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

Archive for the ‘Materials, Activities and Ideas’ Category

Fortune teller decision maker (IH TOC 12)

It was the 12th IH Teachers Online Conference (TOC) on Friday 22nd May 2020. Nearly 40 people presented for 15 minutes each on the theme of online teaching.

For my presentation, I decided to go for something low-tech that you could still do online, and what’s better than making a fortune teller. It’s a very simple origami project, one I think most of us have probably made in the past. Here’s a video of how to make one:

 

My decision maker

As a lot of us are working on our mental health while we deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, my fortune teller was a way to choose your response to different people in different situations. The three sets of choices are:

Who are you talking to?

  • your boss
  • your colleague
  • your student
  • a parent

What are you talking about?

  • an activity you tried
  • how you feel
  • your plans tonight
  • something you’ve read
  • the news
  • IH TOC 😉
  • your lesson
  • your day

What do you say in that situation?

  • I give up!
  • I need chocolate!
  • Thank you!
  • That’s great!
  • Tell me more.
  • Help!
  • What should I do?
  • (Don’t say anything…take a deep breath!)

Other ways to use them

You could also use fortune tellers for:

  • predictions
  • practising spellings
  • practising lexical sets
  • question forms
  • making decisions in a role play
  • choosing with activity/game you’ll do next

And they’re not just for children: you can use them with teens and adults too with the right topics. Most people like to make things 🙂

What else could you use them for? Have you tried them out with your students?

Here’s the video if you want to watch the whole presentation:

Adding movement to online lessons (guest post)

My friend Olga Stolbova posted these suggestions on facebook a couple of days ago, and agreed to share them on my blog. Thanks Olga!

Some simple tips on how to add more movement to your online classes. These are some of the things I do and they work for kids and adults.

1. What do you have in your fridge?

For lower levels

Ask your student/s to stand up, go to his/her fridge and remember 5-7 things that they have have in their fridge, allow 1-2 minutes. Then they return to their online classroom and tell you what they have.

For upper levels

Ask the students to check their fridge and tell you what they may be running out of and what they need to buy, ask them to check their fridge and make a list using the words for packaging ( cans/ pack, carton, bottle etc.)

To make it more interactive

Write a list of words that you think a student may have in his/her fridge, and the student/students make predictions about their teachers’ fridge. Set a time limit of 30 seconds – 1 min depending on their level, then you read the items from your list and the students go to the fridge and check. Take turns. It can be done in different formats. If you have a 121 class, then it is teacher-student; if you are teaching a small group, students can work in pairs or you can do it as group. You can use different questions depending on their level. For lower level students you can just read the list, for slightly higher levels you can use: Do you have any bread? Is there any… in your fridge? Is there a bottle of milk in your fridge? To focus on containers you can ask clarifying questions for the second round. e.g. Do you have a carton of milk or a bottle of milk in your fridge?

2. Can you name all the green/pink/blue/white objects in your bedroom/kitchen/living-room?

Students need to walk to their room and check the objects. You may ask them to take pictures of all green/pink/blue etc. objects and send them to you, though make sure you have parents’ permission for them to do this.
You may either set a time limit or ask them to take pictures of limited number of things, e.g. Take pictures of 4 green things in your flat)

3. How many rectangular/oval/triangular objects do you have in your flat/room/kitchen?

(This idea is from Lisa Margolina. Thanks a lot!)

Students are given some time to walk around and take pictures of all/some shapes at home, similar to the one with colours. They may not know the name of the objects, so you can help them with that when they show the object to you or send you a picture of it (with permission), or you can ask them to use an online dictionary to find the name. Set a clear time limit for that one.

4. What can you see from your window?

A student is given 1 min to go to the window and describe what he/she can see outside. If the window is far from the computer, allow 1 min for the task and make them remember/note down 4-5 things. Then they can tell the rest of the class what they can see. Then you may ask several students to compare it with their view. Encourage them to find more than 5 differences. Again, this can be done teacher-student, student-student, teacher-students.

5. Where’s the mirror?

Make 2 lists of 5 objects each: 5 pieces of furniture and 5 objects, e.g. list 1: a pillow, a vase, a mirror, a cat, keys. List 2: a desk, a bookcase, a bedside table, a bed, a windowsill. One student shows his list to the rest of the class. The students and the teacher make predictions about where the objects are. Those who guess correctly, get one point for each correct answer, and the objects are crossed out from the list. Take turns.

Olga Stolbova

Olga Stolbova is a freelance teacher and a teacher trainer, based in Sevastopol, Crimea.

She has taught English in the USA, China, the Czech Republic, Vietnam, Russia and Ukraine and has run more than 30 CELTA courses around the world.

She loves teaching, travelling and coffee.

If you’d like more ideas for teaching on Zoom, including how to incorporate movement into lessons, read Ideas for adapting group lessons to working on Zoom.

Richer Speaking: how to get more out of speaking activities (IH Barcelona conference 2020)

On 8th February 2020, I had the pleasure of presenting at the IH Barcelona 2020 conference. I shared 4 activities from Richer Speaking, my ebook of 16 ways to get more out of the speaking activities you do in class with minimal extra preparation. 

To find the full details of the richer activities, plus another 12 ways to extend speaking activities, get your copy of Richer Speaking from Smashwords or Amazon [affiliate links]. It costs around $1/€1, so shouldn’t break the bank! As always, I don’t claim that these ideas are original, but it’s handy to have them in one place and see how they can be applied to specific activities.

If you’d like more reflection activities, you can find all the links to buy ELT Playbook 1 at eltplaybook.wordpress.com. There’s a 10% discount until 29th February 2020 if you buy it via Smashwords [affiliate link] using the code WG94S.

Here are my slides:

 

I did a version of this presentation in July 2019 which I’ve fully written out here.

Thank you to those who attended my talk, and I’d be really interested to hear from you if you try out any of these activities in your classroom. And don’t forget to get your copy of Richer Speaking from Smashwords or Amazon [affiliate links]!

A no-prep workshop*

*or at least, very very low prep!
Thursday night: nobody had suggested any queries or problems for our one-to-one troubleshooting session tomorrow. What should we do instead? There wasn’t really time for me to prep anything else, and Ididn’t know what to pick anyway. Cue a quick email:

Please think about 2 things you’re proud of in your lessons (group or 121), and 2 questions you most want answered. We’ll use that as the basis for the session tomorrow.

At the start of the 60-minute session I spread out a pile of A4 scrap paper on the floor. Everybody took a piece, folded it in half, and wrote two questions they had, one on each half. They put them on the floor for later.
They then took another piece, folded it again, and wrote the two things they were proud of. This took a lot longer, and I had to point out that ‘proud of’ doesn’t have to mean finished or perfect, just something you’ve worked at and know you’ve improved. We got there in the end! It reminded me of Sarah Mercer’s IATEFL plenary, when she told us to spot our strengths, the inspiration for the strength spotting task in the Teacher Health and Wellbeing section of ELT Playbook 1.
Everybody mingled, chatting to everybody else, holding up their strengths in front of them, including me. We talked about why we chose them, what we’d done to work on them, and asked each other questions. That took about 10-15 minutes.
I asked for a show of hands to see if any of the strengths matched any of the questions. Only 3 or 4 of the 20 teachers put their hands up, so I changed my mind about the next step.
Instead of pairing people off, I ended up putting them in groups of 4 or 5. They had about 15-20 minutes. This time they all read out their questions in their group, then chose which ones to discuss and offer answers to in a free discussion.
Meanwhile, I took photos of all of their questions and wrote them into a single list. It was an excellent indication of the range of concerns that our teachers have, from classroom management and better pacing to more effective listening lessons and challenging students more. This is a great starting point for deciding the topics of our upcoming workshops.
At the end I asked for another show of hands: who’s learnt something today that will help them with their teaching? Every hand went up.
The feedback was very positive. Teachers said they particularly enjoyed the small group work and the freestyle nature of the session. It worked well at this point in the year as everyone is settled and feels comfortable as a group. Definitely a format I’ll use again!

Not bad for one quick email 🙂

Bridging the gap between classroom and real-world listening (online workshop)

This is the post to accompany my first ever online workshop, where I was in Poland and presenting to rooms of people in British Council schools in Rabat and Casablanca. It was an interesting hybrid of a webinar and a workshop, and definitely something I’d like to do again.

The presentation was a (very slight) reworking of my Transitioning Listening talk, which I last shared on this blog in November 2017. The full version of the original talk presented at IATEFL 2014, including all of the audio, is also available on my blog. Here are the slides from this time around:

This is the lovely poster that Helen Chapman made to advertise it (thanks for organising this Helen!)

Poster for talk with short blurb about me and the session

In its current iteration, the talk is mostly influenced by John Field’s Listening in the Language Classroom (2008) which I read for my Delta. The main change is in my inclusion of Richard Cauldwell’s books, Phonology for Listening: Teaching the stream of speech (2013) and A Syllabus for Listening: Decoding (2018) in the further reading links. They are very readable and have continued to help me develop my ideas of what it means to teach listening in the classroom, not just test it. I’m not sure how much my presentation reflects Cauldwell’s ideas, though I mentioned the idea of greenhouse, garden and jungle speech. I’ll probably rework the presentation more next time around once I’ve finished reading A Syllabus for Listening: Decoding, which I’m currently about half-way through.

If you’d like to buy any of the books mentioned in the talk, here are some affiliate links which will get me a few pennies if you use them 🙂

What do you do to help your students improve their listening skills and prepare them for real-world listening?

Hollywood meets an old people’s home

In a collaborative planning meeting today, we came up with a plan for a speaking lesson based around a single activity from Speakout Intermediate called ‘My life in film’. The image below is taken from the 1st edition, and we were working with the 2nd edition.

A film strip with five boxes: Early days, then, later, a big decision, now

The groups we were planning for have a mix of ages from 16 to 60+, so we thought of a tweak to level the playing field and make sure everybody was starting from the same point. Here’s how the lesson goes:

Guided visualisation

Students close their eyes, and the teacher says something along these lines, pausing at appropriate points for students to think:

You’re 80 years old and you’re in an old people’s home. Look around you. What can you see? How do you feel right now? Go out of the room and down the corridor. Where are you going? Who is walking past you? Where are you going?

It’s time for lunch. What are you eating? What can you smell? What can you hear?

You get some visitors. Who are they? How do you know them? How long have you known them for? What do you talk about? How do you feel about their visit?

After a suitable pause, students tell a partner what they experienced in the old people’s home. As feedback, elicit a couple of general impressions from the visualisation – don’t ask students to repeat whole chunks of what they experienced, as the pace will probably drop and others won’t be particularly interested.

Setting up the situation

Tell students that a film director has come to the old people’s home. They want to choose somebody’s story to turn into a film.

Display the film strip from Speakout and elicit ideas for how to complete it for you (the teacher) – demonstrate just taking notes.

Planning time

Give students about 5 minutes to make notes in their own film strips, including asking you for extra vocabulary. They can be as true or as creative as they like.

Getting into role

As a class, brainstorm one or two ideas of questions/comments directors could use to find out more from the old people in the home and to respond to the stories they hear. For example: ‘That can’t be true!’ ‘What happened after that?’ Students think of more ideas in pairs. As feedback, get them to (simultaneously) write the ideas on the board or use something like mentimeter to submit them electronically.

Pitching ideas

Arrange students into a ladder, with two lines of chairs facing each other. One line will be the directors, the other the old people.

The old people have 3-5 minutes to talk about their lives, while the directors listen and ask questions to find out more.

After each turn, directors move along one seat. The old people stay seated as it’s harder for them to be mobile!

The teacher sits either beyond one row or at the end of the ladder and takes notes on what they are – we are using this activity as a speaking assessment, and this gives the teacher lots of chances/time to listen to the students.

Making a choice

The directors listen to three old people, then choose the person whose story they’d most like to film and write their name on a piece of paper in secret.

Directors and old people switch roles and the pitches and choice stages are repeated.

Off to Hollywood!

Students discuss in new pairs which stories they particularly enjoyed listening to and why. Meanwhile, the teacher looks at all of the names, then declares whose stories will be filmed as a way of feeding back on the content of what the students have said.

For language feedback, the teacher can share some of the great language they heard, and/or highlight some problem areas for students to work on.

If you try this activity out, I’d love to know whether your students get into it. It’s always fun to plan things like this, but I don’t get to use them myself very often!

Stopped teaching? Don’t stop developing!

In April 2019, Rob Howard edited an edition of the free online teachers’ magazine Humanising Language Teaching. He pulled together various members of the Independent Authors and Publishers group to fill an edition of the magazine with articles from across the world of EFL, including teaching, materials writing, and teacher training.

It is a with great pleasure that I introduce this edition of HLT Magazine. As the organizer of the INDEPENDENT AUTHORS & PUBLISHERS, I have the honor of working with some of the biggest names in self-publishing and this like-minded group of individuals has come together for the third year to help spread the word and give new authors and publishers a voice in the everchanging arena of ELT books, training and “socialpreneurs” that will surely make up a big part of the future of ELT.

My own article, Stopped teaching? Don’t stop developing contained a selection of ideas for trainers, managers and materials writers to continue developing their craft. Here’s the opening paragraph:

There is a lot of information out there for teachers who want to continue to develop professionally, and there are a couple of other articles in this magazine about it too. However, there is nowhere near as much information about how to keep developing if you are still involved in language teaching but not in the classroom every day, for example working in academic management, training teachers, or writing materials. Although you can continue to use many of the methods recommended for teachers, such as writing a reflective journal, it can be difficult to know where to find specific resources relevant to these career paths. This article aims to remedy that.

You can see the full contents page here – there’s plenty of good stuff to read in there!

I’m in IA&P because of my books Richer Speaking and ELT Playbook 1/Teacher TrainingClick on the links to find out more and learn how to buy them. Right now, I’m also working with Freeed to find 30 people who will win copies of ELT Playbook 1. The competition closes on September 30th 2019.

ELT Playbook 1 cover

Science and diversity lesson plan

This was a lesson I did with my Proficiency group towards the end of the last academic year. It’s inspired by a podcast episode and general discussions about science and diversity, particularly the number of women who leave science at various points. The PowerPoint shows the structure of the lesson:

And here are the reading texts – I did it as a jigsaw, with each student having one person to read about.

The part of the lesson the students responded best to was sharing their drawings of four different people for the first activity. After they’d shared them, I asked how many were male and how many were female, and whether that surprised them at all. Considering we had a female scientist as one of the students in the group, only one picture out of twenty showed a woman! The statistics also prompted a lot of discussion.

As a mini language focus, we looked at how the four different biographies were structured in an attempt for me to figure out how to get more discourse in my lessons. Here’s what I said:

  • Peggy Whitson: almost every sentence has a background > result/event structure.
  • Marie Tharp: there’s a lot of potentially emotive emphatic language like controversial, dismissed, painstakingly etc.
  • Wanda Diaz-Merced: a straightforward narrative in order of events.
  • Quarraisha Abdool Karim: a list of some of her achievements.

Discourse is not something I know much about, so please feel free to give me more technical information about this! Based on this, students could choose a female scientist to write their own biography about, using one of these structures as a possible framework.

We only spent a very brief time on the final activity about possible solutions as the plan actually took nearly two whole lessons.

I’d be interested to know how it goes down with your students if you choose to use it, and what you would add or change.

Activities with purpose – how I build self-esteem in upper secondary learners (guest post)

I’ve always found it easier to work with adults than teens, so at conferences I often look for sessions which have ideas for improving what happens in the teenage classroom. At IATEFL 2019 in Liverpool, Sofia Leone presented activities to build teen self-esteem, inspired by her work as a language coach. Here she shares two of them, and I hope you’ll find them as interesting as I did!

For the past eight years I have worked closely with secondary learners in southern Italy. It was clear from day one that the only way I could make a career in EFL work for me was if I could make it meaningful. After numerous conversations with teens over the years, it is apparent that many of them are missing supportive teachers at secondary school who give them space to express themselves. I realised that the reason teenagers have always enjoyed themselves in my classroom is that I give them a gift they don’t often get at school: a chance to be heard.

My coaching journey started a few summers ago when I started researching the role of a coach in sport and how those skills could be transferred to the EFL classroom. What started as a hobby (and a lifetime obsession with Rocky!) turned into a learning development project and is now my career as an EFL teacher, materials developer and qualified life coach for young people.

When I talk about my great passion for working with teenagers, I often get very strange reactions from stressed out teachers who are tired of trying to get teens on their side. They ask me how I do it and the answer is always the same: I give young people permission. Permission to express themselves in a supportive environment. Permission to discuss the topics they feel strongly about. Permission to make mistakes and learn from them. This permission empowers the teens which, in turn, leads to increased self-esteem.

I combine a supportive classroom space with a variety of materials which I have branded Activities with Purpose (AWP). These are activities which I develop and use throughout the year with a strong focus on self-improvement, self-exploration, resilience and building self-esteem in young people.

Class cone

An activity that I love kicking off the academic year with is one of my Activities with Purpose entitled class cone. This came about after my first lesson last September with an upper secondary group preparing for the Cambridge Advanced exam. I genuinely love spending my life with young people, but I will admit, it is always nerve-racking walking into a classroom of 14 brand new faces on the first day of term. I had started the lesson with a simple get to know you mingle and as I came over to Vincenzo and his partner to listen in he turned to me (in perfect English) and said:

“Sofia, can I ask you a question? Why do we do the same activities every year? It’s just so boring.”

Ask the teens to be honest - they're actually honest (meme photo of woman with hand on head)

I could have taken offence at his honesty, but I thought it was a fantastic and accurate insight and I later thanked him for inspiring this activity!

At the start of the lesson, students are given a blank scoop of ice cream and I give them time to think about their perfect English class (pace, teacher, amount of homework, activities etc). They then take their time to draw and colour their ideal class. The students then mingle and share their ideas with each other and this gives me the chance to listen to everyone’s requests. I take in everyone’s scoops and make a nice wall display without saying too much about the activity. The best part of this is the challenge that you can then set yourself: to try and fulfil as many of the requests as possible without making it too obvious. The teens want personal topics? I can easily make lessons about sport and nightlife. They want time to dedicate to their passions? We can dedicate a whole lesson to “my passion” presentations and learn from each other in the process.

This worked incredibly well for me this year and on the last day of term I gave my students back their scoops and asked them to write me a letter answering this simple question:

Did I meet your expectations?

This may seem like a simple activity, but a teenager who feels listened to will give you so much more than one who is told what and how to learn.

Me, My Selfie and I

Another AWP which I’ve developed sheds a positive light on something which is often branded superficial and detrimental: selfies. I ask students to take out their phones (brownie points with teens!) and find a selfie they don’t mind showing to their classmates. The students mingle and ask each other questions about where they were and how they felt on that day etc. The students then get a chance to see my not so typical (hey, I’m not 17) selfie.

A selfie of Sofia, with the adjectives determined, motivated, loyal, resilient, written around it

I model four positive adjectives which I would use to describe myself and I then ask students to take some time out to reflect and do the same. Once the students have got at least four adjectives I show them my selfie poem and I ask them to create theirs.

I am proud of all I've done // Even though there have been some // days when I felt I couldn't do it // but no matter what I will never quit

Some students will jump at the chance to try writing a rhyming poem in English and others will need a helping hand. I always tell them that copying the first two lines is a good start. This activity can then lead on to a mingle activity or an even longer poem. Some of my students this year wrote longer poems and asked if they could present their selfie poems to the class! What started as a mini poem ended up as a class celebration of our wins and I feel that the learners had a real chance to show that selfies can be meaningful when given the chance.

Maria Francesca’s beautiful poem which she then presented

Why is building self-esteem important?

The real question should be, why is it not important? I love building up teenagers, but I am also an EFL teacher at the end of the day with deadlines and exam courses to follow. I therefore understand the pressure to ‘fit it all in’. I do, however, believe that by supporting teens to help develop their strengths and cultivate new habits, I am in fact helping to create the right environment for solid language acquisition to take place. By bringing the teens’ lives to the classroom, I bring the classroom to life and my students’ feedback and exam results are testament to the power of active listening and positivity.

I can’t wait for you to try out these activities and watch your teenage classroom vibe go from good to amazing!


Sofia Leone has worked in southern Italy for the past 8 years and is dedicated to helping young people achieve their potential both inside and outside the language classroom. She is a British Council teacher and qualified life coach for young people and her mission is to incorporate meaningful life coaching activities into the upper secondary classroom.
For more information you can visit her website:  www.fiercelifecoaching-awp.com

ELT Playbook Teacher Training e-books

ELT Playbook Teacher Training is now available as an ebook via Amazon and Smashwords (affiliate links). It’s currently retailing for around £7.50/$8.99 on both platforms.

The 30 tasks in the book are in 6 different categories and are designed to help teacher trainers reflect on their practice (please ignore the ‘coming soon’!):

ELT Playbook Teacher Training cover and topic areas: what is training, planning training, observation: written feedback, observation: spoken feedback, workshops and input, other aspects

Don’t forget that you can earn badges for your CV/blog/etc. if you share your responses to the tasks using the #ELTplaybook hashtags across social media.

You can also buy the book as a paperback from Amazon and Book Depository.

For teachers

If you’re still in the classroom, you might also be interested in ELT Playbook 1, 30 tasks particularly designed for early-career teachers, but useful to anyone I hope!

ELT Playbook 1 cover

These are the 6 categories for the tasks:

ELT Playbook 1 cover and topic areas: back to basics, examining language, upgrading skills, being creative, exploring your context, teacher health and wellbeing

…and the badges:

ELT Playbook 1 all badges preview small

Buy it at Smashwords, Amazon and Book Depository (affiliate links).

Find out more at eltplaybook.wordpress.com.

Please tell everyone you know! 🙂

What I learnt at the ETAI 40th anniversary conference

On 3rd and 4th July 2019 I attended the English Teachers’ Association of Israel (ETAI) international conference. They were celebrating their 40th anniversary, so there were a few special events. This included a musical celebration hosted by Leo Selivan and Jane Cohen, which I really enjoyed. Attendees were mostly from Israel, but Poland, Serbia, Greece, Austria, and other countries were also represented. I learnt a lot about how the Israeli school system works, and particularly the shift to try to get more speaking in the classroom, hence my own session on Richer Speaking.

Ideas from the conference

Penny Ur has written A guide to talking which is a useful beginner’s guide for getting more speaking in your classroom, including a selection of ready-to-use activities.

There are resources available for 7th grade students to help teachers get their students comfortable with speaking (aged around 12). Let’s Talk includes games to teach the language of basic role plays. We were shown these by Rachelle Borenstein and Renee Binyamini.

Early on in her courses, Timna Hurwich asks her students to discuss the Einstein quote below and answer the questions ‘When is a mistake good?’ ‘When is a mistake bad?’

I happened to see the same quote in this street art two days before this conference presentation!

Mitzi Geffen said “There is no glue on the bottom of your shoes!” which I think is a great way to remind teachers to move around the classroom, or ‘circulate and facilitate’ as she put it.

She shared how she helps reluctant students get over their fear of speaking in an achievable way, in this case when she wanted them to talk about a project they had done at home.

  • Step 1: each person stands at the front and says “My name is [Sandy] and my project is about [Einstein].” Everybody claps. They sit down again. When they’ve all done that, Mitzi points out that they all spoke and nothing bad happened!
  • Step 2: in the next lesson, other students have to ask questions about the project. They can use the questions they based their project research on. As everybody has the same questions, it’s easy to be successful, and takes the pressure off the presenter to work out what to say next.

Mitzi also suggested a really simple structure for brainstorming ideas for a debate, using the phrases “Yes, and…” or “Yes, but…” Anybody can add an idea. For example:

  • Chocolate is really delicious.
  • Yes, but it’s unhealthy if you eat too much.
  • Yes, and you can get fat.
  • Yes, but you can exercise more.
  • Yes, but exercise makes you tired.
  • etc.

