Sunday, July 12, 2009

Having doubts about textbooks

Until now I thought it was handy to have a textbook. It gave me and the students a kind of road map for how to procede. It was easy to make tests for because I could more easily quantify and qualify what we had covered, and so could the students.

This semester I used another method of study in addition to a textbook. Now I am regretting that I required my students to buy the text. First, I started using a method that would get students communicating in English based on their own experiences. I found this idea on Duane Kindt's site on TIPS (Tools for Increasing Proficiency). His method included having students tell other students about themselves, starting from who they are as people and then progressing on to their families and lifestyles.

This process convinced me of some points:
a. Students do not naturally approach grammar as it is presented in textbooks in any skill area, listening, speaking, reading or writing. (Available texts don't approximate what my students want to say.)
b. Traditional testing patterns are not sufficient for helping students learn a language. (Classroom events should steer testing, not artificially imposed criteria.)
c.  All class content can be generated from student communication.
d. The teacher's role, at least in the university setting where I find myself, is to introduce a method or methods for learning, to encourage and guide communication, to provide criteria for evaluation, to contextualize student needs and language requirements, and occasionally provide evidence based intercultural perspective.

Textbooks are not written to provide this kind of support.

There are limitations to this approach. It is time consuming, and necessitates a teacher be available to students. That means that this may not be useful for teachers who are paid to teach by the hour. Their jobs are to be with a class for a period, not to plan, or evaluate outside of the class. For those teachers texts are probably an essential resource.


Patrick Jackson said...

Hi Daniel,

This comment might be of interest to people who feel the same way about textbooks as you do now but who aren't ready to go it alone completely.

My best year of teaching conversation classes at Chukyo in Nagoya was the year I used 'Scraps' from Perceptia press. You probably know Brian Cullen and or Paul Lewis. They're based in Nagoya and you may even know the book.

Anyway, Scraps worked a treat. It's all based on topics that the students know and care about...basically stuff about themselves! Although the book is flexible, I used it as follows. Students spent two weeks doing the activities (listening, vocab pre-teaching etc) while preparing their presentations at home and doing some other favourite activities on the topic I had built up over the years.

I had 40 students per class and divided them into ten groups of four.

In wks 3 and 4 we had presentation time. This involved showing and talking through an A3 page (there is space in the book to stick stuff but I prefered to give them a bigger sheet) on which, scrap-book style they stuck photos, tickets, brochures, whatever helped them to tell their stories.

Students did their 2/3 minute presentations to every other group and the other 3 students had to
1. listen
2. make a comment
3. ask a question

This meant that they did their presentation 10 times in a row! Sounds like too much but they loved it and by the 10th time had obviously internalised a lot of the language as well as having interacted with every other student in the class.

I did sessions on presentation skills, listening skills, and how to give feedback. I was able to collect in their presentations and give them some feedback. Occasionally I would spin around with a camera and video them too. That was fun to watch together afterwards. We had them vote for the most popular presentation that they wanted to see again and that student got to go in front of everyone, really proud but really nervous. I could spend the time doing what I liked to do best which was basically go around encouraging the presenters. In retrospect it would have worked very well as a student-blog supported thing too but we didn't get around to that.

I would have no fear about going into any similar class now with Scraps (or the 'Scraps Method if I didn't have the budget to buy the book or had truly cast off textbooks.).

Here's the link to their page

Check out the slideshow of my lovely students using the book...sniff sniff.

and here is the legendary Matthew Bowden modelling the book...LOL

Finally, although I was using a prototype version of the book that had a few imperfections (these have apparently been ironed out in the Second Edition out now), it was the only year I felt that my students really, actually DID enjoy the materials they were given at the beginning of the year.

The comments I got back from students in their annual survey confirmed this as did the amount I got to know them and the way they got to know each other. These were first year students fresh from the nightmare of high school English. I always felt a major part of teaching this level was more like rehab!

All four classes I taught (160 students, 40 groups) had a real buzz about the them.

All the best from Dublin,


Daniel said...

Thanks for the great review of "Scraps," and the overview of how you used the book in classes. Very helpful. I just ordered a copy from the publisher. I'll certainly give it a look.