Talk at ETAS AGM in January 2014

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Attending a conference can be a truly overwhelming experience. But attending a conference and giving a talk there as well simply blows one’s mind. A couple of days after the event, once the dust has settled exposing a clearer scenery, certain realizations hit home.

Wise men don’t preach, they ask questions. I attended Jeremy Harmer’s plenary speech and one of his talks as well. And in both cases I was amused by how, instead of telling other teachers how teaching goes, he would bemuse us with questions, doubts, open-ended and long echoing assumptions. He was always wondering, always questioning and looking out at his audience encouraging us to inquire as well. It was a really refreshing approach. But it was truly soothing as well. Because there are no ready made and final answers out there. Teaching is learning and it is never complete. Just when you think you’ve got it, the thread slips out of your hand and off you go to search it again.

Even if a pending talk can spoil some of the fun of listening to other presenters, it also makes you more alert, more analytical and definitely a more attentive listener. The message you are about to share makes you compare and contrast, it encourages you to look for ideas, suggestions and definitely for useful quotes to use in your own talk. Or as Byron Wien said about reading Have a point of view before you start a book or article and see if what you think is confirmed or refuted by the author.  If you do that, you will read faster and comprehend more.

I dreaded having to present during the last session. It seemed I was at a disadvantage. How wonderful it would be to get it over and done with before relaxing in other talks. However, the last session turned out to be a real advantage. When I arrived at the conference on Saturday morning, I felt rather lonely. I remembered some faces, I recalled a name or two, but there was no one I felt like striking up a discussion with immediately. The idea of giving a talk seemed more daunting than ever. But then we had workshops to meet people, coffee breaks, apéro and a lively supper, so by Sunday I had all these incredibly wonderful people coming to wish me all the best of luck. Walking into the classroom I even had a couple of familiar faces to give me the encouraging smiles. So let me use the occasion here and praise the ELT professionals. They are the most supportive, friendly and kind folk out there!

Not to talk about Kowalski, who was diligently doing his duty and cheering me on 🙂

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As a response to some of the attendees request and believing that several of my blog readers would benefit from the talk as well, here’s the summary of my presentation.

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After having been a member of ETAS (English Teachers Association of Switzerland) and attended many of its conferences and workshops, it seemed time was ripe for me to pitch in and share my own experience. As struggling with very mixed level classes is my daily bread, and coming up with plausible strategies to manage the mess an ever-present challenge, I decided to dedicate my first talk to working in, for and with a class of very mixed level students.

I skipped theory and jumped right into the action giving an overview of all the various tasks and techniques I use in my classes.

First I looked into reading and how to exploit the same text with different levels. Depending whether you want to use the SB and avoid photocopying or bring in your own material, here are some of my ideas (hugely inspired by many educators from all over the world):

Working with books

  • let faster students (in my case, more advanced level students) come up with a couple of comprehension questions they can then ask the whole class
  • In case you make the questions, project them on the screen / write on the board starting with easier ones and putting  trickier ones in the end (the ones that would push more advanced students). Once a student has finished reading direct their attention to the questions and let them begin work on that. Lower level students might not get till the harder questions, but it’s fine. They will have covered the essential questions!
  • Depending on the text, you could ask faster students to work with vocabulary in depth. For instance, they could use monolingual dictionaries to write dictionary definitions into their vocabulary notebooks (making them practise really good English!)

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When you bring in your own material that can be cut up, jumbled up, spiced up, you could do one of the following:

  • Give more advanced students a gapped text instead of the complete version
  • Hand out jumbled paragraphs they have to put in order thus working on linking ideas!
  • You  might want to divide the paragraphs between students (lower levels should get shorter and maybe also fewer paragraphs) and then they should read and report back! OR – maybe they should create a certain vocabulary bank and then share with their neighbor.

I also talked about vocabulary work and listening with the main idea always being that lower level students should get more scaffolding than more advanced level students.

