Final Thoughts

This Friday is the last day of Autumn Term at the language school where I work. The A1+ group I’ve taught since November has gone from 8 people to 14 to 10 to 4 to 6. I’ll be teaching A2/A2+s from January and will meet some of my ex students, which makes me happy because I do miss having them in the classroom. I’ll also have one online student in my class. Hello, hybrid teaching! I’m a tad nervous about it but my new classroom is a bit better equipped for this (there’s an actual monitor on the wall, not just a whiteboard and an OHP) so I guess I’ll be fine, especially considering how supportive my colleagues are.

So, what have I learnt in the past 2 months of working at a big language school in England?

  1. Environment is the key
    I’m extremely lucky to work at a school where the main rule is that we teach students, not the coursebook. This means that the coursebook is just a springboard. However, the best thing is that I am not pressured to finish the coursebook in a certain amount of time as I had to do in some of my previous workplaces. It’s all about how what I teach matches students’ learning needs. Awesome! I eneded up teaching a mixture of coursebook-based lessons, lessons designed by other teachers, and self-designed lessons. I also had a chance to get as creative with the coursebook as I possibly could.
  2. How to get the most out of coursebooks
    The coursebook we have been using this term is Speakout Elementary. Since I had all the time in the world, I made sure to exploit each listening and reading task as much as I could in order to help my students build language skills they had problems with.
    Audio recordings in this textbook are quite natural and fast (at least in the second half of the book), so we did a lot of decoding practice with them. I especially love the DVD sections which feature authentic clips from various BBC programmes – those are even better for decoding! My students enjoyed decoding practice tremendously and got quite competitive 😀
    As for the texts, I used them to teach students how to recognise different parts of speech and analyse word order (a big problem for Arabic and Japanese students), as well as look at how familiar words are used in context. These tasks appeared to be less exciting for my students but definitely useful.
    Another great thing about Speakout is their pronunciation section. For A1 level, it’s mostly weakening, contractions and basic intonation, and I made sure we looked at all those features. The dialogues used in the FL sections are really good for working on intonation and connected speech.
    An interesting anecdote: there’s a dialogue on p.95 in which an angry passenger lashes out on a flight attendant who failed to get him a vegetarian meal. I was really unsure if I should use it with my students since this was definitely not the way I wanted them to speak to other people, but in the end I decided to give it a go and see how they react. My students said it was very rude, and one of them remembered being told off by a bus driver for using ‘What?’ instead of ‘Sorry, could you please repeat that?’. We looked at the intonation, i.e. which melody and tonality the passenger used that made him sound angry. I then asked my students to look at the transcript and rewrite the rude phrases making them more polite. This task was a bit challenging for them but they did their best.
  3. Teaching low levels is not as scary as it seems
    It’s actually quite the opposite! Working with low levels is extremely rewarding because they tend to progress faster. We have lessons 5 days a week, 3 hours a day, and I can’t express how amazing it feels when a student who could barely produce a clumsy sentence in Present Simple starts producing nicely structured sentences using the words we’ve learnt and Past Simple (and even Past Continuous) just in a month or so! We even ended up doing a bit of Dogme and just chatting about things that were important to them, e.g. education, job hunting, etc. The vocabulary that emerged was quite high-level at times but they were so eager to learn and use it. We all felt inspired.
  4. It feels a bit weird to teach students whose L1 you don’t speak at all (I only know 2 words in Arabic). I belive in the positive use of L1 so I do not prevent them from having a chat in Arabic as long as they’re doing it for the right purpose. However, because I have no idea what they’re talking about it’s hard for me to judge. They do try to briefly fill me in on what they were talking about, but still. Oh well, the drawbacks of monolingual classes. Or maybe I should find an Arabic tutor 😀

Reflecting on Teaching Groups Online

Since I became a freelancer, I haven’t had a chance to teach groups bigger than 2 people, so when I was offered an intensive summer course, I immediately accepted. I was given a group of 11 B2-level Italian teenagers aged 14-16 and we embarked on our language learning journey.

