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May I present Richard Brown (another PLN interview with the other half of IELTS Advantage: Writing Skills)

Richard Brown, me and Keith Barrs before a gruelling 10-mile race through gale-force winds and hailstones.

Richard Brown is another valuable member of my PLN that I would like to introduce to you all.  But more than that, he’s a good friend and a great guy.  So that’s disclosure out of the way. 🙂  While living and working in Spain he co-authored the new release, IELTS Advantage: Writing Skills, with Lewis Richards (whose interview can be read here).  I know Richard to be a great supporter of his fellow teachers with lots of great ideas and patience for his colleagues as well as his students.

I won’t bore you any further with introductions; over to Richard!

The Standard 5 Questions

1.  If your students were to describe you with 3 adjectives, what would they be?

I would like to think they would say passionate, patient and supportive. Maybe optimistic too?

2.  What would we find in your refrigerator right now?

Half a giant watermelon. I’ve been helping my friend down at his allotment here in Spain. It’s great because I learn about growing vegetables, a bit of Spanish culture and it saves me money at the same time!

3.  If you weren’t a teacher what might your profession be?

I originally trained and worked as a news journalist for 4 years and have always carried a passion for creative writing. Like many people, I think there is novel in me – I just haven’t been able to extract it quite yet.

4.  What do you find most difficult about the teaching profession?

This is a nice problem to have but I think as the teacher, you never stop learning new things. The challenge then is to find room for and assimilate all that knowledge as you go along, hopefully fine-tuning your craft as you go.

5.  What was the last book/movie you read/saw, and what have you seen/read way too many times?

The last book I read was The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. The book which I love to read again and again is What Should I Do With My Life by Po Bronson. It documents the real life accounts of 50 people from all walks of life and what they did when they faced this question at some stage in their lives. For me, it is a true work of art.

Extra Questions

6.  You and Lewis just finished writing a book together.  Why did you write it?

First and foremost we wrote IELTS Advantage: Writing Skills because as teachers of IELTS for many years we knew that there was a clear need for a step-by-step guide to the writing module. To our knowledge, this type of one-stop book simply does not exist. And I think another big reason was that Lewis and I share a lot of the same ideas about teaching and we felt it would be a good experience to work on a project such as this.

7.  Who is it for?

It’s for students wanting to develop their proficiency in writing in preparation for the IELTS exam, or for the teachers who are guiding them. We wanted to create a book which could be used as a self-study guide but also something which makes the difficult job of teaching IELTS writing more accessible for both novice teachers and those with more experience.

8.  Why are neither of you imparting your knowledge through twitter or a blog yet?

We’ve been too busy writing this book!!!   Actually, Lewis and I are ‘guest-blogging’ on Delta Publishing’s development blog from September until November so please have a look and tell us what you think. You can find the blog by following this link.

9.  What do you like to do to unwind?

Now that I’m living in Spain and pretty much fully immersed in the Spanish language and culture, I actually like nothing more than actually speaking English every once and a while because I don’t have to think about what verb ending to use or whether I should be using the subjunctive form. Joking aside, this experience is really helping me to gain a greater insight and respect for my learners and the challenges they face.

New York City (Picture from kylemccluer on Flickr)

10.  What’s your favourite place in the world?

New York City.  Unbelievable.

11.  What do you want to do in the next year and how can I help?

Live more in the moment. You can try it too and can compare notes.

Final Question

12.  Next time we see each other, whose round is it, what’s everyone having and where will we have it?

It’s definitely your round if I remember correctly, how about a glass of bubbly to celebrate the good times and as it’s your shout let’s go somewhere upmarket.  (Gordon – How about a picture of some champagne instead?)

Glasses of Bubbly (Picture from waldoj on Flickr)

Thanks to Richard for the interview and I look forward to seeing more of him and his work online (fingers crossed).  If you want to get IELTS Advantage: Writing Skills you can get it on Amazon or from The Book Depository with free worldwide delivery.

For more information from Lewis and Richard about the book, watch these videos:

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Posted by on September 21, 2011 in IELTS, PLN Interview

 

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Grammar & IELTS Writing (Blog Recommendation)

In the introduction to my PLN interview with Lewis Richards a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that Lewis hadn’t started blogging yet.  I was very pleased to see last week that this was no longer the case.  May this be the first of many from him!

Grammar & IELTS Writing by Lewis Richards on the Delta Publishing Blog.  A look at tailoring and improving English grammar for written assignments.

