Snapshots of PS-10 Summer 2015 – the first 50%!

“PS-10” is the short code name used for the ten week pre-sessional programme at the University of Sheffield. This is the second summer I have spent working on the programme, and already the taught component is 50% complete! Time flies when you are having fun… In fact, time flies so briskly that this poor little blog has been quite ignored of late – other than my recent post of a more personal nature,  My first veganniversary.  Previously promised posts -e.g. the one about the pronunciation auction activity I did recently – are STILL in the pipelines and will make it out in due course. Honest. Meanwhile, here is are a few snapshots of life as a pre-sessional teacher at Sheffield Uni (from most recent to earliest), as half-way through a course is as good a time as any for reflection…

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Yay for the ELTC! 🙂

Friday 24th July

1245-1300 Impromptu 1-1 tutorial 

One of my students has had health issues but is back on the course now, managing to attend most lessons. This student already has an unconditional offer, so exam grades are not an issue. If he wanted to, he could stay off classes with doctor’s permission, but he wants the full benefit of the learning opportunity so he is persevering. I love the motivation! Of course I wasn’t going to refuse him a tutorial at the end of the lesson today, even though I had to delay my weekend ever so slightly ( 😉 ). The main focus of the tutorial was his project, and I was able to give the necessary guidance – there was even a bit of a light bulb moment when we talked about using reporting verbs to show stance and structure arguments. Being able to help and the amount of appreciation shown at the end of it was incredibly rewarding. I have to admit, I love my job!

Thursday 23rd July

09.15-10.45; 11.15-12.45 – Listening Skills for my third group.

Listen! (Image taken from www.pixabay.org via Google search for images licensed for commercial reuse with modification)

Listen! (Image taken from http://www.pixabay.org via Google search for images licensed for commercial reuse with modification)

I am teaching listening as my second skill again this year – so in addition to teaching my tutor group writing and project work, I teach them and another two groups listening, once a week each, for 3hrs with a half an hour break mid-way.

This morning, the content topic was Leadership and the strategy focuses were using spoken punctuation to identify important information, note-taking using linear notes and using linear notes to reconstruct what the lecturer has said. For the skills work, the key text is Oxford EAP Upper Intermediate. I accompany this with my own materials, which  top and tail my classes with review and reflection, as well as encouraging them to think metacognitively (i.e. about the why of what they are doing) at various points throughout the lesson. It’s week 4 and out of 13 students, only a handful have got updated strategy tables with them. I gave them these strategy tables in Week 1, to help them keep track of the strategies we are learning about each week. This is to avoid out of sight, out of mind syndrome – it would be far too easy for students to forget about previous learning amidst all the new information that is thrown at them from every angle on a regular basis, but the strategies accumulated need to be remembered and used alongside new additions rather than forgotten. Nevertheless, I get them discussing and remembering what we did in the previous lesson, while making a mental note to use some class time towards the end of the lesson for table completion.

The lesson takes learners through recognition and use of spoken punctuation (the latter useful for their presentations) and use of linear notes. I use the final extract as a challenge/progress test. (Not a stressful kind of test, just an opportunity for them to measure their own progress). I also use it to take them through the planning-monitoring-evaluation process championed by Vandergrift and Goh in their fantastic book Teaching and learning second language listening: Metacognition in action. The idea is that before students listen, they decide which strategies they are going to use; during listening, they monitor their use of the strategies and after listening they evaluate their strategy use and take forward what they learnt. In the end, this is something they should be doing independently, but at this point in the course, I encourage discussion and collaboration, to scaffold it. Following the listening, I ask them to discuss again and evaluate their strategy use. Once they have done this, I explain the rationale behind the process. Both this group and my Tuesday group seemed to recognise the value of it and despite the uphill struggle of the strategy tables, I feel – in both lessons – that their response to being taken through the process and discussing the rationale behind it is a little ‘lightbulb moment’. One that has been built towards over the last 4 weeks. I would love to work with students over a longer period – 8 taught weeks is a very short space of time for listening skill development – but nevertheless hope that although students can only improve so much in the short space of time that is PS-10, I can give them the tools to help themselves improve more in the long term.

