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How to start flipping the English Language classroom

Flipped Learning, like other generic pedagogies such as project-based learning, cooperative learning, and problem-based learning, can be applied in any school subject. In the case of English Language as a Key Learning Area (KLA) in the Hong Kong school curriculum, how should English teachers who are keen about flipped learning start flipping their English classroom?

Flipping English vs Flipping Other School Subjects

Each KLA in the Hong Kong school curriculum may have a different way of organizing its curriculum content. For example, KLA’s which are more content-knowledge oriented may have their teaching content organized as subject-matter topics. The flipping of these subjects may then have to do mainly with the teaching and learning of these subject-matter topics. English, as a language subject, is quite different in terms of its curriculum organization. For example, a topic, such as public health, which appears as a teaching module or a teaching unit in a school-based curriculum, usually serves to contextualise the teaching of various language learning objectives, such as grammar, vocabulary, and the macroskills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing). The topic of public health would be approached differently in, say, the teaching of General Studies. (To get an idea of the content and organization of the English KLA in Hong Kong, readers may refer to the 2017 English Language Curriculum Guide for Primary 1 to Secondary 6, issued by the Hong Kong Education Bureau.)

So, in terms of the curriculum content, what should be flipped when flipping the English Language classroom? If we recall that flipped learning is a generic pedagogy, the answer is straightforward: anything in the English curriculum can be flipped. This is confirmed in all recent book publications on flipping the English classroom. In practice, though, most school-based English Language schemes of work (yearly teaching plans) in Hong Kong, as well as English Language coursebooks, are organized around thematic modules and units. (A module may consist of two to three units, all of which are thematically related. As pointed out above, this organization serves to contextualise the teaching of various language learning objectives.)

Approach 1: Flipping an entire module or unit

In theory, therefore, a school, or a teacher, may start with flipping an entire module, or unit. Let’s take a unit on teenage problems. This unit may cover the following teaching content:

· A reading text that discusses some common problems that teenagers are struggling with.

· Vocabulary from the reading text, and/or vocabulary items associated with teenage problems.

· A task that has students listen to a social worker interviewing some teenagers struggling with certain personal issues.

· A speaking task that requires students to interview each other on their personal problems.

· A pronunciation section that deals with the intonation patterns for asking different types of questions.

· A writing task that requires students to write a letter to the editor suggesting what schools may do to help teenage students become more resilient.

· An integrated task that covers some of the above activities.

· New grammar items that appear in the above activities.

A teacher who intends to flip the whole unit ‘comprehensively’ may then identify the main learning objectives from each of the above segments, and start planning the whole flipped unit accordingly.

While this approach makes good sense, it may incur a lot of planning and preparation for teachers who are new to flipped learning, as they have to design everything from scratch. Of course, if teachers of the same grade level are doing the flipping collaboratively, then they can share the planning and preparation. This would make flipping a whole unit more doable for schools or teachers who have just started to flip the English classroom.

Approach 2: Focussing on one area of the curriculum

In my own opinion, for teachers who have just started to flip their English teaching, whether they are going it alone or doing it collaboratively, a more manageable way to start would be to focus on one area of the English Language curriculum, such as reading, grammar, or writing. As each of these areas usually occupies only one part of a unit or module, teachers will have more time to spend on planning and the subsequent production of flipped learning resources (e.g, producing the pre-class video and quiz).

Another advantage of this approach is that teachers will accumulate experience in flipped teaching more easily than if they are flipping different things at the same time while delivering a module or unit. For example, if they initially focus on flipping the Reading part of each unit, then they can more easily apply the experience they have gained in flipping the earlier Reading lessons in designing the later Reading units to be covered in a school-year.

Grammar as a possible starting point

From my many years of experience in English Language teacher education, for such teachers, grammar may be a good language area to start with. Unlike the macroskills such as Listening and Writing, grammar teaching involves presenting language forms and functions. Below are some example grammar items:

· Type 1 conditional sentences

· Reflexive pronouns

· Subject-verb agreement

· Count nouns vs Noncount nouns

· Wh-questions

It can be seen from the examples above that it is easier to identify the learning content to flip. Take count nouns vs noncount nouns. The pre-class learning material (e.g., video) may present:

· What is a count noun? What is a noncount noun?

· Differences between count nouns and noncount nouns in terms of language form

· Differences between count nouns and noncount nouns in terms of meaning

· Differences in usage (e.g., noncount nouns do not have plural forms)

Given the culture of English Language teaching and learning in Hong Kong, many teachers are already conversant in giving grammatical explanations. In fact, the students will also take the pre-class work (e.g., viewing a video and answering a post-viewing quiz) more seriously if it is about grammar since they will feel there is something more ‘concrete’ to learn if the flipped content is about a grammar item.

Just get started

Finally, there is no single ‘right’ way to start flipping the English Language classroom. In fact, given the multifaceted nature of the English Language curriculum, it could take a few years before a teacher can become fully proficient in flipping every aspect of English Language teaching. Instead of first producing a grand flipped learning programme plan, it may be more advisable to dive into it on a smaller scale, learn from experience, and keep improving. As Mark Twain once said: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”


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