Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

You’re teaching a group of young learners and they just won’t sit still, no matter how many times you tell them to. They can’t seem to concentrate on anything you want to do with them. What can you do about it?

Give them an energy break, of course!

Try some of these ideas to use up at least a bit of their energy.

  • Brain Breaks therapy – the first one in the video, ‘ear and nose’, is my go-to. Lots more on their blog.

  • Board races – great for revision too, though think about how to set it up if you have pre-literate students. Divide the students into two teams (more if the board is big enough) and have them run to the board. Loads of ways to vary these:
    • Say a definition, they write a word
    • Say a word, they draw a picture
    • Show a flashcard to the person at the back, they whisper to the next person in line and so on until the person at the front writes/draws it
    • Say a word in English to the person at the back, they say it in L1 to the next person, who says it in English, and so on to the front. Either L1 or English is written on the board, depending on what they finish on.
    • And many, many more (please add them to the comments!)

Energy breaks can mean encouraging calm too. Meditation and mindfulness exercises change the energy levels in the room.

  • This video is a 1-minute meditation.

As a side note, if this is a regular problem in your lessons, you might want to check that your plans are interspersing activities which stir and settle. Here’s and introduction to stirrers and settlers from Teaching English British Council, and some tips on planning tasks for young learner lessons from ELT Planning.

What would you add to this list?

Here’s a bonus task to complement the ‘Teacher Health and Wellbeing’ section of ELT Playbook 1, a book I self-published this year which is designed to help early career teachers reflect on their teaching. Download the task as a pdf (Self-talk and teacher confidence), or read on…

Teacher health and wellbeing
Self-talk and teacher confidence

Task: 25 minutes
Reflection: 25 minutes

Make a list of things which you say to yourself about your teaching, for example ‘I can’t control this class’ or ‘That board race went really well’.

Categorise them into positive, negative and neutral.

  • ŸWhy do you think you say these things to yourself?
  • Would you say them to a friend?
  • Do you think your students or your colleagues would tell you the same things?
  • How often do you say them to yourself?
  • For those on the ‘positive’ list, how did you arrive at this point? How could other teachers do the same?
  • For those on the ‘negative’ list, what do you think are the roots of these issues? What effect do they have on your confidence? How can you diminish their effects?
  • What effect does your confidence have on your teaching?

Via your blog, share one of the positive things that you say to yourself. Describe how other teachers can reach the point where they can say this to themselves too. Use the #ELTplaybook hashtag on Twitter or facebook.

Record yourself talking about the effects of confidence on teaching. Refer to your own experience if you want to.

Draw a picture of what’s going on inside your head when you teach now. If you want it to change, draw a second picture of how you’d like it to look.

In your teaching journal, write about the roots of one of the negative things you say to yourself and how you could diminish the effects of it.

ELT Playbook 1 cover, showing title, a pale blue book, and the author's name (Sandy Millin) with a computer mouse coming out of the 'y'

If you want to continue reflecting on your teaching, why not get your own copy of ELT Playbook 1 from Amazon (ebook or paperback) or Smashwords (ebook)? [affiliate links] You can also find out more by looking at the ELT Playbook blog, where you can see examples of badges you can earn, as well as a sample task from the book.

I’m very proud to be one of the TeachingEnglish associates, a group of wonderful English teachers from around the world. Each month a series of topics is posted on the blogs section of the British Council TeachingEnglish site, which everyone is invited to write about, including you! Anyone is welcome to join in. If you haven’t tried blogging before, why not give it a go? To inspire you, the associates offer their takes on the topics.

Teaching English Associates names word cloud

My most recent contribution is about combining being part of the online community (if you want to) and reflecting on what’s happening in your classroom. What do you think? Is it key to be part of an online community to develop professionally as a teacher nowadays?

This is part of a series of posts showing you all the different ways you can approach the Cambridge Delta. They are designed to help you find out more about the course and what it involves, as well as helping you to choose the right way to do it for you, your lifestyle and the time you have available. If you’ve done the Delta (or any other similar higher-level teaching course, including a Masters), and you’d like to join in, let me know by leaving me a comment or contacting me via Twitter @sandymillin.

Jenni started teaching in Poland in 2014 following a CELTA from British Council Krakow. She moved back to the UK two years later as she found love during her Christmas holiday back home. She then spent time teaching in language schools and summer schools in the UK. In 2018, she completed her Delta and currently works as an online tutor and course developer. She enjoys an #eltwhiteboard and tweets @jennifoggteach.

Jenni Fogg

How did you do your Delta? How did you arrange the modules?

