IH Bratislava – 10th annual conference

Back in February, International House Bratislava hosted its 10th annual conference. What follows is a summary of the sessions I attended, focussing on ideas I found most useful for my own practice. If you’re not interested in teaching, stop reading right here.

Johanna Stirling: Teaching Humans

Jo’s plenary was a very good reminder of the fact that students are like teachers: they procrastinate, want respect, (don’t) get things done, (don’t) cooperate … Sounds familiar? Keeping in mind that students come with ‘baggage’ – their own experiences, opinions and feelings – lessons should address that we deal with humans. How to do this?

Firstly, by building an element of choice into the lesson. Students choose their own vocab, the topic, the person to work with … They shoulder responsibility for their learning.

Secondly, by using gamification. This means incorporating elements of competition or rewards. There’s an option of competing against oneself by use of personal targets. Jo also pointed out that people might need a break from gamified education.

The third way to make a lesson suitable for humans is personalization. Finding individual links within the language helps students to get to grips with the language. One way of achieving this is by asking questions like: How are you going to remember this? Does this remind you of anything else? When will you be able to use it?

Jitka Urbanová: Can Speaking be taught?

In a nutshell, probably yes. When teaching speaking, it is essential to keep in mind what the aim of a speaking activity is. Are we focussing on accuracy or fluency? What are the social aspects of a situation? What is transferable from the students’ home language; what needs to be taught?

My favourite activity was this: give students the beginning of some sentences, set a time limit and let them finish each sentence in as many different ways as they manage within that time. It incorporates all three elements from Jo’s plenary!

Most importantly is, however, to give the students feedback at the end of an activity.

 Johanna Stirling: Words Words Words

The big question students and teachers face is how to get those hundreds of thousands of words into long term memory? (This is not asking about how to retrieve and use them afterwards.)

There are five important steps: make students want to know the word, make it visual, link known to unknown words, personalize & activate, and review & recycle. I’m not going to look at all of those, but at one activity which I loved. Here are the instructions:

Have students sit in a small group in a circle with their hands on their knees. Put new vocab on pieces of paper face up in the middle of the circle. Read out a sentence with the last word missing. Students grab the missing word. Correct – point, wrong – miss a turn. Watch out for long fingernails!

Jon de la Fuente: Old-fashioned Teacher

I really liked Jon’s comparison of teaching to a form of art: there are different ‘styles’ like grammar-translation or the Direct Method. However, as a teacher I can exercise my form of free will and cherry-pick from each method what suits my learners best without having to adhere to one style only.

I’m picking three examples of methods here which are sometimes seen as old-fashioned, but which I think can greatly enhance students’ learning. As so many things in teaching, it depends on the context.

The first is translation into students’ first language. Jon cited Scott Thornbury in support of this, and you can read about the pros and cons here.

A second old-fashioned activity is the use of dictionaries. I have to admit, I love dictionaries, especially since they come with audible pronunciation these days! Students have to learn how to deal with the information a good dictionary can provide them with. They also may need to acquire the skills to judge what makes a good dictionary.

Lastly, tell the students they are wrong! Boom. Obviously, this applies to their language errors (content is an entirely different kettle of fish). I have met teachers who were extremely reluctant to correct students’ errors, for different reasons. But as one of my students pointed out just today: ‘How can I learn if you don’t tell me where I’m wrong?’

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