Thursday, May 31, 2012

Review: Teaching Unplugged Activity - “Textplosion”

My Monday morning course is a “technical” English course that is actually very free. As long as the students are happy and learning English, there is no text or material requirement and no test at the end of the course.

Usually, in the class, we read target-language articles about new technology in the students' field and then have a variety of activities for discussion. The problem with this set up is that we usually have to read two pages of text before we can get to the fun, communicative activities (instead of the summarizing and predicting). With this is mind, I have been looking for a way to make the process of going through the text more interesting and making the language more accessible.

I used an activity based on the “Textplosion” activity on page 66 of Teaching Unplugged, along with a modified dictation activity. I printed the first sentence of an article we were going to start on to individual word-cards, and then I mixed them all up. I gave them to the students and asked them to tell me, based on the words they saw, what the article would be about. One student pointed out that it was a little difficult because there were so many “small words,” and not so many “important” words. So, from there, I had them separate the word cards into “small words” (or “grammar words”) and “important words” (or “content words”). Once they had done that, I read the original sentence out loud and had them put the content words in order. After, I read it again, and they filled in the grammar words.

This activity worked really well on the day I tried it, because the two students who showed up were the least advanced, and usually, they have a little trouble keeping up. This activity made the text very accessible, and helped them feel successful about their language. Since it didn't require as much instant comprehension, and because we worked with the same text for the entire class period, they were able to process it and understand it by the time they left.  

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Review: Teaching Unplugged Activity - “Predicting the original text”

One of the course books that I use for my conversation classes has really simple paragraphs and dialogs, and I think that it's a little boring to read them out loud in class. However, the information that they present is really helpful for solidifying the lexical terms in the chapter.

So, with this in mind, I decided to try an activity based on the “Predicting the Original Text” activity on page 58 of Teaching Unplugged. The text was a collection of three short monologues, where people were talking about their pay and benefits at work. I wrote the first sentence of each (something like, “Hi, my name is John Smith, and I work at a bank”), just to give students an idea of what type of person was there, and then I told them that the text was a short paragraph where the person talked about his or her pay and benefits. I also wrote some helpful vocabulary words on the side, and told them that these words were in the text somewhere. We quickly talked about the meaning of the words, and then they were off.

The activity went pretty well, and since the texts were so simple, the students were able to predict them fairly accurately. We took a minute at the end to look at the differences between the student guesses and the real text, and to see if the difference were “wrong” or just “different.” With a different text, the activity could have been more interesting, but all in all, this activity met the goal I had for it: to present a more interesting way to deal with the text containing the chapter vocabulary.  

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Review: Teaching Unplugged Activity - "Up and Down"

Every week, I have two conversation courses with different groups at the same company. The groups are about the same level and they use the same material, but due to a Holiday-Monday heavy month, the Thursday group is about 2 weeks ahead of the Monday group. Normally, this wouldn't be a problem, but there is a possibility that the courses will be combined because of attendance issues, so it's important to get them both on the same track.

For this reason, I've had a little leeway lately with the Thursday group, and I tried out an activity based on the “Up and Down” activity on page 40 of Teaching Unplugged. Basically, it's an activity where the students draw a chart depicting the high-points and low-point of their weeks. I did mine first on the board, in front of the class to model it. Then, the students generated their own, and one-by-one, came to the front of the class to plot their lines on the same chart as mine.

The activity went over way better than I thought it would. I encouraged the students to ask questions, but they really were interested in each other, and they asked more and more questions. They also started making jokes....about me. One of the low points of my week was that I burnt a pot of lentil beans on Tuesday. (I don't know if any of you have burnt lentils before, but burning lentils smell really really strongly of weed, and this is a smell that makes me start to dry heave). So, for the rest of Tuesday, my entire apartment smelled like marijuana. I shared this information with my students, and they made jokes about how the rest of my week went up from there, and was I sure that they were lentil beans? They also suggested to the other students that they should have burned lentil beans at the low points in their week.

Anyway. The activity also gave the students a chance to vent about some of the more difficult parts of their work (nothing is going right this week, too much overtime) and to share some outside information with us (for example, I learned that one of my students has a chicken farm, and that another one fishes and sells his catch to a local shop). I found it to be a very enlightening activity, and the students really enjoyed talking about themselves and sharing with the others.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Review: Teaching Unplugged by Meddings and Thornbury

I've been interested in the Teaching Unplugged “movement” for about 6 months, now. I first read about it on Martin Sketchley's ELT Experiences blog, when he talked about his Dissertation research on Dogme ELT. I read as much as I could find online about it, and I wrote a few reflections (Dogme ELT and Teaching Unplugged). Well, I FINALLY ordered the Teaching Unplugged book, and I've been reading it for the last two weeks, trying out some of the activities, and giving the practice of teaching unplugged as much of a chance in my own situation (material-driven). Here is my review.

Review of
Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching
By Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury
2009 Delta Publishing

Appearance, Layout, and Aesthetic
When I received this book in the mail, I was really quite shocked at how thin it was. Most books that I've read or referenced on teaching and language have been at least twice as thick, However, the information inside is probably comparable to the amount of information in a larger book. The text is on the small side, and fills up every page almost completely. Luckily, the layout and the organization of the book is clean, which made it fairly easy to read, despite the large amount of tiny text on the page!

Organization and Content
The book is organized into three parts. Part A is a brief history-philosophy with an explanation of the core values of Unplugged Teaching. I found this section to be interesting, but on the whole, very theoretical. It wasn't particularly founded in (or backed up with) any objective research showing how the different principles had been tested or what the actual effect of the teaching on the learners had been (besides that they were more satisfied, etc.). In that way, I was a little disappointed because this aspect has been missing from most of the reading I've done on Dogme ELT, and I was hoping the book would remedy that. While the theory of Teaching Unplugged that is presented is very inspiring and easy to read, it is basically a concise and detailed summary of what is available to read online.

Part B is the most substantial section in this book, and in my opinion, where the book shines. It's about 60 pages of Unplugged activities that can be done in the classroom, with instructions and suggestions that follow it. My husband and I have each used several of these activities in the last two weeks and have been pretty happy with the results. More on that in my next few posts. I don't want to go in to talking about the activities themselves, but I will say that even if you are not convinced about Teaching Unplugged, the ideas and activities in Part B make this book a valuable resource for freer in-class communicative activities.

The third section, Part C, is a short chapter that talks about the environments and situations where it may seem that Teaching Unplugged would be problematic. I'll admit that I didn't read the whole section because some of the subsections (including Unplugging a School, Teaching Exam Classes, and Teaching as a Non-Native Speaker) weren't immediately relevant to me. However, I read the sub-sections that were relevant to me, and I found them to be informative, especially the part about Teaching with a Coursebook.

Some people may disagree with me on this point, but the element that I felt was missing from this book was a detailed explanation of how to work with emergent language. True, the book had a large sub-section in Part A, as well as a page-spread in Part B, but at the end, I still felt that I didn't understand emergent language or how to take advantage of it with the Teaching Unplugged approach. Perhaps the authors felt that this book was not the place for such a discussion, but it seems to me that since it is such an important part of Teaching Unplugged, and since many teachers are trained in the traditional grammar instruction methods, it should have received more attention.

Overall, I think the book is a worthwhile read for any teacher, whether or not he or she is interested in (or convinced by) the Teaching Unplugged approach. As I said earlier, Tim and I have both used several of the activities, and we've been encouraged by the response from our students.


I'll be writing soon on some of the Unplugged activities I've done from the book, and how they turned out.  

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Short Post - A Teacher Dream...

I just woke up from an eerily detailed nap-dream where I was (successfully) teaching an elephant to paint its toenails... (I modeled the behavior with black nail polish, and the elephant painted 4 layers of neon colors by itself after I walked away). My first thought on waking up was that I needed to get a photo because it would make a great communicative activity. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

Catching Up on Thoughts

Wow, it has been a busy few weeks for us over here in Southern Germany. Even with the ridiculous number of Bank Holidays between April and June (three 4-day weekends and one 3-day weekend), I haven't been able to find the time to write as much as I'd like to. I've got two articles on error correction waiting to be reviewed, as well as a brand new copy of “Teaching Unplugged,” waiting to be read...or waiting to be finished, that is. I've already started reading it.

In the meantime, I'd like to mention some thoughts I've had lately that I haven't had time to develop into complete blog posts.

Student Expectation:
I'm constantly surprised by mismatch of my students' expectations for the structure of our English course and the research regarding the most effective learning and teaching methodologies. I went in to a class today, prepared to offer them a more interactive setting for future meetings (more Teaching Unplugged, more conversation, more grammar, more vocabulary). Instead, they expressed that they wanted to continue as we've been - reading the articles I've been bringing (about their field) and discussing the implications for the world, their company, and their jobs. I was so sure that they'd be tired of that by now, but I guess not. Maybe I should take it as a compliment of my superior discussion class leading skills.

Notes in Class:
In another class, the students have all stopped taking notes during class. Now, one student will take a digital photo of the flip-chart at the end of class, and email it to everyone. They all print it out, and when they are referring back to the previous lessons, I see them looking through pages of my handwriting. I wonder if this is effective. It does free them from having to write during class, when the focus is communication and talking; however, I have always felt that I learn better when I do the writing myself. Perhaps since the notes on the board are student-directed (I just write and correct major grammar issues), they are still salient. Either way, in that class, I've made a conscious effort to keep my board-work (er....flip-chart work) very organized for them.

First Language Acquisition:
Tim just started a course on First Language Acquisition, and I'm sure he'll write about it soon. I'm trying to keep up on the reading with him, since I miss being in school so much. We've been talking about the topics and the ideas of first language acquisition, and I'm curious to find out which issues are the same for second language acquisition and how we can apply the findings to be better English Teachers.

That's about it for now. I'll be writing more in detail about my reading adventures soon!