Marta Bujakowska woke us up with a series of lively activities, including a conditional chain of actions, and countable/uncountable conversations. I’ve asked her to write a guest post so won’t say any more here!

James Kennard suggested we rethink some of the terminology connected to leadership and management. He emphasises that we often talk about them both like they should be part of the same job, but that the role is almost always given the title ‘manager’, unless you’re in a political party! Would it make a difference if we changed the terminology? He tried it at his school and it didn’t change much, but still something to think about. He also believes that ‘focus’ is a better word than ‘vision’ when it comes to describing your priorities as an organisation. Leaders need to identify the focus of the organisation and articulate it to others, so that members of the organisation can make the right decisions every time, in line with this focus.

Books as bridges: why representation matters

The two talks given by Anne Sibley O’Brien were probably the most influential for me. She was born in the United States, but when she was 7 her family moved to Korea, and she grew up there. You can read more about her story in the interview Naomi Epstein did with her. Her background has led Anne to work in diversity education, and she is the author and illustrator of various children’s books. She talked about the development of our identities, including racial identities, bias, and contact theory. Her perspective is unusual as she grew up with a minority identity, but a privileged one. We all have a mixture of identities, and generally some of them fall into majority and some into minority categories.

We learn who we are by the mirrors that are held up to us and what is made salient to us.

For Anne, she was constantly told that she was American and white, but her Korean friends were never told they were Korean, thus emphasising her difference. Majority identities are taken for granted because they are ‘normal’ and they end up disappearing. Minority identities are highlighted and everything you do becomes tied to that identity.

For example, consider being the only girl in a football team, versus being a boy in the same team. The fact of being a boy is unlikely to be commented on in this case, whereas being a girl will probably always be commented on. Members of a majority identity stop seeing what is actually there or can never see it, whereas members of a minority identities can often say quite incisive things about the majority identity because they have to be aware of the other side too, not just their own. For example, white Americans often don’t see how race affects the everyday lives of non-whites.

Children already notice racial and cultural differences from a very young age – I think Anne said that it’s around 6 months old. They get their attitudes about race from community norms, more than from parental norms (consider the analogy of accents and where children pick them up from) and from their environment, including who visits their house and what is and isn’t talked about. Three year olds already know that we don’t talk about skin colour. Consider when you’re describing pictures in a book to a child: you would probably say that it’s a blue ball, or a yellow car, but you’re unlikely to say it’s a brown or a pink baby. This is an example of our silence when it comes to race.

We all see the world through lenses, but we’re often not aware of what we see.

Our brain uses cognitive processes to make it easier for us to deal with the world. It sorts things in an unbiased way all the time, for example familiar/unfamiliar, same/different, like me/not like me, etc. This sorting initially does not contain judgement, but then we layer associations onto the categories, which can add bias. For example, same = good, different = bad.

The brain creates bias based on what it’s fed. If it only sees ‘white’, it will create white bias, but by making conscious decisions about what we feed our brains, we can change the bias. We all carry bias, but if we don’t understand this, how can we help others? If you’d like to find out more about your own biases, Anne recommends projectimplicit.net.

We can also help children by referencing people they know and books they have read to start a discussion about race, instead of staying silent.

Aren’t we amazingly different? Look how we’re the same!

As we get to know each other, it can reduce prejudice and inter-group anxiety. This is known as contact theory. Anne has worked on something called The Storybook Project (?), where children and their teachers looked at 1 book a week for 6 weeks showing positive interactions between people of different races, followed by a short discussion of how much fun the children are having in the book. They found this made a difference to how children felt about interacting with people from the groups represented.

She also works on the diversebookfinder.org website to help people think about who is represented in the books they use, and how. Are there interactions between two named characters of different races? Are they positive?

Her two latest books I’m New Here and Someone New [Amazon affiliate links] tell the same story of three children arriving at a new school (one Guatamalan, one Korean, one Somali) from the perspective of the children themselves in the first book, and from the perspective of the other children in the class who don’t know how to react in the second book. I will definitely be getting copies of these!

Thank you to everyone at ETAI for organising the conference, and especially to Naomi Epstein and Leo Selivan who encouraged me to attend. As you can see, I had a really good time!

Richer Speaking: how to get more out of speaking activities (ETAI 2019)

On 4th July 2019, I had the privilege of presenting at the English Teachers Association of Israel (ETAI) 40th anniversary international conference. Here is a summary of my talk:

Richer Speaking: how to get more out of speaking activities

This session will demonstrate a range of low-preparation ways to adapt speaking activities that appear in coursebooks and other materials, based on my self-published book ‘Richer Speaking. These adaptations are aimed at helping students to speak comfortably for longer and produce higher quality language while minimising the effort for you!

To find the full details of the richer activities, plus another 12 ways to extend speaking activities, get your copy of Richer Speaking from Smashwords or Amazon [affiliate links]. It costs around $1/€1, so shouldn’t break the bank! As always, I don’t claim that these ideas are original, but it’s handy to have them in one place and see how they can be applied to specific activities.

Richer Speaking cover

What do I want to know?

Original activity

Tell your partner about you.

Richer activity

Before speaking, come up with three questions you want to know the answers to. Pool the questions with a partner and add two more to your list. Tell your partner about you. If your partner gets stuck, ask one of your questions.

Feedback stage

Did you find out what you wanted to know?

Rationale

This gives students a real reason to listen, and helps them come up with ideas for their own speaking turn too. It also helps to create more of a conversation instead of two monologues.

Language challenge

Original activity

Any list of conversation questions.

Richer activity

Answer the conversation questions. Afterwards, list the language you used (either in English or your own language). For example:

  • Grammar: tenses, sentence structures (conditionals? relative clauses? etc.), modal verbs…
  • Vocabulary: phrases, collocations, key words…
  • Pronunciation: intonation, stress for emphasis…

Consider what other language you could use. Look at your notebook or coursebook to help you. Change partners and repeat the activity.

Feedback stage

Did you use all of the language on your longer list?

Rationale

This challenges students to use a wider range of language and adds a reason for them to repeat the same speaking activity. It can be particularly good for exam students who need to show off the range of language they know.

Who am I?

Original activity

A role play. In the session I used one from Now You’re Talking! 2 by Rivka Lichtner (A.E.L. Publications, 2018) where an Israeli teenager sees an American celebrity on the street. The teenager thinks the celebrity looks familiar and tries to speak to them, while the celebrity is on holiday and wants to hide their identity. [I love this idea!]

Richer activity

Create a mini biography for a teenager or celebrity in this situation. Here are some ideas:

  • Celebrity: Who are you? Where are you from? Why are you visiting Israel? Why are you hiding?
  • Teen: Who are you? Who do you think the celebrity is? Why do you want to talk to them?
  • Both: How do you feel right now? Why? What did you do before the conversation? What are your plans later?

Optionally, exchange biographies with another student. Read your biography, then put it away. Meet as many celebrities/teens as you can in the time limit.

Feedback stage

Teens: Did you find out who the celebrities were?

Celebrities: Did you hide successfully?

Rationale

By giving students time to prepare before they speak, they can get into the role more fully and the role play should be much more interesting for them. Adding dimensions such as feelings and how this conversation fits into the character’s whole day can make it feel more realistic and part of a larger story.

Not me, you!

Original activity

Talking about why two cartoons are funny. Again, the cartoons in my session were taken from from Now You’re Talking! 2.

Richer activity

For 1 minute, think of as many reasons as you can for why these cartoons are funny. Choose an object with your partner (for example, a pen or a coin). List ways that you can pass a conversation over to a partner. For example:

  • What do you think?
  • Do you agree?
  • How about…?
  • I really don’t think…, but maybe you do?

Have a conversation with your partner. Every time you pass the conversation to them, give them the object. When the teacher says stop, you shouldn’t be holding your object! Don’t be the last person speaking!

Feedback stage

Who is holding the object?

Rationale

Because students don’t want to lose the game, they push themselves to find something else to say to be able to hand over the conversation to their partners. This extends the conversation and gives them turn-taking practice.

Reflection

ELT Playbook 1 cover

To finish off the session, we used these reflection questions based loosely on ‘Supporting students in speaking tasks’, an activity from ELT Playbook 1.

  • Choose 2-3 speaking activities you’ve done in the last school year. Could you adapt them using these ideas?
  • Do you often include stages like these? Why (not)?
  • What other support do/could you give your students to help them:
    • prepare to speak?
    • speak for longer?
    • repeat activities in a varied way?
    • have a clear reason to listen?

If you’d like more reflection activities like this, you can find all the links to buy ELT Playbook 1 at eltplaybook.wordpress.com. There’s a 10% discount until 31st July 2019 if you buy it via Smashwords [affiliate link] using the code YM64U.

Thank you to those who attended my talk, and I’d be really interested to hear from you if you try out any of these activities in your classroom. And don’t forget to get your copy of Richer Speaking from Smashwords or Amazon [affiliate links]!

Questions to ask when planning post-activity feedback stages

I recently observed a teacher who wants to work on the feedback stages of her lesson, making sure that she is as responsive as possible to the needs of her learners and helping her as part of her DipTESOL studies. Most of the reading and methodology we’ve found about feedback has been connected to error correction and upgrading language. We haven’t been able to find very much about feedback on content and skills work and how to do it effectively. Please share if you can recommend anything!

In our post-observation discussion, one thing we discussed was the pacing of feedback, and that not everyone was fully involved in feedback stages. Feedback also didn’t really feed into later stages of the lesson. We identified that this was partly because the method of post-activity feedback chosen didn’t always appropriately match the activity itself – something neither of us have been specifically trained in. As a result, we came up with a series of questions to use to help her (and me!) when planning a lesson to work out how to get the most out of post-activity feedback.

  1. What is the purpose of the task?
    For example:
    Is it comprehension of specific information?
    Brainstorming ideas for a storytelling activity?
  2. How can you most efficiently find out whether the purpose of the task has been achieved in the lesson?
    For example:
    By looking at students’ books while monitoring.
    By students putting their ideas onto mini whiteboards, then walking around and looking at other people’s ideas.
  3. What is the feedback stage actually for?
    For example:
    To make sure the students know the correct answers. To get a general idea of how well students have initially understand what they listened to.
    To steal ideas from other students ready to use later in the lesson.
  4. Where is the learning happening? For who? How many students are actively involved in this?
    For example:
    In pairs, students don’t just say what’s correct, but why, referring back to the text/transcript. If they’re not sure about something they circle it. The teacher monitors and notices what is circled to deal with in the next stage of the lesson.
    You ask them to add ideas from other people to their whiteboards.

What other questions would you suggest? Would you use them in this order? Would you edit/remove any?

Listening attentively

Still my favourite listening picture…

For example, in the lesson I observed there was rather a long listening task where students had to fill in a table with 4 rows and columns about the problems presenters had had during their presentations. Students checked their answers in pairs, then some of them wrote up the notes onto the whiteboard. Of the eight students in the class, four were writing up answers and the others were watching. In the peer check, one student who has general problems with listening comprehension had struggled a little with some of the points in the listening, but most were fine. It took a relatively long time (3-4 minutes) and once it was confirmed that the answers were correct, they were rubbed off the board.

Using the questions above, how would you approach the feedback from the activity in your lesson? How could it feed into later stages of the lesson to develop the students’ listening skills beyond pure comprehension?

Exploiting your materials with minimal preparation (IH TOC 2019)

Every May, International House World Organisation runs their Teachers’ Online Conference (TOC) event. This is a day or two of short talks on a huge range of topics presented by teachers from across the IH network. They are recorded and you can still watch talks from previous years. I’ll add the recordings from this year once they’re available (in the next week or so).

This year, the event happened on Friday May 17th. My presentation was designed to help you reduce your planning time, but still teach an effective lesson. It’s based around adapting a double-page coursebook spread to maximise the usefulness for my students while not adding huge amounts of planning/materials creation to my day.

If you want more minimal preparation ideas for exploiting a coursebook, here are 101 of them (approximately!)

Here are links to the rest of the  English language online conference and the Modern Languages conference.

Planning questions

The questions I suggested you could use when thinking about planning are:

INSTEAD OF

  • How can we do these pages?

ASK YOURSELF

  1. What do my students need the most?
  2. What do they already know?
  3. How much time do they need to bridge the gap?
  4. How can I maximise engagement?
  5. What can the book support the students in?
  6. What’s missing? What do I need to add/change?
  7. How much variety is needed? How can I add it?

Another possible set of questions I’ve come up with in the last couple of days is:

  1. What do my students want to know (how to do)?
  2. What aspects of that language/skill/function etc. do they already know? How will I find that out in the lesson if I’m not sure?
  3. How can I help them bridge the gap between what they can already do and what they want/need to do? What problems might they have with this language/skill/function? What can they/I do about them? (Is there something in the book that already deals with this? Do I need to add/change something?)
  4. How can I check/make sure students realise they’ve improved?

I’d be interested to know what happens if you try out either of these sets of questions as a planning approach as they’re a reflection of what I think I do when I approach planning, and I’ve only written them down this week!

Elementary functions lesson

Speakout Elementary Students’ Book, Frances Eales and Steve Oakes, Pearson Longman, pp.92-93

These are my notes for the Speakout Elementary coursebook spread above, which I used to generate the questions. You can see me voicing them and adding extra detail in the recording of my session.

“Teaches itself” – Everything is here – could work through page from start to finish, and SS would learn. But book-bound, little variety and most importantly… probably too long – potentially 2-3 hours of lessons here if you really exploit it. Start with timing – 90-minute lesson, take away warmer/homework check = 70 minutes-ish left over.

Need to prioritise. What’s main aim? What’s most useful to my students? Unlikely to have time to do justice to both function and telling a story so pick one to really work with in depth. Ask students which one in previous lesson? At elementary = aim should be building confidence, rather than rushing through and ‘finishing’ everything. Repetition, practice, chances to use the language.

So I choose apologies (I think my students will be able to use this every lesson – they’re always having problems! And useful when they travel/meet new people) Stories are great too, but I’ve got to pick one – not enough time to do justice to both.

Where could you start? How can you engage them in the topic?

The image in 3A might not generate much conversation, though the story is good. Set up situation – clear context. Going into work. You had this problem from image (either cartoon or p93 pictures). What did you say to your boss? Mini roleplay – test what they already know. Start from communication rather than language (TBL) + help students to notice the gap. Tells you how much you need to teach them later.

Could also start with images from p93 – what are the problems? Who apologies? Why? Start with finding out what students already know.

Or the excuses vocab from 2A/2B if they’re a lower level and really need the help, or this could follow looking at the images if it turns out they don’t know the language – they’re producing ‘lost keys’ ‘didn’t wake up’.

> Materials needed = images scanned/photoed from your phone (with copyright information!) rather than spending time Googling other images, or the book software if you have access to it, or a quick cartoon you can draw on the board of one of the situations from the book, or you need 3A/3B from book/board. If in book, ask students to cover ex 4 onwards.

Various options for next stage: if you’re confident, you can work with student-generated language and build up dialogue with them on board, adding in phrases from 4A/4B/4C as needed – could be engaging if you can keep everyone involved, could also be very teacher-centred! Less teacher-centred = they write out their roleplay in pairs/groups and you go round feeding in language. If less confident, work through 4A/4B/4C as is. = meaning, form. Language bank gives some extra practice if needed.

BUT what’s missing? What about pron, drilling, memorisation, student confidence? Will they be able to use these phrases accurately and fluently later? This is where your time will probably go in an elementary functions lesson! What could you do that’s minimal prep here? Key word drill, deletion drill, first letter drill, remember/test/write – all useful. Decide how much needed in the lesson.

> Materials needed: book, board, choice of key words (but students can help you decide those in the lesson – better if from them!)

Lots of practice of phrases, now back to context and communication.

Show them the framework from 5A (in book/photo on board with copyright/key words written on board – up to you, but minimal prep!) – pairs think of conversations between teacher and student, practice for a couple of minutes, ask if anyone wants to perform.

Could use 5B to show who apologises to who, or could elicit from students on board – probably more engaging and creative

They come up with more conversations, perhaps in a mingle – they haven’t moved yet in the lesson! Or use 5C as is – they listen and guess = engaging, reason to listen. Feed back on what they’ve done / Language upgrades / Ask if they’ve improved their confidence.

Intermediate grammar lesson

I ran out of time to discuss this in my presentation – I wanted to show how you could use the questions generated by the elementary spread to plan with another coursebook/level. I’m imagining planning a lesson for a group of 12 students, aged 16-45, about half and half teens and adults, with a 90-minute lesson of which the first 20 minutes are revision/HW check.

Here are my answers to the seven planning questions:

  1. What do my students need the most?
    Aim is to get them using relative clauses (which I know my intermediate students don’t use from observing them in previous lessons), not learning about Che; communication key – lots of speaking.
  2. What do they already know? (in this case, at the planning stage what do I think they already know?)
    Have seen defining clauses before, but probably don’t use. Maybe first time with non-defining within our school, but teens are likely to have seen it at school fairly recently and will probably be faster.
  3. How much time do they need to bridge the gap? (in this case, what’s my prediction when I’m planning?)
    Time spent on seeing what they already know about relative clauses, and giving them plenty of time to produce their own = start planning with the end of the lesson? Adults will need more time than teens.
  4. How can I maximise engagement? (when answering this, I ended up writing out a whole plan!)
    Teen students unlikely to know about him, and I’m not sure the adults will be that interested in him either. So raising interest important (could find another person to describe, but that creates loads of work and we want minimal prep!) Right from start, get them talking about films about famous people & they could return to this at end of the lesson producing their own description of person/film for example. Should be more accessible for all ages (could be real film or one they wish existed) – so a twist on the topic.
    To segue to the reading, do a KWL chart. Or they could write 5 questions they want a film about Che to answer, rather than testing their knowledge (which I suspect most of them don’t have!) – student-generated = more interesting. Or use the photos but not the quiz? Lots of options!
    When they were talking about their own people/films, did they use relative clauses? Probably not – so point this out to them before 1d to give them a reason to pay attention. 1g is OK as text follow-up, but won’t use that many relative clauses. But you could use it as another test of whether they’re producing relative clauses, since they’ve seen examples of them now – retelling a text is a great way to see what language they already use.
    Bridge the gap by working with sentences you collected while monitoring when they were talking about their films, or predicted they’d get wrong before the lesson (this is a good approach if you’re less confident/find it difficult to hear what students say) – with relative clauses, the biggest problems are normally the form (word order, which relative pronoun to use, producing sentences like GGB is the actor who he played Che where the word the pronoun replaced isn’t removed) and the intonation difference between defining and non-defining clauses (Can they ‘hear the commas’?), so these are the things you should plan to help them with. Do memorisation work with Ex 1d to keep it in context – get students to reproduce sentences without looking (probably with some form of key word prompt), or read-remember-cover-write-check, or translate the sentence into their mother tongue then back into English with their books closed. In all cases, compare the differences between what they wrote and the original – they’ll notice the problems and you can point them out if they don’t! None of these ideas require extra prep! Keep the grammar bank in reserve if they really need extra form help, but you’ll lose the context of Che/famous people here.
    For pron work, they read all of the sentences in 1d in pairs as quickly as possible, though without worrying about the pron of words like Che, Bernal and Rosario! You can get them to write he or it above the sentences to make it easier. Do an open class drill of any sentences that cause problems, including pointing out the commas and the difference that makes to intonation if they had trouble with it.
    Another possible activity for practice: students write out a sentences from 1d, but separated (The photo is probably one of the best known photos in the world. It was taken in 1960.) on scrap paper, then test each other by mingling with one piece of paper each and asking their partner to recombine them verbally. You don’t need to prep this – it’s a challenge to work out how to separate the sentences and students will learn from this, also chance to mingle and move around. This activity can take quite a long time though, so decide in the lesson whether it’s needed and have your scrap paper ready. No point spending ages prepping it yourself if you’re not going to end up using it! Could be reused as revision in future lessons too if you collect the scrap paper.
    Then they do the writing/speaking about their film again at the end but with a new partner, and you can praise them on how many (more) relative clauses they’re using and/or how accurately they’re using them now compared to before!
  5. What can the book support the students in?
    See point 4.
  6. What’s missing? What do I need to add/change?
    See point 4.
  7. How much variety is needed? How can I add it?
    They’ve moved, changed groupings, worked with heads up and heads down, and produced something creative (talking about their films). There’s speaking, listening (to their partners), writing (if you do the scrap paper activity), reading, grammar, pronunciation, and probably a bit of vocab from the reading or fed in during the speaking activities.

In conclusion

The lessons as described above:

  • are relatively flexible
  • leave the students space to show what they know
  • allow you to respond to their needs by filling gaps in their knowledge instead of trying to cover everything because it’s in the book (and are therefore more focussed and engaging)
  • require no extra materials, or some quick-to-prepare materials if you want to do this, using what’s in the coursebook as a jumping-off point
  • include time for memorisation and confidence-building
  • prioritise communication
  • upgrade language
  • have a range of activity types, not just completing exercises from the book
  • give students the chance to notice their progress
  • require minimal preparation beyond thinking about the answers to the questions! No cutting up 🙂

ELT Playbook 1 cover

If you want to have a go at this kind of brainstorming yourself, there’s a task called ‘One activity, multiple tasks’ in ELT Playbook 1. Find out how to get your copy via the ELT Playbook blog and share your ideas on social media or in the comments below.

If you want more minimal preparation ideas for exploiting a coursebook, here are 101 of them (approximately!)

101 things to do with a coursebook page (all of which take less than 5 minutes to prepare!)

I created this list a couple of years ago for a workshop to help early career teachers see how they can exploit the materials available in a coursebook without needing to spend hours reinventing the wheel or cutting things up. The list is designed to:

  • help teachers add variety to lessons
  • go beyond their materials
  • think about skills lessons in a different way, not just testing but teaching
  • add bits of learner training to lessons
  • be a bank of ideas for activities teachers can pull out in the lesson if they need to change something
  • give teachers tasters of bits of methodology they might not be aware of (like metacognition or ways of improving

It is not designed to be a comprehensive list – 4 sides of A4 is quite enough as a starting point. It’s also not designed to be a critique of coursebooks – that’s for another place and time. There might be one or two ideas which are ‘Sandy Millin originals’ 🙂 but generally they were collated from throughout my career so far, so thank you if you’re the source of any of them!

Feel free to use the list or the handout in training sessions/workshops, but please credit the source. My 60-minute workshop went something like this:

  • In small groups, teachers shared their own ideas of things they do to exploit coursebooks.
  • The list was cut into sections and placed around the room.
  • Teachers had time to read it, add question marks next to anything they couldn’t understand, and add their own ideas to the paper. This is why there’s an empty bullet point at the end of each category.
  • I demonstrated/explained any confusing activities.
  • Teachers decided which activities they would try out in the next week (I can’t remember if we had time to do this, but I’d make sure if I ran it again!)
  • We took photos of the annotated sheets and emailed them to everyone after the session.

You can download the handout as a pdf or a .docx file.

