Penny Ur: workshop summary

Penny Ur: workshop summary

In October I happened to visit a workshop by Penny Ur kindly organised by Language Link Rostov. Professor Ur is a famous English teacher, ELT conferences speaker and book writer. Her books include 100 Teaching Tips, Discussions and More, Five-Minute Activities (co-authored with Andrew Wright), A Course in English Language Teaching, and more.

She probably won’t teach you gamification or tell how to digitalize your classroom. However, with more than 30 years of ELT experience, Penny Ur will remind about some fundamentals of ELT which never seem to let you down. While giving her speech, she focused on several issues which are summarized in today’s article.

Teaching mixed-ability classes

Basically, every class is a heterogeneous class. Students within a group vary in their age and gender, cultural background and previous learning experience, aims and learning styles. They have different interests and expectations. Penny Ur says that ‘We cannot teach all of the students all of the time’ – and it’s probably better to take it. What we can do is the following:

  • Vary lessons

Following the same routine every class, you might be easily trapped, especially if your main audience is teens and adults. The lessons start getting boring and, what’s more, when you follow the same routine, you inevitably cater for some students more than the others. To prevent this, vary your classes in terms of topics and pace. Use different materials: coursebooks, authentic texts, visuals, realia, student-produced texts. Appeal to various learning styles. Change interaction patterns. Do something new every lesson 

  • Maintain interest

A student interested is a student motivated. Find out what your learners are keen on. Allow more game-like activities and open-ended tasks. Let students talk about themselves and – check out the next point. 

Open-ended tasks are tasks where a variety of answers are possible. Some ideas to use are the following:

‘Think of ten ways to compare a tree with a piece of spaghetti’. You can turn it into a competition if you write some random common and proper nouns on slips of paper and then ask students to take two papers and compare the things on them within a 1-minute time limit.

‘Roll the story cubes and make up a story’.

‘Say four nice things about your friend, using negative sentences’.

Let students help each other and collaborate as it’s an essential part of learning. This works especially well in class brainstorming and mingling activities. Collaboration doesn’t necessarily mean competition. Sometimes contributing to each other’s work will be even more beneficial. For example, you can ask students to say some sentences about a picture to practise describing. Set the time limit of, say, 2 minutes. Nominate a secretary who will write a tick for every sentence that is said, but should not try to write the sentences themselves down. When the time is over, count the ticks and show another picture. The students have the same time limit and now they have to beat their previous record by saying more sentences. This way, students collaborate rather than compete but are still motivated to break the record by speaking more.

  • Personalize

Open-ended cues and application to personal situations let students choose the words which are meaningful for them. You, as a teacher, can vary some lesson stages and procedures basing on personalisation. For instance, in some activities, students can choose which question they’d like to start with. Set a time limit for an exercise and say that it’s totally OK not to finish all of the items given. Allow individuals to work on their own if they really prefer it to pairwork or group work. 

Activating higher-order thinking skills

We have already written about lower and higher-order thinking skills. At her workshop, Penny Ur reminded once again about the importance of the latter in modern language teaching and education in general. Analysing, evaluating and creating are often unfairly neglected for the sake of lower-order thinking skills. 

Teachers should encourage the use of HOTs for a number of reasons. First, language is better imprinted on memory if we use deep processing of information. Matching exercises and ordering tasks are totally fine as a starting point. But when we ask students to think of 10 uses of a paper clip, solve a lateral thinking puzzle, or give peer feedback to each other, they will definitely remember things longer and more clearly.

Second, higher-order thinking skills are the ones we exploit a lot in our everyday life. If you help students practise criticizing, drawing conclusions and creating new ideas, their academic performance and general knowledge level will improve. 

Never saying never

Throughout the whole day runs the idea of ‘never saying never’. With tactful elegance, Ms Ur undermines the very foundations of English teaching, so familiar to every CELTA-holder.

Reducing TTT? But where else in a classic ‘two-lessons-a-week’ model can your students find such a brilliant source of comprehensible input? ‘A teacher’s job is to teach: teaching involves (among other things) ‘telling’, – says Penny. 

‘Echo’ responses when we repeat what a student has just said should be avoided, shouldn’t they? However, by repeating, you make sure that everybody heard the answer as well as give an indirect compliment to the student – ‘Whoa, the teacher is repeating my words, I’ve said it right!’. 

Peer correction ought to be promoted as student-centred and communicative. However, most students admit that they prefer to be corrected by the teacher because they trust the teacher’s expertise more than they trust each other.

There were many other things mentioned during the workshop. The conclusion was not groundbreaking at all: 

  • believe in scientific research, 
  • don’t be afraid to break the rules if it seems suitable for your particular class, 
  • practise eclecticism which is adapting several teaching methods and techniques to the needs of your students.

Have you read any books of Penny Ur? 

Надежда Попова

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