Behaviour management: what can we learn from Darth Vader and Yoda?

The WHT deep field galaxy view

Last night, as part of the SETI@home project, my computer picked up and decoded the following signal which, so my laptop says, is approximately 2,753,000 years old and emanated from somewhere in the vicinity of the Sombrero galaxy. As luck would have it, the signal appears to consist of notes for an article on behaviour management with young learners, so I’m including it here in case it is of interest to you. My Mac seems to have done quite a good job of translating the notes into English, too, which is especially pleasing as the notes were transmitted in no language known to humanity.

An Unsuccessful Lesson

Captured by the Sand People: an unsuccessful lesson.

It is 12:35pm Galactic Standard Time and I’m standing in a cave on the planet Dagobah, home to Master Yoda and a surprising variety of snakes. As I wait for him to finish a late breakfast of gnarltree roots and hassling, I am struck by a great sense of trepidation. The Death Star hovering in the sky above us is not going to stay forever: it will, after all, shortly be readying its laser to annihilate this world (and good riddance to the snakes, I say); while a large fleet of Rebel fighters secretly prepares to attack it. More to the point, the satellite link connecting Yoda and I to the Death Star has begun beeping alarmingly as its battery slowly expires, and I’m concerned that our scheduled interview on behaviour management will have to be postponed yet again.

Yoda seems not to mind. The revered Master sips a noxious-smelling juice, apparently squeezed straight from the swamp that surrounds us, while I consult my chronometer meaningfully. We are two minutes late! As Yoda finishes his breakfast, I think back to the moment I first realised the importance of behaviour management in class. There we were: a room full of excitable and indisciplined jawa and me, C-3P0, standing largely ineffectually in their midst, wondering what had happened to the idea of sweetly attentive learners, and to my clever lesson plan for teaching the use of auxiliary verbs in past simple question forms. My attempts at imposing order on that occasion were not entirely successful, at least insofar as my teaching assistant, R2-D2, and I were imprisoned by our pupils for quite some time, and eventually sold as robot slaves.

Yoda interrupts my reminiscence with a sharp rap on my metal arm, and I wonder again at the wisdom of seeking advice on classroom control from a being who wields his cane so readily. But he does have over 800 years of teaching experience, so I adjust the link-up screen while the mask of Darth Vader stares back at us expressionlessly.


C-3P0: "largely ineffectual"

“Master Yoda”, I begin, “Lord Vader: what, for you, is the secret of successful behaviour management?” At that exact moment, a large, red laser beam pierces the crust of our planet. “Is that your answer?” I cry but, just as I ask this, the rebel ships burst from their cover to attack, and my question is lost in the accompanying roar. Then my link-up’s battery dies. Cursing my luck as much as my metal body, I run with Yoda to a waiting spacecraft and leave Dagobah forever. Fortunately, I was later able to pose my questions in a series of faxed exchanges with the Imperial Command Centre near the Galactic Core, and by interviewing Master Yoda in person. This is what they told me.

“Know your enemy and you can bend them to your will” – Darth Vader

These are wise words which, typically of Lord Vader’s advice, really grab the issue by the throat and squeeze. By learning what makes your young learners tick, and by providing what they need in order to learn successfully, you set up the conditions for them to flourish under your command. But what do children typically need from their teachers and their learning environment? Here is what the two Jedi Masters said:

  1. “Size matters not… Look at me. Judge me by size, do you?” – Yoda
  2. As Yoda implies, respect is the oil that smoothes the engine of a well-run classroom. This has several facets –

    • Respect your learners
    • You can show this by encouraging the development of your students’ interests (it’s amazing how much vocabulary can be learnt by setting homework tasks based around what your students would like to read about or listen to anyway, and how happy a class can be when working on tasks they all enjoy and see value in completing). You can also show this by rewarding your young learners’ good behaviour or successful completion of tasks in class, by making any admonishments short and clear, then getting on with the lesson, and by making it a rule never to humiliate a student in front of their peers, no matter what.

    • Encourage your learners to respect each other
    • This is actually another way of showing respect to each student individually: by encouraging them to act respectfully to each other, you help them all to learn better, faster, and in a more enjoyable way. Again, a good way to achieve this is by rewarding respectful behaviour towards others, and by not tolerating its opposite. Disrespectful behaviour might include:

      • talking while the teacher is talking, or when another learner is saying something;
      • saying something rude in class to or about a classmate or the teacher;
      • clicking pens during a quiet task;
      • making persistent eye-contact with other students during quiet tasks;
      • drumming fingers on the desktop during a listening activity;
      • not doing homework;
      • rocking in their chair;
      • turning up late;
      • turning up without a pen or paper;

      and so on.

