Teaching and Learning

Useful: teacher development days

At some point or another you will attend some form of staff development as a teacher. Some of this will be mandatory, uninspiring crud (pretty much anything which is policy driven and/or delivered online). Some of it will be uninspiring crud delivered through the time honoured medium of PowerPoint and poor attempts at humour and carefully sycophantic laughter. And some of it, very probably the smallest amount, will actually have a positive impact on your classroom practice. Some of the more experienced teachers out there may sneer at this, particularly after a long career of being droned at by SLT, or worse, a highly paid consultant, but I promise you it is out there, and it does happen. 
I’m one of the lucky ones. We regularly organise internal, department specific training based on aggregated observation feedback, suggestions from staff, and the occasionally “just for the sheer hell of it”. And these sessions are, by and large, well received with positive feedback. They also have impact: genuine, measurable impact as teachers go out and put some of the ideas into practice: if it wasn’t useful, it would be ignored, but it isn’t. 
So why do these things work? It’s easy to knock holes in standardised training: after all, “standardised” is pretty much a synonym for “one size fits all”. However, our departmental training works because of a number of factors.
For one, it’s almost always practical. Sure, there has to be a bit of information giving, but we’re lucky in having a department head who recognises that this needs to be kept short and to the point: we find out what we need to find out. There sometimes has to be standardisation of assessment or exam practices, but again, while not perhaps the most thrilling of activities, it’s still important and, crucially, useful. This is the crucial word: useful. For staff training to work it must be based around practical, useful stuff: more often than not, something which working teachers can take away and use, possibly in the next teaching week. Take our most recent event, for example: an introduction from the Head of Department, followed by three short, informative and useful sessions on pace and teacher talk, on assessment for learning and on stretch and challenge. Each of the sessions had something useful, whether those things were on your areas for development or not: a nifty PowerPoint task, ideas for planned and on the fly differentiation, whatever, all useful.  

It worked as well because while some of the impetus and content was top down, there was no sense of hierarchy. Ideas were shared by workshop leaders, of course, but there was a strong element of professional respect: of teachers sharing with pride but also recognising that the people you are sharing with are at least as good and as professional a teacher as you. 

There is also a sense of equality of content: rarely is there the imposition of “best practice” from above but rather just “what do you think will work?” Sometimes you simply had confirmation that your ideas are ok, other times you had new ideas or new twists on old ideas. 

This is a leadership issue: these events are generally conceived and developed by managers who are also teachers, rather than managers who are ex-teachers (if you have given up day to day teaching to become a manager, you are an ex-teacher. You have, after all, ceased to teach. You are pushing up the pedagogical daisies). 

The knock on effect of the focus on usefulness and equality is that the teachers involved want, by and large, to be there. Imagine, in teaching terms, you have students who want to be there, who want to get something from the session, and expect to get something from the session, and this is what is achieved. People come, and people learn. 

Trainers, consultants and the rest all too often forget that they are dealing with learning: somehow all the pedagogical principles that you get hauled over the coals for forgetting are conveniently abandoned. Ideas like being meaningful, having purpose, being relevant, valuable and, of course useful all get abandoned by the lazy trainer with a PowerPoint and a tacky YouTube video. If you want stuff development days to work, f you want to effect change and improvement, then you cannot afford to be a lazy teacher. You must make what you have to say have value, be applicable, be useful. And if you can’t do that you shouldn’t be telling other people how to teach, let alone observing them. 

Too much Teacher Talking Time

TTT vs STT: easily one of the great CELTA shibboleths, and excessive TTT is by far one of the most common problems for both new and experienced teachers of ESOL, and therefore it’s very easy to say “reduce TTT” as an action point. 

I’ve not written it as an action point for literally years, however, because, when you think about it, it’s really rather useless as an area to develop. 

The trouble is “reduce TTT” completely fails to get to the root of why the excessive teacher talk is happening, and therefore fails to address the actual problem. Far more useful is to think about why excessive, unnecessary or distracting teacher talk happens. 

