Category Archives: Methods and Principles

Lesson plans – keeping the discussion going: Breltchat summary

A note from TEFL Reflections: I must say I’m amazed that my last post ‘Lesson Plans – a waste of time?’ has cause such a stir. I honestly didn’t expect it, but I’m glad it did. Perhaps the discussion was long overdue.

So I’m delighted to keep it going. Here’s a summary written by Juliana of Breltchat, a regular chat on anything ELT held by #BRELT here, mostly in Portuguese, but sometimes in English too. Please note that while the chat mostly addressed planning in general, my previous post concerned detailed lesson plans written for formal observations or teacher training courses (e.g. CELTA, DELTA).

Briefly, the most important points raised by the participants during the discussion were:

  • The importance of planning.
    Almost all of the participants highlighted the need and importance of planning in order to guide the classroom practices, even if the planning is not done formally.
  • The importance of having an objective in mind.
    Most participants agreed that having an objective in mind to guide the procedures in class is fundamental to start the planning, be it a subject to be worked on, tasks to be performed or topics to be discussed in class.
  • Use of digital tools to help planning.
    Using tools, such as Power Point, Evernote and Lino in place of the traditional paper planning, was also suggested by the participants.
  • Planning might change from one institution to the other (e.g: regular schools versus language courses).
    There are differences between planning in a regular school and in a language course. These differences should be taken into consideration while planning, because the target audience and the approach are different.
  • Keeping in mind the personalization of the planning.
    Despite the fact that some schools do not allow modifications in their lesson planning, whenever possible, the teacher should personalize the planning according to the group and their needs, thus exercising teacher autonomy.
  • Do not keep a single linear plan from the beginning to the end.Taking into consideration that the class is neither the same every day nor in its own occurrence, teachers should bear in mind that the plan cannot always be the same for all classes and all students. In addition, it should not be carried out item by item in an automatic way, because what works for one class might not work for another.
  • Attention to problem identification.Participants also pointed to the need for an ongoing reflection pre- and post-class in order to smooth out the problems and build up new strategies and solutions.

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  • Attention to the students’ and group’s objectives so students’ and teachers’ planning do not clash.
    Attention to the students’ objectives helps the lesson achieve success because the teacher’s objective is not always the same as the class’s and vice versa. In doing so, the teacher promotes motivation and interest in the class. It is always important to have the students’ needs in mind.
  • Despite being important in the beginning of the career, try not relying exclusively on Teacher’s Guide.
    To the novices, the Teacher’s Guide is a valuable guide. However, after some years of experience, following it literally might be risky, because it might make the lesson feel standardized and predictable since it will be lacking in teacher’s identity and students’ interests.
  • Whenever possible, having a plan B (or C).
    Having a plan B (or C) helps when the initial plan has not been so successful or it doesn’t suit students’ objectives. In order not to let the class sink or fail, an alternative plan is always handy. There are no recipes for classes and assuming that your initial plan is always going to work is really risky.
  • UbD

One participant drew attention to UbD (Understanding by Design) as a means of organizing your lesson. Called “Backward design”, UbD focuses on desired outcomes as a guide for planning.

  • Multiple Intelligences and learning styles

Something else that was mentioned was the need to cater for multiple intelligences and learning styles in the plan. However, that topic was controversial.

Shared links:

Juliana Alves Mota is originally from São Paulo, the HeadShotlargest city in Brazil, but moved to the countryside in 2012. A former speech therapist and audiologist who discovered her love for teaching in 2010, she holds a CAE certificate and is currently working towards a degree in English and Portuguese from the University of São Paulo State – UNESP Araraquara. Dedicated to continuous professional development, she always attends online and face-to-face courses, as well as webinars, and has been a BrELT participant since 2014.

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Lesson plans – a waste of time?

I realise I haven’t written anything for this blog for quite some time, so I’m really glad that a recent conversation on Twitter about observations and lesson plans with @ashowski and @getgreatenglish, who following our chat wrote a post too, motivated me to write a new post. The conversation was prompted by a blog post by @ashowski which you can read here. In a nutshell, Anthony argues that from the point of view of the observer a thorough lesson plan is essential as comparing it with the decisions made by the teacher during the lesson can “reveal the most interesting features of the teacher’s pedagogic abilities”. Without this it would be impossible “to determine the extent of the teacher’s teaching abilities”. What?!