The students were really nice, and I genuinely enjoyed working with them. 99% of my students are in their late 20s or early 30s; I don’t know much about modern Russian teenagers, let alone European teens, and I must say I was impressed by how motivated and hard-working most of them were. They even did homework! I don’t think I was supposed to assign any but I did (short 10-minute tasks). Of course, not all of them were equally active, but I am totally okay with some students being less active as long as they aren’t being disruptive, and there were no discipline issues at all so all good.

I learnt 2 things from this experience:

  1. I actually like teaching teenagers, they inspire me a lot
  2. Teaching groups of 4+ people online isn’t my cup of tea

Basically, what I didn’t like was the fact that I was unable to move between the pairs/groups quickly. In a real – physical – classroom, I can do it easily and I can also hear everyone at once, so I can catch bits of speech here and there and get enough data for the feedback stage. In a virtual classroom, this becomes a challenge. A colleague of mine suggested keeping students in the same pairs/groups and visit half of the BOs during the first task and then visit the other half during the second task – this way, you can spend more time in each BO and get more data. Yet still, it felt different. The students were nice, the lesson flow was good, but something was just not there, and it felt artificial.

I’ve been thinking about it and I came to a conclusion that what felt artificial was the fact that students were separated from each other when I paired/grouped them. In an offline classroom, they’d be still there, all of them; there’d be that specific background noise that you hear when many people are talking to each other in small groups at once. And I’d walk around, behind their backs, inserting an occasional comment or asking some unplanned follow-up questions, etc. I can make comments and ask questions in BOs but I can’t hear all of them at once, I miss that buzz, that sense of unity, sense of involvement. I think this is something you can’t feel as strongly in a virtual classroom.

Distance education is more inclusive, it’s hard to deny that, but being in a physical classroom and interacting with your teacher and classmates face-to-face is an important part of a learning process that can’t be replicated in a virtual environment. Call me old-fashioned but that’s how I feel. As a learner myself, I do take short online courses but I’d never do a degree online; I’m not doing Delta Module 2 until they resume face-to-face courses because those opportunities for spontaneous communication and the sense of belonging face-to-face courses provide are invaluable to me. This is what made my undergraduate courses and CELTA so rich and memorable, and I’ve never felt anything like that on any online course I’ve taken before. Maybe just one course where we only had 5 participants including me, and this brings me back to what I said above about groups of 4+ people not being suitable for online teaching (in my opinion).

This post might be a bit muddled but I wanted this reflection to be as authentic as possible so I’ll just leave it as it is. I’d really like to know what you guys think about teaching groups online. I’ve discussed this with one of my colleagues, and we agreed on the prefect group size being 4 people (6 max), but I’ll be interested in reading various opinions, including those opposite to mine.

PSLLT 2021

As some of you know, instead of attending the IATEFL conference, I ended up attending the 12th Annual Pronunciation and Second Language Learning and Teaching conference. This was not planned at all and I learnt about this conference one day after the registration had been supposedly closed, but the organisers were kind enough to let me register and attend. To make a long story short: this conference literally blew my mind, gave me an understanding of what my next CPD step should be (will be announced later), and pushed me to start planning how I am going to re-design my pronunciation course.

Below are short summaries of some of the talks I attended yesterday and the day before yesterday (I simply cannot summarise all of them!).

1) Foreign language learners’ views and attitudes towards the type of label used in perceptual training: phonetic symbols vs. keywords
If you ever wondered, which is better – phonetic symbols, keywords, or something else (e.g. pictures) – here is the answer: more students prefer phonetic symbols, so it is definitely worth teaching them. The use of keywords only will most likely confuse them and create a double cognitive load because, as we all know, letters do not equal sounds. I usually use phonetic symbols + keywords to create a stronger link. You could also try using pictures, e.g. flags, geometric shapes, etc.
Another thing to try is the Color Vowel Chart developed by Karen Taylor and Shirley Thompson. I have not used it with my students but it seems to be pretty popular among ESL/EFL teachers in the U.S. and Canada.

