Thursday, 29 September 2016

Question types and circling

In recent years there has been a focus in schools on using questioning effectively. In professional development sessions question types are analysed, teachers learn about interesting things such as Bloom’s taxonomy and teachers are urged to employ deeper levels of questioning whenever possible.
In language lessons, however, questions are used in a different way. In most cases we don’t use questions to explore concepts and help students get to deeper levels of meaning. In our field questions and other interactions are used mainly as a device to provide TL input and opportunities to practise. 

This means that questions may be quite shallow and even artificial (where is the pen?), but have the important goal of getting students to learn and practise the language.  Exceptions to this might be when we question students about grammatical concepts in English or, with advanced students, when we talk about issues at a higher level, using the TL as a means of communication as we would in English.
Let’s look at different types of questions you can use and how you can do effective question-answer or ‘circling’ (a term mainly used in North America). Below is a hierarchy of questions moving from least to most demanding for students.

Question type
True/false statement.
Tom is a cat. True or false?
Students simply process a statement rather than a question form where the sentence structure varies. Students just have to produce true or false.
Yes/no question through intonation.
Tom’s a cat?
Students just say yes or no. there is no question form to decode. The pitch shows it’s a question.
Yes/no question.
Is Tom a cat?
Students have to do a little more decoding here, but still only have to say yes or no.
Either/or question.
Is Tom a cat or a dog?
A little more decoding required, but students only have to choose between two options they are given.
Multiple-choice question.
Is Tom a dog, cat, elephant or crocodile?
Slightly harder than the above because of added options.
Question word question.
What is Tom?
Hardest question type since the students can’t use much in the input to help them produce their answer.

In doing question-answer work with beginners you can use these questions in order of difficulty, reusing vocabulary repeatedly. Students are happy to go along with the artificiality of the exchange. With higher level students you could choose question types to differentiate between students, saving the highest order questions for the most able.

This type of circling can be used to work on a single statement.

e.g. Donald arrived with his friends at the party at 10 o’clock.

Donald arrived at a party. True or false?
Did Donald arrive at the cinema?
Did Donald arrive with his friends or on his own?
Did Donald arrive at 9.00, 10.00 or 11.00?
When did Donald arrive?
Where did he go?
Who did he go with?
What time did he arrive?
Have you been to a party recently?
Who did you go with?
What did you do there?
What did you eat and drink?

Note how it’s useful to personalise questions whenever possible to raise interest. It’s often said that adolescents are quite self-focused and that teachers can use this fact to their advantage when planning topics and lessons. Now, there are clearly limits to what you can do with this technique. You don’t want to be too repetitive, but having a clear awareness of your full range of question types is valuable while the technique allows you to recycle a great deal of high frequency language, which is fundamental for acquisition.

For more about questioning and, in particular, Bloom's Taxonomy, see this by Gianfranco Conti:

Saturday, 24 September 2016

My two favourite bloggers

I follow my Twitter timeline pretty religiously every day. When you follow over 5000 people (nearly all teachers, by the way) you have to be selective about which links you tap or click. The two blog links I almost always follow up are those written by (surprise,surprise) my co-author Gianfranco Conti and by headteacher Tom Sherrington, who works at Highbury Grove School in London.

Here are the URLs:

What's unique about Gianfranco's blog is its detailed level of analysis of research combined with classroom practice. Gianfranco is very knowledgeable about the scholarly field of second language acquisition and has a firm belief, based on his instincts and experience, in the skill acquisition model of language learning. Although a full-time teacher in Malaysia, he manages to be both a prolific writer of resources, most of which he shares freely on TES, an interactive website writer, as well as blogger. Gian seems to have a 48 hour day.

Although there are plenty of language teacher blogs out there which share experience and neat lesson ideas, only Gianfranco's analyses and justifies classroom practices in such detail. Some readers will not agree with his prescriptions, particularly those who dislike the skill-building view of language learning, but all should find his descriptions and analyses interesting and challenging.

