Bringing RPG to the classroom

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We may not always know exactly how to keep our younger students engaged in our classes and may even face discipline and classroom management issues. I’ve found this interesting proposal that some students and teachers may find can be the solution to their issues. It turns your classroom into a role-playing game, where your students can create a player, earn points or lose them, gain new powers, work in teams and be able to transfer all of this into real life results.

I’m still just exploring everything you could do with this, but applying it to English Language Teaching, it may even help us to get our students to participate actively in an all-English platform that will actually help their language learning process along as well.

Their objective is not to change what you’re teaching. The content and lesson planning can remain the same, it’s how you teach that will get a boost. They state that it won’t affect or disrupt your class because it runs int he background, while you dedicate at most 5 minutes of your lesson to the game management. What I found especially interesting was that they gain real rewards as well, such as being able to eat in class or have more time on a task, or being able to ask a question during a test. At the end of the day, students to stay alive in the game have to participate actively, which means that in theory this will translate into engaged students.

Classcraft is worth taking a look at!

 

Using ELT links in and out of class to engage students

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Courtesy of miniyo73 at flickr.com

All teaching is moving towards digital aids to help our students (especially those newer generations) get on board and motivated to learn English by alternative exercises than fill-in-the-blank and workbook activities. While preparing classes and trying to find websites that could do just that, I found these three that always come in very handy for either in class fun or homework.

1. Voscreen

Voscreen can be used in many different ways, as well as in different languages. First off, it’s a completely free platform, but it does require you to sign up. So, your students will have to sign up, or you can create one account which they can all use. I’ve used this one for out-of-class practice and students seem to really enjoy themselves and learn a lot. To give it a try log in as a guest. First, they will ask is for you to choose a language. Some considerations: whatever language you choose is the one that the phrases will be translated to. So, if you’d like to practice this as a translation exercise choose your student’s mother tongue. If they are a bit more advanced, than try out English. In this mode it’s perfect for paraphrasing practice.

How it works: 

Your students watch a fragment of a video (very short phrase or dialog) and then they must choose the phrase that best matches or translates the phrase (depending on the language you chose). They can choose two options before doing this. The one on the left is without subtitles and the one on the right is with subtitles. Choosing this will start the timer and they must choose the correct answer before it runs out. If they need to listen again they can press the red play button on the screen. In either case, with or without translations, it will show them the correct answer once the time has run out or they’ve chosen their response.

How and when to use it:

I’ve used this site as extra listening practice for exam preparation students, or as an in-class bonus exercise for my students. I’ve felt it’s perfect for paraphrasing practice. Now, I’m not a huge fan of translations, so I tend to use it more for my advanced students in English mode, but you’re free to give the Spanish version a try.

2. Lyrics Training

This one has been around for a while now and most teachers are using it in class with students, but they’ve added some features that can help out with our more basic students. First of all, for those of you who maybe haven’t used it some initial thoughts. This is a website to practice English, as well as other languages, through a fill-in-the-blank automated system, not just for English.

How it works: 

For starters, you can choose the songs based on level of difficulty (green=easy, orange=intermediate, red=advanced), country (the flag on the right hand corner) and genre (by clicking on the button on the top). Once you’ve chosen the right song, you have the option of choosing four levels: Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced and Expert. Each one relates to the percentage of words of the song that are randomly blanked out each time that you play, including the Expert, or as they say it “Are you crazy?” level which blanks out the complete song. It’s important to note that since it is random, students can play the game with the same song as many times as they like. This is where they’ve added a new feature; you can either choose a Write Mode or Choice Mode. For lower levels choose the Choice Mode and for higher levels the Write Mode. When your students begin to play, they must either write the word or choose the correct option when the song gets to the blank. If they make a mistake or take too long, the timer on the top starts the countdown. When that timer has run out you lose the game.

