Meaning-focused activities

This week we have something rather special – a guest post from Jane Willis. Jane has been a supporter of the Hands Up Project for a long time and is on the advisory panel – offering us support in bringing task based learning into the work that we do. Over to you Jane….

I have really enjoyed watching the Story Alive Project, both the clips of learners’ performances of the stories and the videos of teachers demonstrating activities you can do to prepare for story-telling.  The enthusiasm of the learners shines through!   I’ve also enjoyed reading the blogs and comments on using PP P for teaching grammar.

In this blog post, I am going to make a distinction between form-focused and meaning-focused activities,  introduce the concept of Task-based Learning and ask you some questions.

In a PPP lesson, Presentation and Practice of a grammatical structure are form-focused activities; yes, the meaning can be made clear, but the main focus is on saying and writing  the  new forms correctly.  When, in the Production stage, learners use the new structures to make their own personal sentences, these may be true, but the focus is still primarily on the form.   Learners can often do this quite well in controlled conditions while thinking about the new structure they have just been taught.   And this is useful practice, but here is my first question:  is this type of Production free enough to help learners communicate in everyday situations where they want to use English to express their own meanings?  To talk or chat to people who don’t speak their language?

When using language in real-life, we do not just speak in sentences containing similar grammar structures. In fact we don’t need to speak in sentences, we speak in meaning units.  Every day communication is meaning-focused, we use whatever words and phrases best express our meanings – our focus is on getting someone else to understand what we mean. The phrase ‘D’you know what I mean?’ is one of the commonest phrases in spoken English!

My second question for you is – how much time does the average  learner get in each lesson for individual meaning-focused language use?  to speak freely in class, (not just to practise one structure),  to interact with each other in English, maybe with the teacher, or in pairs?  to put to use whatever  language they can remember in order to find out things about each other, to play a guessing game ? To ask questions as well as answer, to compare what they did or are planning to do at the week-end, to tell stories about their own lives?  Can you work it out?  How many minutes in a week? A term?

Nick suggested re-ordering a PPP lesson on future plans . He started  with the 3rd P,  Production, but using truly  meaning-focused interactions . Stage 1 was the teaching telling the class about their plans for next Friday (meaning focussed – learners always like hearing about the teacher’s own lives and will be trying to understand), stage 2 was  learners telling each other their plans (meaning-focused), followed by  stage 3 – teacher chatting about the learners’  plans using natural conversational language containing a variety of language patterns . So Nick’s stages 1-3 are all meaning- focused  and these will  help the learners get used to taking part in  normal English interactions.  The learners may well express their meanings just using words and phrases they know, and inevitably will be making mistakes, but if their meaning is clear, they have succeeded in communicating in English and should be praised!    In Nick’s lesson, later stages 4-7 PRESENTATION and PRACTICE are more closely form-focussed, but the input is all taken from the learner’s earlier contributions with an added memory challenge to make it fun, and to make the learners really listen to the meanings of the corrected sentences.   (And note here, that if learners are not sure of their plans, they might need to express uncertainty, using words like might or perhaps….)

Nick’s  lesson is similar to Task-based learning,  (TBL) which leads from focus on MEANING to a focus on language itself and specific  FORMs.  A task is a goal-oriented activity – the goal gives learners a reason to communicate and find out things, in order to solve a problem, to find things in common or to  hold a survey. If they can achieve the goal, they have been successful in their communication (even if their English is not perfect!)

Nick’s lesson could easily be turned into a Task-based lesson by setting an explicit goal, e.g. asking learners to find out what are the three most common  plans in their class, or asking learners to decide on which person in their group  is going to have the most interesting Friday?   The laziest Friday? The most unusual Friday? The busiest Friday? etc.

  1. Pre-task: Teacher tells the class they are going to talk about their plans for next Friday.She explains the goal, g. to compare plans and hold a survey to find the most popular plans.  She then tells the class about her plans, asking them to listen to see if they might be planning the same things  (i.e. she sets a goal for listening).