      Many behaviours on the above list will seem so minor as not to be worth admonishing. However, even a clicking pen can turn into a major distraction, especially if other students join in. There’s also the danger that, having become distracted, your learners will become more disruptive, and the lesson can collapse into chaos, at least for a few minutes. It’s usually best to try and gently correct low-level disruptive behaviour like most of the examples above, though with two caveats: ignore low-level disruptive behaviour if, by drawing attention to it, you’re likely to cause a far bigger disruption (say, if you’re leading a focussing exercise, and two learners are fidgeting or staring out of the window); and remember that, if your class largely seems distracted, this might be because they are bored – in which case, correct the behaviour, but also perhaps change the task, and find out what they didn’t like about it (maybe you’ve set just too many solo exercises in a row, or perhaps they are bored by what they’re reading about – either way, you’ll know for next time).

      A good way to correct low-level disruptive behaviour is simply to draw your students’ attention back to the task they are supposed to be doing (if they don’t like it, either change activities or set a short time limit for its completion before moving on to something else). It’s generally best to be gentle when re-focussing your students’ attention, and never shout.

    • Encourage respect of the learning environment
    • This is also likely to foster a positive atmosphere. It includes simple things like making sure your learners put their chairs back at the end of a lesson, or requiring them not to draw on their desks in class (which is in any case a sign of distraction). It can also involve improving the appearance of the classroom with your students’ help, for example by adding their own posters, drawings and stories to the walls, or by re-arranging the desks into a design both you and they approve of (again, make sure you help them put the desks back before they leave!).

    • Make sure your learners respect you
    • Just as you respect your students, they need to respect you. This is essential: for your students to feel safe, they need to know you are enforcing the rules for their benefit and that you are in control.

      It’s good to dress the part of a slightly strict teacher, at least for the first few months of your class, as this will affect how your students perceive you. Also, watch out for the signals you send out through your body language and your actions: try always to be early for your class, set up and ready to teach before your students arrive; make eye contact with them as they come to your door; use short, small gestures and use them sparingly; don’t fidget when addressing your learners; and so on. A good model to copy might be Darth Vader (though perhaps without the death grip): straight-backed, never afraid to look his Admirals in the eye or admonish them for their mistakes, and certainly not one to make way for his storm troopers to run past (no, they have to make way for him!). Yoda would be another good model, with his deliberate, economical gestures and habit of remaining aloof from his pupils even as he helps them (though again, I disapprove of his use of the stick).

      Darth Vader

      Darth Vader: always well-respected by his pupils.

      By acting the part of a leader, you’ll find that you become a leader; and above all, remember that your students don’t want you to be their friend, but to help them and sometimes tell them what to do, so they can learn.

  3. “You are unwise to lower your defences.” – Darth Vader
  4. What Lord Vader is stressing here, of course, is the importance of consistency. Again, this is essential to running a happy and well-motivated class: one of your roles as a teacher is enforcer of school rules, or upkeeper of school guidelines, and your learners will feel safer if you encourage them to follow these rules or guidelines, because they know what is and isn’t acceptable, and what will and will not be allowed.

    If your school has no set rules, or if you don’t know what these are (perhaps you only visit the planet once a week to teach a language class), it’s usually a good idea to come to your first lesson with a set you’ve prepared, along with a system of rewards and punishments for following or breaking the rules. Make sure these are written out both in simple English (translator’s licence – Simon) and in your students’ first language, and that your students stick a copy of these rules in the first page of their exercise books or files. Go through the rules with your students, ensuring they not only understand them and what will happen if they follow or break them, but also why these are the rules: how they can help students feel safe in class; how they can help learning; and that they are not arbitrary.

    Have a look at the following list of possible rules. How do they relate to the list of disruptive behaviours above? What sort of behaviours might be admonished according to the third rule, about respect?

    • Students must always bring to class a pen or pencil, their coursebook and some paper to write on.
    • If your teacher is speaking, listen. If another student is speaking, listen.
    • Always respect the other students in your class, the classroom and your teacher.
    • Always do your homework on time.

    Again, make sure your learners understand there are rewards for sticking to the class rules or guidelines, and punishments for breaking them. A good sanction is one where the cost of misbehaving outweighs its benefits, yet does not belittle or humiliate the learner. For example, if the cost of not doing your homework was to endure a five-minute rant from your teacher, or a sarcastic comment, not only might you lose respect for the teacher during their rant or for “punching down” with their sarcasm (for they are the teacher, and you’re not allowed to reply), but you might also think it’s worth enduring for the extra hour or so you get to spend racing sand sloths, or chatting to your friends.

