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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Improving Reading Speed

One problem that many learners face when they get to a certain level is how to increase their reading speed. As the texts become longer and more complex, learners find it takes them longer and longer to read. Readers usually get stuck at a certain speed, often between 120 and 200 words per minute, and even lower if they are trying to understand everything in the text. Evidently, we need to discourage the latter, especially when trying to get them to read more quickly.

My main reason for trying to increase their reading speed is part of their exam preparation. I have a group of post-FCE students hoping to sit the CAE exam in June. These students are used to reading and answering questions in a timed situation from all their FCE practice but at CAE level the texts are quite a bit longer than at FCE and they therefore need to learn to read more quickly. After doing a quick timing of their reading yesterday, we discovered that they have reading speeds of between 150 - 250 words per minute. However, before I gave them comprehension questions to answer I let them re-read the text. The second time, they paid more attention to what they were reading, but did not take any longer than the first time. I did not let them look at the text to find the answers to the questions, so they had to understand the main ideas of the text without seeing the questions first. They managed to get 100% comprehension of the text in this way, although perhaps the questions were slightly easy for their level.

We will be regularly doing this kind of reading task, using authentic materials, and recording their reading speeds and level of comprehension, to see how their reading and comprehension improves. I have given them tables in which to record their speed and comprehension. We will also be doing plenty of exam tasks, although in this case the procedure will be different. For exam tasks, they will need to quickly read the text to get a general idea, and the look at the questions before re-reading it. They will need more practice in skimming and scanning in order to perfect these skills, and complete the CAE reading paper in the time allocated.

Before beginning this reading programme, I had my students decide what were some of the DOs and DON'Ts of reading. The DOs included: Skimming and scanning; using context to understand new words; look for topic phrases in each paragraph; read chunks. The DONT's: regress (look back at what you have already read); read word by word; point at the words; say or mouth the words; use a dictionary while reading.

Some simple exercises to help increase reading speed, even with lower levels are:
  • Giving students a catalogue or telephone directory or similar and having them search for specific information (scanning)
  • Giving them a short text and having them read it several times in one or two minutes.
  • Providing students with a template to enforce forward reading and preventing regression.
  • Allowing students one minute to read as much of a text as they can, repeating several times. They have to read more each time they read.
Hopefully, with all this practice, reading will come much easier to the learners and will not seem such a cumbersome task.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Classroom Management with YLs

On the first day with my new group of 4-5 year-olds I had a bit of a nightmare with two children. This is their second year in the English academy, whereas all the other children are here for the first time, and I think that partly because they had 7 new classmates, and because they did not know me, they started to play up and "test" me to see what they could get away with. One of the two boys would not sit on his chair for more than about two minutes before he would get up and move to another part of the classroom, or start swinging on his chair. Him and his friend were also quite silly and began shouting and making noises, which, when I asked them if that was correct behaviour for a classroom, they replied "yes". I did have a word with one of them and mentioned speaking to their mothers, as that was no way to behave, especially on their first day, but this didn't really trouble them for more than a few minutes.

So, it was obvious that I had to try something different. Yesterday, I had the same class for their second lesson and we spent a good part of it discuccing appropriate behaviour and I also introduced them to a reward scheme.

We played a game which helped us discuss good and bad behaviour, where I would give an instruction to a child e.g stand on your chair, and the others would have to decide whether this was appropriate classroom behaviour. They either put their thumbs up and said "OK" or they wagged their finger and said "Don't do that!". We had great fun and managed to agree on what behaviour was and wasn't acceptable.

Small children love the idea of getting stickers or stars and it usually motivates them to behave better. So, we now have a reward scheme: a chart with everyone's name on it and plenty of space to stick gold stars. After explaining the system and writing their names, the children helped me to decorate the edges with drawings. I have told them that they can get stars for good behaviour, or if they do their work really well, or try very hard, or help their classmates. The "naughty" boy from the first day informed me that he would be behaving very well and that he was going to get lots of stars. We shall see...

Another idea which will hopefully complement the star system is that of having a class helper. Each day, one of the children will be responsible for helping me to hand out and collect books and worksheets, crayons etc. I have cut out a small smiley face which I stick next to the name of that day's helper on the star chart. Yesterday I made one of the two problematic boys helper, and he seemed to enjoy that responsibility and was very good. His friend kept asking me if he would be the helper the following day.