(I also did this lesson with my tutor group today (Friday) and in the last part of the lesson, following the final listening extract challenge. I again encouraged reflection and evaluation, and once they had discussed amongst themselves, invited them to share their reflections with me. There was a lot of subsequent discussion and comment sharing, and of course I was able to empathise with their experiences because of having attended a presentation in Italian during the academic year, while I was in Palermo. So I know how testing it is trying to take notes in a second language (especially as my level of Italian is definitely lower than theirs of English!). So I reminded them that note-taking is a skill even in your first language, and in a second language there is an added level of difficulty, and shared my own experience of doing it in Italian. They seemed to really appreciate that, and the whole discussion process was a very positive end to the lesson.)

I really must revisit the planning, monitoring, evaluating process with all three groups next week and in the following remaining three weeks of the course too.

13.45-15.15 – Social English

Social English is a class for students who have met their department demands with regards to test scores and so have unconditional offers. Thus, instead of doing USEPT (proficiency exam) preparation classes, they join a Social English class. The lovely thing about these classes is that they are very flexible, so the ‘syllabus’ is negotiated between the teacher and the students. Today, in response to a request last lesson, we did a pronunciation lesson. I introduced the chart to them Adrian Underhill style. (Something I learnt/taught myself how to do during my Delta!) There were some lovely lightbulb moments e.g. when they recognised what their mouths were doing and how it changed between sounds (lips spread to narrow and flat to sticking out, mouth open to closed etc.), as well as how this is reflected in the chart, and when I got them to glide between the monophthongs to find the diphthongs and then showed them the symbol on the diphthong side of the chart. They also really enjoyed taking turns in using the chart to sound out their names (and I got to learn how to pronounce them properly!).

Adrian Underhill's phonemic chart. Click on the pic to go to his blogpost talking about introducing the chart to students.

Adrian Underhill’s phonemic chart. Click on the pic to go to his blogpost talking about introducing the chart to students.

As far as their onward study is concerned, this will help them when they come to look up words in the dictionary, as they will be able to use the phonemic script to understand the pronunciation. We have done a lot of vocabulary work recently, academic vocabulary, so in future lessons I want to forge links back to that.

As usual, they thanked me at the end of the lesson, and told me how useful it was. They tell me how much they like these Social English lessons and how useful they are fairly regularly, which is nice! I suppose that is part of the joy of a student negotiated ‘syllabus’ that doesn’t need to cover all four skills etc because they get that in their morning classes.

Sunday 19th July

Home!

Yes, it’s the weekend. A lovely relaxing one too. Over the course of it I come across my Cusenaire rods which had been in storage and start wondering about how I could use them in EAP. My ideas so far include using them as part of a pronunciation review game, for the learners in my Social English class to quiz each other on the word stress of the academic vocabulary we have been studying and also as a means of illustrating the given-to-new structure that much writing takes and that I touched on with my tutor group last Monday in Writing class. Watch this space…!

figures

Cusenaire rods! 🙂

Wednesday 15th July

09.15-10.45; 11.15-13.15 Project Class

1280px-Stipula_fountain_pen

Well actually we use computers, but… 😉

I have my tutor group once a week for Project class, every Wednesday for three hours (with a half-hour break mid-way as usual). Over the course of 8 weeks, this course strand guides students through researching and writing a 2000 word project. This year, we gave them titles while last year they had to write their own, saving a good chunk of time that could usefully be used on other things! On the 15th July, in the first half of the lesson, I started by plugging my laptop into the project in order to briefly show them how Evernote works as a note-taking/organisation tool (and offered help between now and the end of PS-10 for if they ran into difficulty using it). Then, I had them sharing the sources they had had to find, read and highlight useful elements of for homework. They had to justify their highlighting, explaining why the article and in particular the highlighted parts were useful for their project. The idea is that this process of explaining what they have read, in their own words, requires deeper reflection and understanding to take place first, in the reading process. They knew that they would be doing this, of course, to encourage that focused reading to take place.

reading glasses pixabay

It also paved the way for what we focused on after the break, during which class I would be observed. While they shared and discussed sources, I went round and spoke to them individually, in order to see the project outlines that they had also produced for homework and talk through these with them. This enabled me to make sure they were on the right track and set up for the next stage of homework – producing detailed outlines where their arguments were matched to the supporting evidence/sources they had found to back them up.