Gianfranco is not frightened to criticise poor practice, bad textbooks, dislikes time-wasting tasks and tech for the sake of tech. He is interested in the latest information coming from brain research and writes a good deal about memory function and what this implies for language learning. I find that much of what he writes chimes with my own experience, even if he leans marginally more towards 'focus on form', as the scholars call it, than me.

Gianfranco covers plenty of ground: teaching listening and reading, skill acquisition theory, feedback, grammar teaching, translation, metacognition, thinking skills, speaking, spontaneity and much more. His blogs are clearly structured, written in an academic style, and nearly always provide reasoned arguments for specific classroom techniques.

If you haven't read Gianfranco's blog, I urge you to do so. You'll learn a lot.

Tom Sherrington's blog is not for language teachers, but it interests me for its general educational content. Tom writes frequently (always a plus in a blog) and his posts are almost always based on his own rich experience both as a teacher and head teacher. He covers a lot of ground: assessment, behaviour, curriculum, ability grouping, differentiation, leadership, teaching and learning, Ofsted, individual lessons and much more.

Modesty, knowledge, depth of wisdom, integrity and passion all shine through in Tom's posts. He often relates his writing to what is happening in his school, sharing practice, helping other teachers and leaders with their thinking. There is great clarity in his writing and a degree of passion when needed, for example over the recent grammar school debate.

A post I read this morning from January 2015 contains a few typical gems. Here is one I'd pick out, useful for anyone having some discipline issues with a class. I'll borrow it in full:

"For some teachers, from time to time, a particular class is the key source of stress: the behaviour isn’t right; it feels like a perpetual cycle of negativity: they don’t do what you want; you have to be the arch-enforcer and the atmosphere is horrible. This can happen if you weren’t firm enough early on or when you get ‘sanction fatigue’ in relation to issues (eg persistent talking or calling out) that ought to seem minor. Resetting is really powerful in this situation. You can do this at the start of a term or at any time you choose. I’d recommend being very explicit with the class about how you feel (or a selected sub-group if that is more appropriate) :

“Right – tools down – before we go on, we’re going to re-establish our basic expectations. I’m not enjoying these lessons as much as I’d like because the persistent low-level disruption is spoiling the atmosphere; you are lovely people but there is just too much talking and I want that to change. I need you listening and when I say ‘silent working’ that’s exactly what I mean; from today, I want you to respond to that and I will go as far as ..(insert sanction)… if you can’t manage it. OK?”

You re-claim the territory; re-establish your expectations and give yourself a clean slate; a chance to be on the front-foot and to be positive. When you get the atmosphere you want – tell them. “Thank you. This is lovely. This is what I’ve been asking for.” From then on you can follow-up on the sanctions more consistently and assertively, setting higher standards than you’d managed before. It’s a huge relief. It will last for a period and you may need to reset repeatedly before it is fully embedded."

Do have a look at Tom's archives, especially if you have an interest in general teaching and learning, and leadership.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, 23 September 2016

French Playground

The French Playground is an original resource for French teachers and students. The site offers two different ways to engage students in authentic French activities and culture.

1. COIN CULTUREL: You choose from a calendar of free French cultural events where you and your students can participate in online French games, performances, interviews, class mystery meetings, meet-and-greets, co-teach lessons and engage in activities for authentic French interaction with other schools worldwide, at any date and time.

2. MISSIONS: Choose from dozens of pre-made authentic French challenges, tasks and dares (called Missions). French students can collect points and submit completed Missions to the French Playground for badges.

Teacher Etienne Langlois wrote on Facebook:

"I've been teaching French (all levels) for 24 years. This is by far the greatest thing I've ever done for my French students. Interacting on the French Playground is free and in one click you can be live, online with other French classes from around the world. Monday we played Kahoot in French with over 70 students. Tuesday we played Quizlet in French, Wednesday we took part in a live interview with a French ventriloquist, today, we team-taught a lesson with a school living 24 hours away in Toronto doing the "Jeud-I-mage" together. Thank you to everyone that created this amazing, living platform for my French students (designed by over 100 French teachers from around the world... credit where credit is due)."

