12 from ’12 for my 12th!

When I first read about Adam’s 12 from ’12 challenge to highlight our 12 best posts from 2012, I didn’t think it was something I’d do as I hadn’t yet written 12 blog posts. But after some lengthy calculations, I realised that if I counted my first ‘I’m here!’ post, this one would be my 12th!  However, rather than use it to say “Go on, read my posts!”, I’ll instead highlight some of the posts that I’ve enjoyed on other blogs throughout the year.

So, for my 12th post, here are 12 posts that have stood out in 2012!

One post that particuarly stood out for me is P is for Postmodern Method by Scott Thornbury which emphasises the diverse and chaotic nature of language learning and the unrealistic claims made by coursebooks. Scott outlines an approach proposed by Michael Breen in 1999 “that aims exploiting diversity rather than taming it.” This, I believe, is a reassuring read which acknowledges the real challenges faced by teachers and learners in a way that we are then more able to deal with them.

Josette LeBlanc echoes these sentiments in her post The ‘Don’t Know Mind’ and Teaching pointing out that “we use the textbook, we plan a few speaking activities so students can practise the past tense, and of course, we expect our students to be able to use it. To our surprise, the reality is usually very different.” Perhaps we should, she suggests, try entering the classroom with a “don’t know mind”. We could go in, as she quotes Gil Fronsdal, “holding what we know lightly so that we are ready for it to be different.”

That we value diversity is a key point in Genevieve White’s post, In Praise of Introverts, where she encourages us to be aware of and to value the more introverted students. (While you’re there, have a good look around the rest of the blog. There are lots of useful and interesting posts.)

Our awareness of diversity, and our approach to it, is also raised in Tyson Seburn’s post Considerations of the LGBQT in ELT materials where he looks at how LGBTQ issues are portrayed in ELT materials and classrooms and urges us all to “be aware and consider what messages we and our materials send.” An important read!

Just as our learners – their needs and experiences – are diverse, so too are the contexts we work in and some of my favourite blog posts are those that describe actual experiences with learners. I always enjoy a peek at what others are doing. There are many good examples of these and they’re a real pleasure to read but two particularly worth a mention are A Multilingual Lesson from Sam Shepherd and I don’t like bananas, but I like banana chips by Kevin Stein. These are both really nice accounts of interactions in English language learning contexts where there’s space for the learner contributions and for things to go in unexpected but fruitful (sorry!) directions.

In dealing with diversity, we have to be ready to break the ‘rules’. There have been a lot of posts about this topic and one that I really enjoyed was Michael Griffin’s Doing it the right way in the subway station and in class, particularly the pleasure he got not doing it right in the subway station!

Another blogger who has a wealth of useful and informative posts is Rachael Roberts. In her post Mindfulness for Teachers, Rachael describes being mindful in the classroom as being “totally present in the classroom (or anywhere else), time goes very quickly and we are really in a state of heightened awareness, feeling alert and alive. Communication flows easily between us and others and everyone seems to be really focused on the experience of learning.” Sounds good, eh? Her post goes on to provide more information and tips about how to develop mindfulness in the classroom as well as your daily life.

There are many other blog posts with interesting and useful insights and tips for use in the classroom. Of these, I’ve selected three that have particularly struck me and stayed with me.  Leo Selivan, in his Explaining the difference between (near-) synonyms post, reminds us that “with many near-synonyms the difference is purely collocational” a nice insight to pass on to learners to encourage them to pay attention to the company words keep.  Following Kevin Stein’s Some Notes from a Real-Time Journal, I’ve started trying to incorporate the use of a Real-Time journal. I still need practice, but so far the notes I have made have been really useful. In Word of the Week and Other Ideas for Business English, Vicky Loras describes useful and engaging activities that could be easily transferred into other contexts.