After the break, we did a lesson on in-text citation. This started with the students creating mind maps of what they already knew and then looking at some definitions and filling in the missing terms – i.e. review. (Being continuing students – i.e. students who have already done some studying at the ELTC and so they have had some exposure to much of what we look at -the ideal scenario is to build on existent knowledge as much as possible.) The terms were things like paraphrasing, quoting, reference list, bibliography, plagiarism. Then, we looked at some example use of a source and they identified if it was appropriate use or not and why, and if not, how to make it appropriate. Having done all this, we were ready to turn back to their sources, which I used as a means of looking at use of reporting verbs and how they can show writer stance. (E.g. if I use the verb ‘claim’ to introduce something a source says, chances are that not long afterwards, I plan to refute it with another piece of evidence, one which supports my stance.) This involved a process of identification/underlining and discussion (is this fact or not, what does the author think about it? etc), with me going round and working with pairs, ensuring they understood what they had found. Once we had done this, I got them to summarise a chunk of text that they had highlighted as useful for their project in one sentence in their own words – paraphrasing to capture the meaning rather than paraphrasing word for word – and then choose a reporting verb that reflected what the evidence was and how they felt about it.

At the end of the lesson, I asked them how they felt about their projects and they said they felt a lot happier at this end of the lesson than they had done at the beginning of the morning. So, for me, although not a perfect lesson by a long way, it was a successful one. This was reflected in the observation feedback pertaining to the second half of the lesson, where in the overall comments, the suggestions for improvement were prefaced with “A few minor points in an otherwise excellent lesson: …” . It is nice to be appreciated, by my students and the people I work with alike.

Wednesday 8th July

13.45-15.15 Project Standardisation

Normally we don’t have anything scheduled on Wednesday afternoons – we finish after the morning class. This is time we can use to catch up on marking and planning, but also the time in which developmental workshops and standardisations are organised. The students, meanwhile, attend a lecture (which forms part of the discussion at the beginning of my listening classes, as part of homework is to take notes during the lecture and practice using the strategies…).

In this standardisation session, we are taken through the new criteria for grading projects and then look an example with grades given, followed by discussing in groups and giving grades ourselves. This is vital, of course, as then we are all on the same page when 26,000 – odd words of projects rain onto us in week 6 (first draft) and week 8 (final submission) of the course.

We will have further standardisations for presentation assessment and USEPT assessment in forthcoming weeks on Wednesdays.

29th June 

09.15-10.45; 11.15-12.45 Writing Class (and first meeting with new tutor group)

The first meeting with a group of new students can be slightly nerve-wracking on both sides. This year, I have returners so I start teaching directly on Monday. (New students do registration on the Monday and only start classes on the Tuesday) They turn out to be a lovely bunch of people. Mostly Arabic speaking, from various Middle Eastern and North African countries, as well as one Chinese and one Japanese student. (Interestingly, this is a completely demographic to last summer, where I had all new students and all but about 2 were Chinese!) Once the ice has been broken through some getting to know you activities, there’s no looking back and we get stuck in to analysing essay titles. Having taught the material in last year’s pre-sessional course, I already feel a lot more comfortable using it (as a springboard). The lesson goes well and seems to augur well for what lies ahead.  🙂

22nd June – 26th June

09.15 – 16.15 (with half an hour morning break, one hour lunch break and 15 mins afternoon break, daily Monday – Friday) Induction

EAP Essentials - essential in name, essential in nature...

