This week I decided to hold a spelling bee with my classes. I’ve always liked the idea of spelling bees – in fact, I just like the phrase ‘spelling bee’, although I have no idea what relevance a bee has to spelling. (Yes, I could google it. OK, so I did!)
Despite being 14-15 years old and having studied English for, on average, probably eight years, I thought it would be very unlikely that many (any?) of my Polish secondary school students would be able to pronounce all the letters of the English alphabet. Why? Because in the evenings I teach adults and in general they can’t either. There must be a point early on in the learning process in Poland where the students learn the alphabet, but whether they return to it or not seems to be a moot point.
The two word sets that I used for the quiz. Easier (l) and more difficult (r)
Procedure for a 45 min. class:
Register and question: ‘Who can write the English alphabet?’ SS (student/s) came to the board and wrote it – invariably incorrectly. We went through the errors. We said the alphabet together. SS generally sang it too (to the tune of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’). I highlighted problematic letters, e.g. the vowels A E I O U, and also G/J, Q, V, and so on. (10-15 mins)
I wrote ten words on the board (20 for higher-level groups), checked and translated them, then asked the SS to practise spelling them – then there would be a quiz. SS were supposed to practise spelling the words in pairs or groups of three. Not all groups did this, so in those cases I fast-forwarded to the quiz. (5-10 mins)
Quiz: SS sat in teams of 3-4. ROUND 1: I asked one SS from the first team to stand up and spell a word from the list, e.g. JOURNEY. If they got it right, their team got 1 point. If not, I asked the next team to spell the same word. If they got it right, they got 1 point, and I asked the following team to spell a different word. ROUND 2: When I had heard all the words spelled correctly (by a trial and error process of SS correcting their wrong answers by listening to others’ right answers), I erased the 10 words from the board and SS had to answer from memory. Of course, this proved harder, but it was possible for most SS thanks to the previous round. ROUND 3: Time-permitting we played a third round, where the words were my choice and SS had to answer from their knowledge. I chose fairly familiar words like ‘computer’, ‘window’, and ‘chair’ – things that were in the round around us. With three rounds the quiz could expand or contract to fit the remaining time and the ability of the SS. The quiz continued for as long as 25 minutes, with SS building up points. The players in the winning team got a good mark (6) as winners of the quiz.
I ensured that the set of ten words in each group (easier and harder – see above) contained all the letters of the alphabet, so that each letter would get an airing. They were also fairly easy/familiar words, so not a lot of pre-teaching was required.
In general I enjoyed being the quiz master. There was a lot of pleasure in the tension of waiting for a SS’s next letter, for example: ‘Spell QUEUE.’ ‘Q – U – E – ‘… would they get it right? I sensed other people enjoyed this too. We were willing them on to get it right. Unfortunately, most of the time, they did not.
I quickly realised that this was more of a diagnostic lesson – a lesson where we established that there was a problem with matching the shape of letters to specific sounds. The errors were typical for Polish learners of English, and things that I have heard time and again during eleven years of teaching English in Poland: A, E, and I mixed up; c and s mixed up; short e (egg) instead of long ee; g and j mixed up; ‘ha’ instead of H; ‘key’ instead of K; missing Q, ‘air’ instead of R; and missing V or ‘fow’, like in Polish. No surprises, but I was shocked at the scale of the problem. During the first stage of the lesson – writing and saying the alphabet – I tried to use mnemonics, e.g. U sounds like ‘you’, Y sounds like ‘why’, Q sounds like ‘queue’, I = I (me), and so on. It was too little too late. We didn’t scratch the surface with learning the alphabet. It was just a diagnostic lesson – we found out that the need was there! I advised SS to learn it at home in their own time.
In some groups over-competitive SS tried to ‘throw’ other competitors by suggesting the wrong letters. I let them do it to an extent because it made the student who was spelling focus and think all the harder.
I created a PPT file to use to go through the alphabet with the SS. You can download it here: The English Alphabet (Powerpoint), but as time went on I realised that it was unnecessary and better to get SS to write the alphabet on the board and see their errors right from the beginning. Similarly, I made physical cards with the ten words on at two levels (see above), but it was quicker for me to simply write these words on the board. We had more time for the quiz, without trying to set up the projector and PPT and hand out the cards.