One of the key strategies for mixed level groups (well, any group really, I guess) is to vary as much as possible. There are so many different levels to attend to that all kinds of group compositions should be played around with.

Sometimes working in mixed level groups proves the most advantageous. More advanced students could be the scaffolding for lower levels. Once the work’s been prepared, you can remove the scaffolding, i.e. break the group up and ask every students to work on their own.

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Although in one of my older posts I made a rather assertive statement about how not to work in sections, I have since then changed my mind quite a bit. One of the driving forces, a source of motivation was the incredible Naomi Epstein, who answered my call for help and shared some of her ideas and classroom management strategies. I have used work in sections several times now, and I must confess it is always a pleasurable experience.Capture d’écran 2014-01-28 à 16.54.17

The lesson plan the above poster summarizes is here.

Helping our students become autonomous learners should be on every teacher’s agenda, and even more so when it comes to mixed-level classes. It is inevitable to frustrate some of the students in a lesson. It is either too difficult and fast or way too easy and slow moving. There is, however, no better occasion to choose one’s pace or level than when students work on their own. This is why work outside the classroom should get special attention as well.

I have proposed the following to my students:
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Expression of the week is an ongoing project where every week a new student brings in an expression (s)he has heard, read and introduces it to the classmates.

During the conference I got another idea as well … Do let me know what you think of i! More advanced students have the tendency to relax too much during the lessons and thus miss the learning opportunities always present. One of possible sources of learning is teacher talk. So I was thinking of asking my students to pay special attention to teacher talk and jot down any words or expressions they like / want to learn and then share at the end of the lesson.

And here are the main points to bear in mind when teaching a very mixed-level class:
Capture d’écran 2014-01-28 à 16.58.22The ideas shared in this talk are tiny drops in the vast ocean. And even though, just for a couple of minutes right after the talk was over, I felt a sense of accomplishment, I am still at the bottom of the high mountain of mixed level classes. There are days when it frustrates and discourages me. It seems that no matter what I do, I will never be satisfied nor manage my groups in an absolutely satisfactory way.  But as the wise men say … teaching is learning and it never seizes.

And let’s ask another question 😉

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Students turned into journalists

Curiosity is like a message board. You have your eyes, your ears, all your senses open and every new discovery is a sticky-note pinned onto the wall. Most of the time it looks like  a motley collection of random thoughts, links, quotes, books, songs, videos, impressions. But at times, right notes stick out like dots. All you need to do is link the dots and you’ve got a new idea. Almost all of my classroom projects are born this way. It cannot be a forced creation, it is always an end product of slow maturation.

Sticky note 1 – Roughly a  year ago I stumbled on this fun and truly inspirational blog http://burningquestionnaire.wordpress.com. I loved the interviews and found the questions whimsical. They were questions I would have loved to answer myself. I had a fleeting thought of using this questionnaire in my own class but discarded the idea almost immediately. I feared it was too difficult, too abundant in structures and language we hadn’t covered with my students yet. I couldn’t see it fitting into the programme. But the sticky-note was there, on the board!

Sticky note 2 – A couple of months ago our school headmaster, who also happens to be an incredibly inspirational person, sent me a link to this website http://the-talks.com. He was wondering whether I could use it in my lessons in one way or another. I spend hours enjoying the wonderful interviews, taking immense pleasure in the language and the thoughts expressed through it. It was a real treat!  Sticky-note was on the board!

Sticky note 3 – One year ago I joined the amazing, ever-inspirational, supportive, wise community of English language educators. I began to read thought-provoking articles and blog-posts, I had my eyes opened to innumerable ideas, controversies, trends, beliefs. But above all, I began seeing my own teaching, my own beliefs, my own fears and doubts in a completely new light. What had previously felt like the only good idea, the correct basis for a solid teaching practice, started showing cracks, then had parts chipped off and finally crumbled into non-existence. It wasn’t scary! It was thrilling! Among these strong ideas was my belief that I was in control of my students’ learning. I had very much taken the sole responsibility for their learning. I tortured myself believing that I had to be up to making them fluent in English through the means I and only I presented them with. Thus, coming back to the interviews, I deduced they weren’t able to work with them as I hadn’t provided them with all the right tools yet.

