Last lesson at FELLOW: breaking news

Last week I taught my first FELLOW lesson of the new term, to a room of largely unfamiliar faces. Over the course of the Easter break we’ve acquired a lot of new learners, and unfortunately this has thrown the dynamic a little bit. The majority of the learners threw themselves into the warmer (a good old-fashioned race-to-the-board team game), but retreated into their shells when we moved into our groups to start the lesson proper. We were inundated with volunteers last week (two teachers and four assistants for one session!), and I’m really grateful that they were there to lend a hand and give our learners some extra support.

I taught the higher group, picking a topical news lesson from One Stop English’s collaboration with the Guardian. Current affairs materials are perfect FELLOW lesson fodder because learners are likely to be familiar with the topic already from their own reading and listening in L1. As the group includes learners of all different abilities, it helps if they already have a good grounding in the topic in their own language. Topical news lessons are also useful to take out into the real world: if we study something really up-to-date, the lesson equips learners with the language they need to make small talk in English with friends, neighbours or colleagues.

My favourite places to ‘shop’ for topical news lessons are One Stop English and Breaking News English. Both are useful, but One Stop English is certainly the gold standard: the lessons are usually fully-formed lessons (with a warmer, neatly set-up reading stages and a productive task), whereas Breaking News English contains reams of activities from which you need to evaluate and extrapolate those which are most suitable for your learners. Normally I tend towards Breaking News English, but I’m still enjoying a free trial for One Stop so I want to use everything I can!

The only flaw in the One Stop lesson plan was its level. The lesson (which you can download here if you have a OSE account) comes in three levels: Elementary/Pre-Int, Intermediate, and Advanced. Macmillan/the Guardian do not have their levelling under control – something they admit in the comments section on the page. They know this, I know this… and it’s something I try to mitigate when teaching with the material.

I chose the Intermediate lesson plan, hoping for something B1/B2. I added in an extra warmer with picture prompts to introduce the topic and make sure that learners were clear about the names and locations of the cities mentioned in the text. I spent extra time reviewing the target vocabulary, and had two assistants monitoring the learners and helping them with the written exercises.

Unfortunately the learners struggled even with this extra support. It took over 45 minutes for us to cover the new language in the text – and that was before we strayed from the suggested topical vocabulary set to explore additional unfamiliar words. We did manage to squeeze in the post-reading comprehension questions before the end of the lesson, and I was really surprised by how well the learners coped with them. That said, the vocabulary tasks were painful – for all of us! – and we needed so much time for them that we never reached the final discussion stage of the lesson. This does happen at FELLOW from time to time, but it is always a huge shame – and leaves me feeling like a terrible teacher!

This lesson wasn’t a great start to the new term: a combination of new learners and unsuitable resources is almost always a recipe for disaster! I think I’m going to have to re-evaluate my source material over the coming weeks.

Making mistakes: it’s OK!

All too often I come across students who are scared of speaking English. A good number of people I’ve tutored over the years have requested lessons with me because they want to focus specifically on speaking. A common complaint? ‘Every time I open my mouth, I make a mistake. I know all the grammar rules, but I still make mistakes!’

There’s no shortcut to fix this: the answer lies in practice, be that practice that focuses on accuracy (those pesky grammar mistakes!), or practice that focuses on fluency. I also think that there’s a lot to be said for increasing a learner’s confidence. It’s OK to make mistakes. In fact, it’s fun! While learning Russian, I embarrassed myself a lot, but failure is really part of the process. Once you’ve made a ridiculous mistake (and had it pointed out to you), you are significantly less likely to make that mistake again. Here are some of my most memorable Russian errors – laugh away!

  1. The time I wrote an advertisement for a honeymoon package (a class assignment) and targeted the whole piece at ‘you and your special grandad’. It turns out that when you’re learning to write cursive, it is quite easy to confuse ‘d’ with ‘v’. Devushka = girl/girlfriend. Dedushka = grandad.
  2. The moment where I had to play the word ‘diarrhoea’ to win a game of Scrabble – and I couldn’t even spell it correctly! The Russian word for diarrhoea is ponos, but the rules of word stress dictate that the first ‘o’ is pronounced more like an ‘a’. Silly stress.
  3. The lesson with some adult learners when I told them that I had wet myself ‘a little bit’. I had meant to reassure them that one of the students had been running late, but I had let her into the building. It turns out that a small mispronunciation transforms ‘I let her in’ into ‘I let a little out’.
  4. The bus journey through the Swiss Alps when I needed to ask a nauseous young Russian boy if he had any travel sickness medication with him. I learned that the Russian word for medicine isn’t narkotiki, and if you ask an eight year-old if he has any narkotiki,  he will get a bit confused.
  5. The chat with a wayward Russian teen whose may have seen another child’s arm being broken: ‘Don’t worry, you can tell me what happened. I promise that there won’t be a vystuplenie.’ Vystuplenie means appearance or performance; I should have said nakazanye, meaning ‘punishment’. And I had been reading Dostoevsky at the time, too.

Finally, an honourable mention for the best German language mistake I’ve made so far: in my first assessed oral presentation, I informed the examiners that Hitler had indeed been the Käse of the Third Reich. Brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘Big Cheese’…

Although most of these mistakes left me red-faced (thanks, Russian speakers), but even more determined to get it right next time. Other than sharing examples of my own embarrassment, I really don’t know how to reassure students that mistakes are not only OK – they’re helpful! Do you have any ideas?

The intermediate plateau

I’m sad to say that, after three years of on-off German study, I’ve arrived at the plateau. The dreaded plateau. I haven’t spent much time here since 2010 (the final year of my Russian degree), but let me tell you that it is not good to be back.

How do you know when you’ve reached the plateau? I know because information suddenly stops going in: I feel as if I’ve learned all the grammar I’ll need to know (ha!), but it’s impossible for me to absorb any more vocabulary. Try as I might, the new words won’t stick in my brain, and I find myself using the same phrases ad nauseam. Bleurgh.

Thankfully my German teacher has recognized the signs. Sign one: I have stopped doing homework. Sign two: I aced my Goethe B1 practice tests, but can’t fathom how to approach the B2 exam. Sign three: I moan about it. All the time.

So what to do? I’m determined to persevere with German because I know that the plateau doesn’t last forever: I made it through my A-levels (French plateau), and managed to pass ТРКИIII (the C1 equivalent of the Russian state exams) before I left Moscow. And I started learning German because I wanted to speak it fluently, and hopefully well enough to work in a German-speaking country one day.

As luck would have it, the internet is full of ideas on how to get off the plateau. According to this article, at language-learning community Lingholic, I haven’t actually reached the mythical plateau: I’m just progressing at a slower, less tangible pace. I might not be retaining as many new words as I was in the early stages of my German journey, but I am still acquiring new vocabulary and I’m getting better at understanding the spoken and written language. Now I ought to concentrate on ‘deliberate practice’: focus on my technique, stay goal-oriented, and request constant feedback.

I also stumbled across an old #ELTchat on the intermediate plateau that happened to include the most flattering definition of this state I’ve seen: @MarisaC’s ‘working hard but not getting anywhere’. I do like to think that I work hard.

The #ELTchat discussion raised some interesting points about authenticity: accessing more authentic texts gives learners more challenge, and reading or doing something interdisciplinary renews enthusiasm for the language by making the topic more engaging. So from now on, I’m going to concentrate on my reading: finishing my first novel in German (and not worrying about understanding every word), and keeping up with the news via Deutsche Welle, rather than the BBC.

And hopefully in a few months you’ll see me coming round the next bend…

Last lesson at FELLOW: from cradle to grave…

It’s Saturday! Nearly the end of a very busy week – and an emotional one, too. I know that there are still two weeks of February to go, but personally I’ll be quite glad when it’s over! Roll on March (and spring!).

And now for another post about FELLOW. I know you love them!

My FELLOW lesson this week kicked off with Mike Harrison’s activity ‘Pizza slices of my life’ to get everyone in the mood for two hours of English. This was on my small list of activities to try in 2016, and I was really excited to try it out. Due to time constraints, I reduced the number of slices in my pizza to four (I’ve got a big mouth), but there was still plenty of conversation fodder that kept learners engaged and chatting for thirty minutes. In FELLOW terms, that’s just enough time for all our latecomers to arrive and grab chairs from the cupboard.

Pro tip: the worse you are at drawing, the more entertaining your students are likely to find Mike’s activity.

Student A: Caroline, is that… sushi? It looks like toilets.

Student B: Yes, yes, definitely toilet.

Group warmer over, our teaching team split up and I took the higher group (nominally B1/B2). I’ve focused a lot on grammar with these learners recently – to varying degrees of success – so I decided that I’d mix things up and teach a vocabulary lesson instead. Our topic was ‘stages of life’, and we used a mixture of activities from Solutions Upper-Intermediate (I had a copy of the first edition knocking around) and activities from my own head.

All good ‘stages of life’ lessons – in my opinion – begin with a timeline, so I drew one on the board and elicited the word ‘childhood’ from the learners. I gave learners a list of childhood memories (from ‘your first day at school’ to ‘visiting your grandparents’) and asked them to share stories in pairs for a few minutes. This worked a treat: everyone loved reminiscing, and the activity was even more interesting because the learners’ background were so diverse. We shared a few stories as a group, including an Afghan man’s tale of walking five hours to and from school every day, and a Venezuelan learner’s tales of car journeys with her parents and seven siblings (all crammed into one car!).

I then returned everyone’s attention to the timeline, and elicited (and drew) a couple more vocabulary items, such as ‘teenager’ and ‘be middle-aged’. Learners then got into groups and copied the timeline, adding in as much vocabulary as they knew. Learner-generated vocabulary included gems like ‘cougar’, ‘toy boy’, ‘sugar daddy’ and ‘mid-life crisis’, all of which sparked a brief discussion about language and gender!

We added everyone’s vocabulary to the class timeline and did some drilling as a group, before practising the vocabulary by comparing the differences between being a small child and a teenager, or being middle-aged and being elderly.

I had intended to move the lesson on to revising life events (as in Solutions), and ultimately ask learners to write a brief paragraph about their own lives (particularly as writing is an oft-neglected skill at FELLOW), but as usual I ran out of time! I do really want to do some writing with the learners though, so I will attempt to focus on that during the next lesson I teach.

Overall, I was really happy with how this class went – definitely one of my better lessons in recent times! It’s a shame I won’t be teaching again for a few weeks.

My top 5: tools to teach yourself

There are many reasons why you might not have a language teacher at the moment. Maybe there aren’t any in your area. Maybe you can’t afford one. Or perhaps your class ended two hours ago but you just want a little more practice (side note: I love your enthusiasm!). Here are five tools I’ve been using recently to supplement my own language learning. Have a go yourself or, if you’re a teacher, why not get your students to try them out?

1. Writefull

This nifty little app provides feedback on your writing skills by comparing your text to text in an online database. Genius! The app works in 36 languages (although coverage of each language varies).

Use it to check small chunks of language for authenticity as you write. Ideal for advanced learners who want to check their adjective-noun pairings.

Don’t expect it to explain anything. The app will tell you that your ‘I expect seeing’ should be ‘I expect to see’, but it won’t tell you why. No substitute for a real teacher, then…!

2. Memrise

Fast becoming my favourite vocabulary-learning app (although not without many reservations). Use it to learn dozens of languages at various levels, on your smartphone or in a web browser.

Use it to broaden your vocabulary when you’re on the bus into work.

Don’t expect it to teach you words in context, or necessarily in a useful vocabulary set. But hey! at least the majority of the phrases I’ve come across are useful, unlike some other language-learning apps out there…

3. Any language exchange website.

There are loads out there: Livemocha, My Language Exchange and italki all offer you the opportunity to find a language exchange partner and develop your speaking or writing skills. If you feel so inclined, you can also use a lot of language exchange websites to find a paid language tutor (although I haven’t tried this yet).

Use it to meet people who speak your target language, and learn a bit more about the culture of countries where that language is spoken.

Don’t expect it to provide you with perfect feedback on your language every step of the way. Just because someone speaks the language fluently, doesn’t mean that they can teach it!

4. Free Rice.

A website run by the World Food Programme that allows you to brush up your languages while donating rice to people who need it. Set up a free account and answer questions on a variety of subjects, including English Grammar and English Vocabulary. Questions are available at different levels.

Use it to get a little extra practice while doing something good. You can even set up a group of users; get your friends (or class!) involved and encourage some healthy competition…

Don’t expect it to match your learning objectives. Vocabulary is divided into levels, rather than sets, and you can’t choose which words you practise.

5. Super Flashcards.

I’ve been using this Android app on my phone for a couple of years to replace my old handwritten flashcards. It works well, is simple to use, and the content creation is down to you!

Use it to revise useful vocabulary from a reading text, a lesson, or a course book. If you know exactly what you want to practise, it’s a great tool.

Don’t expect it to provide you with sophisticated stats. It’s good, but it’s no Memrise.

‘What’s the best way to learn vocabulary?’

When I was teaching English full-time, this was the second question that new students usually asked (after the eternally frustrating ‘How long until I’m fluent?’).

The optimum way to learn vocabulary has eluded me for as long as I’ve been studying languages – and that’s over two decades now. I choked down Latin nouns with the old ‘look-cover-write’ approach, and halfheartedly kept a trilingual vocabulary book for two months during university when a French lecturer told our group that we needed to stop focusing solely on the relationship between L1-L2. I’ve got stacks and stacks of flashcards, diligently made and never reviewed again. I’ve got apps, and books, and picture dictionaries. At one time everything in my room had its own post-it note label in Russian: ‘this is a cupboard’.

As we become more obsessed with our own levels of productivity and ‘hacking’ (shudder) our lives, there is still one language-learning process left to streamline. And what do the experts recommend?

I was a little disappointed last month to see that the British Council had tied vocabulary learning into learning styles rather than preferences (style are a myth! A myth!), but all the usual techniques were there. Then there’s this. And this. And even this – a hefty collection of tips from language professionals across the globe.

So which of these strategies really works?

The answer? They all do.

The best ways to learn vocabulary are just like the best ways to learn anything else:

  • Set a realistic goal
  • Commit to practising
  • Review often

Then, consider your preferences. How you approach any of these points is up to you: one person’s ‘realistic goal’ might be another person’s Everest and, as we know from the hundreds of vocabulary learning articles out there, not everyone likes to practise in the same way. But if you can follow these three steps (and always review!), then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t succeed.