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Eight Quick Tips

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Something new: guests! Two friends are joining us tonight: T., who’s currently teaching in Korea, and Chris, who teaches in Japan (and also is the force behind The Labyrinth Library, where you can either read reviews of writers from Jim Butcher to George Carlin, or you can download podcast/audio versions to listen to on your commute–nice!). Thanks to both of you for dropping by!


Here’s an assembly of eight relatively simple tips for teaching; concrete and practical suggestions that have worked well for us. If you have counterpoints (two of the tips are slightly juxtaposed, actually!) or your own quick tips to add, please join in the “panel discussion” in the comments!

Get Vertical
: At a training for Berkeley GSIs (graduate student instructors) that I was sitting in on, an experienced PhD student instructor had a tip that I never would have thought of, because I can’t watch myself teach. When you erase a board, particularly during class, use an up-and-down motion instead of side-to-side movements. This reduces the hip-and-backside waggle that’s otherwise induced by your haste to clean the board and write the next thing on there. You don’t really need the class watching your hypnotically swaying derriere, right? The demonstration of the difference was pretty convincing. (Also, kneel to pick up things you’ve dropped! It’s better for your back, and you can avoid waving your rear end in the air.)

Countdown: Language learners (and math learners, says my husband) need time to process a question, get past any possible fear of speaking, muster an answer, etc. When you’re waiting for an answer, time seems to speed up and you probably feel as though you’re losing the class’s interest, they’re getting bored, the student has given up and is waiting on you, etc., but all of this is an illusion. Count 5 seconds off in your head before you prompt the student, modify the question, ask another student, or anything else. I can think of situations where this wouldn’t be appropriate, but it is amazing what great answers you can get if you just slow down and wait patiently.

The Secret Sign: I have an awful tendency to talk too fast (even for highly fluent speakers). Most students won’t hold up their hands to get a fast speaker to slow down, and it’s not always easy to read their faces. What I finally hit on having them do is casually a single finger in front of their chests if I’m going too fast. I demonstrate this; they can do it very discreetly and not catch the attention of the whole class. If they’re more secure, or it’s a listening class or something, you could give them red, yellow, and green cards, but the “one finger” method is simple and always available. I remind students of it several times and sometimes have to really urge them to start using it, but it makes a difference once they do–both for me (because I quickly get out of my bad habit) and for them. (I was going to post “the secret signal to shut up,” but apparently while Channel 4 is cool enough to not make people take down their IT Crowd clips from YouTube, the price is that they can’t be embedded.)

Use a Whiteboard: Chris says “I write in lessons. A lot. More than I should, actually, but that’s a whole other issue. I used to go through piles of paper every week because not only would I write out words, sentence structures and the occasional semi-competent drawing of a shark, but the students would always ask if they could have the notes at the end of class. While this was a great way to teach polite requests (and why ‘Please give me the notes’ is NOT a polite request), it started to get on my nerves. So I bought an A4-sized whiteboard and some markers. The advantages are twofold. First, it’s a money-saver and (if you care about such things) slightly greener.” I’ve started doing this in tutoring/one-on-one instruction, too. I have both a small 8×10 hard whiteboard and a flexible plastic whiteboard that rolls up. It’s great for spontaneously drawing things that can’t be expressed verbally, and has a million other uses.

Chris adds, “Secondly, and more importantly, it forces the students to take their own notes. Even if they don’t plan to review at home, just the process of writing things down can help cement an idea in the mind. Indeed, an entire lesson can be devoted to the process of note-taking, in which the teacher can introduce several notation tactics, and students can outline and describe their own.”

Contrariwise, though, I have another tip….

Don’t Use a Whiteboard: A suggestion I received from an experienced college ESL instructor was to think hard about when to use a marker/chalk board and when to bite the bullet and prepare transparencies or presentations. If you’re spending a lot of time writing static information on the board rather than dynamic information, you’re probably wasting class time with your back to the learners scribbling away. Static information is the stuff that you knew was going to come up and doesn’t really change whenever you give that kind of lesson. You wind up writing it over and over if you teach that class more than once. Dynamic information is the fun, fascinating, interesting stuff that just pops up. Analyze your patterns and see if you would be better off with a projector some of the time (if that fits your situation). And yes, you can refuse to give them copies!

Example ad absurdum: Chris suggests, “When practicing grammar patterns, don’t hold yourself to the ordinary! Adding unexpected information to the exercise can help create a more relaxed atmosphere, as well as demonstrate the open-endedness of language:

T: Have you ever… been to New York?
S: Have you ever been to New York?
T: …driven a motorcycle?
S: Have you ever driven a motorcycle?
T: …gone SCUBA diving?
S: Have you ever gone SCUBA diving?
T: …robbed a bank?
S: EH?

When setting an introduction task (especially with higher levels), my patter usually runs: ‘You can talk about anything – your job, hobbies, favorite food, criminal record, last vacation…’ Very few people get it, but those who do can be complimented on their listening.” I do this too, and it takes some judgment to know what your students will think is funny (and what’s appropriate), but it’s very rewarding for both you and them! It bombs if you push it and you’re not on the right wavelength, though (and oh, I’ve seen teachers do that!), so watch their reactions and stop or change tactics if they’re uncomfortable, annoying, or doing that embarrassed laugh.

