#justchecking

You are probably not aware of the fact that you are doing this right now: checking. Whether you are here just checking if this blog entry has anything usefull to say or if my writting skills are any good, the fact is that you can’t help doing it. Not convinced yet? How many times have you cheked you email today? Your Facebook? Your Whatsapp? Did you notice the three spelling mistakes in this paragraph? Are you going to keep reading this post or draw a smiley face on your screen? Just checking.

Checking in ELT

Checking is only one of many teaching skills a competent teacher needs to develop to become, er… competent. So guess what? Like any other skill it takes a lot of practice. And patience. Even a few embarrassing moments in order to become fully developed. I’ve been there myself and I can almost swear on president Dilma’s grave that Jeremy Harmer, Scott Thornbury and Penny Ur have had their embarrassing moments when asking their check questions too. And I am being serious here. Apart from the more obvious checking of resources and materials before each lesson starts (e.g. are there enough photocopies? Is the internet working? Am I showing too much cleavage?), checking in ELT is normally divided into these two categories:

  • Checking Instructions
  • Checking Concepts

Checking Instructions

My experience shows that very few teachers, whether novice or experienced (but without formal training e.g. CELTA, DELTA), are used to checking their instructions. Their general approach seems to be to give instructions for an activity and then pray for the best… Not rarely, chaos ensues. Despite the consensus among trainers that there needs to be some form of checking, the best way to do this is still a question of debate.

Option 1: Learners repeat the instructions

Some teachers/trainers I have worked with advocate having learners repeat the instructions back to the teacher in L2 (or even in L1). While this is a valid alternative, my experience shows it may not always be appropriate e.g. with lower levels or when the teacher doesn’t speak the learners’ L1. In addition, it’s also more time-consuming as learners normally take a (very) long time to repeat back the instructions and I often notice that most of them, especially South Americans, do not have the patience to wait for their colleagues to finish reporting back and just get on with their work whether they have understood the activity or not – meanwhile, the poor teacher usually has to listen to one or two students painstakingly trying to accomplish the teachers request.

Option 2: Instruction Checking Questions

How about ICQs, then? Well, they seem to split teachers and trainers into two groups: those who are keen on their use and those who consider they are WAY overused in teacher training courses e.g. CELTA, to the point where they become some sort of ‘cult’. I belong in the first group and, to those of you who take part in the second, what I have to say is that ‘overuse’ is good when you are learning something for the first time. My daughter Sofia is three years old and overuses plurals. And she gets them wrong most of the time to the point that it would have been embarrassing to an adult. And we even laugh about it (although I try my best not to). She also overuses questions (much more than my patience can stand at times!) – but that’s absolutely normal, just ask any parent… Teachers NEED to overuse ICQs – and asking silly questions such as the one at the end of the first paragraph of this post is just a part of it – so that, once they feel they have mastered this skill and are confident doing it, they can then stop doing it! Picasso had to become a master of realism before he could take painting apart. By the way, I’m not trying to encourage teachers to subvert teaching once they’ve mastered their ICQs – although that wouldn’t be a bad idea. In any case, ICQs can be especially useful if the instructions include:

  • necessarily tricky language in the instructions
  • things that it is critical that students do/don’t do (e.g. not look at each other’s worksheets during and information gap activity)
  • multiple stages
  • different roles for different students

Option 3: Demonstrations

Demonstrations seem to be the most underused option, even though a simple demonstration will almost always ensure that learners have a better understanding of what they are supposed to do than all other forms of checking can on their own. You could try doing the first couple of examples as a class or role play the activity with a strong learner. OK? Alright? Get my drift?

Checking Concepts

The ability to find out whether learners have understood new target language is especially important in inductive approaches to language teaching and most text books these days have incorporated ways to help learners arrive at an understanding of the rule(s) by looking at examples of language in context. So what are the implications for the teacher? It means that it is the teacher’s role to check if the learners have a clear understanding of the concepts they have been struggling to grasp on their own. There are many ways to do this, including asking Concept Checking Questions – the infamous CCQs. Creating them is not an easy task for the novice teacher (and even for more experienced ones!) and everything I have said earlier regarding developing a new skill also applies here. The big difference is, when it comes to learning about grammar – and having to answer questions about it – many learners find it difficult… or just dead boring! So how can teachers overcome this difficulty/obstacle? One way I found, which has been showing amazing results, is through the use of ‘internet memes’ to help learners understand difficult grammar concepts in a humorous and engaging way.

