Review: ELT Lesson Observation & Feedback

Lesson observations – where to start?! Jeanette Barsdell, the author of ELT Lesson Observation and Feedback Handbook, was thrown in at the deep end and expected to observe a teacher on her first day as a DOS. Despite being terrified, she got some great advice, hit the ground running and developed into a competent observer. She’s written a guidance book for anyone who observes or intends to observe ELT teachers, and overall is a great resource.

Overview

Barsdell explains that the book will help you with (quote):

  • managing and setting up observations
  • decoding a lesson plan to understand and improve practice
  • understanding from teaching practice a teacher’s strengths and weaknesses
  • stating strengths and areas to work on in a constructive way
  • being comfortable giving face-to-face and written feedback.

It starts off with some general information on types of observation (formal, peer, video, self-reflection, etc). It moves on to a section on setting up observations, in which Barsdell provides a nice ‘11 stage schedule for formal observations’. There was a mention of the British Council (i.e. my employer) early on in the book, but it was at this ’11 stage…’ section that I instantly decided: Barsdell must either work for, worked at previously, or have been trained by the BC – because this section was pretty British Council by the book (excuse the pun). Not in a bad way, our observations are very well-structured – the best I’ve had in the industry to date, and they are certainly thorough, just like Barsdell. I read snippets of this book to my boss in the staffroom and she was like ‘I think I could have written that, tut I wish I had!’ Deffo British Councilly, this stuff.

Wait, I say thorough. The information in general in this book is in short, sharp paragraphs. It’s written from a practical standpoint – the author mentions that there’s a lots of theoretical literature on the topic of observations but not enough on the practice. Well, she’s plugging that hole for sure.

Sections move on to cover lesson planning (and how to assess the teacher’s plan), the observation itself, feedback techniques, and some alternative approaches to feedback. Each section is clearly and concisely organised, offering tips on exactly what you need with a bit extra there too.

To give you an idea of this layout I’ll look at Chapter 2: Setting up a formal observation. It’s pretty step-by-step and you get the formula straight away:

Why observe? – about 100 words

Observing in response to a complaint – About 100 words

Length/type of observation – 50 words

Type of lesson to observe – 200 words

Informing students – 100 words

Being in the room  – 100 words

Should I intervene? – 100 words

Quick reading, useful tips. Thorough enough, but to the point – if you can be both…!?! Basically, not much time was wasted reading this book.

The best bits

There are quite a few.

  • Model comments: Barsdell covers tonnes of different areas to assess for an observer, related to the plan and the lesson itself. Under a series of subheadings she offers provides model comment. These aren’t meant as a copy/paste job – they are there to give an idea of tone, and I think they do that well. One example:

  • The list of excuses in ‘resistance to lesson planning’. Ha! I’ve heard plenty of them… Actually I think I’ve said plenty myself! Examples from the long list:

I’ve certainly never said the first one… imagine that!

  • The tips on decoding a lesson plan and what you’re actually looking for (professionalism, coherence, subject knowledge, etc, etc).
  • The really useful checklists in the appendix that go with sections like the above. There is one particular checklist (photocopiable) that I wish I’d had in front of me when observing last year
  • Suggestions for things I hadn’t thought about much: should a lesson plan actually be graded (for things like developmental observations)? Appreciating teachers attempts to make recoveries, when it is ok to intervene in a lesson, etc
  • Random alternative approaches to feedback, like this sort of sensory NLP thing that made me chuckle:

I can imagine my self-evaluation answers: it sounded, felt, and looked like a car crash

  • A good tip on viral feedback, which I kind of do…

Things that led to discussion

Barsdell talks about interaction patterns and timings in slightly more length. This was interesting as there was a bit of Geoff Jordany Twitter discussion on this recently. Barsdell comes up with tentative figures for acceptable amounts of teacher talk/teacher student interaction, which differ depending on context. I won’t go into them here. Interesting though.

There was also something that I thought…’hmmm, I’m not sure’. Regarding meaning conveyance, Barsdell provides a table of suggested balance between focus on meaning, form and pronunciation. Here is an example:

The list of other examples is, like the above, not generalizable. The suggestion is to review the language input stage based on your suggested criteria of how much focus there should be on meaning, form and pron. Me and the boss had a chat about this, she made a good point:

This could be a good piece of guidance for trainees on the CELTA, but maybe not for more experienced teachers. Also, it’s a bit contextual, I think a lot depends on how this input is justified throughout the rest of the plan, what’s come before, what the learners are like, stuff like that.

Things that could improve

The section on how to assess the teaching of pronunciation was a bit sparse. There were a few general tips here, but this is a fairly overlooked aspect of input I think, and a bit more guidance for observers might be helpful. I’ve just been writing about my lack of understanding re: certain aspects of pronunciation (and what to teach), and I’ve got nearly a decades teaching experience…

Also, I know I complimented the author on how concise and to the point these sections were but come on Jeanette! If you read the blog you must know I love good whiteboard work! Bulk that section out by a couple of 100 words for us #ELTWhiteboard fans.

Something I could improve

Blimey, I don’t want to read the advice on what to look for when teachers give instructions. I’m rubbish at instructions. When it gets to those stages in my lesson, observers look away now!!!!!

A tip on how this book should be marketed

Just a note for the author. The format of each section isn’t a ‘list’ per se, but I think it lends itself to a blog. I’d like to see a blog accompanying this resource with snippets of advice, and possibly further, supplementary materials. I think a lot of people would find that useful.

Summary

This resource is well-structured, to the point, full of take home practical tips, and includes some very useful photocopiable materials. It would be a very good purchase for those new to observing and giving feedback. I would recommend this as a core training/reference resource for new line managers (hence observers) in my company. It is really suited to the British Council style so I wouldn’t be surprised if I see a copy on our shelf sometime soon.

Rating: a solid 4.5/5

5 comments

  1. The MPF percentage table thing is definitely…weird. I think it’d work well as an observation task though…record the %s of focus from the lesson to be reflected on later (‘hmmm…10% on pron for this largely spoken grammar point doesn’t seem like enough at all…gonna try to up that next time).

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