ESL

A tale of how a bunny inspires my teaching

There are days when I don’t know what to do with my teaching.  Uninspired, paging through teacher’s manuals and clicking through Pinterest, looking for something that will feed the creative spirit.  That’s where I was, when I saw my rabbit chewing greedily on my yellow roses.  Did you know rabbits like roses?  I did, but hadn’t realized to what extent she was willing to go to grab this tasty morsel: on top of her hutch, pushing her head through a hole in the netting – meant to keep cats out and rabbits in – and grabbing the nearest rose to nibble on.  I showed my guy this picture, and for the rest of the day, he went around making up variants of “Roses are red”.

Here are a couple of examples:

Roses are red, violets are blue,

I’m here outside, enjoying the view.

Roses are red, violets are blue,

Time for a walk, I’ll get my shoes.

And one last verse:

Roses are red, violets are blue,

I’m ready to go, just waiting for you.

This is when I realized that this rhyming game is a perfectly fine activity for young EFL / ESL learners.  It’s a short, simple enough rhyme for children to tackle, with plenty of possible rhymes so every child can be successful in creating a rhyme, silly or otherwise.

If your students are new to writing poetry, it’s always a good idea to start by making up a list of rhyming words with the class.  This is an excellent moment to help them understand that words that look similar don’t always sound similar, for instance trough and through (“trof” and “throo”).  Other words that look quite different can, however, rhyme quite well, for instance through and blue (“throo” and “bloo”).

The “oo” (long u sound) has many spellings:

“oo” = too, moon

“ue” = blue, glue

“oe” = shoe (but not in “toe”!)

“o” = to, who

“ou” = you

“ough” = through (but not in “cough” or “bough”!)

“u – e” = tune

It’s handy to keep this in mind while making up a list of rhyming words.

When writing a poem, it’s also good to look at the meter of the poem.  The meter is how the accents are spread across the lines.  For instance,

ROses are RED, VIOlets are BLUE,

I’m REAdy to GO, just WAIting for YOU.

English is a language with a very strong speaking rhythm.  I’ve written about this aspect of the language earlier.  This rhythm helps make English more understandable as a language.  The important parts of the spoken text are automatically highlighted for the listener, and the bits in-between contain grammatical aspects such as tense, place, and connectors.  When children are creating a new ending for their poem, silly or otherwise, this rhythm will help them create fitting grammatical structures.

When your children are done writing their poem endings, it’s always fun to share their work.  A poetry jam might be a good way to show off their skills, as children encourage each other while practicing, fine-tuning, and reading their work aloud.

Whatever you do, remember what’s important: children playing with the language, feeling comfortable while communicating, and challenging themselves to go a step further in their language development.

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Encouraging teacher development

We teachers might like to think we know it all…… or we’re really uncertain about how to further our own development… or we’re looking for a way to improve our performance, but uncertain of how to go about it.  At the end of the day, there’s always a way to improve our teaching, and usually reason enough to do so, no matter how good one might already be in the teaching profession.

One way to direct our professional development as teachers is through the use of specialized teacher portfolios.  After an internet search, I found two different portfolios, each with a slightly different focus.

Portfolio for Student Teachers of Languages:

This European Portfolio for Student Teachers of Languages (EPOSTL) focuses on concrete issues related to teaching, such as Context, Methodology, Resources and Lesson planning.  Below is a mind map of the topics covered in this portfolio.  There is the occasional  reference to cultural sensitivity, but most of the indicators refer to general teaching skills for a beginning teacher, with the emphasis on language teaching.

EPOSTL

Download here:  Teacher-portfolio EPOSTL-EN  

Portfolio for (Pre-) Primary Teachers of Languages

For more experienced teachers wishing to have a deeper look at their plurilingual and intercultural competences, there is another portfolio developed by the European Centre for Modern Languages.  The Pepolino portfolio was developed for teachers of pre-primary education, but it could be used for teachers in primary education as well, depending on your own starting situation.  There are a few indicators for general teaching skills, but also quite a few related to cultural sensitivity and diversity.  For teachers working in multicultural schools, this is an excellent way to test your own development in this area.