The obvious one is explanations. This is particularly true of new teachers, or of teachers who have a background in first language medium education. I blame the reductive nature of Presentation-Practice-Production (PPP) as well, where the word “presentation” is inevitably interpreted as droning on about auxiliary verbs with some natty graphics via PowerPoint. The trouble is the limiting nature of this kind of “telling people stuff” – more often than not, ESOL classes are conducted in English, and with the exception of particularly high level classes, the students don’t always have the language to process the explanation. Even where students do have the language and the meta-language to cope with explanations, the input needs to be monitored and checked to make sure that the students are actually taking the language on board. Ten minutes of waffle followed by a gap fill is highly likely to be pretty ineffective. Ten minutes of clear presentation engaging students with questions and checking, however, is much more likely to improve the students’ language. Alternatively there might be some sort of carefully constructed guided practice task, allowing students to analyse language in context then make generalisations about that language, forming theories about language and structure and reformulating interlanguage. 

Then there are instructions. Even speaking the same language can make for mistakes in instructions, but again, giving instructions in English to students whose English is developing is far more likely to result in miscommunication. This tends to lead to a polite uncomprehending silence, which novice teachers like to fill with repeated instructions, rephrased usually just in the right way to add to the confusion. This, naturally leads to deep, horrible silence which only grows as the teacher gets frustrated and embarrassed. In the worst examples of this, the teacher gets cross with the students for not understanding, projecting their own frustrations on the students. Instruction checking questions rarely help, I think: a silly idea that does more harm than good. Teachers are usually better off by breaking the task down and explaining one step at a time, rather than explaining the whole task all at once. Even where students do understand the task, there is sometimes a brief pause while students process the instructions, and it takes a bit of skill and experience to resist the urge to fill in the time. And sometimes the silence occurs because the task is simply badly designed, or cognitively unfamiliar or complex: even a simple crossword takes some training, regardless of the simplicity of the vocabulary. 

The other TTT sin is filling gaps in speaking tasks, where the aim of a task is to practise speaking but the students don’t actually speak to each other. You don’t deal with this by reducing your teacher talking time, but rather by asking yourself why they aren’t speaking and making changes accordingly. It’s rarely because of excessive TTT but more often because of the quality of the task. Perhaps, and this is definitely a novice teacher mistake, the task lacks communicative structure and focus: “just talk to each other about [insert topic here]” rather than “find out 3 things about your partner”. The students aren’t talking because “just talk” is a dumb activity. 

The problem, then, is not reducing TTT, but rather lies in where the teacher talk restricts or limits the opportunities for student talk. If we say “reduce TTT” we need to consider what will replace this, and hopefully this is Student Talking Time, and developing opportunities to increase student talk time: instead of a teacher led presentation with individually targetted questioning, what about some sort of peer driven guided discovery task which allows students not only the chance to work out new language for themselves but also to interact using current language, consolidating that language and developing speaking  skills. Use calm clear instructions and, yes, wait a second to give the students chance to get on with the task. Devise practise activities that give students opportunity to speak communicatively, with a purpose to that speaking, and again (I will repeat this til I die) “just talk about X” is not purpose. Even in a dogme-ish unplugged setting, perhaps especially so talk has to have purpose, even if the language coming from the talk is not strictly planned. Include peer checking of practice activities as standard: it should be part of the routine, to the extent that you may not even have to give the instruction. 

“Reduce TTT” in and of itself remains a useless area for development. It suggests that if you shut up a bit, everything else will follow. But TTT is not all bad, and “too much” can be dangerously subjective: it shouldn’t be about the quantity of TTT, but rather the quality. It’s a fun developmental experiment to walk into class, sit down and reduce TTT to zero, and say nothing, but it isn’t going to automatically create lots of student talk (until the complaints start, of course…). We need to think about how our activities increase student talk, improve student talk by maximising those chances. Talk, as they say, is work in the ESOL classroom, and the more and better the students are talking, then the more likely you are to reduce your TTT to what is needed and nothing else. 

Designing materials 

There’s an assignment on CELTA called authentic materials. Its main purpose is to get trainee teachers thninking about selecting materials and designing tasks to practice language skills, as well as developing their awareness of what language or skills practice could develop from a particular text. Now, I am pretty sure that none of my trainees are currently following my blog (but a big “Hi” to you if you are) so I reckon I can get away with essentially writing about 70% of an assignment for them. And if they are reading and having sneaky “late CELTA stressed and panicky” thoughts about plagiarism, it’s worth noting that you would have to be a complete purblind numpty to make serious, academic use of an unreferenced, informal blog post published on a free platform. Not to mention the small fact that the person who will be marking that assignment also has access to this blog.