Fortunately, I was able to rid myself of this obstinate and oh-how-painful principle. I relaxed, took a more playful approach to projects (and their outcomes!), but most of all, I realized that teaching and learning don’t go hand in hand. Or as so many wise teachers have said, It’s not because a teacher TEACHES something that a learner will LEARN this. When and to what extent learning takes place is not something a teacher can control. We can, however, inspire, propose interesting tasks, create favorable atmosphere and be there to guide and help when necessary.

At the end of the first semester I had two one and a half hour unplanned lessons to use for any project I felt like doing. And that’s when I linked the dots and came up with an interview project for my students. Initially, I was a tiny bit scared they might not like the idea, or rather, they might protest because of the workload included. But I am happy to say all my fears vanished into thin air the moment I saw my students’ eyes light up when asked who they would like to interview. They were in! They had had their curiosity, their excitement buds tickled and the project took off.

Here’s what we did

Lesson 1

First I showed a possible interview opening on the screen. It went like this:

Singing, dancing, weight-lifting actor Hugh Jackman on coffee, his biggest fears and wearing skirts to school

(From http://www.time.com/10questions)

I asked the students where they could see something like this and what its purpose was.

Next I showed two more possible openings. Here they are:

Rachel Khoo, 33, of BBC2’s The Little Paris Kitchen, was born in Croydon to a Malaysian-Chinese father and Austrian mother. She studied art and design, but after working in fashion, followed her heart to Paris to learn patisserie. Following the success of The Little Paris Kitchen, this year, Rachel travelled through France finding the best dishes…

(From a British women’s magazine Prima)

There’s no mistaking that Amanda Holden is in the room. The actress and TV star has such an infectious laughter and great sense of humor that she soon has everyone at the shoot giggling.

(From another British magazine Good Housekeeping)

We discussed how the three openings differed, and I asked them to choose one of the three types when writing their interview. Next on the menu was Tips for Writing Good Interviews. I had browsed through various sites and come up with a list of good tips concerning the best suitable location for the interview, which questions to avoid, how to make the person feel at ease etc. I gave different tips to neighbors. They had to read theirs, take notes and then report their ideas to their neighbor. Once finished, I asked them to read their neighbor’s versions to check whether they got the truth and only the truth 🙂 I also wrote the main points on the board for a general round-up.

The last part of the lesson was reading several interviews. I had made copies of different interviews and students could choose what to read. All the interviews were taken from this site: http://the-talks.com

The classroom fell into deep silence as students devoured the words. I was dumbfounded! They do love to read! Just give them stuff they find interesting.

At the end of the lesson students had to tell me who they were going to interview. Their homework was to write down the questions and do the interview. They had one week for that. I encouraged them to use recorders during the talk!

Lesson 2

They had to come to the next lesson with the notes and the recording on their phone (plus earbuds!) The last lesson was writing. They had the whole lesson to write the final interview using the notes and / or the recording. And they did! Again, I was amazed to see how well they can work if the task feels important and personal to them. I was available for help and guidance.

End note

I started correcting their works this morning and I haven’t stopped smiling the whole day. Here are some extracts from their interview openings ( I changed the names):

Nancy is a seventeen year old young woman who has already written four novels. Meet the young writer with a lot of imagination!

Gregory is sitting outside, smoking a cigarette. He’s wearing my grandfather’s old shirt and a pair of mountain shoes. He looks so simple and it’s been a long time since I last saw him looking in my eyes with such a warm smile.

Mary has just turned 17. I have known her since she was a baby and we have always lived in the same street. Mary has an expensive but tremendous passion.

A café in the town centre. Tracy looks happy. She’s smiling. Nothing suggests she used to suffer from bulimia.