Finally, just as I love reading about the experiences of teachers in the classroom, so too do I really enjoy reading about learners’ experiences. Again, there are many good accounts in blogs, but I have to highlight Ken Wilson’s Diary of a Language Learner. Ken’s posts are such a pleasure to read that, although he is already a very well-known blogger, I had to include him in this my very first blog challenge contribution!

Thank you to all the bloggers mentioned here for the posts that have caused me to think, reflect, try new things, and smile! (By the way, if any of these bloggers are new to you, be sure to look around the rest of their blogs.) Thank you also for all the others I’ve  read throughout the year – the posts are such a great resource for practitioners around the world –  but unfortunately there are just too many to mention. And, thanks finally  to Adam for the challenge! 🙂

Encouraging Talk, Encouraging Learning

I was asked recently to give an ESOL workshop to volunteer literacies tutors. While all are experienced and well trained to use a social practices learner-centred approach with a range of literacies learners, the majority would not have had ESOL specific training. Also, many would be working one-to-one with a learner, either on their own or in a group setting. I thought for a long time about what would be most useful for them and what we could look at in the one hour we would have. After a few false starts in my planning, this is what I went for in the end (without the interactive bits).

ESOL Curriculum Framework The ESOL learner, like the literacies learner, is at the centre of the process. It’s what they want and need to be able to do in their contexts that should be the focus, helping them to become confident language users, successful language learners, responsible multilingual citizens, and effective communicators (and contributors!) The starting point should be the learner – not the grammar, the vocabulary or the skills.

The wealth of material around English language teaching can be confusing and overwhelming to those new to it. The focus on grammar and skills that comes across in many publications and in initial training courses can lead new practitioners to wonder how we can apply a social practices approach to working with ESOL learners. The approach outlined in Teaching Unplugged offers what seems to be an ideal solution. As the authors, Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury, remind us:

“Learners are your primary resource. They have stories to tell, ideas to explain and feelings to describe.” (Meddings & Thornbury, 2009: 24)

They go on to say that:

“Allowing learners to express themselves, encouraging them to do this to the best of their ability, and showing them how they can do this more effectively, is the essential work of the unplugged teacher.” (Meddings & Thornbury, 2009: 24)

This is also the essential work of a literacies worker. The main differences  would be that there is usually less shared language and often more focus on improving speaking  with ESOL learners. So, building on the previous two quotes, we had one more from an NRDC Effective Practice Study which suggested that:

“One of the main tasks is to encourage classroom talk, transforming talk into learning and learning into talk.” (Baynham, Roberts, et al, 2007: 54)

As this study also highlighted, ‘talk is work’ in ESOL. But before we can take advantage of the learning opportunities offered by talk, we need to encourage the learners to talk. Some learners are very keen to express themselves and have lots to say. Others though, particularly new learners who are getting to know us, are nervous, hesitant, not sure if they should talk, if they can talk, and will need encouragement. So how do we do this?

Create the right atmosphere. We all do this already. Put the learner at ease, smile, laugh. Show interest and respect. Establish good rapport and treat them as equals and as fellow speakers of English (and other languages). This is what I was getting at in the post Language use for learning.

Allow space for the learner to make contributions. Build longer pauses into your own talk. It’s not comfortable to do this. We don’t easily tolerate pauses in a conversation but it’s worth getting used to. Learners need time to process what’s been said and what they want to say. Leaving space before we start an activity or topic will provide an opportunity for learners to bring up their own topic and this will usually be more relevant and memorable for them – you can always save what you’d planned for the following session. Not rushing to speak when a learner hesitates will allow them to continue their turn, to have the time to find the words and phrases themselves, and to allow them to initiate a topic change. A study by Scott Thornbury and trainee teachers showed that the time a teacher waits after asking a question was usually very short but that “even slight increase in wait time result in an increase in the quantity and quality of learner contributions and an increase in the number of learner questions.” (Walsh, 2011: 39-40)  (I’ll let Rachael Roberts tell you more about the wonder of wait time.)