Coursebooks

Image taken by Sue Annan, from the ELTpics collection and shared under a Creative Commons 3.0 licence

Vocabulary

  1. Test students: get them to draw pictures, which you can then use to:
    – Play games: point to…, find…, take…, run to…, what’s missing (…all the typical ones)
    – Give each group a pile of pictures – they turn them over and make sentences
    – Show a picture – they race to write the word (in notebooks, on mini whiteboards, on the board)
  2. Categorise words (meaning):
    – I like, I don’t like
    – In the bedroom, In the kitchen, In the living room, In the bathroom
    – Know/Don’t know
    – With /i:/ /e/ /3:/ etc (pron)
  3. Using the exercise in the book: do it as is, then…
    – cover the words and work with your partner to say them (pron)
    – cover and write the words, while looking at definitions (form)
    – look at the words and remember the definitions
    – one student closes book, other open and tests them
    – groups of 3/4: one student = teacher, says definition. Others race to say word – point for each/they become the next ‘teacher’.
    – point to the word/picture on software, students say it
  4. Memorisation:
    – Close your book and write down all of the words.
    – Board race of all of the words.
    – Translation Chinese whispers – e.g. English, Polish, English, Polish
    Evil memorization of sentences around gap-filled words (show on software, they write in answers, switch off software, they remember sentences)
    – Little books: students make a book out of A4 paper, then write a word on the first page. Next student draws a pic of the word on next page. Next student looks at pic (not word!) and writes word, etc. At the end, see how different final picture is from original word. (Chinese whispers)
  5. Pronunciation (pairs first, then remedially drill problem words, especially for higher levels):
    – Different types of drill: stressed syllable, stickman…
    – Point to the picture, they say the word – as fast as possible (use their pics from idea 1)
    – Students write out words – one each (can have more than one of each word) – use for disappearing drills

Exploiting images

(particularly for warmers – on coursebook software or in their books, or PowerPoint if you want to spend more time prepping)

  1. Students discuss in pairs: 1 minute to think first, then…
    – What can you see?
    I see, I think, I wonder
    – What was it like five minutes before/after?
    – Create personalities for the people.
    – Add something to the picture, then tell your partner what and why.
    – Have you ever been anywhere like this? Seen anything like this? Would you like to?

Grammar/functional language

(see also the vocab ideas above!)

  1. Eliciting it (after students have already seen it in context!):
    – First letters of each word
    – First word of sentence – they find it in text. Add a word at a time until someone gets it.
    – Sentence hangman
    – Hum the stress pattern
  2. Pronunciation (hand over to students ASAP):
    – Different types of drill: key word, first letter of each word, substitution…
    – Draw/ask students to draw an image to represent a sentence (e.g. a door for ‘Can you open the door?’ – use these as prompts.
    – ‘Grammar’ sentences e.g. you / work / office? = ‘Do you work in an office?
    – What are the stressed/unstressed words?
    – Can you say it as fast as me? Backchain to help them with this.
    – Use rhythm to aid memorization. Try jazz chants:
  3. Exploiting controlled practice:
    – Say the sentences as quickly as you can.
    – One student says the answer, the other student says the whole sentence.
    – Translation mingle: write one sentence on a bit of scrap paper. Translate it to Polish. Mingle – say Polish sentence, other person says English. Encourage them to give feedback: That’s right. You’re nearly there. That’s completely wrong!
    – Students create 2-3 extra questions to extend the activity.
    – How many of the sentences can you remember from the text?
    – Close your books. Can you retell the story? (If it’s a complete text)
    – 1 student says a sentence from the activity. The other student remembers the one before it.
    – Contextualise the sentences: put them into a longer ‘text’. If they leave a gap, other students can try to work out which sentence it is.
  4. Semi-controlled/freer practice:
    – Type up 6-10 sentence starters taken from the book (e.g. ‘As soon as I got home yesterday…’). Have some scrap paper. Students write the endings, then mix them up. Move around the room. Other groups then match endings to starters.
    – Draw the sentences: Students fold a piece of A4 paper into 8 boxes and put small numbers in the corner, like so:
1 2 1 2
3 4 3 4

They draw a picture each for four different sentences on the left, and don’t write the sentence! They pass the paper to a second group, who try to remember the corresponding sentences. A third group checks if they are correct (with or without books depending on how evil you feel).
– Students create their own ‘find someone who

Exploiting reading/listening texts

  1. Explore context/genre:
    – Where would you see/hear this text?
    – Who would be like to read/listen to this kind of thing? Would you?
    – What other titles could the text have?
    – Which features of this text make it an article/blogpost/radio interview e.g. The introduction of the people at the start…
    – What features make this readable? Or make a listener want to continue listening? If any!
  2. Extend the text:
    – What happened next?
    – What extra question could the interviewer ask?
  3. Mine the text:
    – What phrases do you want to steal?
    – Choose a sentence. Remember, cover, write, check.
    – How could you say the sentence in a different way?
  4. Improve listening skills:
    – Do a micro dictation of problem sentences.
    – Focus on some of the connected speech, then get students to repeat it.
    – Ask students to reflect on what made a text easy/difficult e.g. speed, accent, topic.
    – Play, pause, students say what’s coming next, then listen and check.
  5. Look at ’40 things to do with a text’ http://teachertrainingunplugged.com/other-writing/40-things-to-do-with-a-text/

Extending speaking activities

  1. Read Richer Speaking 🙂 https://sandymillin.wordpress.com/2016/04/06/richer-speaking/
  2. Work with another partner:
    – After error correction from the teacher (this helps them to upgrade language)
    – To find out if their new partner is similar/different to their previous partner.
    – To report on partner 1’s answers. They could then change again to report on three people’s answers (partner 1, partner 2, and partner 2’s first partner!)
    – After the teacher has fed in some extra functional language.
  3. Change the situation:
    – Have the same conversation as if you are a manager and employee / parent and child / old person and teenager…
    – Would the conversation be the same in a café? An airport? At a friend’s house?
  4. Reflect on a task (a.k.a. metacognition):
    – What extra words did you need? How did you get them?
    – When did the conversation stop? (How) did you get it started again?
    – What made the task particularly easy/difficult? What could make it easier in future?

Extending writing activities

  1. Upgrade your writing:
    – Add five adjectives/a conditional/two more sentences…
    – Rewrite it so it’s more formal/informal/legible (!)
    – Proofread it for commas/capital letters/past simple forms/your favourite spelling mistakes
    – Add a title/subtitles
  2. Switch texts and:
    – check it for content – does it include everything?
    – correct three spelling mistakes
    – choose a word/phrase you want to steal and add to your text
  3. Walk around and read texts while:
    – adding post-it note comments
    – choosing which [holiday you would like to go on] – try to avoid ‘the best’ as this is subjective

Exploiting the coursebook software

  1. Use the extra functions:
    – Games
    – Audioscripts
  2. Block things out (either using the in-built function or putting another window over the top!):
    – Parts of images/vocabulary banks – what’s missing
    – Half a text – remember the other half
    – Only show the first letter or two of words in a vocab list – race to write them on mini whiteboards
  3. Check the answers:
    – Students write the answers in when projected on the board.
    – Show the answers and ask students if they’ve got them right.
    – One person can look, the other can’t and has to listen to the answers.
  4. With practice exercises:
    – Sentence pictionary: one person can look and has a mini whiteboard, the other has their back to the board. You circle a sentence number. They draw the sentence and their partner has to remember it.
    – Hot seat/backs to the board: circle/underline words in the word bank for them to define.
    – They race to define 4/6 words as fast as possible: guesser puts them on a mini whiteboard.
  5. Display texts for students to:
    – Run and point to the vocabulary item you define (team game). Items can be hidden in a vocabulary bank or hidden in a reading text/audioscript.
    – Remember a sentence and write it down, then look and check.

Good Omens lesson plan

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is probably my favourite book, and one of very few I’ve read multiple times. This is how Wikipedia summarises it:

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (1990) is a World Fantasy Award-nominated novel, written as a collaboration between the English authors Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. The book is a comedy about the birth of the son of Satan, and the coming of the End Times. There are attempts by the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley to sabotage the coming of the end times, having grown accustomed to their comfortable surroundings in England. One subplot features a mixup at the small country hospital on the day of birth and the growth of the Antichrist, Adam, who grows up with the wrong family, in the wrong country village. Another subplot concerns the summoning of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, each a big personality in their own right.

In preparation for the upcoming series, which I am incredibly excited about, I’ve been re-reading it for the fourth or fifth time. In the process came across a short excerpt which can stand alone and decided it would make a good lesson for my Proficiency/C2 students. I think it could work for C1 students too.

We used it over two 90-minute lessons, but it’s very flexible so you can make it longer or shorter as you choose – it depends on how into the tasks the students get!

If you teach a 121 student, you may choose not to read the extract yourself beforehand, and go through the lesson making predictions, producing your own version of the text and reading it for the first time at the same time as your student. I promise there’s nothing offensive there! 🙂 A couple of teachers from our school who had never read Good Omens themselves used this plan successfully with their 121 students in this way.

Lesson stages

  • Tell students they’re going to read a short excerpt from a book. Before they read, they’re going to predict what happens. Emphasise that there are no right answers to this.
  • Show the pictures from Slide 1 of the Newt meets aliens Good Omens p203-205 presentation. Students work in pairs to make predictions of general events that might happen in the excerpt. Switch pairs to compare predictions and/or elicit some ideas as a class.
  • Show the word cloud from Slide 2. Tell students that this is a word cloud showing all of the language from the original excerpt. A word that is larger appears more often in the original text. Newt is the name of one of the characters from the book, and Lower Tadfield is the village he is travelling towards.
  • Students work in groups of three to write a version of what they think happens in the excerpt. They can use any of the language they want to from the word cloud. Give them plenty of time to do this: 20-30 minutes would be ideal. This is a chance for them to be creative, and to check language they’re not sure about in the dictionary or with you. Again, emphasise that the aim is not to reproduce the original extract, but to play with the language and experiment with ideas.
  • Groups read all of the other stories. Have they come up with similar ideas?
  • Slide 3 shows two covers for the book. Tell students that the excerpt they’ve been working with is from a comedy written about the end of the world. This part is a small event that happens half-way through the book. “Would you like to read it?” Hopefully their interest has been piqued by now and the answer will be yes!
  • Give them the Word document (Newt meets aliens Good Omens p203-205). As they read, they should compare the events in their versions of the story to the original, and decide how similar they are. They shouldn’t worry about language they don’t understand. They’ll need about 4-5 minutes to read, then should discuss in their groups the similarities and differences between their versions and the excerpt.
  • Slide 4 has follow-up questions for students to discuss in small groups. This is a great chance to work with emergent language that students are producing.
  • This excerpt is incredibly rich linguistically, as is anything written by Gaiman or Pratchett. Slide 5 gives students the chance to mine the text for any language that might interest them (see ‘language to mine’ below). They should take the lead in deciding what they want to steal.
  • Students then return to their original writing and write a new version of it. They can insert phrases directly lifted from Good Omens, or simply be inspired by the variety and richness of the original excerpt to make their own text richer through the use of synonyms, similes, and highly descriptive language.
  • They then share their original and rewritten texts (side by side) with other groups and answer the question: ‘What difference does the writer’s choice of language make to the enjoyment of the reader?’
  • As an optional extension, students could role play the situation of Newt meeting the aliens, or of Newt/the aliens telling somebody else what happened a few hours later. This would give them the chance to reuse some of the language they stole from the text.
  • To finish the lesson, show students the trailer for the upcoming series and ask them if they want to watch it. Slide 6 has the video embedded; slide 7 has the link in case it doesn’t work.

What happened in my lesson?

I only had three students out of a possible six, so my pair and share activity didn’t work when they wrote their own texts. They were surprised that the text they produced had the same broad strokes as the excerpt.

Although we used two lessons, we didn’t have time to go back to the writing and upgrade it, which would have been valuable. I felt like adding a third lesson to do this would have been dragging it out too much though.

Students were engaged in mining the text, and said they would like to try this with other texts in the future. We looked at the language of officialdom and how it was used to create humour in this excerpt.

One student had already read Good Omens before I introduced it, and went back and re-read it in Polish between the two lessons 🙂 [Here’s an Amazon affiliate link if you want to get your own copy.]

Language to mine from the text

This is very much NOT an exhaustive list of examples of language that could be taken from the excerpt. Any of these could be used by students to create new texts as a follow-up (for example a description of a crazy car journey), or could be used as a language focus if you want something more targeted than the word cloud from slide 2.

  • Phrases and phrasal verbs:
    fall over
    wind (the window) down
    think of (sth) (as sth else)
    wander off
    run sth through a machine
    (let sth) build up
    let yourself go
    see to sth
    turn sth over in his mind
    turn around
    bawl sb out
  • Features of spoken grammar:
    an’ suchlike
    one of them phenomena
    Been…, haven’t we sir?
    Been…perhaps?
    Well, yes. I suppose so.
    I’ll see to it. Well, when I say I…
    We’d better be going.
    You do know…don’t you?
  • Ways of describing speaking:
    gabbled
    flailed
    rasped
  • Ways of describing movement:
    a door in the saucer slid aside
    skidded down it and fell over at the bottom
    walked over to the car quite slowly
  • Descriptive phrases for a spaceship and aliens:
    satisfying whoosh
    gleaming walkway
    It looked like every cartoon of a flying saucer Newt had ever seen.
    Brilliant blue light
    frantic beeping
  • Connected to cars:
    He had the map spread over the steering wheel.
    He had to brake hard.
    rapped on the window
    He wound it down.
    He drove up on the verge and around it.
    When he looked in his rearview mirror…
  • Connected to officialdom:
    in the worldwide approved manner of policemen already compiling the charge sheet in their heads
    Well, I’m sorry to have to tell you, sir…
    …are below regulation size for a [planet] of this category, sir.
    We’ll overlook it on this occasion, sir.

A little bit of theory

This is a task-based lesson, with the focus on meaning early in the lesson. For the initial task, students have to use their own linguistic resources to come up with an episode in a story, and they are free to go in whatever direction they choose. They have the scaffolding of the pictures and the word cloud, but are not required to use any particular language point. Sharing their texts is the report phase, and they then see a model which they can mine for language. This language can then be incorporated into their own work – it is student-led, with them choosing the language they focus on, rather than following the teacher’s agenda of what ‘should’ be learnt next. This task repetition and upgrade stage is where a lot of the learning will happen, as students experiment with the language. There is then another report phase, with reflection on language use in general (writer choices), not just the specific language used in this lesson.

The language I’ve pulled out above reflects principles of the lexical approach (I hope!), working with longer chunks of language rather than isolated words. Collocations can be explored, as well as areas like features of spoken language. This can help students to move away from a focus on single words and verb tenses plus other structures typically appearing as part of a course book syllabus, which they often still have even at proficiency level.

Teaching students how to mine a text in this way can also be useful for their own self-study, thus developing learner autonomy. Techniques like this can be challenging for students to incorporate into their own learning without being shown how to do it the first couple of times.

More of this kind of thing

I’ve previously shared materials connected to the first chapter of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Being creative 3: One activity, multiple tasks – a minimal preparation workshop based on ELT Playbook 1

Way back in December I ran a 45-minute conference session based on a task from ELT Playbook 1, ‘One activity, multiple tasks’, which appears in the ‘Being creative’ section of the book.

ELT Playbook 1 cover

The book features 30 tasks designed particularly to help new teachers to reflect as they start out in ELT, but they are also suitable for managers and trainers who need ideas for professional development sessions. I was also partly inspired by the ideas in The Lazy Teacher Trainer’s Handbook by Magnus Coney [affiliate link], which advocates minimal planning and exploiting the knowledge in the room wherever possible. The final reason I chose this was that I was running out of time to plan my session as I was organising the whole day, and I needed to run two workshops! The other one was about how to learn a language, in case you’re interested.

Before the session, I choose an activity at random from a teacher’s book. The one I ended up with was to revise future forms, taken from page 146 of English File 3rd edition Teacher’s Book Intermediate Plus. It features a page of questions like this:

  1. A   Mum! I’ve dropped my ice cream!
    B   It’s OK, don’t worry – I’ll get / I’m getting you a new one!
  2. A   I’m freezing!
    B   Shall I turn on / Will I turn on the heating?

…and so on. There are 12 mini dialogues like this, each with two options to choose from – students can also tick if both are possible. At the bottom of the page is an ‘activation’ activity, where students write two mini-dialogues, one with will and one with going to. This planning stage took me about 15 minutes – 10 to decide what I was going to do in the session (i.e. which ELT Playbook 1 task I was going to exploit!), and 5 to pick and photocopy the activity.

In the abstract for the session it said that teachers would come away with lots of ideas for how to exploit activities. As the session started, I told them that those ideas would be coming from all of us in the room, not just me!

We started by them completing the original exercise. I demonstrated how to do quick feedback by getting different pairs to write their answers on the board, then just dealing with any questions where there was confusion. We were about 10 minutes into the session at this point.

In the same pairs, teachers worked together to list as many ways as they could think of to set-up, vary or exploit that same activity. They did this on the back of the sheet (minimal materials prep!) I put a few prompts on the board to help, something like: speaking, writing, listening, reading, alone, pairs, groups, class, etc. and elicited one or two examples to start them off. They had 10 minutes to make their lists.

At the same time, and once I’d checked they were all on track, I made my own list* on the back of my paper (minimal prep! Also, I ran out of time to do it before the session and thought it might be useful if at least some of the ideas came from me!)

We put our lists face up on our chairs for the ‘stealing’ stage. We read everybody else’s lists, putting a * next to any activities we didn’t understand. More *** meant that lots of people didn’t understand. This took about 5 minutes, so we were 25 minutes through the session.

Next people added any of the extra activities they liked the sound of to their own lists. 5 more minutes, 15 minutes left.

For the next 10 minutes, different people demonstrated the activities that had stars next to them in front of the whole group. As I expected, most of the ‘different people’ were me – I’d deliberately picked some slightly obscure things to stretch their range of ideas a bit!

In the final 5 minutes, I told them about ELT Playbook 1 and suggested they try this kind of brainstorming with other activities they want to use in class to help them vary their lesson planning. Right at the end, they had to tell their partner one activity they’d thought of or heard about in the session which they planned to try next week. The whole session went pretty well, I think, and I got good feedback afterwards. 🙂

*My list

These are the ideas I came up with in 10 minutes:

  • Remove the options.
  • Mini whiteboards.
  • I say A to the group, they predict B. Then in pairs.
  • Gallery walk (one copy of each question stuck up around the room)
  • Evil memorisation (one of my favourite activities, learnt from Olga Stolbova – the third activity in this blogpost)
  • Say all the sentences as quickly as possible (AQAP on my lesson plans!)
  • Banana sentences (replace the key words with ‘banana’ for partner to guess)
  • Extend the conversations (what was said before/after)
  • Decide who/where/when/why it was said (by)
  • Take the ‘wrong’ answer and create a context where it would be right
  • Translation mingle (students translate one conversation into L1 on a slip of paper, copying the English onto the other side. They then walk around showing other students the L1 to be translated.)
  • One group does 1-6/odd sentences. The other does 7-12/even sentences. Give them the answers for the other half. They check with each other.
  • Say them with different intonation/voices to create different meanings/situations.
  • Remember as many conversations as you can with your partner. Lots of variations for this: freestyle (no prompts), with A/B as a prompt, with (own/sketched/teacher-generated) pictures as prompts…
  • Hot seat/Backs to the board with a picture prompt for student looking at the board to say sentence A, person with back to the board says sentence B in response
  • Board race. Again, lots of variations: list as many sentences/conversations as possible on the whiteboard; teacher/a student says A, teams run and write B; combine with ideas above like banana sentences…
  • Teacher says first half of the sentence, pausing at a convenient point. Students say second half. Then in pairs. e.g. “Shall I…” “…turn on the heating?”
  • Students have A sentences. They write their own Bs on separate pieces of scrap paper, then mix them up. Another pair tries to match the As and Bs together.
  • Change A to the opposite/a slightly different phrase. What’s an appropriate B? e.g. “I’m boiling!”

Thanks to all of the people I’ve stolen those ideas from over the years 🙂

Let me know if you try out the brainstorming activity, the session, or any of the other tasks from ELT Playbook 1. I’d love to know how they work for you!

How to learn a language

It’s New Year’s Eve, a time when a lot of us make resolutions for the coming year. One of them may be to finally learn that language you’ve been meaning to work on for years. But where do you start?

I often describe myself as a language addict. These are the languages that I’ve had a go at learning so far and the levels I’ve reached (based on the CEFR):

  • C1/Advanced: French, German, Spanish
  • B1/Intermediate: Polish
  • A2+/Pre-intermediate: Czech, Russian
  • A1/High beginner: Italian, Mandarin
  • A0/Beginner: Greek, Thai, Bahasa Malay, Japanese, Maltese, Vietnamese, Lithuanian

It’s definitely true that learning one language helps you to learn another, but I wouldn’t say that I have any particular talent for language learning – just lots of tried and tested techniques, and many many hours of practice at it. Over time, this practice has become more focussed and more efficient. Here’s how…

(By the way, if you don’t want to work your way through this quite long blog post, you can download this one-page pdf summary instead.)

Make it a habit

As with anything you want to add to your life, habit formation is the most important thing you can do.

5 minutes a day

Even if you’re super busy, you can definitely find 5 minutes each day (see below for how!) It adds up really quickly – in one week that’s 35 minutes. In a year, it’s 1825 minutes, or over 30 hours. That’s the equivalent of twenty 90-minute classes, or 10 weeks of lessons if you’re having them at our school 🙂

Record what you do

I have a calendar where I make a note of whether I’ve completed my daily habits. Since I started using it, I’m much more likely to do them, as I hate seeing a ‘X’. In this example, the ‘P’ in the top left corner means Polish:

Record achievements

Sneak it into your day

I’ve tried lots of different ways to do this. With Polish, I currently use a few apps in the mornings and read in the evenings before bed (see ‘surround yourself with it’). Again, this is all about habit formation – making it ‘normal’ makes it easier.

Memrise at breakfast

It takes me about 10 minutes to eat my breakfast. While I’m doing that, I work my way through four Memrise sets of Polish, one of Lithuanian and one of Mandarin. I always revise old vocabulary first, aiming for a minimum of 1500 points in each set to maintain my streak. If I haven’t hit 1500, I’ll learn a few new words. I love memrise because it uses the principles of spaced repetition to keep reminding me of vocabulary and testing my memory of it. Since I started using it about 8 years ago, the site reckons I’ve learnt 8836 words as of today – I won’t pretend I’ve remembered them all, but even if it’s only half of them, it’s still a lot of vocabulary!

Carry a few flashcards with you

Sentence cardsWhen I was learning Russian, I cut up bits of yellow paper to create flashcards – yellow because it makes me happy. One side had a sentence in Russian, and the other had some kind of prompt. This was generally a picture or series of pictures if I could think of one, but occasionally an English translation of one or two words from the sentence if I couldn’t.

Sandy's sentence card holder TM

Sandy’s sentence card holder TM

I kept 10-15 of these cards with me all the time, in a little pouch with two pockets. When I was on the bus or waiting somewhere I’d flick through them to test myself. When I thought I knew one, I’d put it in the second pocket. Back at home, I’d take out anything that was in the second pocket and add an equivalent number of cards from the pile that was waiting for me.

i know the ones on the left

Left = ‘known’, right = unknown

After a year, the pile of sentences I’d learnt was about 3cm tall. I would periodically test myself on the whole pile and see if I’d forgotten any of them – generally I’d still remember about 80-90% of them.

