Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Teaching Students How to Learn

I am sure we have all encountered one in our teaching careers: the student who just doesn't seem to learn and cannot make the progress they should. He or she is the one who is always in the class, but just never sees to get what is going on and never seems to get any better. Months into his or her course and he or she still answers in monosyllabic utterances and cannot form even the basic tenses. For example:
"What did you do this weekend Philippe?"
"I beach."

For many students like this, the lack of progress simply cannot be put down to a lack of effort. I used the name Philippe above because it reminded me of a student I encountered in France. He came to class religiously and worked really hard at his English, but his progress never got any faster than glacial. It was a really upsetting station for everyone. He was frustrated and unhappy at his lack of progress and my teaching team were unhappy at being unable to fix the problems he was facing. This begs the question: Why had it all gone so wrong?

I believe the reason that Phil and a lot of other students really struggle to make progress is not about learning English. Rather, I believe it is about learning how to learn. Phil was a classic example because he had started to learn in state school where he was taught in large classes with some pretty antiquated methodologies. Because of this, he had some really bad language-learning habits that he found difficult/impossible to break. For example:

  • He translated every last word from English into French before he tried to speak. As a consequence his fluency was awful and by the time he had flicked between languages, the conversation or the activity had passed him by.
  • He fixated on grammar. Everything was about forming and conjugating verbs. He felt that if he knew go/went/gone or eat/ate/eaten he was mastering the language. He spent hours memorising stuff like this. But, he never actually practised using them in conversation and, thus, found himself making repeated mistakes whenever he actually needed to speak and to use them.
  • He wanted to take notes constantly. Every class he attended he would pull out a leather notebook and begin scrawling for the full hour. He spent so much time writing things down in French that he had no chance to speak English.

The issue with Phil was not his work-ethic or even his ability to speak English. It was his study habits. He thought he was doing things to make progress when, in fact, he was doing the exact opposite. This brings us to the main point of this blog entry. It is not just a teacher's job to teach the student the language; it is also the teacher's job to show the students the best habits to do that.

Obviously, the exact details of this will change depending on the course. I encountered Phil whilst working for Wall Street English where there was a great focus on conversational English and communication. Had I been teaching in a university where there was to be an exam afterwards, I would have changed my policy and ideas on note-taking for example.

A colleague of mine also raised a really interesting point recently about the way we approach classes and our use of learning techniques. He said to me:
Paul, have you noticed how strange it is that schools everywhere focus on technique and preparation for exams like IELTS and TOEIC, but not so much for real-life conversation”.

I thought his analysis was excellent. I cannot count the hours during which I have drilled students on skim and scan techniques for IELTS or I have talked about different techniques for mastering the section 7 in the TOEIC – I even have my own blog for TOEIC skills and there are countless sites dedicated to IELTS. But, many schools do not do so much for normal English conversation and communication. It was something I began to do in my last role in France. When I explained to students that I was not there to teach them English but to teach them learning skills instead, many of them looked at me like I was an alien! However, the class took off and many students made great progress. I believe this is an area that s currently tragically overlooked. We need to teach students how to learn.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Feedback Techniques

This area of teaching is, in the modern age, such a hot topic that it I do not believe we can cover it in just one blog article. So, I am going to use two. This one will be for verbal feedback and the second will be for written feedback. 
The stimulus for this article came when I was doing research on internet resources and began to see just how much can be done online. Let me take the example of the website englishgrammarsecrets.com, which offers quizzes for scores of different pieces of grammar. It does this in lots of different ways. It tests both the structure and usage of grammar points and, if the student gets the answer, it gives the correct answer. The quizzes and the feedback functionare sophisticated enough for the student to know whether he/she has a problem forming the grammar or in using it correctly. For example, if the student is looking at the Present Perfect he/she will be able to determine if they have a problem with conjugating the irregular verbs or identifying the correct time-defined situation in which to use it.  
The above description shows just how much we can do o line in 2014. It truly is frightening. A simple - albeit very well designed website - can do an awful lot of work that teachers used to do. However, there is a limit to what websites can do. I believe that one of those limitations is in giving feedback. A website can tell a student what he/she did wrong, but it struggles to make corrections as effectively and cannot check understanding the way a teacher can. Therefore, feedback is an area where a teacher can really add value to his/her role. Again, we must look at the idea of doing more. It is not just about telling a student they are right/wrong. Giving feedback is a far richer area of teaching technique than that. To analyse how a teacher can improve feedback skills let's look at one of the failings of online technology. Most websites and online learning systems will tell the student if they are right or wrong. It is also likely to give the correct answer as well. Some super sophisticated examples might also give a brief explanation as to why the answer was wrong. So, what more can the teacher add. Below are a few points I feel are key here: 

