Are you an English educator, a teacher or a trainer? This is a blog which will point you towards my work, discussions and thoughts among other things that you can read and comment on too. You can look at ways of teaching English. You can share your ideas with us and you can spread our ideas to others. This is the basis of this EFL community
The elf debate is still at the back of my mind, as it often is and the other day, here at Glasgow Iatefl, Peter Medgyes, in a very well presented speech which supported the importance of learning English as a language in its own right, rather than learning a not very well defined ‘elf version’, quoted this video as an example of one reason why in real life situations we need to be able to speak ‘proper’ English.
There is so much wrong with the stereotyping of this ad, which is actually a Berlitz advert, that I’m not sure where to start, both as far as language learning is concerned and as far as stereotying the Germans… However, my point here is not the stereotyping in itself but how relevant this is to the question of ELF. The point being made here seems to be very much in favour of traditional English models although who, in their right mind, in a context such as this, would react in this way??
I, personally, keep thinking that there is a distinction to be made between ELF as the traditional researchers such as Jennifer Jenkins or Barbara Seidelhofer, and others, see it and Global English as described by david Crystal as the usage of English as a lingua franca on a global scale. There is no denying that English is a global language, and this means that it is in rather a different position from other languages perhaps that are studied with the express purpose of contributing to or integrating into L1 communities. This means, in my view, and as I have said before, that when it comes to assessment we need to take into consideration the notion that our learners need to aim for clear expression rather than to adhere to unreachable native speaker norms, which has to be taken into account in assessment. When it comes to teaching, however, there still needs to be a clear model to present in the classroom, and this is the closest native speaker variety to those learners, so that in Europe this will probably still be British English to a great extent. After all, I may, in a test situation, decide that using ‘informations’ as a countable form rather than the traditional, uncountable ‘information’ does not impede the message particularly (although it will affect the grammar and text references that go with it when writing, which may well hamper reader comprehension). So, when testing this may be acceptable but when teaching we are sulely doing our learners a disservice if we do not point out that even though many now use this word in a countable way it is, actually, uncountable. The model that is presented, in fact, is often just that: a model, and then each individual will, as they do in their own language, develop their own voice and means of expression. As Peter Medgyes also said in his presentation, this is actually not ELF but simply the way we use language.
If you look at the image on the left you may be forgiven for thinking that the Iatefl Teasig (Testing, Evaluation and Assessment Special Interest Group) is a bit of an informal affair, and actually you would be partly right. Testing, evaluation and assessment is often thought of as being rather dry or difficult to deal with, so why not bring a warm association of a “nice cup of tea” into the picture.? In our webinars Neil Bullock and Judith Mader, the coordinators of Teasig, with a little help from me, have tried to keep an informal but informative style, reaching out to members of the sig but also others who are interested in testing and who might, in the future, become members of our sig too. The aim of the webinars is to invite interesting speakers who have something to say about testing, evaluation or assessment, to discuss their topic in a one-hour webinar. These are held regularly every few months (For more information follow this link to the Teasig site) on Adobe Connect, and are generally well received. We have been fortunate so far in having had some excellent speakers who really reach out, embracing the medium of the webinar and include the audience in their discussions. The discussions, however, tend inevitably to be “top-down” in the traditional sense. The speaker presents his or her ideas and the audience listens, comments in the chat box and asks questions. Speakers then answer some of the questions at the end of the session, or if there is not much time they answer them in a feature in the Teasig newsletter.
This has been successful so far, but we have now decided to take the process one step further to allow for greater exploration, discussion and sharing of resources by the participants. How are we doing this?
Why use Facebook for webinar discussions?
In the C21 we actually have the chance to question things like discussions and use social media to do this in interesting new ways. In the past conferences and seminars have often been about listening to experts and asking questions, learning something new and then going home. Now we have the chance to take the discussion further to reflect and share our insights with each other drawing on the largely untapped resource of audience experience and insight. Instead of just “going home” or rather switching off the computer and heading towards a bar for a Prosecco (in my case) this week we extended the discussion of ‘Assessing and Marking Writing” by Clare Fielder to take things further on Facebook. Why use Facebook?
