General

Insight into a synthetic syllabus

Views are my own in this post.

I teach from a synthetic syllabus at my school and the following attributes are true of it…

  • it’s a covert linguistic syllabus (notional-functional)
  • it’s task-supported (rather than task-based)
  • the tasks are built on structure-trapping rather than target tasks based on learner needs. However, learners can opt to follow a particular pathway (e.g. work, study) which helps ‘personalise their learning journey’ (to an extent)

You could level plenty of criticism towards the approach – I do love ranting about this myself sometimes. In a nutshell: it’s tblt with small letters, as Mike Long (2015) would put it, and with that his awesome book on TBLT (note the capitals) would pay it no further attention. The “tasks” are more like “situational language exercises” (Cunningham, in Ellis 2009), and would likely lead to “encoded usage” rather than “purposeful use” (Widdowson 2003). I’ve heard some teachers call it worse than that – “McDonaldsy” and “glorified PPP” being some of the softer terms.

I get the PPP thing. (more…)

My tree octopus fake news fail

Here’s one of my favourite things to write about – things that didn’t work! This is a request for ideas from Teacher James and others.

James mentioned using the Pacific North-west Tree Octopus site as a good resource for talking about fake news. There are a lot of lesson plans online for using this site – James himself has a good one (click here). Anyhow, I love the site itself and can certainly see how it would benefit learners to explore it and think critically about its content. Alas, I got it wrong…

I loosely followed Tomlinson’s text-driven approach (which I seem to do a bit too often these days but hey ho!). I’m sure I got a lot of these ideas from an existing plan – maybe something by Jamie Keddie but I’m not entirely sure… Anyway, things started off like this…

…then this…

And onto this…

(more…)

Book review: Stories Without End

Alphabet Publishing recently sent me a copy of Stories Without End by Taylor Sapp. Here’s a review and a bit about how I used the book…

The book

Stories Without End is a collection of 24 open-ended stories for use in the classroom. The texts, usually no more than three A4 pages in length, come with reading and discussion activities and possible project work for extension.

General format

Each text usually includes…

  • ‘Before You Read’ – usually orientation questions, sometimes prediction
  • ‘Vocabulary’ – a matching task to pre-teach vocab. This appears before the text but I guess you don’t have to use it as a pre-teach. Up to you.
  • ‘After You Read’ – usually discussion questions encouraging personal response
  • ‘Projects’ – possible extension tasks

There are a few supplementary resources provided for these tasks at the back of the book.

The stories

There are two types of stories in the book. ‘Short Takes’ are texts under 500 words, and ‘Mid-Length Stories’ are between 500-2000 words.

Things I like about the stories

I like the fact that most texts in this book don’t seem to be graded. I spend a lot of my time as a materials writer grading texts, and at times this takes away the richness, perhaps authenticity too. I see why the writer has opted to provide pre-teaching tasks as the language can be challenging at times (milquetoast was a new word for me!). Sure, there can be benefits to simplifying a text, but it’s nice to be presented with a resource that provides texts as intended.

The text topics overall are interesting and useful. In my context, I’d say about half of them would ‘work’ – by that I mean engage my students, prompt discussion and have relevance. This book has arrived just at the right time for me, with our school promoting a ‘Reading Challenge’ this term. I know some of my students shy away from this initiative each year – the aim is to read 1-4 books across term. That’s ambitious for my students, and these short-stories will be more accessible. (more…)

Webinar notes: What about principles for materials development? (Brian Tomlinson)

Here is Brian Tomlinson’s recent webinar in written form: ‘What about principles for materials development?’ The session was delivered as part of the MaWSIG ‘What about…? Webinar series. It was full of take home points so this post is pretty long!

Tomlinson started by stressing that materials development of any kind (writing, editing, teacher-created resources, etc) should be principled. He defined ‘principled’ as the following:

‘they should match criteria related to second language acquisition research, classroom research, materials development research, and also from [teacher] experience of adapting and using materials’

He moved on to outline a series of key principles for materials development, based on SLA research findings. He didn’t make specific references to those research findings during the talk, but implies that these are general tenets of SLA backed up by research. He supported his ideas with brief example activities/tasks/procedures to help include these principles in ELT materials.

Learners must be exposed to language in use which is… (more…)

#ObserveMe

I really like the #ObserveMe movement (see Robert Kaplinsky’s post here or the hashtag). However, I’m going to have to tweak things to make it work.