2) Whose input matters? The influences of various input sources in adult L2 phonetic learning
The aim of this research was to see if adult learners actually differentiate between teacher’s pronunciation and other L2 learners’ pronunciation, and which they prefer as a model.
A fake language was used. Participants were exposed to 3 models: teacher, students, and test (teacher and student). Different voices were used to ensure reliability. For the test model, they had to decide which pronunciation is better based on the knowledge of how these words sound when produced by a teacher or student.
Results: Participants showed a preference for the teacher talker pronunciation. This means that not only are they sensitive to various phonemic features (in this study, aspiration), but it also matters who produces target words. For us teachers it means that we have to be aware of what kind of pronunciation model we give to our students (does not come as a surprise, right?).
Personally, I think that aspiration, for example, is an important feature and should be practised and acquired by students as it enhances intelligibility because in fast speech, an unaspirated /p/ can sound very similar to /b/. However, as for /th/ sound, it seems that more and more people nowadays do not articulate it as clearly as they kind of should. Some speakers pronounce it as /f/ and /v/, some go for /t/ and /d/ or /s/ and /z/. As Dan Frost said, when middle-class women in their 20-s stop using these interdental consonants, we will know that /th/ is officially dead, and this might happen even earlier than we think!

3) Talks about teaching prosody: Put prosody first and Using lip synching to teach L2 prosody
These two talks introduced great ways of working on prosody which is usually the most crucial point in acquiring a more intelligible L2 pronunciation, especially if we talk about learners whose L1s are syllable-timed. One of the activities was very similar to what I do with my students, but it was using phrases instead of numbers, so I will definitely give it a try! Another activity focussed on students doing regular lip-synching exercises to better understand how rhythm in stress-timed languages works. They would start with slower songs and slowly progress towards faster ones. I have never tried anything like that with any of my students and am excited to actually try and see how it goes. These talks also made me think that I do not focus on prosody as much as I should (probably due to the fact that my students are mostly Russians, and Russian is a stress-timed language). I do have one Japanese student and several French and Italian students, so I already know who my guinea pigs are going to be 😀

4) Multiple talks about the use of visual feedback in pronunciation training
Research has shown that students are likely to improve their pronunciation faster if they can see their speech; for this, we can use software like Vowel Viewer, Audacity and Praat (I am already working on this). Unfortunately, to be able to use these tools effectively, you need some advanced knowledge and understanding of lab phonology, which is, obviously, not taught to CELTA and Delta candidates (so a degree in Linguistics/Applied Linguistics will be of great help).

I officially pronounce PSLLT conference the best conference I have attended in 2021!

Image source: https://brocku.ca/psllt-2021/

To assess, or not to assess, that is the question indeed

I’ve always had a difficult relationship with assessment.
When I was a student in Russia, I knew that it was all about scores and rankings. At university, I realised that assessment can be different and can be aimed at measuring how good you are at providing supportive arguments and structuring your assignment. However, neither in Russia nor in the UK, it was about me as a person. In Russia, schools are doing everything possible and impossible to have as few F students as they can. In the UK, the university failed to take into consideration my background and those difficulties I had to face as an international student for whom English was a second language and who was educated in a totally different environment where different criteria were cherished.
No wonder that when I became a teacher myself, assessment became my nightmare and a constant source of anxiety.

How to measure effort? Creativity? Engagement?
How to come up with criteria that will provide you with reliable data?
How to make sure each and every student in my class will be able to complete the assignment without saying that it was too easy or too difficult but just challenging enough?

Stakeholders want numbers and pie charts demonstrating that their investments have paid off. Academic managers want proof that they made the right choice when they decided to hire you. At the end of the day, assessment becomes a tool that is used to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers. Some might say that if a teacher is effective, their students make progress. True. But your effectiveness should not be the main concern when assessing students.

In most cases, what assessment lacks is the focus on learners.

As a learner myself, I know one thing: motivated or not, too harsh on yourself or not, you always know exactly how you’re doing. You know if you haven’t been studying hard enough. You know if you have tried your best. You know when you have finally mastered some structure or topic. You know what structures or topics you still have to master.