Hot-Correction: The problem with a lot of online resources is that the correction comes after the fact. The students have to answer the question and make the mistake before they get the feedback. This is not so much the case when the student is with a teacher. If we look at communicative activities where the student is using language in conversation, the teacher can get the mistake before the student has even finished his/her sentence. It is a case of nipping a problem in the bud or prevention rather than cure. This gives the opportunity for the student to have another go at using the grammar without having to review the whole activity againIf the correction is made quickly and directly, the student might well be cured of the mistake quickly. However, if the student does not get the feedback until he/she has answered five or ten questions, that mistake is not cured so easily because he/she has made it many times without correction.  

Self Correction: The teacher making corrections quickly is important in stopping mistakes before they become an issue. However, it also offers a great opportunity for the student to take an active role in the feedback process. The teacher being actively involved in the feedback gives the student an opportunity to correct himself/herself and to enjoy a far more dynamic learning experience. If the teacher points the mistake out as soon as it happens, the student has the chance to try again and give a better answer. This not only helps in allowing the student to keep speaking, but it also is great for the student's. Being able to fix a mistake is far better than being told what you did wrong.

Concept Checking: Often simply correcting a mistake is not enough. This is what poor quality teachers do and what many websites and apps can do. However, students need more. If a student makes a mistake, they will often need to know why. Have they used the wrong tense or the wrong piece of vocabulary. Obviously, giving that explanation is a function of the teacher. However, there is more to it than that. The teacher needs to know that the student has understood the correction. By asking concept check questions the teacher can see if the student really has understood. 

Empathy: Nothing can be more dispiriting when learning a language than making mistakes. No-one likes to hear negative language or to see red ink across answers. However, this type of thing can often be mitigated by a teacher showing empathy and trying to help the students overcome their mistake. Apps and websites cannot do this. They simply show what is wrong. 

In short, an app or a website can tell a student if they are correct or if they have made a mistake, but they cannot really give feedback. Offering feedback is a genuine opportunity for a teacher to show real worth in the classroom. 

Friday, 18 July 2014

The Teacher as the Method?

During the five or so years for which I have worked as a Director of Studies or an Academic Manager one of the questions I have asked most commonly to teachers that I interviewed or to whom I delivered training is: "What is your teaching style?". Occasionally, I might have changed the way I phrased it and gone for something along the lines of: "How do you like to approach your classes?". However, the point of the question remained the same. I wanted to understand the philosophy that the teacher brought to the classroom.

When I ask such a question, what am I looking for? This is actually a pretty interesting question and an area worth exploring. Of course there are good and bad answers. If a teacher tells me about a love of communicative activities or task-based learning, they are likely to capture my attention – I am a sucker for activities that get students interacting and break classroom norms. Conversely, if they discuss a very regimented approach featuring lots of Grammar-Translation techniques I am likely to be far less enthused. This is not, though, the full story of my question. A philosophy that I hold in great stead is that even a bad answer is better than no answer. If the teacher does not seem to have a coherent philosophy to the class that they teach, then I am inclined to question their motivation, their commitment to teaching English and their viability as a teacher.

In recent weeks, though, I have been given cause to question my approach to the question. This has come about thanks to a conversation with a teacher who helped me look at things in a slightly different way. When I asked him to outline his approach to classes he gave what I, ordinarily, would have considered a weak answer. He told me, “I like to take a flexible approach. I like to be eclectic, to mix things up”. As soon as he said this, my inner monologue began to scream, “Show some commitment man! Surely you have a philosophy” If he had finished their, my opinion would have remained unchanged. However, he continued with his explanation and things began to get more interesting. He told me that he believed that rather than CLT or Grammar-Translation, it should be the teacher that represented the method.