Gone are the days of LTC Eastbourne. My two years at that school were highly collaborative and peer observation was commonplace. It wasn’t an open doors policy, but a fair few teachers were happy for me to drop in and observe at short notice, some extending the open invitation (like Sketch who blogs here). There was a time at LTC (admittedly when I had more time myself) when I’d observe another teacher at least once, often twice a week. Teachers welcomed feedback but, unlike much of the #ObserveMe tweets I’ve seen, I was rarely directed to focus on a specific feature or skill – ‘i.e. how do I vary interaction patterns?/How can I do a better job of keeping learners engaged?’ etc.

The ‘free-for-all’ approach had its perks for me – I could focus on whatever I wanted. I often focused on how teachers gave instructions and also on the correction techniques they used – that’s really interesting to observe in a language classroom. Whiteboard work was also a favourite! For the teachers I observed, I guess the feedback topic was a lottery. It’s not the most effective/focused way of doing things but hey, I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity of observing experienced teachers. Post-observation feedback still led to some interesting discussions – it was sometimes just good to download about issues that emerged during the lesson!

Fast-forward three years and my experience of observations has changed a lot. My two observed lessons per year (one developmental, one evaluative) are thorough and quite stressful. They are fairly by the book (i.e. this book!) and my performance is now linked to my pay, so giving the observer what they want is the priority, rather than giving the learners what the need. Sniff. I’ve frequently been the observed teacher in my current job rather than the observer. In my first year I was observed either formally or through drop ins about 12 times (!) by line managers, trainers and sometimes sales staff getting to know the products. Most observations were top down, which is sad. The only teacher who asked to observe me (rather than a manager who told me they were observing) has moved on, and I’m really lacking someone to bounce ideas off and who I trust to offer objective and informative feedback.

I want to change this, and to do so I think I need to change our teachers’ perception of observations. Given the formality and rigidity of our current observations, my approach here is the opposite. Complete freedom – no guidance, no specific focus (which I would have liked for my own benefit), nothing but allowing other teachers to come in, observe and comment. Breaking the invisible barrier between colleagues and just getting the dialogue going. It doesn’t matter what about to begin with, just… tell me what you think of my teaching and we can take the discussion from there!

Here’s the poster I’ve put up on my door. I hope someone pops in. *Anyone but the boss, ANYONE BUT THE BOSS!*

Feature image: TonyCrabbe

Tech tips for new materials writers

These tips may sound simple to some, but useful to others! As a new writer I reckon you’ll have to do some of the things below, so this primer could help you hit the ground running…

note: instructions for Word based on Office 365

Tips for using Word… because we are all lazy until we actually need most of the cool functions!

Applying a template to a Word document

A publisher might send you a Word template to use and you need to upload it. Google how to do this if you don’t know, but it’s fairly straightforward (for me: Developer tab – Document template – Attach… that’s it really).

Changing the author name

Sometimes a publisher, or particularly an agent outsourcing work for a publisher, will ask you to alter author names in a document. That’s actually quite easy: File – Options – Personalise your copy… and you’ll see the options there.

Styles and the navigation pane

How often do you use Styles in Word? I’m lazy, I never used to bother….

Most materials writing I’ve done has been on Word using templates. These templates range in complexity, but the basic premise is the same as the Word Styles – it’s just applying a particular format to a body of text. Give yourself a refresher on using/changing these. Press Ctrl+F to open the navigation pane in Word. This will show you how easy it is to find your way around a document that uses Styles formatting. (more…)

Developing into a materials writer

Here are a few general tips for skills to develop if you’d like to write for publishers or big teaching organisations.

This is not a ‘How to become….’ post. You can find good tips about how to actually get into materials writing here and here. Also there are more general tips here.

Making the transition…

Going from teaching to materials writing is just a mindset thing really. Teaching and writing require a lot of the same skills anyway (see below). If you write your own materials for class now and then, well that makes you a materials writer.

‘Yeah, but I’m not… you know… paid to… or a professional materials wri-‘

Ah come on! Let publishers be the judge of that. What’s the worst they’ll do? Tell you that you don’t have the right experience? You might get lucky – they might ask you to write a sample of work for them… who’s gonna feel like a writer then, hey? Hey?!

Dealing with feedback

You go all out to write an awesome, engaging text only to receive tonnes of negative feedback. Sometimes feedback is constructive, sometimes it’s really blunt. You certainly need to develop a thick skin. Also, don’t assume that feedback is always scathing. Once, I received feedback on a grammar task that simply read ‘Why have you chosen this task?’ You can take that a few ways:

  • What on Earth are you doing?
  • This is the wrong task, you should choose something else
  • What is your logic here? I’m genuinely interested… If you explain it I might see the value…

Some inferences are more positive than others. Go with the positive spin – not everyone is out to put you down!

Incidentally, some of the best feedback I’ve had on materials has also led to changes to my own lesson planning/teaching practice. Just because an editor is sitting in an office all day doesn’t mean they’re not a practitioner too. (more…)