Today it’s been about three months since I stepped back into the monolingual class after over a year of multilingual classes in London and I’ll readily admit right now that it’s been a test to say the least. I want to dedicate this pre-christmas post to looking at what I’ve learned from teaching classes made up of just Italians. This post is going to focus on what I have observed in the Italian classroom, although I feel the observations can be applied to a number of different environments.
1. Repetition IS NOT boring
First off, let’s imagine you have a job or maybe you study at university. Chances are you work and study a lot and only go to English class once or twice a week. It’s fair to say therefore that you don’t come into contact with English very often outside of class. It’s also true that life gets in the way of studying outside of class and revisiting the vocabulary learned in class or copying into your vocabulary book might not take priority.
A slot at the start of the class cast your minds back to the previous lessons; a slot at the end to consolidate what happened in the lesson. It’s sometimes tempting to prioritise the need to plough on and cram in or rush students through something extra over revision or practise.
That said, there’s clearly something else to consider and that is making your repetition not seem repetitive. If an activity works one week then that’s not to say it will work the next week, so in this case it’s helpful to come up with a few activities you can slide in at the start or the end of the lesson to revise the content of the lesson.
2. Translation as an issue
In feedback from my latest official observation, my director brought this issue up with me as a general thing to consider. How can you trick your students into not translating every single word they are presented with? It’s obviously an unhealthy habit, converting every piece of information, piece by piece, changing it from one format to the other. My objective for the new year is to think up lots of activities that distract students from going through a sentence, word by word, translating it.
While I don’t blame them for doing this, they are Italian, their brains are Italian and they have gone through an educational experience that encourages such practice.
3. Translation as resource
Activities like contrastive analysis can, when executed well, be a very fruitful activity for the monolingual classroom. Knowledge of how your learners’ L1 might influence their usage of L2 is vital in this case.
4. Tolerance to ambiguity
Age plays a very important part in this; teenagers and younger learners are more likely to have a greater tolerance to ambiguity than adult learners. It’s worth talking to your students about what makes a good language learner and to stress the tolerance issue. Refer back to it when you can see them slipping into the I-must-understand-every-word trap and be patient with them when they do.
Students need to be encourage to take risks
My role: Not to be omnipresent, provide lots of context, provide opportunities for them to guess and share their guesses, include praise in feedback for taking risks.
Students need to check their risks against hard data
Make ‘hard data’ available for students. This can be a paraphrase, a synonym, a picture, a video, a sound. If it’s not provided but the teacher than it fosters more independent risk-taking.
Students need to be able to explain their hypotheses
Student A explains to group B the meaning of a word, a teacher can meaning check (which makes the question much less contrived), teacher can add an example and question the appropriacy of the word in another context. Group B then explains to group C the meaning of the word, opportunity number 2 for the teacher to check again and scaffold learning by pushing learners that extra mile. If students aren’t explaining in the first place then the classroom remains a very teacher-centred place.
A teacher needs to provide lots of opportunities for learners to create different hypotheses about language use/meaning
5. Speaking is golden
In your own country it’s almost impossible to find regular opportunities to speak outside of the classroom. In an English-speaking country, on the other hand, with Brits or Australians or North Americans all around you, it’s hard to avoid these opportunities.
There are two things involved in my opinion when tackling a students’ ability to converse in English: 1. confidence and 2: practice. So far, from the feedback I have received, the majority of students is not used to speaking on demand, asking questions and generally carrying out the routine tasks of discourse management, they find it difficult. But, that said, not one has lamented the fact that the opportunity is available every lesson, quite the contrary, they have thanked me for my patience with them and for making it possible.
So here’s a few things I make sure I do in class to make this happen.
Instead of directly focusing on question forms, include them in your lesson at every given opportunity. Natural, spontaneous practice of forming questions is what students need. The problem for Italians is the difference between the English inversion of auxiliary verb and object and the Italian intonation rise in questions. In addition to this, they know how they should do it but the pressure of communicating sometimes distracts them from focusing on form. Start conversation with student-formulated questions, extend with students in control of questioning, praise good question formulation in feedback. The beauty is that at higher levels indirect questions or turn-taking devices can be the focus, while at low levels simple question-formation can take the lead.
