Tag Archives: Memorization

Photocopier or No-to-copier

Is a step away from photocopiers a step forward? (Photocopier photo from net_efekt on Flickr)

Yes, this title is taken from Luke Meddings.  I recently saw his British Council Lecture, 20 steps to teaching unplugged (see the video at the end of this post).  In it, he advocated that we should be using texts which are short enough to dictate.

There’s really no need for photocopiers.  They cause so much trouble.

This sentiment is reflected in Tom Walton’s comments on his blog;

I never use the photocopier, the learners create, not merely consume — and especially they don’t consume photocopies!

For the last six months I’ve been working at a school that doesn’t have a photocopier.  I knew this was the case before arriving and actually looked forward to the challenge.  However, after six months I’m screaming for a photocopier that is close to hand with five minutes to go until the class starts.   In spite of this, I still feel that Luke Meddings and Tom Walton are correct.  However, this leaves me with a question.

Why do I really want a photocopier?

I’m going to take another nugget of wisdom out of Luke Meddings’s recent talk, referencing a business strategy called “The 5 Whys”.  The basic idea being to approach a problem with the question ‘Why?’ and keep asking that question until you have the underlying cause that needs a solution.

1. So, why do I feel uncomfortable without a photocopier?

Because I can’t make up worksheets or photocopy interesting articles that I read and want to share with my students.

2. Why do I think I need a photocopier for this?

Because it’s something I’ve always used, something I’m used to having and something that I’ve never really questioned the use of.

3. There are alternatives, why do I prefer a photocopier to these alternatives?

Picture from Giugiaro21 on Flickr

OHPs*, IWBs  and Projectors are useful if I have them but sometimes, even if I do have them, I just want to be able to get the text into the students’ hands quickly to get on with the activity.  In contrast to this, Luke Meddings talked about taking texts “at a slower pace” with learners and written resources.

Dictation** is a great activity which practises the learners’ listening, writing and spelling skills and gets them thinking faster if done regularly.  However, again, such work takes time away from other activities that I might want to cover with my students.  Again, a photocopier gets the text into the students’ hands quickly.

4.  Why is it important to give the text to the students quickly?

So that I can get on with the original activity.

5.  Do you think the students benefit from having this photocopy in their possession? (Yes, I know, I’m breaking the rule of it being a ‘why’ question.)

No.  I think a majority of the time texts are not exploited as much as they could be, learning opportunities are missed and photocopies are wasted on activities that would be of far more benefit to the learners if they had to make their own copies in their own writing.

I think this for a number of reasons:

a.  In today’s digital world, physical writing is getting less and less common yet I think that it is a skill we should be helping our learners keep or develop (depending on their age and schooling).  Especially among my teenage students at the moment, writing activities are not welcomed and writing of any kind is avoided wherever possible.  This being the case, it is important to make writing an integral part of as many activities as possible – they need the practice!

b.  I have seen too many photocopies left behind on the table at the end of class, stuffed carelessly into backpacks and pulled out as crumpled messes from backpacks to believe that those photocopies are getting any worthwhile attention outside of class.

c.  The action of writing something down is an action of memorization.  Giving out a photocopy is taking away this opportunity for processing and memorizing new language.

d.  A photocopy holds no worth to many students whereas a text written out in the students’ own hand provides at least some measure of ownership for the learner, regardless of the origin of the text.

Returning to the original question; why am I screaming for a photocopier?

Because it is an easy way out, I wouldn’t need to deal with resistance from my teenage students so often while I ‘force’ them to write.  It would be easier for me, but it deprives them.  By photocopying a whole text I’m also being a bit lazy as a teacher as it requires less thought from me as regards where the focus of my students’ reading is going to be.

So where do I think a photocopier is useful?

I disagree with Tom Walton’s ‘never ever’ stance in one area – longer texts for intensive reading or other academic reading skills necessary for EAP (English for Academic Purposes) or preparation for exams like IELTS or FCE.  It is impractical to dictate texts of up to 1000 words.  It is also unfair to simply display them via projectors, OHPs or IWBs – for various intensive reading activities the students need to have a physical copy, to underline or highlight and to read at their own pace without the pressure of having the majority of a class dictate when to move onto the next page.

Obviously the unplugged approach works from a communicative perspective but not all English language teaching/learning is focused on this skill and where communication is not the priority – a photocopier still comes in very useful.

* Regarding OHPs, click here to watch a great little video by Claire Spooner describing an activity for OHPs.

** For more information on dictation, click here to read Dave Dodgson’s explanation of a dictogloss activity.

Luke Medding’s 20 steps to teaching unplugged


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A video explanation of my ‘1000 Words & Phrases’ challenge

You might have already read my recent post about a sponsored event I am arranging to raise money for charity at the moment.  Well, after spending a few hours recording and cutting this little video about it, I thought it would be stupid to share it on only one of my blogs.


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Posted by on June 10, 2011 in Activities


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My Personal 1000-word Challenge: For Charity and Inspiration

I recently posted an article on my learners’ blog about learning vocabulary.  It reminded me of how I learned vocabulary for a Spanish course at university.  I thought it quite effective and I’ve got to say that as much as I enjoy the communicative approach, I certainly recognize the need for basic, almost ugly memorization when it comes to language learning and acquisition.

So what was I thinking and what was my motivation?

Yep... I wasn't a perfect student!

Well at the moment I’m in Argentina for a year.  This is not the first time I’ve lived in a Spanish-speaking country as I was in Mexico back in 2007-08.  Mexico really helped my communicative skills and finally put my vocabulary to good use.  I failed one of the Spanish modules at university, I’m sorry to say, because I had it in my head that I could simply learn lists of vocabulary and in that way I would be learning Spanish.  The results of my first exam soon set me straight there!

But now I’m in Argentina and I think my communicative skills have caught up and surpassed my vocabulary knowledge.  So I want to return to a little bit of cold, hard vocabulary work.

Of course, now I think I understand the language learning process a lot better (well at least I should do, I’m a English language teacher!) but I was curious to see how effective such memorization really is and whether I should be encouraging it in my learners more than I do.

So what am I doing?

Well, I thought back to the “30 words a day” that were required of us by the Intensive Beginners Course I took.  Could I do that again?  I like lists, I like crossing things off lists and, as far as I remember, I enjoyed the process of vocabulary memorization (no pun intended).

Okay then, I’ll try it again.

Then I thought, should I keep it to myself?  Obviously not, I’m a blogger, it’s simply not in my blood!  I think my students would like to know that I am making an effort to improve in their native tongue.  As far as they know, I have little to no Spanish.  That approach works well if you don’t want them depending on your abilities in their language but after a while, I think a teacher who doesn’t start learning the native language runs the risk of losing their potential as a role model;

“Learning a language is really difficult – my teacher lives in this country and he’s learned almost nothing!  What chance do I have?”

Okay then.  So I’ll tell my students about it.

So what do I hope my students will get from this?

There is a rather long list of things here, the main one being inspiration.  I hope that my efforts will show my students and really all the students in my school what is possible with a little bit of effort and hard work – this is an issue for these learners as they are mostly children and teenagers.

In the process of collecting 1000 words and phrases I am asking the students, whether they are in my classes or not, to help me.  They can email me or they can leave a note with a piece of Spanish and its English translation.  This way, I hope I am focussing a lot of the students on their own vocabulary.

I am asking for as many phrases as possible as I want the students to move away from a word-by-word translation which they might not yet realize doesn’t really work.  So raising awareness of language chunks is another potential benefit.

A lot of the students I’ve talked to believe that I will need an hour or more every day to learn 1000 words in 30 days.  I hope that my success (fingers crossed) will show them that less is more and that a little studying a few times a day will help them to improve enormously.  They won’t need to study and study and study for dreaded tests and the lessons and even the exams will all be much easier and perhaps even more rewarding.

Okay, I know the last one there is dream… but I can still hope.

So how does this help charity?

I’m going to be sponsored by the students – at least I hope I am.  The financial sponsoring of a person to do something for charity is a big thing in Britain (I’ve run races, worn silly clothes and had ponytails cut off to this end) but apparently it is not so much the culture down here in Argentina.  I need to explain the concept to a lot of students who are suspicious of charity that involves money and not objects.  Oh well, it’s just another aspect of their inter-cultural education.

Going on a per-correct-word basis we hope that we can raise money and awareness of a local branch of a national charity, Fundación Conin, that helps malnourished children and pregnant mothers in this area of Argentina.  Never do something for free when you can do it for charity instead!

Anyway, wish me luck!  It’s day five right now, 830 words to go. 😀

If you’ve read this far, please retweet or mention this in your blog or on Facebook.  Maybe we can start a trend of sponsored language learning challenges!  In fact I’ll go further than that, if anyone wants to join me in a similar endeavour you can comment on this blog or get the word out with the hashtag #ELLchar.

I’ll endeavour to keep you updated on how I do.  See you on the other side,



Posted by on June 5, 2011 in Activities


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