I will correct all the interviews and then ask my students to type the corrected versions on computer. On one hand, I want them to re-write the interviews going through the errors and (hopefully) learning from them. On the other hand, I wish them to keep beautiful versions of their work. They definitely deserve that.

Right, back to corrections. It can be fun too!

Talk to them!

Sometimes to take a single word back you would need pages, I remember one Estonian actress say when talking about the power of words. Silence surely can be golden and a virtue and a sign of intelligence.  However, there are just as many occasions when talking things through would ease the pressure and set things straight. Talking about problems, voicing your fears and doubts, expressing your expectations means putting your cards on the table and being honest. It makes you human, it makes you a partner, it means holding out your hand for the others to grab.

It doesn’t only work in couples 😉 It is also an incredibly powerful tool in a classroom! And though it sounds simple and pretty basic I guess many teachers need to be reminded of the magic a dialogue can create.

During the last two years I have experienced two very powerful moments of the benefits of dialogue. In both cases I found myself in a situation where I felt utterly lost and totally frustrated. I started to dread going into the classroom. I felt the ever widening gap between me, the teacher and them, the students. The classroom was slowly  transforming into the creature I have always dreaded. It was a battlefield of conflicting interests and misunderstanding. I wasn’t enjoying myself at all. In fact, I hated the kind of teacher I was gradually becoming. I heard myself nag and threaten and moan. I had become a team of one against them. And boy, how I hate that! It’s the complete contrary of what I hold dear and cherish in teaching – teamwork and sailing the stormy seas in the same boat with my students.

So I began thinking of the options available. What are my strengths and weaknesses? Which moments make me happy? Which groups do I feel completely at ease in and why? The answers flooded in. Be yourself! Be the cheerful person you are! Stop acting like a policewoman! And most of all, put your cards on the table. Untie the knots with your students.

I remember walking into the classroom, looking at my students and saying, “You know what, I really need to talk to you … “

I loved each one of them at the end of that lesson!

This year I had a similar apprehension with the first year students. It wasn’t anything personal, but the incredibly mixed levels in the group started poisoning the atmosphere from day one. Students felt that something was amiss. Certain students felt bored to death, others struggled. So I reminded myself of the wonders talking things through can make. I decided to devote as much time as needed to explaining the peculiar situation we found ourselves in. I drew lines, I pointed out different levels, I illustrated what was happening. You might think that the students had understood it all by themselves, that they knew they were part of a mixed-level class. Not necessarily!  The visual explanation, the fact I was putting the mess into words cleared everything up. They had a powerful heureka moment. And suddenly we were all in the same boat. I told them what I was going to do about it, what tools and techniques I was going to use to make the most of it. And they knew what I hoped their contribution would be. And what’s more, they knew we were a team working towards a goal TOGETHER.

Now, when I go to this class, I feel stronger and more confident. I try different things, I feel bold enough to experiment. And I feel free to discuss things over with them, to ask for their feedback, to TALK! 

Any you? What wonders has talk made in your teaching? Would love to hear about your experience!

 

nothing should get in the way of a good story

Have you ever asked your students what they do when waiting for their flight in an airport? When you have, I bet the majority would tell you how they love observing people. Right!?

Sometimes, when walking in the streets, I look at the passers-by and think how they all come from very different and incredible stories. They are characters from thousands of tales and what I can see in the street is simply a microscopic glance into a book that will very likely stay shut for me.

Human beings are the most curious and exciting source of tales. Everyone, no matter how insignificant they consider themselves to be, can tell tales which would leave us awestruck, incredulous, entertained, aghast. Their tales can teach us, warn us, inspire us. So to open this treasure chest of experiences, all we need to do is listen to people, ask questions and BE CURIOUS.