When I assess my students, I always turn to their expertise. Who, but them, know how they have been doing all that time and what, if something, has stopped them from achieving more? I don’t grade. Grades are meaningless unless there are very specific, detailed and objective criteria – which is hardly attainable. Instead, I ask my students how they feel about their learning process. Do they think they have made any progress? What do they think they should still work on and how could they do it? If they love grades then which one would they give themselves and why?

Of course, I take notes and make comments. Of course, I do not eliminate myself from the process completely. Students need our feedback, our encouragement.

Whenever I do some progress check, I always tell my students: this is not for me, this is for you. For you to evaluate your progress and see your strengths and weaknesses. For you to reconsider your learning route. Learning is by nature a solitary activity. You can have a teacher and classmates, but your learning journey is yours only and no one else’s. And it’s totally up to you where it brings you.

My L2 Journey

I started learning English when I was 4. My mom, who has never succeeded in learning it (although she was quite good at Spanish), thought that English language was the future and so I ended up in a kindergarten where we had English classes. I remember learning animals, numbers and colours. Unsurprisingly, the elementary school where I went had English from grade 1. Of course, we were taught using the grammar-translation method, although we had some speaking as well. I even remember giving presentations in grade 7 (it was a different school though). Whenever we would have a family trip abroad, I would be the voice of our family.

My first encounter with CLT happened when I was 13. It was a summer language school in Switzerland and my very first experience of going to such a school. I think I was way more excited about socialising than language learning. Our teacher, Ms Cartier, was a fan of project-based learning as I understand now, but back then I simply didn’t understand that whole project-based-learning thing. I felt utterly puzzled, I couldn’t understand why we were doing what we were doing and how it could help me become better at English. In other words, my affective filter was way too high to leave any chance for me to enjoy the learning process. So I ended up learning social skills and some Russian slang (yes, there was a whole bunch of Russian students, including me) and hardly any English. Now I say to myself: ‘Make sure your students understand why they’re doing this particular task’.
A year later, when I went to a summer school in England, I kind of already knew what to expect and enjoyed the lessons and creative atmosphere that is impossible in a grammar-translation, ‘chalk & talk’ classroom.
When I was 14, I tried home-stay learning. In the next 4 years, I stayed in various houses in the UK and even in Wales for 2-3 weeks.

And then I decided to get my degree in Britain. I signed up for an intensive IELTS preparation course and discovered that my English was not as good as I thought it was. I also kind of hit the infamous Intermediate plateau (even though my level back then was estimated as Upper-Intermediate). I realised that the time has come for me to take my learning into my own hands. I started reading blogs and short articles in English but the main source was TV-series.

It wasn’t easy to get new episodes in English for Russians back then. No one heard of online streaming services like Netflix or HBO. You had to know places. And then you’d have to get English subtitles separately. Sometimes, they wouldn’t be synchronised with the video, so I had to learn how to synchronise them. Otherwise, I’d try different versions until I’d find one that was perfectly synched.
I learnt a lot from watching TV-series. Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars were a great source of teenage American English, Supernatural taught me some swearwords and slang, Game of Thrones presented me to a higher-level English filled with long and tricky-to-pronounce words, and Bunheads showed me how you can play with words (‘I-am-ready-to-drive-through-the-country-just-to-kill-you potential’ was my ultimate favourite).

Edinburgh was nice, apart from the fact that I couldn’t understand a single word the locals were saying. I did know that English is not the same everywhere in the UK (thanks to those 3 weeks in Wales), but somehow I thought I’d be OK. I wasn’t. In the first two weeks in Edinburgh, I learnt that ‘aye’ means ‘yes’, realised that RP was useless there and got into tiny trouble with the police (but that’s a different story). It took me 3 years to finally start understanding the proper Scottish used by people in the streets (as opposed to the so-called ‘posh’ Scottish which the lecturers spoke). What helped the most was volunteering with Age Scotland, a charity organisation that helps elderly people all over the country. My task was to call those people on the list who were still waiting to be matched with a permanent buddy and check on them. Our conversations would last from a mere minute to one hour, and it improved my listening skills tremendously.