2. Task cycle

2.1 Task: learners (in pairs or groups ) tell each other  their plans

2.2 Planning: One person in each group takes notes and the  group prepares to report their findings to the class. The teacher goes round to hear what each group has found out and to help them  rehearse and plan what to say.  This is a chance to give ‘feed-back at the point of need’ as learners will want to use their best English if they are talking to the whole class.

2.3 Report:  The class listens to their findings – to see how many people are planning the same things, i.e. to complete the survey, and then discuss who is having the busiest/laziest/ most interesting/boring  etc day..

Form Focus – as in stages 4-7 in Nick’s lesson.

So stages 1 and 2 are primarily meaning focused. And when learners are focusing on form at stage 3, it is in the familiar context of their own meaning-full contributions, a motivating  force.

Follow-up task: each group could write up their version of a report of the class survey, and groups can read each others’ and compare reports, spotting the differences.

Here are two other ideas for simple tasks which you could try out.  The teacher in the video demonstrates a range of story-telling activities that are task-like in that they are meaning-focused. One has the goal of getting learners to listen to guess which animal she is describing – a teacher-led task. This is a task learners could do themselves in pairs – for example:

1 Write a riddle:  choose an animal.  Do not give its name.  Write 4 things about it. See if your teacher can guess which animal it is.  E.g  It is quite small. It can run fast.  It has a small white tail. It eats grass and green things. Extra clue:  It has long ears.

2 Write a True / False quiz (5 items) about a place or a recent  event  (or  a picture or a story) the class knows about.   Write some true statements and some false ones.   Give your quiz to another group / the whole class.  Can they pick the False ones?

Free, meaning-focused activities will allow learners to ‘liberate’ and consolidate the language you have already taught them and to use other words and phrases they have acquired naturally from you speaking English to them in class.  And you will be able see how much they CAN do with their English.  Yes – they will make mistakes, but if they manage to make themselves understood – that is success!   So stand back sometimes, and let them talk freely  – the more they talk the more they will learn and the  more confident they will get.

Research into 2nd language acquisition tells us that meaning-focussed interaction, both listening  to others  and speaking,  is essential for effective language learning, and even more essential if our learners want to communicate with other speakers of English.  In many countries in the world, learners leave school after 5 years of English lessons knowing a lot of words and grammar but unable to interact in English or hold a conversation. Don’t let the same happen in Palestine!

I’m looking forward to hearing your views and your answers.

Jane

A short article on PPP and task-based learning can be found at http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/a-task-based-approach

More TBL lesson plans on my web-site at www.willis-elt.co.uk

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27 thoughts on “Meaning-focused activities

  1. I agree that the more students talk the more they will learn and the more confident they will get….
    But I really don’t know how come a student get 148 out of 150 in his/her English exam and not able to conduct a one or two minute conversation ……..
    Where is the problem ? is it in the way of teaching ? is it in the curriculum itself ? or is it in the lack of opportunities to practice outside classrooms ?
    I notice that all students study English just to pass the examinations!!!
    And when it comes to points and marks ,none evaluate students according to their fluency or speaking ability ………
    I started using story telling in my classes since last September, and I really enjoyed it and so did my students .but the question is .should this improvement in my students level be taken into consideration when I evaluate them and assess their work even the material is not mentioned in their books ?
    my regards !

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    1. Thanks for your comment Confident and for the interesting and difficult question you raise. The way exams are designed has a massive effect on what we teach, how we teach, and what our students want to learn – so how do we justify trying to teach people to be able to communicate In English, when they can do well in their exams without this ability?

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      1. Hello Confident Muslimah – some good thoughts in your post. You ask how come a student gets 148/150 in their exam but cannot hold a one minute conversion? In an exam, students are consciously monitoring the forms required in the questions – they are not thinking about expressing their own meanings – just displaying they know the right forms. They KNOW enough grammar to pass exams, but cannot USE it in free conversations which are meaning-focused, interactions and use a different part of the brain. In free conversation we are more dependent on finding the right words and phrases to get our meanings across – rather than grammar, and its a different mental process. I think this problem is caused by too much form-focused study; and not enough chances for free, meaning -focused interaction in lessons.
        I think you need to ask students if they would like to be able to USE their English to communicate with others as well as learn enough grammar to pass exams. And then balance the focus of your lessons accordingly.
        Also – if there is enough meaning-focused interaction happening in class, learners may well acquire new language unconsciously and improve their vocabulary and grammar that way.