EAP Essentials – essential in name, essential in nature…

We get a whole week of induction before starting work on PS-10, so it is pretty thorough! One of the authors of EAP Essentials, Jenifer Spencer, does input sessions on teaching EAP, then of course there is all the nuts and bolts organisational stuff (syllabus, timetables, overview of course components and assessment) as well as a fair smattering of tech sessions, where we set up our accounts and learn how to use things like MOLE (Sheffield Uni’s branded Blackboard) and Google Drive. As a returner, there are some sessions where I have the opportunity to join a break-off group, where we discuss the same topics as in the main room, but with more emphasis on reflection and discussion than input. These are really motivational and useful, and help me get back into the EAP zone after an academic year of general English. I think maybe the best thing about being a returner is that instead of EVERYTHING being new, there is so much more familiarity. It makes life SO much easier.

On the final day, the Friday, we see where we will be teaching and our temporary staffroom. This year, I have actual classrooms rather than lecture theatres – yippee! We aren’t required to stay on site till a given time, so we can go home to use the remaining time for long-term lesson preparation. (The added bonus of this is that home has windows! 😉 ) It’s nice being treated like a professional adult in this sense, being trusted to do what needs to be done.

Closing comments

(What a relief! I hear you say… 😉 )

I am really enjoying this summer and, being a returner myself (just like my students – except it’s the PS-10 I’ve done before rather than other courses during the year!) I feel a lot more confident with what I’m doing. This, in turn, gives me the confidence to be a lot more hands on with the students and more responsive to their needs. My students are appreciative and think I’m doing a good job, the people above me are supportive and think I am doing a good job, and my colleagues are lovely and friendly too. Week 6 and 8, when we have all the projects to feedback on (6) and grade (8) will be a bit stressful, but that’s ok – it’s temporary rather than the norm so it’s manageable. One thing I am also enjoying is being able to have a genuine work-life balance. I’m able to get out on walks, do yoga, play my clarinet, see friends, relax and read, as well as work. I don’t finish the week feeling utterly destroyed physically and mentally. I can cook at home during the week. I actually feel rested by the end of the weekend and ready for the week again. Really lovely. I will make the most of it while this summer lasts! 🙂

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Teaching Academic Listening (and transferral to the General English classroom!)

This summer, I worked on a pre-sessional course for the very first time…

At Sheffield University, as well as teaching your tutor group writing skills and guiding them through the process of producing an extended written project, each teacher is responsible for teaching one of the other skills (reading, speaking or listening) to their own and a further two groups. For me, that skill was listening, 8 weeks of academic listening. And it was really interesting!

In this post, I’m going to share some of what I’ve done with my students and some of what I’ve learnt in the process. I also want to reflect on what might be transferable back to the general English classroom at International House, Palermo – rather imminently! (This post has been a few weeks in the pipelines!)

The 8 week listening thread of the pre-sessional course at Sheffield University was based on OUP EAP upper intermediate/B2 (de Chazal & McCarter, 2012) The listening skills development in this course book, to me, seems very strongly rooted in strategy development: students are equipped with strategies to use in order to help themselves listen more effectively to academic texts e.g lectures. Generic elements and functional language are teased out and students’ awareness raised, combined with scaffolded practice opportunities. This scaffolding is evident within units and across the book as a whole, where a gradual decrease can be identified, as students are expected to listen increasingly more independently.

This in mind, was all I had to do turn up and open to page x? Possibly not! In any case, having read a lot about teaching listening (e.g.Teaching and Learning Second Language Listening: Metacognition in Action  Vandergrift and Goh 2012), much of which seemed applicable to academic listening, and adding to this what I had gleaned from the induction week as well as the relevant chapter in EAP Essentials (Alexander, Argent and Spencer, 2008), I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do with the listening skills thread:

  1. Include (systematically, with gradually decreasing scaffolding) review activities at the start of the class and reflective activities at the end. (3hr lessons lend themselves to this approach beautifully!)
  2. Avoid the scenario of students meeting a new strategy and then consigning it to the dusty depths of a folder, never to be used again.
  3. Enable students to track their progress/development and recognise an accumulation of strategies being at their disposal. Not only this but also encourage *regular use* of them.
  4. Linked to all of the above, help the students become more independent listeners.

How did I do this?