Learning a language is a life-long task unless you have a certain goal that lets you stop at some point (like it was for me with Japanese). 24 years later, being an EFL teacher, I am still learning and I will never stop. Languages are way too dynamic and broad and diverse to be something one can fully master. There are so many Russian words I don’t know, especially slang words young people are using nowadays. The Russian language I speak is different from the Russian language my mom speaks. We all speak our own unique language. So which language should we teach then? And does it make sense at all to build borders around the language, classify it, vivisect it, make it fit our understanding of what it should be? Standards are useful because we all need something to rely on, but should they be followed vigorously? The longer I teach the more I think about this and the more questions I have. I know that I know nothing.

Unchained

I remember when I was in a kinder garden, we had English classes there, and one day, my teacher approached my mom and complained that I was pronouncing ‘father’ with the Russian rolling /ɾ/ instead of the English /ɹ/. ‘You have to pronounce it right’, my mom said. Okay, I got it, I have to pronounce it right, end of story.

I never questioned pronunciation and kept taking in for granted, even when I became an English teacher myself. As a student, I worked hard on getting rid of any tiny hint of Eastern European accent and felt the happiest when someone would say ‘You’re from America, aren’t you?’. I was proud of my enormous effort paying off.

And then the ELF concept came in. I was in my second year at university as a teacher and one of our CPD readings for summer was Murray’s English as a lingua franca and the development of pragmatic competence. While this one does not touch pronunciation (as follows from the title), my further research on ELF quickly led to the fact that everything I knew about pronunciation and its place in ELT instruction was not what it seemed.

The main question is: Does it make sense to aim for 100% accuracy (something I used to think was compulsory)?

The answer is no. And yes.

What makes this difficult is the fact that L2 proficiency is still most likely judged through the speaker’s pronunciation (Goodwin, 2001). Hide and Poel report that, in their study, the learners with audible foreign accents “were perceived as unintelligent, stubborn and malfunctioning by people in their academic and administrative environments” (2000, p.17). However, at the same time, everything we need is just to achieve a “threshold level” of speaking ability where we become intelligible to most listeners (Celce-Murcia, 1996).

Simply saying, while the main concern is intelligibility (i.e. how well you’re understood by your listeners), the anti-foreign accent views still prevail and having a foreign accent indeed becomes a sign of bravery.

So what we, as teachers, should do about this? Educate our students about ELF, teach them the basics (as prescribed by the ELF methodology) and then let them go and face those views on their own? Or do whatever we can to help them get rid of their L1 accent thus contributing to the world-wide hegemony of native speakerism?

There’s no win-win solution to this issue.

What I personally think is that it’s always a matter of choice. We can let our students know how the situation is right now, tell them about various approaches and let them decide what they want: bare intelligibility (which is good enough) or a ‘native’-like pronunciation (which is also good enough). It is they who will use this language to communicate, so it is up to them how and what they want to learn.

Before, whenever my ability to copy ‘native’ pronunciation would let me down and I would produce something Russian-sounding, I would feel devastated. Now I feel nothing close to this. It does not matter how I sound. I am Russian, so what? I am learning Norwegian at the moment and while I pay close attention to articulating single sounds, I do not get crazy about copying the very melody of the language. That is how Norwegians speak, and it is beautiful, but I am a foreigner. I am still proud of how far I got with mastering English pronunciation, but not because it makes me sound ‘native’-like. It is because it makes it easier for me to help my students when it comes to pronunciation.

Of course, it depends on your goal. If you want to integrate into local society, then probably mastering every single aspect of local pronunciation makes sense. However, most of our students simply learn the language to travel or to use it with foreign clients. Pronunciation in business is a tricky matter though, but as a client, do you expect to come to Italy and find native English speakers there to have business with? No, you will do business with Italians (and any other foreigners who work at a particular company you choose), and as long as you understand each other, it is fine.

Give your students a choice, show the opportunities they have; do not decide for them. When they make an informed choice, it becomes much easier for them to cut all the noise around them saying that sounding foreign is bad.