When I discovered Humans of New York I instantly knew this was one of the treasure chests. This blog is a collection of pictures and stories of the motley crew of humans you might meet in the Big Apple. It seemed that “meeting” these ordinary or the most extraordinary people would be an inspiring thing for my students. Wanting to know about these humans would push them to use their existing language but also learn new vocabulary. And as these people couldn’t suddenly simply materialize in our classroom, the students also had to use their imagination when guessing these people’s lives and thoughts. So here’s what we did.

It was the first lesson after the long summer break. I had the same groups as the previous year, so it was a good time to brush up on their English, rekindle the class dynamics and restart the learning process by proposing something inspiring.

To begin with I showed a picture of a homeless guy in New York on the screen. He looked absolutely in peace with himself and the world. He was sitting on a folding chair, reading a book and in front of him, on the pavement, there was a doormat which said WELCOME. I told my students that holidays are perfect times to meet new people and make friends. I said that we were going to meet someone today too. And there he was, the guy in NY. I asked the students to look at him and then write down their first impressions. (Imagine you see this guy in the street, what goes through your head)

After two minutes of writing, they had to share their ideas with their neighbor followed by a general feedback and vocabulary questions. We got quite many new (forgotten) words on the board.

After that I asked the students to write on a sheet of paper four questions they would like to ask from the guy. Then I collected the questions.

The next step was getting to know more people, but this time different couples. Every student got a picture of a curious couple. (and there are tons of those on the site) I asked them to write down their impressions once again. However, this time they had to think of some guiding questions (who are they, why are they there, what did they do before etc) I also asked my students to write for four minutes without stopping. If they couldn’t find the word in English, I asked them to write the French equivalent. (It was important to catch their ideas, their thoughts and impressions!)

While they were working on that, I quickly corrected their questions. Mostly the usual missing auxiliaries, prepositions at the beginning of the questions etc.

After the “stream of consciousness” writing, they had time to reread and work with their dictionaries. I walked amongst the students and helped with any language questions they had. There was no time limit. How long you let an activity go on always depends on your students. Once you feel most of the students have stopped, that’s when it’s the best moment to ask everyone to finish the sentence they are writing. After the editing part they had to show their picture to the neighbour and share their thoughts.

Then we looked at the questions. I gave the corrected versions back to the students and then had a class discussion. I wrote the most common mistakes on the board and highlighted the usual pitfalls.

Now came the last part which included corresponding with other students. Every student had to write five questions they would like to ask from the couple. Then I took the pictures and the questions and swapped these with other pics and questions. Now the students had a new picture and five questions. They had to imagine being these people in the picture and answer (in writing) the five questions. I emphasized there were no right or wrong answers, what counted was their imagination and creativity.

Once the answers got written down I gave them together with the pics back to the initial owners, so they could read the answers. There was A LOT of laughter in the class!

As these kind of tasks are open ended, they suit well to mixed level classes. The weaker students have time to work with the dictionaries and produce what they are able to (no pressure!) Whereas the more advanced students can push their own limits. Okay, I admit, they don’t necessarily do that of their own accord. But that’s when your encouraging remarks are welcome.

It’s also an activity that is exciting for the students, it arouses their curiosity. And nothing’s more fruitful to language learning than curiosity!

I used this lesson plan in four different  classes and it worked each time.

when teaching gets nerve-wracking

Every time I was too self-assure, I did something foolish. A good colleague of mine talked about sky-diving.

I felt a little bit like sky-diving last week. Careless summer days had come to a close and I had to take that leap again. Strangely enough I was far from feeling self-assure. One would expect that now, after all these years, after all the students.  But instead my knees were weak and the haphazardly moving red laser dot on the board betrayed my trembling hands. I guess a certain amount of stress is healthy. I believe we should never let our guards down and walk into a classroom as if it were yet another casual encounter with some cool people, and then do something foolish as a consequence. But this year’s alarmingly high stress level still made me wonder whether this annually reappearing state of nervousness will ever stop.

