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domingo, 25 de agosto de 2013

A socio-cultural approach to teacher development and education

At a time when student-centredness has become common-place in progressive language teaching discourses, isn’t it about time we acknowledge and provide for the teacher-centredness of professional development? In this presentation on how teachers learn to teach, Willy Cardoso will argue that, in general, teacher education, development and training programmes lack the theoretical foundations of what constitutes teacher learning, mainly in its cognitive and affective elements; and that this has far reaching implications. For example, by focusing primarily on the transmission of classroom management and language analysis skills, we run the risk of shaping the ELT profession as that of technicians. Henceforth for the benefit of our profession we seriously need to consider language teachers first and foremost as educators. To do so, the presenter will propose some principles and practices that can place the socio- cultural aspects of learning how to teach at the core of this matter. By taking a socio- cultural approach to teacher education we are reminded that everyone has ideas about what teaching should be like, with many implicit values and beliefs about it. Such ideas, longside theories that show how cognitive development is mediated by social activity, give us the understanding that our knowledge of teaching has been co-constructed in cultural and historical ways. One of the most powerful developmental tools for teachers is the ability to uncover what underpins their classroom practices and even the meta-language used to describe what they do. Therefore, it is essential that we open more educational spaces for teachers to become learners. - See more at:

sábado, 19 de enero de 2013

Drama with children 1

domingo, 6 de enero de 2013

Managing a large group of students for the paired speaking paper of the Cambridge English First Certificate

 Managing a large group of students for the paired speaking paper of the Cambridge English First Certificate for Schools demands for the teacher to be an excellent organizer as well a good manager of group dynamics and presentation techniques. These skills should be put at the service of raising students’ awareness of the requirements of the test, improving their accuracy, fostering their fluency, and giving every one of them the chance to practise. In order to achieve this, I divide the work into sequenced phases, each of which leads to building their speaking competence.

The first phase aims at making students aware of the dynamics of the speaking paper. In order to let them discover the communicative strategies that have to be used in each one of its parts, I consider that L1 is an invaluable tool: without the constraints of using the second language, it is easier to grasp what is expected from them when they are asked, for instance, to compare, disagree or take turns. In order to put this into practice in the target language, the teacher then makes students analyze recorded interactions provided by the textbook. 

The second phase involves going deeper into the focus of evaluation in each part of the paper. Here the teacher makes students analyze the descriptors of each band for the assessment criteria used in the Speaking Test by ESOL examiners. This helps future candidates gain further insights into the requirements of the test.  Then they listen to the recorded material again and evaluate the speakers’ performance using the criteria previously analyzed. 

Now students are ready to come into the third phase, in which everyone in the group has the chance to speak.  The class is divided into groups of four students, and they take turns to play the roles of candidates and examiners. While one member of latter pair will be the interlocutor, the other one will play the role of assessor, so he is expected to take down comments and control timing.  As for the candidates, they interact with each other and with the examiner – depending on the part of the test – in order to perform the task.  
The final phase aims at improving the students’ accuracy and communicative strategies. Here the examiners report on their peers’ performance; the teacher, who will have moved around the groups while they were working, will also make their own contribution. The discussion will be used as input to improve accuracy and interactive skills.

As I said before, to prepare students for the oral paper of an international examination in a large class is a daunting challenge for EFL teachers. It is imperative to be knowledgeable, creative and organized at the same time. But if it is carefully planned and  well implemented, it is a highly rewarding experience.


domingo, 21 de octubre de 2012

English only or English mostly? The use of L1 in the English class

To Spanish or not to Spanish? The question whether we have to follow an inflexible “English only” policy in our classes or not is often revisited in the field of English language teaching.  The answer to this question is simple:  every single activity we carry out in our profession is determined by context. Therefore,  how much L2 will be used in the classroom  depends mainly on the students’ level of interlanguage, as well as on  other contingent factors such as  age, their socio-cultural background and  their motivation. 