So anyway, the text I have chosen is this one from the BBC. It would be for my evening class, and / or perhaps my Thursday morning class, and I’ve chosen it because it’s inherently quite interesting, if nothing else, to think above why people should ever care whether a cake is a biscuit or vice versa. It’s also got an interesting discussion in the second half around meaning and about how we categorise the world and a discussion raising important gender fluidity and transgender issues. This latter, as well as being interesting, is also going to challenge a few preconceptions, raise some eyebrows and very possibly some voices. All for the good, then. 

So the activities then. First up I’d probably take in some realia in the form of Jaffa cakes. Officially, at work, eating in the classroom is banned throughout college (because, apparently, working adults have the same behaviour issues as 16 year olds…) so the idea of an eminently justifiable bit of cake/biscuit scoffing is quite appealing to my polite middle-class rebel alter ego. After eating, or at least tasting and looking at a Jaffa cake, I might get the students to think of words to describe be taste or appearance of said Jaffa cake. I’d maybe also bring in some digestives or Rich Tea, to my mind that most archetypal of biscuits and compare them. Bit of plenary feedback, then to discuss “is it a cake or a biscuit?”

Then I’d ask them to read the text and tell me to answer the same question. Strictly speaking this isn’t what we might call gist reading: that would be much broader as a task (like “is the article about: cakes/biscuits/words” or something. However (and I’m sure there’s a reference somewhere for this) reading for gist is potentially quite hard to do, and actually what I want to do is get the students to have an idea of the shape of the article, so that when they come to the more comprehensive reading task shortly, they will find it a little easier. Gist reading is a skill in and of itself and should be taught distinctly: I know I have historically treated it as the poor cousin of the reading skills family, and I need to address this. 

So anyway, moving on. Next up: checking the answer, which is “legally it’s a cake, but who knows”. I know some students will be frustrated by the lack of clarity to the answer, but that’s sort of the point, and I would mollify them by pointing out the purpose of the task, as outlined above. The checking would take place as part of a standard routine I attempt to develop in this setting: check with your partner/monitor discussions/quick whole group discussion if necessary. 

Then the main reading. It’s a hefty article so I might do one of two things. I could chop it off halfway down, which would lose the interesting discussion around transgender identity. Alternatively, I might keep it whole and have two sets of questions, one for each half. I would then direct the whole group to do the first set, then have the second half (which is, I think, linguistically and cognitively more challenging) with two types of question: a couple of gist-y “what do you think?” type of questions, and some more challenging true/false questions for the stronger students in the class. 

The detailed reading might include scanning (what do these numbers refer to…?) and more intensive reading, like “name two qualities, according to the text, which distinguish cakes from biscuits.”

Again, checking would take the form of peer checking followed by whole group clarification of any answers which caused discussion, and a general reporting back of any interesting questions arising. 

Now, the CELTA activity asks for two possible follow up activities. I’d be tempted to do some vocab work, maybe a matching task to get students to look at how words are used metaphorically (3 columns: match, for example “cap/veneer/sibling” to its traditional meaning and to the meaning in the text). I might get the students to look at humour and tone: “most humans are not topped with chocolate”, “Wittgenstein..partial to a bun”, the use of hyperbole in “the greatest invention since…”, or perhaps the vein of confectionary and baking related vocabulary and analogy (a sweet result, trifling, reheated). 

There might be some grammatical work: it’s a long text but it doesn’t repeatedly use any specific structure repeatedly enough to justify. However I might ask students to find examples of structures they had recently studied, or with which they should already be familiar, as a kind of recap / assessment.

The other obvious follow up is a discussion task: linguistic archetypes, what do words mean, why do we think about transgender identity, and how is language gendered, perhaps. Id maybe get students to talk about their own languages as well. 

And that’s how it’s done. I’m 17 years into this, and I can do it without much thought as to structure of the tasks or the lesson. It’s easy to forget how hard this is for a novice teacher, but also what an achievement it is when they do design something successful. I wouldn’t pass the assignment, mind you. I’d have to go and read books, which would probably be no bad thing in terms of professional development. After all the last time I seriously looked into language teaching and learning research was probably four or five years back. But I don’t know if I would find much has changed in task design: perhaps I’ll go and find out….

