An Energy Dip: approaching high demand teaching (Part One)

imageAfter 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.

Reflection again

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 ūüôā





Correction or Feedback?

New Year's Eve 2009 030Correction or Feedback?

Last week I wrote a few thoughts on correction and how both oral and written language can be corrected meaningfully, in a separate stage from “within the task itself”.¬†One advantage of doing this work as a separate stage, which is more of a feedback stage perhaps than a correction slot, is to get away from the emotionally penalizing¬†message of direct correction, although, to be honest, I think there is actually a place for this as well, when done sensitively and helpfully. As long as the feedback from the teacher is not only correcting errors but is also truly communicative discussing the content of what the learners are saying and not simply the form all the time is something that most learners appreciate and respond well to.

On the whole, however, I am in favour of separating correction from the task itself and using learner errors as the basis of a new cognitive feedback task where learners can analyse why errors happen, discuss possible corrections and then experiment with these forms at some length, so that, in this way there is greater elaboration and processing of language beyond a merely superficial level of looking at what is right or wrong and then moving on. Following a survey I carried out with my own students I discovered, which came as no surprise at all to me, the fact that although nobody feels good when they have made a mistake, they all still want to know about their mistakes so that they can learn from them.

Demand High Teaching

I would like to go further this week to say that using this separate stage as a focus space in the learning process for our students to elaborate the language processes comes under the heading of Demand High Teaching, which was first introduced by Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill at the Glasgow Iatefl Conference and was a hot topic at the Liverpool Iatelf Conference, this year too. This “meme” was introduced to question ritual teaching practices, where teachers apply the tenets of communicative teaching, ¬†follow the coursebooks etc. , play fun games, and generally create “happy classrooms” but where the demand for learning is actually quite low, and the tasks themselves, or the materials end up being more important than the learners or the learning process and, I would add, teaching process.

Going Beyond the Surface
Going Beyond the Surface by

Going beyond the Surface

There are undoubtably¬†many classrooms around the world where the teachers are already applying meaningful techniques to materials in order to help their learners get the most out of them but there are also many teachers who are under pressure from their institutions to “finish 10 units of the book” or to “cover the syllabus for the exam” etc. ¬†Scrivener points out the negative use of the word “cover” in this sense and how what it actually means is going over an exercise, for example, and checking¬†the answers and as soon as one person in the class gives the correct answer, moving on to the next thing without stopping to question whether most of the class had really understood, what else they might be able to learn from this particular point or whether they had just got the right answer by chance. We all tend to be very aware¬†of the time restraints in our lives, but sometimes, sadly, by trying to “cover” too much we are actually wasting time, as nothing is really explored in depth. The links I supplied above will take you to excellent videos explaining the thinking behind Demand High Teaching, which they explain, is not an approach, but a tweaking of what teachers are already doing to up the ante and enable their learners to get more out of the process.


These ideas, in my view, fit in very well with the Dogme ideas of the unplugged classroom, which was also, if you like, a reaction against the glut of glossy materials that are available, and that are often overwhelming for teachers, particularly those who are new to the profession, simply because there are so many of them. Although Dogme may focus more on the learner, whereas¬†High Demand teaching is more concerned with the learning the two, I think, can work very closely together particularly when it comes to the question of emergent language: the “learner language” that comes up spontaneously in a lesson. A teacher may, for instance, notice in the course of a discussion, that one class has particular problems with weak sounds such as the schwa in “was” and “were” and decide to work on that. There are many ways to do this but here is one suggestion.

Error Correction or Feedback?


The language point above would come up as an example of oral production, of course, and notes can easily be taken of two or three errors, (or if learners are comfortable with this a recording could be made ). If this is going to be explored in some depth it is probably better to limit the items to two or three.


In the next session these errors could be analysed as the first step. (learners look at the phonetic transcript of the error or listen to the recording, or choose from minimal pairs offered by the teacher etc. and correct them together).


