Category Archives: Teacher Education

Quick and easy teaching tips for beginning language learners

I’m taking Thai 101 this semester and am keeping a private language learner diary. What I’ve realized through writing is that the class is essentially following a grammar-translation syllabus. We are learning random words and using them almost entirely to complete grammar exercises (in the half of the class that is meant for oral communication) and written translations (in the half of the class that is meant for literacy). I know nothing about Thai. That’s why I’m taking the class. But I do know quite a lot about language teaching, and I know this approach is not helping most of us progress towards a goal of being able to communicate in the language.

Last week I got so frustrated with how the class was going that I started brainstorming simple ways that the teachers could make the class more interactive and more productive for us as learners. I looked through several language teacher resource books I have collected over the years and found even more great activities. I wrote up a list and sent it to my teachers. One teacher wrote back and essentially told me that we would do these things next semester because this semester she can’t allow us to talk with each other for fear of making a mistake. (I intend to write more–a lot more–about this later. Stay tuned!)

Since my Thai teachers weren’t receptive to my ideas, I hope someone out there in the interwebs will appreciate this list.

For reading and writing

  1. Manipulatives. Give us cards with the words that we have covered so far (maybe color coded by part of speech–verb, noun, question word, etc.) and let us play around making sentences. We can start by making simple sentences (2-3 cards) and then add to it.
  2. Writing on the board. One student writes a couple words on the board in a sentence. then another student comes up and adds a word to the sentence where it fits. We keep building the sentence (even if it is silly) until we can’t add more.
  3. Which doesn’t belong? Give us four cards, where three of the words are related (for example, uncle, grandchild, child) and the fourth is not (maybe a food word). We have to read all the words and choose the one that doesn’t fit.
  4. Spelling race. Two groups of students each get a complete set of letter cards. The teacher calls out a word and the teams race to see who can find the right letters to make the word faster. Or the teams could write on the board.
  5. Strip story. The teacher prepares a story of 5-10 sentences and prints the story so that each sentence is on a separate line. Cut the strips apart and mix them up. Students have to read the sentences and put them in the appropriate order. This would be good to do with partners so the partners can discuss what the best order is.

For oral language

  1. Review families of vocabulary words. As a class, we can brainstorm (and write on the board) all the words we have learned for a group of related words, such as office supplies, stores, places, etc. Then we can practice asking and answering questions specifically about a single family of words.
  2. Dialogues substitution drills. For a single structure, we can practice a short conversation (two students asking and answering questions). Then we can substitute just a few words and practice the same dialogue with the new words. Let pairs of students practice together instead of going around the room so we get more chance to practice speaking.
  3. Draw a picture. For listening comprehension, the teacher reads a short description or dialog and the students draw a picture of what they hear. Or one student could describe a person or a scene to a partner who draws what he hears.
  4. Role play. Have pairs of students play roles (store clerk and customer, waiter and diner) and make up dialogues to act out.
  5. Opinion polls. Each student asks a different question of all the other students (for ex, What food do you like? Where do you come from? Do you go to the beach often?) and keeps a record of their answers. Then the person who asked the question gives a report to the class (2 students like Chinese food. 4 like Mexican food.).
  6. Guessing game. The teacher has a picture of an object or activity that she keeps hidden from the class. Students ask questions (What color is it? Do you eat it?); the teacher answers. Students then try to guess what the object is with yes/no questions. Then a student can choose a picture and others can ask him/her questions.
  7. Same or different? Students sit facing a partner. Each person gets a picture card with a scene (a picture of students sitting in the classroom; people eating at a restaurant–pictures that have a lot of detail). Some pairs have the same picture and other pairs have different pictures. The students have to ask each other yes/no questions about their pictures to figure out if they have the same picture.
  8. Planning a weekend trip. Students work in pairs or groups of three to make plans for a vacation for the whole class. They need to choose where they will go and what they will do there. Then each group presents their ideas to the class and tries to convince the other students to choose their plan. The class can vote on the best proposal.
  9. Question and answer cards. The teacher prepares a set of cards with questions and another set of cards with answers to those questions (could have more than one answer to the same question). Students get one question card and at least one answer card. They have to ask their classmates their question and try to find who has the answer to their card, while also answering questions from other students.
  10. Telephone messages. Give each student a telephone number. Students act out calling another student and leaving a voice message with the phone number to call back.

