ELT Experiences

Experiences of an English Language Teacher


“Getting off the Intermediate Plateau”: ELT Chat Summary

Picture tweeted by @AlexandraKouk
ELT Chat Summary: Part 1
A few weeks ago, 22 May 2013, ELT Chat discussed the topic about all things related to teaching the Intermediate learner.  However, this day was special as both the 1pm and 9pm (GMT) focused solely on the issue of an Intermediate Plateau.  It was the first time that I had discovered an ELT Chat discussion on Twitter focus on a particular topic for the whole day.  This blog post will summarise the two discussions which occurred during this day and provides some practical advice for teachers facing Intermediate learners who reach that lack of motivation, conviction and interest in their language learning.
@Marisa_C started the discussion off by welcoming everyone to the “#ELTChat on intermediate learners stuck on the famous plateau” .  However, what could be defined as an Intermediate Learner and how do they get stuck, feeling like they just aren’t making any progress?  Most people decided to answer this question by sharing their ideas about the length of period a student may study for until the ‘famous plateau’ emerges.  Some suggestions included:

“I’ve had students in Korea that would love to be intermediate plateau or not after 15 years of study” – @michaelegriffin

“For me, my sts reached that intermediate plateau after about 3 years of English (about 320 hours)” – @OUPELTGlobal

“In Greece they may have studied for anything between 4-6 yrs – not good huh? but kids” – @Marisa_C

It was clear that the majority of learners, who had been studying English for any great length of period, would ultimately face a ‘plateau’ of some sorts.  Some tweets suggested that this was a natural part of learning, while others viewed a ‘plateau’ not dependent upon the length a learner had studied English:

“Perhaps what defines the plateau feeling can’t be measured in language skills proficiency or years but in lack of progress” – @AlexandraKouk

“Right or wrong, I’ve always thought of the plateau as sts needing to USE the English they’ve learned and not being able to” – @OUPELTGlobal

“the sense that you’ve ‘done it all’ is what can be so frustrating – maybe it’s about starting to see patterns and make connections” – @KatySDavies

It was very clear that there was some connection that the feeling of a ‘plateau’ or being ‘stuck-in-a-rut’ was natural and was related to the feeling of ‘lacking any progress’, ‘not applying knowledge’ or ‘completing everything in class but unable to communicate outside the class’.  Therefore, what is the best way of dealing with the possibility of an intermediate plateau?  There were a number of suggestions:

“They need to improve independent learning skills and not only English lang skills.” – @andrea_rivett

“Interdisciplinary as a key to get off the plateau? Must use the language to learn some other subject.” – @touqo

“but sometimes Ss are mistaken about the cause of some of their issues and also a big part of the job is managing expectations” – @KatySDavies

“students need to see practical relevance of language to their lives in order to progress – if not, they stay in the same place” – @pjgallantry

“Needs to be more focus not just on using authentic materials but how language is used authentically” – @KatySDavies

From some of the tweets during the discussion that much of the way to deal with a plateau is to develop independent learning skills, using and monitoring language in ‘real-life’ circumstances, developing a focus away from the ‘grammar delivery’ of coursebooks and bringing in the ‘real-world’, as well as an element of authenticity, into the classroom.  There was a focus on Task-Based Learning (TBL) for the curbing of possible plateaus and as @AlexandraKouk mentioned, “using more TBL or project work may help ss realise how much they can do with the lang they’ve got”.  An interesting observation was made by @pjgallantry in reference to extensive reading: “from my experience, students who do more reading on their free time seem to make far greater strides”.
There was growing emphasis on the use of ‘learner diaries’, which could also include the use of portfolios, to develop and raise student awareness of language learning and the noting of learning from their day-to-day activities.  It is self-evident, these days in the classroom, that there is greater effort for those learners, at an intermediate level of English (or any other level to be honest), which are expected to have developed more autonomous learning skills.  Yet, many teachers expect most of their learners to be able to acquire the functions of autonomous learning in a more automatic fashion.  At our language school, there is a specific day of the week where adult learners focus on particular study skills: using a dictionary, noticing more authentic material (photos, pamphlets, etc) to bring into class, how to note down newly acquired vocabulary, etc.  This is really aimed for learners at any level and to encourage more autonomous learning and developing language development portfolios which can be reviewed or amended whenever necessary as well as focus on learner training.  These study skills activities were further considered important during the ELT Chat discussion with many contributors detailing examples of suitable study skill focus:

“A typical trait of good lang learners is that they like to use diagrams etc to organise their learning” – @Marisa_C

“developing skills like guessing the meaning of words from context important to give them confidence to read more alone” – @KatySDavies

Nearer the end of the first ELT Chat discussion of the day, some points were raised that learners had to notice their progress and a good indication included:
  • a student wiki page;
  • developing student portfolios (online or offline);
  • moving away from the coursebook towards more reactionary teaching with the focus on the learners (I think Dogme was mentioned once during the discussion); and
  • negotiating around the syllabus and content (getting the learners more involved in the) with the coursebook.

By this time, the ELT Chat had finished.  Many contributors had a break from the discussion, later to return and contribute towards the evening discussion

ELT Chat Summary: Part 2
The second part of the ELT Chat on plateaus started promptly at 21:00 (GMT) with a definition of a ‘plateau’ as being “working hard but not getting anywhere” (@Marisa_C) while another suggested there was more to this than previously explained such as “the feeling that you’re not getting anywhere. It may not be true, but it feels like it” (@theteacherjames).  @sandymillindid mention that some of the learners that she encounters don’t seem to get out of this plateau and the exposure to language in the UK “hasn’t helped some of them leave the plateau! … fear of natives?”.  There were some other examples about what could cause plateaus with learners from various contributors which included:

“Maybe the problem then is how stds are measuring their progress?” – @mattellman

“Being stuck in the same level for ages can make SS really lose motivation, despite their progress” – @sandymillin

“As they progress, it becomes much harder for them to notice real improvements.” – @theteacherjames

With the three above tweets, each contributor suggested that there needs to be some evidence of ‘progress’.  Yet, determining progress and getting learners more aware of progress was mentioned in the earlier discussion. @leoselivan mentioned that progress should not be just ‘vertical’ (from Intermediate to Upper Intermediate) but should also be more ‘horizontal’.  For example, recycling and reviewing language and areas of study as well as visualising learner aims and objectives for their future.  There was also mention of the Common European Framework (known as the CEF or CEFR) in determining levels and progress with the ‘can-do’ statements.  However, with the CEF/CEFR, the distinction between B1 (Intermediate) and B2 (Upper Intermediate) levels can be regarded as “an impossible gap to bridge” (@leoselivan).  I suppose an intermediate level could be “such a broad term that students get lost there and some start to give up” and getting learners “involved in the aims of the course … could motivate them” (@MichaelaCarey).  Naturally, there is the paradigm between following a framework as endorsed by the British Council compared to reactive, reflective and independent methods of teaching which could be more beneficial for learners.
Nearer the ‘30 minute-mark’ of the discussion, contributors started sharing important ideas which could move learners beyond the intermediate plateau.  Although mentioned briefly during the earlier ELT Chat discussion, some new ideas cropped up:

“Fellow students are an important factor in motivation, not just the teacher.  Students need good classmates to help them progress” – @mattellman

“Use their [student’s] own writing activities [at the beginning] … and them ask them to improve it at the end [of the course].  Compare the difference” – @theteacherjames

It is evident that there appears to be a distinction between authentic interaction and the distant placed from the classroom.  @sandymillin mentioned that her learners feel unmotivated when they are interacting with ‘real people in the street’ and are unable understand due to their accent.  So the question remains, is there a greater divide between the CEF/CEFR on their ‘can-do’ statements and language skills (pronunciation, listening, etc)?  Despite the improvements of syllabus design with the CEF/CEFR, there is still a widening bridge between language production and language skills.  Much of what determines the ‘intermediate plateau’ is determined from language production and perhaps as educators, we should start to consider the use of supplementing coursebooks with study skills, language skills, or learner training through the use of appropriate methodology and approaches in language teaching.
Various links were recommended during the day of the ELT Chat discussion and these included the following:

