Problem Solving 2 – Solutions

As promised, here are the problems from the last post but this time with added suggestions of solutions. It was really encouraging at our meeting the other day to see how much our staff seem to be on the same page – we split into groups to discuss the problems and when we came together at the end there were more similarities than differences in the approaches. Most people said they had experienced or done at least one or two of the things on the list – I know I’ve probably done them all at some stage.

Let me know if you agree or disagree with the suggestions/explanations. Like most things in teaching, a lot of this is easier said than done.

1. A student who didn’t pass the progression test expresses annoyance that the class isn’t challenging enough for them. They know all the answers to the exercises already. What can the teacher do in this situation?

Increase the level of challenge for this student. Ask them to pronounce everything more naturally, recast and upgrade the language they use at every opportunity – if they know the answers already ask them to write them in a different way, work without notes, look for aspects of connected speech etc. After the class, sit down with them and explain exactly why they didn’t progress. Help them to set targets for improvement, make sure these are measurable (e.g. “work on your speaking” is far too vague and cannot be measured in any objective way.) Try to be very specific with goals, e.g. “You hesitate a lot when you speak, which makes it difficult to understand you sometimes. Try to think of what you want to say before you say it and that will help you get quicker.” OR “It can be hard to understand you, because you don’t have very good control of tenses, so I can’t tell if you mean now, or yesterday, or tomorrow. Try slowing down and thinking about the tense before you speak, use time expressions to help you.” These things are real, measurable and achievable and give this student a target to aim at. Their attitude is more than likely borne out of frustration that they don’t know how to improve or what they need to do to progress.

2. The teacher in instructions tells students to find out about their partner’s favourite film. In feedback, they correct lots of errors but don’t ask anyone what the film was. How do the class feel about the work they do?

They probably feel like the teacher doesn’t care what they talk about and that there’s no real purpose to the work that they do. It’s important to create a link between your instructions, and the feedback you give. Avoiding instructions like ‘discuss’ can help here. Try ‘choose, find out, make an agreement about..’ – that way your feedback will naturally be: ‘what did you choose/find out/agree on?’. This ‘content feedback’ or ‘reporting’ stage of the lesson is important as it gives a purpose to the communication that learners do outside of ‘the teacher told us to do it’. These report stages help to create a good class dynamic and are a wonderful source of information for you about these particular learners.

3. The teacher wants to check if students understand a grammar point – e.g. present perfect. T asks ‘If I know the time, do I use the present perfect?’  Ss: ‘no’. T: ‘When do I use the present perfect?’ Ss: ‘When you don’t know the time’.  Does the teacher know if the students can use the present perfect?

This is ‘declarative’ or ‘explicit’ knowledge – which means that students can tell you all about something. Unfortunately, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they have ‘implicit or procedural’ knowledge i.e. that they use this tense automatically in those situations. This example shows the limitation of explanations and ‘concept checking’ questions and highlights the value of getting students to do things. In this case, if we want to know if students can use the present perfect to talk about experiences, for example, we simply get them to talk about experiences and monitor to see how they do it. Now when you talk about ‘with time’ ‘without time’ or whatever your CCQs are, you’ll be directly correcting things that they have just done, so both you, and they, will be acting to adjust their procedural knowledge. At this point you could do some controlled practice and then get them to do the first exercise again (TEST – TEACH – TEST).

4. An interaction in an A1 class goes something like this:
T: So, what did anyone do at the weekend?
S1: I go to cinema.
T: You went to the cinema, went to the cinema, good, what did you see?
S1: Batman.
T: Batman, very good, I like Batman. anyone else?
S2: I go to the park.
T: You went to the park.. went to the park.
S2: Yes, I went to the park.
T: Very nice – the weather was good wasn’t it. Ok. Let’s see what we’re going to do today.. What effect do the teacher’s responses have on the class here?

