Lesson Planning As Process – Cecilia Lemos

Lesson Planning As Process

– Cecilia Lemos

My lesson plans – and the concrete results of my lesson planning – have changed greatly over the many years I have been teaching and they continue to change every semester. They change because me, my students, my students’ needs, my needs, and the tools I work with have changed. It would be foolish if my planning didn’t change as well. It’s an evolutionary process that I explore in some depth HERE.

When we are new to teaching, a detailed lesson plan is essential because it gives us confidence. By thinking of all the steps, all the procedures, all the materials needed, all the types of interactions that might take place along with predicting the time each activity will last, we get the feeling of being ready for the lesson.  By thoroughly planning a lesson, we reduce the chances of being caught off-guard — something that can be very frustrating to any teacher, but that can be especially difficult to those new to the job. No matter how long we’ve been teaching, though, it’s always important to ask ourselves questions like these as we plan and reflect and work to plan a lesson:

What will my students have learned after this lesson is over?

What will they be able to do by the end of it that they weren’t able to do before?

How will this lesson help them progress in their learning?

(and most importantly)

How will I help them get there?

When planning lessons, besides considering what I will talk about, how I will talk about it and what materials I will use as I talk about it, I try to predict possible difficulties and questions the students might have so I can be ready to address those. This helps me fit the lesson within the bigger picture of the term and the content I am supposed to cover. I reflect on the balance between types of activities and types of learners. That always makes me calmer before teaching. More than planned, I am prepared.

That brings me to what I truly believe is the heart of lesson planning: not the printed – or in my case, the handwritten  – plan itself, but all the thinking behind it as I consider the groups I’ll be teaching and their individual and collective needs.

Nowadays, my physical lesson plan consists only of bullet points – key words, book pages, links or worksheets. That is the result of nearly 20 years of teaching. The fact that my lesson plan can fit on one side of an index card does not mean it is somehow been reduced to that. There is a lot behind those words on my index cards, but all that’s in my head. I don’t have to write the procedures for each activity because I have done them so many times I know them by heart. On the other hand, when it is a new activity or tool, I do write the procedures out, just to have something to rely on if my memory fails me.

I have also used lesson planning to work on my own specific problem areas that either I have noticed myself or that have been pointed out to me after an observation.  For instance, once I got feedback that my instructions were long and confusing. What did I do?

For a while after that, when planning I would think of the words I would use to give instructions for the activities I had planned and write them down. Seeing the instructions I wanted to give written down helped because I could reflect on their effectiveness and edit them as needed so that they became more clear and concise. Having the instructions written out before actually giving them and that process I went through as I worked on them made me a better teacher — I hope!

That is what lesson planning is really all about.  It’s not about having planned, but rather about being prepared, staying on top of things, and getting better in the process.

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iTDi Research Issue – Cecilia

Correct Me If I’m WrongCeciliaLemos

Penny Ur (1991) warns us of the two distinguished components of feedback: assessment (“informing the learner how well or badly he or she has performed”) and correction (“giving the learner specific information – through explanation, provision of better alternatives or elicitation of those from the learner”). This post focuses on correction; both recent research on the topic and my own take on the effectiveness or applicability of theories and approaches in the real language classroom.

Due to my more active take on professional development in recent years, I have started to experiment with correction in the classroom. This may be a result of a post-graduate course I took on assessment with the University of Maryland in 2011, or of my reading for the Delta certificate, or of my participation in conferences and ELT-related discussions and reading. I used to teach in the way I was taught to teach, using the “Communicative Approach” to teaching – or someone’s understanding of it, at least. That meant we should avoid direct correction (to prevent students raising their affective filter) and do a lot of recasting (or reformulation).

The first thing that I let go was the ‘automatic praise’. I was taught to respond audibly positively when a student gave me a correct answer. “Excellent”, “Perfect” and “Very good” became my best friends, and I repeated them over and over. And then I questioned doing that. There is some evidence that the regular use of ‘Very Good’ delivered in a particular tone and/or package may be inhibiting learning opportunities at least in form-focused context.  (Wong & Waring, 2009). At IATEFL 2012 in Glasgow I was also touched by Jim Scrivener’s mention (in his talk about ‘Demand High ELT’) of “empty praise” – or saying those ready-made words/ phrases so often it stopped having any effect on students. It also relates to a reference about students being unimpressed by praise or criticism if they didn’t get the reasons for it (Williams & Burden 1999).