Well, Facebook is a space that many of us know and use all the time, which means that like a familiar room, we can meet there to discuss the ideas that have come up, just as we might do in a café, for instance. Being “somewhere” that we already know makes people feel comfortable and willing to post their own ideas and comments in a freer way than they might do in the actual webinar chat feed. An added adva
ntage of extending our event in this way, is that although the actually discussion itself was synchronous with me moderating it, the posts actually stay online so that all those interested in the event can go back to see them. In fact, some comments were added after the event itself, which means that a whole new asynchronous exchange starts to develop. One person, for example, Aimee Johansen, watched the recording (avaiable after the event itself) and then commented on the Facebook Events page, that whe had found it interested and it had reminded her of some things and introduced her to other feedback methods that she would not have thought of but would like to try out. I then asked her what she would like to try in particular, so the discussion continues even a few days after the actual event. Kent’s research about Facebook use in class discussions shows clearly that students, for instance, are happier to post on facebook than on official course discussion boards, and even though our discussions are professional and not part of a course I believe the same principle applies. As in real life there are those who like to post and others who like to follow the discussion “silently”. Whichever way you choose to use the discussion is up to you, and catering for different needs is all part of the show. For all these reasons, and particularly because Facebook is so well known, then, and many are happy using it, this was what we opted for. This was our first experience, it went well and I hope it will get even better in the future.
What happened in the Facebook Discussion?
We used the Teasig Facebook Page, which has been set up and managed by Ceyda Mutlu. Ceyda had already set up an event to advertise the webinar, as she always does and Participants were directed to this page at the end of the webinar. Some people, in fact had already accepted the invitation to attend the webinar and had posted questions and comments in advance. This meant that the discussion was already underway, in fact, before the webinar had even started!
On the evening of the webinar particpants were directed to the “Facebook Event” at the end of the webinar, and I posted the questions that had come up during the event here. Clare had been speaking about using Correction Codes to provide feedback to learners on their writing and there was a whole range of questions. I myself had quite a few including a question about how to include this kind of feedback in courses where time constraints are already an issue. Clare had outlined some of the disadvantages such as learner participation, which often comes about because learners receive a piece of written work corrected with a code that they do not understand. Time, then, must be devoted to familiarising learners both with the process and the code. I’m a big believer in learner centred teaching and developing online dialgogues with my learners, possibly becuase I tend to have very large classes, so here is a post I wrote after the 2015 Iatefl Conference which touches on developing asynchronous dialgues with learners to provide feedback and growth, so I wanted to know what Clare thought about integrating all these things into a teaching system.
We all discussed these and other ideas and shared resources and screenshots to explain what we meant, etc. This was our first “live” discussion, but which I mean that there was a moderator and participants knew that we were all “there” at that particular time, and I’m sure that things will only get better with practice, but as a first attempt it went well, so if you’r einterested go along to the discussion and have a look :-).
It’s exam time again in Verona. Well, to be honest, it is often exam time, but this is one of the big sessions. We had 2,200 enrolments for English on Monday last week for our written tests, which makes for a considerable amount of marking. Our approach to marking written work in sessions like this is threefold: 1) we use a criterion referenced approach to each level which describes in general terms what each area means so that a band 3 mark (and we allow for half marks as well) on C1 writing as far as task achievement is concerned would be awarded to a candidate who is able to produce: “an adequate answer to the question, the meaning is always clear although some parts may require further development and where the style is generally appropriate for chosen genre.” Our learners do not have the exact grids that we use but they have their own descriptions provided in a more learner friendly way to help them develop the skills they need. Extending ideas, for instance, at C1, which is one of the requirements of the Common European Framework (CEFR) generally needs quite a lot of work as many learners are not used to developing ideas and arguments about particular ideas, and tend to list ideas or summarise their reading. That, however, is a topic for another day. Let’s get back to the examiner’s viewpoint. 2) The second step is to hold examiner meetings at each level to standardize our approach to correction where questions such as what does “adequate” actually mean, and how different is it from “good” etc. This stage is essential if our marks are to be valid. 3) Since we have so many candidates we cannot guarantee double marking of all of them so we choose random samples to double or triple mark. So far so good, you might think. This is a logical, systematic approach to the whole process which is doing its best to be a fair, valid system for the candidates taking the exams, but what is interesting, I think is what happens next. Can’t see the language for the errors Once you, as an examiner, have standardized with the others it is just you and the script… or is it? No, actually, it’s you, the script, your everyday concerns, your prejudices and beliefs etc. etc. do you see what I mean? Well, let’s take the classic example or “errors”. Even in the 21st Century there are still those, who despite all the standardization in the world still count errors to come to their conclusions. In a way, it’s natural. What hits you in the face when you read a text is what is wrong with it, but actually, as most of us, in fact, know, there is a lot more going on in that text.
Errors or Mistakes?
