This year’s KOTESOL National Conference was held in Busan on May 26th. The theme of the conference was “Drive: Putting Students at the Wheel”. Most of the presentations focused in one way or another on how we can give students more control of their own English education.
This is a very relevant topic in any EFL situation. How do we convince students to use their blossoming English skills outside of class? After all, that is what we are preparing them for. How, in a place like Korea where learning grammar and vocabulary without any context is seen as the “right” way to study English, can we prepare our students to communicate in real situations?
In the morning I attended a pecha kucha presentation. A pecha kucha is like a mini-presentation. Each presenter has 20 slides and 20 seconds to talk about each of them. 6 minutes and 40 seconds to make a point.
Outstanding ideas came from Gordon West and Dr. Tim Murphey. Gordon, whose talk was titled “Don’t be a Dictator”, recommended giving students a voice in the classroom through democratisation – letting students in on the syllabus, choices of topics and tasks, even textbooks through class surveys and votes. Dr. Murphey, whose talk was on “Stretching Mirror Modeling and Diversity Peering”, pointed out that our students may learn better from one another than from the teachers – a great case for putting them at the wheel.
Following from that idea, I attended Alex Grevett’s presentation in the afternoon. “Make your students the experts” followed the learner-centred theme of the day quite well. Alex showed that choosing topics that students know more than the teacher about increases student engagement and collaboration. The students want to explain to the teacher (motivation!) and as a result, use language more effectively and peer-correct more often. This has been my experience as well – students are way more animated when teaching me about Korean history or K-pop songs or soccer players than when answering my comprehension checking questions about a reading. Students perform better when they are ‘experts’.
Which brings me to the next session I attended. “Vocabulary Games in the Korean Classroom” was a highlight of the day. Leonie Overbeek had a very different definition of ‘expert’: “has been drip under pressure”. She also had a lot of wisdom on how to scaffold a week’s worth of vocabulary activities into a successful lesson. Through ideas such as word boxes, puzzles, mazes, and question cubes, students learn to use their long vocabulary lists in context. This method of ‘putting students at the wheel’ gives learners both purpose for learning long lists of disjointed words and control of the words they must learn. This is important because, as she said in her presentation, “Words are the building blocks of the language.”
“English is not just a test.” Andrew Pollard gave sound advice on “Audio assignments: A tool for spoken fluency and student motivation”. Often students are afraid to speak because they want to be perfect – that’s how you pass a test, after all. They focus on accuracy at the expense of fluency. As teachers, we tend to prefer the opposite. (Personally, I prefer both.) With ingenious use of Kakao Talk’s voice messaging feature, Andee managed to arrange recording sessions both in-class and as homework to build student fluency. Constant exposure to speaking English builds confidence and success in noticing mistakes increases motivation. A side effect turned out to be rapport between the teacher and students, which further motivated the students to use English. I love the idea of being able to have speaking homework and getting away from the script and the pen and paper method. “I believe in my students,” says Andee Pollard. When he gets his students to believe in themselves, then they are truly ‘driving’.