I did an ‘intensive’ Delta, where the course runs over 15 weeks and the modules are completed concurrently. At Leeds Beckett (formerly Leeds Metropolitan) University, you work towards completing an internal qualification – a Postgraduate Certificate in English Language Teaching and Professional Practice, which prepares you for your Delta and counts towards it (the internal LSAs are part of both qualifications).

You prepare for the Module 1 exam through a series of workshops and homework tasks as well as taking a full Delta-style exam in exam conditions. This counts towards your PG Cert. and acts as a Delta mock.

The module 2 preparation included weekly sessions with advice on writing LSAs and background essays. The work you submit becomes part of your portfolio for both Leeds Beckett and Cambridge.

In module 3, there were deadlines throughout the semester for each section, with the view that the whole piece of work is completed within 15 weeks. We then gave a 15-minute presentation on our specialism. This was interesting as we got to learn about other specialisms and could see how people approached them in different ways.

Why did you choose to do it that way?

I really wanted to do a course quickly as I found that teaching positions in the UK were generally low-paid and there was little chance of promotion without a Delta. I was already living in Leeds, within walking distance of the university, and was teaching part-time in a local language school, which meant I could teach my own class for the LSAs. It made sense to take this route. I also found the PG Cert. attractive, as it meant I could put this on my CV while I was still waiting for the results of the Delta.

What do you think you gained from doing the Delta?

I really enjoyed reading more about SLA [Second Language Acquisition] and feel I benefited from the further reading in general; this is something I couldn’t find time to do before the course. It also made me a more reflective teacher and I now take time to consider why I have planned and structured a lesson in a certain way. I also really enjoyed all the opportunities to observe my peers and teachers online. This was a great way to discover effective new ways to teach.

The intensive nature of the course meant that we bonded quickly as a class and I made several close friends. It also gave me confidence to become more present in the ELT community on Twitter.

What were the downsides of the method you chose?

It was absolutely exhausting. Doing the course in 15 weeks whilst teaching at the same time was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It meant very early starts and late nights with every waking minute focused on reading, writing or lesson planning. The deadlines across different modules often fell on the same day too. It required insane organisation!

Also, because I wasn’t working full-time, I didn’t earn a lot of money throughout the course. I had to manage my money carefully (but really didn’t have much opportunity to spend it!).

What were the benefits of the method you chose?

From starting the course to achieving all three module certificates took 11 months. The course took place from the end of September to the start of January. We sat the exam and submitted Module 3 in June and then had to wait for the results. As we received our PG Cert. soon after the start of the year, we could put this on our CV in the meantime, which meant I managed to get a Director of Studies job in time for the summer, despite not having my Delta results yet.

What tips would you give other people doing the Delta?

If you choose to do the Delta this way, you will need to become an organisation master. I used Evernote for general to-do lists, storing my notes, saving useful websites and making sure each notepad was correctly-titled and saved in the right place. I also printed an A3 calendar where I wrote all my deadlines down and what work I needed to do each day. Deadlines tended to creep up on me so I needed an easy reference to see where I was up to.

I tried to use my weekends effectively, spending most of one day in the library, and spending the other day relaxing, cleaning, seeing family and doing some bulk cooking for the week. Thankfully, my lovely boyfriend cooked a lot during the course, which stopped me from getting scurvy.

I would also recommend doing as much work as possible before the course starts, both doing some preliminary reading from a Delta reading list (there are lots online) as well as reading about how other people approached it – this is a good place to start!

How much time per week would you estimate you needed to spend working on the Delta in the format you chose?

In this intensive course, it was a lot. I turned on my laptop to start working between 6-7am and finished around 10-11pm. We had lessons at the university from 12-5pm on Mondays and Fridays and I taught in the afternoons on the other three days of the week. I don’t want to work the number of hours out!

Today I taught two low-intermediate teen classes at the same level, covering for another teacher. The first half of the lesson was a test. The topic of one of the recent units they’ve done is travel, so I finally got the chance to try out Mike Astbury’s lost luggage activity, which I’ve been meaning to do for ages. The basic idea of Mike’s materials is that students role-play travellers who’ve lost their luggage and airport workers who take the details. Here’s what I did with it.

Setting the scene

You’re going on holiday. You’ve just arrived at the airport. Your luggage didn’t arrive. What’s missing?/What was in your suitcase? How do you feel about it?

I said this and students discussed it in pairs or small groups, then I took a general poll of feelings for feedback. This also served to generate some ideas for later in the lesson.

