The Importance of Project Work in Language Learning

This guest post is from Shannon Amaadar (Kings English). I first came across Shannon via some excellent videos she had created to help teachers foster more engagement and motivation with learners in the classroom. I am thrilled she has agreed to contribute this post on how to use project based learning to build enthusiasm and autonomy for learning.

My classes used to start with students sitting in desks with their books out waiting for instruction. They weren’t excited, I wasn’t excited. That is, until I realised that there’s a better way to learn.

Language is something that’s experienced and used. It’s a tool to express your ideas and a means to tell stories and pass knowledge. Why are we relegating it vocabulary lists and grammar rules?

Using the language is so important for acquisition. Giving it practicality and usefulness makes learning easier and more enjoyable. We can do this by making a project the main focus of classroom activity.

Problem solving and discovery are two of the best ways we learn anything. This type of learning encourages our brains to be at alert. It thinks the information is important and hangs on to it, rather than putting it in short term memory then dumping it later on. Project based learning (PBL) is a great way to get students thinking about language in a different way.

Getting started

Setting up a class project can not only help students acquire language, it strengthens other skills such as teamwork and critical thinking. All while accomplishing a task. It makes classes interesting again and students open up to learning.

According to John McCarthy at TeachThought.com students who have a direct interest in the subject they’re studying, engage more and achieve better results. By making the lesson relevant to the students, they’ll work harder towards their goal. PBL is a great way to practice this.

The best way to begin with project work is to come up with a subject that everyone can get behind. Maybe you introduce students to the effects of pollution or solving a community problem such as turning a vacant plot of land into a garden or helping feed the homeless. Whatever your topic, make sure it’s something students can get passionate about.

Once you’ve established a goal, work as a class to come up with solutions. If we take the example of plastic pollution, perhaps students could design a tote bag to replace plastic shopping bags. Materials and designs could all be discussed in English, and the final product could use English designs elements like phrases. Finally the finished tote bags can be used to fundraise to donate to a local cause.

By making the language something that is useful, something that has meaning, students are more likely to retain the vocabulary and grammar rules, than if they simply wrote them down and tried to memorise.

Learning English has now become a fun activity and something that students can look forward to doing each class. This is so important, because students, who are bored, don’t learn.

Assessment

One of the great things about project work is how easy it is to assess understanding. You can see how well each student is doing by looking at factors such as participation, and how well they follow direction.

It’s a great idea to take some time at the end of the class to have a quick discussion. It’s ok to ask students how well they understand what was talked about in the lesson. Encourage students to give you honest answers and provide extra help in understanding where necessary.

When students aren’t afraid to make mistakes and speak up, language acquisition happens quickly. It’s important for students to understand that making mistakes is a part of discovery. When something doesn’t work or is wrong we learn from it better than if it worked or was right. Project work is all about discovery and making mistakes.

Having “check points” throughout the project work can help you gauge student understanding as well. At various stages of the work students can answer a short questionnaire, discuss where they are in the project development, or self assess with a rubric distributed by the teacher.

Making sure that all students are up to speed is essential for the success of the whole class. If students are falling behind, catching it quickly and offering extra help or guidance to those who need it will help everyone be successful.

Structure

Centering lessons on group project work might sound to some like teachers have given up. Allow the students to do as they will, and hope for the best. This is the farthest from the truth.

When using project based Learning, the teacher’s role is to set the parameters and guide students along the way, without interfering and allowing for mistakes.

It’s common for students to be unsure, always asking for guidance and assistance. It’s important that, as the teacher, you stay back a little and encourage discovery. Asking questions like: “what would happen if…?” and “why don’t we try this and see what happens?” Encouraging students to explore will make them feel more comfortable to do just that.

According to Dr. Ping Li in an interview with Francois Grosjean Ph.D. for Psychology today, there are 5 parts of a language that our brains must process. Lexicon, phonology, orthography, syntax, and pragmatics, therefore it would make sense to engage our brains in activities that encourage use in all of these areas.

PBL may be the best way for learners to experience, make use of, and retain language. It doesn’t hurt that it’s fun and fosters friendships and cooperation at the same time.

