Walk-n-talk revisited: the adult learner

woodsToday I’m going to write you a story about a discovery I made during a lesson for which only three students showed up.  (Do you have that problem?  Writing lessons for students who don’t show up?  I hope not.)  Anyway, it was warm, we were tired, and half of my activities were no longer useable, needing more than four people to make them work.  So there I sat, wondering what to do.

I decided to change things around: it was lovely weather, so I decided to go outside.  We put our bags into my locker, and off we went to the park just behind my school.  As we walked, we talked in English about all sorts of stuff.  At first, the students thought it was funny to speak to each other in English, but within minutes they got into the swing of things, talking about their everyday lives.

As we walked, I moved from student to student, asking questions, providing new words, and correcting verb tenses as needed.  We talked about work, school, student teaching, living on their own, plans for the weekend.  Every story provided new opportunities for learning as students discovered the words they needed to express themselves.  We walked between the trees, crossed a tree-trunk bridge, discovered a geocache, and explored a local neighborhood garden, all of which provided opportunities for practice as we connected these new experiences to others in our past.

While the students walked, they relaxed.  As they relaxed, they practiced more and more English.  And as they practiced, they made verbal forays into areas of English they’d never yet attempted.  I gave them words and encouragement, giving them space to experience success.  This succes allowed their self-confidence to grow, allowing them in turn to learn more and make more progress than I had ever dared hope.

I’ve adopted this form of work into my regular teaching, making time for a short “walk-n-talk” while the rest of the class works on its own.  Even in the space of fifteen minutes, students develop a certain fluency that I couldn’t hope to achieve in the regular lesson.  Those who wish, may join me for a kilometer or two, and those who don’t, are free to tackle the other tasks I assigned.  Afterward, I check back with the entire class: what did we learn?  Which task worked well, and which didn’t?  In that way, everyone is allowed a certain amount of choice, while being responsible to actively participate in the lesson.

What do you do in order to help your students learn?

The road to recovery

Yesterday, I started out by going for my morning run.  After that, I started sanding down my kitchen walls for a much-needed paint job.  My son showed up however, reminding me that I’d promised to go geocaching with him.  One of my favorite hobbies – how could I possibly have forgotten!  So I packed in my painting gear and off we went on a 30 kilometer bike ride, picking up a few geocaches on the way.  After we got home, I resumed painting the kitchen.

Somewhere during the bike ride back, I realized I was actually quite tired.  Hardly unusual for me, after years of burnout recovery.  This time, however, there was a change in my feelings towards my tiredness.  I was tired, yes, my legs ached and my feet were begging for a rest, but I wasn’t afraid.  For those who have never experienced a burnout, this may seem strange.  After all, what’s there to be afraid of, if one is just a bit tired?  After my burnout manifested itself, however, I found myself measuring everything I did in terms of energy output.  Everything I did – climb the stairs to the laundry room, walk to the store for a bit of shopping, make a phone call, all of it cost me precious energy.  For years, I’ve had to weigh everything in to see if I could afford the energy it cost.  The question I had to answer, time and again, was “will this be the thing that sends me back to the ground zero of my energy?  How much will this put me back?  How much time will I need to recover?”  And now, here I was, on a bike, without having weighed it in ahead of time.  I had energy to spend on time with my child.  I wasn’t afraid, but could even enjoy the feeling of tiredness.  That realization was liberating.

I was one of the lucky ones.  Many people who have gone through burnout also fall into some form of depression.  As I have opened up to people around me about my own experience, I find more and more who have gone through this experience.  Countless times, their recovery was paired with use of an anti-depressant, and for some, they remained dependent on their medicine for years afterwards.  I was different, however.  Once I was able to accept my lot and allowed myself to fall into the burnout, I maintained my confidence that my body and mind, though tired, were built soundly and healthily, and they would get me through this experience at their own tempo.  I just needed to trust myself.

Falling into the burnout was crucial to my being able to move forward.  I remember once, watching my son fall off the coffee table he’d just climbed onto.  As I sucked my breath in in apprehension, he reacted to my reaction, stiffening in mid-air and hitting the ground far harder than he otherwise would have had he remained relaxed.  I remembered this lesson as I fell into the burnout, reminding myself that a relaxed fall would save me painful bones and bruises later on.

