Teaching grammar

The first thing that comes to my mind when I hear “teaching grammar” is “boring”. For some reason, both for teachers and for students at all levels this part of syllabus means never-ending struggling through the thicket of rules and exceptions. The system that is supposed to facilitate communication has quite the contrary effect – it makes students believe that grammar’s role is to suppress free speech. Is it because we, teachers, put too much emphasis on explaining grammatical rules or because, just the opposite, we tend to neglect grammar and thus teach it ineffectively? I believe both. To some extent we can put the blame on the educational system, which means numerous tests, large classes and schools’ evaluation based on exam results but I think it is the teacher who is mainly responsible for the painless introduction of grammar. These days, there are many ways to enrich our grammar classes – there are many extra sources we can use: for instance, Youtube videos  of good quality or learning platforms like Kahoot! that make lessons more attractive and really involve students in learning grammar. Students are naturally more willing to watch a short programme rather than listen to teacher’s lecture and, in case of online games, they add the competitive factor and simply excitement to grammar lessons. In order to help students to understand how grammar works we can also take advantage of their peers – students themselves often come up with simple and clear explanations that can accompany our teaching. What’s more, we must remember that teaching grammar makes sense only if students see how it functions in real life situations. That’s why we should include in lessons as many authentic examples as possible and resist the temptation to create artificial sentences that reflect grammatical rules perfectly but have little to do with students’ everyday life and interests. Above all, we should never forget about the golden PPP rule and put our effort not only into the presentation stage but also into introducing proper performance activities because that is how we check whether our teaching is effective.

However, as for me, there’s much more that can be done. I think that in order not to make grammar students’ public enemy number one, we should sometimes forget about it completely. In case of speaking activities, for example, whose aim is to encourage students to communicate, perfect or even correct grammar is not completely necessary. In such cases we should focus on free expression and refrain from correcting students even if it means no grammar at all. During frequent international school meetings and exchanges, I noticed that unlike foreign students, for example Germans, Polish ones have much better command of grammar but lack confidence in speaking English. I believe that the main aim of teaching English is to enable students to communicate and for this reason we should occasionally turn a blind eye to the importance of grammar.



Stress and burnout in teachers’ work


Two newly met people are talking in a restaurant: “What do I do? I’m a high stress teacher… I mean a high school teacher.”

It is widely agreed that stress is part and parcel of teachers’ work. There are various sources of stress: our colleagues and superiors, workload, salary (especially in Poland!), technological impediments and, of course, and above all, students. It’s often said that teachers experiment on students trying out various teaching methods or classroom management ideas but – vice versa – students also carry out merciless experiments on teachers testing their patience. To make matters worse, students often win in this battle of nerves.

If the stress is prolonged and accompanied with emotional fatigue, feeling of isolation and lack of respect, it can lead to professional burnout, and teachers, together with hospital staff and police officers, are in the risk group. Although some of us may just not be cut out for teaching while others cope well with classroom management and stress, the issue of professional burnout relates to all of us and it would be a good idea to reflect on how to prevent burnout or deal with it when it happens.

Of course, there is a chance that a burnt out teacher will quit teaching and find a completely new job that will provide a sense of accomplishment. In fact, if burnout affects you somewhere in the middle of your teaching career, there is little chance of finding a new profession without prior experience. What is more, stress is ubiquitous so it is naive to think that changing jobs will make such a huge difference. As Seneca once said, “If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.”(Letters from a Stoic). Thus, I believe it’s a better idea to invest some time (and not necessarily money) in professional development, that is, to learn something new, acquire brand new qualifications, get a completely different perspective. It would give our mind some rest and refreshment so that we could start working as new people though still in the same place. One of the places where we can find such help is Electronic Village Online offering free professional workshops. There we can not only achieve self-development but also contact with teachers from all over the world. So, teachers, invest in yourselves – this investment will definitely pay off not only for you but also for your students.


PBL – exhausting but fascinating adventure

As the approach has gained international recognition and is becoming more and more popular also in Poland, I think it’s worth reflecting on its main features and benefits.

Project-based learning might be at first mistaken for the equivalent of task-based learning as both approaches involve learning by doing. There are however, certain characteristics that distinguish the former from the latter. In project-based learning students get engaged in solving a more complex problem working for a longer time and the product of their collaboration is presented to a wider audience. In project-based learning technology proves to be highly beneficial as the most attractive products are multimedia ones.