Try using this method in your classroom and see what results you get out of it. You might find your students are achieving well beyond your expectations.

Fighting Dyslexia

This week’s guest post is from the oh-so-knowledgeable Jood Burkinshaw, a SEN and dyslexia specialist working in schools and the armed forces in the UK. Jood gives us some practical approaches to dealing with dyslexic adult learners.

Years ago I was covering an English lesson for a teacher who’d set the rather open ended task:

‘Write about your saddest day’.

Two young men sat together at the front. One produced a heart rending and articulate account of the day, ten years before, when his dad had told him and his brother that their mum had died. The other, after 40 minutes of sweat and toil, rubbing out, crossing out and general discomfort, produced the following: ‘MY sabbist bay wars wen my gerdil bieb’.

What struck me was the indignity of this chap not being able to express himself in writing: the beginning of my career long mission to understand and mitigate the effects of what we now know as Dyslexia.

The Rose Review produced in 2009 was a major turning point. The resulting report produced a definitive description of Dyslexia alongside a commitment to training a cohort of specialist teachers (of which I was one) who would be qualified to assess for Dyslexia and advise teachers in removing inherent barriers to learning.

The Rose definition is as follows:

  • Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling.
  • Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed.
  • Dyslexia occurs across a range of intellectual abilities.

The BDA (British Dyslexia Association) points out that a dyslexic learner can show a combination of abilities and difficulties that affect the learning process. Some have strengths in areas, such as design, problem solving, creative skills, interactive skills and oral skills.

  • It is best thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category, and there are no clear cut-off points.

Current research indicates that children with a family history of ‘risk’ factors (e.g. a parent is dyslexic) but who are learning to read may still be on the dyslexic continuum. It is possible that difficulties will begin to manifest themselves as the student progresses through school.

  • Co-occurring difficulties may be seen in aspects of language, motor coordination, mental calculation, concentration and personal organisation, but these are not, by themselves, markers of dyslexia.

This gives us a structure for both assessment and teaching.

Fast forward to 2020 ………………

Somehow (long story), after a long career as a secondary school SENDco, then a peripatetic specialist teacher supporting schools from infant to sixth form; I’m now contracted to the RAF where I work with Dyslexic personnel.

We identify by assessment, the spikes and dips in their learning profiles and teach them, alongside their line managers, how to achieve optimum functionality through their learning, their training and their professional development.

Whilst all my teaching is individualised, there are a few core and generic principles that I come back to again and again. These are encompassed in the following, the focus here is on independent study and exam preparation, but the principles can be applied in many teaching and learning situations:

FOR THE TEACHER:

  • Clearly explain assessment/task requirements
  • Allow 25% extra time for exams and assessments where possible, including earlier access to course materials.
  • Consider visual stress and use suitable screen colours (green is best) / whiteboard pen colours (black and blue being the worst)
  • Offer printed material on buff or pale green paper
  • Offer electronic versions of study materials where possible, so that the learner can adjust the format himself.

FOR THE LEARNER:

Proof reading techniques:

On screen:

  • Choose a large font – ariel 14 is suitable
  • Double space the document
  • Highlight in grey or yellow
  • If/ when available, read aloud /Dragon Naturally Speaking to read back
  • Check one line at a time; reading one word at a time to avoid reading what you think is there, as opposed to what is actually there
  • Remove highlight colour for that line when checked
  • Remove bullet points and extra spacings to convert to prose if required.

Effective Reading Techniques:

When reading is laborious, it uses so much brain power that there isn’t always any left for remembering or understanding what’s been read.

Paradoxically, adding in some extra brain processes can make your reading more effective in terms of understanding and remembering:

  • visual mapping of material (noting the page layout and headings/ bold print etc)
  • if material isn’t chunked or broken up, look for distinguishing features such as a dash, capitalisation etc, to visually chunk for yourself
  • take prior note of number of items, where there are bullet points or sections
  • mentally categorise the information in more than one way – cross referencing reinforces what you know and helps to find bits you forgot
  • make a mental note of anything you found amusing/ confusing/ interesting
  • make a mental note of anything you want to ask a question about

Reading Techniques to try when required to read and remember bulky or densely printed material:

  • Note where the full stops are
  • Read a sentence at a time, in your head first, then aloud to confirm if it makes sense
  • Mentally note any tricky words
  • Make use of context clues – what is it likely to say, given the words around it?
  • Mentally summarise, at suitable intervals
  • Allow yourself ‘brain breaks’ when you begin to find the reading more difficult – just a minute’s break or even a few seconds will allow your brain to rest then start processing successfully again.

