Thursday, 27 February 2014

When the child becomes the parent - why I'm taking an enforced break from ELT!

I never wanted children and, luckily, when I met the man who was to become my husband, he felt the same way.  In the years that we've been together, we've enjoyed our child-free lives.  Indeed, had we had children, we would not have been able to have the lifestyle, and its associated adventures, that we've had.  It's not that we don't like children.  We have a number of nieces and nephews (and now a couple of great-nieces!) who we love dearly.  We love spending time with them, teaching them things, enjoying their company, laughing and having fun, and, most of all, we love ... handing them back to their parents!  So, it has come as a bit of a shock, to say the least, to find myself becoming a parent in my very late forties - and, in the worst case scenario, a parent to my own Mum!

Not that Mum would see it that way.  You see, she has Alzheimer's disease.  One of the symptoms in many sufferers is that they don't recognise that there's anything wrong.  In Mum's mind, she's fine.  She acknowledges that she forgets things from time to time, but that's about it.  In reality, though, despite being physically very fit, her dementia means that she's no longer able to take care of herself in her own home.  We suspected that this was the case, but our planned trip back at Christmas time, confirmed it.  We felt we had no choice but to return to the UK to care for her.

So, since the beginning of January, we've been living back in the UK for the first time in ten years - and it's been very hard!!  I was very naïve.  Following discussions with Mum's care manager before coming back, I accepted what she said about me being the daughter, not the carer.  I was happy to take on the role of chauffeur, cook, cleaner, and companion, convincing myself it would be nice to spend time with Mum whilst she still has capacity.  I was sure I would be able to continue my studies and my CPD, whilst keeping my hand in with some online teaching.  The reality, though, is so different.  Mum's disease is such that caring for her is 24/7.  I really don't have any time to do anything for myself.  I've managed to attend two webinars in the past two months and, on each occasion, had to try to follow proceedings whilst Mum was constantly talking to me and asking me the same questions over and over again.  Finding time to write has been impossible up to now.

This, then, is the reason why I've been absent from social media and teaching forums for a while.  I've missed being part of my virtual world and I've really missed being at work!!  I'm not taking to the caring role very easily - I'm not good at it.  I need to find coping strategies and, more than anything, I need to find joy in my life again!

With these things in mind, I'm forcing myself to set aside some 'me-time', as well as joining groups and seeking out information on how to live with dementia.  I need to know how best to help Mum.  It's such a terrible disease.  I had no idea just how awful it was until it affected me personally.  It's a very steep learning curve, but I'm beginning to feel that my experiences might help others.  So, after much soul-searching, I've decided to write about it.  I'm starting a new blog - When the child becomes the parent - to record some thoughts about what's happening. 

I intend to maintain this blog, too.  As I get better at this caring malarkey, I hope to be able to attend some webinars which I will write up here - and I also have lots of notes from past events which I could tidy up and publish.  I also hope it's not too long before we're able to hit the road again and resume our travels!  In the meantime, it's my fervent wish that I can maintain contact with all of my wonderful PLN!!


Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Shrinking and linking (shrinkin_n_linkin) - practical techniques for teaching stress and reduced speech

Jason R Levine
This was the title of a webinar presented by Jason R Levine (@FluencyMC) as part of the recent ELT Techniques MOOC on Listening and Pronunciation.  What follows is a summary of what Jason had to say.

English is a stress-timed language.  This isn't common - most languages are syllable-timed.  We want our students to feel the stress (rhythm) of the language, and can draw their attention to it by using a bold font to show stress, for example.  However,

There's a fine line between raising awareness of pronunciation issues and raising stress (the other meaning!).

We need to raise awareness sufficiently to motivate students and follow up with loads of practice.  We shouldn't fill their heads with loads of rules.  It's usually best to follow the three Rs:

The rhythm of English is best described as 3/4, as in a waltz:
This is the beat of the language.  For example:
Students feel stressed.   (4 syllables)
     S         V       O/C
     1         2         3
The students feel stressed.   (5 syllables)
Th' students feel stressed.
The students are feeling stressed.   (7 syllables)
Th' students_r feelin' stressed.
The students have been feeling stressed.   (8 syllables)
Th' students've bin feelin' stressed.