You know a great planner when you read their lesson plan, but you know a great teacher when you see them. While the lesson plan might reveal some interesting things about the decisions taken by the teacher, I don’t think it is necessary “to determine the extent of the teacher’s teaching abilities”, because the only thing it does determine is the extent of teachers planning abilities. And is just one of many skills of effective English teachers. What I definitely object to, though, are the incredibly detailed lesson plans we are obliged to write for formal observations.

First, they do not reflect how we plan on a day-to-day basis. Let’s be honest, any good teacher will prepare and plan for their classes in one way or  the other, but when was the last time you wrote a CELTA/DELTA like lesson plan? Probably for your last observation, and only because you were obliged to. On a day-to-day basis we might write down the main aims on post-it notes, draw a flow-chart with main stages on a piece of paper, or make notes in the teacher’s or student’s book (for an overview of various approaches to planning read this post by Adam Simpson) . Personally, I will often visualise the different stages, interaction patterns, lesson aims and go over the various options I could use in the class without writing too much down. The best decisions often come to me on the spot. They depend on students, on their mood, on what happens in the class, and on countless other unpredictable factors.

6-11. The butterfly effect

Which brings me to my second objection: you can’t plan for the unpredictable. And what happens in class is to a lesser or greater extent unpredictable. While thinking about the lesson, its aims, possible interaction patterns, predicting setbacks and devising solutions to them are all part and parcel of preparing for a successful lesson, I can’t see how writing them down in the form of an ever more complex and detailed lesson plan will help you effectively respond to what happens in the classroom. As Steve Brown wrote here, “Teaching is not about managing the delivery of a lesson plan”. Unfortunately, though, both teacher training courses, as well as in-house observations place great importance on thorough lesson planning.

Because, as we’re told, there’s a direct correlation between a good lesson plan and a lesson success. Really? When preparing for my last observation I spent several hours writing the plan and preparing materials. According to the feedback I received, the lesson went well, but I didn’t feel the hours of prep paid off. I didn’t feel it was a particularly outstanding lesson. And I’m pretty sure I would have taught a similarly effective lesson with 10% of the time put into planning. And would have been much less stressed about having to stick to the lesson stages. So might have responded to students’ immediate queries and needs better too.

So why are we told by trainers and observers to prepare detailed lesson plans? Perhaps because “they [the lesson plans] provide comfort to the novice and to the person required to certify the novice’s ability” (the Secret DoS in this post). Perhaps because “it is part of what most teachers are expected (and paid) to do” (ibid). Perhaps because the observers/trainees actually believe that how the plan looks reflects in a way how the lesson is going to pan out. It shows that the trainee is diligent and has carefully thought about the lesson. This belief, though, is underpinned by “the misconception that [through planning] teachers can control what students learn” (Steve Brown in this post).

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But the paramount importance that is placed on producing neat, organised, detailed and long lesson plans is misguided, because it doesn’t really prepare the trainee for the daily teaching and planning routine. It teaches us a skill that we never use. It dupes trainees into thinking that they can anticipate every problem that might come up in the lesson. It also seems to suggest that only by following a pre-planned sequence of activities can we teach a successful lesson. And it takes teacher’s attention away from what really matters: the students and what is happening at a given moment in class.

Don’t get me wrong. I feel that planning IS important. It is essential. But not in the form of hours spent stressing over a detailed CELTA-like lesson plan, which most likely will end up accumulating layers of dust somewhere on a forgotten shelf in the DoS office. Such planning leads to little meaningful PD.

Stack of Paper 050

It is stressful, time-consuming and not environmentally friendly. It also emphasises the lesson plan as a measure of teacher’s abilities. Yet, we all agree that successful teaching is much more than a well-written lesson plan. So what I would like to see is s shift towards that “much more”, towards the actual teaching. I would like to see the observer and teacher discuss teacher’s PD needs and focus the observation aims accordingly. I would like the observer to see the real, everyday teacher, not the artificial machine conditioned by the one-off 10 page lesson plan.