Avoiding Spelling Errors:

  • Use on-screen ‘sticky notes’ as reminders for commonly mis-spelt words
  • Have a look at the spelling section on www.bbc.co.uk/teach/skillwise/English
  • Use mnemonics
  • Consider the root word:
    • eg Cognitive, from the root word Cognition
  • Use colour coding (eg just highlight the tricky bit)
  • Look for words within words
  • Use visual links and reminders:
‘Electric Ian’ the electrician
  • Break down the word into memorable chunks:
    • Pharmaceutical pharm ace u tical

Memory Techniques and Study Skills:

Bear in mind the need to address all 4 quadrants of the study cycle:

STORE:

  • Make your notes as visually memorable as possible:
  • Quadrants for hand written notes or diagrams
  • Chunking and bullet points
  • Colour coding and highlighting
  • Consciously try to improve your mental storage system:
  • Anchor points in your location eg imagining the information stored on areas in the exam location
  • Store information alongside images or a scenario or story

SECURE:

Consolidate knowledge by:

  • verbal discussion
  • practical application
  • repetition – as on the Forgetting Curve

The intervals on the timescale axis can be used for review processes and practice

REVIEW:

  • Don’t just read through notes:
  • reformat:
  • mindmap layout
  • flowchart of process
  • diagram
  • list
  • chunked bullet points
  • picture transposed onto visual location
  • verbalise:
  • read aloud
  • use Dragon or other text to speech to read aloud
  • have it read to you by a human
  • verbal q and a session
  • chant a ‘mantra’ ….. (repeat a formula or sequence over and over until you can’t forget it) good one for the car!
  • Use a traffic light (RAG) system to denote the areas needing the most or least review
  • Follow up with methodical use of index cards:
    • Replace at back of box if secure (green)
    • In middle if partially secure (amber)
    • Near front if insecure (red)

Retrieve:

  • Successful retrieval relies on the previous stages having been addressed thoroughly
  • Retrieve in ‘brain dump’ style – whatever is triggered by the question or challenge, in no particular order, then put into order once salient points are recalled
  • Retrieve by recalling triggers from storage phase – eg quadrants, colours, number of boxes, number of bullets, page layout
  • Retrieve by searching mental files for appropriate storage – eg did you visually map this information, or use a story, or picture a scenario
  • Retrieve by environment – where were you when you revised it? Who gave you the information? Who gave the best answers to questions?
  • Before writing answers, allow some planning time

The art of seduction: Why connection should come before everything else

Some more wise words from André Hedlund (Edcrocks) this week. I am becoming more and more fascinated by the science of learning and how this should influence our approach to teaching (and life in general). If you too are interested in learning more – from the horse’s mouth, no less, André will be offering a webinar next month entitled – The Brain & How to Help our Learners Learn (Metacognitive Strategies according to the Science of Learning) (Link here for more info and to sign up)

What really drives people to do anything? On a molecular level, we could say it’s a very important neuromodulator, which has become quite popular not only in the scientific literature but also on TV, blogs and in magazine pieces: our beloved dopamine. The effects it has on the brain are nothing short of extraordinary. Dopamine is released when we have a sense of anticipation of something rewarding, not so much when we experience the reward itself. How does this knowledge change what I must prioritize as a teacher in the classroom? That’s exactly what I intend to discuss in my second blog post for ELT.Training.

Imagine you see an attractive person at a pub in London. You’re single and the person has made eye contact. You look back at the person and realize you’re incredibly attracted to them. What is happening in your brain is quite amazing. An incredible cocktail of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine is being released from your neurons into the synapses and being captured by other neurons. The entire process just makes you feel wonderfully well. Those who have engaged in the art of seduction know exactly what I’m talking about. But what does that have to do with your students in the classroom?