I found his comment interesting, so I asked him to expand. He argued that, in his opinion at least, the methodology adopted in the classroom was secondary to the teacher being able to reach the class objectives. He continued by asserting that the class was very much a case of any means necessary. If it took some translation to get past one particular activity, then so be it. He concluded with the phrase, “I am the teacher, it is my job to teach the students and I will do that any way I can”.

I will jump out right away and state that I did not agree with him for a myriad of reasons. For example:

  1. On a pure and idealistic level, constantly changing philosophy and approach undermines the teacher's character and identity in the classroom. Ultimately, this will remove a degree of heart and commitment from the class. The teacher loses their academic identity. I am proud to take a communicative approach into the classroom and I believe it defines me as a teacher. It gives me my identity in the classroom and when I look for new teachers, I want to find those with their own identity.
  2. On a far more practical level, I objected strongly to the rather teacher-centric approach. I am a huge believer that the most important person in the classroom is the student. The idea of the teacher representing the method changes this and makes the teacher far more important, too important in my opinion. The teacher-centric approach focuses too much on how the teacher teaches rather than how the student learns. I would argue that if the teacher becomes the method, we will focus too much on teaching rather than learning.
  3. I also believe that the lack of coherence in the approach can have an impact on the students. If the students see a clear methodology from the teacher, they are likely to follow that and adopt strong study habits based around the philosophy. However, if the teacher flips between methods, the students are likely to pick up bad habits on the way and are also likely to be confused on what is the best way to approach learning. I would argue that part of the teacher's role is to be a guide for the students, not just to teach them language but to show them how to learn. This needs clarity and consistency.
  • When I worked at Wall Street English – one of the world's largest English training companies – we had an English-only policy. The students were clear on this. They knew that they would learn by speaking English. The philosophy was clear. Suddenly allowing the students to translate some vocabulary into their native language would undermine this tremendously. The teacher-centric runs the risk of undermining students study habits.
  1. On a simple level, the teacher representing the method must be exhausting. With a communicative approach, I begin to plan my classes with a clear idea on what I want to do. I want to encourage speaking and communication. If I take the teacher approach, I have scores of different techniques to consider before I can formulate my lesson plan.

I feel that I have some pretty compelling arguments against the idea that the teacher represents a teaching method in himself (herself). However, the guys kind of had a point. Or, at least, he had opened an area that my be worth discussion. He made me ponder a few questions. Can we get too bogged down in a methodological approach? Does it sometimes hurt us if we cling to a method – whatever that may be – too strongly? Are we too rigid?

Answering the above questions is not easy. However, the emergence and near-domination of CLT in recent years is an area we could look at. In my entire career in academic management, I have yet to meet an interview candidate who doesn't at some point emphasize certain aspects of CLT. Most ESL teaching courses discuss different methodologies, but there is an underlying focus on CLT. Also, most schools nowadays head in a similar direction with CLT a key component of their syllabi.

As I have stated already, I am a huge CLT disciple and I am unlikely to swayed towards translation or a strict grammatical approach any time soon. Yet, I can concede that it I not always perfect and there are times in the classroom when we could employ other areas. I would like to think that the teacher I met served an important purpose for me. By no means did he convince me that I needed to change everything, but he reminded me that there is sometimes a need for flexibility and an awareness that no method is perfect.