This, however, would require a change in what the observations are used for, which at the moment is quality control and assessment. There’s little pre and post-observation reflection, let alone a meaningful and personalised PD action plan whose aims would stem from the observation. Surely, though, this is how observations should be used. For example:

  1. Pre-observation meeting where teacher and observer discuss teachers strengths, weaknesses and PD needs
  2. Observation
  3. Post-observation meeting where teacher and observer reflect on the lesson and agree on PD goals
  4. Teacher develops an action plan with the help of the observer and agree on the time frame, goals, action research tools, etc.
  5. Teacher carries out the action plan with support from the observer
  6. Observer and teacher meet to discuss the results of the action plan (possibly preceeded by an observation)
  7. Teacher continues working on all (or some of) the same developmental goals OR go back to point 1 to start a new cycle

So, no, I don’t think that a lesson plan reveals pedagogical abilities, nor that it determines the extent of teacher’s abilities. What it does do is reveal a profound detachment from how real planning is done. It overemphasizes a skill that we never use on a daily basis; a skill whose correlation with a successful lesson is yet to be proven. Long lesson plans are a fruitless, artificial, stressful and time-consuming exercise which rarely result in meaningful PD.

Our attitude to lesson plans is full of hypocrisy too. On the one hand, as teachers we produce long lesson plan each time we’re observed, because we are required to by the observer, even though we doubt whether they help us develop professionally, or deliver a more effective lesson. On the other hand, as observers, we expect adherence to one and only true attitude to planning, even though we know that it’s neither the only one, nor the best, nor the most practical or realistic one.

While the ability to plan is important and needs to be cultivated, we mustn’t forget about the countless other skills which a successful teacher needs. And to help the teacher develop them, we don’t need to see an agonizingly long lesson plan every time we observe a class.

Further reading:

TESOL Convention 2015: ‘Gamification of your language learning course’ by Steven Carruthers by

image

The session started with (surprise, surprise!) a game. It was a classic bingo. The presenter read numbers and whoever got five in a row first had to shout bingo. This went on for a couple of minutes before we did some reflection.

gamification 1

The motivation was definitely very high. Without realising, we were all really focused on the task. If we were students, we would have also been practising both listening and identifying the target language, which in this case was numbers. However, there was one serious drawback. The game was very teacher-centred and there was no interaction between participants, who didn’t get a chance to practise actually saying the numbers.

This was solved with a very simple tweak. We now had to turn to the person next to us and work with them. We asked each other: ‘Do you have… (e.g. 3.476)?’ If our partner had the number, we could circle it. It continued until the first person got 5 in a row.

This time, apart from very high motivation also present in the initial task, the room was buzzing with conversations. Admittedly, they weren’t the most elaborate ones, but students would have not only practised receptive, but also productive skills. If we add some functional language to the mix:

  • Sorry, I didn’t catch that.
  • Could you say that again, please?
  • Do you mean e.g. 9835?

it will make the conversations even more productive and meaningful.

But what is gamification, anyway?

It refers to the use of game design and game mechanics in non-game contexts, e.g. English class. Its aim is to guide learners towards autonomy, mastery and purpose.

One of the crucial points raised was that when we consider using games in our classes, we need to carefully analyse what the Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) are, and how we can build these into the game. You can read more about SLOs here.

This is the basic route for writing SLOs Steven Carruthers suggested in his presentation:

gamification 3

Considering SLOs can help us determine what exactly we would like learners to achieve, how they should go about it and how we will know they have achieved the goals. In other words, we should think about:

  • game mechanics
  • goals
  • participation
  • obstacles
  • support
  • point structure
  • strategy
  • language level
  • achievement

Thinking carefully about SLOs can also help us give more concise and precise instructions. In the photo below, you can see how a very vague statement has been turned into a very specific one using the ABCs of SLOs:

gamification 4

So why bother gamifying your English language learning course? Well, some studies indicate that having a gamified structure in which students achieved badges for completing SLOs increased completion of modules. Also, even mundane tasks can be more engaging if gamified.

