Posts Tagged ‘Listening’

Surviving a last-minute substitution class

August 5, 2011 10 comments

Sometimes it's a good idea to let go off the maps and use your instincts

I’m pretty sure you are acquainted with this situation: It’s five minutes before lessons start and suddenly you receive a phone call – the dreaded phone call from a teacher saying that he or she won’t be able to get to school on time, or that something unforeseen has come up and they won’t be able to come to work at all. What do you do if you’ve got only five-minutes to “plan and prepare” a 90-minute lesson? Well, I can’t see a better opportunity for you to go dogme than this! Here’s a quick, and I hope useful, survivor’s guide to last-minute substitutions:

1. Change your mindset – look at the material from a different perspective – refrain from going straight to the grammar part. Take advantage of the fact that you didn’t have time to go over the whole unit and check just the topic of the lesson – the TOPIC of the lesson, not the grammar topic. Chances are you’ll end up covering the grammar point anyway if you can get students to discuss the topic. Remember: Language can indeed be conversation-driven!

2. Listen to the learners when you get to class – Don’t despair because you may not have enough time to do this or that activity. I don’t think anyone will ever blame you for not finishing the entire unit as it was planned – in this case, it hand’ t been planned at all, huh?! Start by having a conversation with them about their weekend, likes and dislikes, or favorite movies. If nothing, this will help you to gauge your students’ current linguistic performance and inform your teaching for the rest of the class. Listen to them and respond to both content and language. Focus on correct language as well as mistakes, but don’t point out mistakes bluntly. Use what your learners give you in this initial conversation to inform your teaching. Language teaching can be materials-light and user-generated!

3. Be there to help them develop, not to teach the present perfect – Let’s face it, if you don’t really know the material well, or if you haven’t taught the level before, chances are you won’t be able to do what the book says nor know what your learners are supposed to already know or not. Use what you’ve gotten from the initial conversation to have the examples you’ll need. If you remember the TOPIC of the lesson and are able to start a discussion on that, even better! You’ll be surprised to see how much of the unit you were able to cover simply by focusing on what comes up in class. Your teaching can be based on language that emerges in class.

Oh, but what if your students refuse to talk at first? This might make things a bit easier, believe it or not! If you keep your cool and try to remember your previous classes, you’re likely to remember something that will work as a conversation trigger. This is what you can do:

1. Get them to respond to language and content before pestering them for answers – If you’ve ever watched The Freedom Writers, you’ll remember an activity that Ms. G. did in class to get to know her students better and to help them get to know one another. One variation of that is getting your students to move around according to your commands. For instance, have them line up in front of you and ask them to simply move to the left or to the right depending on how they feel. The last time I had to substitute for a class, we were talking about abilities. I started by asking students to move to the right if their answer was “yes”, and to the left if their answer was “no”. Questions were very simple, “Do you like pizza?”, “Do you like comedy films?” and so on. Later on, I started adding “abilities” to it and asked them to step to the right if they could do what I said, and step to the left if they couldn’t do it. Until this stage, you should also be moving with them. It’s a good chance for them to learn something about you as well. Finally, I did some language assessment asking them to simply step left or right if the sentences were right or wrong. The sentences were such as, “She cans speak Japanese,” or “He can plays football”. Do not correct or explain anything at this moment. If you’re lucky, this will be a good warmer and they’ll be ready to move on to some talking. Get them to interact and use what you’ve learned from their mistakes in this first activity to lead their discussion to a point in which they’ll need to use it – then you may correct it! But remember to use language they’ve provided you with!

Phew! I hope extremely short survival kit is a tiny bit helpful if you’re ever in a situation like this. Any other tips for last-minute substitutions? 🙂

Categories: Activities Tags: , , ,

Why teach pronunciation?

November 7, 2010 20 comments

“But, teacher, why do I need to learn those funny symbols? It only makes it a lot more complicated.” This is a question I’ve been asked quite often, and not only by students, but also by teachers. I must say I myself failed to see the purpose of learning the phonemic chart when I was a learner, and even in my early teaching career. Let’s face it, neither of my teachers had taught me those “funky letters”, and I was rarely encouraged to look them up in a dictionary whenever I needed to check the correct pronunciation of a word. In those days, I couldn’t see any difference between the pronunciation of close as an adjective or as a verb, basic was pronounced with the sound of /z/, and all words ending with an /s/ were pronounced with, well, the sound of a final /s/ – who would possibly be able to end a word with a /z/ sound?