Use apps/websites when you’re waiting

If, unlike me, you have a smartphone, then building your vocabulary using language apps is probably a much more productive way to spend your waiting time than looking at social media (again) and pretty easy to fit into your day. Here are four I’ve tried:

  • Memrise (the one I’ve used almost every day for years)
    + Spaced repetition managed automatically
    + Some curated sites created by the company (look for XXX 1, 2, 3 e.g. Polish 1, Polish 2…)
    + Can create your own content
    + Can choose to ignore words if you don’t want/need to learn them (only via the website)
    + Unlimited range of languages/content, with more company-curated sets added all the time
    + Available via browser or app
    -/+ Mostly word-level, with some sentence-level content
    – User-created sets may contain mistakes
    – Not all sets have audio
    – Can be challenging to find the sets that work for you
  • Quizlet (the one I use as a teacher)
    + Quick and easy to create your own content
    + Unlimited range of languages/content
    + Can take other people’s content and edit it to suit you
    + ‘Star’ words to choose what’s most challenging/important for you
    + Fairly easy to find what you need (here’s some help if you’re learning English)
    + Audio automatically added
    + You can choose the games you play, including matching games, spelling, etc.
    + Once you’ve studied something, you can use it again offline on the app
    + Available via browser or app
    -/+ Mostly word-level, with some sentence-level content
    – User-created sets may contain mistakes
    – Although there is now a spaced repetition option, it’s pretty clunky
  • Duolingo (the one everyone else seems to use – I’m not a huge fan)
    + All content created by the company, so shouldn’t contain any mistakes
    + Feedback option, so you can suggest alternative answers
    + Mostly sentence level
    + All content has audio
    +/- Limited languages available
    – No teaching before testing – you need to not give up easily
    – Not that helpful for beginners, as there are no language explanations
    – On Apple devices, (I think) you can test out of level 1, but have to earn gems to test out of other levels, so not ideal for higher-level learners either. On Android, I believe you can test out of any level
    – Multiple choice options often nonsensical, so don’t really test you
    – No ability to tailor what you’re learning
  • Lingodeer (my current favourite!)
    + All content created by the company, so generally doesn’t contain any mistakes
    + Feedback option, so you can correct any mistakes which are there
    + Once you’ve studied something, you can study it again offline (great for flights!)
    + Very clear language explanations, available at the start of each category and by clicking on any word while in ‘test’ modes
    + Wide range of activity types
    + Can choose what to revise
    + Can ‘test out’ of whole sections at a time
    + All four skills tested, including chances to record yourself speaking and to write characters from Kanji and Mandarin
    + For Japanese, there’s a great ‘story’ function where you can listen to somebody and record yourself
    + Multiple choice options are logical and really make you think
    + Everything has audio, and the pictures are very cute 🙂
    + No annoying advertising or Freemium prompts!
    +/- Limited languages/content available, with about 8 languages at the moment (more than are listed on the site!), though more being added
    – Only available via the app, not on browsers
Repeat what you hear

Don’t just read or listen to it, say it. Having a go at pronouncing the language you hear makes your brain process it a little bit more, meaning you’re more likely to remember it. Listen and repeat improves your confidence with pronunciation over time. Read and repeat gets you experimenting with sound-spelling relationships. Try a few words or phrases each day while you’re doing other things, and again you’ll notice it building over time.

Surround yourself with it

Even if you’re not living in a country where the language you want to learn is around you all the time, you can still add it to your life in lots of different ways.

Label your home

A classic 🙂 Here are some of my Russian labels:

Russian has taken over my fridge!

and a Polish man doing the same:

 

Make little posters or index cards

The process of categorising and copying information over to another piece of paper goes part way to helping you to remember it. By then sticking them up, you see it lots more times and remember it for longer. Here are some I made for Russian:

Index cards everywhere!Surrounded with postcards to be more interesting!

Read to read

Extensive reading is one of the best ways to improve your knowledge of a foreign language. I’ve been reading in Polish for about ten minutes every night before bed for 2.5 years now, and I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done for learning. I started with the first Harry Potter book when I was a low A2 level, choosing it because I was familiar with the story and knew that would help me to understand more.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Polish cover)

Originally I could read 2 pages in about 10 minutes, and now I can read up to 6, depending on how tired I am. I estimate that I could understand about 10-20% of any double-page spread when I started, and now it’s about 70-80%.

Importantly, I read to read, not to learn vocabulary. My aim is to finish the book, not to understand everything. It takes a bit of a mindshift to do this, as you have to stop worrying about what you don’t understand and concentrate on what you do.

When I first tried to read a John Grisham book in German, I wrote down every word I didn’t know and translated it into English. After three pages or so of the book, I had around 150 words and felt pretty depressed – oddly enough, I stopped reading it! In Paraguay, I went to a weekly Spanish meeting. We took an article from the Economist and translated it word for word. This was the result, from which I don’t remember anything!

When I started reading Harry Potter, I only looked up words if they appeared repeatedly and felt important for the story, limiting it to 2-3 per double page. Now, if there aren’t any words in that category, I’ll pick one word to look up at random. I’ve now nearly finished book 4 and really look forward to it every night.

Writing a journal

Writing is the easiest of the four skills to neglect. Writing a journal worked really well for me in Russian as my teacher looked at it and replied each week.

Russian journal

Russian journal

With Polish, I wrote a couple of sentences a day for a few weeks, then gave up because nobody else was reading it. I almost never write in Polish, and this is something I need to change in 2019 if I want to pass the B1 exam I’m thinking about taking!

Podcasts and radio

Apparently there are now over 600,000 podcasts available, so there really is something for everyone. I experimented with listening to the news in other languages when I was at uni, but got bored with listening to the same things over and over again, especially considering I didn’t listen to the news in English. If you’re learning English, here’s an introduction to podcasts for language learning, including some of my favourites.

Alternatively, choose a radio station playing the kind of music or presenting the kind of programmes you like. This is particularly easy if you have a smart speaker – “Alexa, play radio station Antenne Bayern“. I’m now really good at traffic updates in Bavarian German 😉

As with reading, listen to listen, not to understand everything. You’ll understand more and more as you become familiar with the rhythms of the language and build up your vocabulary from other places (like the apps above).

Make it aesthetically pleasing

Do you prefer to look at a plain black folder or a multi-coloured one? What about a page of text or a page of pictures? By carefully choosing the things you use to learn a language, you’re more likely to want to look at them again.

Stationery that makes you smile

Two notebooks, both alike in dignity

Which one to buy? Both of course!

All of my language-learning notebooks have pictures on them, sometimes themed (like the Polski język ones I have here), sometimes just fun, like the ones I used for Russian above. At various times I have also bought a Kung Fu Panda and a Pirates of the Caribbean folder. Because I enjoy looking at them, I’m more likely to pick them up and use them.

Pictures – colour in printed ones or draw rubbish ones!

Whenever possible, use pictures to help you remember things – your brain responds to these much better than words. You can colour in ones you have printed, like these ones I used to help me learn daily routines in Czech:

Coloured in pictures to help me learn Czech daily routine

or draw your own ones, regardless of how rubbish you might think your own drawing is!

Sentence cards with pictures

Think about colours and layout

Laying out what you are learning in a consistent way does some of the work for your brain. Colours also attract the eye, and again can be used to help you to process information.

Show patterns

I often use layout to help me to remember grammar. With gendered words, I always have masculine on the left, feminine in the middle and neutral on the right. If I can remember the position, I can remember the gender.

Colour-coding mistakes can help you to focus on them without needing long explanations:

Deciphering the rewrite code

And you can combine both layout and colour, which is particularly good for grammar:

Index cards everywhere! Time time time...And here are stress patterns in Greek numbers:

Categorise language

As I said above, the process of categorising language helps your brain to process it, and therefore remember it for longer. Vocabulary is the easiest thing to categorise, but you can do it with phrases too. Here’s a page one of the two vocabulary notebooks I filled in a year of studying Russian:

My vocabulary notebook - English

Every page of the notebook had a fold down the middle so I could test myself.

I planned to do this with Polish, managed a couple of pages, then got bored and decided Memrise would be enough.

Highlight exceptions

Judicious highlighting helps your brain work out what to focus on. Highlighting letters or words (like in the picture above) helps you to notice what is different, and the extra attention you therefore pay to these exceptions or unusual things means you’ll remember them for longer. I find this works particularly well for spellings.

Make your brain work, but not too hard

Learning a language means you need to do some processing. The more processing you do with a single item, the more likely you are to remember it. However, it’s easy to get frustrated if you have to do too much processing – that’s when you end up giving up.

Give yourself as many ‘hooks’ as possible

Imagine a large, heavy picture you want to put on the wall. You use a single picture hook, and pretty quickly it falls down. Now use three or four – it stays up for a little while longer, but eventually it still falls down. Now use twenty hooks – it’s likely to stay there for much, much longer. And the bigger the hooks, the better.

The same is true of new language items, whether vocabulary or grammar. Here are some possible ‘hooks’:

  • Meaning
  • A situation/context
  • An image
  • Something that makes you laugh/surprises you
  • (Odd) connections to other things you already know
  • Translation – preferably at sentence level/within a larger context (this could be to other foreign languages you know, not just your native language(s))
  • Collocations for vocabulary/common verbs used with the structure for grammar
  • Examples in use – if you create them yourself and get them checked, the hooks will be bigger and stronger
  • Encounters – each time you see/hear the word, you’re adding a little hook
  • Using it yourself – saying/writing it adds a pretty big hook or makes the hooks that are already there bigger

Each ‘hook’ you give yourself keeps that bit of language anchored in your brain for longer and more securely.

Hide translations

Humans are lazy. We always take the easiest route. That means that if we see a word in a language we’re comfortable with, we’ll read that before we make the effort to process something more difficult, like the language we’re learning.

That doesn’t mean you should avoid translation entirely, as that can just make you feel frustrated. Instead, make your brain work harder to see the translations so that processing the foreign language becomes the easier route. Two ways I’ve done this are by writing the English in yellow pen:

English is on the right – look carefully!

and by writing it in tiny letters in a different part of the page, or on the other side if possible:

English is in tiny letters

Avoid arrows

When you get two answers the wrong way round in an exercise or copy two words next to the wrong definitions, it’s tempting to draw arrows to correct them instead of crossing them out. Don’t! This adds an extra step of processing, where your brain has to ‘undo’ what it first saw. It might not look as pretty (unless you use Tippex/whiteout) but it makes life easier for your brain! Number 5 in this picture is an example – I don’t remember what it means though!

Use monolingual dictionaries as soon as you can

Again, humans are lazy. I use Google Translate all the time, as do many of my students. But, and this is important, NOT for learning. For that I use a monolingual dictionary as soon as I can, preferably a learner’s dictionary if they exist.For Polish, I’ve been using PWN. For English I tend to recommend:

My university teachers would be pleased to hear this, as they used to tell us all the time to go monolingual, but it took me ages to listen to them. Now I prefer the information that I can find there, including collocations, example sentences, alternative uses, phrases, and (especially online) pronunciation and conjugations. It also provides extra reading practice, and the fact you have to process the language more means you are more likely to remember it more, or be more picky about which words you look up. If you’re a teacher, persevere with persuading your students – it’s worth the effort!

Be proud of your mistakes

Mistakes are nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, they show that you are learning. As with reading to read, this can require a shift in your mindset, as far too many of us have been brought up thinking that mistakes are bad.

Collect them, highlight them

Try creating a ‘My favourite mistakes’ page. Once a week/after a lesson/when you’ve done some writing, choose one mistake you made which you know you make a lot. Add it to the page, along with the correction. In the correct version, highlight the bit that you had problems with. This will draw your attention to it. This photo shows problems I was having with Czech accents on words:

Rewrite them

With the journal writing I mentioned above, I was motivated enough and had enough time on my hands to rewrite my entries and colour-code the mistakes, which made a huge difference to the accuracy of my writing.

Colour-coded rewrites

Colour-coded rewrites

It was great to see how the things I was making mistakes with changed over time, even in the few weeks that I did this for.

Personalise language

Making the language you are learning feel like yours can be hugely motivating, and adds some of the ‘hooks’ mentioned above.

Use your own experiences and opinions

Personalise example sentences so they mean something to you. For example, only learn ‘I like chocolate’ if you actually do. If you don’t, change it to ‘I like cats’, ‘I like computer games’ or whatever is most relevant to your experience. You’ll remember it faster, and it adds another ‘hook’.

Learn what you need first

When learning a foreign language, I try to start with numbers and food, as these are normally the things I need first on arrival in a new country. If I can eat in a restaurant and understand prices, then I can get a long way. Phrases like ‘How are you?’ and ‘I’m ____ years old.’ are much less immediately relevant.

If you’re not sure what you might need first, consider working your way through a course (maybe online or using a book) and feel free to skip bits that don’t appeal.

Be selective

It’s easy to feel like you need to remember every new word or phrase you come across, but this is impossible. Choose the language which most appeals to you and/or which is most relevant. Start with ‘easy wins’ – the more you build up your vocabulary, the easier it is to understand things you read and listen to, and the more you’ll be able to learn new vocabulary and grammar from all the extensive reading and listening you’re doing (by surrounding yourself with the language as above).

Record phrases you like

When you’re listening to or reading something, write down words and phrases you like and want to use again. If you’re talking to somebody, ask them to repeat it so you can make a note of it. Again, by picking out what you’re interested in and things that appeal to you, you’re giving yourself more hooks.

Rise above the word

If you’re self-studying, it’s very easy to just learn lists and lists of vocabulary. While this is useful, in the long run, you need to do more to truly learn the language.

Look at chunks

When you’re reading, look at the words that appear around that new word you’ve just written down. Is there a preposition (in, on, from…) after the word? Is there an adjective before it? Are there other words a bit further away in the sentence that might be connected? These are all hook that can help you to better use new language.

Write out conversations

Take grammar structures you’ve learnt and have a go at using them in conversations. Would the other person in the conversation use the same grammar to reply? For example, in English a present perfect question can be followed by a past simple reply. Can you make the structure shorter or add to it in any way? For example, English relative clauses can often be reduced, or added into other sentences. If you can, ask somebody to check the conversation for you, or have a go at recording it with somebody else you know who’s learning the language.

Mini dictations

Take one sentence of something you’ve listened to and use it as a dictation. If there’s a transcript for the audio, or lyrics for a song, check how correct you were. This is a great way to spot little grammar mistakes you’re making, and to better understand the rhythms of the spoken language.

Try out a corpus

A corpus is a collection of language as it is really used. For learners, this can help you to expand your understanding of particular items of vocabulary or grammar structures. My favourite English (and Spanish/Portuguese) corpus tool is the collection at BYU, particularly the new ‘word’ function. This is a snippet – there’s far more information as you scroll down the page:

BYU corpus word feature screenshot

Lizzie Pinard has an introduction to using www.wordandphrase.info/academic which shows you a lot of the features.

I use NKJP for Polish, for example to check whether I’ve chosen the right verb to go with a particular noun.

Be patient

Nobody learns anything overnight. But with language learning people seem to find that particularly frustrating – ‘I already speak my language. Why can’t I learn this one?’ Patience is key to getting to the level you want to achieve.

Grammar will come – don’t agonise over it

If you’ve read this whole post, you’ll notice that mentions of grammar are few and far between. Although I do have a grammar book, I only glance at it occasionally, and I’ve never done a grammar exercise in Polish. My grammar has improved though, through exposure, reading snippets of grammar explanations, and trying to notice patterns. Reading and listening to as much of the language as possible will help you to develop an instinct for correct grammar. Exercises might help you get there a bit faster, but they’re not essential.

Think about the process of children learning

Think about how children learn their first language. They start with essential everyday words, like ‘yes’ and ‘no’, then add vocabulary they need all the time, then add grammar later. It takes them a couple of years before they say anything, years when they have 24/7 exposure to the language they’re learning. When we learn a foreign language, we generally expect to speak from day one, and don’t give ourselves a ‘silent period’ to absorb what we’ve been exposed to before we have to produce it.

Children also make lots of mistakes, but they persevere, and eventually they speak the language they need to the level they need to in their everyday levels, providing the conditions are right for them.

It’s a long process, and it’s not easy, but it’s worth it in the end.

Be kind to yourself

Languages are big, complicated beasts from the outside. It can feel pretty daunting when you’re starting out. But if you’re kind to yourself, if you allow yourself to experiment, to make mistakes, and to try out the new language you’ve learnt without fearing failure, you’ll make it. As with everything in life, there’s no point beating yourself up if you find something challenging – all that does is makes you feel depressed. It doesn’t actually make you learn any more effectively.

Don’t listen to me!

If you were patient enough to read the whole post, you’ll see that although I’ve tried everything I’ve described, I don’t do all of it now. Not everything works for everybody, and not everything works all the time. Be flexible with your learning, experiment, and work out what works for you. That way, you’ll enjoy the process a whole lot more.

Good luck!

P.S.

These tips are all based on my own experience. I know there’s science behind at least some of them, but I’m feeling too lazy to find the links! If you feel like sharing them, please do…

Disaster movies – a lesson plan (or two!)

This year I’m teaching a Proficiency group, with free choice of the materials I use and topics we cover. In the first lesson, we brainstormed a list of key words that could act as possible topics and each time I exhaust a topic I ask the students to choose the next thing they’d do from the list. This seemed like a really good idea at the time 😉 Then they chose…

Disaster!

I was completely stuck for inspiration, as the only thing in my head was Brexit and having only met them a couple of lessons before, this wasn’t a route I wanted to go down yet. Instead, I headed to the TD Lab Staffroom facebook group and asked them to help me out. If you’ve never come across the group before, Shaun Sweeney set it up as a way for teachers to ask for audio recordings on particular topics. And it was Shaun who rescued me, with a one-minute recording talking about what he thinks of disaster movies which he has agreed to me sharing here. That was the spark I needed, and it prompted two complete 90-minute lessons 🙂 Here they are…

Lesson 1: Intensive listening and spoken grammar

I started by displaying the collage of disaster movie posters from this website. Students discussed the following questions:

  • Do you like films like this?
  • Are there any you’ve seen? What did you think of them?
  • Are there any you’d like to watch? Why?

Next, I showed them a picture of Shaun. They had to predict whether he likes disaster movies or not, then listen and check. Here’s the recording (confusingly with a picture of me!):

Those were the easy stages!

The next part was the real challenge: listen what Shaun said and transcribe it word for word. Before the lesson I’d uploaded the recording to our Edmodo group, which all of the students had joined during our first lesson. Now they divided into groups based on how many people could easily access the recording via their smartphones, with one phone per group. They had as long as they needed to transcribe it, and could go back and forth as much as they wanted. To transcribe one minute of audio it took them around 30-40 minutes. If they didn’t know what something said, I encouraged them to play it repeatedly and make a guess. When one group finished, I skimmed what they had written and underlined sections for them to listen to again.

Once all of the groups had something, I switched on the projector and took dictation, replaying the audio section by section as we went along. Anything that they didn’t have exactly as it was in the recording was underlined in my transcript, and we went back and listened again. It took us 10-15 minutes to get the full transcript onto the board, and all of the students present were engaged throughout. As we did it, I explained possible reasons why they may have misheard things, for example words that sound similar, connected speech linking words together, or weak forms which almost disappeared. I made sure that every sound was transcribed, not just ‘grammatically correct’ utterances. The only thing that nobody in the class could hear was the ‘ll in Now I’ll generally… right at the start, which prompted a discussion of the difference between present simple and will to describe habits. Here’s the transcript we ended up with, including underlining to show areas which my students had trouble picking out:

Shaun’s disaster film transcript

In pairs, students had to identify all of the features of the text which are part of spoken grammar, not written grammar. They discussed it in pairs, then went to the board and circled everything they could find. We have a whiteboard and projector set-up, which makes activities like this much easier! Here’s the same transcript with all of the features of spoken grammar I could identify highlighted in yellow:

Shaun’s disaster film transcript with features of spoken grammar

We only had a few minutes of the lesson left, so we quickly listed these features, including:

  • repetition (it’s…it’s…; going to die, going to die, going to sit)
  • ‘simple’ linking words (and, but, or)
  • emphasis (you’re just going to sit…)
  • fillers (um…yeah…like)
  • unfinished utterances (one of the worst films)
  • approximation (probably around Christmastime)
  • lack of concrete ideas/listing information (something like Towering Inferno or something with a volcano, or people are stuck in a tunnel)
  • opinion phrases (I have to say; well I can’t get into it at all)
  • time phrases to structure speech (when I was a kid; more recently)

I’m sure that’s not exhaustive, and I know for a fact those aren’t the technical terms, but they’ll do! I emphasised that it’s not vital for students to speak like this, but that they still sometimes sound like they’re reciting from a piece of paper instead of speaking naturally, and that it’s OK to include any of these features in their speech 🙂

For homework, I asked them to read Mike Russell’s Make Your Own Disaster Movie cartoon and look up any of the vocabulary they didn’t know.

Lesson 2: How to create your own disaster movie (reading and speaking)

A slightly different combination of students in this lesson meant we started off by recapping what had happened in the previous lesson and giving everybody time to re-read the cartoon. We probably spent about 20-30 minutes clarifying various items of vocabulary with students trying to help each other to understand words, or me showing them how to find the information they needed in the OALD using the projector (they’re still pretty new to using monolingual dictionaries consistently, despite their level!) These are the words we decided to record on our word cards:

  • bicker
  • estranged family
  • wild conjecture
  • nature’s wrath/the wrath of God
  • lump things together, like it or lump it!
  • mankind’s hubris
  • a dormant volcano
  • mayhem
  • cat-burglar (this was their favourite, and has come up in pretty much every lesson since!)

I had cut up an article from The Guardian along similar lines to the cartoon, called How to write the perfect disaster movie. I gave each section to one student. They read it and wrote 3-5 key words or phrases on the back. The perfect disaster movie article to put in order

With their summaries (without looking at the original text), they then mingled to find out all of the ingredients that Paul Owen believes make the perfect disaster movie. As a class, they decided what order all of the sections should be in by sticking them to the board (with me out of the way). They read it all to check whether they were correct.

With two ‘menus’ for disaster movies to help them out, the students now worked in small groups to create their own storylines. We had about 10 minutes for this, with time for them to present their stories to the rest of us at the end. In the true spirit of disaster movies, these made very little sense but were very entertaining, with one featuring a volcano that stopped air traffic and a monk who decided that a sacrifice to the ancient gods was required to stop it, and the other starring a cop who was a single dad being fired from his job, a meteor shower set to destroy Earth, a magnet on the moon to stop it and a female scientist to coordinate the rescue attempt, who inevitably fell in love with the cop 🙂

Thanks Shaun!

Overall these were two very enjoyable lessons which the students got a lot of vocabulary and intensive listening practice out of, both things which they have told me they want. And all inspired by just one minute of audio!

Energy breaks for young learners

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?

Teenagers losing their luggage

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

Attention, please!

I’ve just finished working on a CELTA course in Strasbourg, and one of the things some trainees had trouble with was getting and maintaining the attention of their students. Here are some of the questions I asked them and tips I gave in feedback after the lessons.

Do they know what signal you will give them when you want them to pay attention?

If you tell the students what signal to expect before the activity, they are more likely to notice. For example, you could tell them that you will:

  • Clap your hands.
  • Say ‘stop’.
  • Press a buzzer.
  • Ring a bell.
  • Switch the light off and on again.
  • Use a call and response signal, for example: Teacher: ‘Macaroni cheese.’ Students: ‘Everybody freeze!’ (Thanks Rose!)
  • Put your hand up and wait for them to put theirs up too.
  • Countdown from 5, starting quietly, and getting louder as you reach 1. (Particularly good for speaking activities.)
  • When the background music finishes playing, the activity ends.
  • Stand in a particular place.

It’s good to get into routines with this, and always use the same signal for the same kind of activity. For example, I normally put my hand up to signal the end of a pair discussion.

Did you give everyone time to respond?

After you’ve given the signal to pay attention, make sure that you pause for a few seconds to let them stop before you start speaking. Wait for attention from everybody – don’t just start with the next instructions or feedback, as you’ll only end up repeating it!

Try praising students who are paying attention, rather than picking out those who aren’t, especially with young learners: ‘Thank you, Sandy.’ rather than ‘Sandy, stop talking please!’

Is the signal visible/audible to everyone?

If you’re giving an audio signal, make sure it is loud enough. If you’re speaking, you don’t need to shout, but do project your voice over the volume.

If you’re giving a visual signal, make sure all students can see you.

Are they deeply involved in the activity they are doing? Are they ready to finish? 

Monitor closely to find out how students are progressing with the activity. If they’ve only done half of the activity, they are unlikely to want to stop when you try to get their attention.

If you know that timing will be a problem before you start, try to change how you set up the activity. For example, tell the students to do as many questions as they can in 3 minutes, rather than making them finish the exercise. Getting them to check in pairs can help them to fill in the gaps in their answers.

Have short extension tasks available for students who finish very quickly, preferably ones that don’t require too much extra input from you! For example, ask students to:

  • Read a sentence from the exercise, remember it, turn over your paper, write it from memory, then check whether you’ve got it right.
  • Change the sentences so they’re true for you.
  • Turn over the paper and remember as many of the words from the exercise as possible, either speaking or writing them. Then look and check.
  • Start saying the sentences/words to practise pronunciation.
  • Decide what was the most interesting thing your partner said, ready to report it to the class.

