Month: November 2016

Please pass the salt – eh – question!

salt-shaker-pass

Instead of practicing table manners during the English lesson, I like to get all of my learners going by having them play “Pass the question”.  It’s quite straightforward, and works like this:

  1. We practice a simple question and answer structure as a class.
  2. A child and I demonstrate the same question and answer structure in which I ask the question, and the child answers.
  3. The child asks the question of his neighbor, and his neighbor answers the question.
  4. The children continue to pass the question to their neighbors until everyone has asked and answered the same question.

It sounds tedious, and if one actually does this activity with the entire class, it can be just that.  That’s why I generally split the class up into smaller groups.  I model the activity with one group, then assign the first “questioner” for each group.  If learners understand how it works, I also forego assigning “questioners”, since they can figure that much out for themselves.  Each group then passes the question amongst themselves.

What makes this an effective learning exercise?  There is a lot going on at once.  First of all, all of the children are getting multiple opportunities to practice taking part in simple, short, structured dialogues.  As we know, a common pitfall in the ESL lesson is getting everyone enough speaking practice time, and this exercise allows all learners to join in successfully.

It also gives learners space to practice without being put on the spot in front of the class when they make mistakes, as they most surely will.  Don’t worry about not being able to hear and correct every single mistake!  Making mistakes is normal for language learners, and if the communication really is unclear, the learners will be helped by their group members.

There’s also space for differentiation.  The stronger learners can “play” with the question, practicing different formulations, while still making themselves clear to their fellow group members.  The weaker learners already know what they have to say, so they can join in without any difficulty whatsoever.

Most importantly, each time learners listen to the dialogue, they are activating their mirror neurons.  When these neurons are activated, the mind practices doing exactly that what it sees and hears.  When we see someone fall down and get hurt, a part of us automatically recoils.  When we hear a learner say something in English, we automatically test it against our own English, checking it for correctness and matching it with our own language skills.  That’s what mirror neurons do.

mirror-neurons

In effect, by activating the mirror neurons, the learners are practicing the question-and-answer process not just once, but multiple times, allowing for even more practice and with it, better fluency in speaking.

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Differentiation, why bother?

For the ESL teacher, it’s a rare thing to have a class in which all of the children operate at exactly the same level.  Very often, there’s the child who doesn’t speak, the near-native speaker, and a whole bunch of other levels of ability in-between.  Writing a single lesson that will engage all of these children all of the time is, for most of us, the thought that keeps us up at night.  How often do we see a book in the shop and think how perfect it would be for the stronger children, or hear a song and think how that is just what the weaker children need.  We teachers cannot help ourselves, it’s just how we are.  We spend countless hours wondering how we can create an even better learning environment than we already have.  We cannot stand seeing children bored silly because the material is too easy, or disengaging out of sheer frustration.  We understand that in differentiating our lessons,  each child can connect with the material in a way and level that is meaningful for him or her.

Personally, I’ve tried all sorts of things out in my lessons in order to meet the needs of my pupils.  Some things worked, and some things, well, some things still need improving.  Here, I’ll share some of the things that worked, in the hope that others can use my experiences in their own teaching.  But before we move on to my own experiences, it’s important to give a little background information so we all know we’re on the same page.

differentiation

Thanks to Google search terms, it’s easy to find the definition for differentiation.

Putting that theory into practice, however, is another kettle of fish entirely.

There are different ways to differentiate in the ESL lessons, but first, it’s important to look at the difference between convergent and divergent differentiation.  There is an essential difference between these two forms.  In divergent differentiation, the child forms the starting point.  Each child starts at his own level, with his own goals, and may use various materials to get there.  In this case, the individuality of each child is accentuated, and the teacher strives to meet the needs of each child.

In convergent differentiation, the starting point is the common lesson objective that the children need to meet.  The children all begin together with the basic instruction, and as they understand the material and the task at hand, they “drop off” to work on their own.  Those children needing the most instruction stay on the longest, while those needing little to no instruction are free to work on their own.

I’ve tried both forms of differentiation, and experience tells me that while divergent differentiation can be a lot of fun, it’s also a load of work.  For years, I created tasks at different levels, applied various styles of learning, assessed for different levels, all to help children realize a modicum of success, but at the end of the day, it was a lot to keep track of.  I found it rewarding but oh so tiring, and was really pleased when I – finally – learned about convergent differentiation.  (oh!  The things I wished I’d learned earlier!)  Of course, I still allowed children to choose different language tasks to work on, but with convergent differentiation, I decided on easier ways to provide instruction and scaffolding so that everyone could profit from the lessons.