The first point to be made here is whether examiners are looking at errors or mistakes; a distinction which is often swept under the carpet as being too technical, but which I actually think is essential. Mistakes are slips or the wrong production of something you really know and they are thought to be related to problems with retrieving information rather than not knowing something. This happens with a slip of the tongue for instance, and is often easy to correct. In fact, people often correct themselves on the spot. Mistakes may not even, then be related to your linguistic competence. I might say “I got to the airport at 8pm” instead of “I got to the station at 8pm” and they happen for all kinds of reasons such as tiredness or stress etc.
An error, on the other hand, is generally linked in our field to your knowledge or lack of it when it comes to language. This may come about because of something that you have not yet studied, so a B1 level student would probably not have studied complex rhetorical structures like “No sooner had we arrived...” If a B1 learner tries to use this and gets the word order wrong it is something that, in my opinion, should be given credit as the learner is trying to use complex language to express their thoughts. It should definitely not be penalized simply because “No sooner I arrived“, for instance is “wrong”. This would be too simplistic. Another occurrence of error is the result of not having internalised grammatical rules yet. This is related to something a learner has studied perhaps or heard, read, but cannot actually produce perfectly so a learner may have seen the expression “It’s worth fighting for freedom of speech“. (It was on the C1 question paper with reference to Charlie Hebdo, so you would hope most people read it, but that learner, then, in the composition writes womething like “Freedom of speech worths to fight.” This is an error but once again the question is should we be giving learners credit for trying to use more complex language or should we be penalizing them for “getting things wrong”? My own personal take on this is that it is a matter of common sense. If a learner is doing a C1 exam and there are so many errors, many of which occur in simple rather than complex language, then that individual is unable to express their thoughts clearly and, to go back to the descriptor “the meaning is not always clear” (although there may even be some discussion of “always” here too and “clear”. This is the problem with words 🙂 ) If, on the other hand the candidate uses generally clear language and is attempting to use more complex forms, but produces the occasional error like the example above with “worth” then that candidate should be given credit. This means that the item, in this case, worth, is now in their interlanguage and presumably, with enough exposure and use, which is crucial, will probably correct itself. The issue of exposure and use is key here too, but that again is another topic. So, when an examiner sits down with a script it is really important, I feel, to differentiate between mistakes, errors and whether they impede meaning or not. OK, you may well be saying, but what about the language and the trees… oh, sorry I meant “errors”? Well this is my next point. Not only do we need to differentiate between mistakes and errors but we also need to look at what the learners actually can do and not just be swayed by what they can’t. This is the guiding philosophy behind the CEFR and yet how often do we really apply it?
Looking for the Language
Consider this example from a learner script: “In the long run these problems will continue to be common in the society .” What hits you on the nose about this? Yes, there is an article error “in the society”. In fact the use of articles is extremely problematic for learners and often features on error classification systems. I wonder, though, how many people notice the perfectly correct use of the article in the expression “In the long run”. This is what I mean by not seeing the language for the errors. This learner may well have acquired the correct use of the article here as part of the “phrase” in the long run, but very often we are so busy looking at the errors that we simply don’t see the correct usage. It is apparently easier, of course, to assess error and to determine which errors may correspond to, although there may well be disagreement of this too. The third person ‘s’ which is taught at an early stage but often not acquired until much later, is one common example. What, howeer, is much harder is to assess successful language use and to assign a corresponding level to it. Tools such as The Vocabulary Profile might help us, and I have personally foound it to be very useful. It is a corpus informed description of the words and sometimes phrases learners produce at different levels, but even so, this can only be considered to be a guide.
Look at the text not the sentence
My own final conclusions on this at the moment are that it is as always important to look at the whole text as well as simple examples of language and to assess as fairly as possible the learner’s capacity of expression over the whole stretch of a text both holistically and in more detail. Our descriptors are guidelines but the process should always include discussion, standardization and the awareness that we are not perfect. Finally there is the candidate whose personality shines through these scripts, and we need to remember that each of these answers was written by someone who is doing their best to use the language they have learned to express themselves, but that they are doing so under exam conditions and we can sometimes perhaps allow for this too.
