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Workshop on 26 November 2018 – “Communication in the classroom: How to make pupils talk”

Sabaidee!

We are Natalie, Malin, and Meike and – in case you missed our previous Team VII post – one of our diverse tasks is being responsible for tandem-work with the primary and secondary English teachers at the three AfC schools. This does not only include English language lessons, but also preparation, observation, team-teaching, and evaluation of lessons together with our tandems.

It was during these observations that we realised that our tandem-teachers did an excellent job when introducing and practising vocabulary and grammar – which is probably owing to the effective tandem-work of previous volunteers. Amidst all those strengths, however, we also detected one aspect that could be improved further: Even though the pupils remember the words taught in class well, it is still difficult for them to apply the vocabulary in communicative contexts unless they learned the whole structures by heart before.

The results are dialogues like the following, which we experience on the school yard on a daily basis:

Pupil: “What is your name?”
Volunteer: “My name is X. And what’s your name?”
Pupil: “My name is Y.”
Volunteer: “Nice to meet you.”
Pupil: “It is nice to meet you, too.”

Not too bad! However, whenever we ask further questions such as “how old are you?” or “how are you?” to express genuine interest in our pupils, the students struggle to come up with an appropriate answer.

This real-life example reflects the situation in the classrooms.

Since the coursebooks are compulsory and there is only one for each grade, the teachers have no choice but to follow them rigidly.1 For primary school, the focus lies on learning vocabulary and easy structures, whereas in secondary school the focus lies on grammatical material. Therefore, we thought this incapability to flexibly use vocabulary in various contexts was a good starting-point for our workshop: “Communication in the classroom – how to make pupils talk.”2 

It was on the 26th of November that we finally put our plan into action. We had prepared both a PowerPoint presentation and a handout for our tandem-teachers, and they were divided into two parts: A theory part in the beginning, followed by the presentation and actual performance of communicative tasks, games, and activities. Six teachers followed our invitation and came.

 

I. Theory

The theory part revolved around the two central questions:

  • Why do we want our pupils to speak?
  • How can we get our pupils to speak?

At first, the workshop participants were given some thinking time. Thereby, their prior knowledge was activated and they got the chance to actively contribute to the workshop rather than having to listen passively for 1,5 hours. After the brainstorming phase, their answers were shared, discussed, and compared to the answers that we had prepared ourselves.

The video depicts one important reason. Ms Saysamone answered the question by saying that it was important for the pupils to be able to speak to foreigners. In her opinion, this was for example the case in these three schools, as we – the German volunteers – work here and can be encountered  every day. This corresponded with what we had thought of or looked up beforehand.

Firstly, the classroom should be a place to practise and prepare pupils for real communication with speakers of English, or for communication between nations or people who do not share another language. The latter is especially important in today’s increasingly globalised world.

Secondly, social interaction forms one major part of language acquisition. Following Vygotsky’s theory, it is simply not enough to learn words and grammatical rules, especially not by oneself.3  Why not?

  • One cannot form comprehensible sentences when only knowing words.
  • Communication, which we defined as the goal of language-teaching above, is then not possible or only to a limited extent.
  • One cannot reply to questions, especially not flexibly. The results are incoherent dialogues just as in the example given above.4
  • Communication is not possible as spoken English differs from written English. If English is studied alone with a book which does not contain transcriptions in IPA5 or a CD, one does not know how to pronounce the words and, in turn, cannot decode words and phrases uttered by a communication partner.

As we went to university in Germany, our knowledge of early foreign language research largely concentrates on the western world. There is a consensus that there should be a consecutive progression of the (traditional) four skills in order to learn to communicate: “From listening to speaking, from reading to writing”. In both cases, the receptive skill comes before language production (cf. Brewster, Ellis & Girard 2002; Legutke, Müller-Hartmann & Schocker v. Ditfurth 2017).

In Laos, by contrast, it makes sense to start to learn how to read and write early on, because the Latin alphabet has to be acquired. This is just one of many examples of all the circumstantial differences between Asian and (most) European classrooms.