Interestingly, motivation and engagement are triggered by anticipation of achievement. That is, when we can almost see the finish line, when the goal is within our reach, we are much more likely to make that final push to reach it. However, too often we focus on the gap not the goal, i.e. this is how much you still don’t know; which is a rather negative way of looking at things and can thus be demotivating. On the other hand, if we were to focus on the outcomes, students are more likely to get there.

Finally, Steven showed us how taking SLOs into consideration, we can move away from a traditional grading system (top left hand corner) to one based on a achievable and relevant outcomes (bottom right hand corner) – he teaches academic listening skills:

gamification 5

 

Do you use games with your students? Do you incorporate SLOs? What does your grading strategy look like?

Would love to hear from you. And don’t forget to follow the blog on the right hand side to receive new posts regularly by email.

 

Teaching Lexically

Wednesday was one of those days that made me realise (not for the first time!) why blogging is great, and why I got into it in the first place – read more about it here. I’d just finished breakfast and I still had about 30 minutes to my first class so – as you would these days – I was trying to kill it on FB, when I came across Andrew Walkley’s post ‘Lexical Sets/Topic Vocabulary‘ on the BELTA blog.

In a nutshell – please do read it, it’s well worth it – Andrew points out that teaching lexis in sets (e.g. appearance, education) doesn’t help acquisition. That is, students would learn 10 random words faster than 10 words from a set. An idea proven by research, but not really reflected by course book design, nor by how most of us teach lexis. You can read more about this in this article by Leo Selivan, where he proposes some interesting alternatives to teaching lexis in sets.

Andrew then highlights that course books and teachers “are ruled by the grammatical syllabus”, which means that we have to cover present simple in order to be able to go on to present continuous, past simple, and so on. You know the drill. Otherwise – or so we are let to believe – students won’t grasp it.

Under Creative Commons from: https://flic.kr/p/76tVxa
Under Creative Commons from: https://flic.kr/p/76tVxa

As a language learner, I’ve found this idea very restrictive. I would typically learn a new language structure (e.g. tense, chunk, isolated item), because I had the communicative need for it. In other words, I wouldn’t wait until I knew how to form the present simple, before attempting to talk about my past experiences or future plans. ( you can read more about my language learning experience and tips here). Yet, as a teacher, I’ve tended to follow the grammatical syllabus of standard course books.

In other words, the course book, and by extension the teacher, prescribes what the student must learn today, often stopping them from going a step beyond that (we’ll learn ‘the future’ next month, Jose; now focus on the task). Wouldn’t it be better, though – as Andrew points out – if we started to:

teach phrases containing more ‘advanced’ grammar easily to beginners – especially where we make use of translation – which could allow for a wider variety of language earlier on. Yet we become primed to expect certain grammar and words at certain levels which prevents us from seeing how we can help students say more of what they want to say, sooner.

[from the author: please note that all the example sentences below were invented by me or taken from my classes. For the examples Andrew used originally, follow the link to his article]

Andrew then suggests some interesting ideas which can help us achieve this. For example, if the chunk ‘I’m broke’ comes up in the class, we can exploit it by eliciting and working on some probable language connected to the chunk:

  • Why are you broke? Spent money on (clothes)/Haven’t been paid yet/My mate owes me loads/etc.
  • What would you do if you were broke? Get a loan (from the bank)/Borrow money from (a friend)/ Ask (your parents) for a loan/Get a job/etc.
  • How would you feel? Miserable/down in the dumps/suicidal/normal – I’m always broke/etc.

You could elicit the responses to the questions from students and upgrade their language to make it sound more natural. Of course, the language can be graded according to the students’ level, but there’s no reason why the above exchange could not take place even on low levels. It actually should, because it’s based around language that students might be likely to use in this context.