Is there a valid reason for them to need to pay attention to you or the other students who are talking? (i.e. Why should they care?)

For example, some teachers interrupt speaking activities to get everybody’s attention to try to elicit a single word from the group that one student asked for. This is unnecessary, as you could just give them the word without stopping all of the other conversations.

During feedback stages, students might pay attention at the beginning, but drift off if the stage gets too long or boring. Think of how to keep feedback concise, and try to give them a real reason to listen to the other students.

How long have you required their attention for? Can they maintain focus for that long?

It’s difficult to concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time without drifting off and losing attention. Vary the activities and the interaction in the lesson, so that students aren’t just listening to you for long periods of time. Give them clear things to do and keep them active.

Do you truly believe that you have the right to their attention at this point in the lesson?

This may sound quite odd, but I’ve noticed that a lot of teachers feel like they’re being rude when they interrupt students, especially if the students are older than them, and/or if they’re inexperienced teachers. I think if you don’t believe that you need students’ attention right now, then there is less conviction in your voice, and they are less likely to listen to you.

What would you add to the list?

EU Parliament, with flags of all of the current EU nations flying in front of it

The EU Parliament in Strasbourg, which I visited during the course

Some things from the IH Torun Teacher Training Day 2018

Torun - Copernicus

A wise man in Torun

Saturday 21st April 2018 was the annual teacher training day at our sister school, International House Torun. I attended sessions by Lisko MacMillan, Matthew Siegal, Rachel Hunter and John Hughes, and presented on Making the most of blogs. Here are few of the things I got out of the day:

  • Although I hated drama at school, and did my best to avoid it, I really ought to embrace activities borrowed from improvisation. They make great warmers and energisers, and there are lots of opportunities for revision there.
  • I wish I’d been relaxed enough to enjoy drama at school, because it’s a lot more fun now that I don’t care about appearances as much!
  • It might be a good idea to swap your writing with another teacher and mark each other’s when possible to avoid the bias you get when you know your students.
  • One way to make feedback on Cambridge writing much faster is to give students a copy of the mark scheme with the relevant sentences for their work highlighted. Obviously you need to explain what it means, but the more they see it, the more they know what is expected of them.
  • gw = good word, ag = advanced grammar, are possible additions to a writing code that focus on positives. Although I haven’t used a writing code for a long time, this was a useful reminder.
  • To encourage students to engage with writing criteria and to kill two birds with one stone, turn the criteria into a Use of English open cloze exercise.
  • An activity to make students plan before writing: you plan your partner’s answer. They only get to see the plan, not the question, and write the answer. Then show the question and they get rid of what they didn’t need.
  • Give students a list of things they can when proofreading their text. They should do as many as they have time for. For example:
    • Task completion and paragraphs
    • Spelling and vocabulary repetition
    • Grammar accuracy
    • Grammar range
    • Linking words
  • Art is an interesting alternative to photos, and lends itself to a lot of the same classroom activities.
  • There are loads of activities you could do with a single picture, like The Bedroom by Van Gogh. Try asking ‘If you lived in a room like this, what would you change?’ Show the picture, then hide it and ask students to remember as much detail as possible. What isn’t in the picture? Whose room is it? Be art critics. Give them half a picture each and make it an information gap.
  • With pictures of people, make the person the subject of an interview. If there are a lot of people, recreate the image by making a tableau vivante. Imagine the relationships between the people or describe their personalities.
  • If you want students to describe and draw, why not given them something like a Picasso or a Dali, and do it as a head drawing exercise (with their paper on their heads)? It’s already an odd picture, so they won’t feel as bad if they can’t reproduce it!
  • There is a blog by a Polish teacher in Polish about teaching English written by Beata Topolska. If you can recommend any other good blogs which are about teaching English but not written in English, please let me know!
  • Problems with teenage students are often due to rapport. Get to class early and get chatting to find out more about them.
  • Watch out for being too shallow or deep with personalisation – it’s a fine line. Try using Speak/Pass/Nominate, so students can choose whether they want to answer (Speak), don’t answer (Pass) or choose somebody else (Nominate).
  • To help students engage with a word bank of photos (e.g. types of food), try getting them to engage using sentences like:
    • I really like ______, but I don’t like _______.
    • I often eat ______ for breakfast, but I never eat _______.
    • I’ve never tried to cook _______ but one day I’d like to.
  • When you give students a list of topics, encourage them to find things in common. This is more authentic, as it’s what we try to do during small talk. You could give them a simple Venn diagram (you/both/me) to frame the discussion. For example, see ‘making connections’ in John Hughes’ post about personalisation.
  • With teens, try asking ‘What do you really hate/dislike?’ rather than ‘Which do you prefer?’ They’re more likely to respond.

All in all, this was a great local conference, and I walked away with loads of ideas for my classes. Thanks to Glenn Standish and IH Torun for organising it!

IATEFL 2018: In the classroom

This is a collection of talks I saw at IATEFL Brighton 2018 which have ideas that can be used in the classroom, or thoughts on methodology that may influence your classroom practice. They’re arranged roughly from what I perceived to be the most theoretical to the most immediately practical (as in, activities you could use in class tomorrow).

The frequency fallacy

Leo Selivan’s talk examined how useful frequency-based word lists really are. You can watch the full talk yourself, or read my summary. We can often over- or underestimate how frequent words actually are due to the availability bias, which says that if something is easy to remember, it must be more frequent. There are many different ways you can check how frequent a particular word is, for example by looking at the information in learner dictionaries. In the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, there is information about how common a word is in both spoken and written English. For example, abroad is in the top 2000 words of spoken English, and top 3000 of written English. 80% of English texts are made up of high frequency words, and they are used as defining vocabulary, so it can seem a good idea to focus on them in our teaching.

However, there are many problems with these high frequency words. We can assume that if you know high frequency words you’ll be fine, with a high-level of understanding. Polysemy (same word, different meanings) isn’t acknowledged in word lists, for example the different meanings of ‘rough’ in ‘He’s got very rough hands.’ and ‘It’s just a rough estimate.’ ‘Cast’ has 10 different meanings as a verb, without thinking about its meanings as a noun. It’s essential to consider co-text too. This implies that we should teach collocations straight away, not wait until higher levels. Another problem with frequency lists is the grouping of words, so ‘name’ and ‘namely’ are there as a single item (I think!). This implies that learning ‘name’ should mean understanding of ‘namely’, which it obviously doesn’t! Some words we often use in the classroom don’t appear on frequency lists, like ‘homework’. Leo challenged us to think of 6 words or chunks that we think of when we see the word ‘travelling’. Mine were ‘plane’, ‘alone’, ‘passport’, ‘go away’, ‘holiday’ and ‘backpack’. Leo pointed out that most of the ones we came up with probably aren’t in the top 2000 or 3000, but if we’re travelling, they’re really important, so we also need to consider student needs, not just general frequency of words.

Another issue is that chunks like ‘at all’ or ‘bear in mind’ are non-transparent, so although some or all of the words may appear on a frequency list, it doesn’t mean students can understand them by learning the component words. The PHRASal Expressions List (PHRASE List) and PHrasal VErb Pedagogical List (PHaVE List) are two new frequency lists designed to take this into account, by including non-transparent multiword items.

I found the talk very interesting, and it certainly made me think about how useful frequency lists really are, but I was left wondering what we should do instead. I know it’s hard to answer that in 30 minutes, but I’m hoping Leo will go into more detail on his blog at some point.

Adi Rajan summarised the talk much more thoroughly than I did!

P.S. Another talk about word lists at this year’s IATEFL was Vocabulary lists: snog, marry, avoid? by Julie Moore. Her blog post includes lots of links for further reading too.

Pronunciation and phonology

Mark Hancock’s was called ‘Towards a pedagogical phonology’ and looked at developments in the way he believes that phonology should be taught in a post-ELF world. He highlighted that accent snobbery is pointless, as there are so many different accents in the world and none of them are any better than any others. He also said that it’s important to expose students to a variety of accents, since no matter how ‘perfectly’ you might speak, you can’t control how your interlocutor speaks. It also doesn’t matter which accent you use to speak, as long as it gains you access to the international community.

The more common a variant is between accents, the more likely it is to be understood. This therefore makes it less problematic for listeners to understand. For example, ‘free’ is such a common variant of ‘three’ now, that it is almost always understood. It also generally doesn’t make you less intelligible if you pronounce something that is written, like the ‘r’ in ‘Mark’, but it might make you less intelligible if you don’t say it. We should aim to build or grow our students’ accents, rather than to replace them.

When we think about teaching pronunciation, we ultimately have to think about what is essential and what is superficial. Mark used the metaphor of aliens finding a car in space and trying to copy it. They don’t know that the scratches on the car are not a key part of what makes it work, so they copy them with the same level of care as they copy the engine and the wheels. In pronunciation, the equivalent of the engine and the wheels are things like syllables and phoneme distinctions, whereas the schwa, weak forms and elision are like the scratches. Having said that, it’s important to negotiate the syllabus with students, as they may have different ideas to you about what they want.

You can use this inverted triangle as a kind of hierarchy of pronunciation skills to be developed, with lower order skills at the bottom, and higher order ones at the top:

Multiple entry point model

The full set of Mark’s slides are available here, and there is a treasure trove of other useful materials on the HancockMcDonald site, which he shares with Annie Hancock.

 

Nicola Meldrum and Mark McKinnon shared some of the insights into pronunciation which they have come up with while running teacher training courses. They were working with A1 groups, and wanted to ensure that they modelled an equal focus on meaning, form and sound/pronunciation with all groups. This meant using natural speech and intonation patterns, even at very low levels, and highlighting what happens when form and sound don’t seem to match. Often students and teachers seem to focus on meaning and form, neglecting the sound of new language. They shared a 3-minute video of Toni, talking in Spanish (subtitled) about his experiences of pronunciation in class. It’s well worth watching, as Toni described how useful he found individual drilling, transcription of phonemes, and being able to concentrate just on the sound of new language at times, among many other insights. Before these lessons, he only used to focus on the written form and not the sound, and now he notices a real difference in how much more confident he is.

Nicola and Mark also recommended feedback focussed planning, where you consider what problems students might have with the sound of new language and plan how you can help them with it. Give students time and space by reducing the amount of ‘stuff’ to get through and leaving time for feedback. A supportive listening cycle is also useful here: time and a variety of tasks means students can spend time really understanding the sound of new language. They have written a series of blog posts covering all three of the concepts they mentioned during their talk: MFS (meaning, form, sound), SLC (supportive listening cycle) and FFP (feedback-focussed planning).

Older learners

Heloisa Duarte’s talk looked at what we can do to support older learners in the classroom. Depending on your context, older learners can start at anything from 45 to 70. As Heloisa said, there aren’t many generalisations we can make about older learners, but one thing we can say is that their parents didn’t force them to come to the classes! They tend to be highly motivated, perhaps wanting to learn English to talk to new family members, perhaps to move to an English-speaking country, or to feel better about themselves and boost their confidence. For others, it is just because they’ve always wanted to and now have the time and money to do it. The social side of courses can also be very important for these students.

Challenges for older learners include health problems, like mobility, hearing or eyesight. For example, the higher the pitch of a voice, the harder it can be to understand. There may be affective factors, such as previous bad experiences with English teachers, or a feeling that it is too late for them to learn, affecting their self-confidence. There may also be cognitive challenges: ‘I want to learn, but I forget.’ Some younger students may have the perception that older students are helpless, or less able to participate, and this is very rarely true.

Heloisa asked us to think about how we might adapt the lessons for three possible students. One of them was shown in one of my favourite adverts ever:

She advised us to help learners to acknowledge every victory they have, and work hard at boosting their confidence. She recommended Seeds of Confidence by , [affiliate link] published by Helbling languages, as a source of other confidence-building activities.

Other advice included:

  • Choose coursebooks with appropriate topics, making sure they’re not pitched too young.
  • Adapt activities to suit the interests of your students. One example she gave was to listen to ‘Old Macdonald had a farm’, then write an advert for him to sell his farm because he’s going crazy!
  • Use and teach memorisation techniques.
  • Revise and recycle as often as possible.
  • Find out about learners and value their experience.

Ultimately, it’s most important to adjust the classroom and lessons to your learners, rather than demanding they adapt to you.

Clarifying grammar

David Connolly shared some Venn diagrams he has used to help students to understand grammar points, rather than trying to navigate the long and often complicated explanations that appear in a lot of course books. I was particularly interested in this session as I have been experimenting with different ways of clarifying language points for a while now, as any of you who have been following my blog for a while will know (another articles chart, anyone?!) David emphasised that Venn diagrams don’t provide a complete explanation covering all exceptions to rules, with context still being key. However, they can be used as a starting point for understanding. Here is one example for the uses of past simple, ‘used to’ and ‘would’ for past habits:

He also had diagrams for vocabulary, for example the different between a table and a desk, something I’d never really thought about before.

The final set of diagrams I have pictures of are connected to ‘have to’ and ‘must’ in the present and past:

 

Bruno Leys showed us a lot of pictures of real English in use that he has noticed in the UK and abroad, along with the kind of questions and follow-up tasks he uses with them. I would highly recommend looking at the full presentation, here, to see both examples of the pictures and his reasoning for approaching grammar in this way. I’ve selected a couple of my favourite examples to give you a taster. These two are great as the present perfect causes problems for speakers of a lot of languages, including Slavic languages, and these pictures help to make the meaning very clear:

'Fat rescues' article We have moved

If you’re interested in using ELTpics to work with grammar in this way, you could try the Signs or Linguistic Landscapes sets. Bruno also mentioned the free-to-download e-book The Image in English Language Teaching, edited by Kieran Donaghy and Daniel Xerri.

 

Teaching the same thing all over again (paragraph blogging)

This week I’ve taught six 90-minute classes at a company, working through needs analysis and getting examples of speaking and writing as we are working with them for the first time. I had the same plan for all six lessons, covering every level from elementary to advanced, but it panned out completely differently in each group. The general structure was:

  • Students write questions for me and their teacher (who was observing and data collecting), then ask them.
  • Annotate a copy of the contents page of the book they’ve been using for lessons before we started teaching them, to show which things they’ve done, what they’d like to do, and what they’d prefer to avoid.
  • Individually, divide up 40 points between the speaking, listening, reading, writing, grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation to show their course priorities (an idea I adapted from Teaching English One-to-One [affiliate link] by Priscilla Osborne and now use all the time!). Write this on the back of the contents page.
  • Write a paragraph about their job, roles and responsibilities, when/if/how they use English at work, their hobbies, and anything else they choose, also on the back of the contents.
  • Extend the paragraph by finishing various sentence starters from a choice of 10, such as:
    • I prefer English lessons which…
    • I am confident/not confident about ____ in English because…
    • I generally have good/bad memories of learning English/Russian/German/… at school because…
    • A good English teacher…

Pretty straightforward, right? None of the lessons are encapsulated in that plan though! At various points this week, I (sometimes with my colleagues) have done error correction based on questions, looked at the grammar of questions in general, created indirect questions, discussed at length good places to visit in London, talked about the etymology of Wolverhampton and Chichester, discussed learning strategies and how to make English a habit, shared websites that can be used in addition to doing homework, explained various Polish/English differences, discovered all seven students in a single class prefer dogs to cats, encouraged (elementary) students to speak up so that I can give them feedback and then praised them a lot for speaking pretty much only English for 90 minutes, and probably many more things that I’ve forgotten. It’s a reminder, if one was needed, to teach the students, not the plan 🙂

Lady Wulfruna statue

Lady Wulfruna, the source of the name of Wolverhampton – Image by David Stowell [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Questions (paragraph blogging)

Inspired by Matthew (again), as well as the lessons I’ve been teaching this week…

My current favourite getting-to-know-you activity to do with new students, especially 121s, is simply to get them to write a list of questions they want to ask me. With 121s I’ll write a list of things to ask them at the same time, so it doesn’t feel so awkward watching them write, and we take it in turns to ask them. 10 questions seems to work well in 121; in groups it’s about 5 each with students then selecting the ‘best’ from their lists. Questions are inevitably an area that students need to practise, regardless of their level. Students rarely form questions themselves, and are much more likely to answer other people’s/the teacher’s questions in the average lesson [I know I’ve read blog posts about this before, but can’t remember where – all links gratefully accepted].

The lists of questions students produce in this activity tend to show up the same kind of problem areas: present simple v. continuous, present perfect (or the lack thereof), word order, common mistakes (like Where are/did you born?), articles, etc, giving you a starting point for grammar areas to focus on. They may also throw up slightly more unusual problems: one of the ones I’ve noticed this week is capitalisation of ‘you’, following the Polish pattern of politeness, e.g. Where are You from? In addition, student-generated questions demonstrate which topics students are most interested in, as they tend to ask at least one or two questions about those areas. To push higher-level students to show off their grammar, especially if they’ve picked very simple questions to ask, you can encourage them to reframe one or two things from their list as indirect questions, and talk about politeness, especially if you’ve never met the students before.

Of all the things this activity makes me consider though, I have to say the oddest thing is how often the question How old are you? comes up in a typical student list. It’s one of those things students often ask at the start of lessons without thinking twice, though I’m pretty sure they would be unlikely to ask it that quickly if they were meeting people at a party or a conference!

Have you tried this kind of activity? Do you have a similar experience of it?

Stop asking me questions!

Based on an ELTpic by @ij64 (I believe!)

Articles chart (again!)

18 months on from the previous version, and here’s another ‘final’ version of the articles chart I’ve been working on for a number of years:

Articles chart

Here’s the PowerPoint version for you to download.

I use the articles chart with students instead of the long lists of explanations and rules that normally appear in coursebooks. We look at a few examples of nouns in sentences, and follow the chart to work out the explanation for why that article (or lack thereof) was chosen. For example, in the first sentence of this paragraph:

  • Noun = chart. It’s normal, countable, singular, and specific – it’s important that I’m talking about this particular chart, not just any chart.
  • Noun = students. They’re normal, countable, plural, and general – I’m talking about any of my students – it doesn’t matter which ones.
  • Noun = lists. They’re normal, countable, plural and specific – I’m talking about the ones which appear in coursebooks, not just any lists.
  • Noun = explanations/rules. They’re normal, countable, plural and general – it doesn’t matter which explanations and rules – it covers all of the ones in coursebooks.
  • Noun = coursebooks. They’re normal, countable, plural and general – it covers all coursebooks, not just specific ones.

As I’ve said before, the 90% rule mentioned in the box is entirely made up, has no scientific basis, and is only because sometimes I can’t get it to match up, though in reality I find it works about 99% of the time if you think around the sentence a bit. If anybody would like to give me a more scientific number, I’ll be very grateful 🙂

I don’t expect students to memorise the chart, but instead use it as a point of reference. I introduce it by going through a few sentences, as above, then give them a paragraph of a text, probably something we’ve just read or listened to, and ask them to figure out why articles were(n’t) chosen in each case. They can ask me about any which don’t seem to fit the rules. I get them to staple the chart in their books (less likely to lose it!) and we refer to it whenever relevant in future lessons. I find that after using it in a few lessons for analysis and correction, they tend to get much better at selecting appropriate articles, and are more able to self-correct.

If you use it, I’d be interested to know if you find examples which really don’t fit, as well as how well your students manage with this way of representing this grammar.

Introducing ELT Playbook 1

Since April 3rd last year, I’ve been working on this, and it’s now finally ready to share with the world:ELT Playbook 1 cover

ELT Playbook 1 contains a selection of 30 tasks to help teachers to reflect on what they do, centred particularly on the areas that seem to cause most problems for those new to our profession. It is based on my work as a CELTA trainer and as a manager of newly qualified teachers. There is also an associated online community where participants can choose to share their reflections and learn from others using the book, taking the first steps to building up an online support network.

Where can I buy it?

ELT Playbook 1 is currently available through the following retailers:

  • Smashwords (available in .epub, .pdf, .txt and more)
  • Amazon.com [coming in the next couple of days after I post this, as soon as the powers that be have approved it!]

All links above are affiliate links, meaning I get a few extra pennies if you buy them via this site.

It costs approximately 6.99 USD, 5 GBP or 5.50 EUR.

If you’d like a taster, here’s the contents page and first task, or you can see a blogged version of the first task on the shiny new ELT Playbook blog. You can also download samples via both Smashwords and Amazon before forking out your hard-earned cash.

Who is this series for?

  • Those who want to develop as a teacher, but who would like some support to learn how to do this, along with clear tasks to work through.
  • Teacher trainers or managers who would like ideas for professional development programmes (though please do credit the source).

And this book?

  • Teachers fresh off their initial training who would like to build on what they’ve learnt.
  • Those who have not yet completed an initial training course and would like something to start them off.
  • Teachers a few years after their initial training who feel they would like to go back to basics.
  • Those who would like to develop in a systematic way but are on a limited budget or working in an environment without available support.

Series aims

  • To provide a series of tasks you can work through to improve your teaching.
  • To help you to build a professional portfolio that can be used to show your development when applying for jobs.
  • To provide guidance in how to reflect on your teaching.

Why ELT Playbook?

According to the Macmillan Dictionary online (accessed 17th August 2017), a playbook is ‘any set of strategies to achieve a goal.’ I believe it is just such a set of techniques and strategies that teachers need to develop both inside and outside the classroom to describe themselves as truly professional. This is reflected in the fact that the term ‘playbook’ has moved from the sportsfield to the boardroom over the last few years.

It is also important to emphasise the ‘play’ part of ‘playbook’. We already have plenty of work to do, so it’s important that any professional development we do complements our work in an enjoyable and stimulating way, rather than adding unnecessary extra stress. None of the tasks should take you longer than 2 hours, and many of them should be achievable in under an hour. They are designed to fit in relatively easily around a busy career and the demands of home life.

How do I use ELT Playbook 1?

You can do the tasks in any order: you could start with something you feel you particularly need to work on, you could complete a whole category, or you might prefer to work through the book from beginning to end. If you do one task a week, you should have enough for an average academic year, with a couple of weeks left over to help you when you are particularly busy at work or home. You can also repeat tasks as many times as you like, perhaps reflecting on them in different ways, or seeing how your responses change over time or with different groups.

That means that just this one single volume could provide you with years of professional development, if you so choose! Having said that, if ELT Playbook 1 is successful, I hope to develop a series of similar playbooks for other areas of ELT, and I would very much welcome feedback on which areas you would find it most useful to focus on.

I hope you enjoy using the book.

Thanks

Big thanks to everyone who’s been involved in getting this ready, though they might not realise they helped me!

  • Penny Hands, for editing it and supporting me through the process of finalising everything.
  • Adi Rajan, for inspiring the name.
  • Ola Walczykowska, for designing the cover and the logo.
  • Lindsay Clandfield, for letting me know about the existence of The Noun Project.
  • Karen White, for teaching me how to deal with icons in ebooks.
  • Mum, always.
  • Everyone who’s listened to me talking about it over the last few months.

It’s taken longer than expected to get here, but hopefully it’ll all be worth it! Enjoy 🙂

Why should they care?

In lessons I have observed, it is often a little step that is missing that could make a real difference to the students’ engagement in a particular activity. By asking yourself ‘Why should they care?’ at every stage of the planning process, it’s easy to make little tweaks that could help students to get more involved.*

Do you recognise any of these situations?

Speaking

You ask students to discuss a question like this in pairs:

Tell your partner what you did at the weekend.

They each monologue for about 30 seconds, and the whole activity peters out after less than two minutes. Neither student really listened to their partner, and apart from saying a few words in English, they haven’t really got anything out of the activity.

Why should they care?

Here are a few little tweaks that might avoid this situation.