 

Adapting tasks, games & activities to the circumstances in Lao classrooms

When preparing for our workshop and coming up with suitable activities, it was necessary for us to take into account many other differing aspects of school life. This meant that we could not simply integrate tasks and activities we might know from our own time at university or even school, but we had to either come up with different ones or adapt the afore-mentioned games and activities accordingly. (A far more detailed description of how to adapt games to the Lao classroom can be found in a paper written by Jana Brecht (Team II).)

1. Classes in Laos consist of many more pupils than we are used to. In the preschool class, for instance, there are 86 pupils in one class. Even though there are not as many pupils in the primary and secondary classes, they can still be almost twice as big as classes that we know from hospitations in Germany, England, or Canada.

2. The structure of the classrooms is different as well. Whereas most of the European classrooms’ interiors we know are flexible, at least to some extent, this is not the case in Lao classrooms. This makes it more difficult for the teachers to conduct pair or group work, or games that require moving through the classroom. One example would be Kugellager (English: “Onion”, or “double circle”)6  which we consequently did not include into our canon of communicative tasks, games, and activities.

3. There is a notable difference in the children’s contact time and prior knowledge of the English language outside of the classroom. Whilst children in Europe listen to English songs and use English terms for everyday objects (“T-shirt”, “computer”, etc.), Lao pupils are primarily confronted with English during their lessons at school. Even though their desire for youtube, mobile phones, and other channels of accessing the internet increases, primary school children are mostly surrounded by Thai media if their family owns a TV set, or no media at all. And even though there are few English loan words (e.g. “compu’ter”), their amount is significantly lower, and pronunciation and word stress still differ.

It is only later, when the need and value of being able to speak English is recognised, that they start to busy themselves with it in their free time also. This became evident to us when looking at our Facebook news feeds. Our Lao teachers and friends frequently share useful words and phrases translated from Lao into English.7 

4. One last aspect we had carefully thought of beforehand were relevant topics that can be used for authentic communicative situations. Examples of topics which are not as suitable here are “seasons” and “weather”. Concepts of “snow” or the division into our four seasons may be interesting for intercultural learning purposes, but are not useful for teaching words that the pupils may need in everyday conversation to describe the world they are surrounded by. The Lao do not have four seasons, or ever saw snow.

 

II. Practice

We revised some basics, which were already covered in previous workshops8 such as modelling the game with the help of a big version and a pupil as an “assistant teacher” in front of the classroom. Afterwards, we both introduced and then played selected games as well.

This was beneficial for two reasons: Firstly, the teachers got to watch us explain and model the game to get inspiration for how they could do it in their own classrooms (see video below). Secondly, letting them play the games themselves follows the concept of learning by doing and should help them avoid possible later uncertainties.9

The following paragraphs summarise four tasks, games, and activities which we carried out with the English teachers during our workshop:

  1. Mingle

Pupils walk around the classroom and ask each other questions. Options are “Do you like …?” or “What’s your favourite …?” On the worksheet, which was handed out before, there is a table – it can either be filled with the possible answer choices already so that the pupils only have to tick the correct box, or otherwise they can write down the answers themselves. Results can be discussed afterwards, e.g. by putting them into a diagram. The game can be played with many different topics – some examples are food, school subjects, or free-time activities.

  1. Guessing games
  • “I spy with my little eye”

No preparation is needed for this game. The teacher chooses an object that is in visible distance. He or she says “I spy with my little eye – something that is yellow/ green/ blue/ etc.” The children have to guess what it is. If the pupils are confident and know the colours well, they can take over and come to the front or play the game with a partner. Variations can be describing initial letters or shapes.

Examples:

“I spy with my little eye something that starts with the letter ‘t’.”
“I spy with my little eye something that is round.”

  • Describe & guess

The teacher describes objects, flashcards, or persons while the children have to guess what or who it is. For this activity it is important that the pupils know the basic adjectives (e.g. colours and opposite adjectives, e.g. big/ small, young/ old, etc.). Once the pupils are familiar with the game and feel comfortable speaking, they start to describe themselves, and then their partner or the class has to guess.
This can be done with any new vocabulary when introduced with flashcards, but also with real objects which can be found in the classroom. For younger players, it is important to reduce the amount of vocabulary and choices.