Purposeful

Here’s a question for you. How do you go about making an ESOL lesson “purposeful”? ESOL lessons can, indeed should be wandering and tangential, building on opportunities that arise, but this doesn’t have to be at the expense of being purposeful 

As a starting point, let’s clarify what we mean. Oxford dictionaries give us three options

  1. Having or showing determination or resolve
  2. Having a useful purpose
  3. Intentional

It would be fun to discuss the first of these, but I think that would be semantic nitpicking of the most irritating kind, and we would end up talking about resilience or similar. 

And I don’t really think that the second meaning is terribly pertinent. Or rather it is pertinent but it is sort of the whole point of language learning in a second language environment: it’s the motivational wood we can’t see due to the trees. ESOL learning should have a useful purpose: it’s not academic study for the sake of it. ESOL students usually have a useful purpose behind their motivation for learning, and while humdrum daily reality shouldn’t be the only context for learning (although it’s a lazy quick win for an observation) it is, however, the main context in which students wil be using the language. 

No, I rather suspect that when you hear talk of purposeful learning, the meaning is the third: learning activities should be intentional. This suggests a couple of things: conscious engagement on the part of the students; and a clear something that the students can take away from the lesson. 

Conscious engagement, then. It’s becoming widely accepted, I think, that a lecture, if delivered interestingly with learning checked throughout, can be a damn good way of getting a stack of information across. No problems there, as long as what you are teaching can be taught using the same language as your students. But even for teachers who share a first language with all their students, then there is still a need for the students to make use of the language: theory and practical in one lesson, if you like. Engagement is crucial for production of language, that crucial stage of language learning which consolidates the learners’ understanding, tests it out, and provides you as a teacher some idea of how much or how well the students have learned. 

Which brings me to the second, and I think the most pertinent point: students taking something away from the lesson. I’m going to stick my neck right out on this one and say that in none of my lessons do I expect my students to come away with the target language or language skill fully developed. Not a single one. And neither should you. Students might be closer to full automatisation of the language point, be better able to apply a language skill, but I would be very surprised if I taught something in lesson A and the students were able to the reproduce exactly and in other contexts that language point in subsequent lessons. I was praised once because of apparent “deep learning” when a student had a lightbulb moment about relative clauses in an observed lesson, but despite this, the student was still unable to generalise and apply the thing she had apparently “deeply” learned. 

The problem is that we aren’t dealing with knowledge as discreet from application, but rather we are dealing with knowledge and application simultaneously. It’s of limited value to ask students to tell you the rule: it’s a start, and it does have value, but I’d genuinely question “explain the rule” as a sole learning outcome. I’d be looking at application of the language: what can students do with it?

But this then raises the big question: what are the learning outcomes? The usual “SMART” definition is of no help here: the S is fine, I think, but as soon as you go down the rest of the acronym you end up with a description of the activity. But if your outcome is simply “be better able to use passive voice”, then, how do you assess the learning taking place? Well, you listen to the students, you read their writing, you assess their performance in controlled and freer activities, all sorts. And different learners might demonstrate their skill in different ways, in an often unpredictable manner. And either way they will only be a bit better able to use the language, so why pretend to anyone that “use passive voice accurately and independently in six sentences or utterances” is at all meaningful. SMART outcomes limit and restrict learning in this context and dogged insistence on creating measurable performance is only going to lead to contextualised, limited and unrealistic performance. 

Assessment is part of the problem with this sort of atomising of language. I’ve taught enough higher level students who’ve “performed” at a particular level but have clearly not learned. I have had level 1 learners still struggling both conceptually and productively with first person present simple, and yet they and the system believe that they are “working at” entry 3. They’ve got a certificate and everything. This creates frustration all round: a student who believes they have achieved a level, a teacher who has to cope with managing that discontent. Summative and formative assessment based on tidy outcomes too easily reduces learning into neat observable tics, when proper formative assessment is complex and ongoing. It’s listening to students and correcting spoken language, reading what they have written and telling them what needs changing (and how).  Expressing these things as assessable outcomes, however, creates the false impression of achievement: take an outcome at face value and you have to say “so what?” So what if a student can use third person singular in six different sentences at entry 1: they’ll still be making mistakes with it three years later in a level 1 class. And if I say “oh it’s ok, what I really mean is “know a bit more about third person singular”, then what’s the benefit of the measurable outcome? None that I can see. What does a learner understand from that outcome? All of which assumes, of course, that we can set that outcome without teaching the language point first.