Heaven or Hell
It all makes me think of the parable of Heaven and Hell with long spoons, which I first came across in “Dictation” by Paul Davis and Mario Rinvolucri (CUP 1995 edition p.72) It is actually a parable though and it goes like this: do you know the difference between Heaven and Hell? Well in Hell everyone has long spoons and tries to eat out of the same bowl of soup but cannot get the spoons into their mouths so they starve. In heaven everyone has long spoons and tries to eat out of the same bowl of soup but cannot get the spoons into their mouths so they feed each other. This, I think is a principle we can apply both to teaching and examining. By discussion and helping each other, and giving clear guidelines to teachers and learners we can help to take some of the stress out of the process for everyone. Tests, and all the stress they involve, both for learners and teachers, are part of our world. What we. As examoners can do is to help learners by giving credit where it is due.
After all the excitement of Iatefl last week, I hit reality back in the classroom this week, and what with all the to do about Sugata Mitra’s ideas and the need to make up a whole series of lessons I suddenly found myself in a very dark professional place. I am teaching a group of learners, or rather, trying to help them, prepare for the Cambridge Advanced Exam in June this year. However, do we have an academic year to prepare for this? No, we have 7 lessons, and now, due to Easter and various national holidays we are about to have a three week break. This, as is understandable, has caused a certain amount of panic both for the students and for me. Far from following high demand teaching, something I truly believe in, we have been focusing on exam strategies and they have been doing practice tests at home, independently.
Learning or Devouring exercises?
Focusing on exam strategies! Good idea, I hear someone say. Well, yes, that is what I thought too, until I realised that what they are doing is trying to do as many tests as possible, swallowing entire volumes of tests, emptying the library and then coming back for more. They are definitely motivated, but my energy dip and depression came from the realisation that this is all very shallow, and that I really have no idea if they are actually learning anything at all. I had just finished gong painstakingly through two exercises designed to make them aware of the need not just to focus on single words but to focus on words and the other words they collocate with. It was an exercise where they had to look at sentences, which were examples of candidate errors in the Use of English exam, and decide where the preposition errors were. I went over the activity and they got the answers right with very little trouble.
I knew I was in trouble, though, when I saw someone checking “something” could it have been a train timetable? on her phone. This activity was so far away from engaging these learners that they may as well have been on the Moon.
Time to stop and Reflect
So, what did I do? Well, I said, “OK”… and they were already focusing on the next exercise, when I said “No, let’s think about this.” The smartphone was put aside for a minute. I said. “Yes, you can identify the prepositions very well but can you use these expressions? Will you remember any of them five minutes after you have walked out of this door?” This was said humorously and so greeted by nervous laughter but I then took pity on them, smiled, and said “So how can you remember new language?” This was familiar territory and someone, with a rsigned expression said “write sentences” and I replied that yes, they could do that, but today we were going to do something different.
Mechanical study or “Meaningful” study?
Stage 1: Cognitive Study
I then asked them in two groups to take one exercise each and paraphrase the phrasal verbs and expressions( these were things like I congratulated him on getting a new job. Absolutely not memorable for these students or anyone else for that matter) I asked them to think about the context the expressions were being used in, and monitored. It soon became clear that there were several problem areas. What could you set up, for instance? Could you only set up a business or could you set up a committee as well? This led us naturally into dictionary work, and they found out how to use these expressions in a lot more depth. They then mixed the two groups and shared their findings, and by this time the questions were coming thick and fast. The smartphone was being used for the dictionary app and the train timetable was a thing of the past.
Stage Two: personalisation and experimentation: making the language your own
Then I asked them to choose five of the expressions and to make them into questions to interview someone in the other group. This was where the meaningful action came as they asked “real questions” and created content that neither I nor the traditional exercises could have predicted. “to congratulate someone on something” was transformed into “Has anyone ever congratulated you on passing your exams? Much more meaningful for these students as was the reply: “Yes, my parents have… when I deserved it.”
Before long we were involved in a discussion about Starbucks and why the concept probably wouldn’t work in Italy. This was communication and, I think, it was definitely demand high teaching.
At the end I asked them why we had spent 30 minutes of our precious lesson on two exercises. They answered that it had helped them to really understand this language. At that point I felt that the energy dip had passed and I was back on track. I agreed with them and warned against mechanical exam practice without going into the language in depth and sent them of with a series of things to do over the three week holiday including the idea that they should “Make the exercises they do really work for them”.