Internet memes and concept checking

I already mentioned in my earlier post (#shifthappens) how my meeting with Luiz Otávio inspired me to start this blog. We were having dinner after the ELT event where we were both speaking, when I expressed my desire to start writing ELT-related stuff for publication. He said he’d really liked my talk called From Internet Memes to Concept Checking and that, if I made it into an article, he would happily publish it on his blog ThinkELT.com. I got really excited with the idea of having my first article published on such a renowned blog, so I sat down and wrote it, and then sent it to him. As it turned out, what I’d planned to start only in 2014 (as one more thing in my list of New Year’s resolutions) came about a month earlier, as a premature baby who couldn’t wait to be born. On seeing that I’d started my blog (and written my first post), Luiz wrote me an email saying he’d really liked my article and that it deserved to go in my blog, for it would attract many visitors. I refused. What better way of saying thank you to the person who inspired me to start the thing in the first place than having people read it on his? So, are you going to click on the link below or are you going to leave a comment on this page? Just checking.

Internet Memes and Concept Checking on ThinkELT.com by Luiz Otávio Barros.

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#shifthappens

2013 has seen a pope resign, an ageing superman turn seventy-five, and my teenage idol Roger Waters finally perform live (in Brazil). In retrospect, these were three things I didn’t see coming a year ago. Nor did I imagine I would be sitting here in the middle of a hot mosquito-infested night writing my very first blog post as I watch my beloved daughter in her sleep. But, hey, shift happens.

Why a blog? Why now?

The reason is quite simple. Because shift happens, I now feel ready to counter-argument the excuses I have always made for not blogging:

  • Blogging is hard work and I have more important things to do
  • I’m not sure what to write about
  • All the good ideas have already been written about

Blogging is hard work and I have more important things to do

I used to say the same thing about learning to play the guitar. That was until I decided to seriously take it up last August after a four-month teacher training season in Ecuador, inspired by a great friend and fellow teacher trainer (and guitar player) Andy Cox. All it took me was to learn to say no to three episodes a night of every season of ‘The Big Bang Theory’ and voilà! Now I just can’t stop playing. The success of this enterprise inspired me to reassess my priorities and to try to cut down on my current level of procrastination.

I’m not sure what to write about

Because shift happens I have now decided to stop sabotaging myself by holding on to this thought. After all, myriad different and interesting things happen in my classes every day which I am sometimes happy to share on Facebook without critical reflection of my own practices – and which could be useful to teachers elsewhere – not to mention all the rich exchanges that invariably go on inside the teachers’ room.  The same applies to the countless hours of input sessions given and lessons observed on teacher training courses, the talks and workshops given in several ELT events, the insights gained from attending conferences and seminars… the list is endless.

All the good ideas have already been written about

Again, I admit I was wrong. More and more we are being required to find local solutions to local challenges while keeping the global in perspective. In the past two years I have gone from teaching a group of Sudanese refugees to groups of mixed nationalites in the UK to groups of small shopkeepers and cabdrivers in Ecuador to monolingual groups of middle-class teenagers and adults in language schools in Brazil. There are no neat solutions to classroom dynamics given the changing nature of classrooms. As teachers we are constantly reviewing our practices and finding new solutions to problems we face on a daily basis. Not to mention all the great class materials and lessons we create, which are often used a couple of times and then forgotten in a folder in a PC or a memory stick.

Shift happens

About 10 years ago I met an inspiring teacher trainer called Luiz Otávio on a CELTA course. And this year we met again for the first time since then. We were both presenting at an ELT event. I mentioned to him how 2013 had probably been the best year of my professional career thus far. “How old are you?”, he asked. “thirty-five”, I replied. With a grin on his face, he gave me that look only very wise people possess and remarked: “It’s the end of another seven-year cycle”. So who knows, maybe shift truly happens at the end of every seven years.