    Darth Vader: Death Grip

    One of Vader's officers realising the cost of not doing his homework terminally outweighs the benefits.

    At the school I used to work in (IH Tatooine), young learners could get stars or stickers for lessons in which they behaved well – ten stars or stickers meant a certificate (and there were six levels of certificate to aim for, as well!). Teenagers, meanwhile, could earn stamped cards for behaving well throughout a class, and ten of these could be exchanged for a “no homework” pass. There was also a four-step system of sanctions covering most misdemeanours: (1) a verbal warning; (2) the offending student has to move to a different seat; (3) the offender has to speak with the teacher after class; and (4) the misbehaving student has to speak to the Director of Studies, who will also call their parents or guardians. I think this is generally an excellent system, though remember that serious misbehaviour (for example, throwing a chair, or fighting) should be dealt with more severely than merely clicking a pen, and would usually involve the highest sanction you have. Remember also not to reward bad behaviour by focussing on it in class, thereby giving the culprit an audience of their peers – simply apply whatever the sanction is for breaking the rules and move on with your lesson. And don’t forget to praise good behaviour, which is hard at first because, by its very nature, you often won’t notice it.

    One of the most difficult things is to consistently enforce class rules or guidelines over a long period of time. It’s easy to sink into despair as you find yourself repeating the same sanctions again and again, seemingly to little overall effect. However, if you keep at it, you will notice behavioural improvement, though this can take quite a while, particularly if you only see a group of students once or twice a week. And if you stop sanctioning bad behaviour, you’ll almost inevitably find your class slipping into chaos extremely quickly.

    Star Wars: Vader Inspecting Storm Troopers

    Vader's stormtroopers: always so well-behaved when he inspects them. It can take months of consistently enforcing class rules to achieve this.

    Another difficulty is consistently enforcing the rules in any single class. If you don’t do this, your students will learn that they can sometimes (or often) get away with breaking them, and so are very likely to try and break them more regularly; they may also learn that some students are more likely to get sanctioned than others, which would probably lead to discord and rancour.

    So the advice from Darth Vader here (though less gnomically expressed) is this: have a system of rules or guidelines; make sure your students understand what these are, why they exist, and what the rewards and punishments are for (non-)compliance; and consistently enforce or uphold them, both in individual lessons and over the course.

  5. Luke: I can’t believe it. Yoda: That is why you fail.”
  6. Of course, education is not just about developing your knowledge, but about personal development as well. Young Master Luke’s confidence really grew under Yoda, until he felt able even to overthrow the Empire, and it was a pleasure to watch his self-belief come on in leaps and bounds as he slowly mastered the Jedi art. Happily, encouraging your students to develop a positive self-image joins neatly with my topic of behaviour management: students who are happy to be in your class, and who not only succeed in challenging tasks but feel that they’ve succeeded, are also more inclined to good behaviour. How can you help your students in this respect? Here are three ideas:

    • Set high expectations for your learners, and share these with the class
    • It’s important to challenge your students, but also not to set them a task that really would be impossible for them at their level of development. The formula “language +1” is useful here: set, and encourage your students to succeed at, linguistic tasks which are just beyond the familiar, or what they are comfortable doing; and let them know that you believe they can succeed.

      Yoda instructs Luke Skywalker on Dagobah

      "Encourage your students to attempt challenging tasks": Luke levitating boxes while standing on his head, supervised by Yoda.

    • Notice and praise good behaviour
    • Darth Vader has already introduced the idea of stickers, stars, and certificates for good behaviour. Yet simply praising good behaviour reinforces it: your student feels good about themselves for receiving the praise, and learns that they are praised when they make the effort to behave well. Generally, good behaviour here means that your student is on-task, focussed on its completion, and successfully co-operating with other students in their group or the class as a whole.

    • Deal with the behaviour, not the person
    • Again, this links to Lord Vader’s point, above, about not having favourite pupils. If you focus on behavioural actions in class, not the personalities behind them, you’ll find that these latter will take care of themselves, and the class atmosphere as a whole becomes more positive.