I’m quite excited to see what they bring back with them 🙂
I suddenly realised that I haven’t blogged on my poor, neglected space since September!! I can only hang my head in shame and mutter excuses about how tied up I’ve been with conference sin Prague, the student blog and its sister Facebook page,. etc. Please feel free to check them out and I’d love you to participate in some of our discussions if you feel like it. 🙂
Well, I actually wanted to talk about mindful teaching today, which I am trying to put into practice. What this means is basically that I slow down, stop trying to do three million things at the same time in the classroom, worrying about whether we are doing too much, too little, whether it is appropriate or not for my students, what we should go onto next, oh yes, and where did I put that DVD?… You get the general idea? Instead of doing all that what I want to do is to slow down, breathe and notice what is going on in the classroom, notice how I am feeling, what people are saying and how they are sitting, moving and, (tricky this one) feeling. This may seem obvious but I felt the need to remind myself this week. What I noticed as I walked into my C1 university lesson in general English was this:
1) some people looked tired and had various types of colds and snuffles;
2) there was a general sense of agitation in the room and people were whispeirng together;
3) some people had very large wads of paper with reams of photocopies of Powerpoint slides on them.
You didn’t need to be a detective to realise that exams were approaching and everyone was worried about this. Obviously, if you have an important exam to do you concentrate on that rather than on your other classes, so I did the rest of the class in an understanding way, and if people had not done their preparation I made it clear that I realised why. This in itself had a positive effect because everyone relaxed and appreciated their teacher trying to relate to them. (I think)
Accepting Fear and Vulnerability
After this class, though, I went on to think about how students (or anyone else for that matter) can deal with these feelings of fear and nervousness, which can be so strong that they actually stop you concentrating; the exact opposite of what you want.
At some level, of course, this is tied up with the need to be perfect. We live in a world that frowns on mistakes and where we apportion blame rather than trying to learn from our mistakes helping each other. Of course we are frightened of exams, where someone sits in judgement on us, and our performance in twenty minutes or so becomes our very being.
To move beyond this is quite a challenge, but I strongly believe that the secret to success lies in “being who you are” together with all your imperfections, giving the answers you know and understand, in exams, and using the exam to show your examiners all this, rather than showing them your fear.
Courage and Speaking from the Heart
We all need to be courageous, and not only in exams, but the origin of the world lies in “heart” or “cor” in Latin, something we perhaps forget. So to be courageous in an exam means really communicating what you feel about the subject. If you are at unviersity studying languages you chose this degree course because languages are something you love.. so find the meaning and personal relevance of the exam you are preparing (Yes, even if it is a “law exam”, after all “law” is related to human beings and life, so find ways to make it important and meaningful to you.)
I include this amazinf TED talk on the subject of “vulnerability” here. It lasts twenty minutes, but if you take the time to listen to Brené Brown’s words, it will be well worth the effort.
So, make yourself a cup of tea, sit down and enjoy:
What is the point of Failure and what can it teach us?
I know this title sounds pretty bleak but it is partly the result of an episode that happened this week during my office hours, and that I thought I’d like to share with you. Before I do so, though I need to outline our C1 exam so that you will understand how both the student and I felt:
The University of Verona Language Centre C1 Test
Our C1 exam consists of three parts, and students need to pass all three to be given the credits they need. The first part is a computer based test which focuses on Use of Language in Context, Reading and Listening. This is followed by a Written test, which at this level involves producing a text of approx. 200 – 250 words in either a narrative, descriptive or discursive style on various subjects. The final test is an oral test of about 10-15 minutes which is usually in a paired format and students have to show that they can communicate in effective English about familiar and more abstract topics. In order to pass all this they need to get a minimum of 60% over the three parts of the test, and they are allowed to score from 55% to 60% on one of the parts if this is then compensated for on one of the other parts.
What this means, then, is that a student can pass the whole test if he or she scores only 55% on the computer test but this is then compensated for if he or she goes on to score 65% on the written and then 60% on the oral test, giving a total of 60% overall.
Failing your exams … or, even worse, Almost Passing
So, to come back to the episode last week, this is what happened: a student came to my university office hours last week, clutching an enormous exercise book and communicating in an English that was perfectly comprehensible. She told me that she had tried to do our C1 written paper various times and was having trouble. She had passed the computer test but couldn’t pass the composition paper. This girl had been in my course and had religiously printed out all the work she and others had done on writing during the course. (This is available for all students on my wiki, with the questions, the students’ answers and my comments and correction code. See this example page.) She had also gone on to develop this by focusing on specific areas such as phrasal verbs etc. all lovingly colour coded in her exercise book. She had come with a few intelligent questions such as what did I mean by “effective language”. (I explained that I meant language that “did its job” of communicating the message you wanted it to, clearly and well.) All this told me that she was a student who had studied hard and thought about what she was reading. This is what we want in our students, isn’t it?