Photo by Ike Valdez

This all happened a long, long, long while ago. But it was only as a teacher that I finally understood that there was something else to pronunciation than merely trying really hard to listen, observe, and repeat. More often than not, actually, I found myself making the same mistakes over and over again in the past when I thought I had finally got the correct pronunciation of a word. It is as if the brain is split into compartments for each separate sound, and if such sound is never uttered, the brain automatically shuts that compartment and naturally places the sounds you hear on different compartments based on how close that particular sound is to a sound that is already familiar to the brain. Hence, if I had never produced the sound of TH, the brain automatically changes think to sink (way to go, Titanic!), something to some sing (and others dance), third to turd, and so on and so forth.

As Nick Jaworski said on this post of his on pronunciation,

There are no final consonants in Vietnamese so their brains actually never developed the ability to hear a consonant at the end of a word.  Since they can’t hear it, they can’t say it.  Since they can’t say it, they can’t hear it.

I have, as I said above, quickly learned that this was also the case for me, and for lots of learners as well. If you don’t know how to say a sound, you will hardly ever be able to hear it. It was back in 2000 when I attended Adrian Underhill‘s session about his phonemic chart that I saw a silver lining. I was a student who also also influenced by the commonly held belief that the only way for you to truly become fluent in a language and sound natural in it is by living abroad. Well, I had never lived abroad, nor had I been an exchange student as most of my co-workers until that time. To be fair, my only experience abroad is limited to a family trip to Disney wen I was 11 years old and had just started speaking English, and later on another 2-week family trip to New York. Anyway, up until that time, I felt that I had to work on what I could improve as a non-native English speaking teacher – I quickly became a grammar buff. I simply had to be able to do one thing well if I wanted to be an English teacher as pronunciation wasn’t my forte. I’ll just leave vocabulary aside from this post.

It was only after Underhill’s session, then, that I realized that, yes, there was something I could do about my pronunciation even though I wasn’t planning on living abroad anytime soon. Ten years have passed and this still hasn’t happened. Anyhow, I started studying more and more about phonetics and phonology, and when I took that course at university, I found out I had really learned quite a lot on my own. I did buy many books, and despite my “change of accent”, I clearly remember Ann Cook’s American Accent Training did wonders for my consciousness raising regarding pronunciation. I started paying closer attention to the sound of the language, consciously trying to understand whatever it is that was going on when I heard someone speaking English – segmental and supra-segmental features alike.

The idea of using the phonemic chart as a teaching aid from the very beginning simply made sense. If we make use of the phonemic chart to raise our students’ awareness to how the sounds are pronounced instead of expecting them to be able to transcribe words using the IPA, it can certainly be helpful. If they understand that there is such a thing as a labio-dental sound (needless to say, teachers use a much more learner-friendly explanation), their brains might just pop open the lid for such compartment, enabling them to both listen and speak the sound. Learners will eventually be able to look at the IPA and reproduce the sounds, but this is not the main goal. We make pronunciation physical and visual through the use of the chart in order to cater for visual and kinesthetic learners as well as the auditory ones.

We are also fostering autonomy and independent learning. Students no longer rely solely on a teacher for the correct pronunciation of a word. They are finally capable to correct themselves simply by using a learner’s dictionary – just the paper version of it. They might finally be able to appreciate subtle differences which may make a difference in connected speech. However, I’ll go back to a point I made above. I truly think it’s important for teachers to have a sound knowledge of phonetics and phonology in order to show learners what they’re doing wrong and teach them how to correctly position their tongue in their mouth, for instance, in order to get a sound right. The phonemic chart is, thus, used as a teaching aid, and not as a teaching goal in itself.

Oh, and I don’t know whether you’ll agree with me or not, but learners do seem to have a lot of fun when learning correct pronunciation. They also see how much their listening benefits from pronunciation teaching. They are a lot more engaged and eager to learn pronunciation than other areas. Why is it, then, that pronunciation is so often overlooked in the language classroom? As a non-NEST who also knows lots of other non-NESTs who can speak English extremely well, I don’t think we can use the NESTs x non-NESTs dichotomy to explain this. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. I see pronunciation and listening as skills that depend on one another, and we won’t get our learners to be better listeners if we don’t teach pronunciation properly – recycling, revising, and constantly correcting it.

World Englishes and standards

July 25, 2010 26 comments

Image by lumaxart

The idea of world Englishes, or even Globish, seems to be everywhere I look this past month. Not only was there an article by David Crystal on the Braz-TESOL magazine about world Englishes and the importance of learning a bit more about the variety of English of the country you’re going to visit – vocabulary and other features. In addition to that, the cover of the Newsweek magazine has on its cover a picture of the world saying, “Speak Globish?” what does this mean to our learners?