Describing luggage

I projected the second page of Mike’s handouts with 8 images of different items of luggage. Students had two minutes to describe what they could see using the language they had available. I didn’t really do any feedback for the first group. In the second we talked about Polish ‘It has green colour.’ versus English ‘It’s green.’ which came up for most groups.

I’d prepared pieces of paper with Mike’s descriptions of the luggage which I laid out on the floor. They had to discuss which description matched which item. Feedback was them using magnets to stick them to the board.

We checked them as a class, and I pulled out items of vocabulary to check the meaning. Examples were ‘buckle’, ‘handle’, ‘strap’ and ‘lock’.

They then described the cases again, with me gradually removing the descriptions.

Preparing their luggage

On the board, I showed students what I wanted them to write on the back of their luggage cards.

I handed out one luggage picture per person at random. They had 90 seconds to write a few items that were in their luggage and to make up their address. They then put their luggage under their chairs for later.

Working out questions

I organised students into pairs or small groups, with one notebook and pen shared between them. I displayed the lost luggage form (page 4 of the handouts) on the board and elicited a couple of example questions – a simple one (What’s your name?) and a more challenging one (What time did you land/arrive?)

In their groups, students had to write a question for each part of the form. I told them that flight details are things like the airline (Lufthansa) and the flight number (ZX 123). I monitored closely and did a lot of on-the-spot error correction, aiming for grammatically correct questions by the end of the exercise.

As soon as a pair/group had a full set of questions, they had to test each other by saying e.g. ‘flight details’ with the reply ‘What are your flight details?’ or ‘What was the airline?’ Each group had different questions. All groups had a couple of minutes to try and memorise the questions.

At the airport

Half of the students had time to look at their luggage cards again, then had to hand them to me. That way they were remembering the information, probably imperfectly – I don’t know about you, but I can never remember exactly what’s in my case or the finer details of what it looks like!

The other half lined up their chairs and stood behind them, as if it was an airport counter. They each had a pen and a lost luggage form. They had to ask questions and complete the form as accurately as possible. Then they put their completed form under the chairs and switched roles. When there were three students in a group, first one person had to collect information from both of them, then two of them had to collect the same information from one person. One student in the second group got particularly into it and kept bothering the airport worker by trying to rush them and asking ‘When will I get my luggage back?’ 🙂

Finding their luggage

I laid out all of the luggage on a ‘carousel’ on the floor. Once everybody had performed both roles, they used their forms to try to identify the luggage. They had to give it back to the owner asking ‘Is this your luggage?’

To round it all off, I asked them to put their hands up if they didn’t get their luggage back, and told they how successful our airport is. In both groups about a third didn’t get it, which I suspect reflects real life nicely!

In sum

The activity worked really well with this group of students, although we were a bit rushed at the end. I allocated 45 minutes, but I think 50 would have been enough, and 60 ideal.

I completely forgot to give them tickets from page 3 of Mike’s handouts, even though I’d prepared them, but this didn’t matter as most students seemed to enjoy making up this information. One student got a bit flustered about it though, and definitely would have benefitted from having something to draw on, although she managed to work around it in the end. The rush at that stage probably didn’t help either!

They were a bit confused by the way that we arranged the room for the role play at first, but as soon as they worked out what was going on they seemed to appreciate it.

They were definitely trying to use some of the new language to describe luggage, and I didn’t hear any ‘green colours’ in the second group during the role play 🙂

All in all, I’m really glad I finally got a chance to try out this activity from Mike’s blog. The students were engaged and it generated a lot of language and helped to further practice travel vocabulary and past tense question formation (which some of them had struggled with in the test). It worked well as a task-based lesson, which is something I’m trying to experiment with more, with students pushing themselves to speak as much as possible. Thanks for sharing these materials with us Mike, and I would encourage everyone to take a look at the materials on his blog!

A black cat sitting on a half-packed suitcase

Ironically, I’ve lost my picture of my lost luggage after it was returned to me, so instead here’s a picture of Poppy the cat (not) helping me to pack

Here is a list of some of the things I have noticed students doing since I arrived in Poland three years ago. Caveats:

  • My numbers here are based on impressions – there is no formal research to back it up! If you want more scientific and in-depth information about problems which Polish learners have with English, look at pages 162-178 of Learner English: A teacher’s guide to interference and other problems edited by Michael Swan and Bernard Smith [affiliate link]. 
  • I realise that some of the things I’m correcting might not be in line with English as Lingua Franca, but they should be useful if you have students who want to take exams like Cambridge Proficiency. They’re often things which teachers don’t notice in my experience.
  • Having said that, I’ve skipped /th/ (who cares?!) and features of connected speech like weak forms because everyone has trouble with those things in English!

