Diary from London: Testing times
In his sixth diary entry, David Foster attempts to help his advanced students revise with something more interesting than past papers.
Over the last few months, I’ve been teaching listening and speaking to a Cambridge Advanced Exam class. Any teacher who has experienced such a class knows it has both challenges and rewards. Certainly, motivation in such classes is usually very high; the students are extremely successful language learners. People who have progressed further in mastering a second language than I have, certainly. But the challenge is finding interesting ways to stretch these students and prepare them for the exam without boring them rigid.
So what do you do? You can follow the coursebook and bury the students under a vocabulary and grammar mountain. You can do endless practice tests, but be prepared for fractious arguments about the veracity of one answer against another. Variety is badly needed in these courses, and if you have any good suggestions I’d love to hear them.
The most successful week of my course involved a class project using authentic material from the website www.ted.com. This is a website community that aims to spread new ideas by presenting short talks across an incredible range of topics. My description doesn’t do justice to the excitement of watching speakers from around the world offering new and exciting insights into our modern world. If you haven’t visited the site before, then wait no longer. Inspiration is just a click away.
To engage my students, I start by modelling the task I want them to complete. I introduce one of the TED talks, identifying the themes and underlining some key terminology. Then I let the video do the talking. Today I’ve chosen to show a talk by Jay Walker about a mania sweeping the world as we speak: the mania for learning English. According to Walker, two billion people are at it. The footage in this short talk certainly highlights the realities and pressures of this global language-learning phenomenon. A five-minute video leaves my class debating the global thirst for English for the rest of our lesson.
This is my starting point. With my students fired up about the possibilities of the website, I now give them the next two hours of class time to find an exciting TED video, prepare a short introduction, some follow-up questions and a vocabulary crib sheet to take away. The students work in pairs, so the work is collaborative and requires plenty of discussion and decision-making (some nice, covert practice for the speaking exam). The students are completely engaged for a sustained period of time and usually end up having to complete their crib sheets as homework. This is ideal; I want to get the group phoning and Skyping each other outside class time, so they are working together closely on a real project.
The talks can also provide the stern language challenge these students need. Speakers mix catchy idiomatic language with specialist jargon in a spectrum of international accents. “What does it’s a bit dicey mean?” asks Ellen. “Can you work it out?” This is how to train your students for the ever-evolving assault course of English idioms. More familiar collocations show up as well: face up to a challenge, a core belief, a slap in the face, the list goes on. More than just hearing them, the students experience them in real contexts, engage with them and explain them to their classmates.
In the final two days of the week, the students present their videos to the class. They are ‘Photos that changed the world’, ‘How to spot a liar’ or ‘Three things I learnt when I survived an air crash.’ The students have plenty to discuss, while I simply highlight some interesting vocabulary at the end of each segment.
Overall, the week has seamlessly integrated all the different skills. It has given a real-world situation which is also similar to tasks on the Cambridge examination. Finally, it often motivates students to go home and watch further TED videos outside of class. Everybody loves it. Perfect. But next week, they ask, “Please can we do some more past paper practice?”. Oh well, back to multiple-choice agony, then.