Another part of my recovery was the realization that burnout, in and of itself, is not a failure.  Not in the sense of being a failure, at least.  What it is, is a failure to realize that crucial limits have been approached, or that these have been crossed.  In failing to notice these limits, it is also a failure to take steps that might help avoid hitting the point of no return.   Burnouts can be avoided.  In order to do, however, people need to know what burnout is.  How it can be spotted, and how it can be avoided, are also important bits of information that need to be spread and taken seriously.

First off, let’s talk about factors that contribute to a burnout.  There are two sets of factors: internal and external factors.  Very often, people attribute burnouts to the internal factors, ignoring the external factors that also play a very real contributing role.  Internal factors that play a role in burnouts and their prevention include emotional intelligence, personality, and people’s perception of how much their work meets their expectations.  It’s quite easy for employers to focus on these issues, calling work-related stress “experienced stress.”  In other words, the stress that one experiences, which can differ from person to person.  Experienced stress is entirely between the ears of the employee, which means the employer is unable to do a single thing about it.  I remember sitting across from the well-meaning psychologist, who spoke with me about my mother before recommending me a book about how to adjust my emotional attitudes towards my work.  I was confused, since I had applied every single trick in that book for years, and still there I was, burnt-out and too tired to protest.

External factors, however, also play a role.  For me, for instance, I remember when the school days suddenly started a quarter hour earlier.  For me, that meant I had to get out the door a half hour earlier to catch the train, so I was suddenly short two hours sleep every week.  Every month, that was an entire night of sleep I lost.  Of course, I tried to catch up, but with two little ones to care for, there wasn’t much catching up I could do at the weekends.  Later, the times were adjusted again, and I lost yet another hour of sleep every single week.  My school days started at 7:30 in the morning, and I worked without a single break until 3:15 every afternoon, going from class to class, carrying my books and supplies to every lesson.  It was simply physically exhausting.  I remember being asked to supply teach on the days we were short too many teachers due to sickness, and I happily complied as this meant I would have the luxury of getting to sit down during snack time with a 30-minute lunch break in-between.

There’s also something to be said for the fact that teaching, is, in fact, a very demanding job.  It’s very rewarding, of course!  But do let’s be honest: being in a classroom with dozens of very different children, teaching them the stuff of life, dealing with their various physical, emotional, and intellectual needs all of the time is simply very demanding.  Talks with parents who may (or may not be) supportive, the demanding principal, and the total lack of support in the media means that when teachers need to have a groan, they are often met with blank looks of non-understanding.  They do, after all, get weeks of paid vacation?  And they can go home when the bell rings, can’t they?  Long-retired teachers show the least understanding of all, not realizing the changes that the world of education has undergone since their retirement, in their ignorance undermining any attempts to better the situation at hand by discrediting the teachers’ voices.  So the teachers grin and bear it, exhausting themselves because no one really understands and of course, they are strong.  They are determined.  And they will carry on, because their class needs them to.

Earlier this year, Sander Dekker, the Undersecretary for the Ministry of Education went to great lengths to gather information about work-related stress.  Twitter, Facebook, and his own blog page were inundated by teachers begging for reinstatement of the caretakers and teacher assistants who for years had been responsible for a lot of the smaller tasks like repairing material, copying, reading to children and allowing teachers toilet breaks, until they’d been fired due to budget cuts.  Teachers asking for a much-needed salary raise after the freeze they’d been forced to accept five years before.  Teachers asking for extra assistants to help deal with the special needs children they were no longer allowed to send off to special education as part of a new inclusionary reform.  Teachers, basically, explaining that they just needed to be valued, in very concrete ways.  After gathering thousands of contributions from teachers from every layer of education, from all around the country, his response was astounding.  Sorry, the Ministry of Education was not responsible for the working conditions of its employees.  That was something that only school boards could deal with, one school at a time.  Teachers felt seriously taken, instead of taken seriously.  This was not the kind of message that was going to stimulate the changes so direly needed to stop the spiral of burnout currently taking place in education today.  Instead, the Undersecretary took the very safe road that nearly every other employer has done so far, calling “NIMBY” (Not In My Back Yard – and therefore not my problem) and placing the problem… elsewhere.

