Dogme Reality

Great to see the great Phil Wade posting again on the blog. For anyone who doesn’t know the man, he’s an ELT Jack of all traits now teaching freelance in Rèunion in the Indian Ocean.  This time, he’s going to talk about how even bending over backwards to make this personal and student centred, it can be like banging your head against the wall!

I remember having a short Twitter chat with Rob Haines who used to handle the Dogme discussion group about Dogme allegedly being the ‘golden bullet’ to cure all teaching woes. Well, it’s good and brings live to classes of students used to heads down work but it doesn’t always work.

This term I’ve had problems with discipline. Students have been chatting heavily in the L1, messing around and not participating by answering no questions or doing any pair work in
English. It’s been doing my head in as I enjoy ‘Dogme moments’, student choice for activities, working with their output and a general positive attitude.

Finally, I realised that some just don’t want to pass, it’s that simple. It sounds crazy to me but logical if they get to resit a class rather than do another either more difficult one. If they don’t get penalised for failing and graduate anyhow, well, I get it. It’s not the mentality that I wish for or expect but now I understand.

Thus, we’re talking zero student contributions except for turning up and sitting down.

I think we teachers beat ourselves up over getting students on track, keeping them so and pushing them. On the CELTA we learned to push them and to keep lessons snappy and were used to eager students with motivation. Take that away and it’s not the same ball game.

There has to be a point where we admit defeat and just let things go before they consume us. In my case, this may mean letting some L1 chat pass or cutting out pairwork. My official course objectives will still get met as they are for people to complete the course i.e. attend and do the exercises. They may pass the test but many may not and thus fail for the 2nd or 3rd time.

I say goodbye to Dogme hopes for this class and put aside my interesting ideas and student-based activities. Sad but the reality is that Dogme doesn’t work with everyone and in every situation. Sometimes it can be a real uphill struggle changing students attitudes and getting them to see the benefits, this can lead to complaints too and if your colleagues are sticklers for teacher-based lessons then you may even face a serious chat.

My Dogme approach will live to fight another day but as it’s now an integrated part of how I always teach, it means I must teach unnaturally. For me, doing all the interesting and responsive stuff is what I like and what teaching should be about.

TESOL France: Reflective Teacher Practice for Newly Qualified Teachers (and everyone else)

Firstly, I’d like to send out a big thanks to all those who came to and participated in my presentation at TESOL France. I’m planning another post and a few challenges to include the excellent contributions given by some of the participants.

Reflection

I want to share with you something that happened to me a couple of months ago. I had just moved city and I was going through the interview process. Now, I consider myself a rookie when it comes to interviews, but this one in particular will stand out in my memory for years to come. We were about half way through when I was asked:

“What would you say is your biggest weakness?”

Now I’ll be the first to admit how much I dislike this question. I even felt quite inclined to not answer it. Let’s face it, who in their right mind would reveal potentially harmful information in front of their prospective employer? It seems like interview suicide!

You see, it’s not what the question is asking that troubles me; it’s the way the question is asked. I have never sat on the other side of the table, but If I did, I imagine the perfect candidate would respond like this:

“Well, at the moment I’m in the process of improving…”

I think you’ll all agree that this is quite different from the original question, but is that not what it’s asking? There’s something curious about this: taking a different perspective on a question I’d been asked many times before provided a very positive outcome, one which no doubt will make me more confident for the next time.

In this presentation, I’m not going to treat a weakness as a problem. Instead I’m going to propose, like in the response, that it makes up part of a proactive process towards improving. Confront the issue with a different mindset so that, in essence, the question remains the same, but the results you obtain are different. That’s how problem solving works, right?

I have not been in the EFL world for very long, two and a half years to be precise. In that short time I’ve come across many teacher trainers who are passionate about their work, who are an inspiration to their trainees which, in turn, speak very highly of them.  These courses provide lots of support – regular feedback with an experienced tutor, post lesson evaluation, setting action points to improve on, help with lesson planning, a focus on language awareness and language teaching methodology – trainees are never on their own.