L1 Counter-Examples: Chris also says, “I just had a beginner student who couldn’t understand how there, they’re, and their could sound the same while having very different spellings and meanings. When I pointed out that Japanese has hashi (bridge), hashi (edge), and hashi (chopsticks), which all sound the same but have different kanji and meanings, she immediately understood. Finding examples in the students’ native language that are similar to or analogous to a difficult idea in English can be a good shortcut to understanding. It does require more work on your part, though – unless you can build a lesson around it.” It seems to be kind of unfashionable in the US to note the advantages of including students’ L1s, but this kind of thing has worked wonders for me in the past. It’s simple and effective on topics that are causing an emotional barrier to rise as a student gets frustrated with something in English. It’s pretty hard to do if you aren’t familiar with their home language. If you’re working in a 14-language classroom, of course, this probably seems impossible, but if your students share a language background, you can benefit from using their language in class even without ever translating or speaking to them in it if you don’t want to.

Dandy Bell: My friend T., who’s been teaching high school girls in Korea, points out that “if you’re teaching a language class or any kind of class where you have student discussions, pair work, etc., it’s helpful to have a bell or some other sort of noisemaker to get their attention.” She feels it’s less than ideal to try to get students’ attention by yelling, and something that can be heard clearly over a classroom full of students talking can be really helpful. One of her French teachers in high school, she says, had a singing bowl that she used to get students to quiet down and reconvene; the bowl gave out a “clear, loud, pleasant sound when tapped.” A whistle, we agree, is not that great–I have another friend who’s in graduate-level education classes now, but the teachers blow shrill whistles and flash the lights to reconvene the students. Ugh! Pretty obnoxious–I didn’t like that much as as a kid, and I’d hate it as an adult. I once had a teacher who’d play a snippet of a record, so these days you could play a bit of an English-language song if your classroom has a computer hooked up to a sound system.

Thanks again for your contributions, Chris & T.!

Comments? Controversy? Your own tips?

Life/Learning Skills

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As you can probably infer from the science links on my sidebar, I’m interested in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and so on. I enjoy reading about issues like how sleep and nutrition affect your ability to remember, react, and make good judgments. Unfortunately, many of our students (well, and many of us!) have bad habits that have a negative effect on learning and thinking. Aside from issues beyond their control, many of them could do better and don’t. They don’t know these things affect their learning, or they don’t care. I’m not sure which it is, and I’m never really sure whether students are likely to react positively to a teacher bringing up lifestyle issues in a class or a tutoring situation, particularly when it’s an ESL teacher and not a biology teacher!

Prolific English education blogger Larry Ferlazzo has bitten the bullet, though. Check out his post “‘Will Sleeping More Make Me Smarter?’ — A Lesson I’m Trying This Week,” in which he’s decided to actually tackle the issue of lack of sleep among high school students, a population that’s especially vulnerable to sleep deprivation and especially prone to it. I like the way he’s approaching it, and I think he has the potential to reach at least a handful of students who may be staying up voluntarily (or thinking they have to stay up in order to study more, but studying fruitlessly).

One of the issues I’d like to approach with my clients and students is that of nutrition. I’ve actually tackled it briefly once, with a group of students who were studying for the GRE when they were not at all ready for it. Since it wasn’t possible to bring them into a high GRE score range using conventional methods in the short period of time I had with them, I tried to give them as many peripheral boosts as I could. (Any port in a storm!) One of the tips I gave them was the advice to get in the habit, right away, of eating a breakfast with protein and fiber every day, and to not go to the exam hungry. I haven’t revisited it with students since then, but there’s lots of research indicating that I should.

I found out via Danny Choo’s website that less than 10% of the Japanese population regularly eats breakfast. Of my Japanese friends who do eat breakfast, a typical example is a piece of white toast and a cup of black coffee, which is not really “brain food.” (By the way, Choo is the Dancing Stormtrooper of Youtube fame.) Choo linked to a Ministry of Agriculture program trying to encourage Japanese kids to eat breakfast, with tons of statistics showing that not doing so increases agitation, decreases motivation, lowers test scores, and so on. I don’t know if the program is working, but that kind of information tends to be more impressive to many people than just finger-shaking and repeating “It’s good for you!” So I suspect I need to dig out the studies I’ve read before and boil them down to something easy to understand. The only thing is that I’d like to do it without focusing too much on grades and test points, because that is really not the point of language learning. But if that’s all I can find, that’s all I can find.

However, I don’t want to come off as trying to “mommy” my students and clients. That’s not going to be received well regardless of whether it’s the teens (naturally resistant to mommying) or the forty-somethings (who wouldn’t like being mommied by someone younger than they are). I also need to be careful to not make this a matter of “my way is better than your way”–although to be fair, Japanese people used to eat breakfast more than they do now. And the old-school Japanese breakfast of fish and miso soup and so on is pretty good brain food: much better than toast and coffee. I won’t be telling them that, either, because people never like to hear some outsider lecturing them about their own culture! So clearly, this needs to be handled very carefully if I decide to tackle it…maybe with a reading and discussion exercise, or something.

Anyway, have you ever gone into this territory with your students or clients? What did you talk to them about–sleep? Nutrition? Time management? Something else? How did you handle it? How was it received? I’d love to know. Or do you think this is simply hands-off territory, even if sleep, nutrition, etc. can increase long- and short-term memory retention, reaction time, and other neurological processes strongly related to successful language learning?

(Also, what IS the term for these factors? I’m sure there is one, but I can’t seem to remember it, and no one on Twitter seems to know, either. Google only gives me “out-of-school factors,” which doesn’t seem right. I’d like to make a tag once I figure out the term!)