Pepelino

Download here:  Teacher-portfolio pepelino-EN-web

Both of these portfolios look really large – and therefore a bit daunting – as they are documents with no less than ninety pages each.  When embarking on using a pre-designed portfolio like this, therefore, it’s important to realize you don’t have to fill in all ninety pages, just the few that focus on the competences you wish to work on.  So look through it carefully, check what areas are going well already, and then decide what areas need your immediate attention.

Online possibilities:

The British Council has on online teacher’s skills assessment you can fill in to get a general idea of what you might work on, to improve your teacher skills.  Of course, this online assessment is linked to an online course (also offered by the British Council), which you can follow if you like.

The nice thing about portfolios is that they allow you to work on at your own pace, on areas that you’ve decided are relevant to your daily practice.  There’s a certain measure of self-evaluation involved, which means you need to look at yourself honestly: not too generously, but not too harshly either.  Whatever you do, be willing to confront yourself with the good, the bad, and the ugly, and realize that a good teacher is a growing teacher.

And have fun!  Because that’s what makes learning work well: a dose of enjoyment while working on our teacher skills.

 

 

Policy planning part 3: a plan of action

Now that you’ve created a complete picture of the language curriculum, it’s time to make a list of “Points of Action” for each section of the language policy.  Points of Action are things that need to be done, in order to realize the ideal English program.  These actions may be big or small, as long as they contribute to the end goal.  When you write a Point of Action, write it using the “SMART” method.  Make it Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-based.  If the Point of Action is rather large, you may wish to break it up into smaller, realistic steps.

For instance, a sample point of action might be “Teachers need more information on how to make better lessons.” When you write this, ask yourself: “What is better?  What kind of information do they need?  Why do they need this?” Clearly, this point of action is not SMART.  To make it SMART, make it more Specific: if the teachers want their lessons to be more interactive, for instance, with more student talking time, then the point of action can be adjusted like this: “Teachers need means to adapt their lessons to allow for more student talking time.”

This is still a very big point of action, which can be sub-divided into smaller, easily-attained tasks.  Think about steps like the following:

  1. Orientation:  what kinds of lesson adaptations are there?
  2. Examination:  trying out various lesson adaptations
  3. Evaluation:  talking about the effectiveness of the various adaptations
  4. Determination:  deciding which lesson adaptations to keep and which to let go
  5. Safeguarding:  making sure the new adaptations remain in place

Once you’ve checked (and double-checked!) your points of action, it’s time to put it all together into one, final Plan of Action.  Start by bringing the points from each chapter together into one summary, per heading (see illustration below).  Talk with your director and find out which points need to be an absolute priority, and decide on a logical order of steps to be taken.  Also, have a good look at the timeline.  How many years will be needed to realize the goals put forth in the policy plan?  Perhaps three is sufficient, but it’s also likely that more may be needed.

After that, set the points of action into the year-by-year overview.  Make sure that each point of action is attainable (not too big!), and part of the bigger plan.  Decide who will be responsible for each point of action, and plan a reasonable deadline for each point.  If money is needed, look at possibilities for subsidies from local and national agencies.  This will be different from place to place, of course.

steps-for-plan-of-action

Putting it all together: take the points of action from each list and put them in a single, simplified summary.  Then, sort the points into a year-by-year plan according to need.

Another important point of action that must be remembered is to evaluate the plan at some point every year.  Have a look at what goals were reached, which need to be amended, and congratulate everyone for any progress made.  After all, when it comes to curriculum improvement, it’s all hands on deck!  Everyone contributes in his own way, according to his own talents.

AllHands

Everyone contributes to curriculum improvement, according to his own abilities and talents.  (image borrowed from https://influencemagazine.com/practice/all-hands-on-deck)

 

Whatever you do while writing your policy plan, be aware that for some, simply opening up the conversation about the English program is already a big step.  For others, making space for each teacher to contribute to an improved program will be the challenge.  Each school has its own road to take in writing and carrying out a language policy plan.  So yes, please talk with other people who have written a plan and carried it out, but realize that each road is unique, with its own twists and turns.

