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Class Observation # 2: Attending to the Learner
Class: 1st year secondary school Age of learners: 13 Level: Intermediate Nº of learners: 19 Length of lesson: 40 min. Teacher Observed: M
Brief overview of the lesson: The lesson took place on a Thursday morning. Students were going to have a test on their next lesson, which was on Monday. Firstly, the teacher made some announcements (date of Cambridge PET exam), which got students into asking her some questions for a while. Afterwards, the teacher decided to give students some practice on paraphrasing for the upcoming test. She copied six sentences on the board and students worked quickly and quietly. Finally, she called individual students to the board to solve the sentences. Patterns of attending behaviour: The teacher used some general ways of attending her students which were by and large constant throughout the lesson: • Use of first names: When addressed to individually, all of the students were called by their first name. • Prompting the use of English for classroom communication: Quite often, students talked to the teacher in their mother tongue (Spanish). However, the teacher specifically pointed out that they spoke in English: ‘In English, M, please.’ ‘I don’t understand Spanish.’ • When asking for silence, the teacher used repeatedly a number of strategies: first and foremost was the use of ‘Please!’ (more than 10 times). Second, she herself would make silence, wait for a moment, look at the whole class… and the class would gradually become silent (3 times). She would also explicitly ask for silence: ‘I’ll explain when they stop talking; if not, I don’t understand.’; ‘Please, stop talking!’ (twice); shushing (3 times); waving hand up & down or raising hand (4 times). • Pointing to students so as to allow them to speak (sometimes combined with naming). • Making eye contact: almost 90 % of the time, when individual students addressed to her. • Demanding students to start copying and working: while she was copying the sentences on the board, some students lingered. She would stop writing, turn round, give them a reprimanding look, and asked them to ‘stop talking, open your folder, and start copying.’ (twice to two students) • Approaching individual students when they wanted to ask a question (combined with eye contact, leaning towards them, pointing at something on their folders).
‘Patterns within the pattern’: • To begin with, the sex of the students was not relevant to the distribution of teacher attention. However, girls tended to be more in the teacher’s focus of attention. In the first place, there were only 3 boys in a class of 16 girls. Because of their being a majority, more girls had to be attended to. However, this should not lead us to think that the girls were over-attended to because of a preference over the boys. In fact, one of the boys (G) was at times noisy and talkative; so the teacher had to call on him several times. The other two, on the other hand, were very quiet and worked together in silence – they did not even demand the teacher’s help or guidance at any time. If girls took a more active part in the interaction with the teacher, and in the answering of questions, and in volunteering, it may be due to their seeming more self-confident, uninhibited, etc. Also, it may be due to their having a stronger command of the language, and that may be why the teacher called on them more often. The seating arrangement did, at first, lend itself to a particular spread of the teacher’s attention. At the beginning of the lesson, the teacher stood up at the front and addressed the class as a whole. When students started asking her questions, she responded – with a few exceptions – mainly to those who were closer to her (from the first to the middle rows). At around half of the lesson, she moved about the front and among the middle rows. Later on, she walked along the aisles, up to each of their ends, approaching individual students. In short, it seemed that when the teacher needed to addressed the class as a whole, she would do it from the front. When monitoring students, and assisting them individually, she would move around. However, the right side of the classroom took up most of her attention. She did not have much chance to assist those sitting towards the left of the room. As I mentioned before, perhaps girls were greatly attended to. In terms of the tasks carried out, she did not interact much with the three boys. Noisier and more talkative students were also more attended to: G, one of the boys, and a few girls. In addition, the more extrovert and communicative students also tok up most of the teacher’s attention. When the teacher asked for some copies or arranged dates for tests, she interacted with the most outspoken students, those who asked her questions or asked her to change the dates. When such a learner spoke, she would turn her look towards him/her, but still keeping a tone of voice so that she could be heard by everyone. My impression is that ‘weaker’ students tended to ‘disappear’ in the crowd. Although I can’t assert this completely, there is some evidence to this. Those who interacted with the teacher, and whom the teacher called on, were those who were able to solve the exercise correctly. However, when checking the sentence transformation exercise, she asked for volunteers. Individual students raised their hands and she pointed at them, said their names and, by means of a gesture, indicated them to come to the board. Whether the volunteers, the more sociable ones, or those who participated more actively, were the strongest ones is difficult to say. It may be the case that those who ‘disappeared’ where the ‘weakest’, but also they may have done it due to shyness, anxiety of feeling exposed tiredness, etc. As a general conclusion, this teacher’s attending behaviour consisted of a varied range of strategies, which were appropriate to what the students and the situation 2