Well, let’s start with what makes people engage in the first place. When you sense a dangerous or unwanted situation, something that might make you uncomfortable, your body releases something that causes the bad type of stress. It’s called cortisol. Cortisol plays a role in memory formation, especially remembering things to avoid, but long-term cortisol release has a bunch of effects that actually impact learning negatively. You feel tense and you can’t use your prefrontal cortex, the hub in your brain where sophisticated thinking and reasoning take place. What does that all mean? It basically means that we want more dopamine and just the right amount of cortisol to get people engaged.

The oversimplification above is just to give you some grounds for what I propose next. Very much like the seduction that went on at the pub I mentioned before, we need to seduce our students. Now, please don’t get me wrong here. What I mean is that we need to seduce their brains and make them want to engage with us in class. This is so important that I believe it should be the top priority of every lesson. If you think about it, not seducing your students’ brains will likely generate disinterested students who’ll have a hard time paying attention. Reduced attention leads to reduced memory consolidation. Or even worse. Students who feel intimidated, uncomfortable or something else because they have no emotional connection with the teacher will have a hard time accessing their sophisticated thinking, reasoning and, consequently, learning skills.

What’s something that you can do then? I’d like to list a couple of very simple, yet quite effective, suggestions that you can work on to seduce your students’ brains:

1-    Show them who you are

I always take time, particularly in the very first lesson, to connect with my students. They are curious about what makes their teacher cool and interesting. A very easy way to do that is to start the lesson with a True or False about yourself. Make sure you mention the silly and amazing things you’ve done in your life

2-    Find out who your students are

This takes time but you need to establish this connection with them. I have specific activities for them to tell the class a little bit about themselves and I always take the opportunity to talk to them individually and ask questions about things they like or do. I also encourage them to share their passions and have them prepare presentations on their hobbies.

3-    Show enthusiasm

How many times have I been to a conference or classroom observation where the teacher was extremely knowledgeable and the topic was interesting but they looked like they didn’t want to be there or spoke in such a monotonous way? I lost the count. One of the things that gets us engaged straight away is passion. And passion creates enthusiasm. If you look excited to be there, you’ll be activating their mirror neuron system and that helps students get and keep engaged. Read a little more about it here.

4-    Have a classroom mascot, like my Mr. Trunk

I decided to buy a stuffed elephant to connect with my students and instill a sense of responsibility in them. It may sound silly, but it has worked wonders! Mr. Trunk, the name we gave him, has traveled with my students in Brazil and the world. The best part is that my students took him on vacation or for the weekend and integrated him into their routine. They had to bring back photos and tell us what they had done with Mr. Trunk. I found out so many interesting things I wouldn’t have because of this silly activity. You can read about his story here

5-    Be kind and understanding

Someone once told me that what we can see from someone’s life is just the tip of the iceberg. We don’t know what is going on in their homes, their other classes, with their parents, siblings, friends etc. Assuming that students might be behaving badly because that’s who they are may be incorrect. Being kind conveys an important message: “I’m here if you need to share something and I might be able to help”. With their defense system down, it’s easier to connect.

6-    Be firm and keep your promises

One of the things adults keep doing to kids is break their promises. This creates unstable relationships and mistrust. Students need to learn how to regulate their behavior and that required support. They want a role model, someone they look up to and you can be that person. If you promise a reward, do it. If you promise a punishment, do it too.

7-    Take their needs and interests into consideration

Students are humans and they get tired. Give them a break, show you care about them. They love technology and would love to use their mobiles to show you something. Set moments to do it in class. Some of them might have a particular taste in music, let them show it to the rest of the class.