  • Long-term planning

I made a hand-out to accompany each class, based on the activities in the course-book. Each handout guided the learners through the lesson from reflection to main content to review, also highlighting any new strategies introduced, and I made several weeks’ worth in advance. The main reason for this was time-management, trying to free up time for intensive marking periods and planned absences (graduation, wedding). However, I noticed that it really helped the coherence, especially as I had Vandergrift and Goh (2012) in mind, in terms of systematically reducing scaffolding and guiding learners towards independence in planning, monitoring and evaluating their strategy use. There was clear progression, explicit progression, from one class to the next.

Result: 

Increased coherence, making the content more useful for students.

I had the ss fill in a feedback form at the end of the class - 4 questions, no numbers, to encourage reflection  (for them) and to gain an insight into their thoughts (for me).

I had the ss fill in a feedback form at the end of the class – 4 questions, no numbers, to encourage reflection (for them) and to gain an insight into their thoughts (for me).

Out of 36 responses, one was withholding judgement until he/she knew whether he/she had passed the USEPT exam (the university entrance proficiency test), one thought it was partly useful but felt we talked too much, and the rest were “yes”‘s.

Transferability: 

It’s different in a General English environment, as courses tend to be organised around grammar structures. However, what I want to try and do this year at IH Palermo is help students see how they are building on what they have learnt and be more systematic in how I approach my lessons in terms of review and reflection. Of course, being 1hr20 minute lessons rather than 3hr lessons limits the amount of time available for this. Nevertheless, working with the time available, a similar ratio could usefully be applied.

  • Strategy tables

Strategy tables kept and updated by the students over the duration of the course.

Strategy tables kept and updated by the students over the duration of the course.

I made these between week 2 and week three of the course, following the blank stares that emerged in the initial review section of week 2. The idea was to help students build up a reference/resource, where at a glance they can see what strategies they have learnt and how to use them. This means they should be more likely to use them independently, rather than systematically forget about them, as new strategies are encountered. I completed the first strategy as an example, gave the students a little bit of time at the end of the class in week three to start updating them (so as to ensure they knew what they were doing) and then sent them off under instructions to bring their tables up to date. An important thing that emerged from this was the fact that it was not an instant success. The following week, not all students had updated their tables. However, by bringing it back into the classroom each week at the beginning of the lesson (students would compare their tables), an expectation of autonomy was created. In due course, all the students did live up to that expectation. This coincides with the recognition of the value of what they are doing and the behaviour becomes truly independent rather than purely response to expectation.

Result: 

Students finished the course with a record of what they had learnt, a resource to take away, and a more independent approach to their listening skills development. Out of 36 responses, 35 were “yes” and one was “no”, who thought that there were too many strategies to juggle. This student hadn’t yet reached the point of being able to select strategies independently. With 8 weeks of teaching, expecting all students to reach that point may be a little over-ambitious. Many students commented that the strategy tables were useful for reviewing what had been learnt in previous lessons and made remembering the strategies and how to use them easier. I was particularly pleased with comments that cropped up regarding the utility of the strategy table beyond the end of the course. If learners can see how something is going to be useful to them long-term, they are likely to invest more in using it, and be more independent in their use of it.

Comments on the strategy table.

Comments on the strategy table.

Comments on the strategy table (2)

Comments on the strategy table (2)

 

Comments on the strategy table (3)

Comments on the strategy table (3)

 

 Transferability:

I think use of a strategy table would transfer nicely to exam preparation classes, where exam strategies are key to success. It could also potentially be useful in terms of accumulating a record of learning strategies met and experimented with, or resources. In the past, I have given learners a handout with different resources for them to try. I wonder if getting them to create this handout themselves, collaboratively perhaps, might be even more effective…

  • Listening logs

Listening log in action!

Listening log in action!

These were made and introduced alongside the strategy tables. The idea was not by own but based on what I’ve learnt by reading about teaching listening. I adapted it to this context. As with the strategy tables, I started the learners off with an example. The goals were to encourage independent listening, to help learners develop metacognitive awareness and to avoid the scenario (much bemoaned by listening teachers) of the question “What have you listened to since the last lesson? Which strategies have you practiced?” being met with blank stares. Again, as with the strategy tables, learners compared their logs at the beginning of each lesson.

