Ten Freelance Teacher Essentials

Since I began teaching freelance and for agencies about five years ago I haven’t had the benefit of an office in the same building I work in except for two of the regular gigs I have. With this in mind, here are my essentials.

  1. Cheap Pens
  2. You will lend pens out and forget to take them back in at the end of the lesson. The cost mounts up,

  3. Earphones
  4. With these you can prep listening exercises on public transport or find supplementary/alternative materials.

  5. Authentic materials/Realia
  6. Menus, transport maps, leaflets, etc. can be exploited in lessons.

  7. USB Drive
  8. Not all convenience store printers will print directly from smartphones/tablets. Carry your materials on one of these. Periodically copy stuff back and forth. Cloud storage is a handy backup, too.

  9. Plastic folders
  10. Can keep documents inside without massive creases. May also work as a desk when on the train.

  11. Scissors/Swiss Army Knife
  12. For cutting paper into strips or bits.

  13. Envelopes
  14. For keeping tiny bits of paper inside.

  15. Dice
  16. Useful for ad-hoc games or random selection of student/task type/anything else that has six options.

  17. Notebook
  18. Monitor stuff students say. It can and will be a goldmine. You can use it for examples of common errors, more authentic gap fills and even just for reflection on task performance.

  19. Post-its/Index cards
  20. These work as bookmarks, vocabulary cards, cue cards and more.

Also, it’s useful to have a big bag to keep them in!

TBL ELT Task Idea #2

I took my second idea from the LinoIt TBL ELT Board, a lesson planned especially for this class and using a listening task as the presentation of language (Task 1).
I was banking on three students attending but in the end only one student came and he was 20 minutes late.
We used the entire task sequence but I looked at listening to reduced forms in connected speech by using a prepared gapped transcript (my just-in-case activity).
Was it the best lesson ever? No. It was with a student who is often late and has erratic attendance so I just don’t know his needs as well as those of the rest of the class. Did it go OK? Yes. I think I need to look at conditionals briefly for a bit of consolidation but really do more with reporting speech naturally.

Coursebook Palaver Rechurned

I was going to stay out of it but I think I’m going to have to jump into it. The coursebook thing has reared its head again. Thanks to Liam T, Steve Brown, Brad Smith and Hana Ticha for drawing me back in helping me to think about this.
I think I need to set out my thoughts first.
Global coursebooks are, with few exceptions, rubbish because they try to teach everyone but few actually learn what’s in the book in a meaningful way, mainly but not only because of a focus on grammar and lexical sets.
They are also rubbish because they are bland. There are the odd few with the odd reading passage I’d read for interest. Generally it’s just in there because it’s a carrier topic and in global books those topics have to be inoffensive, thus bland.
Coursebooks are rubbish because everybody speaks the same way. Completely unrealistic speech patterns, too slow and with a script that focuses heavily on presenting grammar points. Business coursebooks are usually more natural than general English coursebooks but that’s sort of like comparing death by hanging and firing squad; the result is the same: students find natural speech difficult to decode and it is difficult for them to anticipate problems with natural speech.
Not all coursebooks are terrible. Mainly business or ESP books are good. Unfortunately, people studying for specific purposes have plenty of motivation which would aid their learning. General English is often English as a School Subject and learners often learn through obligation with no clear idea about why they are studying other than because they need to.
Business coursebooks usually have more explicit discourse-level communication present than general English ones. Both are usually sorely lacking in pronunciation or phonology (even help for teachers to mine texts or audio for this in the teacher’s books is woefully absent).
What’s better than coursebooks is a good set of resources, ideally the kind of stuff with no copyright or with a Creative Commons license, or at least permission to photocopy so you can be sure there are no legal issues. These don’t usually focus on isolated grammar points but when they do they are not in a suggested sequence based on the hunches of someone completely unfamiliar with your learners. You might say that a load of these downloaded onto a USB drive or uploaded to cloud storage is a 21st century resource book.
I still haven’t found a book of resources I truly love because there are too many word searches and crosswords in some but I continue to live in hope. The execrable coursebook I have to use as a syllabus for the university I teach at for an agency does have a workbook with some great activities.

Objections to what I’m saying

  • Coverage/pacing of material is necessary because my boss says so.
  • I pay sufficient lip service to the book to say the syllabus has been taught. Usually it’s one reading done quickly with some vocabulary checks or retellings, else I do the listening as a listening skills mini-lesson,  but the rest is a task that might result in the language in the book being used. If not, that’s fine. Correct the language, reflect and probably trying the same task or a similar one again.

  • Students like books.
  • Fine. Are you a teacher or a bookseller? Is it necessary for them to use the book in a lesson or could it be used at home?

  • Teachers like books.
  • Great. If teachers find coursebooks useful then that’s awesome. I do find it difficult to believe that the same book can work across contexts to provide a sufficient footing for language acquisition to take place.
    Thinking about how to use a book is not the same as being on auto-pilot, plotting a course from page 4 to page 117 over 20 weeks. I think it’s fine to present the grammar for exposure. However, don’t expect it to be ‘mastered’ and beat yourself up or question student motivation or work rate if they can’t use it just because it’s been taught.

  • My students want me to teach the book.
  • They might want you to use it but have you asked them why? Who is the language teaching professional? You might ask how long they have used this method of study and whether it appears to be working. Sometimes you might use the book in ways that are different but as long as they are learning, I expect most students would be satisfied.