8-    Keep them curious

Our brain is programmed to be drawn to novelty. It’s so strong that it’s basically inevitable. I realize that we’re busy planning lessons and that we can run out of ideas many times, but the key to long-term engagement is to constantly bring something interesting, new, different to class. Have a puzzle or a mystery that will be revealed at the end of the lesson. Answer questions that are unrelated to the content of the lesson just to kill their curiosity.I could go on and on with more tips, but I think you get the point. But if the point isn’t clear enough, here’s what you need to do from now on: In the wise words of Immordino-Yang and António Damásio, “we feel, therefore we learn”. Live by that motto and remember that your students need that dopamine rush to want to do things, to be engaged. If you become irresistible in the classroom, chances are you’ll seduce their brains and make your lessons much more memorable. That comes before any memorization technique, study strategy or student-centered activity you can think of, trust me. Give it a try and let me know. You can also read something on my blog about that might help here.

Collaborate to Innovate

OK, before we start, I’ll admit I do have a vested interest. I firmly believe that we all know something and should pass it on to help us all grow as teachers. That said, I’m not the only one…

You probably don’t know me, I’m not Scott Thornbury or Jeremy Harmer (not least because I’m a girl) but neither am I Penny Ur or Laura Patsko some other big ‘name’ in the ELT world. I’m just a teacher, like you. The thing is, I know things that you don’t know and I’ve done things that you’ve yet to try, while you know stuff that I don’t and you’ve done things I’ve not even considered or had the guts to try – yet (go on, persuade me…). But then, you probably kind of had a sneaking feeling about that before you started to read, otherwise why would you be reading a post from someone you don’t yet know?

I’ve flipped classes, I’ve built a Moodle site from scratch, I’ve created courses and started a teaching business. I’ve navigated technology that I never imagined I’d be able to and I’ve met the most wonderful teachers. You may have done some of the same things, but you may also be able to hold the attention of a room full of teenagers, you may know how to use an interactive whiteboard, you may use dogme without batting an eyelid, you may be a marketing genius, you may be able to stand in front of a roomful of expectant people at a conference and not wish the ground would open up and swallow you – please, show me how to do these things.

Please, show all of us.

Many of us collaborate on a small scale, without even realising it. When you go into the staff room after a particularly stressful lesson and rant at your colleagues and someone offers a useful suggestion – that’s collaboration. You have learned another technique and your colleague has learned what not to do with that particular group of learners. Perhaps you have spent hours trying to find the perfect video for a lesson (we’ve all done it – that internet rabbit hole is a scary place), you are so pleased with yourself, you pat yourself on the back and show a colleague. That’s collaboration. Maybe you are stuck for an activity and post a request in a Facebook group. That’s collaboration too.

Broadwell (1969) suggests that development can be construed as a move from ‘unconscious incompetence’ to ‘conscious competence’. The idea being that we may be unaware that we are doing something badly until we realise it has been made better.  It is in this movement where collaboration is most productive – someone else’s advice or guidance is so much more supportive than a ‘superior’ telling you how to ‘improve’.

If we can move past the ‘phatic communion’ (Lansley) of just moaning together and agreeing with each other, then collaboration can be a truly rewarding and, dare I say it, fun approach to learning and developing our skills. There is really nothing more thrilling than have peers thank you for your insight into something and then act on it. It is a boost to your confidence, validates your ability and experience and is great for consolidating the knowledge that you may not even realised that you had in the first place. When this tacit knowledge (Sternberg & Horvath, 1999) is realised or extracted then collaboration is the most effective approach to professional development. That penny-dropping ‘duh!’ moment, when we suddenly realise that we had the answer all along, cannot be replicated in a lecture theatre or classroom while we ‘do’ obligatory staff development – this is the stuff that we come to naturally, because we need the answer or information.

My first conscious and deliberate act of collaboration was some years ago. I’d been teaching in the UK for a year or so post-CELTA. I was getting on OK, still doing the post-CELTA thing of spending every waking moment planning lessons for a part-time job, but getting on OK and feeling like a ‘proper’ teacher.

For the B2 groups, there were just two teachers, myself and another (we’ll call her Caroline – because that’s her name). We soon realised that our learners were jumping from one class to the other and losing any course continuity. So, we decided to collaborate on creating a shared scheme of work.