How and when to use it:

This website is great and motivates students a lot to practice outside of the classroom. As teachers, it’s a great task when you want to practice listening, vocabulary or spelling. It is a game, so you can even have some fun with it and make a tournament out of it. You’ll see students practicing in their free time to come out on front!

3. English Central

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Courtesy of Jinho Jung at flickr.com

English Central also makes you to create a user to use its website, but it is free. If you’re interested later on, you could even explore the possibility of using it at your school, since they offer excellent options for integrating it into your curriculum. This website has two formats: videos and courses. In the videos part, you can do quick exercises with videos, commercials or songs; in the courses part you will find different courses created through short videos. Some nice features on this one is that the lessons include four parts: Watch, Learn, Speak and Evaluate, so students really get the opportunity to learn the vocabulary.

How it works: 

As a tip, if you prefer an all-English platform, you can change this in your settings so that the instructions, tips and answers are given in English, instead of translated to your student’s L1. It has some really interesting features that can make learning very interactive for your students. The first stage is to simply Watch the video, although your students can also begin to interact by clicking on words they don’t know. Every word that is clicked on will show the definition, pronunciation and an example sentence (if the platform is in another language the translation will also appear). The second stage is Learn, and here they will blank out some words that the students have to type in. Again they have help if they need it. Then in stage three students can practice their Speaking by recording their voice and comparing it with the original audio. It even grades them (although I haven’t been completely sold on that component yet). Finally, in stage four the students are Evaluated on the words they learned.

How and when to use it: 

Most of the videos are very short, so I like doing this exercise to warm up when I have my students in a lab. Another option is to give all of your students the same link, have them do it at home and take a screenshot of their final result. When you’re registered as a school, the teacher can even keep track of their students’ results and progress through the platform. All in all, I love the fact that students can practice, independent of their level, with authentic English.

 

Punctuation Saves Lives

Yes, punctuation is an important element in the English language and can even change the meaning of what our students are trying to say. So, why not teach them the importance with these fun quotes and activities.
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Dictate to them the following letter and see where they put the punctuation marks. Once they are done, give them a handout with the letter written in these two versions:

Dear John:
I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy–will you let me be yours?
Jane

Unfortunately, John was far from pleased. In fact, he was heartbroken. You see, John was familiar with Jane’s peculiar ways of misusing punctuation marks. And so to decipher the true meaning of her email, he had to re-read it with the marks altered:

Dear John:
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?
Yours,
Jane

Extra tip:

If you want to have fun some more fun, try this:

1. Have your students make memes misusing punctuation

2. Use all of the images in a Powerpoint presentation

3. Have the students identify the mistakes.

How to grade board games and other “fun” activities?

RES00001645-LWhen giving fun classes and being creative in assessing students’ progress throughout a course, it sometimes seems impossible to give an official grade to those “fun” activities. Now, these activities usually don’t show up in the final grades that the student (and their parents, bosses or institutes) sees. Doesn’t this seem a bit unfair? During these games is where they are usually put in a situation where they can interact freely in a stress-free environment using the target language or grammar, which will later be evaluated in a test. So why don’t these activities weigh in just as much in their final grade? Well, the first reason is that it’s quite difficult to quantify. How do you get a percentage from the times a person spoke during class, or his /her performance during their turn in a board game activity? I’ve learned many strategies that allow you to grade student’s performance, but in this post I will focus on the one I have found to be the most effective.

Creating a marking criteria for gamesRubric

Every activity we, as teachers, do in class should have an expected outcome. The secret is sharing these outcomes with students in a way they easily comprehend what’s expected from their performance, be it in language skills, target language or grammar. When faced with this situation the best solution for me has always been to create a marking criteria that has the basic skills I expect from the given activity (2 to 3, keep it simple) and then give each one a mark (0-5, 0-100, whatever works for you). By grading them in each criteria and then obtaining a final average, you can show students which areas they have to work on the most, and which ones are their strengths. This way you can grade any activity, as long as you’re doing it with a clear objective in mind.