We feel the most insecure and unhappy about the decisions we made because we were told to.

Continue reading “Unchained”

‘Fun’ in the Classroom

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I suck at incorporating ‘fun’ in my activities. In fact, I do not even understand why they have to be ‘fun’.
I remember when I was talking my CELTA one of my tutors told me that I could try making my tasks more ‘fun’. For example, ask students to match the headings with paragraphs by asking them to walk around the classroom and finding these on the walls. It is more ‘fun’ than just doing it while being seated, right? I felt quite sceptical about it. I thought to myself (and I still do): “But is not learning new words and grammar and simply communicating in English, even though it is not perfect, already exciting enough?”
Going back to the tweet (I love it!) at the beginning of my post, you can indeed simply ask your students to choose a number rather than wasting toilet paper, can not you?
What I mean by fun is engagement, and engagement is created by a positive atmosphere in the classroom, encouragement, and support. If you give students these three, they will feel more comfortable with communicating in English and attempting difficult or unfamiliar types of tasks.
I hardly have any ‘fun’-containing activities in my lessons. Most of the time, students discuss challenging topics like the problem of the ageing population in Japan or poverty. Dull, huh? However, I keep getting comments from them that our lessons are difficult but fun because they have an opportunity to talk to their classmates in English and learn their opinions on various topics.
That is it. That is what makes lessons fun: communication. Not the pieces of toilet paper or whatever one does to bring more ‘fun’.
Stop re-inventing the wheel. Simplify instead and give students what they came for because if you ask what this is most of them will say ‘to speak English’. And I bet they do not care about all those extra decorations we try to put striving to keep activities ‘fun’.
It is not the decorations but the content and learning outcome that matter.

“I can’t express myself in English, and I hate myself! What should I do?”

As far as I remember, I always enjoyed learning foreign languages.
My first foreign language was German. I hardly remember anything about that experience, but, according to my mom, my German teacher was praising me all the time and suggested I should apply for a specialised German school when the time comes.
My second foreign language was English. I’ve been learning it since I was 4 years old, and I have much clearer memories of my early English-learning experience. For example, I remember my English teacher in kindergarten complaining to my mom that I was mispronouncing /ð/ and /θ/ sounds replacing them with /z/ and /s/ respectively, obviously due to L1 interference (since these were the closest sounds in my mother tongue, Russian). Was I sad? No, not at all. I didn’t care. I clearly remember thinking something like ‘oh well, but she can still understand what words I’m saying, right? So what’s the problem?’. My mom didn’t scold me either.
I then started learning German once again in grade 7, had some experience with learning Spanish in grade 10, and started learning Scandinavian languages and Japanese at university. As you can see, I had or have been learning quite a number of languages.
And I have never experienced foreign language anxiety.

Foreign language anxiety is one of quite well researched affective variables (see e.g. Scovel; MacIntyre & Gardner; Horwitz, Horwitz, & Cope; Young; von Wörde). It can be defined as the “worry and negative emotional reaction aroused when learning or using a second language” (MacIntyre, 1999, cited in Dörnyei & Ryan, 2015). Moreover, Jim King (2014) writes that social anxiety – and foreign language anxiety as a result of it – is especially common within the foreign language classrooms of Japanese universities (and I’d add that not only universities but schools as well).
I remember when I just started teaching English in Japan it came as an unpleasant surprise that I had to drag every word of my students’ mouths as if I was interrogating them and they had something to hide.
As the time was passing by, I learnt not to ask open questions but yes-no questions and provide answer templates, e.g., “Ok guys, how was your discussion? Good? Bad? So-so?”. Only after that would they finally say something. As soon as I’d ask them “Why?” though they’d stuck, but I got used to it.