So take a deep breath and …. good luck!

Policy planning part 2, continued:

Last time, we looked at a few basic elements that pertain to the English curriculum at your school, such as materials, time, and history of the program at your school.  This time, we are going to look at something even more important: the teachers themselves.

Teachers are fundamental to the entire curriculum, regardless of time and material available to them, so it’s really important to open up the dialogue about what they think, what they do, and what they need.

One way of opening up this dialogue is by using a questionnaire. In creating your questionnaire, think about aspects relating to didactics, knowledge, lesson organization, and assessment. Also, think about aspects that relate to the school’s vision and ambition. For instance, if the school is a Montessori or Dalton school, aspects relating to how well children can work independently or cooperatively might be included on your list. Below is an example of a questionnaire.

Teacher-variables-2

A quick sample of a questionnaire

This sample is meant as a start, to help you get inspired for writing your own questions.  Each school has its own points of focus, so you’ll need to create questions that reflect that.  Handy hint: if you want more inspiration in this area, handy search terms are “checklist good EFL lesson” or “what makes a good EFL lesson”.  Once there, you’ll find all sorts of blogs and sites offering questions worth thinking about.

In designing your questionnaire, it’s important to allow for degrees of opinion and anonymity in supplying answers to these questions.  Remember, you’re looking for points to improve upon, so it’s really important that people feel the space to be honest instead of only providing socially acceptable answers.  Allowing for an anonymous response is a good way to achieve this.

Also, allow space for open answers.  That way, your fellow teachers will be able to explain why they gave certain answers.  For instance, when a teacher says “I disagree with ….” perhaps he would like to explain why he says that.

Once you’ve designed your questionnaire, put it aside for a day or two, and come back to it later with a fresh pair of eyes.  Put it along this checklist, and be critical!  Take the time to refine your questions, add one or two when needed, but also to remove questions that don’t work well.

  1. Does each question only cover one topic?  (question 3 of the sample given clearly does not do this)
  2. Is each question concrete and clear, or is there space for ambiguity?
  3. Is the questionnaire too long?  It is too short?
  4. Do the questions relate to teacher skills, knowledge, and school vision?
  5. Is there space for open input?

Tip:  for more information about writing a good questionnaire, you might have a look at this blog: “Good survey questions” or infographic.

Once you’ve gotten everyone’s anonymous responses, it’s time to tally up the numbers.  In order to do this, you simply tally, per question, the number of responses per possibility.  Here is an illustration of a quick tally:

teacher-variables-3

Tallying up the answers shows general tendencies.

 

As you can see, this tally only shows general tendencies among the teachers, highlighting points that might make for some interesting follow-up discussions.  In looking at the data like this, it allows any follow-up dialogue to be open and non-personal, and everyone can have a role in addressing the issues at a team level without feeling personally called out.

Begin by describing what you see.  For instance, no-one claims to (re-)design lessons to make the learning tasks more authentic.  Few use extra materials for the weaker or stronger children.  The group plan is not always used as the basis for the lessons.  These are simply factual descriptions of what you see, without labelling anything as “good” or “bad”.  Your observations will form the basis for any follow-up discussion with your colleagues.

In thinking about these points, it’s important to find out why this is the way it is.  For instance, teachers do not (re-)design lessons to make the learning tasks more authentic.  Does the material used already makes the learning tasks authentic?  Or is this perhaps something that teachers didn’t think about before?  Do they want more authentic tasks?  Also, is authenticity of learning tasks considered important?  Also important, did they understand the question correctly?

Again, it must be stressed that any dialogue about the outcomes of the questionnaire must take place in an open and safe manner.

Talk about these questions with others at your school and make a note of your findings.  As you do this, also note any problems that need to be addressed, along with any ideas that people give for tackling these issues.

