I had an interesting disagreement with a colleague recently. We were discussing Ofsted’s new ‘deep dive’ policy and what we would be able to show them if they wanted to scrutinise our learners’ work. I argued that work that is done solely in order to practise a particular skill or language point doesn’t need to be kept once the practice has been completed; it has served its purpose and there is no point hanging on to that particular piece of paper. My colleague seemed surprised at this attitude, expecting, both as a student and a teacher, that all work would be kept. We agreed to disagree.
I can’t really object to students keeping hold of every single worksheet I give them, or every little bit of writing they do in class. It doesn’t affect me, and it might be that we have to do it ‘for Ofsted’ (not a good reason for doing anything, in my opinion). But in terms of language learning I don’t think it’s useful or necessary, and it could even be detrimental. In this blog I will explain why.
By way of analogy, let’s compare learning a language with learning a musical instrument. At the moment I’m trying to get better at playing the violin. An incredibly useful tool is to record myself and listen back to the recording. I notice things I wouldn’t otherwise in the moment of playing, and I pick up on things I need to work on. Similarly in my band we record our rehearsals, listen back together and discuss any changes we think we should make to the arrangement or the song composition itself. But we don’t need to keep these recordings. For a start, I don’t have the space either for hundreds of CDs, or on my hard drive. But the point is, once I’ve listened to the recording and taken away what I need to work on, I don’t actually need it any more. Practising, recording and listening back is part of the process of honing my skill with the purpose of producing an amazing album further down the line. Now that CD, the final ‘product’ if you like, I will keep and treasure possibly for ever (yes, I’m old. I still like to hold an actual CD in my hands).
To return to ESOL teaching, I think (hope) no one would think we need to record every speaking activity and keep it in a computer file somewhere. Students do the activity, the teacher monitors, gives feedback and plans further work based on issues and language which came up during the activity. Job done. Why should it be any different with writing activities, just because it’s less faff to keep hold of a piece of paper than record and keep an audio file?
My students do a lot of writing practice in class. Sometimes it’s worksheet based, for example using a writing frame, but more often than not I put questions on the board for them to write answers to, or the beginnings of sentences for them to finish. I monitor, provide vocabulary and spellings, remind about punctuation, guide learners to self-correct errors – all the usual things. After they finish I share with the whole group any particularly excellent sentences and feedback on issues which are relevant to everyone. I also make notes of things that will need a whole lesson in the future. But in the same way that I don’t feel the need to record and keep any speaking activities, I see no reason for this writing to be kept once the students have had the feedback. New lexical items get recorded in their vocabulary books, spellings get recorded on their LSCWC sheets and this year I’ve asked my students to keep a sheet at the front of their files for ‘Things I need to remember’ where I, or they, can put reminders like ‘Don’t forget a full stop at the end of a sentence!’ or ‘I have / she has‘. The actual writing has served its purpose and is now defunct. In fact, more and more I use mini whiteboards for this kind of activity so the question of whether to keep it or not becomes irrelevant.
I think part of the problem is that conventional ESOL worksheets tend to be a combination of different elements. There might be a short text followed by some comprehension questions, then maybe some vocabulary matching and some sentences from the text which exemplify a structure and some exercises to practise the structure. Nothing wrong with this – it’s all good stuff, until you get to the end of the lesson and think about what happens to that sheet. In my experience, some students diligently file it neatly away, some tuck it into their notebooks, and some put it into a bag, only for it to emerge weeks later, crumpled and forlorn, when they’re rummaging around for their homework. In all three scenarios I can guarantee one thing, however, and that is that the sheet has not been looked at since the lesson. It might as well have gone in the recycling bin on the way out.