But saying, for example, a non-SMART intention like “today’s lesson will focus on passive voice, vocabulary to do with the environment, and practising reading for gist” is purposeful. For  one, students have a chance of understanding what this means. They can see how the activity they are doing is likely to lead to them knowing more about the language point, or developing that skill.  And as long as you are given the opportunity to listen to and carefully monitor what the students are saying and doing, and think about what they are likely to know about that language, then there should be no concerns with students being bored or lacking challenge. Setting the measurable outcome is well intentioned but deceptive at best, blatantly mendacious at worst. Purpose is perfectly achievable without specific outcomes, but it does involve being clear and honest with the students about what will be happening in the lesson. 

When the students know it is bad. 

In one of my earliest lessons, whilst doing my initial certificate, I really screwed up. Oh man, did I ever screw up. There are screw ups who can only dream of screwing up that badly. The lesson, a badly judged hour on adjectives for an upper intermediate group, had involved ages of painstaking work on planning and resources (cut out of fluorescent card, for reasons lost to posterity), to result in thirty scraped, desperate minutes at the end of which my trainer stood up and finished off the lesson while I sat in a corner with my day-glo cards and optimism in tatters in the floor. To my credit, I knew it was dying, I knew it was bad, just by the slow, deadly collapse of student interest and the polite, albeit frustrated, sympathy on the students’ faces. Unfortunately, being three hours into teaching, I just didn’t know how to make it stop, short of running from the room and never coming back. I have the expressions on the students faces burned into my memory, and the shame, oh the shame. 

(This wasn’t the only excruciating moment on that course; honourable mention should go to the oh so embarrassing hand out I did which I claimed was about the past tense of “have” but was, in fact, about the past perfect and my furious Wiltshire born insistence that the “r” in “car” was widely pronounced. Yes, I do know these are incredibly geeky things to be embarrassed about.) 

Since then, of course, I have been impeccable as a teacher. Mostly. Sometimes. Or at least occasionally, but always, always, the most affecting, most devastating feedback I have ever been given on a lesson is from students. This feedback, can take many forms, of course, through indirect feedback like the stony expressions as you flog the dead horse of your lesson to death. Students may simply tell you directly that said horse should have been put out of its misery a long time ago; although in my experience of such things, adult ESOL students sometimes find this hard, almost embarrassing, perhaps because they come from a culture of trust and respect for teachers. If anything, however, this makes it even worse: the very fact that for some students it is hard to give negative feedback to a teacher makes it all the more important to respond to that feedback appropriately and with respect. 

Sometimes, of course, a problem is not one of your own practice, as such, but of student belief or expectation: for example where a student thinks there are “too many games” because you use game-like information gap activities for speaking practice, or because they have unrealistic expectations about their abilities, and want to take an advanced exam by next Thursday. But whether it be the cold, stony silence of polite disengagement, or the niggling chatter of a disinterested group, or perhaps a student with an eloquent, genuine comment which is clearly rational, and based on the opinions of their classmates, you can tell if the problem is real, because, deep down, you know full well you have messed up. 

Student feedback, perhaps more than any other, triggers guilt. Guilt, as Yoda never quite said, leads to anger, and anger leads to the Dark Side. In this case, however, rather than donning a scary black mask and throttling people through the power of the force, one merely gets defensive, albeit sometimes aggressively so. It is, after all, genuinely upsetting to be told you’re not doing as good a job as you hoped. And maybe you feed on this, and you respond negatively to the students, all defensive and cagey “it was the lights/the management/the direction of the wind”. Or perhaps you internalise and dwell on it and lie there awake at 4 am wondering what you have done, and whether you are in the right job, and wouldn’t it just be better for everybody if you stopped now. 

Both of these, while human, and understandable, are also deeply unproductive. They are indeed the Dark Side of professional reflection: and as such we should all be good Jedi and move beyond them. Whether the feedback is direct, as in a student complaint, or indirect (my stony faced certificate class), then take it on board, and, crucially, change. Because that is the only thing you can do. If you don’t change then you might as well give up. Getting defensive with the students, or indeed with anyone, is pointless: listen to the complaint, notice what has gone wrong, make sure you understand it, promise to take action then, and this is the important bit, take it. 