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ELTChat Summary: Spoken Narratives and Anecdotes in the Language Classroom

Kittens in a box © ELTPics

As I enjoyed writing up a previous #ELTChat summary on the use of surprise in the classroom, I decided to volunteer to write up another summary for the Twitter discussion group.  On the 19 December 2012, the discussion group #ELTChat decided to focus on the use of spoken narrative and anecdotes in the language classroom.  Upon tackling this discussion, many tweets initially questioned whether teachers incorporated anecdotes in the classroom.  Some tweets suggested there was a mixed response:

TEFLGeek: Yes, anecdotes have featured in my classes / No, not as a lesson focus per se.

LizziePinard: Good question – does anyone do it? I have – it works well with learners who enjoy speaking (e.g. Spanish).

Shaunwilden: Guess i am the same mainly used to for another purpose rather than be the whole lesson.

TheTeacherJames: Anecdotes are a fundamental part of conversation and small talk, so I guess I encourage them without realising it.

MarjorieRosenbe: I tell stories and anecdotes all the time.

At this point in the conversation, other contributors agreed that they provided anecdotes in the classroom and TheTeacherJames suggested that anecdotes were ‘bottom-up’ rather than ‘top-down’ and that these anecdotes or jokes were associated with a ‘natural’ context instead of a ‘traditional’ classroom.  Towards this part of the discussion, some teachers shared their experiences of anecdotes in coursebooks:

TEFLGeek: Anecdotes feature prominently in the Inside Out series, but I haven’t used that since Poland (six years ago).

LizziePinard: think also in Natural English Upper Int there’s a bit.

One point raised during the discussion related to teachers unwilling to incorporate anecdotes in the classroom due to teacher talking time, whilst another contributor suggested that teachers could encourage students to share anecdotes.  It is assumed that ‘teacher talking time’ is related to the quantity which teachers are speaking, thereby curbing ‘student talking time’ but I guess the point is related to ‘quality talking time’.

David_Boughton: Are we too discouraged to tell stories now that we are obsessed with lowering teacher talk time?

JennyJohnson10: and do we mean students anecdoting away? or teachers – seems to be what has been mentioned so far.

One contributor rose to Jenny’s assertion that most of the ELTChat focused solely on teachers providing anecdotes with their experience of getting students to share anecdotes during the lesson.  However, there was one point raised that considered the other learners in the classroom if a learner was sharing an anecdote.

BobK99: I used to get student to tell anecdote and record it. The we’d play it back, both (1:1) commenting/discussing/improving.

TEFLGeek: biggest problem with sts telling anecdotes is getting other sts to listen. One st speaking to class can be boring for others.

Another contributor highlighted that sharing anecdotes could forge rapport with the learners in the classroom.  It would also suggest that this ‘slipping off the cloak’ of a teacher would humanise the classroom and that ‘natural’ based lessons would encourage this ‘bottom-up’ focus and one good way to generate rapport and humanism in the classroom is to incorporate anecdotes in the classroom.

Steven_odonnell: my own anecdotes in the classroom let me slip off the cloak of being a teacher and become human, forging rapport with ss.

TheTeacherJames: Yes, telling anecdotes is a great way to build rapport. Breaks down barriers, makes you more accessible and real.

Nevertheless, one question raised during the discussion is what to do with teacher or learner focused anecdotes.  Some of the contributors to the discussion provided some interesting lesson ideas, with some ideas suggestions that pair-work or pyramid conversation is more beneficial than one learner sharing an anecdote to the class.

MarjorieRosenbe: Do it in small groups – have them do it as snowball effect and repeat last one they heard, etc.

Annabooklover: One solution to this is to pair them up! Then there is also more effective use of time.

