It’s not teaching, if you’re not noticing

This year I get to teach 6 hours a week of a structural syllabus linked up to a series of short texts about Earth Day, sugarcane growing in Okinawa, and the Alabama bus boycott.  Each of the short texts helps (?) highlight a key grammar point while also working hard to confuse or bore even the most dedicated student.  Now I don’t want to just spend an entire post complaining about course materials.  A recent blog post on reflecting vs. complaining from Michael Griffin has me wanting to jump from complaining into something a little more productive.  But please, someone tell me how ‘environmental’, ‘many other things’, ‘overpopulation’, ‘serious’, ‘hunger’, and ‘get together’ got selected as key vocabulary to teach a remedial 1st year high school English class for students who, for the most part, did not attend junior high school. 

Still, I’m trying to see the whole experience as a way to stretch myself as a teacher.  I mean, how often will I get the chance to teach present simple tense, the interrogative form, and negative sentence construction all within a fifty minutes lesson?  I even spent an hour the other day teaching a series of grammar points to an empty classroom because my use of whiteboard space had the logical flow of a maze from a mouse and cheese experiment.  In a way, I even had kind of a good time plowing through three discreet grammar points as my voice echoed off the walls. 

Fortunatley, grammar only makes up 50% of the unit tests.  The other 50% is basically students’ ability to reproduce the text.  So if students get familiar enough with the texts, they have a pretty good chance of passing the test.  I try and have the students work with the text at least 4 or 5 times during the first 10 minutes of each lesson.  At least one of the activities is based around ‘depth of processing hypothesis’ or the idea that mental activities which require more processing will help in retention (Craik and Lockhart 1972). During the first lessons, I had students turn their books upside down as they read aloud and directed students to mark off sense groups as I read the text to them.  I’ve even had the students read the text out loud and verbally stress all the nouns or verbs and this activity seemed to hit the sweet spot where the students wrinkle-up their foreheads in thought but rarely shook their heads in frustration.  But once I asked all of the students to read the text and replace all sentences using “be” verbs with the yes/no interrogative form.  This basically resulted in a whole lot of silence.  So it’s kind of hit or miss right now between activities which require more processing and those that result in an insufficient memory error.

The other activities I run are based on the Baddeley’s ‘retrieval practice effect’ or the fact that, “the very act of recalling something facilitates its subsequent recall,” as long as the item is in fact successfully recalled (Ellis, 1995).  So the activities need to require some effort at recall, but failure means just a bunch of wasted time.  Some relatively successful activities included laying a strip of thin paper over each student’s book and having them read the text, cloze tests, and C-tests (in which letters of words, as opposed to entire words, are removed from the text).  

At last count, my students have read the text about Earth Day a total of 17 times in class and even the handful of upper level students still seem pretty engaged.  But I was starting to run out of ideas for opening activities.  Luckily, Rachel Roberts, on her blog elt-resourceful has had a series of posts on reading that are just chock full of good ideas.  So the other day I spent the first five minutes of class trying out the read-for-one-minute-and-see-how-far-you-get-activity.  I pulled out my handy kitchen timer, set it for a minute, and had the students just read the text.  At the end of a minute, I said stop and had students circle the last word they had read.  Then we repeated the whole process again. And while students were silently reading, I watched.  I watched as their eyes slid down the page, watched as they flipped pages, watched as some of their mouths moved as they read.  And I noticed one student who was doing none of these things.  She had her hands folded flat on the table in front of her and her eyes remained fixed and opened to the point where they seemed to be almost tearing up.  

During lunch, I found the girl, A-Chan, and said (in Japanese), “Class was pretty difficult today, huh?”  And she nodded.  And then I took a deep breath and I said, “So, you can’t read English?” And she nodded slowly.  And I said, “Do you want to learn how to read English with me?  We can study after school starting next week.”  And she smiled.  She smiled and nodded yes.  So we set up a study schedule and I’m going to be doing some one-on-one reading tutoring for the next few weeks.