A couple of things that spring to mind are some conversations and articles I read a while ago when people said that nowadays people shouldn’t be so concerned about achieving native-like proficiency as there are many different varieties of the language. Non-native speakers of the language outnumber native speakers by far. Some years ago, Newsweek published an article talking about the rise of English as a lingua france where they said that there are 3 non-native speakers of the language for every native speaker. I guess there might be 4 or 5 nowadays. The trend, then, is to understand and acknowledge the differences. But this has always been something that kept me wondering: if I’m learning a language in order to be able to communicate with people from other cultures, and if this is the so-called lingua franca of the world, should teachers let their students get away with something that’s really distant from native-like pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar usage?

The first time I thought about it was probably about ten years ago. One of my students was in the Brazilian navy and he told me that anytime they met and had to talk to people from other ships, they spoke English. Now, he could easily communicate with Italians, Chileans, Spanish, French, and people from other nationalities using English. However, every time they had to talk to Americans, British, or Canadians, for instance, they couldn’t understand what they were saying and vice-versa. I’m sorry if this goes against what some people might believe in, but I truly believe there’s something wrong with this.

We learn to speak a foreign language to communicate. We study a foreign language because we want to be able to function in a foreign country using that language we’ve spent so long studying. When I think of native-like English, I’m not saying people should work exhaustively to reduce their accent, by no means! However, There are certain standards I feel that should be taken into account. Learners from languages whose rhythm is syllable-timed should learn that English is a stress-timed language. They should be taught some of the individual sounds which do not exist in their L1. And teachers ought to expect nothing but the best these students can produce.

I’ve always thought that language teachers are the worst listeners out there. Language teachers want to (and have to try as hard as they can) understand what their students are saying. We’ve got to do this if we want to recast, repeat, provide correct form, or do anything else that teachers have to do to get learners to learn the language. Things are not like that in the real world, though. One of the problems I can see there is that teachers might end up limiting their learners. By not showing learners that they do need to improve their pronunciation, to learn new words, and to change their speech to make it sound more natural, teachers are telling learners that they may be able to do whatever it is that they might want to in the foreign language. Well, sometimes simply being able to communicate and say, “me wants water” or “have a possibility is true” may be way less than what our students will need.

What if your learners end up having the chance to work for a multinational company and are chosen to become spokespeople? I’m pretty sure their chances will be way slimmer if they can’t speak English with native-like pronunciation and correct usage of vocabulary and grammar. There’s a huge gulf between being chosen by a non-profitable organisation to speak in public mainly due to your contributions to a cause and being hired by a company. It would be naive of us to say that people don’t judge you by the way you talk. This doesn’t mean using obscure words and complicated structures will get people to hold you in high regards – but being able to use the language properly and naturally certainly will.

What should be done about world Englishes and all of the varieties of English one might encounter in the world? Well, I think teachers should look at things from two different perspectives: productive and receptive skills. When it comes to productive skills (speaking and writing), learners should be taught according to high standards and, in my view, respecting the rules of the two mainstream varieties of the language – British and American English. When it comes to receptive skills (reading and listening) the more varieties we can expose our learners to, the better. If teachers can show students examples of both natives and non-natives using the language, the better we will be preparing them for the world of ‘Globish’. If you ask me, the question is not really “Speak Globish?”, but it should be “Understand Globish?”

Over to you…

Speaking activity – Debating about the environment

January 27, 2010 4 comments

(Note: before you start reading the post, I think it’s important to tell you that one of the videos I used in the activity does contain some ‘inappropriate’ language to some audiences, and I recommend you use it only with adults. If you feel your learners shouldn’t be exposed to this kind of language, you may either choose a different video, use only the first video and adapt the activity, or simply dismiss the activity out of hand.)

I’ve been giving a lot of thought about what to write as the 20th post. Truth be told, I came to the conclusion that even though it might mean something to me as a personal achievement (I didn’t think I’d come this far and actually miss posting here), it’s likely to come across as yet another post that people may or may not enjoy. As I’m somehow involved with the teacher training programme and recruitment process at the moment, I’ve been sort of away, but something came to mind while listening to the radio and I decided to post an activity here so that not only can I share it with you, but I can also come back to it and remember it later – even though there (still) are no handouts or anything like that to go with it. It’s basically a lesson on the environment with two videos for students to take notes while watching, and sides in a discussion. I’d use it with upper-intermediate or advanced learners (B2+ according to CEF). Here it goes:

1. Start the class by asking them what they know about COPE 15, the Kyoto protocol and how they feel about all the heated discussion on climate change currently on display. Help them with vocabulary they might not be familiar with but focus on what they produce instead of telling them what you want them to learn – you may always contribute a word or two at a later stage.