In case you’re wondering what these great books are, here’s a bibliography:

Adams, N., & Childs, L. (1981). Word sponges: Enriching ways to soak up spare moments. Palo Alto, CA: Dale Seymour Publications.

Klippel, F. (1984). Keep talking: Communicative fluency activities for language teaching. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ur, P. (1988). Grammar practice activities: A practical guide for teachers. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ur, P., & Wright, A. (1992). Five-minute activities: A resource book of short activities. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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Language Teacher Learning Through Classroom Action Research

The following is a proposal I am drafting to get funds for some summer research. Even though the course I will be teaching is face-to-face, I think it will give me some ideas for how I could craft a similar course online. We’ve been talking about making it possible for our MA students to do a teaching practicum anywhere in the world and take their courses via online means. The practicum course and the action research course could be part of this future distance learning option.

The purpose of this project is to document and analyze new language teachers’ learning to teach through conducting classroom action research projects. Action research involves a reflective cycle in which researchers (classroom teachers) identify areas of concern in their own students’ learning, “intervene in a deliberate way… in order to bring about changes” in those issues, and reflect critically on the outcomes in order to further improve the teaching and learning situation (Burns, 2010, p. 2). The proposed study is in essence a classroom action research study of teachers’ learning to conduct classroom action research.

I will be leading a group of 12-15 UH graduate students from my department (Second Language Studies) on a two-month teaching practicum during the summer of 2014. The students will be enrolled in two courses that I will teach during the summer, SLS 690 (Teaching Practicum) and SLS 680R (Classroom Action Research). Throughout the two months, the students will be individually teaching English as a Foreign Language or English for Specific Purposes classes to undergraduate students at Ubon Ratchathani University (UBU) in Thailand. The UH students will meet weekly for the two graduate courses to discuss their teaching and to design and conduct their own classroom action research projects. As the professor of the two courses, I will be observing their teaching and mentoring them as they conduct their own research.

Some of the questions that drive my interest in learning about these new teachers’ learning to conduct research are as follows:

  • How do teachers initially conceptualize their goals for teaching and their students’ learning needs? How do those goals change over the course of the practicum?
  • How do reflective practices (journals, discussion sessions, responses to peer observations) support new teachers’ learning about their teaching and their students’ learning?
  • How do teachers’ perspectives on teaching and their students’ learning change over the course of an 8-week practicum while conducting action research in their own classrooms?
  • What forms of data do new teachers consider relevant and useful to their analysis of their students’ learning?
  • How do new teachers analyze classroom data?
  • What implications for their future practice do new teachers derive from participating in classroom action research?

Because I will be conducting my research as classroom action research, the exact questions that I end up pursuing may change as I recognize new challenges in my own teaching and in my students’ learning. Adler (2003) found that in conducting action research on her own student teachers’ action research work, she learned as much about her own research practices as she did about the student teachers’ processes. I am open to discovering such opportunities in my own pedagogical practices as well.

Data collection will include a reflective journal documenting reflections on my students’ learning, video and audio recordings and observational field notes of my students’ teaching in their own classrooms and their discussions during our practicum and research classes, documents including teaching materials I create for my courses, those my students create for their classes, and their written products from the two courses, and interviews I will conduct with students during the practicum and after it has ended. I will analyze these data recursively, identifying themes that emerge from the data and triangulating various forms of data.