Photo from: https://flic.kr/p/7J5PTA
Photo from: https://flic.kr/p/7J5PTA

Another idea described by Andrew is ‘building on simple grammar’ and structures to form more complex ones using students’ ideas. For example, imagine teaching a beginner class ‘likes and dislikes’:

I                            love                                     reading books
                              like                                     football
                              don’t like                         broccoli
                              hate                                    queuing for a long time

If students only used the above structures, the activity would end up pretty restrictive. However, you could expand it by adding alternative subjects, such as:

My granny                           loves                                     reading books
My son                                   likes                                     football
Aliens                                    don’t like                         broccoli
Messi                                      hates                                    queuing for a long time

If we allow students to use dictionaries, or if we translate for them, we can get them to come up with sentences and language that is communicatively important to them. We might also want to feed in appropriate questions or reactions to the statements, for example:

  • A: I love football! B: Do you?/Really? I don’t/Me too/etc.
  • A: My mom hates football. What about yours? B: She loves it!/She hates it too
  • A: My dad like reading books. B: And what about your mum/brother/cousin?

Admittedly, the above are not 100% natural exchanges, but they resemble much more closely real conversations then students simply making sentences about their likes and dislikes.

Under Creative Commons from: https://flic.kr/p/5ueUT6
Under Creative Commons from: https://flic.kr/p/5ueUT6

Finally, why not ask ‘why’ and get the students to give reasons. This might result in some interesting new language we could further explore, but most importantly – it will lead to meaningful and relevant practice. For example:

  • Why do you hate reading? Because it’s boring/I fall asleep every time/I prefer TV.
  • I don’t like my city. It’s not safe. There are many thieves.
  • My mum loves broccoli. She likes all vegetables. She doesn’t like meat.

The important thing that Andrew’s article reminded me of is that there’s no reason why we should restrict our students’ production to what we’ve prescribed for a given class. Actually, two days before I read the article, I was teaching hobbies and free time activities to a beginner level Polish class. When they were discussing what they and their friends or relatives enjoyed doing in their free time, one student asked how to say ‘which’ in Polish. At first I thought she didn’t really need to know it now, and we should continue the activity, but it quickly dawned on me that it was a very natural question word to know. Consider:

  • A: I like reading books.
  • B: Nice. [silence, tries to find the right word and ask something, but gives up]. I like reading books too.
  • A: Nice. [silence – they move on to the next ‘like’]

Of course, asking ‘which books’ is what we’d normally do in this situation. Teaching this question word opened up some very interesting language possibilities. Then we elicited some likely chunks with ‘which’ (Polish, unlike English, is a terrifyingly inflectional language, so the form of ‘which’ will change depending on the gender, case and number) and some likely answers. Then, they had a chance to practise it. The same could have been done with ‘how often’, ‘when’ or ‘why’, e.g.:

  • A: I love going to the cinema. B: Me too! How often do you go?
  • I really like to sleep late when I have the time.

To sum it up, I totally agree with Andrew that there is no reason why we can’t expand on the ‘prescribed’ chunks or grammar, and get even low-level students to say more complex, but at the same time more personally relevant and meaningful sentences. I guess it might have been something I used to do from time to time, but never really paid any conscious attention to. After Andrew’s article, I’ll be more aware of this, and can hopefully make it a more regular part of my teaching repertoire.

This is why Andrew’s article reminded me why blogging is great. The posts you read can often remind you of classroom practices which you’ve forgotten about and give you some great fresh ideas to use in your next class.

While I was wondering about the implications of the article, my 1-1 student arrived and the class started. While we were chatting about what he’d been up to at the weekend, I noticed that he’d written some phrasal verbs in his notebook and translated them into Spanish. It turned out he’d been reading an article and decided to translate some of the new vocabulary. Since I know Spanish, I quickly noticed that some of the translations were not accurate. I explained that words do not live in isolation, but are always connected with others. The first ‘phrasal’ was ‘find out’ and this a photo of what we wrote up on the white board:

collocations white board 2

The student gave a couple more examples that were relevant to him which we discussed and expanded on. We also highlighted some examples that were not correct, but could possibly be correct in Spanish, depending on the translation: e.g. *Columbus found out America.

We did the same with two more phrasal verbs. Notice that I wrote ‘I’ll carry on’ because I think it’s much more likely to occur than ‘I carry on’; despite the fact that we’d never done ‘will’ in class, pointing ahead, ‘to the future’, quickly dispelled any doubts:

white board collocations

By then, the student had realised that, as he put it, learning new words is much more than just translating them. As homework, I asked him to look up language patterns which collocate with the other phrasal verbs he’d written in the notebook. We’ll see next week what he’s come up with.