Next time, we will look at the issues of assessment of learning, and how to move towards the next step of creating points of action.

Policy planning part 2: the present-day situation

If you were to describe the English program at your school, what would you say?  Would you talk about the textbooks you use, or the computer programs the children employ?  Would you talk about how much time you spend teaching, or how often English is taught in your school?  Or would you describe teacher beliefs and attitudes, and how children’s progress is tracked?

All of these things, and more, are what make up the total English program at your school, and each of these things is worth exploring as you continue developing a language policy plan.  Let’s start with the easy stuff.

Lesson time:  How many  minutes or hours is English taught per week in your school, per class?  Does that amount of time change from year to year, or is it constant?  Make a table to depict this information.  Perhaps each class spends equally much time on English every week, or perhaps the time spent varies, as shown in these examples below.Knipsel

Once you’ve done this, look at the data you’ve gathered and ask the following questions: how did your school decide on this schedule?  What is the reasoning behind this schedule?  Is there enough time allotted to the English program?  And also important, while your school may allot a certain amount of time to the program, is this time actually used for English every week?  Or does the English lesson get dropped from the schedule on a (semi-)regular basis?

Talk about these questions with others at your school and make a note of your findings.  As you do this, also note any problems that need to be addressed, along with any ideas that people give for tackling these issues.

History of the English program at your school: When did your school start teaching English?  For some schools, English has been taught for over a decade, while other schools have only recently started.  This will have an effect on certain aspects of the program at your school.  For instance, if the school started with English only four or five years ago, it’s reasonable to think it’s not entirely “full-grown” throughout the entire school.  Textbook series, however, are often written so that each one builds further on the information from the years before.  Teachers in the lower classes will soon make the adjustment to these textbooks, but teachers in upper classes may find themselves faced with a gap beteween that which the children can do and that what the textbook offers, as illustrated below.

Program in development

While a program is in development, there may be an “ability gap” between the material offered by the textbook and the material children are actually ready to handle.

If you find there is an “ability gap”, then it’s important to look at issues regarding this.  For instance, what do the teachers do, when faced with this issue?  Is there a plan of action, or do they just “follow the book” and hope for the best?

Talk about these questions with others at your school and make a note of your findings.  As you do this, also note any problems that need to be addressed, along with any ideas that people give for tackling these issues.

Materials used:  for each class, inventory what textbooks, games, dvds, and other materials are actually used for the English lessons.  Again, make a table of your findings.  Make it as systematic as possible.  Here is an example:overview-materialWhen you are looking at the material, think about the following questions: does this material fulfill the needs of the teachers and children?  Do the children and teachers enjoy using this material?  Also important, in what way does this material help realise the vision and ambition of the school, which you looked at earlier?  Is there anything you miss?  Is the material outdated and needing to be replaced?

Again, talk about these questions with others at your school and make a note of your findings.  As you do this, also note any problems that need to be addressed, along with any ideas that people give for tackling these issues.

In the  next blog entry, we’ll continue looking at the issue of describing the current state of the English program at your school.  Until then, it’s really important to continually include others in your work and to open up the conversation about the program in such a way that everyone feels free to contribute.  After all, writing a policy plan is meant to do two things: firstly, to lay bare the current situation, along with its foibles and its hidden Jewels; and secondly, to make space in such a way that everyone is encouraged to improve his or her teaching and can take pride for his or her part of the program.

 

Policy planning part 1: vision and ambition

Vision

How do you see education?  What is the goal of education?  What are important aspects of education?  What do you think?

At your school: How are children viewed, in their role as learners?  What aspects of learning are important?

What kind of education does your school provide?  What is the role of the teacher, of the child, the material to be used, and material to be learned, in this view?

What kind of pedagogical climate does the school wish to achieve?

When I look through various school guides, I see certain recurring phrases: “We stimulate each child’s independence in learning…”, “We use the (explicit) direct instruction model”, “We value children’s creative, musical, and cultural development…”, “We think children should develop and employ their various talents in education…” and so on.