So, even if I can't keep their "bottoms on seats" I do think that this system will make life a bit easier for me and enjoyable for them

Note: I have used similar schemes before, with slighlty older children. Last year I tried to get the children to cooperate more with each other by dividing them into teams, giving it a competitive aspect. The team with the most stars at the end of term got a prize. With this I hoped that peer pressure would encourage the naughtier children to behave better. It didn't go quite as well as I had hoped, since some of the children often complained that they didn't want to be in "so-and-so's team" because he never got any stars. For this year I have decided to make it individual.

Revision

I usually spend the first couple of weeks of a new school year revising vocabulary and structures from the previous year, or if the students are new to the academy, on diagnosis of what they already know. This is partly because normally the new coursebooks haven't yet arrived (or in some cases been ordered!) but the real reason is that the vast majority of learners have hardly touched English for the whole summer. They have abandoned all contact with the language for two to three months! This is a more serious problem for very young learners, for whom three months is a lifetime. They therefore need plenty of revision and practice of what they have previously learnt, before they go on to a new course. Of course, many coursebooks start of gently, including some revision, but I usually find that this is not quite enough.

One of the problems with revision, is that younger learners recognise that they have studied the concepts before and therefore feel that they do not need to look at them again, complaining that it is too easy and they have "already done it". What I usually try to do to prevent this is to make the revision into game-like activities. For example, I am currently revising "can/can't" for ability with a group of 9 year-olds, before we move on to the same structure for asking for permission and requests. After practising a little at the end of last lesson, today I will be presenting them with a list of "challenges" to try out, where they will complete a worksheet in pairs or small groups and present their feedback to the class. The challenges are things like: Can you write 10 animals in English? or Can you say the English alphabet? or Can you name all the rooms in a house? This also revises vocabulary so it is a good idea to change the questions according to what the class have previously studied. They have great fun trying to complete the challenges, and then afterwards I ask them some questions about what they have discovered.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Email in English Scheme

I have decided to set up a scheme for my teenage (FCE and CAE) students that I have called "Email in English". Basically, I want to have the students open a new email account, separate from their normal email, in which they will use only English. The idea is for me to send them homework assignments by email and for them to be able to share things they like with each other.

Homework is something that all teenagers hate, they get far too much of it from school, and they don't really have much time to spend on doing English homework from their language academy. Also, most of the homework I tend to set for these exam prep groups are writing pieces to practice for the writing part of the exam, and grammar or vocabulary exercises that we haven't had time to finish in class. Most of the time it impossible to get every piece of homework from every student, or even if they do it, they may have spent 5 minutes before the class scribbling it on a piece of paper.

My idea, then, is to make homework more fun and relevant to their interests. I will be able to send them things that I have received - jokes, powerpoint presentations, videos on Youtube, interesting articles etc. With the use of Youtube, this means that I can set listening tasks as well as just reading or writing.

Another plus is that email accounts such as Gmail include a live chat. No program is needed to be installed, you can just chat directly from your email. I hope that my students will try to chat to each other, and possibly me, in English. This should improve their ability to think in English, and make it easier when speaking, as well as being a fun way to use English in their free time.

Day Two

In the end two students did turn up for their first Advanced lesson and I wasn't expecting them! I have no idea if or when the other 3 will turn up which makes it a bit hard to start the course. Nevermind, they'll all need a bit of time to adjust after spending an English-free summer. I need to try and bridge the gap between FCE and CAE because they are going to find the level of CAE materials quite daunting.

Anyway, today is the second "first day" as I get my other new groups. As I said in an earlier post, with the new 8 year olds I am going to get my fancy dress stuff out (sunglasses, hats) and hope that will make "introductions" a bit more fun. Drilling the same sentences over and over again will surely bore them, so I've decided that each of us (yes, me included) will invent our own new characters with a different name, age, number of brothers and sisters and maybe likes/dislikes, depending on how much the children already know.

The only class that I am slightly nervous about is the group of 4 and 5 year olds as I have now discovered that there will be 11 of them in the class! I am definitely going to have some classroom management issues with such a large number of very small children. I just hope that they don't all start crying! If that was not bad enough, I have also been told that one of the little girls is not yet 4, so that means a 3 year old in with the 5 year olds. Wish me luck, please!
I am going to spend the first lesson on trying to learn their names, as I find this really important with little ones. We will be doing plenty of "Hello-ing" and not much else. The main thing is for them to feel comfortable in new surroundings, with a new teacher, new classmates, and for them to not get frightened or overwhelmed by hearing English. I will be using a puppet, which hopefully they will enjoy.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Last minute surprises

Been in to work this morning to make photocopies and sort everything out for this afternoon's d├ębut. First problem - we have no A4 paper. A last minute change of plan for this afternoon's classes, then. Later, as I was about to leave I get the class lists and discover a new class that is supposed to start this evening, which I hadn't even been told about. Fortunately, I don't think any of the students are making an appearance until next week, which gives me a bit of time to organise myself, especially as it is a CAE preparation course.