Please feel free to add to the list, or correct anything which you think I’ve got wrong!

Grammar

The following do not exist in Polish (or, indeed, any Slavic language) so students tend to avoid them initially, then over-use them for a long time before they get them right:

  • Perfect tenses
  • Continuous tenses
  • Articles

By my estimate, they tend to start getting them right at around high upper-intermediate (B2) level, and are normally pretty consistent by advanced. Articles are the last things to stick – I think at C1 they get about 90% of them correct, and C2 is when they’re 99% correct.

In Polish, conditional sentences are marked in both clauses. When producing English conditionals, Polish learners often use would or will in the ‘if’ clause: *If it will rain, I won’t go.

Nouns are gendered in Polish. When replaced by a pronoun, masculine nouns become on (which is ‘he’ or ‘it’ in English), and feminine nouns become ona (‘she’ or ‘it’). At low levels, students sometimes therefore use ‘he’ and ‘she’ in English.

Vocabulary

As in many languages, a single Polish word can be used for each of the following groups of English words:

  • make, do
  • say, tell, speak
  • borrow, lend
  • teach, learn, study
  • fingers, toes

come and go are also very confusing, though there are many, many different translations for these verbs. On that note, in Slavic languages ships and boats ‘swim’, rather than ‘float’ or ‘go’.

In Polish, you ‘make a photo’, rather than take a photo.

The preposition with is often added after verbs like contact and telephone, by analogy with Polish: *I need to contact with his parents. *I’ll telephone with Mark tomorrow.

My new favourite mistranslation is ‘guarantee guard’ instead of security guard 🙂

Ordinal numbers are used in Polish in places where cardinal numbers are normally used in English. The main time I hear this is when students are referring to exercises or questions, so they say ‘first’, ‘second’, ‘third’, where I would say ‘Question 1’, ‘Exercise 2’, or ‘Number 3’.

The nouns ‘colour’ and ‘shape’ are often used when they are unnecessary in English. For example, *It has green colour. rather than It’s green. or *It has square shape. not It’s square.

Pronunciation

Stress almost always falls on the penultimate syllable in Polish words, so students do this by extension in English too. For example, I heard students saying /viOlin/ in a recent observation. Not necessarily super important for international communication, but useful to know about when predicting problems.

The intonation range of Polish is much narrower than in English, so students often sound pretty bored or robotic. I find this is less common if students watch/listen to a lot of English (so teens!). Students need to be really encouraged to be expressive in English and push themselves to use intonation to carry/emphasise meaning.

Sound-spelling relationships are very transparent in Polish, in contrast to English. Some spelling combinations in Polish cause confusion when encountered in English words, particularly for low-level students. For example, ‘ci’ in Polish is pronounced like ‘ch’ in English, but ‘c’ alone is pronounced like ‘ts’ in English. The word specialist particularly confused one group I had – some pronounced it with ‘ch’ in the middle /spe-cha-list/, and others with ‘ts’ and an extra syllable /spe-tsy-a-list/.

The most confusing vowel minimal pair for Polish/Slavic learners is /æ/ and /ʌ/, which is important for me as I often get called Sunday 🙂 This causes confusion with pairs like cap/cup, hat/hut and began/begun.

I tend to group problematic letters together when teaching the alphabet, rather than using an alphabet song. Here are the groups I use, ranked by my opinion on the most to least confusing for Poles:

  • a, e, i, y
  • g, h, j
  • c, s
  • k, q
  • u, v, w
  • x, z
  • r
  • o
  • f, l, m, n
  • b, d, p, t

I don’t normally include the final two groups apart from for beginners, as these letters are pretty similar in Polish I think (though I haven’t learnt the Polish alphabet properly myself yet – oops!) Here are some alternative groupings:

  • f, v, w
  • i, j, y
  • g, k, q

Punctuation

In Polish, the equivalents to ‘you’ (Wy, Pan, Pani…) are capitalised when they are polite, and ‘I’ (ja) is only capitalised at the start of a sentence. Look out for sentences like this: *He helped me so i understood. *What are You doing? Some of my upper intermediate students still did this – I guess nobody had ever pointed it out to them that our capitalisation rules are different!

Months and days start with lower-case in Polish, not capitals as in English.

Clauses introduced by ‘that’ (że) take commas in Polish, so learners produce sentences like *I know, that he is famous. In general, commas are used much more often in Polish than they are in English, and with a much wider range of conjunctions.