So I started, very consciously and thinking about it, to avoid giving that ‘empty praise’. Instead, I just moved on and started correcting the student whose answer prevented intelligibility. At this point I have to say I also relied on Reigel (2008) saying that positive feedback,( including responses such as head nods  – and ‘ok’ hand signs, I hope) is more likely to have an impact on the language learner than forced or contingent praise. I also relied on Willis & Willis (2008) about praising learners for good words or phrases, making them more likely to take risks and experiment with other new words and more complex utterances. I also made a point to praise questions and critical thinking in class.

I started to challenge recasting in my teaching, because I had made it my main form of correction and didn’t think it was very effective as such. I always had the feeling the students had no idea they were being corrected. More than anything, I became a ‘direct corrector’. Going against everything I had learned about the communicative approach, I started correcting my students, many times, by saying “That is not how you say it” or “Are you talking about last weekend? Because you used the verbs in the present…”

The effect this change in my teaching had on the students was noticeable. As far as I can see, it has been working better than before. The students have a much bigger sense of accomplishment and learning. They say they can objectively see what they are doing wrong (as opposed to recasting where most of them did not realize they were being corrected) and then they pay closer attention to it. They register it. Some of them may even write it down on their notebooks (as notes such as “We don’t say `I HAVE 26 years old` but rather `I AM 26 years old`.) More than anything, the students work harder at not making the same mistakes. The teacher (me!) feels better about correcting students on the spot (keeping in mind the “intelligibility” main mast) and being careful about tone and rapport. When I mention rapport I mean some extremely insecure and shy students prefer (and respond better) to more individual, after-class feedback… an individual look is still essential.

At the end of the semester I explained to my A1 CEFR students (the second semester studying English) what recasting was, and how I had done it differently with them (by clearly pointing out mistakes and correcting pronunciation that prevented understanding). And they thanked me (they even threw a party for me!), because they said they had felt their own learning.

Bottom-line: should I correct my learners in a direct way and making sure they know they’re being corrected? Using the right tone, and knowing each learner, my experiment has told me “YES” with positive echoes among my students.

Motivating our students – Cecilia Lemos

Show Adult Students The Light In The Tunnel

I’ve been focusing my teaching on adult students lately — the ones who don’t have extra time and try to balance English lessons with work, family and life. They’re the ones who start the term motivated to learn and improve their English. But somehow they get lost along the way as they get distracted by all of their many things and responsibilities.

At the beginning of the semester, adult students are pumped up and ready to learn – maybe motivated by a few weeks off, on holidays – who knows? All I know is that it’s hard to keep that motivation going. Why? Possible reasons include: too many things happening at the same time, the slower pace at which adult students generally learn, the sense they get of not moving forward at the speed they would like to be moving – you name it.

From my experience, though, I dare say the biggest problem adult students face is lack of time, followed by a perceived lack of progress.  Adult students usually take longer to realize how far they have come in their language learning because they usually aim big – and fast.  That comes from needing to see results immediately – like being able to do business or accomplish certain tasks after their first semester of studying English. When they can’t do these things, they don’t see their progress. With kids and teens it seems easier, but with adults it becomes more difficult to show them what they’re learning, how much they’ve improved and how much they can do.

Because they aim big and fast, I aim them at the little things.

For instance, with one A1/A2 student who felt no progress had been achieved, I suggested he read texts that were relevant to him. He is a professor at the university, so I suggested he use academic texts related to his research as reading comprehension. It worked! He started including them in his portfolio and was excited about the new terms he had learned from researching. More importantly, he was able to put to immediate use the English he was learning – and build from there. This student told me how thrilled he was to actually understand what was being said in the texts he read. Focus on that!

To help you focus, here are a few ideas I’ve tried with adult students:

• Show them they don’t need to sound native to be understood.

•  Tell them results are proportional to effort. Be honest.

•  Try to find immediate relevance and use for their English.

•Suggest extra-class activities like listening to audio books or podcasts while stuck in traffic

• Encourage them to speak English on their own.

(Ok, that last one sound weird, I know, but as a language learner I do that a lot, talking to myself in different languages – and it helps me. I have long conversations with myself in French and Spanish 😉

If you do these things, if you help adult students find their personal angle and show them what they can do with what they’ve already learned, they will see the light in the end of the tunnel. They will see a reason for attending classes and doing things. The only thing a teacher needs to do is lead the way.  I tell them, “You can do whatever we set our minds and hearts on. You just have to believe you can. I do.”

Working with difficult students – Cecilia Lemos

What is Difficult, after All?

The MacMillan Online Dictionary defines the word difficult as “not easy to do, deal with or understand”. After many years teaching and having many different types of difficult, I think dealing with difficult students all comes down to RISE.

Respect between teacher and students and between the students themselves. Foster that respect. Respect difficulties, fears and individual characteristics. Help students respect their own individualities.

Interest, genuine interest in the student, working to find out what makes him a difficult one.

Show you understand and care. Many times the source of the difficulty is a cry for attention.

Experiment with different ways of doing the same thing. Don’t be afraid to admit something is not working. By admitting that we can move on, try other ways, and find one that works.

Here are some examples of how I’ve used RISE in my classes:

I had a student exhibiting typical teenage behavior for Brazil, talking about sexual things and making others uncomfortable. I tried subtly asking him to stop and other approaches without success. On the day I snapped and told him in front of the whole class what I thought, he stopped.  Although it was harsh and maybe inappropriate, it worked. If at first I was afraid of visits from angry parents, my fears were calmed after he simply stopped. It was especially nice, years later, to meet him in the hallway where he gave me a big hug and said I was the best teacher he had ever had.

When you have teenagers with attitude problems, all you need to do is show you care and establish limits. Many students lack parental care because of parents who work too much and are too absent. Even if unconsciously, the students need that. It can make a difference. If you’re interested in reading more about this story and how I deal with it, click here.

Sometimes the difficulty involves learning or physical disabilities. Such situations can be very challenging.  I recently did a Teaching Village post about a student with real disabilities.  After feeling despair, I embraced the challenge and researched his problem. I learned how to keep his attention for longer periods, learned that keeping him busy with a variety of activities was key, and was honest with the other students and asked for their help. I treated him with respect, and didn’t patronize him while still keeping his difference in mind. It worked. That student with difficulties wound up socializing, being accepted, doing group work, and most importantly, learning.

Right now it is my beginner adult students who are difficult. They want to learn fast, have difficulty with sounds and are L1 dependant. I’ve been working on building their self-confidence as language learners, suggesting ways to fit extra practice into their busy lives, and helping them find immediate uses for English.  I talked to one especially difficult student a few times after class, learned about his interests and together we discovered a source for articles in his field that he could understand. He’s been writing reviews of those in English. He stopped complaining and now never misses a class. He is my biggest victory this semester – the one that makes the hard work worth it.

Still, things don’t always work. In addition to success stories, I have many where I wasn’t successful. There’s nothing wrong about that. We can’t expect to be perfect, or to always win, but we can’t stop trying. To overcome difficult we have to really want and try to understand it.

Difficult and different have the same root. Sometimes difficult only means different, and if that is the case we have to look at it differently. RISE to the challenge. It’s the only way to do it.

Error correction – Cecilia Lemos

What is an error, when we’re talking about language learning? According to Paul Lennon (1991) “a linguistic form or combination of forms which in the same context and under similar conditions of production would, in all likelihood, not be produced by the speakers’ native speakers counterparts”. Penny Ur (1991) differentiates errors (consistent and based on a mis-learned generalization) and mistakes (occasional, inconsistent slips) while Jeremy Harmer (2007) differentiates slips (mistakes students can correct themselves once they’ve been pointed out), errors (mistakes they can’t correct themselves and therefore need an explanation) and attempts (when they try to say something but don’t know the correct way yet). Being realistic, teaching as many classes as most ELT teachers do, with as many students, it seems hard to be able to differentiate. Maybe we can notice when it’s an unusual mistake for this or that student – hence a slip. But in my experience, most language teachers (and I include myself in that!) will react and correct any accuracy mistake. Sometimes we’ll take it easier at oral production – not to stop the flow – but most of us are merciless when it comes to writing.

After some reflection a few years ago, I changed that a bit. I realized my students didn’t have to speak/write perfect English – or as a native-speaker. They should be able to communicate effectively. Because Brazilian students are very focused on accuracy, I explain and work with the “communication” aspect in class.

So, sometimes, they make accuracy mistakes and I ignore them – because these mistakes do not hinder communication, they would still be understood by a native speaker. When correcting writings, sometimes I focus on the accuracy, and some (most) times, I focus on the content and effective communication. And it’s been working so far 🙂