Extra tip:

Adding a self-assessment component to a course is a great way to compliment any grading system. Almost all text books come with the “I can” statements at the end of each unit, so why don’t we take more advantage of them? When planning games and activities make sure that the end result are these “I can” statements, which are usually communicative, allowing them to clearly demonstrate if they know the grammar rules, but more importantly if they know how to communicate using the grammar and target language. So, when doing the activity place these “I can” statements on the board, letting students know what they are expected to do during the activity. At the end have them evaluate their own performance, assuring in this way their active participation in their individual learning process.

At the end of the day evaluation and assessment are necessary in any learning process. In today’s ESL/EFL classrooms where we are expected to take activities and make them fun, engaging and creative; we also need to find strategies to not forget the student’s need to recognize their individual learning goals and take part actively in their process. 

What are quiet ESL students not telling you?

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I think we have all struggled with students that give us the look or often get distracted in class. Now, we as teachers know the real reason behind it. They are simply not understanding. There are many explanations behind WHY they are not understanding. Sometimes it’s their own fear of the language, of not understanding fast enough or failing. But on the other hand, there are also times it’s us. We’re speaking too fast, or not explaining clearly, or giving the class at the pace of those who participate the most and moving forward, not noticing the quiet ones in the back. I think as teachers we should constantly look for ways of finding out these reasons and doing something about it.

Here are some things I do when I start noticing quiet ones in my group:

  • I have one-on-one feedback sessions. This way they are not being compared to the rest and feel more at ease to tell me how they feel their process is going. I know sometimes we have very large groups, but if you do the one-on-one sessions with 5 students every class until you finish the whole group, even if it takes you a month, you will see the reward in your student’s confidence-boost.
  • I always try to have some kind of prepped feedback process. Some teachers like keeping a progress journal, others have worksheets. Depending on the age and learning purpose of your students the HOW can vary, but at the end of the day the important thing is to have a structure. Those quiet students will most likely stare back at you, even in this circumstance, if only asked “How are things going?”.
  • Once I identify the WHY, I start to prepare my classes with this in mind. I know if you have 30 students and each one has a different “why” this can be overwhelming, or even impossible. But, it’s actually not. What I do is that I organize my students by needs (once I’ve done the individual feedback); I will usually get about 3, tops 5 groups. So, now those 30 individual “whys” have turned into 3 or 4 manageable groups that I can prepare my weekly classes for. Once they are in groups I can:
    • Make mixed-needs groups to assure they all have a role that can help them learn in their own way.
    • Recycle certain language or activities in a way I know each group of students is able to really understand and engage.
    • Give projects or role-based assignments, where I can use each student’s strengths to help their peers and raise confidence.

As I said, we are all aware that many students struggle in our classes and depending on the reason they are learning English, it can be quite stressful for them not to see immediate progress. Learning English, and any other language, does have a lot to do with confidence and self-esteem. There are many signs that can help us identify just what’s going on. If you want to know more take a look at this great article I found on Busyteacher.com.

7 Things Your Quiet ESL Students Are Not Telling You.

Until next time.

Some extra links for additional research on giving feedback and keep track of your student’s progress:

Portfolio assessment 

Teaching English Through Daily Journal Writing

Providing Meaningful Feedback

Monitoring and Guiding Student Process

5 ideas for no more song fill-in-the-blanks. Part 2.

In a previous post I explored a different way to use music in the classroom. To check it out, click here. Here’s a look at some more ideas to use songs and music in class with your students that let us step away from the traditional fill-in-the-blank activity. Here they are:

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Soundtrack

Have students choose from 3-5 songs that they consider represent milestones or are important moments in their lives. The idea is to make a soundtrack for their lives, where they can not only investigate their songs, but also explain to the rest of the class why each song is important to them. I’ve found it helpful to make a step-by-step worksheet that will allow them to understand the project and complete it keeping in mind the language targets that I want to involve in it.