You can explore and find events or missions here:

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Listening tips from Penny Ur

I've been dipping into sections of Penny Ur's excellent little book 100 Teaching Tips which I have previously reviewed here. I find myself agreeing with nearly everything she writes. Although her background is teaching English as a foreign language, what she says is highly relevant to modern language teachers. So many excellent ideas have come form EFL over the years.

Here are some points she makes about teaching listening, which she says is the most important skill - I agree. Most people spend more time listening, including in conversation, than they do reading, speaking or writing. I think it should be at the heart of our practice.

Give the topic and task in advance

Make sure you give the context of any listening task to students in advance. Never just play a recording and ask students to listen and understand. make sure they have an idea who is speaking, what the topic is, what the context may be and what precise task they will have to do. If they have a worksheet to do, give it to them at the outset.

Don't always pre-teach vocabulary

Pre-listening tasks are great (e.g. some general questions about the subject, he speaker, the type of task they might be doing), but don't feel you need to pre-teach key vocabulary. The reason she gives is this:  being taught a new item before it is heard in a new context does not necessarily make it easier to understand. Better to have taught and practised the item several times in advance before the listening task. (This implies that a listening task may be better set later in a teaching sequence.)
If you feel the need to pre-teach items, then just do one or two key words or chunks, placing less load on memory. By the way, she cites research by Chang and Read* in support of her view. they concluded from a study that pre-teaching vocabulary was the least successful of four strategies, the others being repetition of the text itself, seeing comprehension questions in advance and providing information about the content.

Don't use written texts for listening

Textbook listenings may just be written texts read aloud. This is less than satisfactory. Written discourse is designed to be read, not listened to. It lacks pauses, redundant phrasing and repetition - the sort of cues which make listening easier. If you cannot access natural-sounding listening, then the best source may be your own voice. You can tailor the speed and content to the class. This is also a good argument for plenty of teacher talk, provided it's interesting and meaningful.

Let the students see the speaker

We tend to use audio recordings because they are cheaper to produce and more convenient to use. Adding a visual element makes listening more interesting and a little easier because you can see the speaker's facial expressions, for example. This is another argument for teacher talk or, for example, using visiting speakers. In real life we usually see the person we are talking to. Audio listening is a good preparation for listening to the radio, but otherwise teacher talk and video are better.

Divide the text into short bits

Avoid having students listen to long sections in one ago. In natural discourse listening is usually broken into short fragments. This applies not just to conversation, but to other sources of listening such as movie scenes, a TV commercial or a talk with slides. Listening to long stretches places a huge load on working memory and is one reason students find it so hard and off-putting. Again, it may be that teacher talk (e.g. telling a good story) is one occasion when lengthy listening is justifiable.

Use dictations

Dictation is not just a test of spelling, it is a very good way of developing listening skills at lower levels. It is not a meaningless grammar task. To do a dictation well you have to understand the meaning of the text. penny ur cites research to support this.**

As a final note, I would add a point which my friend Gianfranco Conti often makes and which we point out in our Toolkit - to some extent it is implied in some of Penny Ur's remarks - that you should try to avoid treating listening as a test or product. This is one reason pupils often say they don't like it. Rather, it's a process which you can teach, by clever scaffolding, breaking it down into bits, showing the task type in advance, phonological practice, pre-listening tasks and more.

