Here are six things that I have tried out this year which significantly enhanced my teaching and two which, whilst being much less successful, provided me with valuable insight in my students’ cognition and affect.
1. Six things that worked
1.1Teaching more verbs
The textbooks and the wordlists that one finds in published instructional materials and on language learning websites traditionally tend to mainly focus on nouns, occasionally throwing the odd adjective here and there. Verbs are usually grossly underrepresented in the published vocab lists. However, when we talk about things and people in our daily lives we do use a fair range of verbs.
Without verbs the communicative power that we provide our students with is seriously limited. It is all very well to teach students the English, French or Spanish words for dog, cat and other house pets; however, if we only teach them how to say ‘I have’ , ‘I like’ and ‘s/he is’ in the target language, we will equip them with very few contexts they can use those nouns with. How about: ‘I walk the dog’, ‘I play with my cat’, ‘I feed my hamster’, ‘I groom or ride my horse’, ‘I look after my guinea pig’, etc.
Moreover, by widening the range of verbs we also provide a larger number of cognitive ‘hooks’ for the target nouns, contextual cues that will facilitate future recall.
Another benefit of teaching more verbs is that the more our students use them the more they are likely to deploy adverbs – a highly under-taught word class.
Finally, the more our students are exposed to the inflected forms of verbs in the comprehensible input we provide them with, the more likely they will be to ‘pick up’ verb endings and conjugations. When one looks at the reading and listening texts found in UK published textbooks one cannot help notice how poor they are in terms of inflected verb forms. Could this be one of the reasons why English learners of modern languages notoriously lack mastery of verb conjugations?
1.2 Much more listening practice and more listening-for-modelling activities
Another substantial change to my classroom practice has involved the greater use of listening activities as a way to model new language to my students – not merely to test or enhance their comprehension skills. I have substantially increased the use of the following in my lessons:
(a) Speaking mats – I put writing mats or sentence builders up on the classroom screen and make up sentences which I utter aloud for students to write on mini-boards in English. I also use speaking mats with younger learner for micro-dictation (students writing sentences on MWBs in the target language)
(b) Working with gapped transcripts of audio-tracks, videos or songs;
(c) Micro-listening-skills enhancers (see my posts on these);
(d) Jigsaw listening activities;
(e) Story-telling to teach tenses and/or vocabulary (with or without images);
This has massively improved my students’ pronunciation and preparation for the communicative activities I usually stage after the listening-as-modelling activities. (see my blogs on listening for more).
1.3 More decoding-skills teaching and emphasis on pronunciation in general
Working on specific phonemes and combination of letters in a structured way in synergy with the activities listed in the previous paragraph has paid massive dividends, this year.
I have focused on one or two sounds per lesson recycling them over and over again for weeks. I have preferred to apply the principle of distributed over massed practice (i.e. a bit every day).
I have made a conscious effort to lay great emphasis on the importance of accuracy in pronunciation with all of my younger learners (year 5s and 7s) and we have a little pronunciation workshop lasting about ten minutes in every single lesson. We do a lot of work on micro-listening / decoding skills, minimal pairs, reflecting on how differently letters are sounded in the target language compared to their native(s) one(s), simple tongue twisters and paired critical listening. It really has paid off! (see my blog on decoding skills for more).
1.4 Vocabulary, Verbs and Speaking ‘flipping’
This year I tried to flip most of the following:
(a)Vocabulary drills – If I am planning to teach topic ‘X’ on Wednesday I flip the learning of the vocabulary related to that topic setting it as homework on Monday. I usually do this using www.language-gym.com. Students send me the screenshot of the page with the score they obtained;
(b) Verb drills – every week I get the students to practise verb conjugation at home using online verb trainers like the www.language-gym.com one
(c) (with my GCSE classes) Speaking practice – every week I ask them to record a dialog with a partner on one of the GCSE topics using their iPads and forward it to me.
LIFT, or Learner Initiated Feedback Technique is something I have used for very many years. It consists of questions about linguistic items they are using in their written pieces that they annotate in the margin of the page they are writing on. For example, if they are not sure whether a clause requires the subjunctive or conditional mood, they will underline or circle the verb and write on margin: “Is this verb supposed to be in the subjunctive? Why/Why not?
This year, I have used it more consistently, extensively and, more importantly I have insisted on higher quality questions. It has made me enjoy giving feedback more and my students have reported benefitting from it. (See my blog on LIFT for more)
1.6 The personal learning afternoons
In my school (GISKL), on Fridays lessons finish one and a half hours earlier. The students leave the premises and teachers engage in a range of professional development activities organized by Jose Diez (Director of Professional Learning). Some write reflective journals; some read research and some, like me, reflect on their practice with other colleagues. This has been a God-sent for me as I conceive a lot of my blogs during these sessions, usually carried out with my very creative, talented and resourceful colleagues Dylan Vinales and Ronan Jezequel.
Brainstorming and bouncing off ideas with colleagues – often after reading a research paper – on a specific area of teaching and learning is a very useful experience. Writing about it a posteriori in a blog not only reinforces the outcome of the sessions, but often help me develop it a notch further.
These personal learning afternoons have deeply impacted my professional development, to a much greater extent than any other CPD I was involved in the past had ever done.
2.Things that worked less well
Two things I tried but did not work so well, were: (1) using retrospective verbal reports (RVRs) and (2) reflective journals (RJs). RVRs consist of short reflections on how a specific task went immediately after it has been performed. I did it a couple of times after essay writing or a speaking session and most of the students didn’t really seem to enjoy or learn from it. As for the RJs half of the students really enjoyed them, writing them every week and discussing at length their learning problems and successes and setting themselves targets; the other half either did not do them or, when they did, they did it very superficially and unenthusiastically.
Overall, less successful than expected.
If you want to have a go at trying any of the approaches described above do not implement them with every single class of yours. I chose to try each of the above only with one group at a time the first time around starting from the group that would pose fewer challenges and would benefit the most from it.
For more on the above strategies and approaches,read the book ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’, co-authored with Steve Smith and available on http://www.amazon.co.uk.