What never came across my mind is that most of these students would start feeling nervous or even anxious as soon as I opened my mouth and started speaking English. What shed light on this issue was the Dialogical Feedback activity I started doing every week at the end of the lesson with all my classes (I’m currently writing an article on it so stay tuned for updates!).
I thought it would help me understand if I missed something when teaching today’s target phrases, but it became bigger than that. Many students actually weren’t worried about the phrases as much as I thought they would. What worried them much more was an inability to express themselves in English, starting with mild feelings of worry and finishing with severe feelings of anxiety and self-unworthiness like for that student whose words I chose as the title for this post.
Due to my anxiety-free foreign language learning experience, I could hardly imagine how stressful and painful it can be for someone to learn a foreign language.

Scovel (1978) described anxiety as “one of the most important affective variables identified in learning tasks”. Yet nothing is said about this phenomenon in the pre-service courses like CELTA. Freshly qualified teachers step into the classrooms across the world trying to make their lessons as communicative and fun as possible, and the question is how many of them bump into the emotional-based wall of silence like that one in Japan?
What’s more, hardly any of those articles I’ve read on foreign language anxiety (and I read a lot) gives any practical advice on what we, teachers, could do to help our students relax and let all those negative emotions go (or at least make them less strong).
Of course, we do not have adequate expertise to deal with severe anxiety reactions (this is psychotherapists’ work), but we could definitely help students with mild anxiety reactions, those who feel worried, apprehensive, and nervous.
I found some suggestions that come from Horwitz, Horwitz, & Cope (1986), von Wörde (2003), and Oxford (2006):
– enhanced awareness of language anxiety for teachers, students, and programme planners,
– a relaxed classroom atmosphere or environment,
– relaxation exercises,
– acknowledging students’ feelings and supporting them,
– small group work,
– advice on effective language learning strategies (Oxfords’ affective strategies are specifically aimed at reducing anxiety),
– behavioural contracting,
– journal keeping,
– slowing down the tempo and giving more time for students to process and digest the material,
– homework assignments and test assignments being explained in L1 or in writing.
I’d add to this reflective practice which lies in the core of my Dialogical Feedback activity.
Give students a chance to write their feelings down and then look through what they wrote. Encourage them to write whatever they feel and make it anonymous to make sure they won’t feel restrained. Then hand out your written reply to what they wrote with some advice on learning strategies, words of encouragement, etc. That’s what I did, and my students said that it helped them identify their problems and feel more relaxed and confident. It works!

When did you become aware of such issue as foreign language anxiety?
What do you do to help your students feel less anxious?
What other tips can you add to the list in this post?

 


References:
Continue reading ““I can’t express myself in English, and I hate myself! What should I do?””

Losing a Battle, Winning the War?

There is always this one class that has an attitude. Every single semester, with no exceptions. The faces change, but the attitude stays the same.
Last semester, this was one of my Monday classes. They were a pretty high level but it seemed that our classes were some kind of a burden for them. I tried to supplement with more interesting and challenging tasks, but no matter what I did they seemed to stay indifferent. When I would offer them to choose what they wanted to do for the next task, they always said that it did not matter to them and they would be okay with anything. They were interested in communicating with each other though, so no problem here.
After some time, I simply gave up on involving them into making decisions about the learning process and left it up to myself.
We had a couple of nice classes (in my opinion), but the majority was so-so. I still would plan good-quality lessons but I stopped being emotionally invested into these students. I would just come, teach and leave. We had a silent agreement: they could keep their attitude but in return, they would not cross the line and do anything to make my job more difficult.

A month ago or so I got the comments from the students I taught last semester. All of them were nice and positive, however, there was a bunch of comments left by the students from the same class that stood out: incredibly heartwarming words that deeply touched me. I could not see the names, only the class code. I usually do not check which class the comments come from, but this time I decided to check.
All of these comments were left by that Monday class.

It made me think how often we have such kind of misunderstanding. It is a well-known fact that there are as many points of view as people.
What I saw was a class with the attitude, a class that did not express their feelings the way I wanted.
What did they see? Apparently, a totally different thing.
They enjoyed our lessons. They said I was a great teacher. They regretted they could not stay in the same class with me for one more semester.
This kind of feedback from them was totally unexpected.
I should definitely try being more attentive and sensitive, and not that quick to judge.