Round the world lyrics

For homework tell each student to bring a song they like, along with the lyrics. In class they should choose a line from the song and every student then goes up to the board and writes their line. If you have a small group (like I usually do) you can have them each bring in a few songs, or have them write two or three lines from their song. Then have the rest of the group guess the song by reading each line. Once the activity is done you can create a playlist and use these songs for your future activities.

Scratch that

Dictate 10 to 15 words from a song, then tell every student to choose 5 words. Once they have done this, play the song and have students scratch out the words from their list as they hear them. The first student to finish is the winner. This is a great warm-up activity before using a song in class. For even better use of the activity, make sure some of the words are related to the particular language target of the class.

Identify errors

Print out a version of the lyrics with some mistakes that are related to the language target. Have students identify the mistakes and write the correct phrase or word. When making the worksheet, make sure to leave spaces between each line so the students can write the corrections underneath the line.

Youtube videos

There are youtube videos that already have parts of songs with the grammar you need in class. These are great to either practice or introduce a topic. A good example is this one on gerund or infinitive I used recently in class.

There are many more ideas that I’ve used in class and will be posting later on. Stay tuned!

Helping students become independent learners in today’s English mania world

tedMovieLearning English has become the world’s new mania with about 2 billion people around the world trying to learn this universal language, says Jay Walker in this TED talk. There are many manias, and this one in particular cannot necessarily be categorized as something good or bad. The reasons for learning English are so many nowadays that it ultimately becomes a necessity that people and governments try to find a “solution” for. Some governments do standardized testing, others like in Colombia, demonstrate the use of English either through courses or tests which are requisites for graduating from higher education programs. The standards will continuously increase to the point countries can assure that their citizens are competitive in today’s world. This does not mean that the other languages are being lost, simply that we have a lingua franca that allows us to “solve problems”, as Walker puts it. It is truly a universal language that lets us communicate and that indeed is what we as teachers should be focused on in our classes.

The world has other universal languages. Mathematics is the language of science. Music is the language of emotions. And now English is becoming the language of problem-solving.” – Jay Walker 

As teachers there are many strategies that we can apply to facilitate learning a second or foreign language, but from my experience turning your students into independent learners is the best tool and strategy you can give them. This will make learning the language their responsibility, not ours; we are meant to be facilitators and the more we let our students take an active role in their learning process, the more they will go on to learn the language independent if we are or aren’t there as their teachers to guide them.

How to make our students independent learners?

These are some strategies that have worked for me in the classroom to make my students take responsibility for their learning process. I hope they work for you.

1. Students should always use a dictionary.  They should have an English-English dictionary (dictionary.com) or Thesaurus (thesaurus.com) be it physical or as an app (it makes things so much easier). In class when vocabulary is requested have them refer to their dictionary. If they have a lower level and you find definitions are not for them, I’ve found that Google Images makes a great dictionary!

“Teacher, what is peacock?” Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 10.18.11 AM

2. Have students read out loud. When you do a writing exercise have students read their exercised out loud, so they can identify some mistakes on their own. Once they are done, whatever wasn’t identified by them is most likely an error not a mistake. (What’s the difference between an error and a mistake?). Have them keep a record of their errors so they can gradually become aware of them and correct them on their own.

3. Know when to correct. Correcting at precisely the right moment can make a difference. When is the right moment?

4. Make reflective questions. When teaching a specific goal, make sure that the linguistic and communicative objective is clear and that at the end of the lesson you question your students; this will let your students self-evaluate their learning process. Always give feedback that will reinforce or guide their self-assessment, but make it specific!

5. Create meaningful assessment instead of continuous testing. Keep track of your student’s progress and long term development through a variety of tasks that allow the use of the language. “Place as much value on process and progress as in the final product”- Edna Sackson

6. Make connections. Always make a rational connection with the knowledge they already have, their experience in the outside world and the language you’re teaching them.