Don't you just love improvisation?

Monday, September 14, 2009

First steps II

Having introduced the rather vague details on my Tuesday-Thursday classes, It is now the turn of the Monday-Wednesday lot. Just one class from last year going into their second (hopefully final) year of preparing for FCE. A rather boisterous, noisy and immature group of 15 year olds, it will take some doing to get them that far so quickly. I am hoping that the introduction of homework via the internet will get them to study more at home. I will keep you posted.

The other two are young learners - the first a brand new class of 8-9 year olds who have never been to the academy before. They should have been learning English at school for at least a couple of years though, so there shouldn't be any complete beginners. The objective (possibly unrealistic, until I meet them I won't know) is for them to do the Cambridge Starters exam in June. I plan to use a bit of theatrical humour on the first day, hopefully that will put them at ease and not just think that their teacher is a wierdo!

The other group are very young - 4/5 year olds, two of whom started learning English last year.
I will be starting phonics with them as soon as they have a bit more vocabulary. We have a puppet called Bobby which one of the children will take home after each lesson. I'm hoping that Bobby will be a fantastic source of vocabulary and really, more importantly at this stage, that the children will enjoy coming to English class and continue for years to come. (My boss will be happy about this!)

These, for the time being, are my classes for the coming school year. I shall be meeting them tomorrow and Wednesday and may have to scrap all my ideas and come up with some new ones, but hey, always looking for a challenge!

First steps

Tomorrow is the big day. First day back with some new groups and some continuing from last year.
I will need to apply different strategies with different groups.

The first group is a group of 10 year olds in their third year of English at my school. They are half way through their coursebook. (Sky 1, Longman) As with most coursebooks, it is a bit dry so I am going to have to do something to liven it up whilst including all the content. One of the objectives with this group is to get them to A1 level and enroll them for the Cambridge Young Learners Movers exam in June. Glancing at the coursebook, only the present tenses are covered so I will need to work on the Past Simple to get them through Movers.

The second group is a class I had last year of young children, aged 6 and 7. We did lots of work on phonics last year to prepare them for reading in English, since most of them were just learning to read in Spanish and a couple of them will just be starting reading this year in school. They learnt most of the sounds and some of them could blend quite well, reading short words. I will continue to implement this this year, introducing tricky words, as I think it gives them an advantage for when they have to deal with the written word in English. I will include a separate entry on the teaching of phonics in this blog. This year this group of children will be using a coursebook which involves reading and writing.

As for the final group that begin tomorrow, I am still not sure exactly who they are! They are supposedly a teenage FCE group that I will be preparing to sit the exam in 2011. I have decided to try and use some technology with them, which I will also explain in a seperate entry.

Tomorrow I will write down my impressions after meeting my new learners and then I cans start to plan more in detail what I would like to do with them all!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Back To School

It is that time of year again. New classes, new students, all enthusiastic to start the new school year, all promising to work really hard, do homework, whatever it takes to pass that so important exam. Small children staring at you as if you were from another planet when you speak to them in English. Adults, starting an FCE course when they are barely Pre-Intermediate level.

But you are back, with all those plans to perform miracles on your learners and not just teach them something but for them to actually learn it, and really learn it, not just remember it for the next couple of classes. Full of enthusiasm, you still believe that you are going to make a difference, be an amazing teacher and all your students are going to love you and thank you for everything that you have done come the end of the year.

Let's be realistic. There is little point in daydreaming about how wonderful everything is going to be. It is not going to happen. However, we may just find that with the right amount of energy and effort, we have a rewarding and productive year, that our students pass their exams, and more importantly (theoretically) that they learn plenty of useful language that they will be able to use to communicate with others and not just do their workbook exercises correctly.

My idea is to use this blog as a way of reflecting on my own teaching and to put down in writing any new activities, methods and practices that I test out in class. Hopefully it will be useful to others as well as myself.

Just a quick quote that I think all teachers and learners should bear in mind when they begin a language course:

"Teachers open the door. You enter by yourself." (Chinese proverb)
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