Between 2008-2009 I wrote a series of six articles for English Teaching Professional on the topic of classroom observations. It was called ‘Eye on the classroom’. So with permission of English Teaching Professional and Pavilion Publishing to reprint the articles here, I’ll post all six in the next few days. Note that in places they might not appear in their full entirety as the originals came with photocopiable pro-forma. However, if you are a subscriber to English Teaching Professional you can download the original as a pdf.

Eye on the classroom 1: Peer Observation

Many language schools and their teachers would welcome more time for development and support. Teachers want new ideas, new ways of doing something or to reassure themselves that the old ways also still work really well. Typically, the school can offer training sessions with talks and workshops, but these take time and involve everyone coming together at the same time on the same day. One form of training and development which bypasses these problems is peer observation. In its simplest form, two teachers team up and observe each other teaching. Their reasons for observing each other in the classroom will include:

  • Sharing ideas

One of the best ways to get new ideas is to observe another teacher. Usually this is because you see an activity being used that you’ve never done before. Observing another teacher at work can also help you to consider fresh alternatives and new ways of doing things.

  • Promoting team spirit

Many teachers feel isolated by working alone, but peer observation lets you work with others and helps you feel more like part of a team.

  • Developing skills

Being an observer affords you time to consider problem areas of your teaching and gives you the chance to see how others might handle similar difficulties in the classroom.

  • Seeing students differently

Observing lessons is as much about observing students as the teacher. Being freed up from the teaching role allows you to see students from another perspective.

Questions and answers

Peer observation takes very little organization and doesn’t require hours of teachers’ meetings. Surprisingly then, an amazing number of teachers don’t take the opportunity to tap into this resource. Perhaps this is because of a list of unanswered questions and concerns they have about observing other teachers. Here are some of those questions with, I hope, satisfactory answers.

  • What do I actually observe for?

In general, observing a lesson isn’t very helpful if the observer walks in with a pen and blank sheet of paper and takes notes on everything they notice. It’s better to have a clear focus. One way to do this is to have sentences to complete about the lesson on a page, like this:

The first thing that struck me about the lesson is..

One thing I noticed about the students is…

One thing I saw in this lesson which I’d like to try is…

One thing that this observation reminded me about when teaching is…

One question I’d like to ask the teacher afterwards is…

  • Do I talk to the teacher about the lesson beforehand?

Not necessarily. It’s helpful to know about the class and what the teacher has been doing with them in previous lessons, but it’s sometimes better to reduce the need for lots of meetings and planning and just go in and sit at the back.

  • Do I talk to the teacher about the lesson afterwards?

This is more likely than talking beforehand. How much you talk will depend on your situation, but keep it informal at first. Perhaps pick a time to go out for a coffee away from the school for your conversation. Even if you agree to have very little discussion after the lesson, you need to thank the teacher for letting you into the lesson and maybe photocopy your observation form for them to read.

  • What’s my relationship with the students in the lesson?

Even though you might be sitting quietly at the back of the classroom, it’s no good assuming that the students will pretend you aren’t there. You may even know some of the students, so say hello. The teacher needs to tell the students, preferably in the lesson beforehand, that there will be a visitor in the next lesson. They need to know that they are not being assessed (which is often a reaction) and that their teacher is not being assessed either (another common reaction).

  • Should I observe the whole lesson?

It may not be practical (or advisable) to observe the entire lesson. It’s useful to be able to see a whole cycle of work completed and often about 45 minutes to an hour is about right. If you are observing part of a lesson, discuss with the teacher the most unobtrusive moment to arrive and leave. For example, arriving during a boardwork presentation with all the students concentrating on the teacher is not a good moment. Leaving while students are all busy talking in pairs and groups is.

English Teaching Professional, 57, July 2008.

Here’s an idea from a training input session entitled ‘The eclectic teacher’. I first used it on a Diploma course and other trainers have commented how useful it (or the idea behind it) has been. Note that the participants will need to have some familiarity with different approaches and methods in ELT history

1 Give the handout below to each person and ask them to tick any of activities 1–30 that they have used in their lessons.

2 They compare and explain their answers in groups.

3 Ask them to match an approach or method to each of the 30 activities. So, for example, 1-5 are things you might ask students to do in a lesson influenced by Grammar-translation.

The full answer key is: 1–5 Grammar translation, 6–10 Audiolingualism, 11–13 Silent way, 14–17 Desuggestopeadia, 18–21 Community language learning, 22–25 Total physical response, 26–28 Communicative approach, 29 Lexical approach, 30 Task based learning. Note that I used Dianne Larsen-Freeman’s excellent Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching as the main reference.

HOW ECLECTIC ARE YOU?