needed at a certain moment. In fact, this is the main function of attending the learner: whether it is to prompt, guide, answer questions, or deal with discipline problems, a teacher’s attending strategies are effective if they can solve the matter at hand. For this, the teacher has to be observant, quick-minded, and flexible. Whenever we are in a classroom, we must solve unexpected situations, react to our students’ needs, and adapt to the circumstances, in real time, on the spot. Attending behaviour is (should be) quick, to the point, facilitative, varied, flexible, and it has to react meaningfully and effectively to the student. It has to transmit confidence and reassurance. In particular, we should bear in mind that attending strategies should be varied and as much encompassing as possible. I think that in this lesson, the teacher’s attending was rather limited by the number of students, the timing, and even the seating arrangement. I think it is a reality of all classrooms that the larger the groups, the less time we are able to devote our attention to individual students. We should pay particular attention to managing our attending by distributing it as equally as possible throughout a lesson, and throughout a whole course. Use of names: In general, the teacher used the students’ first names for two main purposes: to ask individual students to make silence and to get to work, and to call on students to the front. In the first case, the teacher accompanied the naming with a serious lok and a brisk tone of voice. The strategy had the result expected: the student in question did pay attention and shut up – though he/she would be chatting again a few minutes later. That is, the teacher’s ‘reprimanding’ action had a short-term effect, not a long-lasting one. However, as the lesson developed, the students made silence and got to their work. The need for the teacher to keep on calling upon learners gradually disappeared. The strongest effect of her naming them was while she was writing the sentences on the board. Then she made a strong emphasis on students copying. Eventually, they seemed to have acknowledged the teacher’s command (probably in view of the upcoming test?). As regards using names to call students to the front, it seems that this was standard and routine practice in the class. She asked for volunteers, and as students raised their hands, she would call on them. Here, the strategy was effective and no problems arose. In general, the use of names serves an important purpose in the teacher-learner interaction and, especially, in learner-centred teaching practice: it personalises the education process. By knowing our students’ names we are expressing that we regard each of them as individuals and that we are following their process and work in the classroom closely. We care about learning their names (which sometimes takes time!) because each has an identified place, and plays a part, in the group. For practical matters, it means that the teacher knows who is who, and who is doing what in the class. In order to remember our students’ names better we can: read over the roll several times (especially at the beginning of the year); when calling the roll, look up, and see where the student (usually) sits (picture them in a place in the classroom); prepare a diagram of the seating arrangement of the classroom, where we can write our students’ names in the corresponding places; ask them to wear a label with their names on their shirts or put it up on their desks until we can remember; ask them to remind us their names when we ask them a question, and then saying it again ourselves. Range of attending strategies: Here is a list of all the strategies this teacher used for attending her learners: 3
Naming students Eye contact Reprimanding look Touch (she patted a student who was chatting with the neighbour behind her) Pointing students / signalling them to come to the front Approaching students / leaning by their side Waving hand up and down to ask for silence Standing in front of the class and making silence herself (along with arms folded and grave look) • Shushing • Making it explicit that they make silence • Making it explicit that they use English • Nodding and apologising (She said: ‘Sorry, C, yes, you’re right’, when she made a mistake that a student pointed out.) All in all, the teacher’s use of attending strategies was very effective and varied. She was able to make use of them in a natural and confident way. Perhaps on notable strategy I did not perceive her using it was smiling. A smile can do wonders in lowering the students’ affective filter. I believe that a large part of the attending strategies teachers use is subconscious behaviours. Most of them are genuine responses to the students and, as such, they are truly communicative. Nevertheless, if we acknowledge that communication involves exchanging meaningful messages, we must begin to regard them as conscious (meaningful) responses to different classroom situations. In real life, a vast part of our responses to others is in fact conscious – though it may seem that we do it automatically. As teachers, we should think about the relevance of these behaviours in assisting our students’ learning process. In this way, we may discover other useful ways of facilitating their progress. We will need to make a conscious use (and evaluation) of them at first, to have a wide range of strategies at hand to use when need arises. Learners’ own attending behaviours: Here, we have to make a difference. When they chatted with their peers (in pairs, with their neighbours), the students made eye contact, smiled, and did seem to be paying attention. However, when the teacher spoke to the whole class, many of them spoke to her at the same time, especially at the beginning of the lesson. Several of them did not wait for the others (including the teacher) to finish, they did not listen to each other, and showed and inability to take turns. Of course, a group conversation is different from a conversation between just two interlocutors. Nevertheless, learning to participate in different speaking contexts is also part of their language learning agenda. This is not something that is generally fostered, especially when we are in big groups. At home, learners are listened to more easily because the family group is generally small. At home, it is them and a relatively small number of siblings for two, or one, parents. We can add the fact that most of the mass media do not promote listening to others, when everyone just wants to ‘get hold of a mike’. As a result, when learners come to school, we cannot assume they are ready to share the floor and know any basic turn-taking skills. So it should also be one of our goals to promote that each person has to talk their share, without trying to monopolize the dialogue, keeping an appropriate tone of voice, respecting their neighbours in their ideas and listening attentively when they speak. Learning to be a good communicator also involves learning to be part of a (language) community, and so, learning to respect the rights of the other members of the group. 4
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Final reflection: This lesson has helped me to become aware of the many things I can do to improve my teaching. Firstly, I have often found it difficult to get my students’ attention and then sustain it for some time. I have wondered whether that is due to the activities not being motivating enough, or something of my own teaching style. In the first case, a more conscientious planning and careful filtering of materials could be the way to go. In the second case, this lesson has particularly showed me the implications of attending the students and reacting to them. In this sense, having considered the range of attending strategies and their potential, I think it a key – though often taken for granted – teaching skill.