Very often, one reads something about the high expectations that the school has of the children, or how the child forms the heart of the educational plan, and how the school hopes to educate children so that they can function as autonomous adults in modern society.

When writing a policy plan, it is essential to start at this point: what is your own school’s vision regarding education?  How does your school see the learning child?  What is your school’s goal in educating children?  How does your school want to achieve those goals?

Take a moment to think about these questions for yourself, and then look for the school’s vision.  It might be found on the school’s webpage, or in the school guide.  It might be posted on the school walls, or maybe even something that is brought to attention on a regular basis during school meetings.

Wherever you find the school’s vision of education described, make a note of it.  Then, decide what the core concepts are described in the school’s vision.  Make sure to note these clearly for yourself, as you’ll be referring back to these as you write the rest of the policy plan.

For example: if your school endorses “independent learning”, it will be important to hold the various aspects of the English program up to this light.  To what degree do teachers allow space for “independent learning” during their lessons?  Does the material used, including textbooks and digital material, provide space for “independent learning”?  Do the children actually get the time to work independently during or outside of the lessons?

 

Also, look for the ambition of the school.  What does the school hope to achieve with its English program?  What language skills does the school consider important in the program?  For instance, is it the goal that children are confident with conversing in English with strangers, or should they be able to read and write in the language as well?  Are the goals described in terms of the Common European Framework of Reference, or in other terms?  Is there any information about ambitions related to internationalisation or international projects?

However the goals are defined, it’s important to make a note of these, so that when you’re writing the policy plan, you can keep these goals in mind.  Again, in terms of teacher- and material-related variables, but also in terms of planning for and tracking achievement.

In conclusion, start with the basics.  Describe the school vision regarding learning in general, and where possible regarding the English program.  Decide what the core concepts of this vision are and highlight these.  Then, define the ambition of the school, including levels for the various skills areas and internationalisation where applicable.  You’ll be referring back to this in the rest of your writing.

Next time, we’ll focus on describing the present-day situation of the school

EFL in the big picture: policy planning

team sport

In previous blog entries, I’ve looked at various aspects of planning English lessons.  In terms of long-term planning for instance for the coming half a year or so, I’ve written about writing semi-annual plans based on lines of language development.

In terms of shorter-term planning, for instance per theme and per lesson, I’ve looked at theme planning, implementing multiple intelligences, and group work.

All good and well for the individual teacher looking for inspiration on a classroom level.  However, as every teacher is aware, teaching is a team sport.  At the end of the year, the class often moves on to a new teacher, and then it’s up to the new teacher to pick up where the other left off, and we pick up where the previous teacher left off.

figures_with_dart

When teachers work together towards common goals, they need to insure the continuity of the program.  When there is continuity, teachers can build upon what was already taught in prior years, and move steadily forward towards a long-term goal.  When there is no continuity, the language program may make a significant development in one year, only to have the entire thing dropped in the year that follows, resulting in loss of learning and, effectively, wasted time.  After all, language is one of those skills where the adagium “use it or lose it” holds.

This is when a school-wide language policy plan comes in handy.  A school-wide policy plan is a document in which the long-term goals are laid out.  The present situation is described, along with the desired situation.  The differences between the two becomes the basis for a plan of action, so that everyone knows what he needs to do, in order to work towards the long-term goals.

basic-parts-of-policy-plan

Basic parts of an EFL policy plan

In the coming blog entries, I plan to work out each of these aspects in greater detail so that schools without such a policy plan can learn to develop one of these on their own.

Important note:  many schools already have a language policy plan which helps them work with children in multi-lingual environments.  Schools around the world, for instance in Canada, Africa, south-east Asia, Australia, and even in the United States, have written excellent, useful plans based on years of experience.  Therefore I cannot claim that the information I give will be new or innovative.  I do hope, however, that it will be useful to schools who don’t yet have access to these policy plans, or who would like to try their hand at writing their own.