The word order of subject, verb, object is common in English.  There are times when the word order is different, but these are exceptions - questions, passive structures, for emphasis, negative adverbials, etc.  There is a connection between the almost fixed word order in English and the rhythm of the language.  Because English gravitates to this word order, the rhythm has become 1,2,3.  This doesn't mean that every sentence is 1, 2, 3, but it does mean that this rhythm is always there.  It's in the background.

In English, unlike most other languages, each word which has more than one syllable, has a syllable which is stressed.  It's important to get learners very familiar with where the stress is - from dictionary use, from listening, and from your instruction.  Don't worry about trying to teach the more complex issues of secondary and tertiary stress.  Once students know where the stress is, the other syllables automatically become unstressed - hence the schwa everywhere!  Syllables reduce to the /ǝ/ and /ı/ sounds all the time.  It's important not to panic students about how they're going to remember all this - just make them familiar with it so that they know what sounds right and what sounds wrong.

Going back to our 'students feel stressed' example, we add in syllables to every sentence and yet the rhythm stays the same.  Just like in music, speed doesn't affect the rhythm.  You can play/say something fast or slowly, but if the time signature is 3/4, then the rhythm stays the same.
In English, when the grammar structures get more complex, they're harder to hear because the grammatical words aren't stressed.  We need to give students much more practice at listening to these kinds of sentences.  We can slow them down, but we must make sure the rhythm is maintained.  To be a fluent listener, we often tell our students they don't need to understand every word - they should focus on the content (stressed) words because they carry the meaning.  This is true, but, in order to be able to speak and write well, they also need to know the grammar words.
When teaching pronunciation, we shouldn't really highlight the shrinking and linking.  We should concentrate on the stressed words and, with familiarity with the rhythm of English, the reduced forms automatically become reduced.
Some learners think that stress changes according to how formal a situation is.  This is not true!  Stress and intonation are not the same thing. 
How many people are there in your family?
How many people_r there_in yr family?
What are you going to do on Friday?
What're ya gonna do_on Friday?
In these sentences, the stress or rhythm is the same, but the intonation isn't.  Intonation in informal speech (with friends) is very flat and we speak with a lower tone.  In formal situations, we usually speak with a higher tone and more intonation.  The key determiner as to whether someone sounds formal or informal, rude or polite, is INTONATION.
Techniques to use in the classroom
1.  Highlight word and sentence stress.
2.  Have students mark the stress after a listening task.  They already know the vocabulary and have understood the text.  Then they can listen again and mark the stress.
3.  Have students mark the stress before a listening task.  They try to predict where it's going to be.  Then they listen to check.
4.  Focus on stress in dictations:
  • Dictate five sentences of authentic English - read them yourself or use a recording.
  • Repeat each sentence at least three times, giving students time to write.  Do not change the speed or stress patterns.
  • Ask students to write down the stressed words first.
  • Pair students to compare their work and reconstruct the sentences as best they can.
  • Elicit the sentences from the students or have them write them on the board.
  • Ask students to highlight the word or sentence stress.
  • As an extension activity, have students write responses and create dialogues or stories.
Sample dictation
  1. What's the weather supposed to be like today?
  2. Where do you feel like going for lunch?
  3. Tell her we'll meet her around two.
  4. Actually, I think I'll stay at home tonight and watch TV.
  5. Do you want to meet at the library tomorrow?
Number 3 is particularly difficult - the shrinking and linking is blatant!
5.  Use meaningful shadowing and repetition.  Try scenes from movies and TV shows, music videos, commercials, roleplays created by students, scenes from plays and musicals, famous speeches, karaoke, poetry, limericks, jokes, tongue twisters, songs, etc.  When teaching pronunciation, we need to use repetition more as actors would when learning their lines.  Practice makes perfect!!

Sunday, 5 January 2014

The 38th ELT Blog Carnival - Resolutions

Welcome to the 38th ELT Blog Carnival and the first of 2014.  As is wholly appropriate as we begin the new year, our theme is 'Resolutions'.

I'd like to thank all the participants in this carnival and all the terrific members of my PLN who spread the news about it on Facebook, Twitter, etc.  Please enjoy all the great posts!

1.  Lizzie Pinard

Lizzie is such an inspirational member of my PLN and I wasn't at all surprised when she was the first to send me an entry for this carnival.  She had an amazing year and I'm sure 2014 will be equally exciting.  Read her post here.

2.  Vicky Loras

This post from the amazingly supportive Vicky Loras has some timely advice for new teachers as we enter the new year.

3.  Eva Buyuksimkesyan

We have two contributions from Eva.  The first is a post first published in January 2012, entitled 'New Year, New Beginnings', which outlines a great lesson plan to use with students in one of your first lessons of 2014.  The second is a description of five tech tools that Eva intends to use with her classes in the new year.  Read it here.

4.  Ellen Pham

Ellen gives us a link to a New Year resolutions generator which we can use with our students.  Find it here.

5.  David Deubelbeiss

Here, David urges us all to make teaching resolutions as part of our own professional development.  For 2014, his pledge is to 'make it real'.  We also have this post from David, via EFL Teaching Recipes, describing a lesson plan on New Year's Resolutions.

6.  Sharon Hartle

Sharon shares a great lesson plan based on New Year resolutions.  Read all about it here.

7.  Jennifer Nichols

Jennifer gives us 'Five resolutions to modernize your teaching in 2014'.  There are some really good ideas here which should give us all pause for thought.

8.  Larry Ferlazzo

In this post, Larry tells us about the best ways to help make your new year’s resolutions succeed.

So, that's it!  I hope you enjoy reading the posts and please make sure you check out the next carnival which is being hosted by Anita Jankovic on her blog.


Some readers may wonder how I can host a carnival and have no contributions of my own.  I assure you my intention was always to have a couple of posts, but, unfortunately, since flying to the UK on New Year's Eve, I have had some serious family issues to deal with and have had no time to write.  I wanted to publish the carnival on time and hope to be able to add my posts later.


Monday, 30 December 2013

Warmers, coolers and lesson-planning for teenagers

This was the title of a presentation given by Dave Spencer as part of the recent Macmillan Online Conference.  What follows is a summary of what he had to say.

Typical qualities of a warmer
  • Short - 'against the clock'
  • Interactive (pairs, small groups)
  • Competitive
  • Fun
  • Gets students thinking in English
  • Recycles/revises vocabulary
  • Gets students speaking - noisy!
  • Raises energy levels
Warmer - the 3-letter game

Put 3 letters on the board and tell students they have two minutes to think of as many words as they can which contain those letters (in any order).  Encourage students to think about word formation in order to increase the number of words they get.  For example,

R        T         N
train       return      north     present      presentation      presenter    presented
turn       ration       restrain  rating        nature               natural, etc.
This is a very simple warmer which can be done with every level.
Warmer - alphabet cards
Have a series of A4 size cards with the letters of the alphabet on them available for a range of activities such as these two:
1.  Class spelling - give each student a letter.  Dictate words to the class.  Students have to come to the front of the class and arrange themselves in the correct order to spell out the word.  This is physical and a good way to get students moving.
2.  Category scramble - put the cards on the floor in any order.  Shout out a category.  Students grab a card and must be ready to give a word in the category that starts with that letter. The last student to grab a letter, or a student who can't think of a word, loses a life.  This is an 'extreme warmer' with lots of movement and lots of noise!
Warmer - running dictation
The classic activity where students are in pairs.  One of them is inside the classroom, writing.  The other runs outside to read a text.  They have to remember as much of it as possible and run back to their partner who writes it down.  The first pair to reproduce the text correctly, wins.
Typical qualities of a cooler
  • Individual work
  • Involves concentration
  • Gets students thinking in English
  • Practises listening and/or writing
  • Is quiet, or even silent
  • Is slow - has a calming effect on students
Cooler - opposites dictation
Students have to write down the opposite of what you dictate.  It is up to them what they write, as long as the sentences are grammatically correct.  For example, you say:
'There was a young woman.'
The students write:
'There was an old woman.'
'There was a young man.'
'There is a young woman.'
This is a quiet activity which involves students concentrating.  When they've finished, they compare their texts - they'll be similar, but different.  You could then ask students to re-convert their text so that it matches the original.  You could use a text from the coursebook.
Cooler - DIY word search or crossword
Give students an empty word search or crossword grid and a topic and ask them to make their own puzzle.  They could just list the hidden words, give definitions, or draw picture clues.  Students can swap with a partner or they can be copied for the whole class.  Empty grids can be found online.  These are great activities as the students are doing all the work!
Some considerations in lesson-planning for teens
  1. The topics need to be relevant, but not so relevant that they'll discuss them in their L1!  Students need to be interested and focussed.
  2. There should be a variety of skills work.
  3. There needs to be a variety of interaction.
  4. You need to consider pace and timing.
  5. Include warmers and coolers.
  6. Balance - this is the key to everything!


Sunday, 29 December 2013

Using grammar to create a good relationship

Michael McCarthy
This was the title of a recent webinar hosted by Cambridge English Teacher and presented by Michael McCarthy.  He should have been joined by Anne O'Keefe, but unfortunately technical issues meant she was unable to connect.  What follows is a summary of what Michael had to say.

Grammar is more than just a set of abstract rules - it can be used to create appropriate relationships:
  • Forms of address (sir, madam, mate, etc.)
  • Formal vocabulary (e.g. we wish to advise you....)
  • Hedging and vagueness (e.g. a bit hungry, hungry-ish)
  • Indirectness (e.g. one shouldn't worry, it is hoped that....)
  • Using tense, aspect and modality (e.g. I wondered..., I should be grateful...)
  • Involvement strategies/use of pronouns - ways of making the person you're talking to feel more part of the topic of conversation
  • Ellipsis (e.g. want some coffee? you ready?)
Corpus evidence
  • Cambridge English Corpus - 2 billion words
  • CANCODE Spoken Corpus - 5 million words (mostly informal speech)
  • Cambridge Learner Corpus - 5 million words
  • CANBEC Spoken Business English Corpus - 1 million words
  • CLAS Spoken Professional/Academic Corpus - 1 million words taken from a hotel management context in Ireland
These corpora give us the evidence to understand how grammar is used.  Where grammar gives us choices, the choice you make affects how your spoken or written word is received.  Look at this example which goes from direct to less direct and, therefore, more polite:
  • Where's the key?
  • I hope you've got the key.
  • I was hoping you had the key.
Or this example:
  • I wonder if you can help me?
  • I'm wondering if you could help me?
  • I was wondering if you could help me?
All of these sentences are grammatically correct, but small changes affect the degree of politeness.

Some verbs are more polite and less direct when used in the continuous form (present or past).  For example:
  • Are you needing something?
  • I was wondering if I could ask you a question?
  • I was hoping you'd come to visit.
  • We were thinking we should finish this by Friday.
Look at this example in context:

or this one:
Customers and servers work hard from the beginning to set an appropriate relationship.
Use of pronouns (we versus you)
Choice of pronouns can create closeness or distance.  In this example, the salesperson uses 'you' and 'your' to make the customer feel involved - almost as if he owns the item already:

In this example, we see the pronoun of involvement used in an academic setting - a hotel and catering college:
Modality can express degrees of formality and degrees of imposition.
Looking at corpora for incidences of 'can I ...?' and 'could I ...?', we see a huge difference in the number of times these are used in spoken informal English.  We can also see that there are no examples in Cancode of 'might I ...?' being used.  Corpus enables us to see the degree of formality these forms express, but also in what context they're used.
Ellipsis, the non-use of items normally considered obligatory, in conversation reinforces directness and closeness.  For example:
To conclude:
Incorrect choices can project the wrong relationship in terms of the degrees of directness and imposition.  The grammar discussed in this webinar is all very common and is normally taught at low levels, but we need to look at it again at higher levels to explore the subtleties.  Good teaching materials should include this grammar of choice to enable students to communicate effectively.


