Teachers dancing during the drama and cooperative learning session

In workshops with elementary teachers in Taiwan the trainers worked collaboratively with the teachers so they could raise their concerns, share their experiences, and learn through collaboration with their peers and experienced trainers.  In the workshops trainer Steven Murray kept coming across these questions:

  • How can we manage our classes to maximize the learning opportunities for our young learners?
  • How can we deal with mixed ability classes?
  • How can we incorporate aspects of culture into our English classrooms?
  • How can we use literature in a more attention-grabbing and purposeful way?

These issues are common to teachers in many countries and below are some suggestions that Steven shared with us, for dealing with them.  These techniques were incorporated into the workshops with theTaiwanese teachers, so that they learnt by doing.

The teachers responded extremely positively to this approach with one telling us that:

After so many years of teaching, I was starting to feel exhausted.  I was exhausted because I had run out of all the tricks I had to make English learning delightful to my students.  My career seemed to have come to a dead end.  My passion was still alive, but my flesh was weak and my brain drained.  I was in the middle of great confusion in terms of being a teacher or not.  However, the five-day training course lit me up.  I am now loaded with a lot of great new ideas to explore a new world with my students.

How can we manage our classes to maximize the learning opportunities for our young learners?

We incorporated a wide variety of tasks using the four basic communicative class formats of whole class, individual, pair and small group work. We practiced using a variety of classroom management formats to provide a greater range of classroom tasks than young learners usually have in their elementary school English classes. Through developing their repertoire of teaching approaches the teachers learnt how to vary the format of their English classes to ensure that the needs of each of their different students could be met in fun and motivating ways, which would help these learners to progress more effectively in the limited time that they study English each week.

Take away tip: Use a variety of formats and tasks in every class to keep students engaged, and to appeal to different students’ needs.

How can we deal with mixed ability classes?

Almost every Taiwanese elementary school teacher has to face the reality of dealing with mixed ability classes. We looked at the role played by scaffolding and how the same task could be scaffolded heavily for lower level students, and how much of this scaffolding could be taken away to challenge higher level students. We also looked at the concept of differentiation and how to create differentiated materials quickly and simply, showing that it doesn’t always have to be time consuming. For example with a listening task we created a gap fill where lower level learners were given a choice of two words for each space, medium level learners were provided with a jumble of words, some right and some wrong, and higher level learners were simply asked to write the missing words in the spaces as they listened. Another idea we looked at was the role of peer teaching in pair and small group activities and how it can be used to reduce the gap between the most and the least proficient students in the classroom, whilst at the same time still offering higher level English students meaningful opportunities to improve.

Take away tip: Creating differentiated materials doesn’t have to be too time consuming – remember more scaffolding for lower level students and less for higher levels.

How can we incorporate aspects of culture into our English classrooms?

A great way to incorporate culture and other non-English language topics into the English classroom is through Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL). Here students use English to learn about another topic from their syllabus, giving them a genuine reason to use new (and existing) language. The Taiwanese teachers used a CLIL approach to teach their students about other cultures, presenting language in context, facilitating real communication and promoting learner-centred teaching.

Take away tip: Help your students to genuinely interact in English by using task based learning and CLIL methodologies – giving them something of interest to talk about will help develop their English skills while learning about other topics.

How can we use literature in a more attention-grabbing and purposeful way?

Reading is an important part of English class for Taiwanese students but teachers want them to be more engaged in their reading activities. The teachers learnt how to involve their students in the process of choosing the books they are going to read. This gives the students a real incentive to read the books and engages them even before the first page has been read. They also created games based around the books, making sure they were simple enough for all students to join in and challenging in a variety of different ways. By adding a variety of challenges to games it means that the students with the strongest language abilities don’t always dominate the competitive tasks, and allows less confident students to join in and win, building their confidence.

Take away tip: Involve your students when choosing books for the class to read. If they’ve chosen a book they’ll be much more engaged when they come to read it!