Well, then she showed me a practice essay she had written in a narrative style, using an old exam question as a model. She was convinced that this was “perfect” and yet as soon as I read the first sentence I knew that we were up against quite a few problems and I could feel a sinking feeling come over me.
What was the Problem?
The first sentence was already problematic:
“I can’t descend.” Emma said.
I asked her whether the story was informal or formal and she said that that was another thing she had not really understood. What did informal language or formal language mean. I explained and gave her examples in Italian, so that she realised that the use of “descend” here wasn’t natural. You wouldn’t say that to a friend. She said that she had been avoiding simple words like “get down” because she thought they were too easy, aren’t they more of a B1 level??? was the question. It took quite some explaining to show here that words as such can have many different levels and what is important is to know how to use them.
Collocation, colligation and Word Choice
We all know how important collocations are in natural language use, and we spend quite a lot of time talking about this in class. Despite this, however, my student had quite a few unnatural collocations such as “It was snowing abundant” (as well as the fact that she was using aan adjective instead of an adverb). She knew what collcations were but didn’t know how to find them, check them or notice them. She said, the problem was that she did not know when something was not possible. The same was true of colligation or “grammatical collocation” as you might think of this. She had looked up the word “discesa” which in Italian means a slope but can also be used as an adjective or adverb meaning downhill. She had found the word “downhill” and was using it to mean “slope” so she produced a sentence like this: “They skied along the downhill with ease.” We have a problem here of incorrect word choice followed by inappropriate colligation as a result of this.
You can see where all this is going and I’m not going to go through the whole composition but, as I explained to her, this language was not “effective” because it did not communicate what she wanted to, because of the words she was choosing, how she was using them and also because of the register. These are all things that, at a C1 level, you need to be able to do.
Two Major Problems
By this time the poor student was nearly in tears and I was feeling very depressed too, because there were two major problems here:
1) she did not have a good monolingual dictionary, despite the fact that I had recommended several. As soon as we started looking at her “problem language” in the Longman Contemporary Dictionary of English (the online version, in fact) all these problems were clear and she began to see what I was talking about. She needed to learn how to use a dictionary well, and yet, this is something we do all the time in class, so for me, as a teacher, this means there is no guarantee that students sitting in my lessons will actually benefit from what I’m teaching them to do;
2) She chose words, which were often false friends etc. and she was convinced that they were correct. One example of this was the word “structure” which can be used in italian to mean the company or firm etc. In her case it referred to a ski resort, and she wrote “The director of the structure” which does not really work in English. When I showed her that this was unnatural and we looked at structure in the dictionary she said: “But I had no idea! How do I know when something has the right meaning or not?”
This is the crux of the matter and it is very difficult to answer. My answer is that enough exposure to a language teaches you what is appropriate and what isn’t, but I’m not sure that this is always true. This student told me that she read widely in English but she read for the ideas and didn’t really notice the language, so I suggested reading first and then taking a page or so every now and then and analysing the language. Part of me, however, wonders whether there are simply some people who are interested in the way language words and others who are not. I was watching an Austrian detective series, for example, the same day and something in my mind noticed that they used the verb “recherchieren” and without even realising it, I was thinking, “Would that be used in Germany or South Tyrol?” It comes naturally to me to question these things, but does it come naturally to everyone? If it doesn’t come naturally to you, then you simply have to train yourself to do it, but I think that many of my students who have been through a traditional style of school system do not believe in the value of these things. They think they need to do a lot of grammar exercises and practice tests and then they’ll be alright, which is rather sad in university language students.
An hour later my student was thoroughly depressed at the thought that this composition would not have passsed the test either and when I asked her what she had learned she said that she had learned not to discount simple words, and to get a better dictionary.
I felt extremely drained after this and felt the need to write about it because I feel as though I have failed her in some way. This was someone who was willing to study, who told me that she uses English every day in emails at work, but I had not been able to help her prepare for her exam. One of the most difficult things for a teacher to do is to chip away at student beliefs such as the sacrosanct nature of the grammar exercise, and all you can do is keep on going in the hope that some will understand the message.
So, what can failure and suffering teach us?
We all know the value of passing a test, but failure can teach us something too. In this case the student has failed her exam but she has learned some important lessons about how she approaches another language. In my case I failed to communicate my message to her in class, but I helped here in my office hours, and the whole episode has led me on to think about the process, so that I can use it in an exemplary way to others.