  • Who am I?

This game is best played in groups of three or four. Each child is given a flashcard with a picture of an animal. They stick it onto their foreheads and make statements or ask questions in order to receive hints about which animal they could be.

  1. Memory

Memory is a game commonly played by and with young children in the western world. It is supposed to foster their ability to remember, and implicitly, concentrate. It has been implemented into the early foreign language classroom as it offers the opportunity to consolidate or revise vocabulary. In order to play this game, the teacher prepares the right amount of mini-flashcards needed beforehand. All of the cards are then turned face-down so that the pictures or words are not visible. One after another, the pupils turn two cards around. If they match, the pupil keeps the two cards and is allowed another go.
The goal of the game is to get as many pairs as possible. If the two cards are not the same, they are turned around once more, and it is the next pupil’s turn. In order to make it a communicative game and therefore justifiable to be used in the EFL classroom, it is the teacher’s job to make sure the children speak to each other while playing. Suitable structures are:

 –  What is it?

–  It‘s a…

–  It‘s (not) the same.

–  Is it my turn?

–  Yes, it‘s your turn.

–  No, it‘s my/ X‘s turn.

– I have a pair: it is a heart.

– I do not have a pair. It’s your turn.

(two versions of the game “Memory”)

It is upon the teacher to decide if the game is played with matching pictures, or alternatively with corresponding sets of pictures and written words. The pupils form groups of 2-4 children.

 

4. Guided dialogues & conversations

There are different ways of implementing guided dialogues and conversations into the classroom. Some offer more, others less support.10 The two activities that we chose offer a balance between providing the pupils with clear sentence structures on the one hand while still leaving enough room to be filled with authentic and real statements about their lives on the other hand.

One guided yet communicative activity is a partner interview with gaps. The sheet is either folded or cut in the middle, so that each partner only sees his or her half of the conversations. Partner A starts by asking his or her questions, and B answers. (This game is also used for so-called “gap-filling activities”: find directions on a map, find differences between two drawings, and so forth.)

For our second activity, each pupil fills in a short profile about him- or herself. Then the information is presented to the rest of the class. The teacher makes sure the children speak in full sentences. One possible variation would be not to introduce oneself, but a partner. In that case, the personal pronouns “he” or “she” instead of “I” are used, with the third person singular -s attached to the verb.

 

III. The end

In the end, the teachers had the chance to ask their open questions. Following this, we did a short “Spotlight” with them – one person is chosen to give feedback about what they learned, what they liked or did not like, and which activities they are planning to include into their lessons. This was very interesting for us as we kept on working with our respective tandem-teachers in the preparation lessons over the following weeks and we could therefore consider their opinions and wishes much better.

All in all, the workshop was a success for everyone involved: Whilst preparing for the workshop, we, the volunteers, realised once more that our knowledge and perspectives on EFL didactics and methodology are largely tailored to the western world. Only because they meet the needs of our pupils back home, it cannot be assumed that they automatically meet the needs of our Lao pupils in their Lao classrooms. Instead, extensive reflections on their applicability (and value) are advisable, and in the following, the results thereof have to be taken into account when making suitable adaptations to games and activities.

Moreover, the effects of the workshop are already noticeable in our tandem-teachers’ English lessons. At this point, it has to be stated that the lesson’s goal has to be kept in mind at all times. The teachers are not supposed to choose a game or activity to match the lesson content with, but use their lesson goal as a starting point to then pick suitable activities with which the student’s learning can be fostered.

Consequently, this means that communicative activities cannot be included into each and every English lesson. When they do match with the goal given by the coursebook, however, our tandem-teachers make sure to include communicative tasks and activities. Throughout the workshop, we kept in mind that the Lao coursebooks remain compulsory, therefore we made sure that all communicative activities can be embedded into the topics which are covered in the coursebooks.