If we are ever to take the growing problem of burnout in the world of education, it’s time for us to call “YIMBY” (Yes, In My Back Yard).  We need to realize that educators are more than happy to go to bat for our kids every single day, often working through hell or high water, but that we need to back them up 100%.  We need to take them seriously when we give them extra responsibilities, instead of shrugging our shoulders and expecting them to figure out how to make everything work out.  We need to give them extra pairs of qualified hands in the classroom, so they can actually meet all of the demands being made of them.  And we need to value our teachers, every single day, in concrete, real ways.  Stop the lip service, and give them time, space, and trust.

The big bad wolf of ESL: grammar


As a child, I remember outlining sentence after sentence in a hopeless mess of adjective phrases and adverbial clauses, finding myself placing words on random lines in the hope of maybe, just maybe, getting this one sentence correctly dissected.  At the same time, I remember believing that to dissect a sentence was to commit an injustice, taking the balanced beauty and meaning out of its wholeness by cutting it up into bits.  It wasn’t until my last year at the university when I learned about a whole new way of describing the sentence structure, using a structure more like trees – or roots of trees, depending on how one looks at the picture.


Suddenly, phrases and sentence structures became logically interconnected.  The inner balance of each sentence remained intact as I explored the finesses of phrases, clauses, and verb tenses.  And just for fun, I even took another grammar course to follow up.  Here is where I learned the difference between prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar.

Prescriptive grammar, in a manner of speaking, is first the rules, then the language.  Descriptive grammar works the other way around: first the language, then the rules.  To put it bluntly, if a native speaker of a language applies a certain structure to his sentences when speaking, then it’s correct, according to the linguist.  According to the grammarian, grammar is meant to teach “correct” language use, hence the jungle of grammatical rules often found in textbooks meant to teach people proper English.

When I start a new English course for teachers, I ask them what they remember about their own English lessons.  They often come up with one of two things: conjugating irregular verbs, or the nightmarish grammar, both of which they hated.  Fortunately, the method of teaching we focus on at my teacher college is the “Communicative approach”, a.k.a. the “Functional notional approach“.  The students still have to learn grammar, and learn how to teach it, but we focus on it differently: implicitly instead of explicitly.

With the functional notional approach, children are given example after example of how to use given vocabulary in a certain sentence structure.  An easy example might be: I walk to school.  I bike to school.  I fly to school.  (for that last example, the grammatical structure is correct even if the sentence isn’t entirely truthful)  With this series of examples, children learn to apply the simple present tense in a short sentence and will soon figure out how to say “I …. to school”, using verbs of their own choosing.

A more complicated example might be “On Wednesday, we have maths.” or “On Tuesday, we have gym.”  In this case, the child is learning to talk about when they have various subjects.  Once this sample structure has been learned, it won’t be long before the child can extrapolate this sentence to say things like “On Saturday, I play football” and the like.

The basis of the Functional notional approach is the concept of functions and notions.  Functions are language tasks, examples of things we might have to say in order to get things done.  Notions are concrete examples of how we might fulfill those functions. Notions can be further divided into fixed notions and variable notions.

For example, a function might be “order something at a restaurant.”  A sample notion might be “Excuse me, I’d like to order a pizza / some chips / a bowl of soup.”  Or easier: “I want pizza / chips / soup.”  The choice of notion depends, of course, on the level of the learners and what they can realistically handle.  The pizza, chips, and soup, are examples of variable notions because they are interchangeable within the sentence.  The rest of the sentence (e.g. “I’d like to order…”, “I want…”) is the fixed notion, and therein lies the implicit grammatical structure the learners are to figure out.

Is “I’d like to order…” always a fixed notion?  Of course not!  Each language lesson focuses on a given grammatical structure that is chosen based on the vocabulary being taught.  Vocabulary and grammar are interlinked.  This is most easily seen when learning about prepositions, as words such as “in, on, under, towards” only have meaning in relation to the nouns contained within its phrase (in the box, on the table, under the chair, towards the exit), but it just as true for many other parts of language.

By embedding the grammar into the way vocabulary is used, pupils learn to “feel” when a sentence is correct.  They learn to understand the rules of grammar even when they cannot explain them, but apply them instead without thinking.

Do pupils have to learn grammar?  By all means, yes!  BUT… do they have to learn it explicitly, and prescriptively?  I don’t think so.  Pupils have a natural way of picking up grammar and are perfectly capable of creating their own understanding of a language, given enough input.

