Category Archives: Methods and Principles

To praise or not to praise – that is the question

This week I’ve read two fascinating posts on giving praise to our students. The first was a guest post from Tereza which appeared on Sandy Millin’s blog. You can read it here. In a nutshell, the author questions the benefit of giving praise, especially in excess. Originally from the Czech Republic, Tereza’s now living in the US and she’s been puzzled by the amount of excessively positive feedback she’s got from her teacher who was “super impressed” with anything she did. It would seem she was an incredibly talented genius – at least if she was to believe all the feedback.

Tereza then goes on to argue that too much praise can be counter-productive. She writes:

“I have already lost the sense of what is meant honestly […]. I basically have no measure whether I did well or bad because I always get a perfect evaluation. You have no idea whether people like you or how high they think of you because they always say you did a fantastic job. At the beginning, it makes you feel good, like you are really special, you do really so well. But with time, you get tired of that because you already see through it”.

On the other hand, the second post by Lawrence Hilton, which can be read here, praises praise, even if it’s to be excessive. With a beautiful analogy to desert flowers, Lawrence argues that positive feedback is like rain – it can turn a desolate, sandy landscape of a desert into a beautiful see of blossoming flowers. He would rather err by giving too much rather than to little praise to his students. After all:

“If they are not going to get praise and encouragement from the teacher at every step along the way, from where are they going to receive it?”

I was taken by both articles, because they persuasively argue their points. They were also very thought-provoking and they led me to reflect on my own teaching practice a bit.

I think both Tereza and Lawrence are right. Giving feedback is much more complicated than we might initially think, and there are good lessons to be learned from both articles.

It is definitely true that giving too much praise can be counter-productive. Students will very quickly see through it. They know they didn’t put much effort into their homework, but the teacher still was “super impressed”. This can lead to one of two things:

  1. I don’t need to work hard to get good grades/positive feedback, so why bother making more effort?
  2. Maybe my teacher is right and I’m simply the best, so why bother making more effort?

In both cases, the result is a rather negative one. Other students will also probably realise that all are getting super positive feedback, despite varying quality of their work. It can’t be motivating for a very strong student if the teacher is equally super impressed with their work, as with that of a very weak student.

As Lawrence, points out, though, if we don’t praise our students, who is going to? We do need to encourage them:

“Foreign language students have to overcome their own feelings of insecurity, lack of confidence, feelings of shyness and fear of making mistakes. […] A teacher has to instil the confidence and how can one do that without complimenting and praising the efforts that we are witness to in class?”

I agree with Lawrence that there are times when excessive praise (if given sparingly and judiciously, though) can work miracles. Sometimes you meet students who are terribly shy, lacking in confidence and their own abilities to the point of  “I will never succeed” attitude. As a teacher, we need to encourage them to become more (but not too) self-confident. And a good way of doing it is by giving them slightly more positive feedback than they deserve.

However, we need to stop somewhere. We can’t continue praising if there’s nothing to praise for. But when and how?

In my opinion, we should be honest with our learners. We need to give praise when praise is due, but moderate it according to the student’s performance. Students need to know what they did right, and what went wrong. Otherwise, if they only hear positive feedback, they won’t know what to do to improve and do better next time. And if whatever our students do is fantastic and brilliant, we will be in a serious need of inventing even “more impressive” adjectives to praise them.

I also believe that the majority of students are far more robust than we think. Telling them they’re wrong, or that they’ve made a mistake, is unlikely to cause tears or depression. Of course, the under-confident ones should be spotted and encouraged with highlighting positive feedback first. But if a student fails to do a task or make a mistake, we do need to tell them. How we do it, is a different kettle of fish and a good subject for a new post (here you can read my post on correcting students’ writing). It goes without saying, though, that students expect us to point out their errors and help them improve.