This nervousness is the inevitable side-effect of the curious nature of being a teacher. The turnover of the students, the continuous flow, the eternal change would never let us get too comfortable. Each new year brings with it new challenges on so many levels. It is simply not enough to know that I did alright last year. Those “medals” don’t count any more.  A new race has begun and I better prove myself again!

This year I have 51 new students. And I met them all last Friday, during three consecutive lessons. That’s a lot of new names and faces to take in and make some sense of. As our students come from quite different walks of life, their level of English varies significantly. There is no placement test to kick off the year, and anyway, the groups are the way they are. There would be no splitting up or rearranging classes according to their English level. This means that when I walk into a classroom at the beginning of the new term I have no way of knowing how good or poor all these young people in front of me are in English. They might be bilingual ( it has happened more than once). But they  might just as well be complete beginners hearing my seemingly endless babble and having no idea what is being said.

For the above reason, the first lessons, the first weeks are extremely exciting and adventurous, but in equal measure, awfully nerve-wracking and stressful. Not only should names be remembered, rapport built and first steps towards creating good atmosphere  taken. I need to figure out more or less where they are in their language journey and how to fit these incredibly different travellers on the same train.

This situation reoccurs at every fresh beginning. Yet after the long summer break, after the idle hours spent reading and dreaming and contemplating, the professional reality bites and leaves me in awe of what my students and I achieved together the previous year. Will I be up to it once again? How to live up to the challenge? Especially with someone new yawning on my desk and simply enjoying existence 😉

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What about you? How do you feel at the beginning of a new term? How do you deal with stress? Do you have some tips to share?

 

Reading always helps

Picture this. A boiling balcony of a huge block of flats some time in a July afternoon. Tiny table with a small parasol. Tiny person. A girl. Sitting at the desk in her bathing suit. And working. Hard. Ploughing her way through her very first English book. As she has never heard nor learnt a word of English before, every single word (even the small a and the) has to be looked up in the heavy dictionary. The English book and the dictionary are gifts from her grandfather who himself is an English teacher.

Alright, poetry stops here. And no, I probably didn’t finish the book, and no, it was not a moment of sudden revelation where the stars aligned and I knew I was going to be a teacher or a writer. However, that hot afternoon on the balcony is my earliest memory of my love of dictionaries and understanding that to learn a language you should work on it. And what better way to learn, to bathe in the language, to learn its rhythm than to read it.

During the weeks leading up to the proficiency exam in English I read all the Economists I could get my hands on. And I am fairly certain that the high score I got in the writing paper was very much thanks to all the hours spent rocking in the English rhythm. As it worked so well for me, I keep telling my students to do the same. Every year, before the final exams I tell them to take an English book or a magazine, and read it, even if just a page a day. Okay, I harbour no illusions as to the number of students who will follow my precious advice 😉 but at least I didn’t keep it secret, right?!

However, reading is not something I only suggest my students do in order to get ready for their final exams. It is one of the instruments in my How-to-survive-in-mixed-level-classes toolbox. As I have already mentioned in previous posts, I teach extremely mixed-level classes. And what’s more, every class has only two 45-minute lessons per week. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that barely the classroom hours are far from enough to boost my students’ English vocabulary. Not only are they way too short but having many different levels in the same class also means that acquiring new vocabulary (which is truly NEW for everyone) becomes a real challenge.

“A good part of vocabulary learning has to be incidental. Incidental learning is facilitated through exposure to language input, in the form of extensive reading, for example.” (Thornbury 2001: 22)

Hence, read a book a semester policy in my classes. From the beginning I decided to let students choose their books. Firstly, they aren’t necessarily all into English classics. Go figure, right 😉 Secondly, having their say in what they are going to read might sparkle a valuable interest. Thirdly, having so various levels, reading task is something where everyone’s needs can be met on the level they’re at.

When I introduced the reading in my first year, I was a tiny bit afraid of the reaction. Will they protest, will they moan about the workload, will they blatantly state they hate books and reading. None of that! Quite the contrary, actually. In the end-of-the-year feedback forms the majority of students point out reading as one of the activities that helped them the most. And at one precious moment, a guy walked up to me and confessed he had never read a book before but actually quite enjoyed doing it now.