Part of differentiating successfully was getting a handle on what the children could already do, and where they needed to go next.  I’ve already written a blog in which I explained this process of writing semi-annual plans, so I won’t go into that again here.

power-point-to-handout

Incidentally, www.mes-english.com is an excellent site for free power points, handouts and games!  TIP: power points can be printed as PDF files, nine slides to a page, making a very easy, personalized handout. 

Click here for a simple how-to sheet on changing a power point into a pdf handout:  how-to-pdf-handout-from-ppt

After creating my semi-annual plans, I decided to create some simple scaffolding material for my weaker learners.  I started by making handouts related to the power points I already used in my lessons.  I printed enough copies for the weaker children, so they would have the words at hand during the lessons, always keeping a few extra copies around in case other children felt the need for a “cheat sheet” during the lesson.  I figured, using a “cheat sheet” would be slow going for those who already knew the words, so children would only use it if they really needed it.  In the end, I was proven right – children who needed the support were glad of the handout, and those who didn’t really need it, soon left the handouts untouched.

Another way I applied differentiation was to sort out the words we would be learning into three categories: need to know, really ought to know, and challenge words.  The words that everyone needed to know were put on the handouts.  These were the words that I expected everyone in the class to recognize and correctly apply in whatever exercises they had to complete.  The words I hoped most children would learn were put on the handout as well, but only if they fit.  These were the words that the weakest children didn’t need to have, but that most children in the class were expected to learn.  And lastly, I always had a few extra challenge words up my sleeve, so that even the strongest speakers had something to learn.

There’s more, of course.  I applied multiple intelligences to my lesson planning, and had children reading at their own level, all of which contributed to a varied palette of teaching and learning.  I’m curious what techniques others have applied in their ESL teaching?  Please share!

Van Gogh in the ESL classroom

van-gogh-oil-painting-fg-132

Van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles

What do you see in this picture?  Tell me about it.  What words do you know?  What phrases do you need, to describe what you see in this picture?  What colors do you see?  How would you describe this painting?  Vibrant?  Muted?  Rough strokes?  Refined brushwork?  Who made this painting?  When?  Where?

Look at the painting below.  What do you see there?  What’s the weather like?  Who do you think lives there?  And again, who made this painting?  When, and where?

During lessons, it’s really important that we expose children to various modes of communication, such as music and games, but also the arts.  Paintings, sculptures, and drawings are all excellent means of developing vocabulary and eliciting speech.  It also frees us, as teachers, up from having to use what the textbook dictates.  Art is everywhere, and we can learn to talk about it, at any age.

For instance, young people can start by naming the colors and objects they see, or alternatively, point to things the teacher or other children name.  More advanced learners can talk about whether or not they like a certain piece of art, and more importantly, why they may or may not like it.  Young adults can dive into the more technical aspects of the artwork, discussing the artist, the type of art created, and maybe even the context which may have inspired the particular artwork.

An example of the history behind the painting is hidden behind the row houses in the painting above.  Who would have known that these five houses were once owned by Alfred Pope, a former slave who had once tried escaping, was caught, to be freed upon his master’s death two years later?

Art isn’t just for talking about, however.  It can be a source of inspiration for teachers and children alike, providing a means of working outside the textbook-driven box.  In an informative blog written by the British Council, several ideas for how to use art in the ESL classroom are explained.  Besides talking about art, children can make their own artwork to talk about.  In a blog written by the Oxford University Press, two more ideas are shared, expanding the idea of “art” to include doodles and poetry.

Another important reason for using a different mode of teaching is that different children are stimulated to participate in the lesson.  Oftentimes, the quiet learners will come out of their protective shells of silence to join in an arts and crafts activity, into a space that allows them to express themselves in ways outside of words.  It’s then on us, as teachers, to help them connect their work to the words and phrases they can use to talk about it.

I’ve often used pictures from the internet for use in my classes, putting them into power points as a means of getting children to look at the world in a different way.  Here are a few tips for finding usable images:

  • Search terms:  look on Google images for: painting + topic, for instance “painting + tiger”.  Sometimes I’ll use “watercolor” or “oil painting” if I’m looking for a certain kind of effect.  Other times, I’ll use “statue” or “abstract painting”.
  • Search settings: It’s important to choose the search settings carefully, by clicking on “search tools” and then “size”.  I’ve found that small images won’t reproduce well in a power point, so I often pick the “large” setting when looking for images I want to use.
  • Copyright settings: sometimes pictures have “watermarks” on them.  If you change your search setting on “usage rights” to any other setting than the default, you won’t have any watermarked images.

I wonder who else has used art in the English lesson?  Please let me know about your own experiences.