Failure inevitably leads to suffering but suffering in itself has lessons to teach us as well. ON a personal level, if I never suffer then I don’t appreciate so many of those little pieces that go together to form the amazing mosaic that is every simple moment of the day. If I never have to live without “hot water” for instance, I don’t appreciate how wonderful it is to have hot water readily available when I have a shower.
On another level suffering helps us to understand what other people are going through, and if we have never suffered ourselves then we cannot develop any real empathy. I know what it means to fail a test, so I can understand what my student is going through. Empathy is essential in a teacher, and not only, because it is by understanding what somene is going through that we can start to help them to come out of it.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say, but everything begins somewhere. I don’t know if my student has really understood what she needs to do for her exam, or whether I have been able to help her, but both her and my failure have taught us something as has the suffering.
Sorry to go on at length about this but I felt the need to write it down and share it to work it through in my own mind. I’d be really interested to hear other people’s take on it too.
I haven’t actually blogged for a while, unfortunately, which is largely because I’ve been busy developing a new distance learning course entitled “How to Pass Exams” on Udemy.com.
The Reasons for this Course
I decided to develop this course for my students because we spend a lot of time concentrating on language, but not so much actually on developing study strategies or revision strategies. One of the key problems for those about to do an exam is motivation during study time. We start off feeling motivated but keeping that motivation going over a period of time is another matter, so this course also looks at ways of maintaining your level of motivation. The other killer is fear, which is our companion all the way through the course “Am I good enough?” “What will the examiner be like?” etc. etc. This reaches its peak generally in the days just before an exam so there are some tips and anecdotes here as to how to deal with these feelings.
How is the Course Organised?
The course is a type of experiment. If you know me and my work you will know that I have taught in many blended learning contexts such as WizIQ or in my university courses but this is my first experience of creating a complete distance learning course. I wanted to have something that my students could access freely and work through as and when they wanted to. The course is organised in short screen cast videos made to highlight the main points of a topic and these are followed by worksheets in the form of PDFs that learners can download to their computers, tablets, smartphones etc. and work through at their own pace. The PDFs include a series of activities and links to useful sites and references so that those who are interested in a particular topic can go into it more thoroughly. If you are interested in working on memory techniques, for instance, in the section on memory you will find useful links to further reading and study as well as some simple exercises to do straight away.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Udemy
Udemy is an excellent platform and those developing courses can upload both videos and other files easily as well as linking to material you develop on other sites such as YouTube or Vimeo. The PDFs are displayed in a reader which is highquality and allows students to scroll down the document easily as well as dowloading a copy for their own use.
The site also has a “notepad” feature where students can pause the video they are watching, for instance, and take notes. They can then download these dotes directly onto their computers too, which is a very useful feature. There is also a space for asking questions. Instructors can access the course once a week, for instance to answer questions and students can ask whatever they want to.
You can also schedule and run live classes on this site, which I have yet to do… that will be the next adventure.
There are, however, a few disadvantages as well. The main one is that it is sometimes difficult to navigate the site. If you look for a course in the “discover courses” section using tags such as “exams” or “passiing exams” or “education”, all of which I had added as tags for my course, you do not find it, and you find a whole selection of courses that are not necessarily connected to what you want to do. This is a prblem that I hope will soon be worked out as it has been mentioned to Udemy several times and they promise that they are working on it.
If you want to find my courses, the best way is simply to follow the link above (at the beginning of this article) or to search for me as a person in the Udemy search box. If you search for “Sharon Hartle” you will find my page and you can access the course from there.
Anyway, the course is up and running so now I hope that it will be useful to whole generations of students so, if you are a student, or is you are about to start preparing for an exam, or if you have students who would be interested, please join the course. It is absolutely free of charge, but I would appreciate hearing people’s comments.
Keeping an eye on the Big Picture but don’t let it terrify you!
I’ve noticed recently how a lot of us want to learn everything straight away, and my students, despite the fact they are all intelligent young people become very despondent when they don’t see results immediately. I sympathise because I’m exactly the same: if I start learning a new language, or to play a musical instrument, for instance, I want to be able to use it to communicate articulately after just a few days!! This is a tall order indeed. Of course, we need to keep an eye on the big picture, which is to become the latest virtusos guitar player, but it is also important to focus on the small steps we are taking to reach that goal. so it made me think when I was reading an article on Learning, as we are fond of saying, is a journey and each journey consists of thousands of small steps, each one just as valuable as the next.