*      Chang, A.C.  and Read, J (2006). The effects of listening support on the listening performance of EFL learners. TESOL Quarterly, 40 (2)

**   Reza Kiany, G. and Shiramiry, E. (2002). The effect of frequent dictation on the listening comprehension ability of elemntary EFL learners. TESL, Canada Journal, 20 (1)

Sunday, 18 September 2016

LIFT feedback technique

 Teachers may find this useful. My Language Teacher Toolkit partner-in-crime Gianfranco Conti makes use of a correction/feedback technique he calls L.I.F.T. (You can't beat a nifty acronym.) This is what Gianfranco has written on Facebook about it:

"An example of a feedback technique I am currently using with my year 11 French students, which I call LIFT (Learner Initiated Teacher Feedback). They write an essay then ask questions about things they are unsure about. (You can see the questions in the right margin- I ask them to leave some space.) It gives the teacher a great insight into things students do not feel sure about and starts a learning conversation with the students whereby making the correction process more of a two way process than a unidirectional teacher prescription."

The picture below gives you a good idea of what he's doing.

I rather like this. I can see how it would encourage students to share their language issues and in so doing it may also encourage them to try even harder and experiment with the language more. 

What do you think?

New Higher Tier GCSE units on TES

Gianfranco Conti and I have begun work on a set of resources for GCSE French. The first is now available on the TES site. We have adapted the model of the A-level resources which have been selling well.

Here is where you can find our shop:
Here is the description of the first unit we have written. More will follow soon and we hope to sell them as a bundle in a few weeks.

"This is a densely packed eight page unit of work with a focus on reading and translation into French. The theme is healthy living. The level is Higher Tier GCSE. You will find pre-reading tasks, a set of reading comprehension paragraphs, pre-translation activities and short, graded passages for translation into French. These tasks enable students to build up their skills by recycling language in various ways (matching, translating, synonyms, antonyms, true/false, questions etc). They are based on the concept of "narrow reading" whereby similar language is used across a number of reading paragraphs enabling students to have repeated exposure to the similar language. A detailed answer key is supplied. This resource is primarily for independent work to be done in class or at home. There is a pdf version and editable Word document."

We are charging £3 each. We would anticipate selling a bundle of 10 for £20 in the future and will be covering a full range of GCSE topics/sub-themes.

I should stress that these are aimed at Higher Tier and would make a very good supplementary resource for quite capable students (probably aiming at grade B equivalent or above - Progress 8 level 6?). Regular users of Gianfranco's resources will recognise the style and format of this first unit. He is writing some of them and I shall write others. The first unit is Gianfranco's baby.

If you have not yet discovered Gianfranco's TES resources you it's worth mentioning that he has published well over 1500 of them. The vast majority are free. He can't stop writing!

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Great starters for advanced students

Lateral thinking stories

You present a scenario and the students have to find out what happened only using yes/no questions. Here are three examples:

1.   When Jack comes home he finds Mandy is dead, lying in a pool of water and Tom is sitting quietly on the armchair. There is some broken glass on the floor. Tom won’t be charged with murder. Why not? Answer: Mandy is a fish and Tom is a cat. Mandy was swimming in her bowl. Tom started playing with it and knocked it over.

2.   A woman lives on the 30th floor of a building. When she gets home from work, she usually takes the lift as far as the 21st floor and then climbs the stairs to the 30th. However when it’s raining, she’ll always take the lift to the 30th floor. What explains this strange behaviour? Answer: She is of small stature and cannot reach the top button unless she is carrying an umbrella.

3.   A man sprints up some stairs, desperately turns on a light switch, looks out the window and sees dead people everywhere, then commits suicide. Answer: He was operator of a life house who forgot to switch on the light.

Tube train

This is really a twist on speed-dating. You line up two rows of chairs, facing each other and all quite close together. Each student sits down, facing their partner and all students are given a topic to discuss with each other for two minutes. Then one student moves along the train and all the students should have a new partner and the game begins again, this time with a new topic.

Just a minute

In small groups each student has to talk for a minute on a subject of their choosing, while the other students check the time. If the student hesitates badly another student ‘buzzes in’ and takes over the topic for the rest of the minute. You can choose topics for the students, preferably linking up with recent work.

Persuade a partner yours is better

Get the students to all write down their favourite film. In small groups they then have to persuade the other people that their choice is more important than the others. Students can repeat this with their favourite animal, TV programme, social media platform etc.