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!

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.

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…

🙂

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!

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