Blending for beginners

‘I’m really a scientist. I follow recipes exactly – until I decide not to. And then I’ll follow something else exactly. I may decide I could turn this peach tart into a plum tart, but if I’m following a recipe, I follow it exactly.’  Ina Garten

So, we’ve got all the ingredients.  We’ve got teachers with great ideas and lots of classroom experience.  We’ve got a pedagogically sound product to help students learn English online.  We have classrooms and students have access to internet computers.  Now what?  Where’s the recipe for us to follow?

Unfortunately, there is no perfect recipe for us all.  We’ve all been in the situation where we have 2 classes of the same level but we can’t prepare the same thing for both because we know that some activities that are roaring successes with one class can be total disaster with the other, and vice versa.  Any collection of individuals of different ages, life stages, personal situations, goals, moods, preferences will have its own unique set of values and reactions that we as teachers have to address every day so a one-recipe-fits-all approach won’t work.

But all is not lost.  There are some basics to think about when embarking on Blended Learning.

1.Know your learners. 

What do they want? What do they need?  How do they learn best?  How do they not learn?  How much time do they have outside of class?  Use this knowledge to decide what and how much to focus on with them.

2. Be clear on your learning objectives. 

What will the learners be able to do by the end of the lesson or the end of the time they spend on a unit?  Are these appropriate to your learners?  Do your learners have their own objectives for each session?  Use your objectives to inform your decisions about what work to focus on most.

3. Class time is prime time.

Being in class is not just time to ‘get through’ the material but your chance to focus on what your learners need most, whether that’s interaction or grammar or writing skills.  Use the online work to sufficiently prepare students for prime time work so they get the most out of it and make sure they consolidate the language and skills when they work online afterwards.

4. Online work is not just ‘homework.’

Students feel that homework is just practice of what they’ve done in class or finishing off something there wasn’t time to do in class.  Learning happens online too and this needs to be planned to make sure you are asking students to do the right preparation or consolidation activities for them personally and for the activities you have planned for class time.

5. Blend the learning. 

Students shouldn’t feel that they are engaging in two different learning experiences.  They should feel they are participating in two aspects of one experience.  Link up the two sides by by having logical links from one into the other.  This needs to be planned.  Set up online activities in class.  Refer to them afterwards in class.  Congratulate learners on a job well done or encourage further exploration e.g. of an idea under discussion in a forum.  If you’ve checked your student progress scores and have decided to do some extra work on the present perfect, explain this to them.  Let them ask you questions about it.

6. Train your learners. 

Our students all have facebook accounts and share photos and blog and tweet and send emails and instant messages so it won’t take them long to figure out what buttons to press to make things happen in the LMS.  They probably won’t be so quick to pick up how to use the material online in the way that’s most effective for them.  You will need to show them how to manage their time, to self edit and evaluate, to identify and work on their own areas of weakness, to make useful records of language…and the list goes on…  Spend time at the beginnning of the course raising their awareness of these issues and challenge them to come up with their own solutions.  Revisit these ideas throughout the course too so they don’t lose momentum.

That’s probably enough to get you started.  So while there’s no specific recipe necessarily, there are some ingredients you can’t do without.  How do the points above match up with your experience so far.  What do you think you’ll put into practice straight away?  Do let us know…

Pronunciation

‘I meant what I said and I said what I meant.’ Dr Seuss

How many of our students worry that they’ve put the wrong sound into a word and ended up saying the wrong thing altogether?  And how many of them don’t worry enough about using polite intonation and end up sounding rude??

When I ask my students what they want to focus on during chess piece including queena course, often the answer is ‘Pronunciation!’, which in itself, is a bit of a tongue twister!  They say they want me to correct them all the time but students always say that and it’s possibly not the best way to help them reach a balance of intelligibility and appropriacy without feeling overly self conscious about having an ‘accent’.  If we over-correct they will just lose confidence about their ability to say anything at all.  We all have an accent – even native speakers don’t all speak the same way but we all (usually!) understand each other and almost nobody speaks like the Queen…

One piece of advice I have given my students is to get a graded reader that comes with a recording and ask them to read the book while sometimes listening to the recording.  Then for one paragraph in every chapter, I ask them to read and listen and then read the paragraph aloud and record themselves and then listen to themselves and compare that with the recording on the CD.  This is a very easy solution but your students might need some help with it to start with.

