No Spanish in the classroom?

Being a reflective teacher is an important element of professional development because it makes you think about your teaching practice. It’s quite useful to ask yourself why you are teaching the way you are teaching. Reflecting on your work isn’t always a pleasant process because it can lead to opening a can of worms. However, I think that admitting that you got something wrong can help you improve as a teacher even if it means denting your ego.

I spent eighteen months after completing my CELTA oblivious of any real professional development. I just kept doing what I thought was correct at the time. Fortunately, I decided to study for Delta Module One, and reading ELT books made me question things for the first time in my teaching career. For example, when I was tasked with assessing students’ speaking skills, it involved asking them to draw a card with a random topic and giving them a minute to prepare a monologue. When I read Testing for Language Teachers by Arthur Hughes, I found out that this is not a recommended procedure because it makes learners unnecessarily stressed. The book helped me explore some more considerate and effective ways of assessing speaking.

No Spanish in the classroom?

All teachers makes mistakes, particularly at the beginning of their careers. My biggest one was persisting with the No Spanish! policy for quite a long time. In my defence, I taught a multilingual group of students during my CELTA course, so it was necessary to rely only on English. It took me a while to realise that penalising Colombian students for using their native language wasn’t a good strategy. Everyone else seemed to be doing that as well, so I didn’t see any problem with enforcing the rule.

Again, I needed an intervention from the outside to show me that there are other perspectives on the topic of L1 use in the classroom. When I decided to focus on teaching monolingual classes in Colombia for my Delta Module Three assignment, I needed to research the area. The role of learners’ native language is a key issue, so I started reading more about it, and Vivian Cook’s article Using the First Language in the Classroom proved to be a game changer in this regard.

There are solid arguments for using only L2 in the classroom, and I completely understand how the direct method came about. However, it doesn’t seem to be the best options for monolingual environments such as Colombia. Cook says that the interaction between L1 and L2 is a fact of life and fighting against it doesn’t make much sense. He suggests treating learners’ mother tongue as a useful resource and taking advantage of it.

Of course, this doesn’t mean promoting unrestricted use of the native language in the classroom because that would be taking things to the other extreme. If possible, L1 should be used in a more principled way. For example, there are a lot of cognates between English and Spanish, and it’s pretty useful to expose students to them. In fact, that’s what I relied on when I moved to Colombia with limited knowledge of the Spanish language. This inevitably means exploring the area of false friends to avoid misunderstanding. I don’t see any harm in looking at similarities and differences in some grammar structures either. 

I also think that using L1 when it comes to lexical chunks can help you save valuable class time. Let’s use the expression it’s worth it as an example. When you encounter it in a text, you can spend a couple of minutes trying to clarify its meaning using some contrived examples, and there is still no guarantee that it will be fully understood by everyone in the classroom. Using its Spanish equivalent vale la pena will immediately resolve that issue. L1 can be very useful in terms of class management too, particularly with beginners. I see no point in torturing students who have just started learning the language with English-only instructions when you can help them out using their mother tongue in case they are struggling with a task.

In addition, I have no qualms about using translation activities in my lessons. I am not advocating for the return of the outdated grammar-translation method that doesn’t pay any attention of speaking. Asking my students to translate a hoax message I had received through WhatsApp can help kick-start a discussion about fake information on the internet, and I see no issue with including fun stuff like that in my lessons from time to time. I recommend watching Philip Kerr’s webinar The return of translation for more information on the topic.

When I look back at the beginning of my teaching career, there are a few memories that now make me say to myself That was a bit daft, wasn’t it? and banning the use of L1 in the classroom was undoubtedly one of them. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources that can help us address various misconceptions. I think it’s really important for us teachers to be open-minded and willing to change our stance in case we encounter evidence suggesting that our students may not benefit from our actions.

379 days and counting

It has been a long time since I last taught in a physical classroom. I remember the lesson very well because I had just started working with a new group of students. The news coming from Europe wasn’t good and I knew that Colombia would inevitably get affected by the pandemic as well, so I prepared my students for the eventuality that the following week’s lesson might be postponed. Schools in Colombia were closed the next day and I haven’t been back to the classroom since then, which is something I certainly didn’t expect at the time. This post is my reflection on a year of teaching online.

379 days and counting: teaching online

The first weeks of teaching through Zoom were pretty exciting because it gave me and the students an opportunity to try out new things. Like many others, I just flipped my lessons to the online environment, which was quite easy thanks to using breakout rooms. We were all happy to see each other through the screen and it all felt like a cool adventure.

However, the novelty wore off after a few weeks. I believe that most students thought the suspension of in-class courses was just a temporary measure. People started getting frustrated with the fact that they couldn’t meet their classmates face-to-face, and their energy levels dropped a little. We were originally supposed to return back to our classrooms in August, but that obviously didn’t happen and we had to endure a very long quarantine.

When it dawned on me that this would be a long-term issue, I decided to change my approach to lesson planning. I knew that I had to make more effort to adapt to the new reality, and that teaching from my living room was going to be part and parcel of my professional life for more time. These days I feel much more confident about being able to deliver good lessons online, and it’s great to work with students who are now used to learning in this environment.

A lot has been written about teaching online and there are numerous courses, lesson plans and tutorials for teachers that can help you with that. I think it’s important to choose an approach that works for your learners. For example, most of my students enjoy working on tasks that require collaboration with their peers. This may range from serious topics like job interviews to creating hilarious infomercials about useless products, and I love it when my students get involved in such activities. Of course, it’s necessary to take your teaching context into account.

I know that some teachers don’t find it easy to work with technology in their classes. Everyone seems to be using Jamboard, Padlet and other tools, and you may feel that it‘s something necessary for a good online lesson. I understand that you can do some pretty cool stuff with those tools and I do use them from time to time, but I think we shouldn’t lose track of what’s important. Being able to build rapport with students is more useful than the ability to use the latest technology. I enjoy including a few Dogme moments in my lesson and just letting the lesson flow in a direction decided by the learners. I always look forward to unexpected deviations from the plan when someone shows us something interesting on their screen or when we have a conversation about a topic relevant to the students‘ lives.

There are differing opinions on the use of cameras in online classrooms. Since I usually teach small groups, I encourage my students to have their camera on. I think everyone feels more comfortable when they have visual contact with all the participants in the group. ‘My camera doesn’t work’ is one of the most common sentences I have heard in the past year, but in reality very few students are truly unable to use it, and the ‘broken camera’ usually gets fixed during the course of the first lesson. I understand that not everyone wants us to see their apartment. Fortunately, it’s easy to use a virtual background to resolve that. If someone doesn’t want to show their face for some reason, I just ask them to use a filter because I’d much rather talk to a banana floating a space than try to communicate with a black square.

Inevitably, teaching online hasn’t been all fun and games. The internet sometimes brings out the worst out of some people and there have been a couple of students whose behaviour made them really difficult to work with. My priority in such cases is to make sure that it doesn’t affect the rest of the group. Fortunately, most of the students have been amazing. When you work with people interested in learning, it’s very easy to enjoy the lessons and forget that you aren’t sitting in the same room.

The main issue with synchronous online learning is the fact that it isn’t accessible to everybody. Many students in Colombia can’t rely on their internet connection, so it doesn’t make sense for them to pay for online courses. Learning through a cell phone isn’t great either and it may make the learners’ experience less enjoyable. I am looking forward to returning to in-class teaching, but it’s good to know that for some students online classes provide a viable alternative when we can’t share the same physical space. Going forward, I can imagine myself working on blended courses or working with some groups exclusively online. How about you?