In order to keep track of their reading and mark it too I have tried and experimented with various tasks throughout the years. I have fallen into stupid pitfalls and created monster projects, which took me more time to evaluate than for them to complete. However, this year I did something new and it worked really well.

Here are the guidelines:

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

George R.R. Martin

Reading – spring semester 2012-2013

Once you have finished reading your book, take the time to digest it … and then prepare your presentation.

Poster

Create a collage out of your book. Find pictures from magazines, Internet or take your own pics. Next to the pictures write key words, which help to explain the images and also help you during your presentation.

You could talk about the following (choose at least 4):

  • Describe a character from the book
  • Describe a place from the book
  • Describe the period when the story takes place
  • Describe the atmosphere of the story
  • What kind of music do you associate with this book and why
  • Describe a relationship between some characters
  • Describe how a character develops / changes during the story
  • Describe a special moment in the story
  • Describe your own feelings when reading the book (explain them!)
  • Think of the questions you would like to ask the writer, explain why these questions.

Or anything else that comes to your mind and that you would like to share.

And here are some of the posters:

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Most of the students told me afterwards that making a poster helped them gather their thoughts and think of how to structure their talk. It was also a kind of safety belt they could hold on to during the presentation.

Ideas for next year: I will definitely continue with the reading activity. However, I’m thinking of introducing reflections on reading earlier and more often into the classroom. I might ask them to keep a reading diary or maybe write an email to someone else in the class about what s(he) is reading at that moment, or bring some interesting vocabulary into class to introduce to the others …

What about you? How have you introduced reading into your programme?

Reference:

Thornbury, S. (2002) How to Teach Vocabulary, Harlow: Pearson

Who’s afraid of mixed-level classes?

DSC_0141In one of the recent FB updates I expressed my growing temptation to try giving my first talk at a conference. The responses were extremely encouraging and kind. And to my doubt about being truly up to it, Ann simply answered that as long as you present something close to your heart, as long as it is a topic you feel passionate about, it is bound to be successful. Combining the positive feedback and my own gradually intensifying temptation, I will very likely give it a go. I do, however, still have time to gather my thoughts, hone my skills and clarify my message. And thus I will share my thoughts here with you on a topic that is not only all prevailing in my daily teaching life but which has captured my heart and mind because of the challenges it poses. So yes, here it comes … drums …. mixed-level classes!

Two years ago I sent out a cry for help. I wrote to all the major publishing houses inquiring whether they had any theoretical or hands-on books on mixed level classes. It got me nowhere!

Then, a couple of months after that fruitless search, I sat in on a lesson as part of my teacher training course. The young teacher who gave the lesson seemed completely oblivious to the notion of mixed levels or tackling them in a classroom. For her it was simply that some students were stronger and thus bored and consequently prone to churn up trouble. During the follow-up discussion I shared some of my techniques and suggested possible ways of action. Her eyes lit up and she seemed to have a real heureka moment. As if a new door had been opened for her, a door behind which exciting things were happening.

And because the introduction is still not long enough …

a little more than a year ago I met Ceri 🙂 I was extremely excited when I read she was giving a talk at a conference here in Switzerland. But things got even better! I gathered all my courage and went up to her and then we had coffee and then we talked and then it was really great 🙂 Anyway, I told her how I was struggling with the mixed levels and what I had already done to manage the surreal mixture of my students’ English skills. Ceri asked me to write a guest post for her blog on the said topic. And I guess, considering how much I admire Ceri, that was the first time I felt I had something to share, something that might be of some value and help for other teachers too.