  • Give them a listening task too. These can also be used as questions for feedback after the activity.
    ‘Find something your partner did that you didn’t.’ > Feedback = ask one or two students to say what their partner did and why they didn’t do it.
    ‘Decide whose weekend was more boring.’ > Feedback = put your hand up if you had the most boring weekend.
  • Add challenge.
    Students have 15 seconds to tell their partner what they did – time it strictly. Afterwards they change partners and tell someone else what their partner did. Give them thinking time first to decide/rehearse what to say in that time.
    Students can only say two sentences before their partner speaks. Give an example, and make sure you include questions!
  • Change the interaction pattern.
    Students mingle, speaking to as many others as possible. They have to find one person who did the same three things as them/did none of the things they did/did something they wish they’d done.
    Play Chinese whispers with two teams racing to correctly write down one thing each person in their team did.
  • Give them some functional language you want them to use.
    ‘No, really? Why did you do that?’
    ‘That’s something I’ve always wanted to do.’

If you want more ideas for how to adapt speaking activities, I’ve got a whole e-book of them!

Writing

You ask your students to write a blog post about a place they want to visit. Some of them write a paragraph, others write a whole page.

Why should they care?

  • Get them interested in the topic first.
    Talk about the most popular places a tourist can visit in the students’ countries.
    Get them to decide three things which make a place worth visiting, then compare the list with a partner and narrow it down to three things from their combined lists.
  • Show them what you expect from them.
    Give them a framework, e.g. Paragraph one = a description of the place, including at least three pieces of information about it. Paragraph two = why they want to visit it. Paragraph three = why they haven’t visited it yet/when they plan to visit it. > This can also be used for marking if necessary, giving you an objective way of deciding if they get full marks for content.
    Show a couple of examples from real blogs.
  • Change the interaction pattern.
    Allow students to choose if they want to work alone or in pairs.
    Get students to write a paragraph, then pass it on to the next student/pair who write the next paragraph, then pass it on again for the final paragraph.
  • Give students other choices.
    They could write about a place they don’t want to visit/the last interesting place they visited/the most boring place they’ve ever visited.
    Let them decide on the format: a blog post, a poster, a newspaper article, a comic strip…

Listening

There is a three-minute audio recording about straw bales in the course book your school requires you to use. 30 seconds in, the students are clearly incredibly bored, and starting to fidget.

A straw bale

Image from Pixabay

Why should they care?

  • Use an image.
    Show them the picture above. Give them a minute to imagine this is real – they think about what they can see/hear/smell/touch/taste. Then tell a partner.
    Give them the image in the middle of a piece of paper. They should draw the bigger picture, then compare it to a partner. Do they have similar pictures?
  • Set them a challenge.
    Get them to think of a minimum of five different things they could use a straw bale for, then compare to a partner.
    Somebody has dumped a straw bale in front of the school. It’s too heavy to lift easily. How will they move it?
  • Make sure they have a clear task to do while they’re listening.
    The first time they listen, they could check predictions they’ve made before listening.
    Get students to come up with three questions they want the answers to. They can be as simple as ‘Why am I listening to a text about straw bales?’ 🙂
  • Use the audio in other ways.
    Break it into 30-second chunks. After each chunk, students should tell a partner what they remember. They could also come up with one question they think will be answer in the next section.
    Pause the audio at a particular point and ask the students what they think the next three words are. You can decide on these points before the lesson if you want to focus on particular pieces of language. This can build students’ confidence when listening to English if you choose chunks of language students are already familiar with.

Reading

There’s an article about gender pay gaps in the news, which you think is an important issue and should be discussed with your students. Some students have previously said they would like to read ‘real’ things in class, but in the lesson the students just aren’t interested in the article, and you end up moving on to something else after a few minutes.

Why should they care?

  • Deal with part of the topic first.
    Have pieces of paper around the room, each with the beginning of a statement. Students walk around and write as many sentences using these beginnings as possible in two minutes. Examples might be ‘Women are…’ ‘Men are…’ ‘Women can’t…’ ‘Men can’t…’ ‘It’s important for women to…’ ‘It’s important for men to…’
    Ask students to list five jobs where people get paid a lot of money, and five where they don’t get paid much. They compare lists with other students, then decide whether they think more men or women do those jobs.

Gender pay gap word cloud based on http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-42580194

  • Use a word cloud. Wordart.com allows you put a whole text into their creator.
    Students have five minutes to write as many sentences as they can using the words in the word cloud. These become predictions – they read the text to check what was included.
    They choose one big word, one medium word, and one small word, then predict how these are connected to the story. You could also give them the headline to help.
  • Reflect real life.
    Show students the headline. Ask them if this is something they would read about in their own language. Encourage them to discuss why or why not. If they say they would, ask them to read it. If they wouldn’t, ask them to choose another article from the BBC homepage (give them a time limit). In both cases, get them to tell a partner what they think they’ll still remember about the article tomorrow.
    We often read online articles by skimming them quickly as we scroll down the page. If you have a projector in your classroom, replicate that process. Scroll down relatively slowly, but fast enough that students can’t read everything. When you get to the bottom, minimise the window and ask students to tell their partner what they saw, what they understood, and what (if anything) they’d like to go back and read in more detail.
  • Work with the language.
    Ask students to find phrases which describe companies or replace the name of the company, e.g. ‘major companies’, ‘organisations with 250 or more workers’, ‘the carrier’, ‘the firm’. They discuss why these phrases were selected in each case.
    Get them to list five different sentences with a percentage in them, e.g. ‘Many financial firms feature in the list, including the Co-op Bank – where mean hourly pay is 30.3% lower for women.’ or ‘It said 7% of apprentices last year were men, compared with zero in 2016, while 41% of roles involving helping at children’s tea time were filled by men – compared with 25% in 2016.’ They can analyse the structures these percentages appear in, e.g. ‘X is % lower for Y.’ or ‘% of X were blah blah blah – compared with % in year’

Grammar points

You’ve recently taught students how to use the passive in news articles. In a follow-up piece of writing, there is no evidence of passives at all.

Why should they care?

  • Contextualise.
    Make sure that example sentences you use are all taken from clear contexts, not plucked at random from thin air. Context can really help students to understand new grammar.
    After doing a practice exercise, ask students to choose three sentences. For each sentence they should add a minimum of two sentences before and two after, making a longer paragraph or dialogue. They could leave a space where their chosen sentence appeared for other students to remember what it was.
  • Get them to notice how it’s used outside the classroom.
    Ask students to open an article from English-language news at random. They should underline all of the passive structures they can find. Afterwards, they can compare usage of the passive in different kinds of article – for example, is it used more in articles describing a crime? A sports event? An election?
    Send students on a treasure hunt. Ask them to find one example in the news of each kind of passive you have studied, e.g. present simple passive, past simple passive, present perfect passive. They should find as many as they can and write out the full sentence, all within a specified time, for example 15 minutes.
  • Compare and contrast.
    Give students pairs of sentences in the active and the passive, with each sentence in the pair conveying the same information. Ask them to choose their ‘favourite’ sentence in the pair and say why. For example: ‘The dog ate the cake.’ ‘The cake was eaten by the dog.’ ‘Somebody stole my bag.’ ‘My bag was stolen.’
    Show students a 2-3 sentence paragraph including a passive structure. Ask them to translate it into another language they know. They then use the translation to analyse differences between how the idea of a passive is expressed in their own language(s). For example, emphasis on the object might be conveyed through a change in word order but no change in the verb form.
  • Add it in.
    Give students a short news article in pairs. Ask them to add three passive sentences into the article, wherever they like. They can then compare the results to another group.
    Tell students you expect to see a minimum of two passive structures in the news article you want them to write. Include this in criteria for peer checking before the article is handed in.

Vocabulary

You introduced a range of words connected to clothes in your last lesson, like ‘button’, ‘zip’, ‘sleeve’. During a revision activity at the beginning of this lesson, the students need a lot of prompting and they can’t really remember any of them accurately.

Why should they care?

  • Find out what they know.
    If you’re working on vocabulary from a particular lexical set, do a board race first. In this case, divide students into two teams. They race to write as many clothes words on the board as possible in five minutes. Teams switch and work out the points for their opponents: one point for completely correct, half a point if there is a spelling mistake.
    Show them pictures of clothes – three or four items is enough. Ask them to list as many things they can see in the pictures as possible. Point to various things and ask ‘What’s this?’ to prompt students to notice features like the buttons or sleeves, not just the items of clothing themselves.
  • Help them to notice the gaps in their knowledge.
    Display all of the words you’re planning to teach on the board. Ask students to draw pictures for as many of them as possible, but not to worry if they don’t know any of them – they will by the end of the lesson! To reinforce this, repeat the same activity at the end of the lesson and point out how much they’ve improved.
    Give them the first and last letters of the words, like this ‘b_____’, ‘z__p’, ‘s_____e’. Ask them to complete the words to describe parts of clothes. Again, they shouldn’t worry if they don’t know them.
  • Add extra processing.
    Don’t just ask students to read words from a flashcard, show them the picture and get them to remember the word. For extra challenge, they could then spell it. It’s better to do this chorally or in pairs/groups, rather than putting individual students on the spot, as this may affect their confidence if they can’t do it or increase their fear if they think they might be next.
    Display all of the pictures on the board/floor. Students should write as many of the words as possible in their notebooks, then compare the spellings with the vocabulary list. To add challenge, you could get them to switch notebooks with somebody else for the checking stage.
  • Make it real.
    Ask them to choose a word which is new for them. They should think of one time they would expect to say/write the word, and one time they would expect to read/hear it. For example, they might say ‘button’ if they’ve lost a button, or read it in a craft magazine which tells them how to make a teddy bear.
    They choose three new words they want to remember, and write them into short sentences connected to their lives, e.g. ‘I’ve lost three buttons from my coat.’. As an extension, they could then google the sentences and see if they exist on the internet anywhere.

All of the vocabulary tips can be connected to the idea of ‘hooks’. This is a metaphor I use to describe how you remember new information. The more hooks you hang something on, the more likely it is to stay where you put it. When you think about learning new vocabulary (or grammar for that matter), you need to give the students as many hooks as possible to ‘hang’ the new vocabulary from and keep it in their heads.

Pronunciation

When you ask students to repeat sentences after you as part of a drill, they sound really bored and/or refuse to do it.

Why should they care?

  • Do you care?
    Record yourself doing some pronunciation work. Listen back to it. What do you think your tone of voice and body language conveys to the students? What does your intonation sound like?
    Before you drill anything, imagine somebody is going to ask ‘What was the point of that?’ Do you have a good answer for them?
  • Play.
    Experiment with different tones of voice, speeds, characters (the Queen, Arnold Schwarzenegger…), positions (standing, sitting, superhero poses)…
    A really popular activity at my school is a stickman drill, where students are in teams. Each team gets a stickman, with one or two extra features of their choice, like a hat or an umbrella. Each team repeats the sentence. Whoever the teacher decides did it best can remove part of their opponents’ stickmen. The aim is to have the most complete stickman by the end of the game. [I still haven’t actually tried this, but I’ve seen it used many times!]
  • Add challenge.
    Don’t just ask students to repeat the same sentence again and again. Get them to change parts of it. For example, in the first sentence of this paragraph, you could change the verb (ask), the person (students), the infinitive phrase (to repeat the same sentence) or the time adverbial (again and again). This is known as a substitution drill. Students or the teacher can decide what changes.
    Use key words or images as prompts, so students have to remember the language without having it all in front of them.
  • Add extra support.
    Give students a minute to read and remember the language you’re going to drill, then close their books during the drilling process.
    Break down longer sentences into smaller chunks, then put them back into the full sentence. This is known as backchaining if you do it from the end of the sentence.

*I recognise that a lot of the tweaks I’ve suggested above may more appropriately answer the question ‘What can I do about it?’, but I find the phrasing ‘Why should they care?’ adds a bit more impact when I’m asking my teachers!

Have you tried any of these tweaks? What other little tweaks do you use to encourage students to care more about activities in class?

P.S. This blogpost has been in the back of my mind for a while now, and reading this post about lead ins by CELTA train is what made me actually write it today 🙂

DIY festive homework (guest post)

When I walked past my colleague’s desk at work a few days ago, I noticed a really interesting handout, and asked her if she would be willing to share it with the world. I’m very happy that she agreed 🙂 Over to Katie…

‘Tis the season for teachers to hand out Christmas holiday homework, and if your students are anything like mine, ’tis also the season for students to ignore their Christmas holiday homework until half an hour before their first lesson back in January. So I came up with an idea that will hopefully motivate them to actually do something different every day, without having to personally visit them on Christmas day and force them to talk to me.

The format is simple and can be adapted for any level, but mine was for an advanced class (hence the uninhibited use of the word “regale”). I’ve made a calendar for my students, with a box for every day between our last lesson of the year and the first lesson of next year. Every day they choose a task from the list, and they note down which one they did into the right day. On their return to the class in January, they use the calendar to recall the different things they got up to over the holidays. My hope for this exercise isn’t necessarily to test or challenge my students, so I won’t take in any of their work to be marked. Instead the aim here is to train them to keep working at their English even when I’m not standing over their shoulder.

The list is based on my class and what I know might be interesting to them, but you should edit the list to make it appropriate for your class. I’d especially recommend adding in any online resources that you regularly use with your students, but to keep all the tasks relatively low-effort.

Christmas homework handout

Here’s the list again, for ease of copying and pasting:

  1. read your book for 20 minutes
  2. watch a film in English
  3. write a New Year’s resolution and summarise it in exactly 20 words
  4. go to bbc.com/news and read a news story
  5. put a photo on social media with an English caption
  6. write an email to Katie wishing her a Happy Christmas & tell her what you’ve been doing (your@emailaddress.co.uk)
  7. listen to some music, look up the lyrics and try to sing along (obviously only songs that have English lyrics!)
  8. write a diary entry about something interesting that happened to you
  9. watch something in English on YouTube & tell someone about it
  10. learn a Christmas song in English and sing it to your mum/uncle/pet/neighbour
  11. compose a haiku about Christmas Day
  12. go into a shop and pretend that you don’t speak any [Polish], and ask them to speak English to you
  13. write a Christmas recipe out for Katie to try at home (please make it very clear, and with minimal pickling)
  14. regale your family members by speaking to them in only English for part of the day (even if they’re not sure what you mean)
  15. look at your textbook, sigh, and say “maybe I won’t do anything in English today today” *ONE USE ONLY*

Bio

Katie Lindley

Katie Lindley has been teaching at IH Bydgoszcz since September 2016.  She hasn’t published any books (yet), or spoken at any conferences (yet), but the 9-year-old girls in her kids’ class think she’s brilliant.

I hope you enjoy adapting Katie’s festive homework, and I’m sure you’ll join me in asking her to write more posts in the future!

The shy teacher’s drill

On Monday my intermediate group were looking at modals of obligation, based on a text about how to become a millionaire. We had a set of sentences which I wanted to work with. They went something like this:

  • You have to be very hard-working.
  • You shouldn’t take long holidays.
  • You don’t have to be born rich.
  • You must have a clear idea of what you want to achieve.
  • You should (something I can’t remember…)
  • You mustn’t (something else I can’t remember!)

We checked the meaning by matching the sentences to a set of key words, and then I thought it was important to work on stress patterns. I also wanted them to memorise some correct sentences, as at an earlier stage of the lesson they’d produced things like:

  • You have to very hard-working.
  • You don’t have to born rich.

Here’s what I did:

  1. Told students to listen.
  2. Said all six of the sentences as quickly as possible.
  3. Put students in pairs and told them to practice doing the same.
  4. If they decided they’d finished, I made them do the same thing backwards, starting with the final sentence.
  5. When I thought they were ready, I challenged them to say the sentences as quickly as me. I counted 3, 2, 1 and we all spoke at the same time, with the aim being to finish at the same time as I did.

Students seemed to really enjoy this activity with lots of laughter throughout, especially when they were racing me. They worked hard to correct each other. I didn’t have to do any remedial drilling in this case, as the challenge of speaking as fast as possible meant they produced the correct stress patterns pretty naturally.

And why is it for shy teachers? Because once I’d said the sentences at the beginning, all I had to do was listen until they were ready to race me at the end, at which point I was speaking at the same time as them. That meant I only ‘exposed’ my pronunciation once in front of the class, which I know is something that some teachers are worried about. They got lots of drilling, and I did hardly anything 🙂 Win-win!

What other drills can you think of which do the same job?

A tree in the Bornean jungle, complete with a ladder to climb it

The picture I was trying to upload on Monday when I first wrote this post, at which point the WordPress app decided to crash. There was a link in my head the first time, but now I can’t remember what it was! It’s a tree in Borneo with a viewing platform at the top…you can hide there from other people if you’re shy (?) Other guesses are welcome!

A story wot I wrote

A couple of days ago I came across a notebook I used to practise my handwriting when I was about 7 or 8. One double-page contains the beginnings of a short story, and disappointingly I didn’t finish it. In the tradition of good stories, the beginning raises more questions than it answers 😉

——

Jim Bolley was a boy of 8. He had curly red hair and liked walking and jogging.

Jim was walking home from school one day, when he spotted a flight of stairs. He climbed up the stairs. When he got to the top he came to a door which had a keyring with four keys on. He held the one that had been in the door.

As Jim opened the door, he saw three doors behind it. Jim tryed all the keys and then the door opened. He looked down and saw a cloak, a pair of boots, and a hat. So he put them on.

Then Jim tryed two of the keys in the next door, but it would’nt open.

‘If I’ve tried the other two keys, then the door must need all three.’ thought Jim.

So Jim used all three and the door opened. Behind that door was a ring, a pen and an inkwell full of ink.

He moved on to the last door and used all three keys. The lock clicked and he opened the door. Behind the door was a desk, a car and a watch.

Jim got the things out of the cupboards and put them at the top of the stairs. Jim opened the desk to put the pen and inkwell into it. As soon as they touched the desk, they turned into a manuel which said on the front:-

How to use the objects By Myst.Rey

On the first page it said:

Invisibility cloak     2

Silence boots           3

Flying hat                 4

Magic ring               5

Pen and inkwell     7

Size desk                 8

Car                           9

Watch                      10

——

I’d love to know what I was reading to prompt 8-year-old me to write this story. This was in the early 1990s, so well before Harry Potter, who is probably the owner of the most famous invisibility cloak now. I definitely remember having a joke book with puns like the one on the cover of the manual – there’s were probably a little more skilled though!

I also find it interesting that I spelt ‘tried’ incorrectly twice, then correctly the third time, but didn’t go back and correct myself. I also had trouble with ‘manual’, and there’s a lot of repetition in there. I’d got rid of some of it at the beginning of the story, but doors and keys feature frequently. There’s also a bit of punctuation which I don’t think I’ve seen for years:-

A picture of my notebook

And the story leaves lots of questions unanswered:

Where are the stairs? Just out in the room? Or was Jim walking down a long corridor to get home? For some reason I’m picturing the doors and the lock in a castle – some kind of big heavy key ring with old iron keys, but then, how on earth did he not notice it before?!

How did the car get into the third room? Why a pen and an inkwell, not just a pen? Why on earth did I decide that he needed a manual? Who wrote it?

Finally, why does the magic ring need two pages of the manual, but everything else just gets one?

Maybe you or your students have the answers 🙂

The Proficiency Plateau (guest post)

At the beginning of my career, I was lucky enough to work with a whole range of dedicated teachers at International House Brno. One of them was Lily-Anne Young, who at that point had been teaching the same proficiency-level group for a couple of years. She worked with the same group for many years, and is therefore always the person I go to when I need help with teaching very high-level students. She has now agreed to write some guest posts for me, which I hope you will find useful. Over to Lily-Anne:

What do you do with students who already have, or don’t need, CAE/CPE but want to keep working on their English? The non-native speaker teachers, translators, business & tech people and many others? The ones who have hit the proficiency plateau?

Having taught a C2 class for 10 consecutive years, with many returning students, this is an area I have dealt with, struggled with and love. It’s demanding, challenging and potentially soul destroying, yet I, and some other people, thrive on this.

Expectations are incredibly high. It’s up to us and the learners to meet those expectations. To do this, it has to be a mutual experience: negotiated content, constant communication, reciprocal feedback, respect and the teacher as a facilitator.

In this introductory post I’m going to share some of the observations I have made over time and consider the implications for both teachers and learners.  In future posts I will share some activities which have proved successful with my students, and make further salient observations.

Who are these amazing people?

O’Maley (Advanced Learners, OUP) [affiliate link] points out that learners at this level are usually:

  • Highly educated
  • Teachers, educators, translators, academics
  • Middle or senior management

Based on my own students, past and present, they:

  • may be suffering from the Proficiency Plateau;
  • are highly motivated;
  • but may be wondering just how they can, usefully, improve their skills;
  • cannot be pigeonholed (as if we would ever consider such a thing);
  • love to challenge the teacher and to show off a bit;
  • all have different areas of language expertise, obsessions and gaps.

The Proficiency Plateau

I am coining this phrase as my own (I hope nobody else has used it). Teachers often talk about the Intermediate Plateau, yet the same situation can be hit at all stages of learning a language and once learners have achieved C1/C2 level it can seem almost impossible to measure progress and achievement.

What does it mean?

It means that you are going to work with students who, as with most learners, have a wide range of interests, from the mundane to the bizarre, but who also have much of the language needed to express complex ideas. This gives us a much wider range of available topics and scope to play with language than we have with lower levels and coursebooks.

It means that they are going to ask you questions you may not know the answer to off the top off your head or can answer but can’t explain. Hence, you need to be able to think on your feet and be willing to admit that you are not an encyclopedia, dictionary or Google.

It means that you have to adapt coursebooks, resource books, find suitable authentic materials and create lessons from them which meet the diverse needs of the learner(s). Which takes us on to:

Materials

There is a dearth of ready-made materials for advanced learners who don’t want to do CAE/CPE/IELTS  (or have it). This is mainly due to a lack of market demand and I believe/hope, based on the fact that my C1 students are getting younger every year, that this may change. (Yes, I am older but the C1 students are still in secondary school – that’s a big change from 10 years ago when my students were 30+).

In the meantime there are published resources which you can use and adapt – after all, we teachers are very skilled at that – and the CAE/CPE books can give you an idea of which language areas you may wish to target in the development of your course.

However the main resource for us has to be authentic materials.  Everybody has their favourites and I have mine, which I will reveal at a later date 🙂

Going beyond language

Push the boat out; above and beyond; the call of duty; hit the nail on the head. These are all wonderful phrases to know but you have to encourage your learners  to use them in appropriate situations, not just parrot them to show off knowledge. Likewise we have to motivate the learners to use their language effectively.  

To do this I work with authentic materials, some of which are provided by them and some by me, then use those materials to create classroom situations in which they can practise both language and skills.

So here is a, not exhaustive, list of some of the skills my learners and I work on together:

  • Humour
  • Sarcasm & irony
  • Criticism & compliments
  • Swearing (be careful with this)
  • Different accents
  • Different Englishes
  • Poetry, nursery rhymes, literature
  • Reading between the lines
  • Presentation skills
  • Marketing/negotiation/persuasive skills
  • Making appropriate choices between synonyms depending on contexts

Thus, I prefer to take the emphasis away from measuring progress and focus on encouraging my students to explore not only language, but also how English has so many variations and to develop skills which they may or may not have when using their own language.

I hope you have enjoyed this post and I have whetted your appetite for more.

Lily-Anne Young

Lily-Anne is a DipTesol qualified teacher with over 15 years experience in teaching in various locations and covering the whole gamut of teaching situations. Working as a freelance teacher trainer and senior teacher, based in Brno, CZ, she has recently decided to try to share some of her knowledge with other professionals via conferences and other peoples’ blogs.

In particular she has an interest on how to work with and help very advanced learners as this is an area she has been working in for a long time and many people find daunting.

In her spare time she plays in an amateur badminton league and tries to understand her Czech speaking boyfriend.

What are you thinking about?