I definitely feel now that collocations and chunks lie at the core of successful language learning, not grammar. While my teaching had been naturally drifting towards a more lexical approach, it was only when I started teaching Polish when it fully dawned on me how crucial chunks are. As I mentioned above, it is utterly puzzling how we, the Poles, love to decline and conjugate absolutely every single word in Polish: verbs, determiners, relative pronouns, nouns, possessives, you name it! For example, my name’s Marek, but depending what you do with me, my name will get different endings:

  • Marek, come here! – Marku, come here!
  • I had a chat with Marek – I had a chat with Markiem
  • I wrote a letter to Marek – I wrote a letter to Marka
  • I gave it to Marek – I gave it Markowi

This of course means that learning individual words in their base form will not get you very far, i.e. you will be able to produce very little comprehensible output, and you’ll have big problems understanding what people are saying. Of course, you might want to spend the rest of your life trying to memorise all the noun declinations, but I don’t think it would be the most productive activity in the world, let alone communicative. As a result, it’s much more effective to teach students chunks, or even full utterances with variable slots (something which I might write about soon suggesting some practical ideas).

So yes, chunks are great, and so is blogging. Thanks for a very inspiring post, Andrew!

PS On Sunday 8th February, Andrew’s giving a webinar on the topic. You can read more about it here.

For more articles about teaching grammar and vocabulary click here, and for articles on Methods and Principles here. Don’t forget to follow the blog on the right hand side to get the latest posts by email 🙂

ELT Chat on CEFR – a summary and reflection

#ELT chat

This is the first time I’m summarising one of the #ELTchats that take place regularly on Twitter. You can find out more about them on their FB page or the website, where you can suggest topics for future discussions. Admittedly, I haven’t attended the original chat (don’t have Twitter, though James Taylor is trying to persuade me to get it). I’ve only recently heard about the ELT Chat, and joined the FB group a few days ago. There I found a post asking for a volunteer to summarise the chat on CEFR which had taken place on 26th March 2014. Since I was quite interested in the topic and curious to find out how the discussion had evolved, I decided to volunteer 🙂

I’ll do my best to summarise the chat. Then I’ll add some personal comments and reflection. You can find its transcript here.

Most teachers seemed to be quite familiar with CEFR although there were some who had never heard of it (e.g. HanaTicha: “I didn’t hear a single mention of CEFR in my teaching programme”), or who only had scant knowledge of it. The discussion centred around the advantages and disadvantages of CEFR, which I’ll try to discuss here. But first, let’s briefly look at what CEFR is.

Probably the best and shortest description came from HadaLitim, who said that “CEFR is divided into 3 broad categories Basic / Independent / Proficient user and sub-divided into 6 – A1 to C2”. Since most participants seemed familiar with it, the discussion moved on to classroom usage and subsequently some advantages and disadvantages. First, however, I wanted to add some basic facts about CEFR for those of you who might be less familiar with it.

CEFR stands for Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. It is “used to describe achievements of learners of foreign languages across Europe and, increasingly, in
other countries”(Council of Europe 2001, p.1). As it was pointed out in the chat, there are 3 basic levels subdivided into a total of 6, as can be seen in the chart below:

from Imam and Shaw, 2013

The scale describes what students can do at each level. This is important as it views the learners interlanguage from a positive standpoint (i.e. abilities), rather than a negative one (i.e. errors). Most course books on the market follow CEFR and arrange their syllabi around the “can do statements”.

The #ELTchat then moved on to the impact CEFR has on our classroom practice, the way it’s viewed by students and teachers, and how we can apply it to teaching. From the discussion, a list of advantages and criticisms of the framework emerged which I’d like to discuss here.
The advantages:

  • The descriptors are important for us Ts to get a general knowledge of what Ss should know when they graduate” HanaTicha
  • Ed Laur “focuses on communicative skills as opposed to ticking off grammar or vocab lists”
  • gives a feeling of progress and goals
  • sts can judge their own progress (KateLLoyd)
  • I see value in established standards from reputable body. A common benchmark” TheSecretDos
  • CEFR gives “some uniformity in objectives and assessment” Marisa_C
  • Priscilamateini: “[students are] highly motivated by level and certificates
  • “Can-dos enable us to leave the coursebook and stil reassure sts we’re on track wth progress” HadaLitim 
  • “And helpful for a teacher planning own syllabus with no set course book. Can guide choice of tasks ” EdLaur