Result:

Some students thought the log could be improved by including space for their actual note-taking. Others thought it wasn’t for them. Those that used it, however, did find it useful, as a means of structuring and tracking their out-of-class listening and tracking their progress.

Listening log comments (1)

Listening log comments (1)

Listening log comments (2)

Listening log comments (2)

Listening log comments (3)

Listening log comments (3)

Listening log comments (4)

Listening log comments (4)

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Listening log comments (5)

Transferability: 

As I have learnt through my own language learning this summer, as well as through these students’ experiences, logging is an incredibly useful thing to do. I think it is very transferable to the General English classroom. Students can log their out-of-class study and in the process create a record of their efforts, achievements and progress. Personally speaking, I’ve found it a useful way of maintaining motivation. I think learning logs could be also usefully used in conjunction with something like a learning contract. I think it needs careful thought though, as to how valuable it’s going to be. For example with these students, it wasn’t just what they did that they recorded, but how they went about it (in terms of strategy choice) and reflections on that experience.

  • Reprocessing information/strategies

As well as using listening logs and strategy tables with the students, I also used classroom activities to encourage them to reprocess what they were learning and really internalise it. For example, mingles in which the students played strategy guessing games or simply recalled as many strategies (and what they involve) as they could in a given time frame, swapping partners frequently and repeating (generally also collecting and taking with them information/ideas from their various partners – enabling them to benefit from a collective understanding of what they were learning).

Another effective activity was getting students, in groups to create mind-maps of the strategies, which they then presented to their classmates:

Mind-maps (1)

Mind-maps (1)

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Mind-maps (2)

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Mind-maps (3)

Result:

This encouraged deeper processing both of what the strategies involved and how they relate to each other as well as to the task at hand. We did the activity in a lesson subsequent to one in which the focus of the lecture extract was on categorisation (e.g. Aristotle’s classification of the world) and using diagrams in note-taking, so this task also developed that theme by requiring students to categorise the strategies and present their ideas visually.

Transferability: 

Activities like this obviously have great transferability potential, and,  as well as encouraging deeper processing of lesson content, give students opportunity to use language meaningfully and benefit from each others’ knowledge and understanding.

  • Systematic introduction of out-of-class listening resources 

At the end of each class, I gave students a new resource to try (e.g. Oxford University podcasts, UCL lunchtime lectures etc.) and at the beginning of the next class, they had to report back to their classmates regarding what they had done with the resource and an evaluation of it. This was done in conjunction with using the listening logs described above. Again, uptake wasn’t instantaneous, but perseverance meant students did use the resources in due course – and develop their listening.

This was a more directed version of my Experimentation with English project. It seemed logical as EAP is more directed too: goals are very specific, and specific needs relating to these require specific resources. I think there is something to be said for for introducing resources piece-meal, in terms of not overwhelming students. Having said that, my students at IH loved the handout with all the different resources.

Transferability:

I wonder about using this approach in conjunction with my EE project. So, as well as giving learners the resource, going through a more directed process so that all the learners end up trying at least some of the resources. Then, those who are more independent will inevitably try more besides, but perhaps the gap between the more and less independent might be lessened by the extra direction.  I think this could also be transferable to exam preparation classes, in terms of encouraging students to use different exam preparation resources to prepare, and sharing what they learn with each other.

Conclusions:

It was a very interesting summer, and, I am happy to say, my three groups performed very strongly overall in the listening component of the listening proficiency/entrance exam. Importantly, they also felt they had made progress, thanks to the concrete means of measuring it (e.g. strategy tables and listening logs), which helped maintain motivation and encourage a feeling of all the hard work they were putting in being worthwhile. Equally importantly, they were equipped to continue to develop their skills independently and apply what they had learnt in the new context. (Encouraged by frequent pushing from me to reflect on the relevance of what we were doing to what they would be doing in the future – i.e. their university courses!).

I now look forward to trying to transfer what I have learnt to my current context and help my new students to be develop as effectively as possible over the short duration that they are studying with me.