An important consideration is also to respond to the content, rather than just the language. All too often, we focus on correcting errors and fail to notice the story the student has just shared with us. take a look at an example of feedback I recently gave to my 1-1 IELTS student on a recording he sent me. The student has struggled with fluency, is quite daunted by the speaking part and lacks a bit in confidence. We’ve been having classes for 3 weeks, twice a week 90mins:

“A very good effort, Ery! I used to do a lot of swimming myself. Really good exercise 🙂 I might get back to it some time soon.
You structured your speech very well. You used good fillers to avoid pauses. You used some more complex sentences and there were a lot of error-free sentences. A good summary at the end as well. Keep up the good work and do more speaking, please. You’ve been improving, and it would be great if you could send me a recording like this at least every 2 or 3 days (it can even be more spontaneous if you don’t have time to rehearse.
Some suggestions:

  • at the end of sentences the intonation should go down/fall to indicate the sentence is finished
  • try to use substitution to avoid repeating go swimming or swimming so often, i.e. I do it/this sport/activity, I practise it/this sport

BTW, we say go swimming, not *go for swimming. Really looking forward to more recordings from you!”

I avoided using any extreme adjectives such as: fantastic or incredible, because his speaking was far from it. I commented on the content to let him know I actually listen to WHAT he says, not just how. There’s quite a lot of positive feedback, because he needs to know what he already does well. Otherwise, he might fall back into his bad habits.

On the other hand, I included some suggestions. I didn’t use the word error or mistake, because they have a negative overtone, while “suggestions” or “to improve” are neutral. But I think it would be wrong to overlook the errors and say: I was super impressed. You’re really fluent. You’re English is fantastic; because this is simply not true, and both me and the student know it.

To sum up, the key is a balanced feedback. Praise should be given when it’s due. And it should be adjusted to the student’s performance. We can’t be super impressed with everything all the time. It’s just not fair to the student in question, and to others who might be much better. And we definitely need to let the students know how they can improve and what the mistakes are. Otherwise we risk creating over-confident learners whose English is too impressive to continue working on it.

Be flexible!

In my last post I gave some suggestions and tips on teaching mixed ability classes. I wanted to follow it up with discussing flexible and inflexible tasks, which in my opinion is the easiest way to address mixed ability classes without too much extra preparation time.

Consider these examples in the context of a mixed ability class you have. What potential problems with class and task management can you think of?

  • fill in the gaps with the correct form of the verb in brackets
  • use the prompts to make correct sentences: I wish/Mike/not smoke
  • read the text and decide whether the sentences are true or false

Some of the things that are most likely to happen in a mixed ability group are:

  • some sts finish too early and start yawning
  • some sts don’t finish the task because it’s too difficult
  • some find it really easy and start wondering what’s the point of being in this class
  • some struggle and need extensive guidance
  • some get all answers right and continue yawning
  • some get most wrong and look terribly embarrassed
  1. The three examples of tasks I showed above are what is called: inflexible tasks and are usually characterised by two factors:
  • the focus is a specific language point (or a set of points), e.g. past simple verbs, OR a prolonged focus on a listening or reading text
  • there’s only one correct answer

Consequently, some students might already know the language point and find the task too easy, whereas others will find it too challenging, and might need extensive guidance and help. Some will finish early then and get most answers correct, whereas some will take much longer and make many mistakes. In both cases students are likely to become demotivated.

Some examples of inflexible tasks include: drills, dictations, fill–in–the–gaps, multiple choice, etc. In a nutshell, there is only a small and predictable number of correct answers, which are fixed in advance.

So ideally, we want to avoid inflexible tasks, especially when the abilities in class are really mixed. Of course, the problems mentioned above (e.g. early finishers) can be addressed in a number of different ways, some of which I described in the previous post. However, in my opinion it’s much easier to add a bit of flexibility to the task design, which will solve the problems before they actually come up in class.

Look at the examples below and think how they are different from the three tasks I showed earlier, i.e. how are they more flexible:

  • use these verbs in their past form and write a minimum of 5 sentences about your weekend (go, have, drink, sleep, watch, read, like, make, do)
  • write at least 4 sentences starting with I wish
  • read the text and find at least two things you would like to tell your partner about (i.e. something surprising, something you didn’t know/understand, etc.)

