Synchronized Flashcard Dancing 

I’m pretty sure I can’t be the only person who teaches primary-aged children who gets annoyed with expectations about English lessons. The expectations of parents, in turn passed on to the children themselves and then perpetuated by other teachers. Fun is not the opposite of learning but it can be. It can be a right bloody pain to take over a class where kids are used to faffing about in L1 with about half a minute dedicated to language use.
Anyway, here are some of my most hated aspects of some YL lessons. (I may have been guilty of some of these in the past.)

Next to no reading or writing

Reading a bit on one flashcard is not really reading because there’s hardly any other reading in the class, not even shared reading (teacher reading a book with the children). There is often a simple homework exercise matching a word to a picture. It’s not even too easy, it’s so easy as to be pointless. And it doesn’t reinforce learning because it’s either done straight after the lesson before the kids forget, the parents do it the night before or morning of the lesson or it’s forgotten about. But reading and writing aren’t the priority…

Speaking and listening to what?

There are really good kids classes where children acquire basic communicative English skills. I have a feeling this tends to happen when the official syllabus is paid lip service to and the teacher talks to the children about their lives.
Unfortunately there are lessons where ‘Getting around town’ is ‘done’ for 4 weeks, involving a lot of slapping each other’s hands, half-arsed flashcard games and halfhearted singing of songs about things not understood because of a lack of attention, attendance and progression through the syllabus at all costs.
This is not the fault of teachers: it’s the fault of Industrial ELT, with pacing to allow makeup lessons and easy substitutions and replacement with a warm body and a pulse with no training.

Have fun, or else!

Kids lessons must involve movement, games, dancing, singing and touching things. I’m inclined to believe that this is less to do with multi-modality and more to do with hiding the absolute lack of substance in the lessons. I’m all for teaching a little bit of English and doing it well. What games of throw the paper in the bin and shout the name of an animal have to do with anything is beyond me. And synchronized flashcard dancing, mimicking the teacher’s ‘I like carrots!’ might get children to notice the ‘I like’ construction, but quite possibly only for taking the piss out of the teacher behind their back.

OK. Any solutions, Johnny Angrythumbs?

Yes. Do a bit of writing. Write on mini whiteboards, bits of paper, card, whatever. You can make your own flashcard games. The children can copy down the sentences that might have been pre-printed gap fills.
Ask basic questions. Ask absolutely simplified questions. But ask real ones at least sometimes. “What did you do last week?” is nice. The children then see that there’s a communicative need: someone is actually interested in an answer they have been asked for.
Play games but why bother if it’s too tenuous. Make a game together, or read, or talk, or listen to something. But unless your learners like the Hokey Cokey or are interested in vegetables out of context, I don’t see the point of putting “the onion in, out, in, out and shake it all about”. Role play cooking or find out everyone’s favourite foods. But don’t squander the opportunity for about an hour of actual learning happening just because Snap and Old McDonald had a Hospital are set for that week.

Pro-Nun See Haitian

Ooh, hello phonology, aren’t you looking fine?
I was just having a bit of a think and thought of a couple of bits that I’ve been doing in classes.

Treating Epenthesis with Epenicillin

You know what? Can we (people teaching learners with mora-based L1s like Japanese) just chill and stop over-egging the minimal pairs pudding? /l/ and /r/ are undoubtedly important to practice but how abouto we try to stoppu our studentsu speakingu like Wario in Mario Kart?
How? Just having them come down on the end sounds (plosives especially but it happens a lot with fricatives and affricates at the end of words, too) and hold it there.
Marc, lunacy! You can’t hold plosives.
No, but you can bring the articulators to where the air is held before termination and then just stop it early. For the non-plosives, hold it and just stop.
The next stage on is to move from the stoppage to the first phoneme of the next word. Drill it a couple more times then drill the whole clause.
It’s not magic, it needs practice but if learners know they can speak without sounding choppy as hell it gives them a foundation for trying harder to avoid it and autonomous in remedying their epenthesis problems.

Where it’s /æt/

With some learners I’ve had lately, I’ve observed the ability to ‘speak fast’, albeit with some mangled vowels.
Not really. Speaking is for communication and if I, somebody with years of experience hearing non-standard pronunciation, can’t understand what’s been said then some actual teaching needs to happen.
This is popular with more playful students but just have students move their jaws from /æ/ to /e/ to /I/ to /i:/ and feel the difference in their mouths. To get a good schwa I go from /æ/ to /з:/ to /ə/ stressing (oh, the irony) that the schwa has no stress. Get a couple of words with the target sounds produced then drill short phrases and short clauses and you have the start of improved intelligibility.

Mentoring is Brilliant 

There is a ton written on mentoring as part of professional development. It seems like it’s pretty much a ‘good thing’ all the time, and I’m kind of tempted to go along with that because of one of the reasons I’ll give below.

  • You get to see another approach to the job
  • Everyone has preconceived ideas about teaching when they start, based on the teachers that taught them. Just as not everyone has the same experiences, not everyone has the same approach.
    Some mentors will be great about this and understand that not everyone needs to do the same thing to get the intended results. Some mentors won’t be great about it and will insist you should teach their way.
    You can learn a lot about your own teaching by trying to teach according to someone else’s approach. Even the bits that you might not have attributed merit toward may have hidden utility in the classroom.

  • You get another point of view
  • This is better the more mentors you have. Behaviour issues in the classroom? There are endless possible solutions. Experienced mentors probably have several techniques to counteract negative behaviour. And that’s just one example.

  • Avoiding too much introspection
  • Reflective practice is something I think is beneficial but too much reflection is worthless. Think of a mirror maze as a metaphor. If you are part of a mentoring relationship you get used to making sure your thinking and rationale are clear. People are working, and while most mentors and mentees are positive, if you get ready for a meeting with a half-baked idea people will show you that they think their time is being wasted. You get forced into habits of rigour.

  • Bad is Good
  • If your mentor is dreadful you get to see them as a cautionary tale. You get used to assessing what authoritative voices say and filtering it (which is excellent practice for books by both ELT and general Education gurus).
    If your mentee is bloody awful, you get the chance to really take a hand in helping them develop and can take a hand in stopping unproductive practices through explaining better ones (and perhaps demonstrating them, too).

Finding mentors and mentees

I have a great mentor at one of my workplaces, in that he is very practical, does lots of professional development but not much theory. We get to duel a little bit on the theoretical applications I might espouse, and it helps me refine and reflect upon my beliefs.
I also have other mentors on Twitter, miles away working in different settings but still supporting me, feeding ideas and even just lending a virtual ear when I need to vent.
Mentees sort of drift, due to the peripatetic nature of my working life, but basically I have a couple of mentees, one a very new teacher who needs to go with the flow more (which leads me to practice what I preach and not obsess over minuscule annoyances at the stupidest workplace) and another who has such abundant ideas but needs a push to be bolder or just reassured they are on the right track (and who has helped with a few lesson ideas and made me justify choices leading to more confidence in my own teaching).
You might want to check out the iTDI blog mentoring issues, Giving Back and Giving Back II, too.
Hopefully this has helped you think about what mentoring is (or can be). Any more ideas?