As in most European languages, dots and commas in numbers are the opposite way round in English to Polish, so Polish 0,5 would be English 0.5 (nought point five) and Polish 1.234 would be English 1,234 (one thousand, two hundred and thirty-four).

Slackline games, Bydgoszcz

Another challenging thing I’ve seen in Bydgoszcz!

I’ve always preferred teaching adults to teens and young learners, though just occasionally being able to run a good teen/YL class can be a great boost to my confidence. Erica Napoli Rottstock’s post has some useful tips that could make a real difference next time I head into the teen classroom!

I am pretty sure that on seeing the heading to this article you will have immediately and unconsciously nodded your head and maybe added a decisive ‘no way’. As a matter of fact, teenagers are often seen as moody and undisciplined and their lack of motivation can be a ‘nightmare’ if we are teachers.

However, taking a break to teach teens can be a real boost for demotivated teachers, an unexpectedly refreshing experience that ripples through to the rest of your EFL praxis.

I think everyone has experienced times when things don’t go as we assume; maybe you have felt tired and demotivated. The first thing to do is to find the real reason why you have lost your enthusiasm. If you think you need more fun and you strongly believe that connecting with people can help you, in this case a change is as good as a rest. Taking time out to work outside of one’s comfort zone may bring new inspiration to routine, in this case take also some time to watch this inspiring TED talk. Based on my personal experience, one year teaching in a teen class could be your solution.

The first thing to consider is that the so-called moody, undisciplined teens’ behaviour is strongly influenced by how teens’ brains are wired, ruled by the limbic system, since the frontal lobe, specifically responsible for controlling emotions, takes significantly longer to develop. This may be the reason for their short attention span, their laziness or lack of interest, but on the other hand teens are ready to get involved very easily. A trustworthy teacher with an engaging topic will soon spot ways of driving and channelling such traits.

Secondly, allow for flexibility. We can be less like control freaks and thus much more likely to enjoy the lesson. Even if we have a syllabus to follow, we can still be flexible. Interestingly enough, by releasing control, we gain students’ trust and attention. Surprisingly, if you listen to them, you get their attention and you feel less tired! I would suggest you enter the class with a multiple-option lesson plan – say a plan where you let your students decide how to develop it. I have noticed that if you start your lesson with a sort of declaration of intent, teen students are happy to follow you and are extremely pro-active. This environment is stimulating for their learning and also a boost for ‘tired teachers’. Even classroom management can become less stressful if you can let students move freely in their class, choose their peers for their activities and decide when they need a break. By respecting their pace you can have less stress indeed.

The third thing to consider is that teens are very curious, so when you teach them you can make your lesson very personal and arouse their interest. Clearly, this doesn’t mean sharing one’s closest personal issues. You can simply offer up your point of view, your personal opinions, bringing an element of humanity and showing we are far from being superheroes. I can assure you that this is not only very conducive to learning but also very positive for your well-being.

Last but not least, the environment of your class will become more relaxed and you can simply work on emergent language without wasting any opportunity for learning. Besides, you will notice that students themselves will ask you to practise more if they become aware of their limits. Teaching teens becomes a real boost, if you consider a more autonomous learner approach. You can foster students’ autonomy by developing their awareness with self-assessment, you may guide students to be aware of their own weaknesses and strengths, with a reduction of your workload or at least less time-consuming ways to evaluate your students.

Also, I recommend stimulating learning beyond the class, so that you can build a deeper rapport with your students, as you can understand their needs and interests better. In my experience, WhatsApp was extremely useful, not only in terms of conducting on-going class service communication and light conversations outside the classroom, but also when it came to assigning/performing and giving feedback on written, oral and aural homework (short writing/speaking tasks performed via voice and video recordings and text messages). This particular means of communication provides the added value of reduced practitioner workload in terms of evaluating learner performance on a day-to-day basis. We ask parents’ permission to have WhatsApp groups with students when they join the school.

To sum up, if you want to feel regenerated, go for a teen class; they have an extremely positive attitude provided one is prepared to embrace flexibility and promote autonomy.

If this is still not enough to boost you, then perhaps a good long holiday is actually in order! 🙂

About the author

Erica Napoli

Erica is a DELTA-qualified teacher with an MA in foreign literature. She has been teaching English for more than 15 years, but she likes to be considered as a life-long learner herself. Previously DoS and founder of a little private language school in Milan, she then decided to become a full-time teacher at high school and she’s currently engaged teaching teens at Istituto Europeo Leopardi in Milan. This article is based on her talk from IATEFL Brighton in April 2018.

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