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2011 in Grammar/Structure, Recommendations

 

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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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IELTS Advantage: Writing Skills – A Review of the Sample Pages

Next month IELTS Advantage: Writing Skills will hit the shelves.  I have to own up to a personal interest in this book as I count the two authors, Richard Brown and Lewis Richards, among my good friends and not only that but they are also exceptionally inspiring teachers whose enthusiasm for their work has certainly rubbed off on me.

You’ll get to meet them in a few weeks when I post my first PLN interviews inspired by Brad Patterson’s challenge which I’m sure anybody who has spent more than a few weeks on the teaching blogosphere will be aware of and if you aren’t, here’s the link to the idea.

However, that’s in a couple of week’s time.  In this post I thought I would go through the pages that Delta Publishing have made available and give a bit of commentary on them.  Each of the links below goes directly to the PDF so just right click and save.

Contents Page

The first thing you’ll notice is that the IELTS Advantage: Writing Skills tackles Task 2 first, reflecting the relative scoring weight of the two parts.  There is some explicit focus on grammar and I think this is necessary considering who the book is written for: higher level learners, upper intermediate and above, students looking to quickly refresh for retaking the IELTS exam or simply for higher level learners who are more in need of exam preparation than English development.

Writing Introductions/Writing Conclusions

I immediately loved the layout of this book.  Not too busy and with a clear progression.  There is no fluff here and each activity has a clear aim that leads on to the next activity.  A feature of this section which I like is its focus on analysis.  These pages start off with reading, getting learners to analyze and think about what makes good, cohesive and coherent writing.  Working from exercises that encourage analysis of the model paragraphs, learners have the framework to build their own well-structured introductions and conclusions.

Model Essay: Problem and Solution/Structure and Linking

The model answer is about 100 words over the minimum 250 needed for a Task 2.  This would be a struggle for those learners aiming for a 5.0 or 5.5 but, as I said, they’re not who this book is for.  Again, the model answer is followed by an exercise that deconstructs the composition, analyzing the purpose and function of each sentence.  This approach of starting with the finished product and then going into detail will work to keep the learner focused on what they ultimately need to produce for themselves.

Maps

In this part, learners are asked to produce a 150-word answer first of all.  Again, there is more reading available but this time the purpose is to provide additional useful vocabulary and phrases that could be inserted into an composition of this kind.

One activity asks the learner to discuss changes in their home town with a partner.  This may be difficult for a learner who is self-studying.  Nonetheless, this speaking/discussion practice is important for writing skills as many students can keep up with their thoughts far better through speaking than through writing.

This being the case, I would encourage self-study students to use their mobile phones and record themselves as they speak about the discussion points on their own.  Getting over the initial cringe factor, I know a lot of learners would benefit from listening and taking notes from what they themselves have said.  The act of note-taking and transcribing their own spoken words as a framework for a written answer is an incredibly useful activity for strengthening and enriching a student’s writing skills.  And it’s not bad practice for their speaking skills either!

That’s all for now.

I hope this has whetted your appetite for the upcoming book.  Be sure to come back to the blog in a few weeks when it will be my pleasure to introduce the authors to you, my PLN, and the teaching blogosphere in general.

If you like what you’ve seen so far, you can ‘like’ IELTS Advantage: Writing Skills on Facebook where you can be kept up-to-date on release information.

 
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Posted by on August 15, 2011 in IELTS, Recommendations

 

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What have I learned from my students? My students can be more creative than me.

This is a follow up to my last post.  I tried to get a little bit of written dialogue from one of my favourite classes after working through the verbs in a way similar to @eltbakery‘s suggestion.  It was the end of the day, end of the class and I knew this particular class was creative and always up for a challenge.

So here’s one that I thought was pretty clever.

A.  Nine years ago I almost gave up playing tennis because I didn’t get on with my coach but I carried on with it at a different club.

B.  Now that you bring up your coach, I bumped into him on the street.

A.  Oh?  How is he?

B.  Not good.  A car was driving towards him.  I shouted, “Watch out!” but he couldn’t make out what I was saying.  There was an accident and I had to look after him until the ambulance turned up.

A.  Hold on!  The coach was hit by a car?

That’s as far as the students got before the class finished unfortunately.  There are a lot of directions this story could go and I think it is certainly better, more coherent and more interesting than anything I was coming up with.  Just thought I would share.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2011 in Activities, Reflections

 

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Collaborative writing with Google Docs… AKA, Students producing something worthwhile with their English

Google DocsI feel quite proud that I’ve cracked this one.  For a while I’ve been trying to figure out how to use the fact that my students, all teenagers, seem to spend most of their free time on the computer.  I’m not putting them down for it, I’m the same way (though I can’t wait for an iPhone that will allow to get out of the house with the Internet – is that a sign of addiction?)

Google Docs has provided a fantastic resource that some of my students have embraced with gusto and the best thing about it is that it is getting them reading, thinking, writing and reflecting in English – a bunch of things that teenagers are not known for liking.

So what did I do?

As with all projects, we need a deadline to work to.

First of all, I made all this work voluntary.  I told the students that if they wanted to work on this that was their choice but that it wasn’t compulsory.

Basically I identified a couple of big translation challenges that the students could get their teeth sunk into.  This included a Wikipedia page as well as a tourism brochure for the local cathedral.  In the first case, the Spanish Wikipedia article (I’m down in Argentina) was 10 times the size of the English one.  As for the brochure, there was no English translation for non-Spanish speaking tourists.

The “carrot” in both cases is certificates that will be signed by me, the director of my school and a 3rd person, likely a local official, acknowledging this work as helping to improve the town’s international profile for tourism (an industry they are trying to build here).

I took the files, the text from Wikipedia (both Spanish and English) and the brochure and uploaded them to Google Docs (two separate files for two separate projects).  Then I shared the file with all of my students and let them get on with it.  I set rules for them and a deadline – in this case they have until the end of August to work on this.

If the students don’t have a Google account, that’s not a problem…

So what problems/challenges have I encountered?

Hotmail.  Nearly none of the 60 or so students I’ve invited to work on these

projects have Google accounts; they all have Hotmail account and the reason for that is that they don’t even use email, it is all for MSN Instant Messenger and that’s it.  I suppose that email is irrelevant to them at this stage in their lives.  Either that or I am, in my late 20s, already a relic of a generation that still holds on to email as something useful (but that’s another thought for another post for another blog).

The students can use their existing email accounts to get a free Google account.

I had to spend time with each class going through how they could set up a Google account with their Hotmail accounts.  Not a difficult process but we did hit some bumps on the way – all part of the learning process.

So how has it gone so far?

Strangely enough, and I think there is a lot to be learned from this, the first group that I tried Google Docs with has been, without a doubt, the most enthusiastic.  I think the reason for this is that I took things slowly with them as I was unsure of what I was doing and was learning with them.  With subsequent classes I obviously skipped over steps that I, as a learner, no longer needed but they obviously did – bad Gordon, bad!  I’m not talking about a lack of technical understanding but more a lack of handholding at the beginning and baby steps towards familiarity and confidence in the process.

Bearing in mind that this project was given a week before winter vacations and classes don’t start back until next week I’m quite pleased with the results so far.  Both projects have about 60-70 students invited to work on it; one project has at least 6 contributors at the moment, the other has 16.  For teenagers on vacation doing a voluntary translation project, I count that as a win!

So why is Google Docs so brilliant?

I’m going to just list this part.  For more information, check out the video below from Commoncraft.

  1. It gets rid of multiple copies of the same document.  The document exists online and everyone edits the same document online.
  2. It auto-saves every 20 seconds.
  3. It saves every iteration of the document so if someone deletes the whole thing by mistake (or intentionally) then nothing is lost.
  4. It shows who has edited what.

So why is Google Docs so brilliant pedagogically?

I’m going to list this part as well as give you a small look at one of the examples that my students worked on last month.

  1. It encourages peer-assessment.  The students have to read through what their classmates have written and consider whether it is good, needs to be corrected or can be improved.
  2. It encourages peer-reading and peer-correction.  It is the students’ job to not only contribute their own material but fix or improve their peers’ contributions.  This has the added benefit of improving confidence among the students who might not feel comfortable physically crossing out peers’ work.
  3. It encourages reflection.  If a student sees their work has been changed by another student, then it provokes the first student to ask themselves, “Is that a valid correction?  Should I change it back?  Is there an even better way I can write it?”
  4. It encourages learner autonomy and ownership.  While a collaborative effort, this method can produce pages and pages of learner-generated content.  It blows me away, it really does.
  5. It encourages repetition.  Since students should be adding and correcting a document throughout the whole week, other students must keep going back to check on their own work and to see where they can improve other peers’ work.
  6. It allows the teacher to be less intrusive in observing the collaborative writing and re-drafting process, while at the same time being able to clearly see who is working in what area and what problems they might be having.
  7. If a mistake is missed by a whole class after they’ve had a week to review it, it becomes glaringly obvious to the teacher that there is a combined gap in the group knowledge that should be worked on in class.

Here’s a screencap video using Jing which I hope will demonstrate a lot of what I’m talking about.  Many apologies about the feedback with the audio – hope it doesn’t put you off!

Setting up and sharing a Google Doc

So how will I improve this exercise in the future?

I’ll let you know once these projects are finished. 😉

 
 

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Translation in Class, part 2… AKA, Translation v2.0

In my previous post, I explained the almost unmitigated disaster that was my first attempt to do a translation exercise with a monolingual teenage group of around B2/C1 ability (according to the CEFR).  This was my 2nd attempt at the activity.

So what did I change?

Well a lot actually.  First of all, and this might be cheating, I changed the class.  I tried this with a younger group of B1 students.  I also started off by explaining all the steps of what we were going to do so that the learners would not be left bored wondering “Why am I doing this?

We started with a free-writing exercise with a bit of variation.  I suggested the topic of ‘English’ (whether it was English-speaking music, movies, classes, teachers, etc. was up to the students) but I made it clear that if they wanted to write about a different topic they were welcome to.  The main variation of this writing was that it had to be in L1, in this case Spanish.  I put two provisos; all writing for this class should be double-spaced and it was very important that handwriting was as legible as possible.

After this I had something like 12 pieces of writing in L1.  I then put the students into groups of 2 or 3 and gave them one piece of writing – not their own – to translate into English.

While I did have an L1/L2 dictionary ready what I set up was much better – the help board!  On the whiteboard I had two columns, ‘Spanish’ and ‘English’.  If a word or phrase came up that the learners couldn’t translate, they had to put it up on the board, leave a space in their translation and wait for other members of the class to write up the translation if they could.  I would use the dictionary to check these translations if necessary or if the whole class was drawing a blank.

Why did I take this approach?

Well, after my first attempt I felt that I needed a more forgiving crowd than the apathetic, older teenage crowd that v1.0 had failed with.

The free-writing was a way of easing the students into an exercise that they might otherwise have been resistant to.  Trying to get teenagers to do writing at all is a challenge but doing writing in a foreign language is usually seen as too much like hard work (“es un viaje” as my Argentinian students are wont to say).  The L1 writing also produced texts to work on that were at least moderately interesting for the learners.

Group work for 'dry' exercises like translation is probably a must.

By putting the students into groups I made this a group learning exercise.  On this point I would like to draw your attention to a talk that Sir Ken Robinson gave about changing educational paradigms (See the whole seminar at the bottom of this post, here’s the link for the specific section of the seminar relevant to what I’m talking about).  We learn and work together in the real world so why is it so important that we work separately in the classroom or even in the tests?

The teacher-centred benefit for the students working in groups is that once a group had finished one translation I could give them another one and it would give me time during the lesson to review and correct their collaborative translation effort.  This was also aided by the ‘help board’, which meant that I was not the first person to go to as soon as the learners hit a barrier.  This wasn’t immediately successful as a lot of the students aren’t entirely sure what to do when they are given autonomy but at least by the end of the class they had thankfully stopped asking permission to get up and write something on the board.  Baby steps. 🙂

By holding back the dictionaries this also forced collaboration and got the students to recognize each other as fountains of information.  This is a bigger problem I’m trying to overcome… how many times have you been asked the same question two, three even four times because the students aren’t listening to each other, don’t listen to the question and therefore don’t register that they are listening (or not) to an answer they themselves are about to ask for.

So where will this not work?

Well obviously this approach depends on a common L1 among the learners so those of you with multi-lingual L1 classes will have to come up with something different.  For some ideas you should look at Ceri Jones’s article, a second look at translation, which focuses translation exercises in multi-lingual groups.

So what went wrong?

Very little really.  Due to the fact that this was the first time I was doing this, I made myself a little more available to the students than I would have liked but everyone needs training wheels when they start something new.  Having more free time would have allowed me to look at what they are producing in more detail but once we’ve done this a few more times we should get a little faster at it and that might allow time at the end to review various phrases, grammar, etc.

 
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Posted by on July 12, 2011 in Activities, Reflections

 

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