Even fairly innocuous words like CHAIR posed serious problems for the SS in terms of spelling. In fact, listening to SS spell CHAIR was particularly painful because every letter posed a problem:
C – pronounced S
H – ‘What is it?’
A – pronounced I
I – pronounced E
R – pronounced ‘air’
A few higher-level groups asked: ‘Why do we need to do this?’ ‘I want to see whether you know the alphabet.’ Some SS felt a bit sniffy, as if this was too easy and basic for their level. In the end I was proved right by most SS’s results in the quiz. I explained that it’s a basic skill and that they should know this at their level. I gave the example of filling in forms in the UK, since many of these SS may well be spending time working or studying there. ‘It’s so you don’t get the wrong name.’ One student, Dawid, protested: ‘But it’s normal name – Dawid.’ ‘OK. Can you spell it?’ ‘Yes. D-A-W-A-D.’
Towards the beginning of one lesson the SS’s form tutor poked his head round the door to check that some SS had arrived. He quickly noticed that we were saying the alphabet, with the letters on the board. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked, slightly suspiciously. ‘We’re testing whether the students can pronounce the English alphabet.’ ‘And can they?’ ‘That’s what we’re going to find out.’ ‘Hmm,’ said the teacher, and left. I understand that learning the alphabet is most associated with children’s lessons, but experience told me that they would benefit from this ‘reminder’ – and I feel that most of them did. Later I found the teacher and mentioned the results: that almost none of the students could spell all of the words correctly with the alphabet. We talked about what could be done. The problem is that when you’re tied to the course book (as he is) pronouncing letters doesn’t come up again after the first few lessons at beginner level.
The lesson time (45 mins) passed fairly quickly with this format. It was a nice simple lesson to run – without any technology or handouts (as in YATCB Method) – and it did feel like a change from doing the setup > preparation > presentation model of the previous few weeks. However, during the quiz I had to wonder whether it wasn’t a little bit, er, dull, compared with those previous lessons.
I feel it was worth doing – to diagnose the problem – but the question now is how to build on it and ensure they learn to say the alphabet. Perhaps I can return to it during future lessons and do a five-minute quiz, rather than spending a whole lesson on it.
This week most of my groups have worked with the topic of planning a holiday on another planet.
I projected the instructions above on the board (or wrote it on the whiteboard, depending on the classroom I was in) and informed students to take out their notebooks and pens and work in groups of three. I informed them that they would have to do a spoken presentation, with all students speaking, which would be assessed.
I told them: “The year is 3018!” I made a kind of swishing noise and waved my arms for a while. “You’re in the future!” I clarified. Generally the students laughed. They settled into their task.
Each 45 minute lesson split roughly into thirds, with 15 mins to do the register and set up the activity, 15 mins for SS (students) to prepare their presentations, then 15 minutes for the presentations. As they prepared I operated some sound effects on an app called myNoise (iOS / Google Play), which I played on my phone through a (hidden) Bluetooth mini speaker. The ‘Warp Speed’ sound effects were great – bleeps and whooshes and pulses that you might hear in a spaceship (or on another planet) – as far as I know, anyway!
I had fun by starting the sounds off low and then increasing the volume, to see how many SS – and who – would notice. When they looked up, I reduced the volume again or denied that there was any noise. Some SS were more aware than others. I feel it helped to set the ambience of a future-themed lesson about space travel.
About 15 minutes before the end of each lesson, the SS gave their presentations in groups and we clapped each group. I was pleased by how much imagination was shown and how much they had been able to achieve in just around 15 minutes prep time.
I did this lesson with ten of my groups and sometimes, due to the lower number of SS in a group, we had time for extension activities:
After a presentation: I asked the group some additional questions about what they had just said, e.g. ‘What colour was the alien? Describe him. Was it a him? How could you tell?!’ etc.
After we had heard all the presentations: if there was time, I switched on the sound effect of the spaceship/space noises again and asked the SS to close their eyes. I asked the group questions, e.g. what can you see? Where are you? What is happening? and so on. A little bit of a drama game.