The first thing happening here is that nobody has to listen to anybody else as they can just listen to the teacher who helpfully repeats everything that anyone says. The second thing is that the teacher is acting as a filter or barrier between students, so any communication is happening between one student and the teacher rather than between students or among the whole class. The final effect this might have, given it’s a low level, is that students may start to clam up or lose confidence because the teacher is correcting every word they say. The good parts of this are where the teacher reacts as a human, so if they lost the repeats and the recasts (which students probably aren’t noticing) and just kept the reactions these would be very nice interactions. (what did you see? the weather was good, wasn’t it?)

5. The teacher wants to explain the 2nd conditional. To do it, they spend about 20 minutes at the board going through the rules and some examples. The students listen carefully, make some notes and then do some exercises. They get all the correct answers and afterwards most of them are able to make their own sentences using 2nd conditional in free(r) practice. A few days later, the teacher notices that students are making mistakes with this structure. What went wrong?

It takes a long time for learners to ‘get’ a new structure. They need lots of practice, opportunities to make mistakes and have them corrected, and just time. Lots of time. It would be highly unusual for someone to go to a class on 2nd conditional, for example, and then never make a mistake with it again. We need to be very aware of the fact that learning a language does not occur in a ‘transmission model’ i.e. I teach therefore you learn. Just because you ‘do’ a tense with learners, does not mean they will have become proficient in it’s use. Remembering this might help to lower your stress levels considerably.

6. To start the class the teacher does a brilliant mingle activity where some students are pirates and others are aliens and they all must work together to find out who is the human and where they hid the gold. It’s amazing – it really gets students up and about and talking. The main lesson is about compound nouns, T does a presentation about them and students do lots of exercises. After all that work, in the last 20 minutes, the class do ‘youtube karaoke’ – it’s great fun, they all go home laughing and smiling. How do the students in this class feel about their coursework?

They probably feel that it’s not that important or that it’s boring. They may also feel that the teacher thinks the same as them. What’s memorable about this lesson is the game at the start and the singing at the end. No one, not even the teacher, will remember the important work on compound nouns. Warmers and finishers and fillers and whatever else need to be connected to the main thrust of the lesson. A wise person once said, a good lesson is like a story, it has a beginning, middle and end. Having good ‘flow’ will make your lessons more consistent and make the real work more memorable and enjoyable for learners. If your attitude is that compound nouns or any other aspect of language is boring, you can be fairly sure that your students will follow your lead.

7. An interaction at B1 goes something like this:
S1: Is terrible in my country, the politico, they no have good moral, they robber. My father, once he had good job, but now is all…
T (interrupting): Yes, ok, now. not ‘politico’ – what do we say?
S2: politician
T: yes, that’s it, politician (writes on board). And we don’t say ‘they no have good moral’ we say…?
S3: They don’t have good moral?
T: Almost, ‘they don’t have…?’
S4: They don’t have any moral?
T: better, but any…. followed by singular or plural?
S2: morals?
T: That’s it… (writes phrase on board). Now, ‘they robber’ .. What should we say?
S3: They are robbers?
T: Yes, that’s ok, but for politicians we have an adjective to describe them, starts with ‘c’
S4: Corruption.
T: That’s it, but that’s the noun, the adjective is..?
S2: Corrupt?
T: Excellent. (writes on board) – Now, who wants to respond to that?
What changes would you make to this sequence? How does student 1 feel about their teacher here? Would you respond?

Firstly the teacher needs to get out of the way. That or they need to act like the student speaking is a person and not a language producing machine. Aside from interrupting this learner, the teacher gives no indication that they heard what they said other than to use it as at the basis for some ad hoc correction. This has 2 effects on S1, one, they feel miffed that they were interrupted and quasi-ignored, and two, they feel embarrassed that what they said gets pulled apart so mercilessly in public. The chances of S1 being the first to speak in open class again are low. Secondly, there is so much interruption here that there is no danger of conversation breaking out. Everyone has probably forgotten what S1 was talking about, added to the fact that there will be fear of being corrected in the same manner, so the chances of anyone getting involved here are slim. The teacher, later on in the staff room, will complain that “they’re a nice class, but they just don’t say very much”. Give learners space to use the language and talk to each other, correct them afterwards. If you’re worried that they will be practicing the wrong thing, then get them to do it again after the correction.

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