What comes to my mind when I hear about this approach is my previous school’s Comenius project ‘Being Fit and Sociable through Dance, Music and Local Dishes’ that was being done from 2013 to 2015 (http://www.beingfitsocial.com/index.html). Our school cooperated with schools from Turkey, Italy, Germany and Spain and the main objective of the project was to raise teenagers’ awareness of the importance of leading healthy lifestyle and building real relationships in the world dominated by computers and online contacts. Paradoxically, apart from regular meetings at schools,  we contacted a lot online and one of the final products of the project was an online magazine created with the help of Calameo publishing platform (the Spanish and Polish part: http://en.calameo.com/read/004155103eac77fa64a97; and the whole magazine: http://www.beingfitsocial.com/products/Comenius_magazine_%20poland.pdf) . As I was personally responsible for supervising the magazine I realized that not only students but also teachers can get a lot of satisfaction and pride while presenting the final product of cooperation. Other benefits included: raising students’ motivation to learn English, fostering their autonomy, cooperative skills and critical thinking. What was also important was the fact that students could choose their roles in the project reflecting their interests and personal skills. So some of them were responsible for the multimedia, others for musical and dancing events, still others for cooking – the variety of activities was enormous! Of course there were also obvious attractions – international meetings in beautiful places like Chipiona, Misilmeri, Gelsenkirchen or Trabzon during which we could socialize and learn about different cultures. I must say it was one of the most challenging, tiring, time-consuming and wonderful teaching adventures of my life. I would strongly recommend this approach and I hope I will be able to take part in other projects.

And here are some pictures from Malaga and Chipiona – you must visit them!

TBLT not only in the classroom

Task-based language teaching (TBLT) is an approach in second language acquisition (SLA) that involves providing students with a variety of authentic tasks to fulfil using the target language. TBLT is considered to be an alternative to the traditional presentation, practice, and performance (PPP) approach and, since the 1980s, the former has attracted much attention of both linguists and practicing teachers. Task-based language teaching, however, presents certain challenges, for example, excessive responsibility placed on teachers (constructing and monitoring ‘tasks’ requires thorough preparation and attention) or unpredictable students’ performance that may make teaching ineffective.

As for me, although this approach is quite demanding, it is also an invaluable source of intrinsic motivation – a crucial element of successful SLA, and that is why I find TBLT extremely useful even if it means using it only occasionally as an addition to traditional teaching. Average English course books contain elements of the approach and it is up to the teacher to what extent they will be used. So we have dialogues in restaurants, shops, asking for and giving directions etc, all of which can be practised in the classroom but also in real life (we can ask our students to order food or ask for directions in English during school trips). But now I would like to reflect on a more complicated and longer task that I once monitored. It was during my stay at Krzyżowa (a villag 44 km away from Wrocław) with a group of 40 students and three more teachers. It was a Polish-German meeting (with English as the language of communication) during which students were to cooperate in a series of tasks. One of them was to make a short film so the Polish-German groups had to decide on the work division (who is the director, actors etc), prepare a script, choose the setting, costumes etc. Finally, after shooting all scenes, their films were put together with the help of a professional assistant, watched and awarded. My role in this task was to look after students (they worked mostly outside) and occasionally monitor their work. I was astonished how much the task boosted their motivation to speak English – even ‘poor’ students participated in communication using very simple English or their peers’ help. Because it was a group work involving various aspects, students could choose the specific job they felt able to do (drawing, cutting out, computer work, acting…) and take advantage of their individual abilities. English was just an instrument crucial to complete the task – additional challenge was the fact that they really had to speak only English because the Germans didn’t speak Polish and the Polish – German. What’s more, our students were more willing to speak English when we came back to Kraków. I could see how powerful TBLT can be, especially as far as motivation is concerned. If you are interested international school meetings in Krzyżowa, here is the link to Krzyżowa Foundation http://www.krzyzowa.org.pl/index.php/en/fundacja-krzyzowa

…and some photos from our last meeting.


Implementing CLIL in your lessons

Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) refers to situations when certain subjects or parts of subjects are taught through a foreign language. In Poland it usually evokes connotations with Bilingual Education, a phenomenon that is becoming more and more popular. But teaching subjects by means of a foreign subject, in this case English, might seem too challenging in an average school with average mixed-ability classes. CLIL, however, means not only teaching science through English – some aspects of CLIL are already part and parcel of our everyday work and we don’t even realise it.

First of all, the EU launched several initiatives connected with CLIL that are quite familiar to us. Think about the Erasmus or Comenius Programme – they both involve learning through a foreign language. In case of the latter, international students take part in various activities (usually centred around a specific topic) and are taught new skills or attitudes by means of English. Secondly, the ‘weak’ version of CLIL, in which the focus is on language and not on content like in its ‘strong’ version, already exists in English syllabus. We don’t have to create any particular materials – aspects of CLIL are implemented in English course books. All we have to add from us is creativity. The parts of subjects that I teach through English most often are maths, biology and geography. In case of maths, I take advantage of activities connected with counting and simple arithmetical operations while teaching numerals. I also combine numbers and English alphabet in a kind of code in which each letter corresponds with a number. Students are introduced to the code and then given homework connected with decoding certain messages. As far as biology is concerned, I teach names of species and animals. It is an opportunity to focus on endangered species in the world as well as in Poland. These aspects of biology can be taught on various levels, even on beginner level. Another aspect of biology that has recently gained importance in English course books is ecology. Students can learn through English basic rules for how to be environmentally friendly and contribute to saving our planet. Finally, as far as geography is concerned, I teach aspects of this subject during lessons devoted to landforms (valley, mountain etc) and forms of water (lake, river etc). On Youtube you can find several useful short films ( I recommend FreeSchool’s films, for example, ‘Landforms and Bodies of Water for Kinds’ – it suits all levels). But the first lessons that include elements of geography are those devoted to continents, countries and nationalities, things taught at the very beginning of a course book. You can then take advantage of students’ knowledge of the map and make them more internationally-aware. All in all, CLIL may sound very demanding but it is nothing to be afraid of as its philosophy is ubiquitous in everyday teaching and it doesn’t burden teachers with additional work. Good will is enough.