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  2. Hello I hope you are all fine in my opinion the type you mentioned is enough to help learners communicate,the problems our learners have that we all don’t communicate in English outside the English lesson ,because of this our learners in general have a problem in communication

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    1. Thanks Manal for the comment. So what, if anything, can we do to help learners communicate outside their English lessons?

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    2. Yes, Manal – that is a problem, but this happens in many countries, like us in England learning French, for example. All the more reason to make sure there is plenty of real communication INSIDE your classrooms! Maybe make more time for this in class by getting them to do form-focused practice for homework, or reading at home, or doing some vocabulary learning outside class, and then playing interactive games in class next lesson based on what they have read or learnt. How else could you make time in class for freer meaning focused talk?

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  3. For the second question’I think learner has 8 _10 minutes in each lesson because we have pair work ,games and group work,this help students to speak, but there is some exceptions especially in comprehension lessons.

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    1. 10 minutes in each lesson for each learner to communicate actually sounds like quite a lot, in my opinion, if you compare it to similar contexts around the world with large numbers of students in class.

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  4. Hi
    I am Fatima Zaid an English teacher at Qalqilia Directorate/ Palestine.

    Concerning the first question :
    In my opinion it’s very important for the students to learn the form of the words and to write them correctly as this will help them later when communicating with others . They need to have their own vocabulary background to express their ideas or believes.
    As a teacher I use the PPP pattern , but I start from the practice stage sometimes.

    Concerning the second question :
    I think the average time given for each student to practice or use the language meaningfully during the lesson is not enough especially when we have large numbers of students, long material to be covered and a little time for each class.

    Though our curriculum in Palestine focuses on pair work and group work , our students still need more and more real practice of the language. Some students do not have any vocabulary background. Others lack of motivation.

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      1. Hello Fatima, I think you are right when you say “They need to have their own vocabulary background to express their ideas or beliefs” – yes , words and phrases are VITAL for communication – more vital in fact than grammar!. And being able to use them orally to start with (even if they are not perfect) is a good jumping-off point for tightening up on spelling and form later, once they are confident and more familiar with their meanings and have made use of them in meaning-focused interactions. No need to seek perfection at the very start – thing how small children say their first words – we encourage them, no matter how funny their news words and phrases sound, and they gradually improve!

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        1. Fatima – ooops sorry – I meant ‘THINK how small children…, not ‘thing’… (now, that is an example of an error that gets in the way of my meaning, and needs correction!) Jane

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  5. Hi,
    The topics that you raise are very important to think about and to change our way of teaching .As an English Supervisor and through my field visits to our teachers ,most of my recommendations focused on TTT & STT I noticed that some of our teachers play most of the role in the classroom so our students lack the chance to express and produce their own language ,I don’t blame teachers bec. they have to finish the materials on a specific annual plan so we have so much to think about .
    I want to comment positively concerning the students production of meaning & expressing feelings ,I was the coordinator of the useful project Kids Read last two years and I noticed that our students were willing to use English through telling and acting stories or just by drawing .as you know Nick I think you noticed the change so let’s focus more on using English just because we love it and for fun .Let’s speak freely ,Our pupils just focus on passing tests and exams more than anything else.and that’s really a problem .I’ll try to do my best focusing on improving the teaching process and to focus on meaning by practice freely ..Thanks all .hope you get the idea

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    1. Thanks for your comment Nihaya and for reminding us about the importance of fun in activities. I think that this is actually a very important part of doing meaning focussed activities, which is sometimes overlooked. It’s generally more fun to use language to mean things, than it is to use language just for practising the form.

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      1. Thanks Nick you have a great personality to make teaching and learning English fun ..I still remember your story about the worm. hhhh it was really nice..go on ..