What Depression Taught Me

In December 2015, I was diagnosed with emotional burnout / mild depression. My existence was almost unbearable (no matter how trivial it may sound). I was crying 24/7; I felt miserable and hated myself for being weak and pathetic. Life was extremely painful. Everything was painful. Waking up, blinking, breathing. I would not eat for days – just drinking tap water. I would have to make a titanic effort just to open my eyes and get up. The only things that kept me going were my stubbornness and a thought my mom shared with me once about children leaving this world before their parents do being wrong. Every night I would go to bed thinking that maybe tomorrow it will become slightly more bearable. It would not though for quite a while.
I did manage to overcome this. I fought like my life depended on it – and it did, literally. I won that battle.
I am not going to tell about how I felt when I realised that this experience left me completely blank and I had to rediscover myself from scratch. Instead, I am going to talk about what I learnt from it and how it influenced my teaching beliefs.

Back in December 2015, I was not a teacher yet. I became a teacher almost a year after that, in November. In the beginning, I was mostly occupied with sliding into the profession that was new to me and adjusting to it. However, later, after I got into the routine I found myself going through those harsh memories over and over again. I took some time to reflect on it through the prism of ELT. Now, I am sure what I am about to write is in no way new and eye-opening, but nevertheless…

We, teachers, are probably even more vulnerable than people who work in some other professions. We are constantly under the spotlight; we are being watched and evaluated by our students. I am sure there is no teacher who, at the very beginning of their career, never felt nervous or even a little bit scared when entering the classroom. Scared of being judged. Scared of being rejected. Scared of not being liked. Whenever we are not satisfied with our lessons, we jump straight into blaming ourselves – we failed to engage students, failed to think through the lesson, failed to (insert what is applicable to you here). It is always our fault. Or is it?

What depression taught me is that we cannot be liked by everyone. It is simply impossible. There will always be some people who think we are not good enough. The reason is not that we are actually not good, no, the reason is that different people have a different understanding of what is good and what is not for them. We all have our own vision, and other people do not have to match our conceptions. For example, you do not have to match your students’ ideas of what a good teacher is. They might believe that a good teacher is someone who is cheerful and makes them laugh while your personality is calm and serious. It does not mean you are a bad teacher. It simply means that, for this particular student, you are just not what they expected, and expectations do not always meet reality.

Should you try to change your personality and your teaching style to match your students’ expectations? I would not recommend doing so. What depression taught me is that we have right to be the way we are. It does not only refer to our personalities and teaching styles but also to how and what we feel in the classroom. Teachers often tend to hide negative feelings while displaying positive feelings much more openly  (Gates, 2000; cited in Hagenauer and Volet, 2013). What I learnt from depression is that you should not be ashamed of experiencing negative feelings and emotions. You cannot always be positive, cheerful, and happy. There are definitely going to be moments when you feel sad, or irritated, or angry, or disappointed, and it is absolutely normal to feel the whole range of emotions, and maybe sometimes it is worth it to let your students know that you are unhappy with their behaviour or attitude rather than trying to call to their reason in a calm and friendly manner.

Around two thousands years ago, a Roman playwright Terentius wrote “I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.” However, I feel that we, teachers, are often pushed to supress our true emotions (and emotions are something very human indeed) and wear a mask in front of our students. Inability to be emotionally authentic leads to emotional intensity and a decrease in workplace well-being (Butler and Gross, 2004; Chang, 2009; Lechuga, 2012; cited in Hagenauer and Volet, 2013). As a result, we might end up emotionally burnt out and depressed.

There is only one way out I see: be yourself. Be your real self. Do not worry about how many students like true you. It is their right not to like you. It is your right to be just the way you are. No one can tell you what is right and what is wrong – there are as many rights and wrongs as people around you. Decide for yourself and be content and happy.


References:
Hagenauer, G., Volet, S. E., (2013). “I don’t hide my feelings, even though I try to”: insight into teacher educator emotion display. The Australian Educational Researcher, 41(3), 261-281. doi:10.1007/s13384-013-0129-5