2. Tell them they’re going to watch two videos which have opposing views on the matter, and they’re supposed to take notes while they watch the videos. The first video is a bit long (about 21 minutes), so it’d be nice if you stopped after every segment to ask some comprehension questions and let them share their notes. The second video lasts about 8 minutes, but as it’s a stand up comedy show by George Carlin, it’d also be nice if you stopped once or twice to let them share their notes. It’d also be a good idea to pre-teach any difficult vocabulary.

(N.B.: depending on the cultural background of your students, or their sense of humour, the second video might be offensive. It is also important to know that George Carlin does make use of some swear words in his speech. However, who’s better to judge how our students are going to respond to something than the teacher himself? Use it at your own discretion.)

3. Put students in two groups and tell them they’re going to take sides – one group believes there is a serious threat to the environment while the other believes this is just propaganda. Allow them a couple of minutes with their groups to organise their ideas.

4. Pair them up, with one student from each group and tell them they are to try to persuade the other person of what they believe in. Before they start discussing, it’s a nice idea to recycle with them some language for agreeing, disagreeing, expressing their opinions, giving examples and explaining.

Here are the two videos:

Video 1 – The story of stuff

Video 2 – George Carlin on Global Warming

If you liked it, go ahead and use it! If you didn’t like it, sorry for wasting your time reading the activity. If you have any contribution, please share! 🙂

Using CNN student news

December 11, 2009 Leave a comment

I haven’t heard many things about CNN student news even though I find it useful in the classroom. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a daily video-podcast which lasts about 10 minutes, and, as you can guess from its name, it’s made by the folks at CNN.

Anyway, I decided to share an activity I tried out in class successfully this semester in which I used it. I used with a C1 level (according to the Common European Framework of References for Languages) group, but the activity may also work with B2 students. The activity lasts about 45 – 60 minutes. Later you can let me know what you think of it.

Material: 2 sequential episodes from CNN Student News – in this class, I used the episodes from August 21st (Friday) and August 24th (Monday). It is important to use episodes in which some of the news complement what was said on the other episode.

1. I started the class with a writing activity. The students had already learned the mechanics of writing a proposal, but they had issues when it came to planning. So I started by eliciting from them techniques they use while brainstorming ideas for a composition. We planned the outline of a text together and talked about the importance of planning your compositions prior to writing them, and the fact that it actually saves time when you’re writing.

2. I divided the group in two and explained what they were supposed to do. One of these two groups (let’s call it group A) would stay in the classroom and the other group (group B) was taken outside. Group B was supposed to work on the brainstorming of ideas for a piece of writing they’d have to write for our following class – a proposal. They should work together and come up with an outline for their proposal, and they’d have 10 minutes for this. In the meantime, group A was going to watch one news episode from CNN Student News (which lasts 10 minutes).

3. While watching, the people from group A were asked to take notes about the pieces of news. After the episode finished, group A went outside and group B stopped their planning for the proposal and went back to the classroom. This time, group A had 10 minutes to work together and share their notes about the pieces of news they’d just watched. They were asked to try to reconstitute what had been said in the episode. As we’d been working with reporting verbs, students were supposed to try to use different verbs when sharing what they’d heard. They had 10 minutes to do that and write down their notes on a piece of paper. During these 10 minutes, group B was watching another episode from CNN Student News.

4. After the episode is over, group B will now have 10 minutes to share their notes. Group A, at this moment, is told to stop working on the notes and start planning their proposal.

5. 30 minutes after you’ve started the activity, students get in pairs (one student from each group) to share their pieces of news. Before they start talking, they’re reminded of the reporting verbs. The importance of choosing two sequential episodes is that they’ll be able to understand why such and such things are in the news (group B) as well as find out what the conclusion of the news was (group A). This discussion usually lasts for about 10 – 15 minutes, depending on the group.

6. After there’s been a wrap-up discussion with the whole group, you now turn to their notes for their proposal. Students share what they’ve come up with and talk to each other about their ideas. The proposal is assigned as homework.

I hope the description of the activity is clear. If it isn’t, just let me know.

Any thoughts? What other activities do you do with CNN Student News?

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