But I have to admit that saying, “You don’t know how to read,” was one of the hardest things I’ve done as a teacher lately.  I worried about how she was going to react, how upset she might be if I had made a mistake.  And I would be lying if I said I didn’t also think about the responsibility it would entail if she said yes.  But I’m starting to realize that this is what being a teacher is all about, just recognizing where you are needed and finding a way to be there.

For the past three weeks, I’ve spent the first ten minutes of my first year English classes focused almost entirely on how to ensure that the students will pass the first unit test.  I’ve been hopping from activity to activity and kind of forgot, that for some students, passing that test couldn’t be less important.  So a big thank you to Rachel for an activity which gave me the time to watch my class, notice what was going on, and realize where I needed to be.  And a thank you to you too A-chan.  For meeting my question, not with shame, but with a smile.  Now let’s do some reading.    


Craik, F. I. M. and Lockhart, R.S. (1972) ‘Levels of processing: a framework for memory research’. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 11: 67–84.

Ellis, N.C (1995) The Psychology of Foreign Language Vocabulary Acquisition:

Implications for CALL. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 8: 103-28


5 thoughts on “It’s not teaching, if you’re not noticing

  1. Very inspiring post, thanks for sharing it. I was in a similar position in the high school I work at here in Seoul, I had 3 students who don't even know their A,B,C's, compared to the rest of the school who are among the highest level students in Korea (something to do with the school having to accept a certain number of lower level students), and so I asked the school if I could give them private lessons twice a week, just playing games and that kind of stuff. I'm Unfortunately the school wouldn't let me as they had the view that it would be unfair on the higher level students who don't get to spend extra time with me. I'm glad to see your school is a bit more sensible.Your student is lucky to have you,Alex W


  2. Nice to be able to contribute to your lesson on the other side of the world- and I'm so pleased for A-Chan!I love the sound of the other activities you've been doing to foster retention through processing and recall. That makes perfect sense to me, and provides some more theoretical underpinnings for all those running dictations and memorising activities I love doing.


  3. Hi Rachel,Thanks for dropping in. Your blog has been my go-to-source for reading activities lately, so it's great to have you over. I'm a big fan of dictation and memorising work as well. Wonder if you've ever tried any of Michael West's reading activities? We do a modified, read, think, speak activity I picked up from John Fanselow. Basically you give students a short text and get students into pairs. One student reads as much of the text as they think they can remember in one shot, then the student waits a few seconds to make sure the content in actually in their short term memory before finally saying the part of the passage they remembered out loud to their partner. Their partner listens as they speak, waits for at least three seconds, and then begins to write down what was said, trying to transcribe as much as they can remember. They continue the exercise for a set amount of time (usually five minutes) and then compare what they have written down with the actual text. The activity is repeated three times. It's one of those activities that has a real visual impact and if students keep at it for a few lessons in a row, they really do improve the amount of a text they are able to hold onto while both reading and listening and the number of mistakes in the dictations decrease as well. Not sure, but I think a lot of it has to do with how students slowly and naturally begin to chunk the language in memory, and start to say and write it as units as opposed to discreet words.Thanks again for the 1-minute timed reading idea. And looking forward to many more ideas from your blog on the other side of the world, but not so very far away at all.Kevin


  4. Hi Alex,Thanks for the comment and what a shame for your students that you weren't allowed to help them out. Actually, in Japan it's pretty similar. All students usually need to be treated equally (at least in theory) so private or semi-private lessons often need to be offered to all students. Not at my school, so feeling pretty fortunate indeed.I invited 2 students to join the remedial reading lesson today and one more came along on his own initiative. We spent 30 minutes reading the first book of the lowest level of the Oxford Reading Tree series. After it was all over, one of the boys said to me, "I remembered my first English word. And now I know what 'is' means!" And A-Chan said, "This is the only time I've had fun in an English class."We'll be doing 30 minutes of reading practice daily until the end of June. Hope to have nice things to report on before then.Kevin


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