2. All of the above are examples of flexible tasks , as they “tend to have a very broad range of aims, many of which only potentially rather than (ostensibly) certainly come into play. The key desideratum concerning task flexibility is that some of the aims (but perhaps not all of them) should be achievable even by the lowest level learners in your class” (Lindstromberg 2000: 2). They can also have some of the below characteristics:

  • choice, e.g. choose from a list of questions the ones you’ll ask your partner
  • quantity: partial completion is OK, and students who do less in initial stages of an activity can still participate in its later stages
  • sophistication: the students are offered freedom in terms of language and cognitive sophistication of their responses, e.g. in 5 minutes write at least 4 sentences starting with I wish. (Rationale: strong students can go beyond the 4 sentences, as well as have the freedom to experiment with more difficult language and concepts, while the weaker can still complete the task and receive praise)
  • student roles: some tasks can be so designed that certain roles will be inevitably more challenging. Lindstromberg (2000: 3) suggests this activity: in-role interview in which a lower proficiency student (a ‘novelist’ researching the criminal mind’) asks questions given on a handout while the interviewee (a ‘notorious desperado’) relies, in answering, entirely on her or his own experience and/or imagination.

Please let me know whether you’ve found this post helpful in the comments section.

Teaching mixed ability – some tips

Having students at different levels of proficiency in the same class can be one of the major preoccupations for any teacher as it appears to make planning and conducting a class much more complicated. However, in reality, all classes will have students who will differ in terms of motivation, speed of acquisition, language abilities, preferred sensory system, etc. In a sense then, ALL groups/classes are mixed ability, and as a teacher it is important to know how to tap into these different abilities in order to enhance the learning process.
Overall, there are 3 ways in which mixed ability can be tackled, that is differentiation of content, tasks and teacher roles.
  1. Differentiating content: one way of dealing with mixed ability is to provide different students with different content which will match their current level, interests and abilities
    • different texts on the same topic chosen on the basis of language difficulty, information density, etc.
    • allow students to choose the content they are going to work with by e.g. providing a range of different grammar/vocabulary exercises, different reading texts for HW, etc.
  2. Differentiating student action:
    • different tasks: provide different students with different tasks for the same, e.g reading text, which will reflect they high or low abilities and help them improve their skills and achieve the goals
    • different student roles: if we’re doing a discussion, for example, a weaker student can be the chairman who controls it (this will reduce the stress of spoken performance but give a great sense of achievement and control). We can also provide scaffoldings for weaker students if doing, e.g. a role play
    • early finishers: if students are doing the same task, some will inevitably finish earlier. Prepare extra tasks for them to reward them for their effort and to challenge them even more. This should be done with care, though, so it does not come across as a punishment.
    • different student responses: encourage flexible tasks (Lindstromberg 2004), i.e. tasks with a wide ray of aims, some of which will be achievable even by low–level students; for example, we might ask students to write a minimum of 3 sentences starting with I wish… (apart from the number produced, the sentences will vary in terms of linguistic and intellectual sophistication) – I’m going to talk about flexible tasks in more detail in a future post
    • discover student talents: allow students to show off their other talents which do not necessarily involve linguistic brilliance. By doing this, a less proficient student can still excel at something in the class and show their best

3. Differentiating teacher roles: whether you’re working with the whole class, groups, pairs or individuals, your aim should be to respond to different students differently, depending on their different abilities:

    • giving feedback: we frequently have to feedback to the student on how well he or she is doing; weaker students might need more guidance and prompting, whereas the better ones pushing them a bit to aim higher by providing extra questions, showing a possible extension to the activity or upgrading their language. However, we need to ensure that we do not ignore anybody by spending more time with certain individuals
    • being inclusive: the key is to set the task in such a way that initially all students can successfully react and respond to it; then the teacher can deploy one of the above differentiating techniques. However, it is crucial that neither high– nor low–achievers feel excluded from the task.
    • differentiating groupings: flexible grouping can be very helpful in mixed proficiency classes and can be done in two basic ways:

a) separating weak from strong students, so that each group might be doing: a different task or reading/listening to a different text (more/less difficult).

b)  mixing weak with strong students, so that the former benefit from higher linguistic input, and the latter profit from having to explain, guide and help