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    2. Yes, I agree, Nick and Nihaya, fun activities and speaking freely are REALLY important. Also, we need to consider the quality of TTT and STT. If the Teacher Talking Time is real meaning-focused chat, which learners are trying to understand and respond to – this is very useful exposure to real language in USE and can result in learners acquiring English naturally, like small children do when learning their mother-tongue. So this would be Quality TTT. But if the TTT and STT consists mainly of practising structures or language form – less useful for natural language acquisition. Learners need a balance…

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  6. Hi
    Thanks for the post which really discusses a very important point.As a teacher,I think the Palestinian curriculum provides speaking very much specially from first to fourth grade which leads to a better speaking later,but students can’t express their ideas because teachers don’t focus on speaking too much. Teachers have to finish the curriculum in a specific time.Also teachers are unconsciously affected by the society that students must write rather than speak.Sorry to say that we teach for the exams . We must give students the chance to talk freely and focus on fluency rather than accuracy. We shouldn’t over correct mistakes. Let them speak freely and support them with resources to practise the language out the class.
    Concerning the second question ,students have at least 10 minutes each period to speak through pair work, group work, games ,playing the role of little teachers ,acting and tell stories using their own words.

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    1. Thanks for your comment Sahar. The point that you raise about teachers teaching for the exams and the exams being focussed much more on writing than on speaking is a very important one. So I wonder what the answer is to this. Is there a way of making the type of activities that Jane mentions more focussed towards the exam? Can Task based learning be adapted to make it more about writing for example? Or is it the case that we actually have to do two separate things as language teachers – teach to the exams AND teach them English?

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      1. Hi Sahar and Nick, some teachers (like Prabhu did in India) use task-based teaching from the start, and incorporate speaking followed by writing. If, after the task, you ask groups for a written report of how they did the task which they give to others in the class to read and compare, this will give them writing practice in the context of the task They can edit or comment on each other’s drafts and focus on accuracy at a planning stage, i.e. before they hand they round for others to read. Teachers find that learners acquire a lot of language naturally this way, and can communicate with confidence. Then, maybe a term before the exams start, give classes lots of exam practice, so they get good at exam strategies and become familiar with the types of questions – this can be done in pairs to start with, then singly, and compare in groups…
        Do you think you could do this?
        Jane

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  7. Hello everyone,
    Thank you Jane and Nick for sharing this. It is a crucial issue to think about. Well, regarding the first question, I think that in a context like Palestine where English is barely used outside the classroom, students need to know first how to express their ideas, how to talk about their plans and what language is used in this context, before asking them to do so. Therefore, I completely agree that the PPP approach is an appropriate and organized method that helps teachers and meets students’ needs here. For instance, when talking about weekend plans (Nick’s lesson), I think we need to start by the presentation. The teacher presents the common used language implicitly by providing examples about her own weekend plans (contextualized form, meaning-focused). This motivates learners and encourages them to talk in pairs or groups about their weekend plans as well by exploiting the presented examples (Practice stage, meaning-focused) while teacher monitoring and scaffolding where necessary (teacher should be focusing on meaning rather than form at this stage). In the production stage, each student is asked to write his/her weekend plans (personalization), then, to play the “Find someone who” game using the intended form. e.g. who is going to …? By creating a checklist that is suggested and agreed on by the whole class. Finally, a whole group discussion on the answers is conducted in order to agree on the funniest, laziest, most boring or interesting weekend.

    If the PPP is used effectively, it should minimize TTT and maximize STT. In other words, it is a student-centered approach. However, the reality is not that bright since teachers still believe that the more they present and lecture, the more students learn. I think English for Palestine is a well-structured curriculum, but teachers lack adequate training on the best employment of it.

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    1. Hi Shireen. Thanks for your comment and for your well argued defence of PPP. It seems to me that you’re saying it isn’t PPP that is the problem, it is the way that some teachers use it. I’ve seen lots of classes (and taught some of them myself) in many different contexts around the world where the teacher goes in with the intention of prioritising the production stage at the end, and allowing sufficient time for it, but something happens and everyone gets bogged down with presentation and practise and there isn’t enough time for the production phase at all. So I guess one argument for doing what Jane is suggesting is that at least like this the learners are given opportunites to use language meaningfully from the outset. With your vast experience of teaching and observing in Palestine, do you think that this is possible there?