    It’s well-known that Darth Vader rules his Empire through fear and intimidation, while Yoda prefers a more nurturing and hands-on approach. Yet, as a humble droid, what’s remarkable to me is the similarity of their advice on behaviour management in class, despite their very different methodologies: by fostering respect in class (for self, for other learners, for the place of study and for the teacher), by explaining and enforcing a fair and consistent set of rules or guidelines, and by encouraging success, you will make your class a happier one, with more productive and better-behaved young learners. Perhaps it’s worth remembering here that these two Jedi Masters represent different sides of the same Force, and that the same power that destroys planets also gives life to all things.

    Yoda Portrait

    Yoda: a more nurturing approach (but be careful of that stick!)

My thanks to Yoda and Darth Vader for their help in preparing these notes, and for their great patience despite the repeated, enforced postponements of our interview. Any errors contained within these modest scribblings are, of course, entirely my own.
C-3P0, Sector Arkanis, Galactic Standard Year 5,243,800

TD: screencast – simplifying texts for your learners using VocabProfile

In this post, I’ll show you a fairly easy way of analysing and reducing the vocabulary load of any text you want to use with your class, by changing or removing the number of low-frequency words and expressions it contains. I’ll write a bit about why it can be a good idea to try and simplify authentic texts, and list some ways you can use the techniques I describe with your students.

This tutorial is designed in part to help teachers use the texts in some of the topic-based materials I’ve collected here, though it has more general applications as well, as we’ll see!

The screencast below will talk you through the stages of simplifying a text for your learners, and touches on why you might want to do so; and the written text underneath it goes into the same issues in a little more depth, as well as adding a couple of uses of the program(s) we’ll encounter along the way.

Why simplify a text for your learners?

My answer to this is bound up in the idea that some words work harder than others. For example, in the introduction to this post, the word “use” occurs three times, “texts” appears twice, and “simplify” appears only once (I used the excellent, free Textalyser to uncover these word frequencies). As we collect frequency data from greater and greater numbers of texts, we find that some words appear almost everywhere, while others are far rarer, perhaps even appearing just once every five years or so. A good collection of high-frequency words is the General Service List or GSL (West: 1953), which is a set of 2,000 headwords deemed to be of greatest “general service” to English language learners (a headword plus any inflected forms and close derivatives constitutes a word family, like “conclude, concluding, inconclusive, …”). In my own little experiments, words from the GSL made up about 75% of all the texts I tested, give or take 5%. If this is generally true of texts in English, it means that students who are familiar with the 2,000 headwords in the GSL should at least recognise about 75% of the words in every English-language article they came across, which puts them on the road towards understanding these texts.

Here’s an example. The text below is the first few paragraphs of this article from the BBC:

The US unemployment rate dropped sharply to 8.6% in November, its lowest level in two-and-a-half years, from 9% the month before, official figures show.

The US economy added 120,000 new jobs in November, the Department of Labor said, in line with forecasts.

The number of jobs created in September and October was revised up by 72,000.

The US has struggled for many months with slow growth while the unemployment rate has remained stubbornly high.

One of the reasons for the sharp drop in the unemployment rate in November was the large number of people who gave up looking for work, and therefore were no longer counted as part of the workforce.

The report helped the US market to open higher, with the Dow Jones index climbing 0.8% in early trading.

Vocabulary researchers Paul Nation and Peter Gu have written that, for “reasonable unassisted comprehension” of a text, a learner should be familiar with 95-98% of its words (Nation and Gu: 2007, p.23). If I paste the above excerpt in the English Web VocabProfiler, I discover that 88.32% of its words appear in the top one thousand on the GSL, 2.92% appear in the second thousand, and 5.11% appear in the Academic Word List. That is, if learners are familiar with both the GSL and the Academic Word List, and no other word families, they’ll still recognise 96.35% of the text’s content.

Of course, there’s a lot more to vocabulary than merely a list of words, and recognising most of a text does not equal understanding it: in the extract above, learners may recognise “in line with” as separate words, but not as a fixed expression; likewise, metaphors, idioms, phrasal verbs, and words with different meanings may all present problems; also, it might be that a key word is amongst the 3.65% of unfamiliar ones. However, it seems that, the more learners get acquainted with words on the GSL and the Academic Word List, the easier a time they will have decoding most texts in English, whether written or spoken. It may not even be advisable to spend time in class teaching or focussing on words which are not on these lists, at least with students at intermediate level and below, but rather let them explore low-frequency words for themselves and in their own time – perhaps by guessing in context (assisted by a dictionary) or by looking at the familiar elements of the unknown word, or by using a concordancer.

Context will affect this recommendation to an extent: if you are teaching English for specific purposes (English for nurses, or businessmen), some of the most useful word families for your students may not be on either the GSL or the Academic Word List. However, such lists could be modified for specific lexical domains, and many of their listed words will still occur within the GSL or the Academic Word List.