Screencasts… the instruction of the future?

Last week, I learned about a new tool for long-distance instruction: screencasts.  Actually, I don’t do any long-distance instruction, yet.  But I do give certain instructions time and again, and to avoid getting into the rut of (yawn) repetition, I decided to give this new tool a whirl.


I started by searching for free, easily downloadable software that would be compatible with my computer.  A quick search through wikipedia (screencast software) brought me to Grabilla’s doorstep.  I don’t consider myself to be terribly ict-skilled, but I managed to download the program and give it a try.  After serveral botched attempts, I figured it out.  My day was made!

After that, I had to think of something I could make a screencast about.  Having spent hours and hours of my life making pretty much every mistake possible using Windows movie maker, I decided to make an informative screencast about “how to make a movie”.  Here is the final draft… and it “only” took two hours to make.

Of course, it’s got the regular glitches and issues, but for a first-time screencast, I can safely say I’m quite pleased with the result.

My next question is, of course, how can I apply this new technology in a useful fashion to my own teaching?  What do you think?

Online lesson planning & sharing lessons with colleagues


For years, I’ve been writing lessons for my lessons.  Even though I’ve taught the same topics to the same age groups for 10 years in a row, I always write out my lesson plans afresh.  It gives me the chance to re-think my teaching and adjust the lesson for my new classes.  I also like to think that if I ever call in sick (and you never know!), someone else would be able to step in and teach my lessons, based on my lesson plans.

My ESL colleagues have been doing the same thing.  Writing out lesson plans, for the same topics, with pretty much the same objectives, for the same age groups.  We’ve been doing this work, individually, with no chance of feedback on our lessons.  How to make them more interactive, for instance. How to let go of the book and start doing more interesting, interactive lessons.  We’ve each been wasting time inventing our own wheel, all these years.

Today, however, I found out about a way that might help us off of our islands and onto a boat of collaborative learning.  I watched the demonstration video, sceptical at first of what was, actually, a very boring video.

As the minutes dragged on, however, I started to see the possibilities behind this – free! – online tool.  Of course, I saw shortfalls.  But I also saw something bigger, and far more interesting: the opportunity to create lesson plans that others could easily adapt for their own use.  These lesson plans could then be saved into a group file – also on the internet – and accessed whenever needed.

Just think of all the time we could save, and the ideas we could gain from one another, given this new manner of working!  Personally, I’m excited about the possibilities this site offers and hope to persuade my ESL colleagues of the same.

I gave it a whirl, just to see how it works.  This is, obviously, not my very best lesson, but good enough for a tryout:  test-LDdesigner-BP3Un1-L1

There are several features I like about this particular site.

1) you can create a lesson template and adapt it again and again.  This means that a group of teachers can agree to use a certain setup, so that others can easily understand what the lesson is about and how it is to be run.

2) you can see exactly how minutes of each lesson is spent listening/reading, practicing, producing, and discussing.

3) you can define objectives using Bloom’s taxonomy

And there are also shortfalls:

1)  It’s not possible to integrate self-made worksheets into the lesson plans.  These have to be kept elsewhere.

2) The layout can be a bit off-putting for those who don’t feel very confident in the world of ict.

I wonder if I can convince my fellow ESL colleagues to join me on this adventure?


Sing-a-long song time!

In the English Corner, the kindergarteners sit, thinking about what they will do this time.  Will they work with a buddy on the computer?  Will they play a game in a small group?  Or…. will they color a song card for their song book?

The child chooses which picture he wants for his song book, and the songs go inside.

The child chooses which picture he wants for his song book, and the songs go inside.

A song card, as you can see here, is simply the lyrics for a song we have recently learned, along with (part of) a picture illustrating what the song is about.  We sing the song together, and the children identify what parts of the song are already on the song card.  They have to fill in whatever it is that they’re still missing.

In making a song card, I keep the following in mind:

1. the print is large and simple

2. the illustration is a black-and-white line drawing (thanks google images!)

3. the illustration clarifies the meaning of the song

4. the illustration is “incomplete”.  In other words, the children have to add something of their own to complete the picture and illustrate the song.

The song books are personalized with a cover picture of their choice.

Differentiation: less of the complete picture is provided for the older children, allowing them to draw the rest of the song themselves.