For this article, I am going to cast my mind back to 2006 when I was working in China. At the time, I was working for a company called ClarkMorgan and was teaching Business English to major international companies operating in China. During that period, I read an interview with one of the company's co-founders, a guy named Andy Clark. The interviewer asked him what he thought were the key attributes of a language trainer. He talked first about the importance of energy and enthusiasm before moving onto a point that really got me thinking. He said that 'presence' was one of the key things he looked for in a trainer. It was not something I had thought too much about before reading that interview, but it is something I have since mused about at great length. 
Creating a sense of presence in the classroom or in a large training venue was something I worked very hard on when I was a teacher in China and elsewhere. I wanted to be able to control the room and ensure my students felt supremely confident in me, their teacher. To do this, I worked on all kinds of things. I started with simple things such as dressing a little more formally. I then started working on body language that made me look more poised and confident - holding my head higher and my shoulders back for example. I also thought about my speech. I tried to work on an authoritative tone and spent hours trying to cut the umms, ahhhhs and errrrs from my speech. I genuinely believe the work I did on creating presence and looking more authoritative made me a better teacher. It made it easier for me to gain my students trust and confidence. However I do not believe I really understood the value of presence and authority until, as an Academic Manager, I had to try to teach it. 
When I was running a school in France, I had a teacher who was in many ways excellent. She had a great personality and was extremely nurturing and patient with the students. She was also well-qualified and extremely well versed in grammar. However, she struggled when students asked her questions. I remember watching her teach an intermediate level class in which the students asked her about the difference between 'I could' and 'I was able to'. She gave an excellent answer that dealt with the ideas of opportunity and execution that define the two phrases. The students, though, did not buy it. After she answered the question they turned to me to verify her answer. They didn't seem to believe her. 
After the class, we reviewed what had gone wrong and why the students did not have confidence in her explanation even though it was a textbook answer. I told her what I thought: it was all about presence and authority ... the presence and authority that she lacked. Identifying the problem was the easy part. Fixing it was more of a challenge. Creating presence and authority is not something you can easily do. In fact, it could be argued that it is nature rather than nurture that creates this particular quality. The difficulties notwithstanding, we decided that presence and authority was an area to work on. So, what did the teacher and I do to try to create that important quality?  
In truth, it was no single thing that did the trick. Rather, it was a combination. I have outlined a few points below. They are by no means definitive, but I believe they are a start. 

1. Wordiness: it is a common trait for people who are nervous to speak too much. Put someone in a stressful situation and the chances are that one of the ways that the stress will manifest itself is through the person babbling. This was a big issue for my teacher. She gave a great explanation for the grammar we were discussing. However, after she had passed on the pertinent information, she continued speaking. This made the explanation drift from authoritative to rather vague - as I observed the class I was screaming to myself "Shut up!". Not only does talking too much create an air of nervousness, but it also increases the scope for ambiguity and misunderstanding. Because of all this, we worked on giving answers that were short and clear. It made it easier for the student to understand and for the teacher to look authoritative. 

2. Voice Tone: My teacher had a wonderful personality. She was extremely friendly and just loved to chat with students. She had a nice soft tone of voice that sounded very welcoming. This was great in ice-breaking activities and conversation classes, but did not cuit when she was supposed to be giving explanations. The students just did not take her seriously enough. To deal with this, we looked at the concept of comparing teaching with a doctor's appointment. The basic idea was that as great as a good bedside manner is for a doctor, you also need to be confident and trust him/her with your life. Being nice is a secondary concern. Whilst teaching isn't life and death like medicine, students need to feel confident in their teacher. This meant that while I encouraged the teacher to be friendly in certain situations, I emphasized that she needed to understand that it needed to change at other times. 

3. Body Language: My teacher was super friendly and always liked to lean forward to show interest in what the students had to say. She would nod her head and smile attentively. This was great. Except, at no point did she ever lean back or hold her shoulders back or give the impression she was 100% in control. Just as with the first two points, this created the appearance of nervousness. We worked on the idea of looking more physically relaxed and keeping the back a bit straighter for more of the class. 

4. Dialogue: The final point is perhaps the hardest to define, but it is also perhaps the most crucial. I did not manage to spot it and understand it in just one observation. It took a couple more classes before I could put my finger on it. After watching her closely, I noticed that she was too keen to elicit the students opinions. She loved to use phrases, "how does that sound?" "does that sound OK?" "what do you think about that?". It was all about eliciting. This encouraged the students to question the answer and offer alternate idea as if we were in a discussion activity. Of course, in some areas of the class, this is exactly what she needed to do. But, again, it was about picking the right time to be friendly and open and chatty, and the right time to give a short clear answer with no room for debate. 

The crux of this article is relatively simple. It is great for a teacher to be friendly, chatty and energetic. But, at times that teacher needs to be able to show a persona of competency and clarity. The teachers needs to create a presence that will make the students trust him/her.