Goal Setting and Rewards
This is why setting goals and rewarding yourself as you go is so important. The thinking behind portfolios reflects this practice and it is widely used in all sorts of areas. To give you an example which is not related to language learning, I know that the only time I lose weight is when I am motivated enough to set daily goals and give myself weekly rewards if I reach them (not a bar of chocolate, or course 🙂 ) Of course, I need to think that I want to lose 5 kilos overall, but that does not mean I can’t celebrate losing half a kilo or even 200 grammes along the way.
Exams are important but so is learning
For many of my learners this is a difficult practice to get into. Universities tend to stress the importance of the exams and the results without highlighting the process along the way. This puts all of us under a lot of pressure to perform well, and leads both teachers and students into focusing on the exams and exam strategies, rather than on learning the language, but most of these language students did not actually choose to study languages because they want to “pass exams”. They want to be able to travel, and work with the languages they are studying or some of them have a love of language itself or literature ( a few). All this tends to “get lost along the way” if life is overclouded by “exams”. After all, an exam should simply be a measure of your level, and not something that exists in its own right, but, of course, we have gone far beyond that and exams can mean the difference between getting a job or not… It’s hard to ignore this. And yet, I firmly believe that the way to success is made up of small steps, and that if you reward yourslef for each of these small steps then the final goal will appear on the horizon in next to no time, because you will be too busy learning the language, and improving your own competence, to be worried about that destination which seems to be so far away from you. So, if your learners listened to a podcast and understood the main ideas this week, when they couldn’t do that a month ago, this is what they should be celebrating. If they have learned some lovely new collocations then they should have fun using them and celebrate the new language they are learning now, at this moment.
Well, that was my thought for today, and now I’m off to celebrate the fact that I learned how to group the icons on my iphone screen. Another small step on the journey towards mastery. 🙂
For years one of the criteria for assessment on Cambridge Speaking exams was accuracy of grammar and lexis at varying degrees depending on the level. Now, accuracy seems to only be welcome in the global achievement descriptor and has been upstaged in the other criteria by “Control”, but what exactly is the difference?
We have just been spending quite a lot of time discussing assessment criteria for Cambridge exams as the annual meetings are taking place at the moment where speaking examiners meet and do tests together to standardize. One of the points that came up in my meeting last Saturday was this control vs. accuracy issue.
Looking at what candidates can do rather than what they can’t do
In recent years we have all started to think more about what candidates can do rather than what they can’t do, but many language teachers find it very hard to shift away from what is, in fact, an extremely normal reaction: to see the errors students make and try to help them stop making them.
In an exam situation though we have to be careful not be in the position of not seeing the wood for the trees. We see the errors and inaccuracies because they stand out, but we don’t see what the candidate can actually produce. This is not a new idea but it is one that is quite hard to get across or even accept. What happens for instance when someone listens to another person? Is is all too easy to miss good language production because it is easy to nderstand and to focus, rather, on the anomalies or inaccuracies.
Some, then, think that control is the same as accuracy but with a different name. In fact, I don’t think it is, and various different degrees of control are mentioned in the criteria so that a candidate would be given one mark for “sufficient control” of the grammar to be able to complete a task and a higher mark for “good control”. This might mean, that in a test like the Key English Test (A2) where candidates are asked, in Part Two, to ask each other questions, an utterance like this would show sufficient control to complete the task:
“Tickets? How many pounds they cost?”
The question form, of course, is not accurate, but there is enough control both of the lexis and the grammar to be able to get the meaning across at an elementary level. What “control” then means to me (I hope someone will correct me if I’m wrong) is a sort of half way house between not being able to communicate and being able to communicate perfectly, a goal not many of us ever reach, in fact. It means looking at the candidates discourse as a work in progress and seeing how much or little he or she can use effectively, rather than identifying a list of errors. At higher levels, of course, more control would be expected but this still means that hopefully examiners will be looking at what candidates can do and not how many errors they are making.
What about higher levels?
Here, of course, is the rub. What counts as control at one level may not be the same at a higher level where the discourse is extended, the message being communicated more complex, and therefore, there is all that much more room for lack of control, but the principle, I think is the same. Small non-impeding inaccuracies should not be over.penalized and more emphasis should be placed on the range of grammatical and lexical resources that are used. After all, I recently saw some examiners getting all hot and bothered about a candidate at a B1 level who had misused “funny”in a written test, and this made such an impression on them that they entirely missed the modal verbs the same candidate had used such as “I won’t be able to…” or “I really had to…”
So, I’m afraid I think the answer is “yes” accuracy is no longer so welcome at the ball, and should at least be accompanied by an awareness of control.