I originally wrote a version of this article for English Teaching Professional, Issue 59 in November 2008. It is reprinted here with permission from Pavilion Publishing.

Fulfilling criteria

Anyone who has taken a formal teaching qualification with assessed teaching practice will recall the stress of having an assessor at the back of the class, ticking and scoring a set of criteria. Alternatively, you might have had visits from your director of studies to check up on how your lessons are going. They will probably have had a form with a set of criteria that might have looked something like this:

checklist1

checklist2

The danger with such forms is that this kind of ‘observation by checklist’ presents teachers with a set of hoops through which to jump; you’re teaching to suit the score sheet rather than teaching the students. It’s even possible to be able to leave a training course or a classroom with the feeling that you can ‘do’ all these things on the checklist and yet you still have a long way to go – teaching is so much more complex than our assessment forms might suggest.

Observation for assessment and development  

Having said all that, observation for assessment can be beneficial when used alongside other criteria for measuring the success of a whole school. (For example, British Council validation includes many other forms of assessment when it assesses schools – not just teacher assessment.) Similarly, the teacher trainer or director of studies using a score sheet type form can also make the process developmental as well as an assessment.

Less is more

First of all, it’s important to consider how the form is designed and used. My personal tip is to keep this kind of observation form to a page if possible, and certainly not more than two pages. One reason is that an observer will find it hard to observe whilst at the same time trying to find the relevant criteria on pages 3, 4 or 5! Then, when you come to give feedback, the process will become bogged down in paperwork and a system of scoring which can often fail to reach the heart of what really mattered in the lesson.

Transparency 

There’s also the issue of whether teachers see the criteria by which they are measured. Even if they are allowed to see the form before teaching (which you would hope they would do), it might not be transparent. It is worth having a meeting with a teacher or group of teachers to study the form and discuss exactly what each criterion really means. This allows time for everyone to agree on what is meant by, for example, effective classroom management. This process of pre-observation discussion also helps to demystify observation for assessment and gives a sense of teacher and observer working together.

Developing a checklist together  

However, checklist observations don’t have to be purely evaluative. They can also be highly developmental. One approach is to have the observer and teacher meet before the lesson, and discuss what criteria should go on the form. If the observer is experienced or has observed the teacher before (e.g. in the situation where a DOS is observing a teacher), then some criteria should be at the prompting of the observer. However, the teacher should also think about areas they wish to work on or focus on with a particular class or type of lesson. Here is an example of five criteria developed by a teacher and observer before a lesson. The teacher wants to focus on presenting a new grammar item:

Agreed criteria on the form

  1. The teacher engages the students with an interesting lead-in.
  2. The teacher elicits the target language point from the lead-in task.
  3. The teacher uses concept questions effectively to check understanding.
  4. The teacher provides a variety of relevant practice activities after the clarification stage.
  5. The teacher uses clear instructions, which include demonstrating a task as well as explaining it.

This example shows how this kind of observation can work at a very detailed step-by-step level, as well as taking a broader, global view of the lesson. Criteria can also be very personal to the individual lesson. Imagine, for example, that a teacher wonders if they are responding fully to all the students. Perhaps there are two students who are always sidelined by more demanding members of the class. In this case one of the criteria could read, The teacher responds to individual needs with particular attention paid to Raul and Sonia.

Defining your scores

Once the criteria have been defined on the form, the system of scoring can also be defined. In the section entitled Definition of scores, the observer and teacher decide on what 1 to 4 mean and write this in. They might decide that a standard system such as 1 = excellent, 2 = good, 3 = satisfactory, 4 = not satisfactory is fine. However, you can also define scores with a description like this:

  1. = You did this really well and there’s nothing to worry about.
  2. = This was fairly good, but let’s keep working on it.
  3. = This was OK, but let’s keep this criterion for the next observation.
  4. = Let’s do some work on this outside of the lesson.

With the criteria and scoring system agreed and written on the form, the teacher and observer are ready for the class. The observer scores the criteria and also makes comments at the bottom of the page, which should give further details on the reasons for the scores.

