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Tricks for Better Teaching
I’m hoping to add to this as I find more good ideas.

Okay, Class, Get Into the Formation
originally posted March 27, 2010

I'm teaching mostly oral English this term, and one of the challenges has been to get students to interact with more than one other student.  If I tell them to change partners, I'm in for ten minutes of milling around and confusion.

My students arranged to make changing partners easy.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China
My students "in the formation".  We couldn't do this last term because the classrooms were too small.

But I've got the problem solved.  I get them to take seats along the edge of the rows of desks.  When my alarm goes off, after five minutes with one partner, the outside line simply stands up and moves back one desk, and the end of the line comes to the front.  Viola.  Instant partner change.

The Value of Nursery Rhymes
originally posted June 07, 2010

They are familiar to everybody in Western culture, and most people would give you the second line if you said “Peter Peter pumpkin eater,” or certainly “Ba ba black sheep have you any wool.”  Or “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.”  But why did we learn these things, this nonsense. 

Nursery rhymes on the black board, Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

I think the best way to learn a language is the way children learn theirs, starting with sounds and words then building to phrases and finally reading and writing.  Of course as adults we have the advantage of using reading and writing to help our memories for the first part, the learning words and phrases part.  But we shouldn’t neglect the other tools we use with children.
So when we teach children nursery rhymes, are we just teaching them to babble nonsense that even we don’t understand? Or is something more important going on here?  I decided to see what would happen with my students if I taught them some of our familiar nursery rhymes.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

 As I wrote this verse on the blackboard, I noted the many things it contained that my students needed.  The Chinese have a hard time with words that end in “ll” because there’s no word in their language that end with that sound.  So words like "pull", "full", "wall", "fall", and "call" give most Chinese problems.  So that’s the first thing I noticed about Humpty Dumpty.  My students would get practice with the “all” sound.
     There’s also the rhyme, which verifies the pronunciation.  And then there’s the rhythm.  Demonstrating that the rhythm is like riding a horse gave my students a smile. The rhythm is vitally important because it
teaches which words take emphasis and which words, mostly the connecting words, are neglected.  The rhythm also makes it all but impossible to add the additional “a” that Chinese speakers are so fond of putting at the end of our words. Again, this is a problem stemming from their language.  There is no word in Chinese that ends in a hard consonant, no equivalent to “cat” or “bag”, so the natural tendency with these words is to make them “catta” or “bagga”.  But in “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall” the middle three words essentially become one word, “satona” and adding an “a” after “sat” becomes all but impossible.

Diddle diddle dumpling my son John.
Went to bed with his trousers on.
One shoe off and one shoe on
Diddle diddle dumpling my son John.

Besides the pure fun of saying "diddle diddle dumpling", think of all the words that end in the schwa, words like "pencil" and "riddle" and "paddle" and "swaddle".

Peter Peter pumpkin eater
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her.
Put her in a pumpkin shell
And there he kept her very well.

Note that rhyming “eater” with “keep her” gives the clue that the initial “h” in “her” is not very important.  “keep her” contracts quite nicely to “keep’er”.  It’s not film narration pronunciation, but it is normal English.
so note that this verse teaches an irregular verb.  The past tense of “keep” is not “keeped” but “kept”. Putting this in a nursery rhyme helps to lock it into the learner's brain.
     I found that getting the students to recite nursery rhymes really pointed up any pronunciation  difficulties they were having, and helped them overcome some of the more obvious problems.  This seems to be worth investigating further.


A GIFT* (Good Idea For Teaching) from David Scott

 I owe this idea to Elaine Silver, and I’ve used it ever since she told me about it.  I put a sentence on the board with a fill in the blanks space, and as I do attendance I get each student to say the whole sentence.

 On my National Day Holiday I _________________________________.

 My favorite thing to do on a weekend is ___________________________.

 This works best for oral classes, but I use it occasionally for lecture situations as well. I’m always concerned about the invisible students, the ones who come to my class and manage to be so inconspicuous that I hardly know they are there.  This makes me listen to every single student at least once per class.  It also gives taking attendance educational value.

 This is also a great way to check out pronunciation problems, like the added “a” on words.

 People in the past were ________________________________. (And then correct every student who says “people in the pasta”. I like to draw a cartoon of people in a plate of spaghetti to hammer this home.)

 I’m unpredictable when I take attendance.  I do not call names in class list order, because the ones who haven’t spoken are getting bored with waiting, or building up anxiety.  I jump all over the list, trying to have a pattern that lets me keep track of who has already spoken, but not letting the students know who will be asked next.  This even helps the student who has already spoken, because the student sitting in the next seat will jump when asked. 
I find that in an oral class, being unpredictable is a great strategy.  It’s so hard for the students to pay constant attention when listening to a foreign language.  Their brain goes numb and they want to shut down.  Not knowing who will be called on next keeps them awake.  It can also be fun if I whirl and point to somebody unexpectedly.

 My other favorite trick is to do snap opinion polls.  I’ll put something up on the board and have the students come up and vote.  I try to choose fun subjects – their opinion about current events or social issues.  Do you believe in ghosts?  Do people in China go to dentists?  Should parents be able to decide who you marry?  This gets them out of their seats, breaks the monotony, and gets them moving around. 

Not only does this make the class more fun, it gives me an insight into Chinese culture, and I’m often surprised by the attitudes of my students, a very conservative bunch for the most part.  You can see a whole collection of these opinion polls by clicking here.

 Happy Teaching  大大卫

*originally prepared for a presentation at a teaching workshop reception, October 13 at Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China.


Feedback with Minimal Grading*
By Ruth Anderson

 I like to give my students feedback on their work, especially in writing courses, but I really dislike grading, assigning a number or a letter value to their work. So what I often do is assign from 15 to 40% of the total course grade for term assignment feedback.

 So here’s how it works. Let’s say the assigned amount is 20%. I tell the students at the beginning of the term that each of them has been given these twenty marks already, they are theirs right now – but they can lose those marks. There is a standard list of ways they lose marks that includes:

        -not handing in an assignment (-3 to -5 marks depending on how many assignment there are)

        -handing an assignment in late (-1 or -2 marks, depending on how late)

        -missing a part of an assignment (-1/2 each)

        -not following a specific assignment instruction (-1/2 each)

        -not following an assignment formatting direction correctly (especially important in practical writing when using different format is a big part of what they need to learn)      (-1/2 each)

I may also add other things to the list that are specific to the course. In writing courses I always add in:
having spelling mistakes that a spell checker would catch (-1/2 each)

What I like about this system is that it lets me focus on providing useful feedback to the students when I am going through their work. I can focus on helping them improve their writing, not what grade should they should get for the assignment. Most of the feedback I write on their assignments does not affect their mark, but it does give them a lot that they can work with to make their writing better.

And because the assignments still affect their marks the students take them seriously. Most of the students also learn very quickly to properly format their work, and that makes the job of marking easier too. In addition, I can give the students a little boot upside the head by dinging them for a half mark, like when they aren’t reading the assignment instructions carefully enough.

All in all, a handy tool for lower stress in handling smaller assignments.

*prepared by Ruth Anderson for a teaching workshop reception, October 14, 2011, Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China.

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