In Touchstone Online there are similar activities that are the same idea but a bit more high tech and is also more relevant to their current studies.  The ability to record is already built in so students don’t need to go looking for recording equipment and the pronunciation work is built into contexts that students are studying for language work already like this activity where students can participate in a role play type exercise based on the language and situation they have covered in the unit.

exercise for recording self as part of prerecorded dialogue

As a lot of Touchstone work is to be done online and alone, students can’t be corrected by the teacher even if they wanted to.  So how can they use the online course material to help them instead?  Sometimes students can hear that what they are saying is not the same as what they hear on the recording but they don’t know how to fix it so you need to help to break it down for them.

Recognising patterns

Train your learners to recognise patterns in pronunciation beginning with simple exercises.  For example, play 2 sentences and ask them to tell you if they are the same or different.  Ask what is different between them.  (the words or context or maybe one is a question and the other isn’t) Then play the same sentence uttered by different people and ask them to say if they are the same or different.  Again ask what is different between them.  (e.g. man/woman’s voice or maybe one speaker is angry and the other is calm) Then play the same sentence spoken by a native speaker and a non-native speaker.  Ask what is the difference between them.  (Any number of things!)  Do this type of exercise regularly but in small doses. Next, ask them if they think they are more like the first or the second speaker and why.  Then ask them to record themselves, listen to eachothers’ recordings and say whether their peers sound more like the first or second speaker and why.  As with all peer evaluation activities, this helps raise awareness of what they say themselves and helps them to look at or listen to their own output more critically – and hopefully in a constructive way!

Do these types of exercises regularly so students get used to having to evaluate the sounds and intonation patterns made by others.  Vary it so that sometimes you are looking at individual sounds and sometimes you are thinking about sequences so that over time students build up a variety of parameters to use when evaluating their own language.  Then when they record themselves, ask them to think about what they hear themselves saying in the ways you’ve trained them to use in class.  You could even give them a short self evaluation sheet if they are really struggling with yes/no questions to help them identify areas they need to work on.

If you have any favourite activities for training students to improve their own pronunciation, please share them with us!

Correction

‘Mistakes are the portals of discovery’  James Joyce

In Touchstone Blended Learning, students’ mistakes are ‘exposed’ in several ways.  Most obviously, you’ll be able to see and hear their mistakes in the classroom.  In addition you’ll be able to use Student Progress in Teacher Reports from your home page and their posts in the Web 2.0 tools in the LMS.

So really, there is nowhere for their mistakes to hide but what discoveries can we make from all of this?  In Student Progress, it is possible to see your student’s results from each individual activity.  You don’t see their mistakes per se but you see the score.  The fact that you can’t see the mistake is not important.  When you see that a student has a low score, hover over the Learning Outcome and it will show you what the purpose of the exercise was.  This will inform how you plan subsequent lessons as well as help you advise the student on the best course of action for them to take to improve.

When we write or speak in another language there are different kind of mistakes we produce.  Mistakes of distraction happen when we’re rushing or not paying enough attention to what we’re doing.  Mistakes of lack of understanding happen when we don’t know the rules or the words.  Both are useful for the learning and teaching process.  If your learners are making inconsistent mistakes around a point of grammar for example that show that they do not understand what they have done in class, you can either direct them to the supplementary resources in the LMS or ask them to do the relevant section of the online course or plan a review into your next class.

If it is clear to you that your students understand the rules but are making mistakes here and there, this is your chance to institute some self correction measures.  Give them a short form like the self evaluation example here to prompt them to review their work and train them to do this every time before they post something or hand something in.  Alternatively, you can ask them to use the same form to evaluate a partner’s work and train them to give constructive diplomatic feedback.  In this way, the discovery is not so much seeing that they have made a mistake but realise that they can correct themselves and make decisions about what they need to study next and what they need to review again.

All this is sounding like a lot of work.  Don’t forget that not every mistake needs to be corrected and that this can be counterproductive as students may lose confidence and end up demotivated.  If in class you focussed on the present perfect, then when correcting or reviewing work, focus on the present perfect.  If you looked at the organisation of a text, then focus on students’ organisation and don’t worry about spelling and punctuation.  In this way you will be able to more clearly evaluate your students’ learning lesson by lesson and give them positive feedback and more specific suggestions for improvement.  It will also save you a lot of time!

It is true that we learn from our mistakes, as well as those of others, but we can also learn from what we do well.  Highlight this in class.  While it is tempting to always look at mistakes as areas of potential improvement, it’s also important to recognise achievement to help boost confidence and a sense of ‘being able to do this.’

Try this with your learners and let us know how they respond.