Use prompts. Bring something along that you think will interest the learner. This could be anything – questions, texts, activities. It could be photos (ELTpics perhaps? ;-)), visuals, or visualisation tools like those featured in the Reflect ESOL approach.  When getting to know learners, I’ve found that things like maps & visualisation tools often work well. The focus is off the language and the conversation and on something that can be understood without much language, but a lot of information can be shared. It is, of course, important to be sensitive to difficult areas in a learner’s life that they may want to avoid talking about. You can also encourage learners to bring things along and to ask questions. It’s important for learners to get a lot of practice asking questions so that they’re not always the ones in the less powerful position of answering and responding – whether in the learning situation or the wider community.

By encouraging learner talk, by conversationalising all work, and being open to ‘off topic’ contributions, we find out more about them – both their interests and what they can do in the language – even about complete beginners, communicating through mime, drawings and dictionaries. This continues to give us information we can use to plan future sessions and gives us a place to start building on their language. So, how do we help learners develop their language? Selecting and adapting ideas from Teaching Unplugged… again, the following are some of the ways that practitioners could work with the language.

React, recast, record, research, repeat, review, recycle

Before focusing on the language, react first to what is being said, to what the learner wants to communicate.

Recast the learners utterances by reformulating what they say to make it more like what we would usually hear. A lot of people, whether language teachers or not, will have a tendency to do this anyway. Parents and teachers do it with children as they are learning the language and university lecturers do it with new students becoming part of a new discourse community.

As we reformulate or help with vocabulary, we should make sure that we record the new language so that we can focus on it and come back to it. One of my favourite ways of recording the language that comes up in a session with small groups is on little pieces of paper (you can move them around, notice patterns, add to them). As you help learners with words and phrases they need to express themselves, write them down and keep listening. At an appropriate point – you may not have to wait until the end of their story (as long as you come back to it) – focus on some of the language more closely.

That appropriate point might need to be the following session after you’ve had a chance to research the language. You can refer to other sources – grammar books, coursebooks and online reference sites – between sessions and you can also refer your learner to them.

But your own knowledge of the language – through using it (& increasingly reflecting on it) yourself –  is also going to be useful for your learners. You know what sounds right. You’ll know if a word is missing or if something doesn’t sound right and how it would sound better. [In the workshop, we looked more closely at some language that had come up in one of my recent ESOL groups, prompting the participants to notice similarities and differences, patterns, pronunciation and collocation, and how a focus on the language could then bring us back to conversation.]

So you react to the message, you reformulate and help as needed (but not jumping in too quickly), you record and focus on the language. Repetition is a useful strategy. Learners can repeat a word or a phrase to make sure they have the pronunciation right, or to practice producing a longer sentence after you.

Repeating an activity can be a really valuable exercise. Studies have shown that simply repeating a task improved learners’ accuracy and fluency. I’ll let Rachael tell you more about this too, because this post is getting too long – Task repetition: helping students to improve accuracy, repertoire and fluency.

It’s then important to review and recycle the language. The language can be reviewed at the end of the session. Learners can be asked to recall the language by being reminded of the context it came up in, or by giving a definition or a synonym that they’ll recognise. Learners can select some of the language they think they’ll be able to use after the session, think of how they’ll be able to use it, in which contexts, rehearse and then use it and report back. Language can be reviewed and recycled in future sessions, in a range of planned activities or further conversation. As you become increasingly aware of the learners’ needs and interests, it’ll be easier to select other activities from the many sources around – in course books or resource books, on blogs or websites, or from colleagues.

That’s an as-brief-as-I-can-make-it overview of what we did. There is so much more I would have liked to talk about but we only had an hour. There were good discussions and I’m hoping it was useful for and useable by the participants. I’ve heard that the feedback on the day was positive.

If you’ve made it this far… well done and thank you! I wasn’t sure I was going to manage to the end myself 😉

So, as a wee reward, here’s some suggested further reading.

  • A Multilingual Lesson by Sam Shepherd’s blog. This is a lovely example of creating the right conditions for genuine communication and consequently language learning.

References:

Baynham, M., Roberts, C., Cooke, M. and Simpson, J. (2007) Effective Teaching and Learning: ESOL. London: NRDC. (Also available online.)

Meddings, L. and Thornbury, S. (2009). Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. Peaslake: Delta Publishing.

Walsh, S. (2011). Exploring Classroom Discourse: Language in Action. Abingdon: Routledge.

Adrian Underhill and the Sounds of English

Adrian Underhill's Phonemic Chart

Adrian Underhill’s British English Phonemic Chart

Adrian Underhill’s phonemic chart has been something I’ve admired for a while… from a distance. It’s something I felt I should have a better handle on and something I wanted to become more familiar with. Instead, however, I found reasons and justifications not to and, knowing a bit about ways to help learners with pronunciation, I got by without it. Or, at least, I thought I was getting by. I hadn’t realised just how wonderfully clever and useful the chart was and that although the symbols in the chart are taken from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), it is not about phonetics, it’s about phonemes – the sounds of English.

So, this weekend, thanks to SATEFL, Macmillan English and Adrian Underhill, I was enlightened. As Adrian took us through the sounds on the chart, showing us how they are organised according to how and where the sounds are made, and how the sounds relate to each other, there were ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of realisation around the room. I won’t reproduce all that we discovered here. There are better sources for that and I’ll post a few links at the bottom. I just want to share some of what I took from the workshop: Making pronunciation physical, visible, audible!

This approach to pronunciation is an approach of awareness, helping learners (and teachers) to understand how the sounds are made physically and how aspects of that physicality distinguishes one sound from another.

Pronunciation is the physical aspect of language. If we see grammar and vocabulary as being a 2-dimensional matrix, pronunciation provides the 3rd dimension giving language body and volume. Language learners may know how a word should sound, they may hear it correctly in their head, perhaps even in their own inner voice. However, what they know about the language differs from what they can do with that language because they don’t yet know or haven’t yet mastered how to use their muscles to produce the correct sounds. We learn how to speak at a very young age, just as we learn to walk or pick things up, and these physical actions became automatised. Using the phonemic chart, as Adrian suggests, we can help learners to reconnect with the muscles used for the physical actions of producing sounds, and by doing so enable them to better engage these muscles to manipulate the sounds.

The chart serves as a map of where to find the sounds in the mouth. For instance, if we look at the consonants in the bottom half of the chart, the sounds on the left are made nearer the front of the mouth than the sounds on the right. Try it! Read the sounds from left to right while paying attention to how you physically produce the sounds and how that changes as you move from left to right. Similarly, with the vowels in the top left quarter, the higher they are in the chart, the higher the tongue is when you say the sound.

By using the chart, and by moving between sounds on it, we can help learners become aware how the muscles are used in different ways to make different sounds and help them locate what Adrian describes as the muscle buttons: the tongue, the lips, the jaw and the voice. Then, rather than simply trying to imitate what they hear using the muscles in the same way as they do to speak their first language, language learners are in a better position to be able to change how they physically produce sounds.

While I knew about the physicality of pronunciation, and how the use of tongue, lips, voice etc made the difference, I hadn’t realised just how good a resource Adrian Underhill’s Phonemic Chart is. This is something that can be introduced to learners on the first day – not to teach them the phonetic symbols but to help them to reconnect with the muscle buttons they need to be able to manipulate in order to make the sounds. As Adrian pointed out, “You can’t have a sound syllabus. You need them all now.” and also that, “You need all 12 vowels because they each define what the other isn’t.” And, here they all are, in the chart!

If you ever get the chance to see Adrian present live, go! In the meantime, there’s his blog, adrianpronchart.wordpress.com, which contains and links to a wealth of information and resources.

There’s quite a nifty wee Sounds app.

Onestopenglish has an interactive phonemic chart.

And, there’s also Adrian’s workshop introducing teaching pronunciation using the chart which has been made available on YouTube.

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