EdYOUfest, where I presented on using drama to teach speaking skills, was a lot of fun. The most striking feature of the conference is that it’s small (under 100 people) and that you are all sleeping, eating, and going to workshops in the same space. So there’s a lot of socialization, great discussions, laughter, and fun. There were drinks every night, dances on two of the four nights we were there, and an excursion up Glastonbury Tor. Someone commented on a tweet of mine about EdYOUfest, “Don’t you ever do any work?” So it’s easy to forget that EdYOUfest is actually a proper conference with workshops and speakers. Since I’ve already shared my pics of Glastonbury Tor, I thought I’d write about a couple of takeaways from the conference itself.
The theme of this year’s conference was psychology and language learning. So it’s quite fitting that one of the themes threading through many workshops was the power of positivity. Almost all the speakers touched on the importance of creating a positive environment in class where students felt comfortable taking risks, making mistakes, and seeking out help.
A little anxiety can be motivating, but some of our traditional teacher practices can be quite stressful to students, potentially driving them to stop participating. Larissa Albano gave a wonderful demonstration of a lesson gone terrible wrong in her presentation on Lowering the Affective Filter. She wrote new, unfamiliar language items on the board, pointing to them, and then pointing to students who were required to repeat them. The whole class was of course listening and the mean teacher was staring as the poor beginner student tried to pronounce these strange words. No modeling was given and no positive feedback, only a harrumph if the student failed.
It was an exaggerated performance of course, but I’ve done lessons a bit like that (in the Direct Method mold) with beginners. As I watched her, I saw how easy it was to unintentionally cause the task to go beyond challenging to the realm of quite stressful and unpleasant. Who would want to talk in such a classroom? The inverse is that it was very easy to adapt an activity and make it much less stressful, by modeling, having students talk to each other (and not the judging teacher), making language meaningful and relevant to students’ lives (I am now fully prepared to go to Italy and explain that I enjoy honey, making breakfast time that much easier for me!).
Feel free to download the handout of our drama presentation from EdYOUfest, “Play-ing with Language: Using Drama to Teach Speaking Skills“. And let us know what you think in the comments or by email.
Lonny Gold gave a fascinating talk on Suggestopedia, a method I have seen referred to in the literature many times. But it’s often written about as a sort of curiosity, a whacky stage on the evolution from Grammar-Translation to Communicative Language Teaching, an extinct dinosaur. So it was very interesting to hear Lonny discuss what the method actually entails and give some examples of activities. The genesis of Suggestopedia is, in fact, creating a positive atmosphere for students. And the first principle Lonny discussed was that students should never be ashamed of mistakes.
He gave an example of error-correction that I thought was interesting and not far off what many good teachers do in classrooms worldwide. The idea was to always find a positive side to the mistake and emphasize that. In this way the student doesn’t feel discouraged about making an error. He gave the example of a student saying (mistakenly) “New York is the capital of the US.” A teacher might respond: “Wrong, it’s Washington, DC” Or you might look on the positive side and say something like:
It’s true that New York is the financial capital of the US. Thank you very much for that insight. But there’s another city that is politically the actual capital of the US. That city is located several miles to the south and it is called….
I did wonder if praising the students’ wrong answer overly much might accidentally cause students to feel that the right answer was in fact less important than the fact that they had said something clever. And in a discussion class, that might be fine. I thought about applying this method to a standard grammar error and that led me to thinking about interlanguage. Students often make grammar or vocabulary mistakes because they are applying rules from their L1 or overapplying English rules. So there’s always a positive side to the mistake. Pointing out that positive side can in fact help the student understand why they made the error as well as allow them to save face.
For example, if a student said, “I goed to town yesterday,” you could say:
Great. We need a past simple verb here, because we’re talking about yesterday. And you’ve used the regular past ending -ed to make go past tense. That is often how we form the past simple. However, went is an irregular verb, so the past tense is….
I think this is a more helpful answer than, “Wrong. Say it again.” Or “goed?” This answer directs them straight to the error (the past form of go), gives them an idea of how to fix it (you need an irregular form/think of another form of the word go), and reinforces the rules of English grammar that they are mastering (past simple takes -ed, past simple is used for completed actions in the past).
Don’t you ever do any work, Walton? https://t.co/NFfUHY7Suf— Helena Lustenberger (@swisshelena) August 22, 2019
In Zina Pittrova’s presentation on Pronunciation and Mneomics, I had a bit of a demonstration of feeling stressed out. Zina was sharing her methods of helping students learn and remember the Phonetic Alphabet and the sounds of English. The problem is that I’ve never really learned the Phonetic Alphabet. So when it came time to do an activity, a variation of Hot Seat or Swat the Board using phonetic symbols instead of words, I got to experience what difficult or unfamiliar tasks might feel like to our learners.
At first, it was quite stressful and I tried to hide and avoid participating, as many of our students also do. However, I ended up going ahead and risking embarrassing myself. What factors motivated me to give the activity a try?
- “The teacher” i.e. Zina had given us tools to learn the phonetic symbols. After all, the presentation was about helping students remember the symbols (and their pronunciation) through drawings, repetition, and other clever mnemonic devices. Were this a real less, no doubt no one would make me do this activity until I’d learned the symbols better.
- The atmosphere was friendly and welcoming. There were many people I knew personally, and no one whose face I didn’t recognize. It was a warm group of teachers and I knew everyone was respectful. They would understand if I made a mistake, perhaps even help me.
- The stakes were actually fairly low. No one expected me to perform perfectly. The goal of the exercise was to try an activity and see how it felt. Was it something I would do with my own students? There was actually much less risk than it seemed.
So positivity, particularly creating a comfortable, respectful, and professional classroom community where positivity could thrive was a major theme threading through the conference. I’ll take about another theme, motivation, in a later post.
We have many products that develop a strong community and a positive environment in class, but only two books, created by Teresa X. Nguyen, that really focus on building positivity as a learning strategy. Check out these beautiful student books with 60 hand-drawn writing prompts.
A MESSAGE FROM ZINA PITTROVA, THE PRONUNCIATION MNEMONICS AND PROBLEM WORDS PRESENTER.
Thank you so much for your insightful feedback.
I agree that from time to time it is good to experience what it feels like to be a language learner, which is what you so wonderfully reflected upon in your “EdYOUFest Takeaway” feedback.
I am glad that I did not make you feel too stressed after all. Obviously, in a normal class we do each sound step by step in several lessons, so by the time we get to the “revision stage” (such as the “board race”/”catch the sound” activity), there is definitely much less stress involved than it might have been during the workshop for you, where I had to do things quickly with the ELT teachers, most of whom were familiar with the theory behind this.
As a matter of fact, I think it was also comforting for the non-native participants of the workshop to see that even native speakers do not know everything. Unlike you or other native speakers, non-native participants of the workshop must have had some phonetics and phonology basics at uni (IPA transcription). However hard we, non-native ELT teachers, try, we know we can never be perfect and know everything, so it is comforting to experience situations when even native speakers do not know something :).
In one of the lectures at EdYouFest the speaker who is also a psychologist mentioned that we should encourage cooperation rather than competition in our ELT classes. In my opinion, competitive language activities can be fun and very useful, provided that they are conducted with special care and in a friendly environment so that nobody feels under (too much) pressure, but rather like a team member in a fun game-like activity.