7. Everyday English homework. Try to get your students in contact with real English as much as possible and to fulfill tasks that are everyday activities for them and will be meaningful to them.

There are many other strategies, but these are the ones I use the most. You can take a look at the following articles so you can find out more strategies to help you make your students independent learners. Trust me they’ll thank you later!

Some interesting articles 

10 ways to encourage students to take responsibility for their learning

Independent Learning in the Classroom

Helping Learning Become Independent Learners

Tips to Help Students Become Independent Learners

Jay Walker Jay Walker: The world’s English mania #TED : http://on.ted.com/f0pWR

Using technology in the classroom – Prezi Vs PowerPoint

The English classroom becomes more and more technological in some schools, which allows us to include some creative twists to our sessions integrating different programs such as Prezi and Powerpoint. Ever wonder which is best for your class?

Prezi is a virtual canvas that allows you to tell a story in a dynamic way. It has been used avidly since 2008, when it was created by Zui Labs, a Hungarian company. It allows users to make a presentation similar to PowerPoint, with the difference that this online tool will pan and zoom, and to size, rotate, or edit any object located on its canvas. Now, some may say that it’s no different or others say it’s overrated. Decide for yourself.

First of all let’s take a look at some of the similarities:

  • You can upload and use: images, sounds, videos, texts and charts
  • They can be used in all kinds of contexts: academic, personal or business

Now, let’s take a look at each tool separately and analyze what pros and cons each one has.

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Pros

  • Free, if you don’t mind your Prezis being public (unless you upgrade or have an educational account, which is fairly easy to obtain)
  • Sensation of being more fluid and visual
  • Web-based (work from any computer or tablet)
  • Collaboration feature
  • non-linear navigation
  • short learning curve (if you give it a real chance)

Cons

  • If you go nuts with the zoomable features, you can make people dizzy (Use grouping and frames to avoid this sensation)
  • Limited printing options
  • Web-based (when you have internet, unless you upgrade. Although you can also download your Prezis, they will no longer be editable)
  • Animated feature can become too much and not be as cool after about 10 presentations
  • There is a learning curve

lemon-tree-song-pptPowerpoint

Pros

  • More features and options in latest versions
  • PowerPoint animations CAN impact a crowd
  • Linear slide format and design (some prefer it)
  • More people are familiar with the format, which usually means they prefer it
  • No learning curve

Cons

  • Animation is not as smooth as Prezi
  • If not used well may come out as boring to the audience
  • Usually only the most common features are used (about 10%)
  • Linear slide format (finding a slide after you’ve passed it could be a hassle)

Prezi Vs PowerPoint

I’ll begin with saying how important it is to mention that independent of the tool you use to give your presentation, the result will rely solely on your ability to plan and include meaningful content.

Prezi:

Great for presentations that need:

  • to look at the big picture – details
  • to skip back and forth
  • map-like layouts
  • brainstorming
  • timeline
  • whiteboard effect

PowerPoint:

Great for presentations that need to explain:

  • reports
  • step-by-step ideas
  • processes
  • linear
  • numbers and data

Things to remember

  • Don’t overuse animations (or zooming in Prezi’s case)
  • Focus on the content. Don’t get so wrapped up in the tool and all the cool fun stuff you can do with it, that you forget the most important part: meaningful content.

Now, the good news. You don’t have to choose just one. You can mix and match based on your presentation. Now, as an EFL teacher I’ve found it extremely useful because it allows me to have a pre-made whiteboard that I can flip through easily, following my lesson plan with ease. Even though I usually create a kind of route that will take me step by step, it also allows me to zoom out and make use of the whole canvas in a very global way giving me a certain flexibility that PowerPoint doesn’t. Now here are some useful links that have tons of ideas as to how to use either PowerPoint or Prezi in the classroom.

Ideas for using Prezi or PowerPoint

Here are some links to get you started and a bit more informed as to how to use Prezi and PowerPoint in the ESL classroom.