2. Teacher’s role in the conversation
I teach a group of students that are used to a very teacher-dominated class; it’s Italian education. But that does not mean a teacher has to conform to the norms to satisfy students expectations of a teacher.
1. Scaffold when you need to. If the topic is running dry, revitalise it with some questions or a summary activity.
2. Slide in and out of conversations to let each student know that you can give them some one-to-one teaching time. This is a great time to elicit some corrections and encourage students to focus on accuracy away from the whole class, espcially if they are working in small groups.
3. When students don’t need you, take a back seat and let them get on with talking. You can make notes while they know they can ask you if they need help. This is magical time for them to experiment with conversation management and asking questions.
4. Make sure they know what’s expected of them and make sure you don’t expect too much of them.
3. Classroom layout
A communicative horseshoe is not always so communicative. To my mind, it seems like the plat-pack furniture instructions of communicative language teaching. Move your tables around, leave seats around available for you to swoop into a conversation, get students standing, moving, sitting in discussion tables, tables of two, tables of three. If your tables and hammered to the floor (Phil I know what you were about to say!) then rotate the students. The important thing is not to be static, especially at 8pm after a long day at work!
6. Lexical notebooks and grammar notebooks
In an post published in the summer, I sung the praises of lexical notebooks, using my own as an example of how it has helped me and as a basis for how I planned to encourage my students to use them. Not only encouraging the use of them but also good maintenance and revising and using new vocabulary and grammar.
Good language learning habits need to be fostered in the classroom and students need to take control of them outside.
1. Provide handouts for students demonstrating good ways of organising vocabulary, including collocation, useful phrases, functional phrases and pronunciation.
2. Check your students’ vocabulary books and correct them, add extra language to them.
3. Show them how to use online resources (google, online dictionaries, multi-lingual dictionaries) so that they can add information.
Here’s an example from one of my students’ books:
7. Pronunciation matters
Yes it does. But is there enough time in a short course to teach phonemics and practise them in each lesson? That’s up to you and depends on what your students consider as important. It can be a bit overwhelming to be presented with a whole different alphabet, another obstacle for them all to overcome!
On the other hand, I pick out what problems I can see them having with vowel sounds and make it very clear exactly where the tongue is in the mouth, where your lips are and how much the muscles around the mouth should be clenched, pinching, relaxed, pouting almost. I use the space in the classroom as a mouth and we point out where vowel sounds and consonant sounds are made.
Some knowledge of the phonemics of your students’ first language will go a long long way. Not only can you pick out problems that are influenced by L1, you’re also on hand to give them contrastive analysis in terms of pronunciation, e.g. “take your ‘I’ sound and move your tongue a little further back and a little further down and you have the English sound”.
Another matter where pronunciation matters is connected speech. Ninety percent of my students are not even aware that this exists in English and are still under the impression things will sound like they are written… TELL THEM! SHOW THEM! Take phrasal verbs for example, put on, take off, show up are going to sound more like ‘pu ton’ ‘sho wup’ and so on. Firstly, you don’t need phonemic to show this, secondly, it’s easy to raise your students awareness of this when teaching vocabulary, what’s more they’ll feel more confident listening to English when they know some of the tricks.
8. Learning language in chunks and not as singular words
Latin and Greek make up part of the Italian curriculum at school and students are given a very thorough education in translating from these ancient and highly prestigious languages into Italian. The method used to do this is grammar translation, and it seems right to me that a language that nobody speaks anymore is taught in this way. English however is not a dead language, it’s alive and spoken. The Latin and Greek based tuition doesn’t fit English language teaching; but in many cases it’s a bodge job the wrong method for the wrong language.
Students are therefore unaware of collocation, learning the meaning of chunks of language and are for the most part obsessed with deconstructing each phrase word-by-word in a thoroughly scientific dissection of the sentence. Considering this, it’s necessary to raise awareness of these features directly and at least try and fight the current.