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      1. Yes Shirin, I think your interpretation of PPP is different from the way most teachers use it. Your first P – with the teacher explaining her plans to the class – certainly seems meaning-focused – in a clear context. It sets the scene nicely for learners to do the same. Your lesson is in fact more like Task-based Learning… I’m sure your students will learn a lot!
        And Nick you are right. Teachers often do the Presentation of a grammar point and then Practice – which is form-focused, then run out of time to make sure learners can actually USE it freely in the context of a natural conversation or a task, . And USING it freely, is not just a matter of personalising sentences with that form, (which is a useful step in a Practice stage), but setting up a scenario or task where the meanings they want to express may prompt them to use those forms along with other naturally occurring language… Phew – that is rather a long sentence, sorry…

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  8. Thank you very much for this precious article. Due to education reform plan, UNRWA schools in Gaza are experiencing a shift in pedagogy towards students being involved mentally, physically and emotionally in their learning through providing genuine meaningful opportunities for learning. I do agree that the ultimate goal of English teachers is to provide rich opportunities for their students to use English for real meaningful communication. I also do agree that meaning tops the form and that we need to set up activities that promote spontaneous discussions, conversations and interactions.
    Our students in Gaza do not have that much exposure to English outside the classroom and for many of them, the 45- minute class is their only chance to practice English. Many of our students feel quite confident when talking about the familiar topics they are studying but completely lost when facing new unfamiliar situations. This might be due to the limited chances they are offered to speak freely in class. This leads to the answer to your first question. I have observed hundreds of English classes. Generally speaking, the students’ talking time is limited and it depends on the teacher’s style of teaching and whether the class is student- centred or teacher- centred. It depends on the student’s confidence. In some classes, good students dominate the class talking time. They have more chances to speak than average or low achieving students and I can bet that the contributions of some students in the class talk are close to zero.
    English for Palestine is PPP oriented. Many teachers are using this approach, few are using TBL and others are just presenting language and structure then engaging students in controlled practice activities. I think that no matter the approach adopted by the teacher is, what really matters are the chances given to the students to use the language meaningfully.
    I’m going to elaborate by talking about two classes I have observed recently. The first lesson aimed to teach zero conditional sentences. The teacher organized the class into four- member heterogeneous groups and gave each group colours to mix and a table to record the results of their observation. After filling the table, she got the students to talk and write about what they have noticed. Some groups were writing sentences like red + yellow= orange. She was encouraging and providing help when needed. She then asked groups to swap tables and compare the results of their experiment.
    The teacher held a whole class discussion and elicited the following sentence:
    When we mix red and yellow, we get orange.
    She wrote the sentences on the board and elicited the use of the structure. She used tailored guided concept questions like what if we mix the two colours again. Can we get another result? No, we get the same colour every time we mix them.
    Then she did some focus on the form by asking students to observe the verb tenses, the use of the comma when swapping the parts of the conditional sentence, and also highlighted the use of “if” instead of “when.”
    In the next stage, there were some activities including substitution drills and re-ordering sentences. The activities were fairly controlled. English for Palestine text book offers numerous controlled practice exercises and activities.
    She allocated the last ten minutes to let students draw the water cycle and talk about it using the new structure. The focus was on both meaning and form.
    When I asked the teacher what format she used for her lesson, she answered ‘PPP format’! The task she started with is her own way to present the structure (the first stage in the PPP format). So, sometimes the activity the teachers select to present the new structure can be closer to a meaningful task than to just a presentation technique.
    Talking about another similar lesson about 2nd conditional sentences, the teacher started the lesson by telling the class about a news report she watched on TV last night. It was about an old woman who won lottery. She asked the class to work in groups imagining being that woman and thinking of ways to spend the money. She was circulating and offering help. Most of the class were using If I win, I will do so and so, but they were so engrossed in discussion then agreed on one way to spend the money. Lots of negotiation and interaction emerged then representatives from each group presented the group’s ideas to the whole class. The teacher then spent some time focussing on the use and the form. In the next stage, the teacher tried to personalise the lesson by giving students a list of “what would you do if” survey. The survey included such questions:
    You were visiting a friend in her house and you were enjoying drinking lemonade, then you noticed an insect moving in your glass.
    You were enjoying a birthday party then suddenly your shoes broke!!
    A small rat climbed your leg while you were walking in a field.
    Students enjoyed asking and answering the questions and the focus was really on the unpredictable answers students were coming up with. They used all the language they have in order to answer and some were just using phrases or chunks. Although the questions are controlled, the students are given the opportunity to answer more spontaneously using other language items and thus the responses were much less predictable.
    The teacher then presented two short videos from two famous movies. The first was about a woman who was told by her doctor that she had only one month to live. The second was a clip from Cast Away movie. The teacher divided the class into two teams. The students worked in groups imagining themselves either the woman who had only one month to live or Tom Hanks who survived a plane crash. Then the groups shared ideas. Was this lesson following a PPP approach? Was it a TBL? Was it an area between them? What really matters is the fact that the students enjoyed learning and that the students’ talking time was maximized.
    A part from these two classes, I have observed many other classes were the teacher is presenting examples and rules then let the students do controlled activities with minimum interaction and learning English as a foreign language is governed by the wash – back effect. These way students know about the language, but fail to use it. They can score well in written exams but cannot initiate a conversation or sustain it. So again
    I think it is up to the teacher to select any format he/she thinks appropriate for his/her students as long as he/she ensures that they are involved in meaningful interactive activities to prepare them to communicate in real life situations.

