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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Technical Problems

I am having a few technical problems with the layout and design of this blog, so if it keeps changing, don't worry, it's still the same blog!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Teaching "chunks" to Very Young Learners

For those of us who teach very young children, who are still at the nursery or reception class stage (in Spain until 6 years), it can be very frustrating to see that after all our efforts, the children only remember a few individual words. I have been teaching at a nusery school twice a week for many years, I only see them for half an hour at a time, and only a few of those children actually go home at the end of the year with more than a few words learnt. This is due to the extremely little exposure they get to English, an hour a week is not enough, they would ideally need to be practising and reviewing the new vocabulary throughout the rest of the week in order for me to teach them something new each lesson. As this is not the case, since English is just an "extra" and not actually part of the syllabus, it is disappointing, especially for the parents who think that their child is going to come out speaking English, that they cannot remember the color orange when they go home after 6 months of English lessons.

However, if you have more contact with the children, you can get much better results by teaching "chunks". By chunks, I mean expressions or short sentences, instead of individual words. I have a class of five-year-olds in my language school, whom I see for two hours a week, and recently we have been learning to use can for ability. Children of this age evidently have no understanding of grammatical concepts, but you can ask them in L1 if they can do certain things, like swim or skate, and then go on to teach the English way of saying it. You can also teach through mime. Children love it when the teacher acts a bit silly, I have had many laughs when pretending to ride a bike and then falling off to elicit "I can't ride a bike"  and this helps them to remember. The important thing is to teach them "I can ride a bike", instead of just ride, or bike. I actually taught the vocabulary first, and later added "I can" and "I can't". In our course book, the current unit includes the vocabulary: skip, slide, ride a bike, fly, play football, swim and dive. There are flashcards with the characters doing these activities, so in the second lesson, I used "Anna can skip", "Lee can play football" etc. Some of the brighter children started to use these chunks even in that very lesson! In a subsequent lesson, I introduced: "I can swim. Can you swim?" and encouraged them to reply "Yes, I can" or No, I can't". We had already practised hearing the difference between can and can't in one of the previous lessons.

What I would like to point out with these examples is that it is much more rewarding for the child and the teacher if the child has learnt a "chunk" of language, rather than just an individual word. I encourage the children by telling them that they can now say complete sentences in English! The child feels that they have learnt something important, and the teacher sees that the child is using real English, they are actually communicating, not just looking at a flashcard and saying what they see. I think this is especially important for 5 and 6 year olds because they are competent in their own language and if they can communicate in another language, they feel (and rightly so) proud of themselves, and want to learn more. It is much more motivating to learn how to really communicate something in another language, than just to learn individual words. I still remember quite a few words in German from school, but I cannot say a single sentence, and I therefore feel that I know no German. Our learners must feel the same, whatever their age.

Every year, at the beginning of term, I teach the chunks: Can I have a pencil/rubber/ruler/sharpener, please? along with Can I go to the toilet, please? as I feel it is much more positive for the children to ask for things properly, instead of saying "rubber please", and they do actually learn to do so. It is important to start these habits early on, and not let them off because they are so young. The more you can get a child to communicate, the better!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Planning versus Improvisation

Anyone who has done any kind of formal training in ESOL (Celta etc) will know that lesson planning is absolutely essential in every lesson, and anyone who does not write out a proper plan is a terrible teacher with no thought whatsoever for his/her poor students, who of course will learn nothing.

In this article, I would like to discuss the importance of lesson planning and whether or not it is entirely necessary. I am sure there are many novice (and not so novice) teachers out there who have terrible feelings of guilt whenever they have just blagged their way through a lesson, hoping that no colleagues will have realised that they have committed such an abomination!

The main advantage of lesson planning in my view, is that during the process of planning you think through what you want to acheive and how you can do this. The stages of the lesson are carefully structured and aim to acheive the very objectives that you have chosen whilst planning. I disagree that the lesson plan should be based on a template such as the ones used in most TEFL courses and classroom observations, usually PPP methodology (although this may have changed in recent years), primarily because I believe that the process of planning is useful for the teacher whilst it is being done, therefore the paper itself on which the plan is written is not essential to the teaching of the lesson. By this I mean that each teacher should make a plan in whichever way it suits him/her. The plan does not have to follow a specific structure, neither does it have to be produced with pen and paper. The important thing is that the teacher have clear in his/her head what is going to happen in the classroom and why. If you have made a clear plan, there is probably no need to even take this plan into the classroom with you since you will already have internalised all the stages of your lesson. If you feel more comfortable having the stages written down in front of you, make a brief plan on one sheet of paper, or index cards if you prefer. You will find it much easier to follow your plan or find your place if you get lost than if you have a fully-blown 2 or 3 page observation type plan in front of you!

The main problem with thinking through and planning all your lessons is the time factor. If you have 4 or 5 classes a day, and a thorough plan can take an hour, this means that you will be spending 3 or 4 hours every day planning! This is obviously not ideal, especially since most of us do not get paid for planning time and it would mean a 10 hour day! In this business we most definitely do not earn enough to spend so much time planning, many of you will even supplement your work with private classes in your free time and simply not have the time to do so.

In practice, most good teachers spend some time planning each lesson, looking at what comes next in the coursebook, thinking of how to present the information, of maybe adapting activities from the book to make them more engaging or thinking up supplementary activities. However we do not write out a proper detailed plan of everything we are going to do in the lesson, we usually make a few notes that will enable us to follow through our ideas. In fact, most courses that use a course book will provide you with a teacher's book which can give you plenty of ideas of how to use the exercises in the book and even provide you with extra activities, sometimes photocopiable. This seriously reduces our lesson planning time, thankfully!

Having discussed lesson planning, I now come to improvisation. Every teacher has improvised at some time or other and in fact, improvisation can be a good thing - there is little point sticking to your lesson plan just because you have written it, if the lesson is a complete failure! As teachers we need to be flexible to our students' wants and needs. This obviously does not mean giving in to all their demands, but if we see that something isn't working, we shouldn't be afraid to abandon the activity.

But what about those days when we haven't prepared a thing, or have decided to forget about everything we had planned to do? Is this such a bad thing? Well, I believe that once in a while it can be something positive, a breath of fresh air for you and for your students. Sometimes, just starting a discussion by asking a few questions can turn into a complex debate which lasts for half the lesson, sometimes your class will be in one of those moods in which forcing them to do work is useless and something a bit more relaxing is required. Sometimes, one of your students will tell you something which completely changes the direction of the lesson, and, as we all know, there is no point running against the wind. As teachers we need to be aware of how our learners are feeling and adapt our lessons to this. I honestly believe that a flexible teacher who does very little planning can be a better teacher than one who meticulously plans lessons and refuses to change anything.

In conclusion, planning is an important stage in the teaching process, but it should not be overestimated, the way it often is in teaching courses. The teacher is the one who needs to decide how much he/she wants to plan for each particular class and lesson. I would like to end with a nice quote which gives a fairly accurate description of how I feel about improvising at times:

The work can wait while you show the child the rainbow but the rainbow won't wait while you do the work. (Patricia Clafford)
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