Teaching literature – take the bull by the horns

If you feel disheartened facing the prospect of teaching culture because you think it’s too time-consuming and difficult, then the perspective of teaching literature will make you feel petrified. In Poland, teaching literature seems to be reserved solely for teachers of Polish while foreign language teachers view it as a kind of white elephant. Few want to tackle the problem – for most of us the word ‘literature’ means Shakespeare, Wordsworth or Dickens (writers who are either too difficult or too old-fashioned for teenage learners). But teaching literature does not have to mean searching for traces of humour in Midsommer Night’s Dream, explaining what the poet wanted to convey or analysing social problems in Dickens. While introducing literature we don’t have to focus only on the content, we can also teach new vocabulary or model students’ attitudes towards poetry, for instance.

I’d like to focus on the latter for a while. I strongly recommend lessons on poetry as they don’t only help to introduce new vocabulary but also encourage students to play with words and just enjoy the language. Using simple poetry helps students to overcome their fear of the genre. Here are two ideas you can use:

1).In a booklet ‘Think about it’ I found a simple ‘recipe’ for a poem that encourages students to learn and play with vocabulary. The poem has got five lines and a specific number of words-

-the first line (one word) – name the topic of the poem

-the second line (two words) – describe what it is

-the third line (three words) – comment on the subject

-the fourth line (four words) – describe your feelings/emotions

-the fifth line (again one word) – sum up

And that is what one of my students wrote:


Colourless defect

Just don’t care

It makes me sad


You can choose suitable topics/words that students are supposed to use or you can leave it to your students.

2).Lesson on limericks – combines culture and literature as students can learn something about the genre and Edward Lear, for example. You can find many example of limericks on the Internet, explain the rules (rhymes) and ask students to put some lines in the correct order, choose words that rhyme (focus on pronunciation) or tell them to create their own limericks depending on the level of the class.

I used these ideas many times and the lessons were very successful. So don’t be afraid of teaching literature – it’s versatile, resourceful and, most of all, enjoyable!

Teaching culture

Faced with tests’ results pressure and lessons constantly dropping out because of school trips, we tend to consider teaching culture as some kind of luxury available solely for those who have extra lessons. It seems to be something that can be introduced only occasionally in case of substitution classes or when we know we are ahead with the mandatory material (grammar!). But culture is part and parcel of the core curriculum and as such it should be mandatory to teach it on regular basis. It doesn’t have to mean a full self-designed culture lesson devoted to Scotland or Christmas but elements of culture can also serve as the background for routine exercises – we can interweave culture with grammar as well. Instead of vague and boring sentences like ‘She did her homework’ or ‘He was doing his homework’ we can prepare culture-imbued examples, for instance, ‘Dickens wrote Christmas Carol’ or ‘The Yorkists were fighting the Lancastrians for over thirty years’. I know that at first look it seems crazy but it doesn’t have to mean that we put history and British classics everywhere. Any kind of exaggeration is inadvisable. However, I find such examples very useful – we can ask students to find out more about a certain name or event as their homework or explain the terms ourselves during the lesson.

I’m fortunate to have five English lessons a week so I can devote one of them to culture with a clear conscience. I usually take advantage of Youtube documentaries as the basis for listening, writing or speaking activities. In case of films, I choose those based on English novels or short stories so that students could learn something about well-known British writers, for example, ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ or ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’. I strongly recommend that teachers should be careful when choosing film material – some films can meet with parents’ or headmaster’s opposition, for example ‘Hobbit’(too much violence!) or ‘Harry Potter’ (evil magic!). If we are fed up with looking at the screen we can prepare song lyrics as listening comprehension exercises, after all, music is also an element of culture. Finally, for not so creative and time-pressed teachers there are ready-to-use lesson plans on the Internet as well as materials sent to teachers by publishers, Pearson for instance, on certain occasions like Christmas. To cut long story short – elements of culture are necessary and easily obtainable. Anyway, if you are still not sure whether to add them to your everyday teaching, you should remember there is one more argument for teaching culture – it prevents boredom, the recurring problem in many schools.