Everyone wins. Students are happier with their course, and with you. It helps to rebuild a bit of faith and trust between you and the students, which makes teaching a whole load easier. It also helps you become a better teacher. A much better teacher because you are a better learner. You have received information (feedback), and changed your behaviour based on it. That, I reckon, is a fair definition of professional learning, and any teacher who isn’t learning is either lying or dead. Sure, students need and deserve good teaching, and you can come over all quality control assurance at me if you want, but as a teacher perfection is a rare thing, and learning is what we are all about. As teachers we learn from feedback and reflection, and students are one of the best sources of information on how well we are doing. 

So yes, make mistakes, get it wrong and listen to your class, but, as Samuel Beckett said: No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. 

Nobody Expects Dimples

This week I taught two lessons which reminded me of the richness that letting the students lead on the content can create. The first lesson was on Tuesday night – a Level 1/Level 2 group on the theme, broadly, of “life stages”. It was meant as a build up to a listening activity based around this recording from the BBC’s excellent Listening project, but took on a bit of a life of its own.

The activity was a variation on the game of consequences. At the top of the page I had printed “Be born”. Students worked in pairs and added the next thing that thought would happen. They then passed it to the next pair along who added another idea, and so on. I mixed things up a little, taking a lead from a chapter in 52 by Lindsay Clandfield and Luke Meddings and every now and again asked the students to put something bad as the next event.

Some of the language generated was fairly predictable: go to school, get a job, retire, etc. But once the class warmed up to the task, the list almost became small, occasionally tragic biographies: have a breakdown, have an affair, get expelled, drop out, recover, get kicked out, bring up children, and, my personal favourite, have a mid-life crisis prompted by a pair of students talking about men of a certain age. The students were trying to express an idea, lacked the necessary language to do so, and my job was simply to fill that gap.

Something similar occurred with another class, this time Entry 1. Like the life stages task, this was intended as a precursor to something else, but also grew beyond the bounds of the planned activity.This time, students were brainstorming / researching in dictionaries vocabulary to do with physical appearance. Each group had a sheet of A3 paper – one group used this to brainstorm words to do with hair, one with body, one with face and one with skin. I was a little nervous about the last one, what with the potential for racist overtones, but in fact this provoked arguably the most useful chunks of language: greasy skin, oily skindry skin, and sensitive skin. The face list also took me by surprise – one student pointed at her cheeks –

“What are these?”

“Cheeks.”

“No.” Irritated by her stupid teacher. “These.”

I looked more carefully, a little nervous about staring, and the penny dropped:

Dimples!

In both cases, the new vocabulary arose from the students needing specific sets of language to express a concept. The task gave a setting for the vocabulary, and linked it all together, but ultimately the words were the students’ own words. It would never have occurred to me to teach words like sensitive skin or dimples despite the students in question having both – sensitive skin in particular is useful for a student who is resident in the UK. Having a breakdown, an affair or a mid-life crisis is unlikely to make it into most teacher-selected syllabuses, but nevertheless arose because the students had a need to talk about them. And again, these are not unusual or unlikely phrases – you could find them in most newspapers, magazines or online with a fairly high degree of frequency. Both groups, took great delight in exploring the new language, playing with it, using it.  “I read about a man in Poland, he had a mid life crisis and…” “Can you have just one dimples?” “Do you know good [indicates rubbing cream into skin] for sensitive skin?” 

There is an element of luck to this, for sure: with another group on another day we might have just the expected language. This isn’t some form of “best practice” that can be packaged up and rolled out at a training event. There is an element of skill as well. This wasn’t dogme, unplugged teaching per se: the activities limited the range of emergent language into a reasonably predictable collection of terms. We weren’t about to start talking about finding a job or how to make chapati, after all. A little control, a little setting of boundaries, if judged carefully, can make for a surprisingly productive lesson. You need to judge, as well, if the language is going down a dead end, explain well, and, arguably most importantly of all, capture what has come out. In this case I had the A3 sheets, and the lists of vocabulary (many of which were copied or photographed). For the level 1 group we had key terms on the interactive whiteboard which I have turned into PDF handouts and sent out. I’m in the habit of recording new words and concepts on a regular whiteboard next to the interactive one, then taking a photo with my phone. The A3 sheets were photographed, uploaded to google drive, and on display on the interactive whiteboard in slightly less than a minute, with virtually no impact on the flow of the lesson. The emergent language was captured and shared. 

