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my thoughts

Why (and How) I Flipped My ESL Classroom

About a year ago, I read a post online by Tamara Jones titled “Starting with the WHY in Teaching and Learning” that really resonated with my own teaching experience. In this post Jones reminds teachers to pause for a minute while lesson planning to ask yourself ‘Why?’. Why did you choose that example? Why did you plan that activity? This ‘why’ question is what inspired me to overhaul my own lesson planning practices and figuratively turn my classroom upside-down.

I am a firm believer in learner-driven, goal-oriented language teaching. I ask myself "Why?" and I answer, “in order to provide the most opportunity for authentic language use”. My students’ time is extremely valuable and I cannot squander the little time we have together in the classroom. For many of my students, class time is the only chance they have to speak English. Spending any of that time with the students sitting in silence listening to me, would feel like a waste, but early on in my teaching career I didn’t know how to convey the new concepts and forms to them without taking over with too much teacher-talk. That’s when I discovered the Flipped Classroom.

The Flipped Classroom is a teaching model that takes traditionally in-class activities and at-home activities and swaps their roles. For example, lectures, which typically take place in-class are now pre-recorded so students can listen to/watch them at home. Supposedly, this provides more classroom time for engaged activities and review, and allows students to pace themselves at their own rate. At first I was hesitant about adopting this model because it depends a lot upon learner autonomy, and seemed like much more work for the teacher (a.k.a me) but I was quite surprised by the results.

It was not a seamless transition and I'm not perfectly satisfied yet (I’ll talk about some of the issues later on), but I am happy with the improvements and student reactions so far. Flipped classroom techniques can easily be suited to fit a teacher’s favorite teaching pedagogy such as CLT or PPP. I have found that for myself this model works best in the framework of TBLT. I particularly like the phases of task-based teaching as laid out by Norris (2009). They are 1) task input 2) pedagogic task work 3) target task performance and 4) task follow-up phase.

In task input, the instructor “introduces the target task as it is realized in actual communication” (Norris, 2009 p. 533). Task input is a very important step for me, and when providing this input, I try my best to find examples of authentic language use. Why? There’s a few reasons. First, any additional exposure to the target language is beneficial for learning. Second, it allows learners to tap into prior knowledge and notice gaps in their own language abilities. And finally, by presenting the target form in an authentic context, it encourages student motivation and buy-in that this form is truly important as it is used in ‘real’ English communication. I've had several students over the years express frustration and boredom with the curriculum-made video/audio materials. They are often too scripted and dull for the students' taste. My classes reacted with much greater interest to materials from real-world media.

When starting a unit or topic I begin with providing some sort of audio/video form of input for students’ to watch before class as part of their homework. There’s a couple of different ways this can be done. The first and my preferred method of input is to consult YouTube—the greatest tool for flipped classroom teaching. I’ll look for movie or TV show clips, interviews, news reports, vlogs, etc. that provide the task that I am looking for. In the past I’ve used this clip from FRIENDS in a unit about planning for the future and this clip from the Today Show to introduce comparatives. I usually provide some sort of companion activity that raises awareness about about the target form. In the past I have used fill-in-blank handouts, short comprehension quizzes, and discussion boards. If you’d like to see an example, check out my sample flipped classroom lesson plan (coming soon). The purpose of these activities is to get the students to actively engage with the input and also to introduce the next step of pedagogic task work.

Now that we’ve identified the target task within an example of authentic language use, we can provide some explicit language instruction or pedagogic task work that elaborates upon the grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation etc. that was provided in the input phase and highlighted in the companion activity. Normally this could take place in the classroom. The teacher gives a small presentation on the form/function before providing some type of controlled practice. However, for the flipped classroom model, we want this stage to be executed outside of the classroom.