Data source How collected Comments
Reflective journal Daily comments in personal journal; kept as electronic document Focus on student teachers’ actions and comments during practicum course, Action Research course, and teaching observations
Teaching materials Electronic copies (Word or pdf documents) Syllabus, powerpoint slides, and other handouts from my teaching of both the action research course and the practicum
Student-created teaching materials Electronic copies (scans of materials and lesson plans) Practicum course requirements include submission of lesson plans and materials created for teaching; action research will include creation of teaching materials
Students’ reflective writing Electronic copies submitted on Laulima or via individual blogs Students will be encouraged to keep a private reflective journal that will only be shared with me (via Laulima), but they will also be encouraged to create a public blog that can be shared with teachers around the world
Interviews Audio recording Interview questions will be developed based on emergent themes from observations and course discussion
Teaching observations Video recording Video recording will be made as part of practicum course, so students can view their own teaching practice and reflect on successes and challenges

This study offers benefits both to my own practice teaching language teachers and to their development as teachers. Through the reflective inquiry cycle, the new teachers and I will all document our work and investigate ways to improve how we improve our students’ learning, whether they are English as a Foreign Language learners or English language teachers. Furthermore, I will be able to make recommendations through publication and conference presentations for how faculty supervise and support new language teachers learning to conduct research in their own classrooms.

References

Adler, S. A. (2003). Dilemmas of action research. Action in Teacher Education, 25(1), 76-82. doi: 10.1080/01626620.2003.10463295

Burns, A. (2010). Doing action research in English language teaching: A guide for practitioners. New York: Routledge.

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Wonder Journals as Research Tool

Here’s another great activity I think I might adapt to my teacher research course, again from an elementary school teacher: the Wonder Journal.

The wonder journal is exactly the format I would like to encourage in teacher researchers as a research journal. It’s well aligned with the qualitative research ethos of ongoing analysis of data and of the researcher as instrument of data collection and analysis. I see it working in my class as a place where teacher learners can first begin reflecting on research topics and questions, then move into reflections on how they will investigate their chosen questions, and all along how they are understanding their data. The great thing about keeping such a journal is that the writing can often be copied and pasted directly into research reports–thus fulfilling the grad student’s dream of “double dipping.”

I see blogs as an ideal format for Wonder Journals for teacher researchers, where they can share their musings publicly and get responses from their classmates, colleagues, and the general public. They can also provide an impetus for discussion of how to report data while protecting student privacy: At what point do researchers need to select pseudonyms for their participants? How much detail can we give about our students without risking that someone will recognize them? What information is important to understanding the data, and what is nice but extraneous detail?

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Teaching Classroom Action Research Outside the Classroom

As I noted in my previous post, I’m thinking about designing an online course about classroom action research for MA students (and other interested takers) in second language teaching. I’ve taught classroom action research before, in classes for novice high school teachers, but always in a (mostly) old fashioned classroom setting. I think this is an ideal topic for an online course because most of the work of classroom action research takes places in the teachers’ classrooms, while they are teaching, so my classroom is really just the place where we talk about research and what the teachers are exploring and learning about their own students.

Designing an online class, however, is more than just taking what I talked about in the classroom and moving it onto a website. Because the students are expected to take more responsibility for their own learning through watching videos, reading, and participating in asynchronous activities, I have to make sure that I have much more planned in advance. That includes the general structure of the class as well as the little details. As I have noted before, I can’t entirely release the synchronous part of teaching because of how spontaneity seems so important to fostering collaboration and community. Thus, I am playing around with how I can make this online course replicate some of the human aspects of meeting face-to-face. I want to include at least one weekly activity that is done while the participants are logged on together. The following is how I am thinking of structuring the weekly schedule, allowing students to do most of the work on their own, but also having a set day and time when we all get together in an online forum to talk and workshop some aspect of the research process.

Weekly course plan

Day 1: Watch videos of introductory lecture, example studies, etc.

Days 2: Read assigned texts

Days 3-6: Participate in asynchronous and synchronous class activities (discussions, workshops)

Day 7: Submit Deliverable

Now that I am starting to map out the entire semester, I am wondering if I absolutely have to make every week include a face-to-face session, of if there are some weeks where what is most important is that the students are collecting data and working in their own classrooms. I like routine, and I like that f2f interactions are more likely to bring out participants’ spur of the moment concerns, but maybe in the middle of the semester I can have a two week gap between meetings. There would of course continue to be tasks and readings and discussion board posts, but not necessarily dynamic interaction. I’m also unsure exactly HOW I will bring about this interaction, or if all the students will need to be online at the same time or if I can work it out to have two or three sections depending on students’ time zones.

Just in case you were wondering, here is what I envision as the overall focus of the course:

Central Questions

  1. What is research?

  2. What is CLASSROOM research?

  3. What research do teachers do?

  4. What are the ethical issues of doing research with your own students?

  5. How is data analysis different when done by a teacher versus when done by a researcher? How can one person be both teacher and researcher when analyzing data?

  6. In what forums is it appropriate to share teacher research? How do articles based on teacher research differ from those of formal research? What journals and conferences accept articles about teacher research?

Student Learning Outcomes

By the end of this class, students will be able to:

  • Explain how classroom action research and formal research are similar and different

  • Explain the [cycle of classroom research–action research–design research??]

  • Identify researchable questions in their current teaching situation

  • Select appropriate data collection procedures for a chosen research question

  • Analyze classroom data from a research perspective

  • Analyze classroom data from a teaching perspective

  • Determine implications from data analysis for future teaching

  • Determine implications from data analysis for future research

  • Write report a report detailing the research process from question generation to data analysis and implications

  • Write a lesson plan or other document explaining an intervention or other teaching practice for other teachers

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Researching Teachers Doing Teacher Research?

I struggle to like writing even as I exhort my students to write. I buy academic writing self help books because I keep hoping there will be something out there that will tell me something other than The best way to write well is to write regularly. I want a shortcut, an easy answer, dare I say a formula for getting academic writing done and published.

But I also like learning more about how people teach writing, especially how school teachers find ways to bring more writing into their teaching and to help their students develop a writing habit. When I was teaching nothing but college writing, I was in a writing group where we wrote. We supported each other emotionally and chose interesting prompts and wrote. We did so much writing that we decided to self-publish a book. (If you’re interested, I still have about 5 copies and would be happy to share it for cheap!) I found that it did inspire me to be a better writing teacher, and that I had something to share with my students who were also struggling to find their voices and produce more writing.

So I was excited to see this blog post from a sixth grade teacher about how she figured out how to integrate her own writing life with her lessons about writing at school: “Write beside them,” said Penny Kittle. And so I did… I am so impressed at this teacher’s commitment to show her students not just the product of her writing, but the whole process. I really like how she uses her class’s writing workshop time to talk through her thoughts about her own writing.

Now I am trying to figure out how I can bring this level of integration to the graduate classes I’m designing. I can see this process being so appropriate for my Classroom Action Research course, especially if my own students are researching their students’ learning in a writing course. What could be better than to show your students that you are not a naturally perfect writer, either? Now to take it to a more meta level, I think I could even use this as a model for my own teaching. I could be a teacher researcher researching my teaching a class on teacher research. I could present it to my students as a work in progress, not one that I intend to publish (because that would be an IRB nightmare), but as the process that every teacher should do every time she teaches a class: questioning how student learning is connected to teacher practice.

I think I will be designing the class to be a workshop in itself, where graduate students who are currently teaching pose questions about their students’ learning and then systematically determine how they can collect data to understand what is going on in their classrooms. As an online class, I can foresee having students who are teaching in many different places and in many different contexts and subject areas. So I would like to experiment with things like screen capture videos where I can show my own note taking and brainstorming process as I figure out a researchable question, for example, or while I compose a draft of my methods statement. If I can also audio record at the same time, I can talk through the process that is connected to my typing and show what is going through my head as I write.

I imagine that if this process works well, that too could be something I write about (how do you document your thinking about writing for an online/asynchronous audience?). And if things work out, I can always apply to the IRB for permission to analyze existing data after the semester is over.

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