This afternoon I think I’ll try Think-Pair-Share.

I first came across the collaborative learning strategy known as “Think-Pair-Share” when I was doing my Dip. Ed., before I got into the field of ELT. I’ll let Kristina Robertson explain what it is:

In a think-pair-share, students are given think time to reflect on a question silently, so that they have more time to process the question, the language, or think of the language needed to convey the answer. By then discussing their answer with a partner and the class, students have the opportunity for increased interaction, and teachers can monitor comprehension.

Often–and mainly because I have my eyes on the clock–I’ll throw some discussion questions at the students and instruct them to have at it with their partners. Some students will start talking at this point; many will sit for a few moments in silence. Meanwhile I’m busy dashing about the classroom from pair to pair, urging them to get on task, silently worrying: “They’re really not into this, are they?”

Some students will genuinely not be into the topic or the task: it doesn’t interest them, they’re tired, they’re hungry, they’re shy, they’re distracted, they’re thinking about the job they haven’t found yet–you know the list. But what if the problem for many of those seemingly reticent speakers is that they haven’t been given enough time to think about the questions as well as the linguistic resources they need to answer them?

Would you be able to answer, off the cuff, some of the discussion questions you set for your students? And they have the added hurdle of doing this task in the language they’re trying to learn!

So this afternoon, given that I’ve a goodly amount of discussion questions in my planned lesson, I’m going to give Think-Pair-Share a go. Robertson suggests following these steps:

  1. Ask a thought-provoking question of your class.

  2. Give students some time to think about the question on their own, as well as the language they will need to respond.

  3. Have students share their thoughts with a partner; this gives the students the opportunity to ‘check out’ their answer with another student or hear another possible answer. If confused, the students can ask their peers for help.

  4. Finally, ask students to share thoughts with the whole group, which serves as a form of accountability for the students. In this discussion/explanation, the teacher gets feedback on what the students do or don’t know though informal assessment.

Let’s hope that taking the pressure off students in this way makes for more meaningful, considered discussion in class.

 

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When Teacher’s Books aren’t so helpful.

How often have you been planning a lesson and found yourself staring at the relevant page of the textbook, wondering to yourself, “How am I going to lead in to that?”–only to consult the Teacher’s Book and think, “Yep! That’s perfect! Why didn’t I think of that?”

Teacher’s Books are generally full of useful suggestions for leading in to textbook activities, so why is it that–particularly (or so I’ve noticed) when it comes to “Grammar Banks” or “Grammar Boxes”–they so often do something like the following?

Skillful Listening and Speaking Teacher's Book 3, p.57.

Lockwood, Robyn and Dorothy E Zemach. Skillful Listening & Speaking Teacher’s Book. 1st ed. Oxford: Macmillan Education, 2013. Print. p.57.

Can you imagine teaching an observed grammar lesson where the above is your opening gambit?

(Not to pick on the Skillful books, by the way: they’re usually excellent.)

 

#tech in the classroom: two perspectives from #IATEFL 2016

For those of us in far-flung places like Perth, opportunities to attend ELT conferences are few and far between. Fortunately, there are a lot of presentations and webinars online, and I was recently able to catch a number of IATEFL 2016 talks posted by MacMillan. I’d like to highlight a couple in this post, because both presenters provide useful sets of guiding principles for incorporating technology in our lessons.

Michelle McDonnell-de Graaf’s main message is that it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of tech tools that are out, so how and why we’re using these tools is more important than which tool we use.

For McDonnell-de Graaf, a good tech tool . . .

  • stimulates interaction.
  • does something the teacher can’t. For example, Kahoot! does a much faster and more efficient job of maintaining a leaderboard during a class quiz than a teacher ever could.
  • allows variation in skill and content.
  • facilitates peer assessment. Collaborative online spaces such as Google Drive, Wikispaces and discussion boards are great for this.
  • stimulates creativity and depth. (McDonnell-de Graaf gives the example of a student-created Kahoot!)
  • promotes autonomy.

 

Tom Walton maintains in his presentation that who is using the technology is just as important as how and why, and he makes the case for placing tech as much as possible in the hands of students. This is a complete inversion of how I imagine many teachers think about technology in the classroom: we generally see ourselves as the IT gurus in the room, whereas Walton argues technology should be managed by the learners. Given that most of our learners are digital natives, and given that we want them to be more autonomous, Walton’s notion makes perfect sense.

Here are Walton’s guidelines for cultivating a learner-centered approach to technology in the classroom:

  • Start with the tech that your learners are already using (ask them).
  • Never touch the technology yourself. (This is one I’m not sure about: surely there’s scope for demonstrations/modelling–but I guess more confident or tech-savvy students could be used for this.)
  • Get your students to create things using the technology.
  • Get your students to set up a shared online space (WhatsApp, for example).
  • Make your students responsible for tech support; your responsibility is language support.
  • Tech tasks should be language-focused, not technology-focused–and should involve uncomplicated technology. (Walton provides some examples of these tech tasks, and more are available on one stop english.)
  • Your learners will probably be more tech-savvy than you . . . and you should take advantage of this.

So there are your takeaways: be discerning about the tech tools you use in your lessons, but then be ready to cede control of them to your learners.

 

 

Poster presentations

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I have a roll of transparent plastic sheets in my office which I inherited from my predecessor, and on my last course I finally found a use for them in a nifty Friday afternoon group activity: poster presentations.

As the name implies, these are simply presentations delivered using a poster (rather than a PowerPoint) as a visual aid. In an ELT context, they can be used to help activate students’ knowledge of an upcoming topic, to give practice on a language point (mine were using the passive in describing how certain products are manufactured), to provide an opportunity for critical reflection on the topic of a reading or listening activity, or to develop presentation skills. Most of the necessary materials will be available in the classroom: whiteboard markers, flipboard paper (if you can’t access the aforementioned plastic sheets) and your students’ creativity.

Benefits:

  • Low-prep: all you need to do is provide the materials, set up the activity, and monitor
  • Student-centered: depending on your cohort, you may want to assign roles within groups–but once the planning stage is under way, you’ll only need to assist with language
  • Engages a variety of learning styles
  • All students are involved in the activity and have a stake in its success

Tips:

  • Ensure, at the very least, that students are aware of the basic structure of a presentation–but it would be good for them to know a few presentation skills and phrases as well. These may need to be pre-taught in an earlier lesson. (Alex Case has a treasure-trove of presentation teaching tips and resources.)
  • To ensure all groups are on track, the planning stage should be broken up into at least three sub-stages: (i) planning of content and role assignment, (ii) poster design and (iii) rehearsal. Be strict with the timing of these stages and remind students of how long they have left before the next stage.
  • Assist students with the pronunciation of key words during the planning stage. Mispronunciation of important terms usually obscures the message and the audience may drift off.
  • Avoid A3 paper for the posters (it’s too small), and encourage students to write/draw large enough for the audience to see the details of the poster at a distance.
  • Help ensure the audience is engaged during the presentations. Have them fill out a KWL sheet before each presentation, or give each student a pre-written question (if you fear they may be reticent to come up with their own).
  • After the presentations, get students to reflect on what they did well and what they could have done better. This could be done as a whole-class discussion or a writing extension, and is a really good opportunity for students to identify for themselves some of the cardinal sins of presentations: reading from notes rather than speaking to the audience, failure to maintain eye contact, flat intonation, and so on.

A high-support, high-challenge activity that keeps students motivated and engaged: what more could you want on a Friday afternoon?