We spent that year planning lessons and syllabi together and sharing our work, so that we both taught the same lesson (or variations of) each week. The benefits were myriad. Our learners could attend whichever lesson was convenient each week and not miss anything, lesson planning time nearly halved (tea and chatting did slow us down a bit) and we each learnt about new activities, approaches and techniques that we hadn’t tried before. I also learned more about teaching in that year than I had working by myself and doing the CELTA; and I made a wonderful friend. I also used the school LMS to give learners access to materials after class, something which was new to Caroline.

We all (mostly) advocate learners working out stuff for themselves as the best method of acquiring the language, the same goes for us, the teachers. In this connected world, there are so many ways of collaborating and sharing our knowledge and experience to help both ourselves and others. Work with a friend, join a SIG, co-teach, make use of any of the 1000’s of groups on social media, attend a workshop (maybe even an ELT.Training interactive online workshop) or even just take time for a cup of tea and a chat. When we get together to find the answers to questions we may not even realise we have, we can move mountains.

So, show me what you know, show all of us.

References

Broadwell, Martin M. (20 February 1969). “Teaching for learning (XVI)“. wordsfitlyspoken.org. The Gospel Guardian.

Lansley, C (1994) Collaborative Development: an Alternative to Phatic Discourse and the art of Co-operative Development. ELT Journal, 48 (1): 50-6

Sternberg & Horvath (1998) Tacit Knowledge in Professional Practice: Researcher and Practitioner, Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc

5 Quick Tips for Killer Lesson Planning

With the Lesson Planning Masterclass starting soon, I thought we should keep with the planning theme and a few useful tips on how to plan lessons that we can all enjoy.

1. Know your learners

Might seem obvious – but who/what are you teaching? The syllabus? The coursebook? Or the learners? Get to know the learners and what makes them tick. Use a variety of techniques to find out about them, use ‘find someone who’ activities, questionnaires, discussions and build this information gathering into the lessons. Keep a record of useful info on each learner. If you REALLY know your learners you will be able to tailor lessons to their needs and interests, making for much more engaging and motivating lessons.

Don’t just teach page 21 of the book because it is Wednesday.

2. Start at the end

When planning, always have the final task/objective in mind and lead the learners to it. Make sure the language they need to complete the task is clearly taught in the lesson. Practice the task during the planning so that you know what language they will need. Use what you know about the learners to ensure that you teach them the language they need in contexts they are likely to meet outside the classroom too. ‘Scaffolding’ is a bit of a buzzword, but it ensures that the learners will be able to do what you want them to by the end of your carefully crafted lesson.

3. Know What Success Looks Like

It is important that you know how you are going to assess your learners. Plan the assessment rubric in advance. Keep it simple and specific (and related to the lesson objective). If you are focusing on the present perfect tense, ensure you have a task that uses the grammar and write one or two ‘can do’ statements so you can assess learners’ ability to use the language. (e.g. Can say whether they have visited a specific country / can ask others if they have visited a country) – are you going to observe, test or have learners present their knowledge? Think about different ways of assessing learners like observations, exit slips and informal tests.

4. Leave Space For Adaptation

Make sure you have an extra activity (or two) up your sleeve in case you find you have a few spare minutes and, likewise, know which activities can be left out or cut short if things take longer than expected. Have a back-up plan in case the computer fails or the photocopier breaks down and build an element of differentiation into activities – because no two learners are the same. Maybe some learners only complete 3/5 of a task or others have a ‘fast finishers’ question at the end. Just because something is written in the plan – it doesn’t mean you can’t improvise if an interesting question is asked or the learners have an unexpected problem or link to the topic.

Build in feedback stages, so that you can deal with unsuccessful learner-generated language. Reactive teaching helps learners with the language they want and need to use, but you may not have anticipated. Put the language on the board and have learners correct (and explain) in pairs or individually.

5. Check Your Pace

Try to mix it up a bit, if the whole lesson is spent sitting at desks writing, it may be hard to get the learners excited about the lesson. Try adding some movement such as running dictations or putting tasks on the walls around the room. Change the interactions, move learners around so they talk in different groups, use a combination of pair work and group work. If things look a bit slow build in a brain break activity to revitalise the class. If learners are a bit excitable, try a calming activity like pelmanism or individual work.