Friday, 27 December 2013

Joined up listening – how to understand natural speech

Johanna Stirling
This was the title of a recent webinar hosted by Cambridge University Press and presented by Johanna Stirling.  What follows is a summary of what she had to say.

Why don’t students understand natural speech?
·         It’s too fast for them to process.
·         The words aren’t spoken clearly.
·         They aren’t listening properly.
·         They don’t know all the words.
·         They panic.
The first two are probably the main reasons for non-comprehension.
How do we teach listening?
1. Skills development:
·         predicting
·         listening for gist
·         listening for specific information
·         inferring
2. Practise
These are important, but they are not enough.  Following on from practice, we need to analyse the wrong answers.  We need to find out why students got the answers wrong. 
Micro-listening – receptive pronunciation

It's important to focus on specific parts of what the students have already listened to, as in this example from Face2Face:

Pronunciation is normally associated with speaking, but receptive pronunciation is vital for listening.

Difficulties when listening

1. Ellipsis - incomplete sentences, which are very common in spoken English, are extremely difficult for learners to cope with.  We can give students conversations like this:
and ask them to supply what's missing, or give them the whole conversation, listen and cross out what they don't hear:
2.  Weak forms - where we have strong stress on one word and the others all get squashed, it is very problematic for learners.  We need to show students weak forms to help with their comprehension.  They don't necessarily have to say it that way themselves, but they need to recognise it.

3.  Elision - when we put words together, we often lose the last phoneme.  We need to raise students' awareness of this.
4.  Linking - it's often difficult to tell where one word ends and another starts - mad_idea_about, for example.  Look at how these combinations can sound to an untrained ear:
We should introduce linking to our students at pre-intermediate level at the latest.  It's really never too early to show students what's happening in joined-up speaking.
5.  Assimilation - some sounds change when they're near other sounds.  For example, 'sunbathing' sounds like 'some bathing', 'sandwich' becomes 'samwich', and 'handbag' sounds more like 'hambag'.
To conclude:
We need to make our students aware of all of these anomalies in spoken English through the practice of micro-listening and receptive pronunciation.


Sunday, 22 December 2013

I've been tagged by Marisa Constantinides

This is my contribution to a chain blog in which one blogger tags you on their blog, challenges you to answer some questions and then asks you to pass the ball to eleven more bloggers!

Marisa Constantinides tagged me in this blogging meme.  I got the tag on Monday morning, at the start of what has probably been the busiest week of my year, so it has taken until now (Sunday) to get around to replying!  Apologies!!  Anyway, this is what the challenge involves:
  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger - in this case it would be me…
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers.
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you.
11 random facts about myself
  1. During my gap year (many, many moons ago!), I worked as a supervisor on the pitta bread production line in the largest bakery in the Middle East!
  2. One of my hobbies is genealogy and I have discovered that an ancestor of mine was 'an aerated water bottler and small animal preserver' - this is made even more bizarre because every single one of his neighbours in the Durham village were coal miners!
  3. My favourite band is 'Beautiful South'.
  4. I met my husband whilst on holiday in Crete - he was there alone and I was there with my first husband!
  5. I love going to the cinema, but I hate horror movies.
  6. To help pay my way through university, I worked behind the bar at 'Cornerhouse', a famous arts complex in Manchester.  I started there when it first opened and was lucky enough to meet lots of stars of stage and screen.
  7. My husband and I own a 17th century watermill in France, but we can't live in it due to an ongoing legal case.
  8. I was once part of a team which won a national wine-tasting competition - the prize was a week in a French chateau drinking fine wine and eating food prepared by a Michelin-starred chef.
  9. As a child, I appeared on stage with 'Diddy' David Hamilton, and sang a song with him.
  10. I am rubbish at learning languages!
  11. I love reading, especially biographies and historical novels.
The 11 questions that Marisa asked me

My answers are in red.

1. How long does it usually take you to draft and finalise a blog post?  It depends - if I'm posting a summary of an #eltchat or a webinar I've attended, I tend to write it quite quickly.  If I'm writing something original, about teaching or travel, it tends to take longer as I like to check my facts.
2. Which ICT tools do you actually use with your classes?  I use Edmodo as my online classroom and, through that, use a lot of tools and sites such as YouTube, Voxopop, Mailvu, Audioboo, etc.
3. What is your absolute dream job?  Travel company researcher - visiting places all over the world and reporting back on hotels, restaurants, facilities, attractions, etc.
4. Which classroom activity do you absolutely enjoy using with your students? One is all I need  It's difficult to choose one, but it would probably involve using film, as this always engages students.  I often use lessons created by the fantastic Kieran Donaghy at Film English.
5. How many of your current friendships  were started through a social network?  Quite a few!
6. Which household chore do you hate the most and which one do you love the best?  I hate all household chores except cooking, which I do enjoy.  Fortunately, I have a 'house-husband' who does all the housework, so I don't have to do any!!
7. Name your 10 desert island CD’s  Wow, I love music and find it really difficult to choose only 10!  I'm assuming that Marisa means albums when she says CDs - not singles - so I can have more music!  My 10 albums would be:
  • 'Blue is the Colour' by Beautiful South
  • 'Peachtree Road' by Elton John
  • 'Songs in the Key of Life' by Stevie Wonder
  • 'Graceland' by Paul Simon
  • 'The Osmonds Greatest Hits' (not cool, but such a big part of my childhood!)
  • 'Breaking Glass' by Hazel O'Connor
  • 'Hits from the Musicals' compilation album
  • 'Painted Desert Serenade' by Joshua Kadison
  • 'Swing When You're Winning' by Robbie Williams
  • 'The Best Country Album in the World .... Ever!'
8. Do you wish you had studied something other than what you did study? Do say what, if the answer is yes.  Not really - I try not to have regrets about what happened in the past - after all, I can't change it!
9. Describe the naughtiest thing you have ever done – within reason, of course  Probably, getting together with my husband - see above!!
10. What artistic aspirations or skills do you have?  I love doing cross-stitch and enjoy creating my own designs.  I like to personalise them and give them as gifts for people.
11. Which TV series or film do you keep watching again and again?  The film we watch every Christmas without fail is 'Love Actually' - and today's the day for this year's viewing!

11 bloggers tagged in this post

Because I'm so late responding to this challenge, some of the people I would have tagged have already been tagged by others.  Still, I'll include a couple of them in my list, just in case they want to respond to my questions!
  1. Russ Pearce (@rrruss)
  2. Kristina Klug (@teacherkristina)
  3. Michelle Fulton (@mitchefl)
  4. Mike Griffin (@michaelegriffin)
  5. Alex Walsh (@AlexSWalsh)
  6. Sharon Hartle (@hartle)
  7. TJ Vargas (@HerDailyDigest)
  8. Ozge Karaoglu Ergen (@ozge)
  9. JC Vargas (@kingceejay)
  10. Vicki Hollett (@vickihollett)
  11. Jason R Levine (@FluencyMC)
My 11 questions
  1. What's your favourite Christmas song?
  2. Who would you most like to meet (dead or alive) and what question would you ask them?
  3. What's the worst thing that's ever happened to you in the classroom?
  4. If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
  5. What would you like your epitaph to be?
  6. Which film is the most likely to move you to tears?
  7. What's the highest altitude you've ever been at on earth?
  8. What was the first record you ever bought?
  9. Do you still write anything by hand?  If so, what?
  10. Silver or gold?
  11. If you were offered the opportunity to travel into space, would you take it?
I hope some of you answer my questions - I look forward to reading your responses.

Thanks, Marisa - I've really enjoyed writing this!