In order to save classroom time for practice and language use, we can pre-record our lectures and presentations for students to watch at home. I’ve done this a few different ways. First, you can set up a web cam and simply record your presentation as you would give it in the classroom. Second, you can use a screen recorder (I purchased this one from the Apple Store) and record your voice only over a PowerPoint presentation (see my example here). Finally, don’t overlook the abundance of video resources that already exist to provide explicit ESL instruction online. Do a quick YouTube search of the target task/form and see what works best with your learning objectives. Some of my favorite sources recently have been Rachel’s English and To Fluency.

Again, in order to avoid a passive/disinterested viewing of these materials, I’ll usually provide some sort of companion activity that allows them to practice the form/function being explained in this phase. Oftentimes, this phase can work well with the activities provided in the curriculum. Students can watch the video to learn the rules and conventions, complete the companion activity, then come to class and immediately review, ask questions and check their work. The benefits of providing the explicit instruction in this format are 1) it allows for students to work at their own pace 2) it accommodates multiple different learning styles 3) it helps students who were absent to still learn and practice at home and 4) it encourages student autonomy and helps them to take ownership of their learning 5) it provides for more time in the classroom to be spent in actual practice/use of the language.

Returning to the ‘why’ of teaching we can now turn to the performance phase which “calls upon learners to deploy what they have learned” (Norris, 2009). Why should we flip the classroom? In order to maximize on the time we spend together with our students and provide the most opportunity for them to engage in language use that replicates real-life conditions so that when they are finally called upon to use this language for real, they are not caught off guard. After reviewing, answering questions, and checking our homework, we now have all the time left to practice everything we’ve learned at home. At this phase, the role of the teacher is not to lead from the front or lecture, but to instead facilitate, lead from behind, and provide feedback for students to correct themselves and build upon their new knowledge.

By ’going it alone’ with a target task in situ, learners practice the use of language for meaningful purposes, thereby engaging their developing cognitive, motivational, linguistic, content-knowledge, and other resources under conditions that vary from the safety of structured pedagogic tasks. In doing so, they also come to understand the range of competing factors (stress, interlocutor reactions, unexpected interruptions) that constitute purposeful language use, and they extend their language and content learning to incorporate strategies for dealing with actual communication (e.g., circumlocution, questioning, repetition). – Norris, 2009

What I’ve observed after implementing this model has been quite interesting and has presented me with some of the issues with flipped classroom instruction that I have yet to consider and modify. In a traditional classroom, homework is often review and won’t affect the students’ ability to engage in the following class, however the opposite is true for flipped classroom instruction. This can cause a bit difficulty for those students who fail to complete the homework. However, I’ve found that as soon as they figure this dynamic out for themselves, it turns into a motivating factor and usually takes only one to two classes for this idea to catch on.

Another issue I’ve encountered is students with low levels of computer literacy. I often set-up my classes using online Learning Management Systems and those can often be difficult to navigate for students not familiar with technology. There’s also the issue of students with limited access to computers and Wi-Fi. In those instances, I try when I can to use/post materials on YouTube only so that students can access what they need from their phone and provide all other materials on paper. I’ve also observed efforts by the programs I’ve worked for to provide opportunities for learning computer literacy and access to school computers and Wi-Fi, which I greatly appreciated and strongly supported.

Overall, I’ve found the benefits outweigh these minor complications. I’ve been surprised at how much my students have taken ownership of their learning through using this model. By setting new pre-class expectations for them, they come prepared and armed to practice. The most common response I’ve heard since flipping my classroom is that the students do not feel bored. At home their learning is engaging with audial/visual stimulation and in class, there is no moment to sit still. Class is full of talking, moving and doing. For now, I’ve accomplished my ‘why’, and I hope I’ve helped a little to answer yours. There’s more to be done and to learn from flipping the classroom. I’ll continue to adapt, edit, and improve this version and update you on the results. If you have any methods and practices of your own, I’d love to hear what you’ve done and why.

Cited: Norris, J. M. (2009). Task‐based teaching and testing. The handbook of language teaching, 578-594.

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