When I was a full-time teacher, my thoughts went something like this:

  • Why do I have to get up this early?
  • When will I find time to eat?
  • I hope my students are enjoying their lessons.
  • I really hope I’m actually teaching them something!
  • Hmm…that didn’t really work.
  • Oh my god, how could that lesson possibly have gone that badly?
  • This blogging malarkey is fun. I’m learning so much from everyone.
  • I don’t want this year to end because I’ll really miss my students.
  • …and so on.

Now, I’m a Director of Studies, CELTA trainer and materials writer, and my thoughts have (mostly!) moved on.

  • Why can’t I get back to sleep?
  • When will I find time to eat?
  • Where am I going to find the last teacher I need?
  • What teacher development should we offer this year? Is it giving everyone what they need?
  • Will this timetable ever be finished?
  • How can we make sure everyone feels comfortable at school?
  • That was really snappy/short/sharp/angry – apologise now and don’t let it get worse.
  • I wish I had more time in the classroom and to work on my own teaching.
  • I wish I had more time.
  • I really want to work on that CELTA course, but the dates don’t fit.
  • Where will my next CELTA course be? When will I know?
  • How can I encourage people to buy my book?

Richer Speaking cover

  • I’m really excited about this project – I can’t wait to be able to share it!
  • Don’t forget to put in your IATEFL proposal.
  • I need to make sure I still find time to get thoughts out of my head onto my blog.
  • I have too many ideas for my blog and not enough time!
  • Switch your computer off at 9:30. You know you’ll sleep better if you do.
  • Stop it. Look after yourself.
  • …and so on.

What are you thinking?

How to learn a language every day (IH Journal Issue 42)

Issues 42 of the IH Journal has just been published.

IH Journal Issue 42 cover

My article is about various ways to make language learning part of your daily life, without expending too much effort. Hopefully it will be useful both for students and for teachers wanting to explore new languages.

As always, I’d recommend taking a look at the whole issue,  which you can access through the links on the right-hand side of the main IH Journal page. Some of my highlights from this issue are Katy Simpson describing three reasons why we should all be (ELT) feminists, lots of ideas from Kylie Malinowska to make the most of YL coursebooks, and Maria Badia’s ideas for using the Oxford Owls e-readers, a resource I had no idea existed, but will certainly be recommending to parents in the next academic year. Emily Hird pulls together some of these threads by showing us how to be more aware of everyday sexism in materials we use, and suggests some ways of dealing with it.

A simple paper quiz

I first experimented with this activity when trying to make a very dull induction week session about contracts and school requirements a tiny bit more interesting. I’ve recently tried it as a way of practising quantifiers with my students. In both cases it went down really well, taking about 30-60 minutes from start to finish.

A bit of origami

You can prepare the paper before the session, or you can give students the instructions below to prepare their own.

  • Take a piece of A4 paper (scrap paper is fine).
  • Hold it landscape.
  • Fold it in half, joining together the two short edges.
  • Unfold it.
  • Fold one half to the middle, and repeat.

The final result should look something like this:

Quiz paper with numbered sections

Creating the questions

Ask students to fold the paper so that they can see the A5 half only (column 1 in the diagram above).

Give them a topic/task and a time limit to write as many questions as they can.

  • For teachers in induction week, each group had a section of the contract appendix and a couple of other short admin documents.
  • For students practising quantifiers, they could write questions on any topic they wanted to based on information they found on their phones, with two caveats: it had to be a gapfill, with the gap being a quantifier we’d just studied, and the question had to be something they thought other students could answer.

After each question, they should draw a line across all five columns/the whole A4 page.

They should also make a note of their answers on another piece of paper.

Completing the quiz

Students from group A pass their quiz to group B, and so on. B answer the questions in the right-hand column, furthest away from the questions (5 in the diagram above) – this is very important! Make sure that you check by asking a question when giving instructions and by monitoring closely (there’s always one group who write in the wrong place!)

When B have answered all of the questions, they fold their answers underneath and pass the paper to group C, with only columns 1-4 visible. C write their answers in column 4, then fold it under again. Group D write in column 3, and E in column 2.

Group A then get the quiz back and check the answers to find the winner for their quiz. The teacher then tells the class who won each quiz, and an overall winner is decided based on which team won the most quizzes. Be prepared for arguments! It’s better to base it on overall winners for each quiz than on the total number of questions answered correctly across all the quizzes, as different groups will probably have written different length quizzes.

My students

If you only have a small class, like I did, group B can write in column 5 and group C write in column 3, leaving space for their answers to be marked in columns 4 and 2.

Here are two completed examples from my mostly teenage students. I was particularly impressed by the not-quite-Monty-Python references. Some of the questions were quite controversial as multiple answers were possible, and they didn’t always understand the vocabulary used by other groups. This prompted debate afterwards, but they argued in English and learnt some extra words, so it was OK in the end! You can decide how much you want to vet the questions, but I think it’s more fun if the students are in charge.

Quantifiers quiz - completed student example

So what else could you use this kind of quiz for?

Boardwork (guest post)

This is the second time I have had the pleasure of hosting a post by Amy Blanchard on my blog. The first time, it was all about Peace Boat, a Japanese scheme to promote peace and cultivate a wider understanding of different cultures. This time Amy is talking about her first conference presentation, which she did at this year’s InnovateELT conference. Over to Amy…

Amy's talk

(photo by Innovate ELT photographer)

Last weekend I had the opportunity to present at the third annual InnovateELT conference in Barcelona. The brainchild of the lovely people at ELTJam and hosted by Oxford TEFL, it’s become famous for a diverse and friendly crowd, relaxed and productive atmosphere, and innovative format: 10-minute plenaries in the garden, sessions involving learners, and 30-minute talks. I delivered one of these short sessions on the topic of using the whiteboard. No, not interactive, just the act of writing with a pen on the board. As a CELTA tutor, observing lessons and boardwork is a key part of my role. It’s something that frequently comes up in feedback. Yet there is no dedicated session on boardwork, nor did I have one on my initial training course.

Is boardwork still considered relevant in this era of technology, projectors and digital books? I think so, and attendance showed I wasn’t the only one, with a good mix of teachers and trainers alike.

The session began with a short discussion between the attendees: what do they write on their board? The following were all discussed as possibilities. Ultimately, teachers who know their students can make the best decision about which of the following might be useful to have on the board for their particular classes.

A menu

Seeing the content of the class in advance can be motivating for learners. Knowing what is coming up can make them feel more comfortable and give a sense of achievement when it’s done. Personally I use it more with my younger classes than with adults. My YLs often need to know that there’s something more appetising on the horizon, and they feel more secure knowing the routine of the class.

Aims

Again, this is not compulsory but can motivate students, especially if they are phrased in a way that makes the menu content make sense. So ‘telling anecdotes’ rather than ‘practising past simple’.

Admin

A few people used their board to highlight information for their students: course dates, exam dates, instructions to tasks, page numbers, and homework. Set homework immediately after the lesson component it refers to, and try to avoid leaving it to the end of the class; this makes it seem like an afterthought.*

Points system

Some teachers have a separate chart for this, or many now use Class Dojo or a similar system. Either way, seeing a visual representation of behaviour can be useful for YLs.

Errors for delayed correction

The majority of attendees use their board for noting down errors and give corrective feedback. One important thing to note – if you do write an error on the board, make sure you cross it out clearly. Leaving it on the board can reinforce it in students’ minds, even if you’ve told them it’s incorrect.

As we discussed these points, I drew areas on the board for each section. Have a system and be consistent in where you put this information. Learners find what they need more quickly if they know where to look.

Emergent language

The majority of the talk focussed on what all teachers said they use their board for: emergent language. This is ‘unplanned’ vocabulary which emerges during the lesson due to students’ needs. Giving students language when they need it is a huge part of our job and it’s important that we help them to the best of our ability. In order to clarify and consolidate this language, it’s vital we put it on the board. Remember that the students’ notebooks typically reflect what we put on the board. We need to consider what information we can add to the vocabulary to make it most useful for students.

One of the morning plenaries at Innovate was given by a polyglot, Lýdia Machová, who shared her tips for language learning. One of these was to learn vocabulary in context. Recording vocabulary with co-text (i.e the language with which it appeared) can help our students remember the meaning and give them a better idea about how it is used. Highlighting difficult phonemes, stress and features of connected speech helps them remember the pronunciation long after the lesson has finished. Using different colours to highlight dependent prepositions or the separability of phrasal verbs helps them learn even more, or – as Duncan Foord put it in his plenary, What Have Teachers Ever Done For Us? – helps resolve their doubts before they even appear. I demonstrated these points with the words photography, photograph and photographer. 

Amy's whiteboard, showing stress patterns for photograph, photographic, photographer, and vertical extension for call off (the wedding, the match, but not the flight)

One of my favourite ways of exploiting and developing new language is through vertical extension. By eliciting more examples from students, we can check their understanding and help students to use the word by highlighting common collocations. It can also be useful to point out things that do not collocate, as this is often a problem for students. I demonstrated this technique using the phrasal verb call off.

If our board is systematic and informative, hopefully our students’ notes will be, too. It’s very important to give students time to copy, so that they can concentrate while the language is being discussed. I recommend monitoring to ensure they copy accurately. This also gives shyer students the chance to ask questions.

Colours are important too. Personally, I’m a stickler for writing in black. Although everything looks clear when you’re stood up at the board, if you’re sitting at the back of the class, or have problems with your vision, red and green pens can be really hard to read.

By the end of the lesson, the board should be covered in lovely new language. Use the last 5 minutes of the class to review it, either through some extra drilling practice, or a game of Backs to the Boards/Hot Seat that just requires you to point at the language.

Encourage students to take a photo of the board. If you have an online platform or whatsapp group, they can share it (great for absent students!) or just keep them on their phone to flick through next time they’re bored on the bus. It’s also useful for the teacher to take a photo; an easy way of keeping a record of new vocabulary to recycle and consolidate in future lessons. Furthermore, taking a photo of your board is a wonderful way of reflecting on the lesson, and on your board work. You’ll see things you could have added or expanded, and ways to make things clearer.

Teachers are also sharing pictures of their boards on twitter, using the hashtag #ELTwhiteboard. It’s a wonderful place to connect with other teachers, to ask for advice and to pick up some great ideas for lessons. Get involved!

This was a 30-minute, streamlined talk that only had time to focus on a few aspects of using the board. The biggest omission is the issue of who writes on the board. Do your students write on the board? Let me know in the comments below or tweet me @admiralwamy

* Ur, P. 100 Teaching Tips (Cambridge 2016) p.6 [affiliate link]

Amy Blanchard

Amy has taught English all over the world including many years in Spain for International House. She is now a freelance CELTA tutor and can be contacted at: amybtesol@gmail.com

From rules to reasons

At this year’s IATEFL conference, I bought a copy of From Rules to Reasons by Danny Norrington-Davies. I can only afford to buy a couple of books at each conference, so I have to choose carefully. I went for Danny’s this time because:

  • I’m interested in alternative ways of thinking about grammar teaching, as I don’t feel the coursebook-led way we teach reflects the way I know I learn, and I’ve been led to believe it doesn’t reflect Second Language Acquisition theory either (I can’t comment on this as I’ve never read any SLA theory myself!)
  • Grammar lessons can be downright boring if students feel they know it all already, but they often can’t then apply their knowledge to their own language production.
  • I’ve seen Danny present a few times, including at this year’s conference, and I’ve always found his ideas to be very interesting, though I’m not very good at applying them (or any ideas I get from conferences!), so having them in a book might make me more likely to experiment with them.
  • It’s Danny’s first book, and I like being able to support friends 🙂

I finished reading it last week, and found Danny’s suggested alternative approach intriguing. In a (very small!) nutshell, we should encourage our students to think about the reasons why a particular writer or speaker is using particular language in a particular text at a particular time. The emphasis is on how the language is being used in that context by that person. Danny gives some theoretical background for this at the beginning of the book, including arguing why it can be more useful for students to consider reasons than rules, and examples of possible follow-up (replication) tasks that are based on them using the language in a similar context if possible, or in a different but related context (transformation, I think – I haven’t got the book in front of me now!)

In his book, Danny includes 18 lesson plans, some text-based and others task-based, which serve as models for anyone wanting to experiment with his ideas. Each plan includes examples of reasons formulated by students working with the same plan in the best. This practical thread of the book gave me a much better idea of how it might work in the classroom, and gave me the impetus I needed to try it out with my own students, so last Wednesday I experimented with an upper intermediate class.

We were looking at a report in a coursebook about places to eat in London, which would be followed by them writing their own report about Bydgoszcz, the city we live in. To get them to think about some of the language in the text, I pulled out a few phrases and put them on PowerPoint slides along with an alternative sentence that could be used instead. Students walked around the room writing the reasons they thought were behind the writer’s choice of phrasing. They then folded them under so others couldn’t see what they’d written. Hopefully you can read some of them below, but here are a few of them:

  • More formal (by far the most common!)
  • Offensive language (if you are poor)
  • It’s opened to all of readers (There are many options)

Why this phrase? - four examples Why this phrase? - four examples

Some of the comments were from the point of view of an exam marker, rather than a real-life reader:

  • It makes reader think writer has bigger word list.
  • Writer wants to show off his range of vocabulary.
  • Range of words.

For me, this backs up one of the arguments in Danny’s book that most speaks for looking at reasons and not rules: (my wording!) reasons treat the language as language, and not as a means to passing an exam.

After the students had looked at their own reasons, I gave mine, which went something like this:

  • Generally speaking, – emphasising the generalisation by putting it at the start. Varying sentence patterns, so not just S-V-O.
  • if you have a limited budget – more polite than if you are poor
  • has to offer – more open than has, it implies you have access to it and London is inviting you in, not just that these restaurants exist
  • relatively inexpensive – a more positive connotation than cheap, and therefore more attractive, as you’re more likely to buy/pay for something relatively inexpensive than something cheap which may also be poor quality
  • The majority of – more formal, seems more scientific (or at least, it does to me!)
  • nearly always means – more impersonal, varies the sentence structures used
  • tend to be, a bit – varies the language, and varied language makes something more interesting to read. tend to be also shows that it’s not always true, in contrast to the factual nature of are – the writer is saying they might be wrong, and giving themselves a get-out clause if they are!
  • There are many options – more impersonal, and therefore more formal. Again, varies the sentence patterns in the text.
  • serve high-quality food – ‘advertising speak’ – you’re more likely to choose high-quality food over great food. It’s also specific about what makes it great – the quality as opposed to e.g. the presentation or the price.

Having gone through these reasons briefly with the group, followed by a quick look at the assessment criteria (it was a continual assessment text), they then wrote their own reviews. Marking them, I noticed the students had used a lot of the phrases we’d looked at, possibly because we’d spent more time on them, possibly because I said they needed to when we looked at the criteria, but maybe, just maybe, it was because they understand the reasons behind why a writer might choose to use this language.

In short, I would encourage you to get a copy of From Rules to Reasons by Danny Norrington-Davies, and try out his ideas in your own classroom.

(You can also read a review of the book by Chris Ożóg in the June 2017 issue of the IH Journal.)

Revision squares

Tuesday evening. 7:15pm. I walk out of the cover lesson I’ve just completed, working with a lovely group of pre-intermediate teens. Running through my head: right, I need to take the key downstairs, pick up my stuff, and pop into the supermarket on the way home. Followed almost immediately by: [Four-letter word], I forgot to find cover for the last lesson! That’s my evening out the window! Cue 10 minutes of running around trying to work out where to get some food from to get me through the rest of the evening (thanks Shannon and Emma!), telling people how stupid I am, and canvassing for ideas for an unplanned cover lesson with low elementary adults I haven’t met before.

As (nearly) always with these things, the lesson itself was absolutely fine. Two students came, one of whom had forgotten to do his homework. The first 45 minutes were spent working on pronunciation of comparatives from the homework, and with them testing each other, plus practice of very large numbers. For the other half of the lesson, I gave them the choice of unplanned functional language (the next spread in the book), unplanned superlatives (the spread after), or revision (which they’d also had, along with a test, in the previous lesson). They went for revision, and this is the activity which I came up with, based loosely on collaborative profiles, an idea suggested by my colleague Sam just before the lesson (thanks!) I joined in to, so see if you can work out which drawings were mine!

Pawel page 1

Pawel page 2

Revision squares

  1. Fold A4 paper into 6 squares (or 8 if you have more language points).
  2. In the first box, each person draws a person.
  3. (Optional) In the second box, the next person asks three questions about the person. (This didn’t work very well, as I hadn’t thought it through, and I decided I wanted different people’s drawings on each paper, not the same person every time in our group of three.)
  4. In the second box, the next person answers the questions about the person/writes a basic profile describing them.
  5. Pass the paper on (do this after each stage to get a truly collaborative piece of work). Under the person, draw where they live.
  6. Write about where they live.
  7. Draw two or three hobbies, plus one thing they can’t do.
  8. Write about them.
  9. Draw three things they do every morning.
  10. Guess what…write about them!
  11. Draw their last holiday.
  12. Write about it.

Ola page 1

Ola page 2

As the paper was passed on, I encouraged the students to read what others had written and link their texts if they wanted to. I also corrected texts as part of my turn, because it was obviously a bit easier for me to write! The students asked me questions about what they were writing, and about my corrections. There was also negotiation in English as we tried to work out what other people had drawn. Obviously with only two students, it wasn’t that hard, so you might have to think about how/if you want to correct/join in if you’re using the activity with a bigger group. To round it off, we all read all three stories quickly and decided which person we would like to be friends with and why.

Steven page 1

Steven page 2

In about 30 minutes, these elementary students produced about 100 words of English, and practised:

  • question forms
  • interpreting and replying to basic questions
  • There is/are
  • rooms and furniture
  • like + -ing
  • can/can’t
  • hobbies
  • daily routine
  • past simple
  • holiday vocabulary
  • prepositional phrases of various kinds (time, place, manner)
  • vocabulary they wanted to use, based on their drawings

We had an empty box as we ran out of time, but I think I probably would have done something with future plans, like plans for the next weekend, though I don’t think they’d got to that in their book. Alternatively, drawing their family, their job, their favourite clothes…lots of options!

I’m pretty sure it could be adapted for a wide range of other language. I’d be interested to hear what you decide to do with it.

Memorisation activities

I put together this selection of memorisation activities for a CELTA course at LangLTC in Warsaw and thought it would be a good idea to share the activities here too. The activities can be used:

  • after error correction
  • to help students fix bits of new language in their heads before they need to produce it at a later stage in the lesson
  • to exploit decontextualised sentences, for example from a gapfill
  • to improve students’ confidence with bits of language
  • as learner training – once they’ve learnt them, a lot of the activities are things they can try themselves or with fellow students, without needing a teacher to set them up

They are taken from various wonderful people I’ve worked with in the past, plus a couple of my own ideas. If you think there are any that should be credited differently, please let me know. It would also be great if you could add your own ideas for activities in the comments. Enjoy!

Draw your sentence

Aims: To exploit students’ creativity. To personalise language.

Use this after students do a controlled practice exercise or study a new set of vocabulary.

  1. Students fold a piece of A4 paper into 8 boxes and put small numbers in the corner, like so:
1 2 1 2
3 4 3 4
  1. On the left half of the paper only (which should have 4 boxes), they illustrate four of the sentences/words in any way they choose, one per box. They shouldn’t write the sentence/word.
  2. Everyone puts the original sentences/words away.
  3. Give them the paper from another group. On the right-hand side of the paper, they should write the corresponding sentence/word.
  4. The original group corrects their answers and gives them feedback.

Mini books

A more high-tech version of ‘draw your sentence’, via Luke Raymond. Use this video to help you make your book:

 

  1. Page 1 (the front cover) shows the target word/sentence. Each student should have a different item.
  2. The book is passed to student B who draws a picture on page 2 to represent the target language.
  3. Student C looks at the picture and writes the word/sentence they think it is on page 3, without looking back to page 1. They fold the book so page 3 now becomes the front cover.
  4. The process is repeated until the book is finished.
  5. Much hilarity ensues as the students see the way the language has been illustrated and how it has changed throughout the book.

Students love the ‘Chinese whispers/telephone’ nature of this game 🙂

What do you mean you didn’t read the sentences?

Via Olga Stolbova
(I now call this ‘evil memorisation’!)

Aims: To encourage students to notice context. To make them aware of gaps in their language.

Use this after students do a gapfill exercise.

  1. Check the answers by writing them on the board (just the answers, not the complete sentence).
  2. Students put away the original exercise.
  3. They look at the answers on the board and have to recreate the original sentences. Expect protests! 🙂 Encourage them to write whatever they can remember, even if it’s just isolated words or phrases.
  4. If they’re really struggling/When you start feeling sympathetic, give them one minute to look at the exercise without writing anything, then close their books again and continue to work on reproducing the sentences.
  5. Students compare their recreated sentences to the originals. What were the differences?
  6. Optional extra evilness: put away the sentences you’ve just rewritten. Now say them all to your partner./Write them all again. You can also do this at the end of the lesson when they’ve done other things in between.

If students are depressed that they can’t remember everything, tell them you don’t expect this. I normally say that I want them to remember about 80% of the sentences immediately (with some effort), and about 50% by the end of the lesson, once we’ve done a few other things and they’ve had time to forget. It can be useful to show them the forgetting curve too.

Vocabulary revision game

Via Anette Igel

Aim: To revise vocabulary covered in previous lessons.

  1. Give each group a stack of small pieces of scrap paper (about 1/8 of A4 in size).
  2. They should write the English word/phrase on one side, and put either the translation, definition or example sentence on the other side. The game can also be played with word/vocabulary cards if this is something you use with your students.
  3. To create counters, rip one piece of small scrap into coin sized pieces. They write a letter or draw a symbol on each to indicate which is theirs. Alternatively, they can use any small item they can find (e.g. a paperclip, pen lid, etc).
  4. The final thing they need to prepare the game is either a coin, or a scrap paper ‘coin’, which can be made by folding another small piece up into a tight square, then writing ‘heads’ on one side and ‘tails’ on the other.
  5. The words should be arranged in a circle to create a game track. All of the counters should be placed on the same word to start.
  6. One player flips the coin. Heads = 2, tails = 1. To help them remember which is which, H has two legs, T has one leg. They move 1 or 2 spaces around the circle. When they land, they can do one of two things:
    1. If the word/phrase is face up, say the translation, definition or example sentence.
    2. If the translation/definition/example sentence is face up, say the word/phrase.
  7. In either case, if they are correct, they turn the card over and stay there. If they are wrong, they turn the card over and go back to where they started the turn.

The winner is the person who has moved furthest around the circle at the end of a specified time.

Back translation/Reverse translation

Aims: To help students notice differences between L1 and L2. To help them notice gaps in their language.

  1. Select one sentence per pair or ask students to choose one. Sentences could be from controlled practice exercises, tapescripts, reading, sentences produced by students…
  2. Each pair translates their sentences from English into L1. For multilingual groups, they work alone.
  3. Either: give the sentence to another pair immediately (if they share a language) OR take sentences away and return them to the same person/pair in the following lesson.
  4. Students translate the L1 sentence back into English.
  5. They then compare their English version to the original, and notice any differences. The teacher’s job is to point out whether the students’ English version is still acceptable, and to help them understand any mistakes or differences in meaning. Though it obviously helps, you don’t need to speak L1 to do this activity.

This could also be set up as a mingle activity. Student A says their L1 sentence, student B says it in English, then student B says their L1 sentence and A says it in English. If they get it wrong, the ‘L1’ student should say ‘No, try again.’ until they get it right. My students seem to get a lot out of this, especially with language that differs structurally from Polish, like verb + gerund/infinitive.

Drill, drill, drill

Aims: To improve student confidence before speaking. To help students internalise the language.

There are hundreds of ways to drill new language.