This would be followed by a feedback stage where real discussion takes place. This means that the teacher doesn’t immediately say “good” when he/she hears the correct answer, or what he/she wants to hear, but listens to what people say, throws questions to the whole class, and sometimes even goes off at a tangent if he/she sees that particular learners have focused on something unexpected (i.e. not in the orginal plan). For a discussion to be meaningful the teacher must be prepared to flollow the ideas of the learners rather than simply imposing his/her own, although at times the learners may also need to be directed back to the main discussion too. This is all part and parcel of the classroom management skills which are inherent to good teaching.


The next stage grows out of the discussion stage, and may involve more work on the original pronunciation items that the teacher has chosen or may be focused on something else that has emerged from the discussion. Jim Scrivener provided a very useful handout at his talk in Liverpool which can be downloaded at this link¬†which has a whole range of techniques that could be applied here, such as “asking learners to imagine the facial expression they would wear when saying the target language, or asking learners to listen to the pronunciation and then “replay it in their heads” rather than simply listen and repeat, which often does not give them enough time to elaborate it.


Further eperimentation is, in my view, not an extra but essential as it is only when you get to “make the language your own” that you learn how to use it effectively. If the original item analysed was something like “I was just sitting at home reading, when the rain started and then I saw that it was a tornado.” (This happened yesterday in an area quite close to me where some of my students come from) Learners might be asked, for instance to think of what they were doing at that point in time, and to tell each other. There is a wealth of activities that teachers already use that can be applied here. The key is simply to apply them meaningfully, allowing the learners the time and space they need to elaborate the language.


This may have come a long way from correction but it is, I think the natural progression of correction into feedback, which is a must if we want our learners to have the time to really process language. Going as quickly as possible to “cover the coursebook or the syllabus” means doing our learners a disservice in the long run as they will not have the time to internalize or to elaborate everything, literally of course, covering something means hiding it, instead of revealing the mechanics of the language. Listening to our learners, on the other hand, and helping to assist their learning process is one of the most difficult but possibly most rewarding aspects of being in a classroom.



Grammar? Who needs it?


Not many peole in my classes really like grammar. They may think they need it, and they get a lot of satisfaction in ploughing through exercises, because we all know that when you get the answers right you feel good, and you can go home happy, can’t you?

A few years ago I taught a translation class, because my students had to do a translation exam. A the end of the course they could all do simple translations quite well and I was quite happy with them until one day someone told me that tourists had stopped them in the street asking for help and they didn’t know how to give simple directions!!

The anti grammar backlash

This, of course, is the type of realisation that caused the backlash towards the grammar translation approach in the first place, resulting in functional teaching and the Strategies Coursebooks. They may seem a bit dated nowadays, but I can safely say that “Building Strategies”, when it was first introduced was like a breath of fesh air to me. For the first time ever there were listening ex√®rcises in a book with sensible questions and quizzes for learners to do. These are things that we take for granted nowadays but things have changed quite a lot. The functional approach, however, was criticised too, and quite rightly, in fact, because it went too far the other way, so that much of what learners were taught was relatively “empty” language, and not always natural at that. So things began to swing back the other way again in favour of grammar, vocabulary, skills and the multistrand syllabus…

Where are we now?
Now there are those who are still using grammar and translation, others who swear by their exercises and oleplays and then there are those who reject grammar all together.
You don’t need grammar to learn how to speak, they proclaim, even going so far in some cases as to say that studying grammar interferes with learning how to speak.

Ok, I would agree that you need a lot more than simply grammar to learn how to use a language effectively whether you are speaking, writing, listening or reading. Each skill requires a whole array of sub-skills. Having said that, when I learn a new language I have to start with the grammar. Quite simply, if I don’t know how to make comparative forms, for instance, I can’t compare. I might pick it up if given enough exposure, but most adult/ young adult learners are not in that situation. How can I describe the past if I don’t know the past forms of the verbs?

This seems to me to be so fundamental that is hard to see how anyone could dispute it.

