the other learners arrived, our conversation turned to jobs. I asked the learners about the jobs they had done in their life. We heard that one learner had just got an additional job. We found out that two of the learners had run their own businesses in their country, that two of them had skills to do jobs needed by another learner, and that two were interested in doing some part-time study. The learners are at different levels. When one learner talked, I focused on his use of the past simple, correcting or eliciting self correction. (He understands the concept but doesn’t use it much yet!) With another more proficient learner, I introduced the present perfect continuous. We reviewed the use of ‘used to’. Learners worked hard at expressing themselves, searching for the best way they could say something, and working with other learners to find the word or phrase they were looking for.

As words and phrases were needed and as grammar points came up, I wrote them on slips of paper and put them on the table in the middle of our circle. We reviewed them towards the end of the session. Patterns emerged. In addition to one learner telling us that she had been working since she was 18, we heard that another had been living in his village for 2 years. One of us used to work as a shop assistant, while another used to live in a neighbouring town. Much of the vocabulary related to employment or business.

Individual learners wanted to take home ‘their’ words, but I’ve offered to type them up so that they could all have them. I’m doing that now and will send it out to them. I’ve hyperlinked the grammar points to relevant pages of the British Council’s Grammar Reference web pages and the words to the Macmillan online dictionary, with suggestions on things they could write to use to practise and recycle the language.”

You can read the replies here and, if you haven’t already done so, explore some of the other messages on the ELT Dogme group. It’s a good read!

%d bloggers like this: