Back to Basics

It’s easy to get mired in details at the beginning of the semester, so here is a round-up of posts on some core basics of good ESL teaching:

 

Prepping

Three-Phase Lesson Planning – I do it, we do it, you do it

Students Will Be Able To… – focusing on what students will be doing

Reducing Teacher Talk – saying less is valuable. Plan it in.

 

Teaching the Students

Frequent, Low-Stakes Quizzing – find out for sure what they got out of the lesson

Connecting Syllabus and Student – feedback and supporting top-down learning

 

Reflective Teaching

“You’re Too Hard On Yourself!” – am I? Reflection isn’t criticism, it’s honesty.

Beginning with the End in Mind – the end is coming! Get ready!

 

You’re reading Back to Basics, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

 

 

 

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Humbling Moment: Healthy Breakfast

About eight years ago, in the learning center in Minnesota, one of my volunteers and I had a humbling moment.

This particular volunteer was not only extremely well-qualified, but a joy to work with for me and the students alike. And because wherever she went she was always one of the few volunteers with years of experience and an MA TESOL, she was always asked to teach Advanced. After years of this in various programs, she asked me if she could switch to beginning.

With some schedule wrangling, I made it happen, and my fabulous volunteer happily went in to teach beginning English for the first time in ages, excited to be working on basic meal and nutrition vocabulary instead of the intricacies of modals and such for once.

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When we all reconvened after classes, she bashfully handed me the sign-in sheet she had passed around the class.

It said, in the handwriting of eight different students:

Attendance (Monday)

Maria
Ahmed
Fatuma
Ayaan
Luis
Healthy Breakfast
Pa
Hyun Mee

It’s humbling to realize that one of your students is (and thus likely has been) so lost that she doesn’t recognize an attendance sheet and probably also doesn’t understand what the words are that she’s copying off the board with great intensity.

As the library was shutting down around us, we wrote notes for the next day’s teacher and brainstormed a plan for supporting this student more effectively during class.

Inadvertent formative assessment, and a reminder that great teaching begins again every day not with the content of our lessons, the brightness of our enthusiasm, or the years of our experience, but where our particular learners are.

 

Photo Credit: jules on Flickr

You’re reading Humbling Moment: Healthy Breakfast, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

Formative Assessment in Action

I’m still subbing for an advanced academic reading course and really enjoying it. I still don’t love following someone else’s lesson plan or having only one class session in mind while I teach, but it’s worth it to be back in the classroom for a bit.

They’re reading the novel A Man Called Ove, and there was a quiz ready on Canvas for the students to take last week. It was just four short-answer questions that would quickly show if anyone hadn’t done the reading.

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I warned them about it first session last week, and then second session I handed it out and gave them about 15 minutes to complete it. I intended to quick grade them as they were handed in.

That “quick grade them” plan went out the window almost immediately when I made several discoveries:

  1. Some students were flagrantly borrowing their neighbors’ work. I did the usual to get them to stop, including rather ostentatiously watching them take the quiz and not doing anything else. Is it just me, or is a short-answer quiz really not the ideal format for the stealthy copying of answers?
  2. There were many “gray area” answers, which are very subjective to grade. I didn’t think that as a substitute it was my place to make judgment calls about the specifics of scoring.
  3. There were enough wrong incomplete answers, and enough people sneaking answers from the folks next to them, that it was clear that many students did not have stellar comprehension of these 23 pages.

So instead of grading, I reigned in and closely monitored the “quiz by committee” proponents while planning in my head how to adjust the lesson plan. I changed it to address the evident confusion about what happened in the novel’s first three chapters.

A pretty classic case of formative assessment providing feedback that allows the lesson to meet the students where they actually are.

 

Photo Credit: mer chau on Flickr

You’re reading Formative Assessment in Action, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

 

Frequent, Low-Stakes Quizzing

5533236567_6f29870f4b_zStill thinking a lot about student feedback around here, and one great way to get a feel for how students are doing and what they are learning is to frequently ask them to show you: quiz them at least once a week.

Depending on your style and level, that might sound like a lot. But the quizzes are routine (i.e. not surprises), generally not long, and have point-values more on par with homework than with exams. And they can be incredibly informative about students’ progress.

Quizzes can take many forms, but just frequently quizzing isn’t enough. Quizzes don’t just generate grades to record: teachers and students need to respond to the results.

Formative Assessment

Did a lot of the class completely bomb the quiz? Take a moment to listen to what their errors tell you about how you taught the material!

What patterns do you see in who did poorly on the quiz? Did your teaching reach mostly your book-learners but notsomuch your auditory learners? Did only your star pupil (who should’ve placed into the next class up) pass?

How many opportunities did your students have to practice the material and check for accuracy during the lesson?

Do you know that the students understood the material immediately after the lesson, via exit tickets or something similar?

Did students know to study this material?

How did the homework support retention or distract from that particular topic?

How new and/or advanced and/or complicated is the material? Do the students just need a bit more time and exposure?

Most importantly, the purpose of asking these questions is to move forward more effectively, not to feel guilty about a less-than-perfect lesson. We don’t get re-dos, but we do get tomorrows.

 

Helping Students Adjust

Low quiz grades do not always trigger a constructive response in our students. They may conclude that the teacher is mean and/or terrible, that the course is too difficult, or that they themselves are somehow inherently inadequate.

It doesn’t occur to everyone in the thick of the stress of the semester that poor quiz grades might be helpful indicators pointing toward specific actions they can take to improve their mastery of the material.

The call to action needs to come from the teacher.

Explicit Call to Study – include studying and/or correcting quiz errors as an ongoing homework assignment. Consider offering back a percentage of points for corrections.

Early Warning – remind students that the quiz material will also be on major exams and/or assignments. This was just a first warning that they don’t understand it well enough yet. There is still time to master the information/skill.

Study Skills? – use multiple poor quiz grades as a trigger to speak to students privately about their strategies for taking notes and studying. You can gently point out that what they’re doing isn’t working. You can refer them to various college services, internet and YouTube resources that will help them beef up their skills.

I think especially in ESOL, it can be very surprising to teachers to find out what the students learned well and what they missed.

Quizzing a lot might sound harsh, but if you keep the grades low-stakes and the feedback front-and-center, the results can be eye-opening and useful.

 

Photo Credit: Paige Powers on Flickr

You’re reading Frequent Low-Stakes Quizzing, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

Student Feedback: Stress-O-Meter

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

Steven Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

 

Stress matters, whether you call it stress, pressure, anxiety, or the affective filter.

How stressed your students are will definitely impact their attendance, participation, and their performance on assignments.

Do you know how your students are doing in this regard? How do you know – are you guessing? Or are you finding out too late, during an outburst in class?

Try this: create a very simple online form (I like using Google Forms) that you can send out to all your students on a regular basis – at least weekly. Ask no more than three questions, targeting their stress levels.

Stress Report Sample

 

What would this data show you about your course, your assignment instructions, your deadlines, and your students’ lives outside of your course?

What might it mean to a student who’s overwhelmed in his personal life, to be able to click that first 5 and know that he’ll get a kind word from you in class?

How would you change these questions to suit your own classroom?

Activity Corner: Quizzing Styles

33272595691_0d0b0037cdQuizzing students is a pretty common classroom activity that deserves at least one slot in the activity corner.

It doesn’t really fit my usual template though.

Instead, here are the primary ways that four different teachers I know use quizzes in their own classrooms. I’ve changed a few minor details to make these folks anonymous. Over the years they’ve shared with me what they do, but I did not ask them for permission to star in my blog.

I’m sharing these four styles of quizzing because I think they’re all very strong. I hope you find them useful too!

Four Quiz Methods

Low-Beginning Content and Test Prep

One teacher I know gives very short quizzes (2-3 questions) every day at the end of her community ESL classes. She uses it as a formal formative assessment – to make sure they learned what she thinks they learned. She deliberately formats them in the same style as the standardized tests her students need to take from time to time. When someone commented that this all sounded pretty intense for low-beginning ESL, she replied mildly, “If you set the expectation, they learn to meet it.”

Take-Home Review

Another teacher I know gives take-home quizzes after every session of his ESL classes, no matter what level he is teaching. They tend to be 5 – 10 questions. He uses these quizzes to review the main points from class and from the homework. He deliberately makes them as straightforward as possible. They count as a small percentage of the students’ grades, so they’re not high-stakes, but they’re not a joke. He asks students to try to complete them closed book. Whatever they can’t remember, they can then do open book. And they can come to class early to collaborate on the questions they struggled with right before handing it in. It’s due first thing the next class session.

Dictations, Modified

Yet another teacher gives dictation quizzes at the beginning of every grammar session, usually 5 or 6 questions. She uses these as both review and formative assessment. Plus if students are late or absent, they miss the quiz. The questions are always connected to the previous class session and/or homework. Sometimes they questions are straight dictations, and sometimes the students must transform/correct what she says (i.e. she reads a statement, the students write that statement as a question).

Traditional, With Corrections

A fourth teacher I know only gives periodic quizzes. She deliberately makes them difficult and on the long side (at least 12 questions). She uses them to encourage her students to study hard and really learn the material in order to pass the quizzes. She makes sure to allocate class time for going over answers, and allows students to earn back a small number of additional points if they submit corrections with explanations. In this way her quizzes are also great review.

 

How do you use quizzing?

 

Photo Credit: Animated Heaven on Flickr

You’re reading Activity Corner: Quizzing Styles, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.