Grammar alone is not enough

What I would say, however, to come back to my original anecdote of the tourists eanting directions, is that grammar alone is not enough. It is a starting point and the only way for learners to imporve their language skills, whatever they may be, is to experiment with the language and learn from their mistakes.

The tasks learners are given are essential, and if those tasks are simply mechanical controlled practice of grammar, then of course it is not enough but a logical progression might be something like this, although the order of various steps may change. If, for instance you are focusing on emergent language the clarificatioin may grow out of a need you have seen during a previous phase. But a rough guideline might be:

1. Clarify the target language (whatever it may be, and in whatever eay you think is most appropriate to your learners;
2. Provide contexts for them to experiment with this language, play with it, shape it and make it their own;
3. Provide motivating, realistic follow up tasks so that they can begin to integrate this “new language” into their overall competence.

It isn’t a recipe and it isn’t cut and dried, because those who become expert language users need a lot of exposure to the language in various ways, of course, and not only the productive skills.

Motivation and tasks are key

The tasks we set our learners, then, are really important, but the learners themsleves have to be motivated too. You can juggle and entertain to your heart’s content in a classroom but if your learners are not motivated or have other more pressing matters on their minds, it will be to little avail, I’m afraid. You, as a teach√®r, can only do your best and help your learners as well as you can. The rest, is actually up to them.

The Essence of the Lesson

Bringing that spark of magic into your lessons

Lighting the spark….I was talking

with two of my colleagues this morning about our lessons, and you might think we’d be discussing the focus we’d planned, or the materials etc. But, in fact, you’d be wrong.

What we talked about was what I call the indefinable extra something that is the essence of a good lesson: real human interaction and communication.

One colleague told me that the audio had broken down in her classroom so she’d got two boys to act out a dialogue. The only problem was that the dialogue was between “Mandy and Jane”, who were two girls gossiping about their boyfriends. The two boys, she said, rose to the occasion admirably and overacted so that they had everyone in stitches. This is what was probably memorable about the lesson, that everyone was having a good time as well as studying English.

In my B1 class the other day I had two examples of John, who was short and Michael who was very tall, a common enough example to illustrate bug differences and how to express them, with forms like, yes, you guessed it: “Michael is much taller than John.” Very dry stuff, until I mentioned “Little John” and someone asked where Robin Hood was. I said that he was somewhere in the middle but was only “a bit taller than Little John”.

In this way, what was a very banal example had been transformed into a memorable communicative interlude.

Grammar and Magic

I would just like to stay with these comparatives for a moment to show how through noticing and experimenting these B1 learners somehow managed to normalize the patterns (to some extent) so that they could make effective comparisons and prepare for their exam all at the same time.

They have to translate sentences unfortunately from Italian to English to show an awareness of various grammatical and lexical items in their written exam, so I, as their teacher, need to provide them with exam practice whilst making it meaningful and, dare I say it…magic, at the same time.

Here is the magic spell

1) Provide a series of provocative sentences for learners to translate.

Travelling by bike is by far the fastest way of getting around the city.

Women tend to be much more faithful than men.

Those who earn the most are definitely the most responsible members of society.

2) Let learners translate these (In our case from Italian to English) then check their ideas and help;

3) Then wave you magic wand and just as they think that is the end of the activity you ask them… “So, do you agree with all this then?” And suddenly these statements are no longer just a mechanical exercise but someone’s thoughts that have been expressed.

4) In pairs or small groups the learners discuss them and, as you go round monitoring you will hear some of this language being expressed absolutely naturally as they make their point.

The height of the discussion this afternoon was when someone mentioned quite a well known Italian politician as being the antithesis of the last sentence.

None of this is particularly innovative. In fact, it is actually common sense, but it shows how from humble exercises real communication can grow, and that is the true magic of the lesson. The essence is always the individuals who are sitting there in your group, and what they can express to each other. It can all be made up into heady brew….