TEFLGeek: I do use pairwork a lot!  But I think there needs to be a structure around the anecdote.

MarjorieRosenbe: Getting ideas here – maybe give out ‘secret’ words and they have to listen for them in anecdote. Will try it and let you know.

There was a wealth of ideas for using anecdotes during a lesson without much indication towards ‘dictagloss’ and had direct experience of telling an anecdote to a group of university lecturers about picking up the wrong passport when travelling to Romania.  Travel problems were mentioned during the discussion as potential anecdotal material:

GetAheadinEng: Anecdotes about travel problems always worked well when teaching at a school in central London!

MarjorieRosenbe: Also anecdotes about travel problems or worst presentations ever seen.

At this point in the conversation (which focused solely on speaking practice for learners and teachers sharing experiences), it was directed towards using anecdotes as listening material.

TheTeacherJames: We’ve talked a lot about anecdotes as a form of speaking, but how would you use them as a listening activity?

OyaJimbo: As L activity, draw the map or connect characters, events, timeline it.

MarjorieRosenbe: Like I mentioned – have them listen for ‘secret’ words or give oral summary and pass on to others.

ShaunWilden: Isn’t understanding the anecdote evidence of listening?

This naturally progressed to the checking of understanding, with some suggestions such as ‘dictagloss’, grammar dictation, or ask leading questions “What would you have done?”, etc.  Towards the end of the ELTChat discussion, one lesson idea was for teachers or learners to tell an anecdote and get learners to guess whether they were true or false with one final idea to steal an anecdote if it was better than yours:

Jo_Cummins: Has anyone mentioned the ‘truth, truth, lie’ game? Good for anecdotes…

TheTeacherJames: Yes, I like the idea of a mingle where you can steal someone elses anecdote if it’s better than yours.

Unfortunately, this was the end of the ELTChat discussion.  To top it off, there was a wonderful suggestion for a lesson idea or further reading to consider when referring to anecdotes in the classroom. I have added two additional books which I consider suitable for getting those learners to talk.  Finally, it was a relief to see that there was no mention of Dogme ELT in the talk and a conversation-driven approach to anecdotes but “Teaching Unplugged” would be a wonderful source for those looking at ideas to develop anecdotes in the lesson for use during classes.  Again, a big thank you to all those at ELTChat for giving me the opportunity to write up this summary and it is over to my readers:

  • How do you use, or have you ever used, anecdotes in the classroom?
  • What is the advantages/disadvantages of anecdotes during the lesson?
  • How could teachers develop anecdotes for (future) lessons?
  • Are there specific classes which anecdotes are more suitable for?

Further Reading
Thornbury, S. (2005) “How To Teach Speaking
Klippel, F. (1985) “Keep Talking: Communicative Fluency Activities for Language Teaching
Ur, P. (1981) “Discussions That Work: Task-centred Fluency Practice

Lesson Ideas
Marisa Constantinides “True Story Worksheet” 
Martin Sketchley The Wrong Passport


Bringing The Surprise Element into Your Lesson: An #ELTChat Summary

Surprise! It’s me!

For teachers of English, we are constantly reviewing approaches and techniques as an alternative to commonly predicted forms of teaching and we sometimes have to incorporate more experimental styles of language education.  With this in mind, ELTChat focused on the incorporation and element of surprise in the classroom, on Wednesday 28 November, at 9pm GMT.  The chat offered participants the opportunity to share tips and techniques to develop for potential future classroom use.

Just a few words to say thank you to Marisa for allowing me the opportunity to write up my very first ELTChat summary on my blog.  It was very interesting to read the transcript and read the progress of the discussion.

Why Use Surprise in the Classroom?

As professionals we must question why surprise should be used during lessons.  This was answered early on in the discussion by some of the following:
  • SueAnnan: I think surprise stops the lessons becoming humdrum.
  • AnnLoseva: Unexpected turns of the lesson keep students wide-awake and it’s fun and refreshing!
  • AntoniaClare: I think surprise keeps students awake, alert, engaged, therefore ready to learn.
  • MarjorieRosenbe: Adding surprise elements wakes everyone up.  Students don’t learn if they are asleep.
  • pjgallantry: I feel novelty and surprise aid memorisation, but students then still to work on consolidation.
Wordle of the latest ELTChat © 2012

Based upon the above reactions from regular ELTChatterers, it was noted that surprise would stop possible lessons becoming boring with improved motivation which would alert and engage learners.  However, theteacherjames tweeted: “I’m struggling to see much benefit to surprising students.  Isn’t there also something to be said for reliability?“.  James has a point with reference to reliability and predictability but many others saw the potential of developing some form unpredictability in the classroom.  Nevertheless, what tips and suggestions were recommended during the discussion?  Read further for some very interesting and engaging ideas to implement surprise in the classroom.

Surprising Tips and Techniques

During the ELTChat discussion, there many ideas and tips exchanged for incorporating some element of surprise in the classroom with Vicky Loras quick off the mark with the first idea shared:
  • VickyLoras: I like scenarios with students.  For example, I come in knocking on the door and pretend I am a colleague/problem – they love it!
It is welcoming to note some exploitation of scenarios being suggested by Vicky and this one area of teaching that is not really developed.  It engages learners and, as Marjorie mentioned above, wakes them up as well.  This idea was followed by lauraahaha.
  • Lauraahaha: Sometimes a nice surprise is to take the students outside the classroom (where possible).
Other ideas included:
  • AntoniaclareI like to use stories or anecdotes with a twist, in fact I think every text / lesson needs a new angle to keep sts (and Ts) interest.
  • MarjorieRosenbeWe draw lines on board and guess whose is longest, etc. Then I pull out tape measure-sts love this.
  • pjgallantrywhich is a more memorable example of past continuous: I was having a bath when the phone rang, or I was talking to my friend when the cat exploded?
  • KerrCarolyn: I love circular writing. Great collective activity. Prepares for real life. Few reports in business are work of just one
  • eltknowledgeHas any1 mentioned the ‘silent conversation’ yet? Walk in2 class and not say a word and write the instructions on the board. Shocks sts!
  • miss_TrikaSometimes I surprise my sts bytaking them to the garden and they love it.
  • LauraahahaI like exploiting things that surprise even ME (e.g. strange laugh from class next door, colleague entering our room by mistake)
Some of the ideas suggested included changing the actual classroom dynamics to enable some element of surprise during lessons.  This was first suggested by KerrCarolyn by an example from a lesson which noticed was ‘dragging’ so she took out all chairs from the classroom.  Others suggested additional ideas such as:
  • SueAnnanI also move the tables around sometimes to make new groupings.
  • leoselivannew seating arrangements certainly break a routine and adds a surprise element.
  • pjgallantryanother way to shake things up is how you make groups – e.g. say apple, banana, orange etc and tell ss to become bunches of fruit!
  • AntoniaclareI like using an empty chair and sts need to introduce me to the ‘character’ they invent, he gets a name, life etc
In reference to Hartle requesting some ideas for teaching an academic writing class who are taught on a Friday evening and lack any form of motivation.  One of the ideas included:
  • AntoniaclareAcademic writing? get sts writing sentences or paragraphs on posters on the walls as they walk around, filling in sections
Additional ideas that prompted surprise which were suggested included the use of teacher silence in the classroom, bringing in food (particularly chocolate) to develop chatter and surprise, the use of jokes and humour, as well as games to develop motivation in various lesson activities.

Surprising Links

Throughout the discussion, there were recommendations to a variety of online and offline resources.  These included:

The sharing of a YouTube video (see the above video embedded) was used to illustrate the key concept of surprising situations that could arise from various activities.  It is a wonderful video with lauraahaha and antoniaclare recommending the using of stories which contained a twist to add elements of surprise within the classroom.

Further Surprising Reading

Additional reading that could be used to develop techniques to improve surprise or spontaneity in the classroom could include the following.