It has been said over and over again that homogeneous classes do not exist. Who can argue, right!? Students do not only differ in their previous knowledge, their motivation, their preferred learning style, but also in their character, in their world view. When I talk about mixed-level classes, however, I focus on language lessons, and more precisely still, on my students’ level of English, on the skills they already master or lack, on the vocabulary they have or not. So I guess it is absolutely “legal” to call some language learners’ groups as more homogeneous than others. However, there are groups where continuous graded learning is not only called for, it is the only viable solution.

I started teaching in my current school five years ago. The headmaster did mention mixed levels during the interview, but I interpreted it as different students, different styles. The reality, however,  kicked in right in the first lesson. I had students who could hold a fluent conversation with me and others who struggled with their first complete sentences in English. Since that first painful realization five years ago I have been on the continuous lookout for ways to not only make some sense in my classes but to help everyone learn, improve and if possible, have fun too! I have tried and tested things which turned out to be a disaster. I’ll write more soon! I have worked my socks off preparing lessons that would cater for everyone’s needs and then cried myself to sleep because students simply didn’t care.

Fortunately, after these first five years of trial I have been able to find some techniques which work. I keep adapting them to different classes and topics while at the same time looking for new ways of approaching this mushy bog land of mixed levels.

But before I share one of the most recent activities, here are a some of my beliefs about mixed-level classes …

  • I don’t believe in continuous work in sections. It does help sometimes and I do use that, but breaking the class into smaller level units means that we lose something valuable. We lose the chance of learning from peers, of sharing and of creating class dynamics.
  • Students with lower levels of English ( I NEVER call them weaker students because it has nothing to do with weakness and everything to do with what stage they have already reached in their language learning) NEED time. They need to feel secure and not stressed. Thus, it is important to make sure that all the students have the time to finish their tasks.
  • Students with more advanced levels should be challenged continuously. But not only. A teacher could work herself into a madhouse if she / he did everything on her / his own. So I guess, before starting to cater for everyone’s needs, it is important to talk about learning. It is vital for a mixed-level class that every student acts responsibly and gets into the habit of pushing her / his own limits.

I could, of course, go on and on about my beliefs and build a tall theory tower. But this is not what is needed. This is not what I would look for in a book on mixed-level classes. What all the teachers who struggle with these mushy bog lands need, is activities! So here’s one of my most recent mini projects.

Group: 16 students

Levels: A1 – B2

Topic: comparative & superlative

Lessons 1: Half of the class was already familiar with this grammar. However, a pure revision was not an option as the other half had only an inkling (or none) how to form comparatives in English. To allot the time needed to learn the grammar, yet make sure no one’s boredom would disrupt the lesson, I decided to break the group up for one lesson. As the next topic was travel and tourism, I asked students with higher level of English to use the class time to prepare an advertisement for a holiday destination. They had to find pictures and then write short paragraphs describing their destination (cost, accommodation, special features etc) In the meantime, I worked with the other half of the class on how to make comparative and superlative forms in English.

Lesson 2: Students who had prepared holiday posters acted as travel agents. Their mission was to ‘sell’ their destination to possible customers. Students who had been learning grammar during the previous lesson, had to go up to three different agents and take notes on what they had to offer. Once they had listened to three different promotional talks, they had to fill in a form comparing all the three travel agencies. I made sure that the forms presented them with all the adjectives needed to go over the rules on comparatives (exciting, cheap, far etc) While these students were working in pairs writing their comparative and superlative sentences, the ‘travel agents’ worked in groups presenting to each other their works. In the end they had to summarize the works by comparing them.

This kind of work procedure can be, of course, adapted to many other grammar points and vocabulary. What is important here, is that lower-level students have time to get familiar with a new subject without the pressure from more advanced classmates. The more advanced students can push their own limits creating a poster they can then show to the rest of the class. And last but not least, there is the central come together activity which keeps the class unified, makes students share their work and enables lower level students to benefit from more advanced classmates language skills.

Before I call it a day here (and I will be back with more, no worries 😉 I would like to ask you one question –

I have only one hands-on book on mixed-level classes in my library, Dealing with Difficulties. L. Prodromou & L. Clandfield … what about you?