Text by N. Wickmann, M. Frahm & M. Weis

Photos & videos by N. Wickmann, M. Frahm, M. Weis, P. Faix & A. Chandavong

 

 Notes

1 Part of the compulsory course books are monthly test, which the teachers have to conduct. This is usually done in written form and the pupils have to  work through grammar and vocabulary exercises that have been dealt with in class. The monthly tests are graded by the teacher and are part of the “final score” of each student.

In English didactics, one can differentiate between”speaking” and “talking”. As the English Oxford Dictionary defines, “speaking” means the action of conveying information and/or expressing feelings through speech whereas “talking” refers to actively involving and engaging in speech and conversation. Thus, students in primary school who start learning English mostly speak because they do not engage in real conversations yet. However, communication – and “talking” – are the defined long-term goals which should be kept in mind at all times.

3 Vygotsky’s “Social Interactionist Theory” is only one out of many in the vast field of Second/ Foreign Language Acquisition research. We go along with it, as it corresponds with our own experiences from internships.

An example for incoherent sentences or communication would be answering the question “How are you?” by saying “I like rice”. Grammatically, both sentences are correct, however, the content does not match, meaning it is lacking coherence.

IPA is the acronym for “International Phonetic Alphabet”. For every sound (or phoneme), there is precisely one phonetic letter with which it can be transcribed. As is hinted in the title, the IPA can be used to transcribe the pronunciation of any given word, in any given language.

6 The activity Kugellager, “Onion” (also known as “Inner circle, outer circle”) is conducted by two circles consisting of an equal amount of students. The pupils forming the inner circle face their partners forming the outer circle. Usually words and phrases or rhymes are given for them to use, or for more advanced students a topic is given for them to discuss. After a certain amount of time, one or both of the two circles move on into opposite directions (cf. Klippel 1983, 9).

We volunteers and our Lao tandems use social media, esp. Facebook, differently. The Lao seem to be much more active, liking, sharing, and commenting on contributions by their friends or pages that they follow. Therefore, we cannot be all too sure if those pictures are really used to learn English, or if they just found it funny or interesting at that moment.

Especially all the English workshops have built the basis for our workshop: “Classroom English” by Svenja and Julia (Team VI), “Creating and using teaching material” by Hanna and Lara (Team V), “Teaching Vocabulary” by Venetia (Team IV), “Teaching Vocabulary” by Kerstin and Pauline (Team III), “Assessing and enriching teaching material” by Anika and David (Team III), “Games for the Classroom” by Jana, Isabella & Jule (Team II).

Learning by doing is a theory by the American philosopher and educationalist John Dewey. He is convinced that learning needs relevant and practical contexts rather than passive and theoretical ones. This goes along with Konfuzius’ famous quote: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

10 This is coherent with the didactical concept of scaffolding – the teacher scaffolds the classroom in time, space, and task to provide support for the pupils to understand the lesson content in a foreign language. In the beginning, a lot of this support is needed; however, the aim is to reduce the scaffolding gradually. Scaffolding can take on different forms, e.g. using flashcards for pre-teaching vocabulary before telling a story, or providing lists of vocabulary, or – like here – structures for speech production.

 

References

Ellis, Gail, Jean Brewster & Denis Girard (eds.) (2002). The Primary English Teacher’s Guide. Harlow: Penguin Books.

Klippel, Friederike (1983). Keep Talking – Communicative fluency activities for language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge Handbook for Language Teachers. (10th ed)

Legutke, Michael K., Andreas Müller-Hartmann & Marita Schocker v. Ditfurth (eds.) (2017). Teaching English in the Primary School. Stuttgart: Klett Lerntraining.

Massler, Ute & Sophie Ioannou-Georgiou (2010). “Best practice: How CLIL works”. In: Massler, Ute & Petra Burmeister (2010). CLIL und Immersion: Fremdsprachlicher Sachfachunterricht in der Grundschule. Braunschweig: Westermann, p.61-75.

Read, Carol (2007). 500 Activities for the Primary Classroom. Immediate Ideas and Solutions. London: Macmillan Education.

Websites

Wikipedia. “Learning by doing”. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learning-by-doing. (accessed: 16th Dec, 2018)

Wikipedia. “Social Interactionist Theory”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_interactionist_theory. (accessed: 22nd Dec, 2018)

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