  1. This is all great but let’s be realistic: of course ideally we should have the opportunity to respond, help, guide and work with each student individually following their needs, expectations and linguistic lacks. Unfortunately, the reality is not such a lovely place, and our teaching context might not allow us to do certain things. Nevertheless, we all agree that differentiation is important and that it cannot be abandoned altogether. Thus:
  • be realistic about how much differentiation you can achieve (e.g. if there’s just one computer you can’t assign separate internet tasks for individuals)
  • it is much easier to respond to learners as individuals based on their ability, rather than plan a different work scheme/task for every student/pair; therefore, it might make sense, especially in large groups, to concentrate on flexible tasks
  • is it always necessary or beneficial to differentiate or maybe based on your lesson aims it is better to teach the class as a whole (e.g. reinforcing group cohesion)?
  • build a mental repertory of tasks for early finishers
  • Lindstromberg (2004) suggests “increasing the proportion of writing-before-speaking activities you do.” On the one hand, they give fluent students meaningful accuracy practice. On the other, “it increases the likelihood that, in later pair- or groupwork, less proficient students will be able to say something that is interesting and comprehensible.”
  • the ultimate aim of differentiation, as Harmer (2007) points out, is achieving learner autonomy and passing some responsibility for the learning process into students’ hands
I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments section:
  • Have you used any of the above techniques in your classes?

    How do you tackle mixed ability?

    Which of the above could you use with on of your groups?

Reading up on mixed ability:
  • Lindstromberg, S. Towards better results with mixed-proficiency classes: use of flexible tasks. 2004
  • Harmer, J. The Practice of English Language Teaching. p. 127 – 131. Longman 2007.
  • Tomlison, C. A. Differentiating Instruction For Advanced Learners In the Mixed-Ability Middle School Classroom. ERIC EC Digest #E536, October 1995

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Teaching 1-1: The first class

The first class can be crucial for how the rest of the course pans out. It will set the tone. Especially in a 1-1 setting. After all, there’s just the two of you. So the first set of aims to bear in mind is affective:

  • build rapport (break the ice, get to know each other)
  • motivate the student
  • set the tone for the future classes (learner-centred, relevant, enjoyable, useful)

The next set of aims concerns generating the course content, as well as the objectives and goals. The key principle of 1–1 teaching is that “the student is the syllabus” (Osborne 2005: 3). So as much as possible, the content/topic of the class should be based on students preferences, or even generated by the learner. So ideally what you want to establish in the first class is:

  • what the learner wants to know (wants)
  • what the learner doesn’t know (lacks)
  • what the learner needs to use their English for (needs)
  • what topics and activity types the learner enjoys (preferences)

All this should ensure that the course aims will be relevant, realistic and achievable.

Uff! Seems like a hell lot of work for one class. So how the heck do I go about it then?

As you can imagine, bringing and using a course book in the first class, even if one has been assigned one by the Academic department, is probably not the best solution, albeit a very tempting one. After all, you might not feel at ease coming in with nothing to the first class. Something which can prompt and focus the discussion may come in handy.

Below are some ideas for activities which involve very little prep and materials, and which can help you go about achieving the two sets of aims discussed above in a communicative way:

  1. Spidergram – write down key words or phrases which are answers to some questions about you (e.g. hobby, favourite dish, etc.). Afterwards the student writes down the phrases connected to their lives. This can be done on small separate cards which are turned one by one or all on one piece of paper/whiteboard. Student tries to guess the question. NOTE: It helps to a) identify student’s lacks b) upgrade their lg c) it is also a great ice–breaker and stimulus for further discussion. Modify the content according to the student’s level (i.e. only present simple questions) 
  2. Topic cards – cards with everyday topics face down. You/student turn the first card around and use it as a stimulus for discussion. NOTE: a) encourage the student to ask you questions (apart from the obvious communicative purpose, it also can serve as a diagnostic) b) if you already know something about the student, you can tailor the topics to match their interests, knowledge, job, etc. 
  3. Life Circles – divide the whiteboard/piece of paper into three parts: past, present and future. Put some ideas in each part related to your life. The learner does the same. Apart from being a good ice–breaker and GTKY, the activity helps elicit varied lg, which can serve to identify student’s lacks. As above, it’s a good idea to encourage the student to ask you follow up questions. 
  4. True/False – write some facts about yourself on pieces of paper. Try to make them as interesting as possible. Write at least one false sentence. The learner does the same. Turn the cards one by one. Ask questions to identify the false one. You both try to pretend all sentences are true. See who’s a better liar. It serves well to check question formation. 
  5. Needs analysis – a questionnaire which prompts the learner to express their course needs and expectations can be of excellent use for the first lesson.
  6. Meaningful objects – often 1-1 teaching takes place at student’s workplace, their or the teacher’s house. Use this as an opportunity to select some objects that are meaningful for the student, or can be used as springboard for discussion.
NOTE: all of the above, apart from their affective and communicative purposes, can be used diagnostically, i.e. identifying student’s language lacks for immediate or subsequent remedial work (you can find some ideas on how to deal with emerging language and offer on-the-spot practice here). They can and should be adjusted to the student’s level. Ease the student into the idea that they should ask questions as well as you. After all, the above are all discussion activities.
Have you got any favourite activities for the first class? Looking forward to your comments.

Teaching 1-1 – the advantages.

Since I started freelancing in the Netherlands four months ago, I’ve been almost exclusively teaching 1-1. Of course, I’d taught it before, but never so much in such a short time. And the more I’ve taught it, the more I’ve liked it. Of course, I there are definitely quite a few things about teaching groups, such as being able to pair students up, do mingles and ladders, that I miss, but I’ve started to realise more and more that teaching 1-1 can be not only fun, but also very challenging and rewarding.

For a teacher just fresh off the CELTA course the perspective of doing 90 minutes 1-1 can be a really daunting one (at least it was for me). You’re simply not prepared for it! You’re taught how to do all those fun pair and group work activities, but interacting with only one student is a different kettle of fish altogether.

But with time you find out that in many ways 1-1s can be as fun (or even more) as group classes. They can also be much easier to teach. After all, you only have to discipline one student ;). Of course there’s always the challenge of individually planning the course, choosing the right materials and living up to student’s expectations which are usually much higher than in a group courses. I’ll talk about these challenges and the ways in which we can tackle them in the future posts on 1-1.

In my first post on 1-1, however, I wanted to share with you my enthusiasm and show you the bright side of things. Because I really think that despite the initial challenges, teaching 1-1 offers teachers and students some undeniable benefits.

So why do I like teaching 1-1?

Because it’s easier for the teacher to:

  1. Respond to the student’s mood and be flexible about your lesson plan

  2. Be more natural and spontaneous

  3. Respond to and upgrade the emerging language on the spot

  4. Give very personalised and detailed feedback

  5. Tailor-make the materials to fit your student’s interests and needs, thereby increasing their motivation and engagement

  6. Monitor student’s progress more closely and include regular feedback sessions

  7. Involve the student in the process of creating the course and setting the objectives, making them much more relevant and motivating

  8. Give the student more responsibility for their learning

  9. Do field trips

  10. Be flexible about the course objectives and goals, and revise them as the student progresses

  11. Avoid covering material which is demotivating or irrelevant for the student

  12. Go at the student’s pace rather than following the deadlines set by a generic syllabus

  13. Focus extensively on a particular task which is relevant to the student, e.g. giving presentations, without worrying about other students snoring in class

  14. Offer the student choices and flexibility about what and how they are taught

  15. Get the student to bring materials to class (e.g. an article they need help with or would like to tell you about)

  16. Work intensively on particular language difficulties even over several classes

  17. Train the student to become a better learner.

    Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list. So if you have any comments or things you’d like to add to the list, please let me know. I’d love to hear what you love (or hate) about teaching 1-1.
    And if you’re keen to read up a bit on 1-1 teaching, take a look at:
    • Osborne, P. 2005. Teaching English One to One. Keyways Publishing.
    • Wilberg, P. 1987. One to One: A Teacher’s Handbook. LTP.