The level of the course is the first factor that determines our decision. It goes without saying that the higher the level, the less L1 we need to use. At upper-intermediate and advanced levels, the use of L1 in the EFL class is negligible or non-existent.  At intermediate level, learners and teachers may find L1 useful to compare structures and check understanding. The great dilemma arises when we have elementary and pre-intermediate students in front of us. Can we use L1 in our classes? If so, how much and what for? Here the other factors mentioned above acquire greater relevance.

 We should start by considering age:   young children can interpret gesture and miming more readily than older ones.  If well delivered, the class is a game which motivates them to learn. As the input at this stage is mostly visual, L1 will be used as the last resource. With groups of teenagers, the students´ socio-cultural background acquires relevance. Teenage students from lower-middle classes in suburban areas in Buenos Aires tend to reject English for several reasons: they consider this language does not represent them, or they often feel that it is impossible for them to learn it.  Speaking only English in this context from day one would mean for students to build an insurmountable affective filter. This is why English should be introduced in small doses, constantly checking that they understand, and assuring them that you will be there to help if they do not.  As regards teenagers from middle-class environments, in general they are highly motivated because they are used to listening to American and British bands, and they usually watch American sitcoms, so English is part of their daily lives. In this context, the class will be delivered in English, and L1 is used only for the odd word we need to translate for the sake of economy or clarification.

In the case of adults, the main factors that intervene in the decision of using L1 are their experience with the language as well as the motivation for learning. For these students, L1 may be a “safe place” where they feel they can understand, so  our challenge is to make them walk out from this comfortable area and do things with language by focusing on the skills they need to develop according to their specific needs.

There are no universal rules as to how much L1 can be used in the English classroom. Our experience and common sense tell us that our decision will depend on several factors, all of which are related to the contextual issues. We need to keep an open mind to detect the needs of each group and escape from rules of thumb.
Drawing by Juanjo Colsa

domingo, 14 de octubre de 2012

Helping intermediate students structure a piece of academic writing

A piece of academic writing should present elaborate ideas while respecting certain conventions as regards its structure. Intermediate learners, who may be new to academic writing, may find this a daunting task. That  is why within the framework of process writing,  at the stage of structuring their work I invite my students to think metaphorically: I make them view the writing experience as an exciting round trip, on which they embark with a certain purpose, a clear destination and a well-planned itinerary in mind.

 What a trip and a piece of academic writing have in common is that they unfold in a linear fashion, with a beginning, a development and a conclusion.  Just like a traveller who announces their destination and tells us the purpose of their trip, the introduction of the essay is the stage in which the writer tells their readership what they are going to write about, provides relevant background information and presents the thesis statement.

The body of the piece is the part in which they actually start to move  forward on the road. Every paragraph can be viewed as subsequent legs of the journey, the topic sentences being the stopovers through which the composition advances. Topic sentences have a double function: to keep the text cohesive by establishing a semantic link to the  thesis statement, and to announce what the body paragraph they introduce is about.  We should not forget that in each stopover the traveller meets people, takes photographs and enjoys views; likewise, the initial announcement is expanded by supporting sentences through arguments, examples and details. Before returning to the road, they may look back at the place and recall their experiences there. This is equivalent to the concluding sentence in each body paragraph, in which the information that has been discussed in the paragraph may be summarized.

 Being a round trip, as their journey is coming to a close  I invite students to think what they do when they come back home. After having stopped at all the places they had planned to visit in their itinerary , they probably go over the pictures they took during their journey and recall the experiences they lived there.  Similarly, the conclusion looks back at the introduction, makes allusions to the development of the writing and the ideas displayed there, to finally come to a close.

As I said before, to structure a piece of academic writing in a foreign language may be an arduous task for some students, especially when writing in a foreign language.  I consider that making them approach this task in a metaphorical way, helps them apply a cognitive structure they are familiar with to a new one, which makes the task easier and more enjoyable.