Have you ever asked a student to … Tick
1 translate a literary passage?
2 answer reading comprehension questions?
3 fill in gaps in a passage?
4 memorise a list of new words?
5 write a composition using a set of new words?
6 take turns reading a text aloud?
7 self correct?
8 complete a dictation with you reading the text?
9 memorise a dialogue?
10 listen and repeat?
11 correct another student?
12 take a Cuisenaire rod and imagine it’s something else?
13 give feedback on the day’s lesson?
14 work while you play music in the background?
15 notice pictures on the walls?
16 close their eyes and think about what they’ve just read?
17 move their chair to a more relaxing part of the class?
18 record their conversation?
19 tell you in their own language what they want to say in English?
20 transcribe a recording of what they’ve said?
21 reflect on how they feel about language learning?
22 follow commands, such as stand up, sit down, turn around?
23 give commands such as stand up, sit down, turn around?
24 learn without translation or explanation?
25 only speak in English when they feel ready to?
26 put scrambled sentences in order to make a cohesive text?
27 work with a picture strip story?
28 play a board game?
29 highlight all the verb-noun collocations in a text?
30 listen to a recording of someone completing a task and compare it with the student’s own version?

 

The other day in a conversation with two trainers, I heard two questions. From the first: “Do we still use loop input these days?” and from the second trainer(2) “What is loop input?”

I first learned about ‘Loop Input’ in an excellent training session with Tessa Woodward and she wrote a book called Loop Input (Pilgrims 1988). It’s now out of print though I bought a copy from the woman herself so I guess she has a few left for sale in her garage if you want one. You can also read an article by her here.

Anyway, in answer to the two questions: Yes, most trainers use it a lot though may not know it’s called loop input. And in answer to the second question (What is it?) here’s a brief summary with an activity to illustrate how it works.

When presenting a new teaching technique, it is common for trainers to follow this two-step procedure:

Step 1: The trainer asks the trainees to pretend to be students and then models or demonstrates the technique.

Step 2: The group discusses what was done before trying out the new skill themselves in their teaching practice.

So, in effect, you are doing two things in parallel: (1) Pretending to be language learners and then (2) Learning about teaching.

Loop input on the other hand offers an alternative by combining the two steps so they are less in parallel but work more in combination: as a loop.

Here’s an example of a loop input activity to train teachers to use dictations which Tessa originally outlined in her workshop though this version is in my words (so don’t blame her if it doesn’t work). In it, the trainer dictates a text describing how dictation works. In this way, the trainees experience the process and consider the content at the same time.

A training session on dictation1 Explain that you will read a text aloud and each participant needs a pen and paper to write down as much of it as possible. Read the following text to them: ‘A dictation is simply the teacher (or someone) reading out a piece of written text and asking the students to write down what they hear. The text could be the first few lines of a newspaper article, a verse of a song, even the instructions to another activity. It’s useful since it practises writing and speaking as well as listening. If you include language that you’ve recently taught in a dictation, it is also a good way to evaluate whether students have learnt it.’2 Afterwards, pairs or groups compare their texts afterwards. Read the text again so that everyone has the entire text (more or less). Briefly discuss as a class what the listeners found difficult and what they would imagine students would find difficult about doing a dictation.3 Now read the second part of the text on dictation below, which is about how to read dictations. You can either read this as you would any other dictation or, in order to illustrate the process of reading a dictation, read it differently from the way suggested by the guidelines in the text (i.e. incorrectly). So, for example, read the dictation slowly the first time, very quickly the second time (faster than normal) and finally, very slowly again.

‘As a general rule, the first time you read the text, read it at natural speed. The second time, extend pauses in natural places, such as at full stops and commas. The third time, read it again at natural speed. At the end, hand out a printed version or ask the students to read back what they have to you so that you can write it on the board.’

Afterwards, ask the group what you did wrong each of the three times you read the dictation.

Loop input appears to have the benefit of presenting information quickly and more efficiently than presenting the technique as it would be done with students and then discussing it. However, a loop input activity will also require discussion afterwards and some ‘unpacking’ of the process and content.

I have also observed – on pre-work training courses – situations where trainees have not seen the connection between the loop activity and the type of activity they might use in class. But without doubt, used in conjunction with other techniques, it can be effective.

Once you start using loop input in your training sessions it’s hard to give it up for a while! For example, you can do a session on reading skills but instead of using a reading you’d normally use with students, you use a reading text about how to teach reading and ask trainees to complete the types of tasks (gist questions, comprehension question, orally summarising) that we ask students to do with a reading text.

So I’ve answered ‘What is loop input?” As to the question, “Do we still use it?” Well, I do. Do you?