I remember my first job in EFL very well. After a few months working where I trained, I moved to a school in Italy. Let me tell you now, you’re left to your own devices. You complete your pre-service training, you move away and you’re more or less ‘autonomous’ – which is a nice way of putting ‘on your own’.

Now I’m sure all of you remember being a newly qualified teacher or you work enough with them to recognise some of the following thoughts:

Journal writing

Very soon after starting my first job I began to write a journal. I had a class of badly behaved teenagers on Friday evenings and needed a place in which to track my efforts to pacify the warzone, where I could record my actions in lessons and how students responded to these. I have a confession to make though: I didn’t manage to resolve all their behavioural problems by the end of the course. What I did manage to do however was to learn a lot about the teenage classroom. This learning experience taught me two things: firstly, classroom interaction between a teacher and teenagers differs from interaction with adults. Secondly, that writing about my thoughts after a lesson, making a connection with what I planned before crystallises the experience in your memory.

I spent the next year keeping a record of my lessons, writing what I felt happy about and what didn’t work so well and asking myself why. In my experience, it works. My classroom practices became a lot clearer to me. I pulled them out of the dark and put them on paper. If there’s a something to work on, and it’s clear, improving it is much easier. If there’s a record of what’s good, continuing it is no problem.

The best thing is that I had a record of my ritualised practices, be they positive or negative. You slowly pick up your own style; the things you do, when you do them, which can be used to get in touch with your teacher-self – the teacher you are in the classroom.

There’s an element of self-evaluation involved. It’s got a lot in common with pre-service training courses; in fact, it’s more of a continuation of what one learns during training. The structure I’m partial too is likely to be very familiar to any teacher trainer out there, it includes: What I learned from the lesson, what I think the learners got out of the lesson and how I would do the lesson differently if given the chance to.

What about our newly qualified teacher’s thoughts? First of all, bad lessons aren’t thrown in the bin. They aren’t forgotten but instead used as learning moments for the teacher. Not only this, but also, keeping such a record lets you know what your strengths are as a teacher. We all have them, but it’s easy to focus your evaluation on negatives and fixate on improving these. In actual fact, identifying your strengths is just as important.

Retrospective planning

Now the question I’m going to put to you is this: does it always go according to plan? One of those questions we all know the answer to. What interests me is the moments in which we put the lesson plan down and respond to what is happening in the classroom.  One of the fears about this for newly qualified teachers is they are stepping into unknown territory; if you go down that road you might not know the way back.

But we are curious beings; we want to know what’s out there. Let’s just have a quick show of hands: how many of you have recently dropped your plan and ran with something that came up in class? I have spoken with newly qualified teachers about this and, as it turns out, we (I include myself still in this bracket) do in fact go with the flow at times. Now, this leads me to think: how do I deal with these moments, when my teaching skills are put to the test?

Let me give you an example. I have just moved to Rome, you know, Julius Cesar, The Coliseum, a big church where some important religious people live… well… naturally, the first thing I bought before leaving was a map. The first few days I clung to my map with my life, never leaving the house without it. Two months down the line and my map is gathering dust in my desk drawer. I’m walking around the city, taking in the sites, the alleys, street names and landmarks. What I’m getting on at is, every new discovery remains in my memory that much more with my head in the air, not to mention the world passing me by that would otherwise go unnoticed with my head buried in a map.

There’s something important to be learned from these experiences, and doing a sort of retrospective plan of the lesson accesses and unpacks these. I like retrospectively planning, it gives me feedback on the decisions I made during the lesson and the learning opportunities that presented themselves. I feel more confident after reflecting on them and that, the next time they arise, I will be better prepared to exploit them to the students’ benefit.

A retrospective lesson plan might resemble a normal pre-lesson plan. You write down, say, each individual stage as it unfolded, with timings, aims and interaction patterns. Place yourself back into the lesson and reassess what difficulties learners were having at each point during the lesson.

Another question: But but but, I hear you say, doesn’t this lead to more planning time? It depends on the mindset towards planning. Well, actually I hope it’s quite the opposite. Since I started using a journal and including retrospective planning the amount of time I spend planning has reduced. It’s question of efficiency. Take the idea of a new city and a map. I’m a cyclist too, and it’s not always possible to look down at the map, there are a million and one things to concentrate on, especially when trying to negotiate a safe passage through the frantic Roman traffic. I check the map after my ride, trace my route through the city and compare it to what I had planned out, and then I’m ready for the next time I use that route. The same can be said for retrospective planning.

Why spend so much time investing time into a lesson if there’s no review of the investment? Tracing your route through the lesson, the corners and one-way systems encountered along the way bridges the gap between one lesson and the next. By reflecting on the last lesson in this way you’re immediately in the mindset to tackle to the next lesson; I can’t tell how many times I’ve found the stimulus or language focus for my next lesson in the leftovers of the previous.

Action research

So here’s another question: what to do with all the information in the journal? Personally I found at first that there was more than I knew what to do with, so many thoughts about my classes. It was a case of prioritising what seemed most immediate at the time and synthesising it into an action research project.

If then we see that what’s most needed comes up in the journal, it can be followed up on with action research. I saw that the most common areas for improvement had to do with language awareness and ideas for engaging students in lessons. I kept my focus narrow and my goals reachable. This is important too. There’s so much out there to know that a well-thought out goal for action research is necessary.

I want to give another example of how I did this. I remember a lesson in which I ‘did a reading’ and faced the blank confused stares of ten students. I had gone through the necessary stages and checked comprehension, all regular, all how I was trained to do. Something didn’t seem right though and in my ‘how would you do things differently’ section I found myself brainstorming ideas to tackle reading texts without comprehension questions, to engage students in reading.

There’s an interesting pattern here. This kind of teacher-centred research, involving what’s immediate is what I’d outline as important for newly qualified teachers in facing low language awareness and a lack of ideas in the classroom. Base it on what you do. We teach our students on a what-they-need-to-know basis, so why not centre our teacher development on the same sort of things?

Indeed, this sort of way of approaching lesson-planning, from reverse, puts the teacher at the centre of development. Imagine an environment lacking in external support for a newly qualified teacher; you might feel pretty lost, right? For many of us, this is the reality. Nonetheless, remedying the situation doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel. Assuming that teachers want to develop, they can place themselves at the centre, in charge of their own pathway.

So why not try it for a month. Keep a journal of your lessons and at the end of the month review it. Make a list of the most common areas of your journal and write an action plan. Include points of reference for reading up on the topic, brainstorm ideas to include in lesson planning and try them out in the same classes. Include retrospective planning to get the bigger picture of how things happened. After two weeks, do an intermediate review to see how things are going. Then at the end of the month, have a look at what has changed.

Obtaining subjective feedback

It’s fair to say that in the last two years, a lot of changes have happened as a result of my keeping a journal and the action research projects it gave birth to. Yet comparatively, an equal amount has been also as a result of student feedback. Now I might hear you say: there’s nothing new about that, is there?

Allow me to now give another example, this time of when I was learning Italian in language school. One of my teachers came to class most days and told us a story, which used to be the highlight of the lesson. You see, Italians are great story-tellers, it’s got something to do with the fact that they rarely get to the point, which makes their stories full of imagery and rich in detail. Anyway, at the end of the of course we were given feedback forms to complete, by then it had been two months since I had last had this teacher and it didn’t cross my mind to write about how much I liked them.

Now, the question I want to ask all of you now is: how do we make feedback more useful for the newly qualified teacher? I know for sure in my case that I didn’t give truthful feedback at the right time. It’s a shame, it really is, and I could have changed my class for the better. But there’s a reason for this; feedback wasn’t subjective and it didn’t come at the right time.

So the question poses itself: how can we make it so? One idea I have had success with is keeping a teacher-student journal, in which students write to you and you respond to the content. I started this idea as a way of giving students practice writing informally about what interested them. Over time the conversation turned to class. What I found striking was that students felt freer to write what they think about class in this space, what’s more there’s more trust involved; it’s a dialogue between you and your teacher.

To repeat: feedback is most helpful when it’s subjective and at the right time. A teacher called Adam Beale is currently using student diaries to gather subjective feedback on an unplugged course in Spain. If you haven’t had a look at his blog, I really urge you to. Students write about their lessons in a diary, using either L1 or L2, which ever they feel most comfortable with. Now I think that’s a fantastic idea, how much feedback, especially at low levels, gets lost in translation?

Another idea is to dedicate 5-10 minutes of classroom time to gathering feedback based on the following aspects: What have you liked about class? What would you change about class, how much do you think you have learned? The important thing here is to collect it regularly; weekly for an intensive course or monthly in a course lasting the academic year. If you’re short on class time, setting feedback as homework via email can remedy this problem.

In addition to this, I have also tried a class suggestion box. Place a pile of cards next to the box and learners are free to post a suggestion at the start, in the break, or at the end of class.  Take them in at the end of the week/month and include them in a review of your journal.

Now I’ve had the same thoughts as I outlined at the start many times: “I feel like I’ve run out of ideas”, “I think my lessons are boring”, “I’m really not sure how my teaching went”. But you know, how much of it can be resolved by obtaining the opinions of your learners? In fact, taking action on constructive feedback from your students – a collaborative effort – indicates to learners that their teacher listens. What’s more is the feedback can be included in your diary and matched against your own evaluation of your teaching.

It’s fair to say that one size doesn’t fit all; everyone out there has their own way of doing things, one of the important parts of reflective practice is that you find what works best for you. So, in light of this, can you now work in groups of two or three to come up with a scheme with which to evaluate a lesson in a journal

Mentoring

Can I just have a quick show of hands from those of you have been mentors or have been mentored? It’s great, isn’t it? I remember my mentor, Chia Suan a person who helped define the teacher I am today, whose ideas and enthusiasm still remain a constant inspiration to me. I also remember being a mentor for the first time, last summer, to two newly qualified teachers. In both cases what I found most benefiting was the exchange of ideas – someone to offer a second opinion.

So I started thinking and my question is this: how can mentors play a role in the reflective practice of a newly qualified teacher? Imagine writing a journal in your first year of teaching – it’s fair to say that many of your questions will remain unanswered. Which is not much of a consolation. Now imagine that your mentor has the opportunity to read your journal – a mentor that can nudge you in the right direction when you come to a dead end – a mentor that can offer some direction and support. What I am proposing is that alongside the content of the journal there’s also a dialogue between teacher and mentor.

Peer observation

Here’s a thought: it’s nice to get a second opinion on your strengths and weaknesses and official observations can be a bit daunting. What I am going to suggest is that colleagues review their journals and observe their teaching. Take a review section including the strengths and areas to work on and have a colleague watch you teach to see if they agree. Like I said, it can be a bit disheartening when there are no answers to your questions, likewise if you focus too much on areas to improve. To this end, I had a fellow teacher read my diary and observe me when I was trying to make my classroom environment with those rowdy teens more conducive to learning. From there we discussed what was in my diary in relation to my lesson and set some action points.

So where are we now? We have a significant number of newly qualified teachers working autonomously on action research, using the situations that arise in their classrooms. Now there’s definitely a huge benefit to the institution regarding the sharing of this information. It’s grassroots teacher development. I don’t know how many institutions out there involve their newly qualified teachers in running development sessions, but here’s a thought, why not?

I want to take you back to the start, when I asked, “What would you say is your biggest weakness?” I said it was not what the question is asking which bothers me; it’s how the question is asked. In the same way it’s not the problems for a newly qualified teacher that should bother them; it’s how they deal with the question. In contrast with our teacher we saw at the beginning, I’m going to show you another:

It can work on three levels: the teacher, the teacher and students and the teacher and institution. Depending on the situation you find yourself in, any of the three levels is possible to achieve.

Thoughts

Could these ideas be incorporated more into teacher training? Certainly they are transferable skills that would be useful to a teacher embarking on their career. Are they worth squeezing into an already packed schedule of input sessions in a pres-service training course? There are already some incredible trainers out there taking steps to include more reflection in their timetable.

Secondly, as in institution, could there be the possibility of including some of these ideas in teacher development? Handling the demands of a busy timetable is time consuming to say the least. Could there be benefits of adopting this sort of mindset?

If you’ve recently started teaching, or even if you are a seasoned professional, would you consider making space for reflective practice? If so, I’d be very interested to hear about the results.

Whether you’re part of a teacher-training team, in charge of hiring new teachers, in some way involved with teacher development or training, or you are a newly qualified teacher, I am going to leave you with this thought: the end is not the really the end, it’s just the beginning.

Lexical notebooks

In a previous post, I talked about lexical notebooks without really explaining their make-up or meaning to me. I need to admit right at the start of this post that I am no expert in keeping a lexical notebook or linguistics, nor do I consider myself a good language learner. However, I have found that keeping everything in one place, using a few techniques which I hope to demonstrate below, and a bit of revision, I have become a better learner of Italian lately and above all more confident and secure in my learning.

1. Idioms

The learning of idioms, especially for exams like CAE and CPE, is vital for many of our students. I dedicate pages of my book to lists of idioms which have come up in conversation or which I know there is a corresponding phrase in English I use. What are the problems I have encountered when learning idioms in Italian?

The learning of idioms, especially for exams like CAE and CPE, is vital for many of our students. I dedicate pages of my book to lists of idioms which have come up in conversation or which I know there is a corresponding phrase in English I use. What are the problems I have encountered when learning idioms in Italian?

1. Lack of context 

I never remember idioms when I read them listed on a page of a book of idioms. To remedy this I type the idiom into Google in various forms (past, future, infinitive) and look at the different contexts in which it appears. I take a few examples and write them in my book.  The more information you have about a word, the more likely you are to remember it and reproduce it. 

2. They are not always clear

I either ask a housemate to give me a paraphrase of the idiom or try to think of one myself. This expands my vocabulary, utilises more of my linguistic resources and gives me a point of reference for meaning (in Italian) when I need to revise.

Learners of English are lucky enough to have a plethora of online resources available to them in the form of websites and corpora. In a recent development project a colleague of mine and I developed some materials using examples from The BNC and Google Corpora to encourage students to deduce meaning of idioms from context. There is definitely some promise in this idea, I would like to include this in my learner training this year, including exercises with idioms and teaching students to use these tools available to obtain more information about a phrase/idiomatic expression on their own.

2. Collocation trees

David Warr’s Language Garden blog and seeing a student of mine using these inspired me to start doing the same myself. It is visually stimulating and adds a little variety to my book.

In fact,  I found that I kept making mistakes with this word ‘cena’ and realised it was time to put things straight, so I dedicated a page of my notebook to remedying this problem. I am the sort of student that self-monitors a lot, correcting myself and being very aware of the mistakes I make. On the plus side, it gives me lots of material to learn by myself.

3. Colligation: The grammar contained within a phrase

One of the most challenging obstacles to overcome in Italian is when to use their subjunctive tense. Ask an Italian and they will rant for hours about the inflection of Italian verbs and how hard they are to learn, but I have certain reservations about the difficulty of learning verb endings; there’s no thinking required, no depth.

Having not had much success with the pedagogical grammar rules recited to me in Italian class a few years ago, I thought a new solution was needed. I came across something called colligation, which I understand to be the grammar patterns which are contained within the DNA make up of a chunk. E.g. ‘have an affair’ appears in the BNC in almost all cases in the continuous tense (past or present). It seems worth making a record of these syntactical secrets when teaching and learning to help students use phrases in the forms in which they are found. 

In this case I have opted for a longer distance colligation, based on general usage of the subordinate clause with a verb. I have heard the term ‘based on usage norm’ and this is what I have used.

So what does this mean?

I keep a record of what type of verb follows certain expressions (indicative or subjunctive) and base my usage upon that. 

It means I have a store of chunks I know are followed by a subjunctive, reducing the cognitive load while I speak and cutting out the need to learn too many confusing grammar rules.

I can keep a record of style-sensitive changes in the use of these two moods in Italian. That way I do not end up sounding like an academic in a chat with some friends when I am out and about. In English this could take the form of the stylistic differences between ‘will’ and ‘going to’.

How do I find this information?

Mostly on Google, looking at the context in which the phrase is used: facebook or social networking sites = more spoken, newspapers etc = more formal, interviews with political figure = more formal. I admit it is not fail safe, but for learning independently it helps.

4. Pre/post modification

Add an adjective before a noun and you pre-modify. A noun which has a pre-modifier can then be extended with a post-modifier. Students studying English who need to use more complex sentences could really benefit from this knowledge. OK, that is enough demonstration of pre/post-modification. If you have been seduced by them then I suggest reading Dave Willis’ ‘Rules, Patterns and Words’ (2003).

I keep a record in my book of the lexical and grammatical patterns of Italian syntax. Italian is a heavily post-modified language so I focus my efforts on noticing the types of structures that occur after the nouns. As I have no Italian teacher, I try and paraphrase the example to help me understand it more and ask friends to help me.

How does this help me?

1. I am better able to deconstruct complex Italian sentences.

2. I can contain more information in a spoken sentence.

5. Collocations in context

Words attached to a context are of course of great benefit to a learner of a another language. For this reason I make sure I keep pages of vocabulary I have found or heard concerning topics I usually talk about.

You might notice some highlighted areas. These are areas I need to be careful of because of mistakes I know I have made in the past.

How does this translate to my teaching?

1. I encourage students to find as much information about an idiom as possible, as it makes it more like to be produced. Training learners to find examples and decide which idioms are useful for them i.e. are they likely to use them? One does not buy films or books that are of no interest, so why idoms?

2. I teach ways of keeping vocabulary organised in a notebook, giving learners a push away from long list of decontextualized words and towards fewer words and kept in the company of their lexical friends.

3. Show students the importance of knowing the grammar contained within the phrases we use, where to find it and how it can help them learn fewer grammar rules and use grammar better and more naturally.

4. I teach and encourage students to improve their use of phrase structures, like formulaic expressions but formulaic structures.

5. I want to encourage students to ask more questions about the the grammar they find in use, noticing common structures and recording them in a sort of basic form to be called upon and used when needed.

6. I give homework that involves mining articles which interest students for lexis/collocations/phrases that interest them, hoping that this might become a habit.

In this post I have looked at form and meaning, using examples of how I have adapted what I have learned about language to learn Italian, translating my second language learning experience into how I teach. I have missed out pronunciation, which will form the basis for a future post.

A month of learning

It’s been a month since I last sat in a classroom in London and taught. Since then a lot has changed in my life. For one thing, my new home is Rome. Yes, I have swapped Buckingham palace for the Colloseo, and tea and toast for caffè and cornetto.

I’ve been learning Italian for almost three years. It was September 2008 that I arrived in Florence with a phrasebook and a six-month language course booked. Effectively, my teaching experience started as a student, sitting the other side of the desk, watching my teachers, thinking that this job looks quite fun.

My Italian went about as far as ciao and pizza. I remember my first trip to a bakery on my second day in Florence. I did not have a clue what to say… I paid attention to how others were ordering their bread; they were all saying ‘kwesto’. Without any idea of what this meant, I understood it was what I had to say to buy some bread, so I said it. It turns out ‘questo’, as I learned later, is a demonstrative pronoun.

What made me think back to this experience was the fear and taciturnity/reticence I felt. The latter fed off the former. It is a strange feeling, like staying silent despite knowing the words and having the desire to say them. I still feel it today after three years. Today for example, I was in the supermarket, doing the shopping, and I wanted to buy some ham. Instead of giving into the fear and picking up some pre-packed ham I went to the counter and threw myself in the queue, wrestled to the front and ordered some ham. Even if now I could easily hold a conversation about how the ham is made, the thickness of the slices or the merits of one brand over another, I still feel hesitant. The fear is still there, I have just got better at throwing myself into these situations.

Last week I spent a few days by the sea with one of my friends here. Every day, without fail, we all went to the beach and every night, like clockwork, we went out. After five days I was utterly shattered. I have to admit, keeping up with native speakers for that long is more than hard work; it’s mentally draining. What for them is a relaxed conversation with friends is for me intense speaking and listening practice. Following a constantly changing topic, full of references to friends and local culture, with a splash of local dialect thrown in for good measure is far from easy. What’s more, I wanted to make a good impression. I did not want them to think I was the quiet one, or that I was bored and did not like them, so I tried my best to involve myself in the conversation as much as I could.

‘Prendere la parola’ – taking the floor, for me, requires immense concentration, but at the same time, not too much concentration. I am not sure if that makes sense. What I mean by this is I need to keep track of the topic of the conversation to be able to get a word in. Think about it too much, try too hard to make a good contribution and the moment passes and you are stuck thinking about the past. Then, for an Englishman, there’s the added factor that Italians interrupt each other all the time, talk about meaningless topics and rant on and on before getting to what they really want to speak about, quite the opposite of conversational culture in the UK. It’s a long road with many blind corners and side streets, easy to get lost.

The good news is I have started to gain more confidence when speaking to two or more people, feeling more relaxed and like I can shift the topic, take the floor and actually have something to say, like more of an equal. Strange though that I should feel unequal when in the company of a group of native speakers, right?

Two days ago I was sitting with a friend in a park overlooking the whole of Rome. We were seated in the shade underneath the trees in an attempt to escape from the scorching sunshine. While we were chatting, my friend asked if I remembered any of the new words or phrases they had taught me from the weekend before, so I took out my notebook and showed her.  With each phrase, she said, “it’s like going back into a conversation, I remember where we were, what we were doing for each one of these”. It was what I imagined looking through one’s notes after a Dogme lesson would be like. There was a good two pages’ worth of vocabulary and expressions that had come up over the weekend, each born in a personalised context, because it was what we were talking about.

Personally, I find it much easier to grasp the meaning of a phrase and recall it having heard it in the context of a conversation in which I was involved. No higher order thinking skills needed, no elaborate text for it to spring out from. That is how I learn best.

In the past week I have filled the pages in my vocabulary book with new phrases from conversations, overheard while eavesdropping on the bus, from the news, DVDs, books, films, magazines, you name it. I revise it and add more information to it daily. What is driving my motivation? More than anything it is the satisfaction of saying a new phrase or hearing some vocabulary I learned the previous day in conversation. This is my positive feedback and I find it by myself. This is success: my internalised view of the achievement of my goals, it is the driving force behind my motivation.

How does this affect my classroom?

1.    More role play

At times I have thought it was boring or repetitive, going through the same scenario over and over again. But the only way I have got better at asking for bread and ham is by asking for bread and ham. Even if it is slightly contrived, in the sense that the other person in the role-play is unlikely to ever be a banker or a deli assistant, I think the practice is necessary. Repeating the transaction helps to make it more of a habit rather than something you have to think about, freeing you up to pay attention to finer details in the transaction, maybe even making it interaction?

In my classroom, there will be more role-play for transactional uses of conversation in the situations the people in the room are likely to encounter.

2.    More practice of interactional uses of conversation

I know the words Italians use to manage conversation but throw me I the deep end and they help very little. The people in my classroom will have more practice of rapidly changing topics of conversation, interrupting, taking and leaving the floor, adjusting to it and adding to the flow of topic in the hope that the cognitive demand of following the topic, inputting your opinion and moving on reduces to a point at which the conversation is enjoyable and effortless.

I did this back in London by splitting the class into different groups and asking them to go and speak about the topics attached to wall (at first recycled topics, to make things easier). Each group took a topic and started speaking. In the mean time I took a student from each group and gave them either the task of interrupting and changing the topic, requesting clarification, or simply catching the topic of conversation and joining in. After a few interruptions the group catch on and it loses its novelty a bit, but everyone agreed it was good practice. At first I thought the most challenging part was the actual interruption but actually it is the part before, when listening in and formulating your turn.

Another way of doing this was an activity we used to recycle vocabulary.

  1. I wrote topics on the board, regularly changing while they discussed them, using chunks of language from previous lessons.
  2. After a minute, or thereabouts, I tapped on the board, which meant there needed to be an instant change in topic. Whether the topic was stupid, serious, or had no meaning at all was not important (which is often the case in conversation). What mattered was that it was instantaneous to make the process of changing topic at speed natural like breathing.

3.    Lexical notebooks

I started using them a few months ago after a DELTA assignment. Some students took to them and some did not. From now on, they are compulsory. I understand that people learn in different ways and we should strive to match the individual’s style of learning. However, without an information-rich record of it, no matter how many pictures or frilly gizmos are attached, it is a lot harder to remember.

I also keep everything in chunks in my notebook. I rarely learn a word on its own. For teachers, this does not come as much of a shock. But I wonder how many students know about this? Of course, many materials are designed in that way and teachers try to teach vocabulary in that way. How many of them have sat down and said, “don’t learn the preposition ‘to’ and ‘from’ or the verb ‘get’, learn them as parts of larger chunks, your life will be much easier… It’s the same amount of effort for the brain to memorise this than one singular word.” I had this very conversation with a low-level class just before leaving London and they were shocked. It was like someone was letting them in on a massive secret. Certainly, I had no idea of this in those first few months of learning Italian, my vocab books were full of singular words with translations; nobody had ever told me otherwise.

4.    More memory training

I touched on this in a previous post on memory. I am no expert on linguistics or neurolinguistic programming but from what I have experienced, what I learn during personalised, meaningful interaction is much easier to retrieve from the dusty archives of my memory.

I have also learned that such a large part of language learning lies in memory. I was reading only the other day about this in Marcia Lima’s blogpost on the secret to language learning, which led me to writing this post. Learning a language requires a well-trained and persistent memory.

I want to find out which students use memorisation techniques, how they do it, if it works well for them and how it could work better. Then include more personalised memory training as part of my learning training. At the same time I would like to add more activities for memorisation to my small bag of existing tricks.

5.    Reticence

Maybe I am tired, maybe I just want to listen for a bit, maybe I am feeling a bit nervous today. What it doesn’t mean is I am afraid of making a mistake or I do not know Italian, that I am stupid or trying to be awkward. I just do not fancy speaking right now, OK? In my first language people accept it, so why not here? In my own language, if I do not have anything to say about a topic, I just say nothing, or I change it. Perhaps I just want to listen to you speak for a bit?

I like to think I have always had patience with people who do not speak in class. I have never complained outside of class about them or pressured them to speak more. I have chatted to them about it and gone through the different reasons it could be, attempted to provide stimuli for them to speak about. At the end of the day, it is hard being mute. What I mean by this is that when you are living in a foreign country, your voice is much quieter, every transaction is much more difficult. No wonder people walk into the classroom and find it hard to speak. Fear can manifest itself in a number of ways and does not always owe itself to making a mistake. I make mistakes regularly in Italian, it does not bother me in the slightest, but sometimes I am silent, sometimes I am afraid of something. That something is hard to locate but it is there. On the other hand, sometimes I have just need to get warmed up and then away I go…

I know that these issues are going to be at the forefront of my mind from now on. The reasons for silence depend on the person and can vary from one day to the next, I know for sure that mine do.

So this brings my post to an end. My first month in Rome has been an absolute pleasure, not only for the weather, the food and the company but also what I have learned and discovered about myself. Now I ought to start searching for a job again…