The sound effects app was quite amusing for me. I’m not sure all the SS appreciated it – or how many of them even noticed it above their (work-related) noise! When SS did notice the weird noises or ask about it, I pretended not to have heard it.
I’m not sure why, but lower-level groups seemed to respond better to this activity – with greater enthusiasm and more imagination. Maybe they didn’t overthink it, unlike some of the higher-level groups.
I asked them to work in groups of 3, in order to break up some established pairs and force them to work with different people. Some SS begged me to work in groups of 4, so I asked them why I didn’t allow it: ‘Because students will talk in pairs,’ said one person. Exactly, and if they work in groups of 4 there will be sure to be at least one, and probably two, students doing nothing, while the other two work.
SS learned new vocabulary, including ‘adventure’, ‘aliens’, and ‘dangerous’.
I noticed that some groups of 3 achieved more than others in the meagre 15 minutes that I allotted. Some presentations were fabulous, with really detailed scenarios, while others were more perfunctory, e.g. ‘On the way home there was a battle. The end.’ I guess this is to be expected in terms of differentiation, although some SS worked harder than others, in my opinion.
It was great, as always, to watch the SS working contentedly on the task – the ‘happy hum’.
This lesson structure is still working well: setup > preparation > presentation (see previous Teaching Blog posts). What is the lesson plan (above) in a nutshell?
Give SS a clearly defined task with several objectives to fulfil, on a topic that is of interest to them.
Give them a fair amount of time to work together in pairs or groups to prepare their response. Offer help and assistance as required, but let them get on with it. In English, as far as possible!
SS show what they have done to T and the rest of the class.
The content has to be interesting to them. When I planned this week’s topic last weekend I was originally going to ask them to talk about a normal holiday. Then I was playing with the new app and I noticed the space sounds and realised that a holiday in space would be so much more fun – and good for the imagination! Serendipity at work.
I enjoyed imagining the future along with the SS. They conjured up a time when intergalactic space flight is not only possible, but absolutely commonplace; when aliens and humans co-exist and intermarry on earth and on other planets, like Mars, Mercury, and their own made-up planets (e.g. ‘Unique Planet’ and ‘Princess Planet’, where some SS went to find out about the beauty effect of magic coconuts); when space travel can involve a ‘space tram’, ‘magic carpet’, ‘flying car’, or ‘a bike in the sky on the Milky Way’; when spaceships can break down, but be fixed; when humans can go on a rescue mission to the sun – which is being robbed of its heat by a dastardly heat-absorbing alien race… It takes just 15 minutes to get all these scenarios – and more – out of SS who are by no means at a high level in English. Bravo! I salute them. I smiled, I laughed, and I played weird sound effects.
I think that having the instructions on the board for SS to refer to at any time while preparing was a big help. It meant I didn’t have to keep reminding them of what to do. It was clear, once we had gone through it at the beginning. This time I included an image to help to stimulate the imagination.
Other positives: group work; variety of focus; not teacher-led lesson, but teacher-controlled; low teacher talking time; after doing this kind of lesson a few times the SS know more what is expected of them; SS take responsibility for their work and their marks; at the end of one of the lessons one student seemed genuinely surprised that it had gone so quickly (a great sign of engagement!): ‘Juz koniec?!’ (in Polish) = ‘It’s finished?!’
Challenges that are familiar from previous weeks with this lesson outline:
Getting SS to do the preparation stage in English is difficult – even with the highest level groups.
SS listening to each other during the presentations – this is getting a bit better.
Limitations of time – 45 mins to start, work on, and complete the activity, with no rollover to next lesson. I have to be very strict on the clock.
I’m concerned – as a teacher – that there is still little or no time for grammar correction, e.g. one group wrote: ‘My friend meet a very preaty girl, and now they have one kid.’ and ‘Adventures – Swimming with Delphin.’ (In Polish ‘dolphin’ is ‘delfin’.) Should I take in the work and mark it at home, then return it with written feedback? How helpful would that be? In the next lesson we don’t have time to return to the previous week’s lesson, because there is a new epic to be created. Focus on speaking becomes focus on writing and grammar? My job is to get them talking, but what about accuracy? Is this a speaking activity or a writing/grammar one? Can we have speaking and presentations without writing and grammar? Without writing, yes, but without grammar, no!