Saitama Nakasendo Conference 2015 Thoughts

I had a brilliant time at the Saitama Nakasendo Conference yesterday. I feel I have loads to do because I left with a ton of things to think about and so now have quite a few summer projects on to of DipTESOL portfolio writings and a summer course in writing for a mixture of ESL and EFL kids.
Paul Raine‘s keynote presentation made me regret forgetting most of the little JavaScript, JQuery and Python that I learned but also made me double keen to get back into it. Chatting to him before and after was interesting: plenty of sites and other stuff to read on my list, too.
Jesse Ewak demonstrated a bit of Voicethread, which is something I might use in the future after I have a bit of a mess around with it and find out what it can and can’t do.
I wish I had gone to see Vanessa Armand‘s presentation because after seeing her slides I realised that her ‘fishbowl’ idea might be useful for a reading class that I teach.
Rob Lowe‘s presentation on integrating a blind student into his classroom was a presentation that he gave at the Tokyo JALT/TEDSIG Teacher Journeys conference a few weeks ago. There were four of us in the audience and basically what seemed to come up was that:

  • institutions need to provide a bit more notice when assigning students with special needs to teachers;
  • there is next to no information about integrating blind/visually impaired students (or any student with special or specific needs) into the EFL/ESL/ESOL classroom.

To this end, I decided to set up a Google Plus community, SEN in ELT as a place for teachers to share information.
My presentation was quite full, probably because my title was quite simple and something that most teachers need to do (‘Teaching Listening‘). I felt almost clever by involving a bit of research that I had done and using some unusual listening material choices. It seemed to go down quite well and I felt relieved because I feel a bit like somebody’s going to point out that I’m talking through an unorthodox orifice whenever I start new classes never mind presenting in front of people with PhDs and publications and stuff.
To cap it all off, I have ideas about discourse-level language teaching and JQuery-based web apps in my head, a lesson jam to schedule and publicise and other stuff too.
Everybody I met at the conference was lovely, including the mother of one of my former junior high school students, and it was rather a festival atmosphere throughout, except I had convenience store rice balls and canned coffee instead of cold beans and a bottle of vodka for lunch.

Needs Analysis in Actual Practice 

I started a new class yesterday, a group of engineers ostensibly studying English for ‘business’*. Being the kind of guy I am and knowing that the agency I work for have signed an exclusivity agreement with a major ELT publisher, I need to know what kind of things my students need and want and which of these aren’t covered by the book.

How I go about Needs Analysis

First up I ask, “Why are you studying?” if this is a voluntary course.
The answer is always “To improve my English.” Seriously. It is always this. However, it provides a way in for self-reflection.
“What aspect of your English do you want to improve the most.”
Yesterday’s class told me speaking and listening, particularly how to follow a conversation and ensure they respond appropriately and how to express themselves without becoming tongue-tied.
“Who do you communicate with in English?”
In this case, international engineers with varied first languages and including a few native speakers but not many. Voluntarily my students gave the contexts as conferences, meetings, videoconferences and telephone calls.
“What do you need or want to talk about?”
This is going to run the gamut from small talk, discussing train timetables and into extremely specific language for applied engineering.

Is that it?

No. That’s only the bit about what the students say. I need to see the needs they show.
I set up a task. In this case it was a pre-task of talking about their own jobs then into a more abstract task of comparing their duties to that of an astronaut on the ISS. They do this in pairs, then one from each pair makes a group and shares all the ideas. I choose a random student to report back.
*Scare quotes deliberate because despite being a Business English teacher I don’t think it’s a useful term. It probably equates to English for Office Clerks and Underpaid Reluctant Translators.

"You're Gonna Need A Bigger Boat" – pitching material

I’ve had a while to mull this over. I still think I need to stick to my initial judgement that my students need to be thrown into the unknown sometimes. Anyway, this is my attempt at an autopsy of a dead lesson.
I was stuck with a spread in a (non-academic) reading course for my university students and I asked them whether they  wanted to look at something difficult the next week. After a couple of weeks of them breezing through class material it was no surprise that that they said yes.
I used this activity from Anthony Ash’s blog, knowing it was tough. I had the learners think of words they knew about air travel and space travel.
The reading was prefaced by me telling students to just look at it first and black out what you don’t know then modelling that. Only around half the class blacked out a sufficient amount.
So, what the hell was I doing? I wanted the students to have strategies to deal with a difficult text. All students will take numerous TOEIC and TOEFL tests over the next two years. I wanted to give them tools to deal with very difficult texts. The books set by the university are extremely easy so students go into their tests thinking everything will be of a similar level. When that happens it dents their confidence. I thought that if they did it in the classroom then it would be easier to manage these affective factors.
In the end I had to have the students gather around me, see the overwhelmingly black page I had created and try to get the gist, which was successful. We then looked at the comprehension questions which were basically answered well.

What did I learn?

  • It’s fine to pitch high but expect to provide a lot of support and positive feedback.
  • About 70% of my students don’t like to be challenged as much as they think they do.
  • That they are scared to ‘abandon’ sections of text that they cannot comprehend (to which I assign the blame squarely at high school grammar translation lessons).

I don’t see it as an abject failure but, no, the students weren’t as into attacking a text they perceived as impenetrable as I thought they were and so I had to abandon the planned discussion on knock-on effects of technological innovation.
I thought it would be good to write about a failed lesson after putting in my tuppence worth on Robert Lowe’s blog.