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  9. Hi Rida. Thanks very much for dropping by and congratulations on writing the longest ever comment on this blog 🙂 I really like the detailed outlines of the two lessons you describe. It proves to me what I already believe – that there are some very creative and dedicated teachers in Palestine, provide motivating, challenging and learning-rich classes in a situation that is very far from ideal.

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    1. Wow, Rida – that is a most interesting post. Two lively lessons with lots of meaning-focused interactions, followed by form-focused work. And yes, Nick, I agree with what you said in your comment above!

      One problem you mentioned was where the class has dominant speakers and some who say nothing. Yes – I have seen that many times. One solution is – when doing group work, say 3 or 4 in a group, to give each group member a role. So, give the dominant speakers the role of chairperson, (role number 1) whose job it is to make sure the rest of the group members get equal turns speaking when they do the task or plan their essay or whatever. One person could be secretary (role 2) and write notes for the spokes-person, and the spokes-person role – (role 3) give this to one of the quieter learners. The rest of the group can help him/her prepare what to say when reporting to the class. Number the groups off BEFORE explaining what the roles are – make sure you give number 1 to the dominant speaker etc… and then tell them their roles – ‘All number 1 people, hands up – you are the chair-person, so you need to …’ and so on. It usually works – give it a try!

      I’d love to hear – from other teachers – about more lessons along the lines of those reported by you, Rida.

      Over to you!
      Jane

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  10. Hi Nick and all the friends here
    Different ideas have been mentioned regarding improvements of teaching english.In Palestine,unfortunately the students don’t have room to talk or communicate in English.,and the most important thing for the teacher is to finish the spoonfeeding of the textbook contents whether the new words,literature or grammar identified in each textbook.we cannot blame the teacher since he or she is not well equipped with skills and methodologies needed for teaching the language where there is no use of it outside the classroom.
    A comprehensive strategy for teaching English in Palestine needs to be adopted at a national level with support of the partners like British council and Amideast.
    If we talk about drama,storytelling or digital story telling,games,music,singing,art,trips,fun activities or any other methodology to be used in teaching we can find that all these come under the umbrella of project base learning in which collaboration,communication,creativity and production take place .project based learning enhance respect,trust,self confidence and sharing which lead to global citizenship .It also leads to authentic learning and different action researches prove project based learning impact in EFL/ESL.
    In Palestine despite all the trainings conducted for English teachers like how to use drama or music we can rarely find students who can communicate in English and express themselves,actually not just students but most of the employees in the public organizations find it an obstacle when they are in a place to communicate with their partners.
    Language for communications is so important in life.since it’s a barrier in Palestine we have to unite all these efforts to deliver good quality of training for educators to prepare their learners for outside the class room’s wall.education with out borders or schools with out borders is important because collaboration with our peers and have a joint work create a different environment and lead to t h e better change.

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