It’s not unusual for children to practice singing the song as they color, re-inforcing the song and its meaning as they go.  If they are ready, we play with the song, substituting words as we go, or using different voices.  Some children even start identifying the main words of the song and start “reading along” as we sing.

The children love having their work collected in a personal book like this, and when they leave kindergarten, their book goes with them as a special gift.


Testing, testing… (continued)

Three children sat at the table, sorting through six laminated cards.  “All right, everybody,” I started.  “Where is frog hopping?”  This is a toughie, since “hopping” in English and “happing” in Dutch sound similar, but the meaning is quite different.  I demonstrate with the frog puppet.  “Look!  Hopping!”  The children catch on, and hold up the picture of frog hopping across the yard.  We continue on, looking at frog eating a fly, frog eating a stick, and frog eating a flower.  “What will happen in the story,” I ask.  The children look at the pictures and start to tell me a story.  I encourage them to use all of the English words they know, resulting in a mix of words one might call “Dinglish,” Dutch and English mixed together.  Then I set up the “walls” – some large books – and pull out my storybook.  It’s time to read aloud so that the children can put the pictures in order.

In this task, I look for language behaviors as they are described in the teacher’s handbook for the ESL program I work with (Note 1).  For instance, can the children understand simple, short sentences?  Can they predict what might happen, by looking at the stories?  Can they put the pictures in the correct order?  And after hearing the story, can they answer questions about the story?

With this task, I assess four separate language behaviors with a group of 2 or 3 children.  Within 10 minutes, I have quite a bit of information already, and we still have time for more fun and games, as I call my tests.

I developed my test after extensive work with the Reynell and Anglia tests.  I noticed that while each test had a number of good points, each also had its weak points which made it unsuitable for my purposes.  Here, I list a few of my considerations regarding each of the tests:

Reynell test, pros:

  1. interesting tasks – the children enjoyed each of the tasks given, the tasks are appropriate for the target age group
  2. norm-referenced – no child can fail, although he can perform above or below the norm for his age

Reynell test, cons:

  1. time-consuming – each test is given individually, so a lot of time is spent introducing each task, and the test can take up to 45 minutes
  2. age limit – the test may only be used for children up to 7 years of age

Anglia test, pros:

  1. efficient use of time – the test is given classically, so the entire class is finished with the listening/reading/writing section within an hour or two
  2. structure – the test is well-structured and easily administered

Anglia test, cons:

  1. criterion-referenced – the test may be passed or failed, but in the case of failing (or superbly passing) it doesn’t give any information about what would have been a more appropriate level for testing
  2. level of testing – all sections tested are tested at the same level, there is no differentiation possible between the levels

I decided I needed a test that combined the good aspects of these two tests, while dealing with the negative aspects.  I ended up with my own system, which I call DRoPP (Digital Record of Pupil Progress).

While testing, I use a paper checklist per child.

While testing, I use a paper checklist per child.

How do I test children?  Step-by-step…

  1. I list the children in order of their ability.  The reason I do this is because I test children in small groups of 2 or 3, and it’s easier to test them if I have similar tasks for all of the children in the group.
  2. I pull out the children’s individual checklists of language behaviors.  The tasks on these checklists are based on the Early Bird curriculum.
  3. I give the group a number of language tasks to complete.  I don’t repeat the stuff they’ve already proven they can do, I only look for new information.  If the children attempt a task and cannot complete it, I put a dot in the space next to that task.  If the child completes it successfully, I put a dash.  I use one color for each assessment period.
  4. After each assessment – 10 to 15 minutes later – I give each child a well-earned compliment.
  5. I input the information from the paper form into each child’s DRoPP file, noting the date of the assessment was.  I often input the information directly into the summary screen, but I may also use a more detailed screen if I like.
The summary screen for a child, indicating name, group, and general development.

The summary screen for a child’s DRoPP file

A detailed list of the language behaviors.

A detailed list of language behaviors

Once the input has been done for all of the children, I run the output program to see just how well the children have done – as individuals, but also as a group.  I use the results to write my group plan for the coming semester.

I will write more about group plans another time…

The program I developed to keep track of pupil progress is now available online, free of charge:  https://sourceforge.net/projects/dropp/

Note 1:  for further reading on the ESL Program I work with:  The Early Bird Curriculum for Primary Schools (www.earlybirdie.nl)