The language was practised as well. For the level 1 group I closed with a speaking task – asking have you ever..? in pairs using the consequences sheet. For the Entry 1 group, one  I had the photos on the board, I elicited the relevant structures (“I have got…” and “I am…”) and had the students tell each other about themselves before reporting back to the whole class using “he’s/she’s got” and “he/she is…”. I also think I missed an opportunity or two: the level 1 class could have written short fictional biographies, for example. The entry 1 class will be following it up properly: putting the descriptive language together with the work we did last week on daily routines, and creating a profile of an individual based on photographs and other images. 

There is, I think, always a place for teacher led decisions on language content in some lessons, and students like to have a little direction. They are, after all, not stupid, and can smell an unplanned, undirected lesson a mile away. But you can create an activity and the conditions for language to emerge within the lesson, while still giving the lesson a sense of structure and purpose. Sometimes, as well, specific forms are unlikely to ever simply “emerge” in this way, so a bit of teacher-led is necessary: while we are under pressure to get students to pass exams and achieve external curriculum aims, then there has to be a fair portion of teacher selected content. 

But there is still a lot of freedom there, of course, which means there is plenty of room for dimples. 

Marking

I don’t enjoy marking. No, scrub that, I hate it. It’s tedious, takes time, is largely uncreative, and just generally meh. I used to mark papers for an exam board back in the day, and nothing filled me with dread more than a sheaf of writing exams, even for the princely sum of 50p a paper, or whatever it was. Marking is like cleaning out the fridge: you know it’s important (have you seen your fridge lately?), and when it’s done it feels like you’ve done something valuable and useful, but ultimately it’s still a chore. There’s no quick fix, either, you just have to bite the bullet and get on it. 

Ok, so there are some workarounds. Take reading and listening comprehension work, for example. I don’t think I’ve personally marked an in-class reading or listening activity for literally years, because I get the students to discuss their answers and compare before sharing any answers and getting students to self check. If it’s a case of right or wrong, or one word answer, and you’ve been checking the students while they compare answers to make sure everything is ok, then teacher marking after the fact is overkill, unless you have a more than usually psychopathic audit process requiring the teacher’s pen on everything.  The benefit for students is minimal in this particular context, particularly when measured against the learning benefits of the peer discussion itself.

That’s not to say that all marking is unnecessary, or bad, or pointless. Far from it. It will, of course, be an entirely pointless exercise if you just hand it back and it disappears into student folders or bags, never to be seen again. But if you set up routines that ensure the work is reviewed then useful, productive feedback on any work is useful for students, highlighting what they can do well, and what to do about any language areas they need to work on. (And no, that doesn’t mean setting targets in terms of use present perfect correctly in five sentences: much more useful and meaningful than abstract language goals would be actions for students, for example, saying things like “read page X of a grammar book”).

All of which is why I make sure students have time to review marked work in class. Making time in class also shows the students that reviewing marked work is a valuable process and part of learning. It’s perhaps optimistic of me to hope that this encourages students to review their work outside of class as well, but it’s a nice I do make a bit of a rod for my own back sometimes, mind you. I start marking a piece of writing for one student with all sorts of detailed comments. By the time I get to the sixth this complexity has faded off considerably. Certainly deciding in advance on the nature and quantity of feedback would make a lot of sense: just a marking code? Marking code and comments? Action points? Areas for personal improvement? There’s got to be a bit of a payoff here between time available, personal stamina and an honest evaluation of what, if anything the students are going to do with the feedback. 

Marking work, particularly productive written work, be it a couple of sentences or a couple of pages, is useful. It’s useful because it’s probably the main way as a language teacher you get to see students producing language that is combination of  their instinctive language produced without thought, and of the language forms that they have consciously been thinking about, perhaps even checking. Spoken language, for the most part, tends to rely on the “automatic” language, because it is produced on the fly. So a piece of writing gives you a lot of information about a student, and what language areas they are struggling with: marking forces you to analyse and categorise these errors, and this, in turn, should influence your teaching. Marking work constructively like this also helps students know what is wrong and what they could do about it, and making time for enforced error correction and review in class absolutely encourages students to engage with thinking about their personal weaknesses, and taking action to address them (even if it is just for that lesson). Hopefully it also encourages students to draft and review work before handing it in, although I suspect this is wishful thinking. 

However good all this is, mind you,  makes not a jot of difference to how I feel when faced with a heap of marking to do. But I still can’t stand doing it. Sorry, and all that, but I’m just not that noble.