After the observation

After the lesson, teacher and observer meet to discuss the criteria. (Teachers could also score themselves before such a meeting, based on what they thought of the lesson.) At the end of the feedback session, they draw up another set of criteria for the next observation using a similar form. If the teacher has scored 1 (high) then they can probably leave out this criterion and put in a new one. Any criteria that scored 3 or 4 (low) probably need to remain on the next form. In this way, the teacher sees a clear progression from one observation to the next and the checklist approach becomes a motivating developmental tool, instead of an ordeal by assessment.

This post is a version of an article I originally wrote for English Teaching professional magazine in Issue 58, September 2008 and is reprinted with permission of Pavilion Publishing.

We often assume that a classroom observation should involve watching and noting down comments on everything that happens. In fact, an observation is often more valuable when the focus is on only one aspect of the lesson. This means that any feedback you give to the teacher will be very precise and much clearer. It also means that you can observe for an area that you personally want to develop in your own teaching.

This post considers a number of areas of teaching which you can focus on individually and, unlike many observation forms which are written descriptions of the lesson, it makes use of a graph format which provides a very clear visual representation. You can sketch a graph when observing with the Y-axis representing the length of the lesson and the X-axis representing a number of different aspects of classroom teaching. For example, this graph shows the increase of speaking during a discussion activity in class. The observer has traced the increase in volume and then how the students interest falls away. The observer then indicates were the teacher should have stopped the activity much earlier.

Graph 4

Here are some more ideas for using graphs in this way.

Pace

Pace is important in any lesson and it is sometimes mistakenly assumed that lessons must always be fast. In fact, many lessons benefit from regular changes of pace (especially with younger learners) so observing for this can be helpful. You can monitor the pace of a lesson by using the X-axis to represent a faster or slower pace. The observer draws a line during the course of the lesson which shows when the pace becomes faster or slower. A lesson with regular changes of pace might look like this:

Graph 1

On the other hand, a lesson with few changes of pace or difference in activity type might look like this:

Graph 2

In addition to drawing the trend line along the graph, the observer can also make notes about what caused a change of pace. For example, maybe the pace quickened when students stood up to do a roleplay or it slowed when they completed a controlled practice exercise in their books.

One student

Sometimes we want to observe one student in particular, so we build a picture of how this individual is working within the whole class. This is also a useful exercise to remind us that a class is a group of different individuals, not a homogenous whole! Choose a student to monitor, or perhaps the teacher will ask you to concentrate on a particular student they are concerned about. The X-axis on the graph represents the student’s level of interest, motivation and involvement. As you draw the trend line, you can also make notes on the graph to comment on what they were doing that either displayed high interest in the lesson or low interest. Afterwards, in a feedback session, you can discuss what might have raised the student’s interest at all stages of the lesson. This activity is even more interesting if there is a group of observers all watching different students. By gathering the graphs together, you create a wider perspective on why some students are responding positively to a lesson and why perhaps some aren’t.

Authenticity

The graph also allows us to monitor how authentic a task is or how real the response of our students is. When you think students are giving very authentic responses, perhaps to classroom discussion, the trend line rises. If the exercise seems very controlled or inauthentic then the line drops. As with pace, you would hope to see plenty of fluctuations, with perhaps more authenticity towards the end of a lesson.

Learner-centred or teacher-centred?

You can also measure where the focus is at different stages of the lesson. For example, in the graph below, the high points show that the lesson was learner-centred with students working together. The low points show that the lesson was very focused on the teacher. The graph also shows us that the majority of the lesson seems to be very teacher-centred. This isn’t necessarily negative, but most lessons would normally aim to be more student-centred.

 Graph 3

Observing objectively

You can no doubt think of more ways to use this approach to observing. For example, you could also use it to measure the balance of teacher and student talking time. One important point to note about this graph, however, is that it is an example of an observation tool which reports back on the lesson rather than one which forces you into making judgements about a lesson. There is some level of subjectivity when using it and it certainly isn’t 100 per cent scientific. Nevertheless, it does provide a useful overview of an aspect of teaching. It offers a useful starting point for discussion after a lesson between teacher and observer. It can quickly highlight causes of difficulties or demonstrate why a lesson has been successful. Finally, with different observers in one lesson all focusing on different aspects of the lesson, a collection of graphs together builds into an accessible perspective of the lesson.

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?