I’ve puzzled for twenty years about how to help my students organise their work, and, in particular, record, learn and re-use new lexical items. This year I’m labelling every single sheet I give them as either ‘Language to Learn’, ‘Grammar’ (reference) or ‘Practice’. They have to keep the first two (in a file or stuck in a notebook – as they wish, just please not in a carrier bag), but the third they can keep if they want but I’m not encouraging it. In class, they write new lexical items in their ‘new words’ book and any other writing counts as ‘practice’ – they can use lined paper and file it if they want, or use a different notebook, but I don’t need them to keep this and it must be separate from where they record anything they want to learn or refer back to in the future. I’ve also now developed a system which works for me and aligns a Dogme or unplugged approach with knowledge organisers, retrieval practice and the kinds of activity which I’m convinced are important for putting new language into long-term memory. But that’s for a different post.
My attempts to order, streamline and simplify the way that I teach is most definitely connected to a wider impulse to de-clutter other aspects of my life. I’m not ashamed to say I jumped on the Konmari bandwagon some years ago and it really did change my life and it really did seem like magic. Overnight I went from hoarder to minimalist and I’ve since felt much less encumbered by stuff and free to focus on what I enjoy, learn new things, reflect more and even…start blogging. In not wanting my students to cling to unnecessary worksheets I feel a bit like an elderly relative clearing their house to save their descendants from having to do it once they’re gone.
I still have boxes of worksheets and notes in my attic from my language degree. In Konmari terms I consider them sentimental items, and whilst they don’t ‘spark joy’ I still find it hard to let them go, no matter how many times I remind myself that nostalgia is not my friend. I know this is probably unusual and as ease of discard goes, university and school notes are generally pretty easy for people to discard. I no doubt shouldn’t burden myself with the worry that I’m burdening my students with the same millstone further down the line.
But apart from this, I’m convinced that keeping hold of too much of the language learning clutter is not only unnecessary but can actually be detrimental to learning. I remember on my year abroad saying to a friend something like ‘when I get home I’m going to spend the summer going through my sheets and learning everything.’ I can’t remember her response but it was something like ‘don’t be silly – learn it now, bit by bit, and practise now, a little every day.’ But my sheets were disordered and I had no guidance as to what would actually be useful to commit to memory. I have a vivid memory of proudly demonstrating that I knew the Russian for ‘tungsten’ and yet struggling to say where I’d gone the day before (Russian verbs of motion are particularly tricky for English speakers). And of course I never did go through my notes, but I still kept hold of them, and I still intended to go through them ‘one day’, and I’ve still got them 20 years later.
My students’ lives are very busy. Some of them don’t have the study skills and none of them have the time to waste sorting through pieces of paper deciding what might be useful and deciding where to keep them and how to organise them, never mind actually using them for the vague purpose which they kept them for. When I tell them they don’t need to keep the ‘practice’ sheets they often say they want to keep them to practise at home. These days I respond to that by asking exactly what they are going to do with them. The answer is always something along the lines of ‘practise again’. As I know they will never get round to it, I would rather they just didn’t saddle themselves with an unnecessary intention in the first place which they then have to live with not fulfilling. If they really want to ‘practise again’, I can easily give them a blank sheet of grammar exercises or the reading comprehension or whatever it was to do again. This would not be a waste of time, but in terms of cost/benefit analysis there are things I would rather they were doing with their limited time which would have much more impact on their learning, namely memorising new lexical items and extensive reading.
So to go back to Ofsted and their ‘deep dive’. I suppose I can ask my students to do all their ‘practice’ writing in one notebook. I could even keep hold of it myself to produce when asked for, hopefully with enough notice to add some written feedback if that’s still clinging on as ‘best practice’, and then chuck on the bonfire the next 5th of November (can’t recycle – GDPR). But I long for the day when it’s enough to demonstrate progress for me to say ‘They couldn’t speak English before, but now they can’, and anyone who wants to check can come and chat to the student and maybe even ask them to read or write something then and there. I also want teachers to stop carefully curating paper-based evidence of their students’ progress which miraculously demonstrates all of their ILP targets, even when they know those pieces of work could never be reproduced. I want it to be OK for a teacher to say ‘If I’m honest, I don’t think my students are making progress,’ and start that magical, life-changing conversation: “What methodology do you subscribe to…? Have you tried this strategy…? I’ve found this kind of activity works really well with this group… Have you read this book…? Have you seen this website…? Have you read this blog…?