The disadvantages:

  • VenVVE “The only problem I have with it now that it seems too analytical (as opposed to holistic approach)”
  • HadaLitim: “for an allegedly communicative framework pretty prescriptive – no?”
  • “Ts don’t really understand it though. Descriptors are sometimes too broad” The Secret DoS
  • Ven_VVE “is my C1 equal to your C1?” Some concern was voiced that despite the fact that theoretically two students from two different schools who are both on C1 level should have the same – or very similar- abilities, there’s some variation.
  • “how do you know when “could do” becomes “can do”?” The Secret Dos
  • MarjorieRosenbe: “I also found it overwhelming at the beginning”
  • Band descriptors, especially on higher levels, are not very specific

 My reflection

The advantages:

I agree with what was said during the chat. As a language teacher, I find CEFR useful because it provides a common framework which can not only help us structure a course, but also monitor and assess students’ progress. It makes our lives as assessors easier by providing clear and unambiguous (at least theoretically) statements of students’ language ability. As it was pointed out in the discussion, can dos might also be used to motivate our learners by showing them the progress they have made. In addition, since apart from English I also teach Spanish and Polish, CEFR really help me design the courses (they’re 1-1s), prepare materials and track students’ progress, because the can do statements are transferable to other languages.

As a language learner, I also like the idea of being able to monitor my own progress and ticking off boxes with can-dos as I learn. I know – sounds super geeky, but it gives me a feeling of improvement and achievement. Obviously, not all learners will feel the same about CEFR (or any other structured assessment program), but I do think that if the students are properly introduced and eased into the idea of self-assessment using the can do statements, they will benefit from it. The statements are positive, and therefore avoid the risk of intimidating or discouraging students with negative feedback.

The disadvantages:

As above, I do agree with the criticisms voiced during the discussion. From a teacher’s perspective, they can be quite overwhelming at the beginning. I’ve also found them a bit vague at times or too long and descriptive. In addition, if we were really to follow the can do statements in every class and conduct the assessment according to them  (as I had to in one school I worked for), we would spend most of the class time evaluating our students, rather than teaching them. 

Another worry is the issue of validity, which was raised by The Secret DoS during the chat: “how do you know when “could do” becomes “can do”?” Since some descriptors are vague or unclear, and some are very descriptive, there is a lot of room for interpretation. In addition, most teachers are not trained in using can do statements for day-to-day assessments of students (at least I’ve never been), which severely undermines their value not only for teachers, but also for students who need to also be shown how to use CEFR for self-assessment.

My biggest criticism, though, concerns something which was not mentioned during the #ELTchat. Namely, CEFR “works primarily on the NS-NNS axis”(Hyninen, N. p.36). Many descriptors, especially on higher levels are based on using the language to communicate with native speakers, and the competencies are compared to that of a native speaker. For example, some of the illustrative descriptors are:

  • understands interaction between native speakers
  • understands a native speaker interlocutor

This assumes that the learner learns a language primarily in order to communicate with native speakers, which although in some case might be true (e.g. work or immigration reasons), on average definitely is not. Most students are far more likely to interact with other non-native speakers since NNS outnumber NS by 3 to 1. Therefore, in the view of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), some CEFR scales might only be unfair but also irrelevant goals.

Conclusions:

On the whole, despite all its drawbacks, the CEFR is by far the best and most comprehensive framework for scaling and assessing language levels there is. Of course, it’s got its disadvantages and is by no means perfect or flawless, however, in my opinion the pros far outweigh the cons.

It was great to be able to write the summary of the #ELTchat as reading through the notes prompted me to look things up in the literature and reflect. I’m looking forward to joining the chats in the future, and perhaps writing another summary.

Finally, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section:

  • Are you familiar with CEFR?
  • Do you use it in class?
  • Are your students familiar with it? Do they use it for self-assessment?
  • What do you think about the pros and cons mentioned in this post? Would you add any others?

References: