Friday, 30 March 2012

The Whys and Wherefores of Communication Games

The following is based on my contribution to a staff development meeting at my college last night, if I had had more time, and if the IT equipment hadn't taken exception.  There will be several parts - Part 1 focuses on Communication Games, while later entries will move onto using authentic resources to stretch students' Receptive Skills, and finally to using ICT for professional development and in the classroom.  (It was a busy session - believe it or not I squeezed most of this into 40 minutes on the night, including the afore-mentioned IT trouble!)

I'm taking the opportunity now to expand my ideas a bit...

Part 1 - Communication Game

Learning should be fun, but it's all too easy for fun to become a higher priority than learning.  Especially when we start out, we can think that the nuts and bolts of grammar - let alone spelling, paragraphing or register - are 'boring,' and 'too difficult' for our students.  We want them to like us and enjoy the lessons, so consciously or otherwise, we skimp on the boring stuff, and pile on the fun.  The result?  Unchallenged, unmotivated students who are poorly prepared for using English in the real world, and may even end up complaining about our teaching style.  "So and so's classes are fun, but I need to improve my English."

It's not that games are bad, but they do need to have a clear purpose - and some students will need to understand that purpose before they see any value in the game.  So, what are some valid purposes?

First, the Warmer - for the beginning of the term, to help a new class to gel.
Everyone has their favourites, and one of mine is the Number Game.  Every student thinks of a number that has some personal significance to them (try to steer them away from just choosing their age as it's so obvious).  It might be their house number, their lucky number, the year their country got independence, or anything really.  In small groups, students tell  their numbers, and the group has to guess the reason.  This game is good for giving students practice in asking questions and speculating (you could use it to gauge current ability before a relevant grammar lesson), and also because the students have totally free choice over what personal information they reveal, so it is less pressurised for them in a new class situation.

Next, games can be focused around producing particular Target Language.
A great example for this is the Blindfold Obstacle Course.  A student is blindfolded, then the class and teacher arrange an obstacle course for them, using whatever is available in the room (pieces of paper on the floor that they must avoid treading on would be a minimalist version).  The class then has to direct the blindfolded student on a particular route through the room.  To avoid the louder students monopolising the directions, you could have a rule that each class member can only speak once, then has to wait their turn till everyone has given one direction.
This game of course practises the imperative and vocabulary for direction, but also could be used for prepositions (crawl under the tablecloth), phrasal verbs (pick up the hoop) and speaking with precision (shuffle forwards 3 inches, then turn 90 degrees to your left).

Another valid purpose for games is to enhance students' Confidence.
If you have a class with one or more very quiet students, try a Shouted Dictation. Divide the class so that half are at each end of the classroom, facing the opposite group.  Each student is then paired with the one opposite them.  One group are the readers, the other group are the writers.  You then need to give each reader a different short text to read, which they have to dictate to their partner.  If you want to make it more difficult, you can play music, or radio static if you're feeling really mean!
The readers are dictating different texts simultaneously, so it gets loud pretty quickly.  The writers have to accurately transcribe the entire passage (including punctuation), so they will start shouting too, asking for repetition, spelling, and clarification.  I have done this activity with a class which included a nearly inaudible student, and the results were impressive.  For more confident students it can also be very beneficial in terms of pronunciation and clarity.

The activity above is helpful for students who feel underconfident in the classroom.  However, sometimes there is the opposite problem: the classroom is too safe.  Students produce language happily in front of their teacher and classmates, but freeze up in a shop, at work, or in a speaking test.  So sometimes we need activities to help students Produce Language Under Stress, strange though that may sound.
For this, I like to use two Backwards Interview games.  The first one is based on a classic Two Ronnies sketch:
In the EFL classroom version, the answers will probably not align so perfectly, but you get the idea!  Students stand or sit in a circle, and ask questions around the circle.  A asks B a question, B doesn't answer.  B asks C a new question, C answers A's question.  C asks D a new question, D answers B's question and so on.  What usually happens is that someone takes a while to answer, by which time the next player has forgotten the previous question.
The second interview game is loosely based on the quiz show Jeopardy.  Time A gives B an answer, which B has to think of a question for.  Then B gives C an answer, C responds with a matching question, and so on.  This is another game that's useful for practising question forms, and it can lead to some lively debate about whether a particular question and answer really go together.

Of course these are by no means the only possible learning purposes for games, but I hope that they are useful as examples.  Please do comment if you would like to add any more game purposes for the EFL classroom, or suggest any tried and tested games.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Devil's Dictionary

(This entry is a coursework task for Week 11 of the CertICT course run by The Consultants-E).  Course participants must define a job title according to two dictionaries, one serious and one satirical.  In the comments section, other participants will then guess what job has been described.

The Merriam-Webster definition of my word is a practitioner of "a system of medical practice that treats a disease especially by the administration of minute doses of a remedy that would in larger amounts produce in healthy persons symptoms similar to those of the disease" - easy! 

The Devil's Dictionary definition is "The humorist of the medical profession."

 Guess who!

Friday, 23 March 2012

Hotel Sunset! - a Radio Drama (with added zombies)

Be afraid...  Be very afraid.

This drama was created by a CAE class taught by one of my colleagues - over the course of 3 weeks, the students scripted, edited, practised and performed it, then found sound effects and incidental music for the final version. 

I thoroughly recommend listening - it's hilarious!  They've used a good variety of entertaining idiomatic expressions, and it's also great practice for understanding different accents.  It also shows what's possible with a little creativity (I really wish this had been my class).  The students really got into it, and the end result - well, listen for yourself.

(Drama contains drinking references, mild sexual innuendo, and gory horror - you have been warned)

Hotel Sunset!

Seham and Rachel are enjoying a quiet holiday at the Hotel Sunset, while trying to dodge the local lothario, but things are about to go very very wrong.

Watch out for the zombies!

   Hotel Sunset Seham by Stephanie McIntosh 2

(Thanks to Glen and all the class for permission to post this!)

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

British Politics and the NHS Reform Bill - a list of useful idioms.

In honour of the NHS Reform Bill, here is a biased and partisan list of idioms that could be used for Speaking activities in English Language classes with a politics or current affairs theme.  My own position on the matter may just become apparent from the choices of idiom.

(All links for definitions are to The Free Dictionary)

Possible adjectives for the Tories (remember this poster?)

What the Tories did before coming to power
hoodwink us

What they did after coming to power
show their true colours

What they are doing to the NHS
sound the death knell for it
strike its deathblow
put the final nail in its coffin

What they have done to voters
give them a kick in the teeth
stab them in the back

What the Lib Dems failed to do in opposing the bill
nail their colours to the mast
stand up and be counted

The resulting situation
a slippery slope

Who benefits
fat cats in pharmaceutical companies
- and the policitians who are in their pocket.

I hope you enjoyed this, whatever your views!

Monday, 19 March 2012

Musings - Door Handle

 Why the door handle?  This is a picture I took a couple of years ago at Knole Park in Kent, and it's one of my favourites from that day: not grand architecture, not sweeping vistas, not even the deer herd; it's just a common-or-garden old-fashioned door handle, which happens to be to part of the gardens.  I love it because you can see its history written all over it.  There's rust, uneven and bubbly paint, bits where something was caught in the paint and got painted onto the door as well.  It's misshapen, it's hand-made, it's been used for years.  
I could possibly make a metaphor at this point, maybe about tradition, or education, or possibilities, or anything else that crossed my mind.  But I won't - it's just a door.  It is solid, functional, and largely unheeded in daily life, and I found it beautiful, on that day.
That is all.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

The Reluctant Teacher

I was a reluctant teacher. 

At first, like many children, I said I wanted to be a teacher, but had no clear idea what the job entailed.  It was just what I saw, day to day in school, from adults I (largely) respected.  Then I had an epiphany during my A-Level years.  I was working my socks off, nose to the grindstone, fingers to the bone, breaking my back, and all the other cliches.  I was going through this massive, transitional stage of my life, longing for the day when I could leave school behind me and find out who I could be somewhere else.  And then I realised that teachers lived through this every year - a constant cycle of teenage stresses, tantrums and hormonal breakdowns; same curriculum, same issues, same assignments, same same same same same.

Next, I counted the teachers in my family, past and present: 12 all told.  Wasn't there something different I could do instead?

So I ran a mile, and spent the next several years saying I would never teach.  (Repeat 'never' as many times as desired - I certainly did.)

But I couldn't deny that growing feeling that teaching had some unfinished business with me, or vice versa.  Not in a school, certainly, but what about language teaching?  I'd done some volunteer work, and found it... satisfying.  Fulfilling.  Intriguing. 


So I gave it a try. 

Anyway, that's all history now.  I teach, therefore I am a teacher.  But please don't call me 'Teacher' - I'd far rather you used my name.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Literally my Second Post

(And see also The Oatmeal on the same subject).

I've been following this week's debate on 'literally', which has literally been conducted across various newspapers and blogs following Monday's Today program on BBC Radio 4, and has figuratively (or literally) set Twitter alight with grammar-nerd rage. Aaarghh, people who say literally when they mean figuratively are soooooooo stupid, right?

Polly Curtis' Guardian blog both has its cake and eats it (literally?), pointing out historical and literary 'offences' in order to justify the non-literal meaning of literally, while at the same time collating humourous examples of contemporary (mis)uses.  What's more there is some rather glorious vocabulary in the quotations from OED editor Jesse Sheidlower and Tom Chivers of the Telegraph, namely levitate, shibboleth, contronym, and autoantonym.  Marvellous stuff.

Now, I am by nature and inclination a bit of a language pedant, but surely it's better to celebrate creative language than endlessly bemoan the failings of the unthinking.  Stephen Fry has said it far better than I ever could (naturally).

So, if you intend to engage in linguistic nitpickery (another beautiful word), let's do it with wit and style, rather than rage.

Another EFL Blog?

Is there anything left to say?  Is there really a need to add more content to the groaning blogosphere?  If so, does the good stuff get buried under an avalanche of the adequate, the outdated, the mediocre, and the best-forgotten?  And is there a limit to the number of consecutive rhetorical questions a reader will tolerate before theatrically throwing up their hands and moving on?

My answer to all of the above will have to be a resounding 'Possibly'.  For now let's just say that this blog malarkey seems appealing, that I'm an EFL teacher who loves the quirks of the English language, and that I'm immensely excited by the possibilities offered by new technology.  In this blog I hope to share, collect and discuss my thoughts about teaching, technology, language and anything else that crosses my mind.  (There may be cake.  Even knitted cake.)