How to simplify authentic texts

If it is generally a good idea to focus on higher-frequency words in class, and if we want our learners to achieve reasonable, unassisted understanding of a text, we should simplify that text as necessary, so it conforms both to the word families in the GSL and the Academic Word List, or to our modified versions of these lists, and (as far as possible) to our learners’ progress within them, whether facilitated through explicit teaching, or introduced via texts, discussions, and so on.

Here are the steps I follow if I want to simplify a text for general English classes (please note, I go into this part in more detail in the screencast, above):

  1. Highlight and copy the text, and paste it into the Web VP v.3 vocabulary range finder, then press “submit”;
  2. Check the percentage of “K1 Words” in my text, as per the image below (K1 Words are the first 1,000 words on the General Service List [see above]). If this is less than about 85%, I’ll probably try to find a different text, else there will be too many low-frequency words for my class to focus on;
  3. Web VP vocabulary range analysis screen

  4. Assuming all is well with the number of K1 words, open up a word processing program and copy my text into it, then go back to Web VP and scroll down until I see the colour-coded text (see the image below; light blue = K1 words, green = K2 words [also from the GSL], yellow = words from the academic word list, red = lower-frequency words). Then amend, delete or leave in place the lower-frequency words, as appropriate for my class.
  5. The second Web VP vocabulary range analysis screen

Some uses for the Web VP application

Apart from simplifying texts, here are two useful things you or your students can do with Web VP and related programs:

  • Analyse texts

  • This is what Web VP was written for, after all; and it can be an especially useful way for students to find out what level and kinds of vocabulary they need to focus on for English language exams (there are plenty of websites where you can see exam reading and listening texts – here’s a Google search for IELTS reading texts, and here’s another for FCE listening transcripts, for example).

    One problem with using Web VP v.3 to check the vocabulary range needed to understand exam texts is that it only has four frequency bands: K1 and K2 (from the GSL); words from the Academic Word List; and lower-frequency words. You or your students may prefer to use the Web VP BNC-20 application, which analyses and colour-codes texts according to a 20-band frequency list from the British National Corpus (note, Web VP BNC-20 doesn’t include the Academic Words List). You can access the BNC-20k word lists here.

  • Analyse your learners’ texts

  • If your students submit digital versions of first or final drafts of their written work, you or they can copy and paste these into Web VPs v.3 or BNC-20 to see the level of their written production. The more advanced the student’s English lexicon, the greater the number of words outside the K1 and K2 ranges, or outside the first 2,000 most frequent words of the BNC-20 list. An intermediate-level learner’s written work might have 15% of its different words (called “word types” or “types” in the Web VP programs) outside K1 and K2, for instance. Note that your students will need to submit texts of 300 words or more to get a statistically relevant result, however!

    You or your students can check their work regularly over a longer period of time (say, 10 months) to chart their progress towards proficiency. Note, though, that this method generally records a slower progress than either the (receptive) Vocabulary Levels Test or the Productive Levels Test (Laufer and Paribakht: 1998, Laufer: 1998), and it will definitely record a slower progress than that measured in any regular progress tests you devise for your class, so don’t let your students get too disheartened if you use this approach, and don’t only use this one way of measuring vocabulary development!

Laufer, B The development of passive and active vocabulary in a second language: same or different? (Applied Linguistics vol.12, 1998, pp. 255-271)

Laufer, B and Paribakht, TS, Relationship between passive and active vocabularies: effects of language learning context (Language Learning vol. 48, 1998, pp. 365-391)

Nation, Paul and Gu, Peter Yongqi, Focus on Vocabulary (Sydney: Macquarie University Press, 2007).

TD: Building a personal learning network

Following on from a previous blog post, which discussed seven ways you can develop as a teacher whilst planning (and thinking about planning) your classes, I’ve decided here to write about how you can develop a personal learning network – a multi-faceted network of resources to help you continue your development as a teacher. I’m not sure about any of my readers, but I can be quite a terrible procrastinator, so I’ve also included some tips and advice that help me actually focus and study: hopefully, some will be of use to you as well.

Stage One: Getting Organised

Stage Two: Find Resources

This is where your “personal learning network” (or PLN) comes in. Really, a PLN is just a fancy way of talking about a developing collection of materials and methods you regularly use to learn new information and consolidate what you already know (it’s also a lot quicker to say). I have a list of the TEFL blogs I browse most regularly (for interesting, new lesson ideas, as well as for new classroom techniques and cool, online tools I can try out with my classes); and I also recommend getting hold of a free RSS reader (I use an old version of NetNewsWire) so you can read these blogs without having to laboriously visit each of their pages online.

Apart from blogs, Twitter can be a very useful resource – perhaps, especially, #ELTChat, which is a weekly online forum of EFL teachers exchanging ideas and resources on a pre-arranged theme. The chats take place every Wednesday for one hour, at noon (London time) and again at 9pm; and you can visit the ELTChat website here for more information. There are also various free discussion boards around the internet dedicated to TEFL matters. One I like is the ELT Dogme board at Yahoo! Groups.

There are some other excellent, free resources: online magazines like Humanising Language Teaching; the series of articles on aspects of English language teaching, videos, conference calendars and webinars hosted by the British Council; the BBC World Service’s page for EFL teachers; and so on. I keep lists of particular favourite resources for vocabulary, pronunciation, speaking, listening, reading and writing; and you could also look at Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day, which is a splendid compendium of websites for EFL teachers and students. Finally, YouTube, Vimeo and iTunesU can be great places to find recordings of talks and seminars by various EFL luminaries: for example, you can watch Scott Thornbury being interviewed about Dogme, or Jim Scrivener’s IATEFL lecture on using situational presentations to teach grammar and vocabulary.

Besides all the free stuff, you might like to subscribe to magazines like English Teaching Professional or Modern English Teacher (ET Professional seems to have a far more extensive and easily-searchable archive if you get the online subscription, which seems strange to me seeing as they’re both published by the same company), or more academic collections such as the excellent ELT Journal, the digital subscription to which allows you to browse and download their complete archive (thereby being one of the best TEFL bargains I’ve ever seen), as well as preview some forthcoming articles. And, of course, there’s a huge amount of really good ELT books out there – the trouble is, they’re mostly quite expensive to buy in print, and usually unavailable (at least, legally) in digital form. Hopefully, this situation will soon change.

Stage Three: Make Effective Notes

There are many good books and online articles (for instance, see here and here) explaining how you might do this, so I don’t intend to labour the point here. A good approach to studying reading material (which works well for me) is as follows:

  1. sketch out what you already know about the topic, either as a spider diagram or a list (this is list A, and should take no more than 5 – 10 minutes);
  2. skim through the article or book (sub-)chapter, focussing on the main points (5 minutes);
  3. make a quick list or spider diagram (B) of what you’ve noticed so far – try to visualise how the information hangs together (5 minutes maximum);
  4. read the article/book chapter more carefully, this time highlighting key passages and making marginal notes;
  5. write another list or diagram (C), then compare it with B and see if you can join them together, visualising how the information connects (5 – 10 minutes);
  6. read the article again, checking for any key points you’ve missed;
  7. sketch out a final spider diagram or list (D) summarising the article, then compare it with your B+C sketch and try to combine them, visualising the connections (5 – 10 minutes);
  8. compare your B+C+D sketch with A, and try to join them together, picturing how they coincide (5 – 10 minutes).

This seems like a pretty (and perhaps overly) involved way of conducting research; its advantages are that you are revising material as you’re studying it, you fit in the new information with what you already know about a particular topic (which helps to remember it), you get a good overview of the text before you read it in detail, you’re engaging your visual memory (which is particularly powerful), and there is a variety of tasks, which (hopefully) helps keep the study period interesting as well as focussed. It’s a good idea to experiment with the above approach to discover what suits you – and remember always to adapt your approach to the material (the above method really would be overkill if the article you wanted to read was a mere five paragraphs, for instance).

Stage Four: Revise Your Notes

For every hour of new material you study, I recommend setting aside an hour to revise it. This revision hour is best spread out over a week: 20 minutes to half-an-hour one day after your initial study period; 20 minutes two days after that; and 20 minutes a week later.

A good way to start each revision session is to sketch out what you remember from your initial study period, then compare it with the final (A+B+C+D) sketch you made at the end of that session, and try to remake that final sketch (or even add to it, now that you’ve had time to digest the material). If you do this, you’ll probably find you don’t need 20 minutes by the end of the week, but perhaps only 5 or 10.

After that first week, it’s a good idea to revisit your notes (again, begin by sketching what you remember before you look at them) after 2 or 3 weeks, then again one month after that, and finally 3 months after that. This way, you should find that what you’ve studied gets transferred from working into long-term memory. You’ll never remember to go through all these steps, of course, so I highly recommend using some kind of diary or calendar to help you! If you like, you can turn the act of revision into a game, with rewards (and, perhaps, penalties), to keep it fresh and interesting. Again, remember the importance of flexibility: it doesn’t really matter if your first revision period isn’t exactly 24 hours after your initial period of study, and so on – though it shouldn’t be much later.

Stage Five: Share Your Knowledge!

This is perhaps the most rewarding stage. It feels great to be able to share what you’ve learnt (as long as your students are appreciative!) and we’re lucky that there are so many free ways to do this., Typepad, Blogger, Edublogs, and Tumblr (amongst many other companies) all offer free blog platforms for you to spread your particular word; you could also post on discussion boards, Tweet resources and ideas, contribute to TEFL journals (like Humanising Language Teaching, above), make and share new materials based on ideas you’ve digested, and so on. The world is your shrimp, or whatever it is.

Sources: Apart from the psychological studies referenced above, I’ve adapted various ideas from The Mind Map Book by Tony and Barry Buzan, Use Your Head by Tony Buzan, Study!: A Guide to Effective Learning, Revision and Examination Techniques, by Robert Barrass, and Study Skills for Dummies, by Doreen du Boulay.

7 ways of developing as a teacher

teacher autonomy wordle

Inspired by Scott Thornbury’s recent reflections on teacher autonomy, I thought I’d make a list of things that can help you become a more autonomous teacher – or even “graduate” to teaching unplugged ;-)

My list got a bit out of hand, so I’ve broken it down into parts: below, I’ve listed some things you can do when planning, and thinking about planning, your classes.
The downside of doing any of these things is that they take time, and you are unlikely to be paid for this time; the upside is that you will undoubtedly develop as a teacher, which can make you more valuable to your school and should eventually lead to better and more job opportunities elsewhere.

    When planning lessons

  1. Create your own materials
  2. This could be a boardgame revising language from the week’s lessons; a table of functional language used in a social situation relevant to your learners; drawings to accompany a story you’ll tell your class (for example, about your morning routine); and so on.

    There are lots of online resources to help you. I have a post here about different ways you can use the program Wordle; you may also want to use some of the online programs and resources here (for speaking lessons or practice), here (writing) or here (for vocabulary work) to create materials.

    As you monitor how your students are using your materials in class, reflect on what works and what needs improvement, and when the activity has finished, you can ask your students (in English) what suggestions they have for further improvement. This will benefit you and them (the materials you create for them can become increasingly tailored to their needs and interests, and they should derive motivation from knowing they are helping create classroom materials).

  3. Prepare to use some authentic materials
  4. There’s a huge swathe of interesting materials you can find online, as well as English ads, newspapers, songs, and so on. I have a list of online materials for high-level students here, and more general collections here (for reading) and here (listening).

  5. Make time for feedback from your students
  6. It’s a good idea anyway at the end of a lesson to allow a few minutes for your students to reflect on what they enjoyed and didn’t like so much about the lesson, and on what they feel they’ve achieved. If you like, you could photocopy a sheet with sentence stems (“I liked…”, “I didn’t like…”, “Today, I learnt…”) or happy/sad faces you can give to your students for this purpose. You could collect in these sheets and use them when planning future lessons, or use them to start a class discussion about what you and they have done that day, and what your students would like to do in your next lesson(s) together.

  7. Research a grammar point
  8. If you’re using a coursebook or syllabus, what grammar point will you be covering in your next lesson? Research it online or via books (I like Tony Penston’s Concise Grammar for English Language Teachers, Michael Swann’s Practical English Usage, and Martin Parrott’s Grammar for English Language Teachers) and think about different ways you can present it in class.

    You can also read more widely about grammar and different ways of approaching it, which might dramatically alter the way you teach. There are interesting discussions to be had on pragmatics and discourse analysis, for instance; and Michael Lewis’ The English Verb, which examines how verb structure affects meaning in English, has had a big influence on the way I introduce and revise English verbs with my students.

  9. Try a new teaching method or technique
  10. I spent two months after my CELTA using very little other than PPP; both my students and myself came to find this technique dull – and, fortunately, I had access to enough resources to experiment with different ideas and grow away from what was swiftly becoming a stale approach. If you find yourself in the same boat, have a look at a few of the different methods you could adopt, or experiment with any or all of task-based learning, community language learning, suggestopedia, the silent way, the jigsaw classroom, total physical response, or even content and language integrated learning. Find out from your students and from your own observations what works with them and what doesn’t, and adapt accordingly, and never be afraid to experiment with new techniques.

  11. Become a psychologist
  12. Many of the teaching approaches mentioned above were inspired by research into how people learn languages, and from educational psychology more generally. By finding out about this research, they become less strange or apparently arbitrary, and you are better able to critically assess them. Perhaps most importantly, you can also use research into learning, and how people learn languages, to create your own approach to teaching English.

    There are two excellent overviews of educational psychology by Anita Woolfolk and Robert Slavin (here and here, respectively), which I highly recommend reading, and a good, active wiki on the psychology of classroom learning and management here. Vivian Cook has written a handy introduction to research in second language acquisition and how it can relate to classroom practice (Second Language Learning and Language Teaching); and Cambridge University Press publish a very useful series on psychology, studies in second language acquisition and language teaching, which you can see here.

  13. Adopt a critical stance to the methods you encounter, to your classroom materials, and to your classes
  14. This is perhaps the most important thing. All the research above, the various methodologies created and recommended by psychologists, teachers, applied linguists and SLA researchers, the coursebooks you’ll encounter, the materials and resources you’ll find online, the lessons you create for your students, and the dynamics of your class itself – they all require your critical evaluation. Not all methods will work with all students; some approaches, theories and hypotheses are based on hot air or hokum; coursebooks often seem to bear little or no relation to what researchers would call best practice; and so on. Most of us want to do the best by our students, and to be the best teachers we can be; but it’s worth bearing in mind how young empirical psychology, applied linguistics and SLA research are, and that, fundamentally, no-one really knows how we learn a language or how best to teach it. We can, however, look at the research and discover what seems to work quite well and what does not.

Correcting written work in the ESL classroom

In my last two posts, I discussed ways of giving immediate and delayed feedback. Below, I look at how we might correct ESL students’ written work.

Correcting written work
As per my previous post, it’s important not to correct every error you see when marking students’ written work. Think about your student’s level: what mistakes might they be able to correct themselves? What should they be looking to correct at this level? Also remember to praise good work, and good efforts; and, if appropriate, it’s a good idea to respond personally to the work – were there any interesting ideas mentioned? What did you like about it? Write a sentence or two to let your students know! It’s also important to look for words and expressions your students could have used when reading their written work: by noting (some of) these, you can help your student build their vocabulary, especially if they incorporate some of your suggestions in their subsequent draft(s).

Immediate v delayed correction
If you have set up a writing activity, you can monitor your students as they work and give advice and corrections there and then. Personally, I avoid making corrections if my students are in mid-flow, as I find it activates their more critical turns of mind and stops their creativity. However, it seems useful to give such feedback as they reach the end of a writing task, or have reached a pause in between creative bursts.

If the writing was for homework, or if you collect your students’ work at the end of a writing activity, you can give delayed correction. Rather than laboriously work through each of your students’ texts, writing corrections in full and leaving feedback, a quicker and better option might be to use symbols to make corrections, as in those on the corrections sheet I often use with upper-intermediate + students, below. Make sure your students have a copy of the corrections sheet as well! Apart from saving you time, using symbols for correction stops you from simply rewriting your students’ sentences, thus forcing them to think about the mistakes they have made and attempt their own corrections.

Homework Correction Key

You can also give delayed correction in class: either give your students their work back, with symbols to show mistakes, and ask them to work in pairs to discuss how they would change their texts, and to make those changes – or, with higher levels (say, good intermediate and above), simply ask your students to swap papers and check the work in front of them for spelling, grammar, punctuation and/or vocabulary errors. Make sure you ask them to note anything they like about the work – either the language or the ideas within it – and that they share this with their partner when they are ready to give feedback. Remember that you can help your students here, and look at the text again afterwards.

When you have finished giving feedback, it will generally be very useful for your students to rewrite their text, incorporating the changes they and you have made. This could be done for homework, or you could even put your students into groups and ask them to pool their ideas and write a group text on the same theme, in class. Again, you should monitor and help your students with this activity.

Other ways of giving delayed correction to written work
If you have time, and if your students’ texts are short, you could rewrite them, making them sound natural for you. Give back their own versions and yours and ask them to look through the two texts, underlining any differences and then discussing with a partner why the changes might have been made.

You could also type up various good/mistaken sentences from your students’ work, all on one piece of paper, and then, in the next class or the next day, try one of the activities in Way 1 of giving delayed correction, above.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to my friend Tim McLeish for reminding me of the importance of listening for what your students could have said as much as what they did say when preparing for delayed correction; and thanks to David Riddell, whose book Teach Yourself Teaching English As A Foreign Language reminded me of some error correction basics for this article, and which helped me enormously when I first started teaching back in 2006.