  • Point at words/flashcards, moving rapidly between them and returning to problem words often.
  • Whisper, shout, go slow, speed up, say it like an old lady/Arnold Schwarzenegger, be happy/excited/sad.
  • Boys and girls, call and response (e.g. half say question, half answer).
  • What’s missing? Students close eyes/turn around. You remove one or more flashcards/words.
  • Disappearing text (good for dialogues): start with the whole dialogue on the board. Gradually remove parts of it, either a line at a time or leaving behind key words, with students repeating it multiple times.
  • Key word drills (good for functional language): draw a table with numbered cells. Put one word from each sentence in each cell e.g. for the phrases How about going to the cinema?  What about seeing a film? Let’s watch a film. you could have:
    1. How    2. What    3. Let
    They say the phrase from memory. They can test each other by saying the number and their partner saying the sentence. Removing the words (but not the numbers!) increases the level of challenge. Follow up: can you remember all the phrases without looking?
  • Mingle: students have one picture/word each. They mingle, show their paper to their partner who has to say the correct word/phrase. To add challenge, they swap after each turn.
  • Circle drill: pass a flashcard around the circle. Each person says it in turn. You can also turn it into a dialogue e.g. Receiving student: What’s the weather like today? Passing student: It’s sunny. To add challenge, time the class to see how long it takes to pass around the whole circle, then repeat faster.

Some important things to remember are:

  • Make sure students know the meaning of the language before the drill.
  • Choral > group > individual. Don’t put students on the spot too early.
  • Model language naturally: you need to sound like a stuck record. It’s easy to overstress when correcting.
  • Keep the pace up. Add variety wherever possible. For example, can they drill it in pairs and listen to each other?

Mini challenges

Many of these can be done as pairwork after a teacher demonstration. Some are useful for fast finishers too.

  • Say all of the new vocabulary/sentences from the exercise as fast as you can to your partner.
    You can do this before drilling as a test, so that you only drill language students struggle with.
  • Can you remember the word/sentence before X on the list?
    If students really struggle, give them 1 minute to look and remember before doing the exercise.
  • How many of the words from the page can you write alone in two minutes? Compare with a partner.
    This can be at the end of a lesson after lots of work with the language, or at the start of the next class.
  • Mistake sentences: read the sentence with a mistake and students correct it.
    Mistakes could be false friends, articles, tenses (especially ones where connected speech confuses)…
  • Pause sentences: read a sentence but pause in the middle of the collocation. Do students know what comes next?
    Good for improving the ability to predict upcoming language when listening. 

Quizlet

Quizlet is an easy-to-use website which allows you to create lots of activities for the price of one – add some vocabulary and you immediately have about 6 games, plus the ability to print flashcards for lots more. For a full guide to how to use Quizlet and create your own content on there, plus links to level-specific groups, see http://independentenglish.wordpress.com/quizlet – it’s a bit out-of-date as the site has changed it’s layout, but most of what’s on there still holds. If you have at least 6 devices (phones, tablets etc) in your classroom, you can also play Quizlet Live – my students absolutely love it!

 

Quizlet Live with a room of 40+ teachers

Quizlet Live with a room of 40+ teachers in Kazakhstan

What are your favourite memorisation activities?

IATEFL Glasgow 2017: In the classroom

As I find myself moving more towards management, training and materials writing, my choices at a conference involve fewer practical classroom ideas, but there will always be some! Here are a few I picked up at this year’s IATEFL conference.

My classroom

A classroom I’ve studied in

Grammar in the context of task: what, how and why? (Jane Willis)

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about task-based learning over the last six months or so, following on from doing the Coursera ‘Teaching EFL/ESL Reading: A Task-Based Approach’ MOOC, so I was eager to see Jane Willis talking about how to deal with language within this approach. She worked through an abbreviated version of a task cycle with us, which went something like this:

  • How do YOU feel about storms? Think of 2-3 phrases to describe one experience you’ve had.
  • Was it a positive or negative experience? Weigh it up with your partner, then report back to the group.
  • Think about what causes thunderstorms. How would you explain thunder to a child?
  • Read a discussion between two people about their experiences of storms, and an article about how thunderstorms happen.

At this point Jane gave us a whole range of tasks which we could do with the two texts. For example:

  • Compare your/your partner’s reactions to the reactions of Rachael and Eric. Do you have anything in common with them?
  • What about places you/they like to be during a storm?
  • Create diagrams to illustrate the text. Compare them to the original diagrams which appeared with the text.
  • Read and adapt your diagrams to better illustrate this text, to make it more accessible for younger readers.

Once you’ve dealt with meaning, you can then begin to focus on form. Jane’s framework shows the two stages, meaning in green, form in red:

You can plan to focus on form before the lesson, not just base it on student mistakes. To generate additional lexis that could be used as input material, google ‘How do you feel about storms?‘, and gather phrases into a brainstorm. There are a lot of aspects of grammar which you could focus on, for example:

  • Grammar of structure
    • clauses: noun + verb + ?
    • the noun group e.g. electric current
    • order of adjectives
    • adverbial phrases in a clause
    • verb phrases (e.g. question forms)

‘I go north bus week’ could be grammared/oriented in various ways as ‘pointers’ to show time, place and identity, using points from the list above. The actual sentence from the conversation on the handout was ‘I was just, erm, going up north in a bus to Durham last week.’ Other possible areas to focus on include:

  • Text-building devices
    • articles
    • logical connectors
    • reference chains
  • Pattern grammar
    • lexical phrases
    • syntactic frames with common words e.g. At the end of the day

These areas are all drawn from Rules, Patterns and Words [affiliate link] by Dave Willis. I know that my grouping here doesn’t reflect the book properly, as it was hard for me to keep up!

Here are some ideas for activities:

  • Consciousness-raising activities
    • Identify and classify ways of expressing
      • Reactions to storms
      • Location
      • Quantity
      • Movement
    • Identify + classify structural features
      • Verb/noun phrases
      • Adverbials (ending in-ly)
      • Phrases with common words(e.g. be/being, in)
    • Hypothesis building and checking e.g. is as long as like if?
    • Compare structures between languages

You can get at the verb phrases by looking for items like -ly or through the grammar of orientation. Use the word as ‘bait’ e.g. use the word ‘I’ to find all the expressions of opinion. To get at clauses, focus on as, when, what, or sentences with two verbs. [Using a word as bait was probably my favourite idea from the entire conference!] These can then be turned into specific form-focussed activities, for example:

  • For the conversation:
    • Listen/read to find 9 phrases describing reactions to storms. How might you classify them? e.g. They’re fine as long as…
    • Find 7 phrases with words ending in -ly. Say them out loud. Where does the main stress fall?
    • Find 5 phrases with be and being. What verbs do they often follow?
    • Find all phrases beginning with I. Which ones are typical of spontaneous speech?
  • For the more scientific text:
    • Label your diagrams. Adapt phrases from the text.
    • Find 7 phrases denoting movement and classify them.
    • Find 7 phrases denoting change of state.
    • How many phrases are about temperature?
    • How many phrases are about size?
    • Put these into two structural categories: sound wave, water vapour, warm air, electrical charge. Find more to add to your list, including longer ones. (n+n, adj+n)
    • What rises? sinks? bumps into? fills up with? occurs? Revises noun groups and adds verbs.

Jane suggested focussing more on noun groups in the scientific text, and said that comparing the way these noun groups work in L1 could be beneficial. You can also tell students beforehand that they’re going to test each other on the specified area: this makes them read much more carefully.

In the workshop, Jane asked us to identify some of the features above in the text, and plan scaffolding tasks for the learners. Every group came up with something very different, all in just five minutes. The workshop made me feel much more confident about the range of ways you can exploit a single text, and how quick and easy it can be to put together a series of scaffolded tasks for learners to work with.

The final stage was reporting back to the whole class. Some groups did it orally, and others made notes on a Post-it. By planning to report, you repeat the task, and sort your language out a bit more, especially if you do the report in writing.

Ultimately, as Jane says, the goal of task-based language teaching is exposure, use, motivation and engagement, with lots of doable, engaging tasks, prompting lots of language use.

If you’d like to find out more about TBLT, you could try the #tbltchat hashtag on Twitter, or contact Jane directly through her website.

You can find more information about consciousness-raising activities and how to select language for a focus on form on Jane Willis’s website.

ELT and social justice: opportunities in a time of chaos (JJ Wilson)

JJ is a coursebook writer and blogger, and he writes fiction about social justice issues. You can watch his full plenary or read my summary below.

There’s also an interview with JJ recorded after his plenary.

All education begins with what we bring to the classroom.

Compliant students answer the teacher’s questions. Engaged students ask their own.

He told us about Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed [affiliate link], a book which he found very influential because it gave him the language and theory to talk about his teaching. Freire taught English to illiterate peasant farmers in the north-east of Brazil in 1950s. He taught with what they brought to class, and was imprisoned for his troubles. One of the things Freire was interested in was praxis: the act of putting theory into action. He also talked about the idea of the teacher as a co-learner.

Social justice is culturally specific, constantly changing, and affects all areas of human life. It is “a world which affords individuals and groups fair treatment and an impartial share of the benefits of society”. But what does social justice have to do with ELT? It depends on your view of the educator’s role in society. If you think they can change things, then it’s something we should be addressing in our classrooms. JJ went on to suggest a range of ways we could do this:

  • Draw a quick picture to illustrate an issue you feel passionate about, then discuss it.
  • Use images to connect students to other areas and issues. One example of suitable images is Reuters classrooms from around the world. The Washington Post has separate images with captions. You can supplement this with a globe to help students see where the images are from. In a world with Google Maps, I think a globe is still a useful tool – it’s much easier to see relationships when the whole world is in front of you in 3D.
    • Talk about the images using statements starting ‘I wonder…’
    • Turn the ‘I wonder…’ statements into questions and categorise them e.g. materials, classrooms
    • Each category is colour-coded. One group discusses each colour, then they work with one person from each group to pool their ideas.
    • Finally, they talk about their ideal classroom.
  • Use poetry:
    • Read and repeat, with students copying each line.
    • Read a poem, then write your own version of it.

I am from the immensity of the world.

  • Use drama. This is based on Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, and his book Games for actors and non-actors [affiliate link], which JJ recommends as a source for these activities. It encourages the audience to come up with the resolution of the story. He invented ‘spectactors’ and ‘gamesercises’.
  • Use social justice projects, like Nick Bilbrough’s Hands Up Project.
  • Use visits. A child once asked their teacher ‘Where does the trash go?’ The teacher took the class to a landfill. As a result, the class started a recycling project which continues today.
  • Use stories. Despite all the technology we have, stories are the thing that lasts – they are as old as mankind. Use stories of ordinary people doing great things to bring social justice into your classroom and show resilience. Why do we need stories of rich white people saving the world, when there are so many stories of people saving themselves? I like this story of the junk orchestra in Paraguay.

If you’re interested in finding out more about social justice and how to incorporate it in your classroom, you might want to join IATEFL’s Global Issues Special Interest Group.

Blogposts following JJ’s plenary:

Creating challenge for the teenage classroom (Niki Joseph)

Teens are surrounded by the concept of challenge, in advertising, on social media and more. They expect it. Everybody can achieve an instagram challenge like these, especially teenagers! How can we bring these ideas into the classroom? Some audience suggestions:

  • Choose a word of the day, they make a picture to share and illustrate it.
  • Post an image of a new word everyday for 10 days and tag 10 people to do the same (though be aware of online safety)
  • Post a picture to illustrate the next unit of the book.

Encourage students to discuss challenge. For example, show them three photos: a chess game, a snowboarder and a teen doing a presentation. Ask them which photo best represents challenge and which one they would find most challenging. Is challenge something you only want to engage in if you’re interested in it? If you care about it? Moments of challenge need to be achievable and can involve reflection and creativity.

Try a KWL chart: I know, I want to know, I learned. Students fill in the first two columns before an activity, and the last one afterwards. This helps them to notice what they got out of it.

Another way to approach photos is with the Visible Thinking see-think-wonder routine. Once students have used this a few times, they’ll always have it in reserve if they’re asked to talk about a picture, particularly useful for exam candidates. Jo Budden also suggests using the routine kind of in reverse: one student looks at a picture and describes it using STW, and the other should try to find the same image using Google.

Ask students to describe a photo or experience in a single word. For further challenge, add parameters e.g. choose 3-syllable words, a food, words starting with B to describe X. To follow up, find somebody whose word begins with same letter or categorise the words.

Fast finishers who have nothing to do can cause classroom management problems. A fast finisher folder can be really useful: fill it with lots of extra activities: grammar, vocab, creative writing activities etc. It could also be an online folder. Students should know that they can start anytime, but they finish when the class resumes. The answers should be in the folder too, so that students can self-correct. I’m never sure about whether this kind of thing will actually work. I suppose it might if you’re doing lots of long tasks, but for the bitesize activities I often use, fast finishers are more usefully occupied in tasks which don’t require them to look elsewhere, for example remember a sentence from an exercise, turn over your book and write it out from memory.

Niki suggested include taking a sentence from an exercise and creating a context for it (much more useful!), encourage students to replace words with other possible ones, e.g. nouns for nouns, adjectives for adjectives, or rewrite the sentence so it begins with another word, in this case ‘cycling’. They could also rephrase it to make it more emphatic. For pronunciation: say it as many different ways as you can, for example in a tired, excited, angry…way.

After the presentation, Sarah Priestley shared this link:

Tweets from other sessions

(though you might have to ask David exactly how it works!)

These tweets are from a session by Anna Young on adapting writing tasks from coursebooks:

IATEFL Glasgow 2017: Listening and pronunciation

Since I did an assessed lesson based on listening for my Delta, I’ve been interested in finding out more ways to help my students develop their listening skills. I even did a presentation on it myself at IATEFL Harrogate 2014, heavily influenced by John Field’s Listening in the Language Classroom [affiliate link]. Richard Cauldwell’s book Phonology for listening: Teaching the stream of speech [another affiliate link!] has also been very useful in helping me to understand why it can be so difficult for learners to decode fluent connected speech. I was therefore very pleased to be able to attend presentations given by both John and Richard during this IATEFL. The other presentations summarised in this post were from the Forum on Listening.

Listening attentively

Still my favourite listening picture…

I haven’t tried to summarise Jane Setter’s plenary on intonation for two reasons: 1. I couldn’t get it all into tweets, 2. to fully appreciate the intonation differences, you really need to watch/listen to it yourself!

You can also watch an interview with Jane recorded after the plenary.

I definitely feel like I understand intonation and how to teach it much better now! Sue Swift also wrote about the plenary at ELT Notebook.

Listening: ways out of the fog (John Field)

John started by telling us that he has been ‘worrying about listening for the last 34 years’.

The typical comprehension approach starts with pre-listening and activating schemata, something that doesn’t reflect real life. We also don’t pre-teach vocabulary in real life, so it’s counter-productive in training. The next step is to set questions to target listening, then play the recording, check answers, and replay key sections (providing answers as we go). However, this approach doesn’t actually train learners to become better listeners.

(not a great picture, I know, but it shows why the student thought the answer to a question was ‘crack’, when in fact it was ‘nature reserves’ – they misheard the word ‘attract’ in the stream of speech)

John thinks that we can get a lot more out of the comprehension approach. We should forget about activating schemata and pre-teaching vocabulary, as these don’t happen in real life, though we should quickly introduce students to the context and the number of speakers, as they would normally know this, e.g. two people talking on a bus.

It isn’t usually the script that causes the problem, it’s the recording. The item writer is not involved in the recording. Tasks also need to be carefully thought out, as we give away in writing a lot of what’s in the recording, and encourage test-wise strategies, rather than strategies for general listening. To improve their approach, the teacher needs to prepare the listening in detail – using the script WITH the recording. What’s perceptually difficult?

There should be a first play for SS adjust to speakers’ voices, listening globally without the pressure of questions, and without using questions to guess in advance what they’re likely to hear. If you’re going to use questions, set them before the second listen, so that they don’t interfere with the learners’ perceptions the first time they hear the text. Check and DIAGNOSE reasons for learners’ answers, then replay parts identified by you AND students as perceptually difficult. Transcribe short sections, especially if they are particularly problematic. Listeners are individuals, each with their own problems with a recording, and these change over time and with experience. If you can afford it, provide a listening centre where listeners can work on their own problems individually. Give learners a transcript at the end of the lesson and ask them to listen again. Set listening homework. Though my students almost never do it – I need to have more engaging tasks and clearer developmental reasons for them to do it!

Do we need better materials? YES! New writers often don’t have a clear idea of what a skills approach is. Materials should take pressure off the teacher, guiding them, and focussing on the difficult parts of the recording. Field suggests open-ended questions, so the class can talk about possible answers. Sometimes you could use short clips with a single question, instead of the more normal long excerpts with multiple questions. You could also embed oral questions in the script rather than written questions to stay within the same modality (so have the speaker ask a question, then pause for answer).  Materials should demonstrate a better understanding of the processes that underlie successful listening and design questions to target them.

We also need to understand better what it is we’re actually teaching! When you listen you:

  1. decode sounds
  2. search for words
  3. parse (grammar)
  4. construct meaning
  5. construct discourse

Sometimes context makes us distort the phonemes we think we’ve heard to make it fit the context. To handle the speech signal, we have to adjust to speaker’s voice (pitch, speech rate etc), then match the set of squeaks/buzzes we hear to the sound system of English. But do phonemes really exist? They are so variable, maybe they don’t. This echoes Richard Cauldwell – see below. To handle words, we have to divide connected speech, recognise spoken word forms, link them to what’s know about the topic. To parse, we must hold in our heads the words which have already been said, recognise grammatical patterns, and work out the word’s sense in it’s co-text. To construct meaning, we have to put what we’ve heard into a wider context, interpret new information in relation to this, infer information the speaker has taken for granted, and link words like he/she/it to what they refer to. This is followed by putting it into wider discourse (I couldn’t keep up at this stage!) There’s an awful lot going on!

How does this knowledge help us? An expert listener does these things automatically, but L2 listeners need lots of effort to do each of these things, so it can be hard for them to form the ‘big picture’ of what they’re listening to. Up to about B1, learners have to give a lot of attention to decoding at word level, limiting their ability to tap into wider meaning (I’ve definitely found this with Polish). Strategy instruction should therefore mainly be done with lower-level learners to equip them with the fact that they often can’t make wider sense of what they’re hearing. Strategy training helps them with real-world situations and to compensate for gaps in text. Lower-level learners needs process training and strategies training to fill in gaps.

You can use the same audio, but vary the task to target any of the five levels of listening.

We should also vary the levels of our strategies instruction:

A syllabus for listening: less top-down! More bottom-up (Richard Cauldwell)

Richard relishes fast, messy speech and tries to find ways to help learners understand it. His CoolSpeech app was an ELTons 2013 winner for digital innovation, and he is currently in the process of writing a follow-up to Phonology for listening: Teaching the stream of speech [affiliate link] which will provide a clear syllabus for listening for language teachers to work from.

All words have multiple sound shapes. Decoding is the skill of recognising words in the sound substance (or ‘fog’ in John Field’s words). The sound substance is the acoustic blur of speech, which exits the mouth, travels through the air, and hits the ear. It’s what exists before perception.

Richard uses a metaphor for different speeds and qualities of speech. The greenhouse is the place for citation forms. In the garden, sounds touch each other gently through the basic rules of connected speech. In the jungle, wild things happen and all bets are off. He argues there are different goals for pronunciation (clarity/intelligibility) and listening (understanding fast, messy, authentic speech).

Teachers tend to brush the mess of sound under the carpet, so even CPE Grade A students have ‘can’t do’ listening points. Every word has a ‘word cloud’: a range of possible word shapes in fluent speech, of which the citation form is the least likely.

The examples of ‘and’ above were all taken from a single conversation, with only one instance of it even vaguely approaching the citation form.

Here are just some of the changes which can happen in fluent speech (in the jungle):

  • Consonant death: this can appear in many ways e.g. that changes to ‘at
  • d’eth drop: anenatwasat– no ‘th’s (instead of and that was that)
  • B-drop/B-soft – often happens with adverbs e.g. superbly – the ‘b’ can be lost or very soft
  • Smoothie: when diphthongs/long vowels change to just one of their elements: like > læ

There were a lot more, but I just couldn’t keep up!

To help student, we need to delve below the word that is meant to the sound substance itself – what sounds were actually produced. Field and Thorn both advocate using short clips to help students focus (see ‘the bathtub experiment’ below too). Audacity is the best tool to help you break up the stream of speech.

Try this activity: replace the ‘i’ with each of the vowel sounds in the image. This helps students to prepare for different possible ‘shapes’ and accents:

Or take a phrase for a walk in the jungle, and give your students an earworm to take home with them:

The earworm should be short term, memory length, annoying, and stick in their head to prepare them for perception. I sometimes wake up with words or phrases like this in my head from foreign languages.

Have students listen along with an audio, and when they get to the most important part of it (the ‘wave’), get them to speak along with it (‘ride the wave’):

If you’d like to find out more, have a look at Richard’s website.

After the conference, I noticed that Richard shared Tubequizard as a link on his handout – it’s an excellent way to help students to focus on connected speech.

Adventures in listening: the bathtub experiment (Marie Willoughby)

Marie teaches students who attend full-time classes at IH London. She finds her students only get so far with listening before they begin to disengage. Sheila Thorn inspired Marie to start trying different ways of approaching listening in the classroom, and after listening to an episode of the The Moth podcast, she realised she had the perfect material to use, talking about a man who sailed across the English Channel in a bathtub. The only problem was that it was 17 minutes long! Marie decided to break it into a series of mini episodes, each with a cliffhanger. She then used these over a series of lessons.

Marie found that the best texts to use as episodes have a clear narrative, but are outside normal experience. In this case, pure sound is better than video, as students are more invested in understanding what they’re hearing, and will therefore try harder to apply the decoding strategies. If they have pictures to help them, they don’t need to work so hard to apply the strategies. Once she had the episode, she asked two questions: What stops them underrstanding? What will help them understand later?

First, they always listened with no task, then worked together to co-construct the text with other students. They then moved on to focussing on a particular decoding strategy, which students were then able to apply in later lessons. By using short excerpts in small chunks you have time to pause and get students to consider the language in  more detail. For example:

  • Decode past perfect v. past simple when listening, first as a gapfill with a section they were familiar with, then listening to the next part of the story and saying what they heard.
  • Say why a speaker would choose one particular phrase, or why they would repeat it.
  • Listen to his description of a problem. Draw it on mini whiteboards.
  • The storyteller talked about English/French attitudes to each other, so Marie asked them to research it, after which the students understood the jokes better.
  • Vocab was a problem, especially familiar words in a new context, so she got students to listen and complete a sentence, then think about the meaning.

What are the benefits of using an ‘adventure in episodes’? There’s no need to reset context or activate genre knowledge each time. Prediction is a natural part of listening to such a story. The students were really motivated to find out what happened next. Intensive decoding work really bore fruit – they were invested in doing detailed intensive listening work. It also developed their autonomy.

I really like this idea, especially for summer school or 121 lessons, though I think it could take quite a lot of work to prepare. It reminds me of my French teacher introducing us to the French musical version of Roméo et Juliette, with us listening to one song each week and trying to follow the story. You could also use the BBC Short Cuts or Listening Project podcasts. Of course, once you have it for one adventure, they don’t date much, so you should have it for the future. If teachers share this kind of thing on blogs, you could have examples to draw from. If you choose to do this, please share the link below!

Listening using smart devices: effects on student interaction and autonomy (Clive Shaw)

The conventional classroom layout has speakers at the front, but Clive wanted to know what happens if we change where students/teachers are in the room. If the teacher is in control, it’s not easy to monitor, and students don’t have much of an opportunity to work on their own listening strategies. It’s also difficult for students to transition from the controlled environment of the classroom to the unguided environment of the lecture hall (Clive works in EAP – I think this is true all the time, and this prompted by IATEFL Harrogate presentation).

Clive investigated how listening from a smartphone changed the dynamic, encouraged autonomy and gave students the opportunity to employ strategies. He designed the materials based on two sources: taken from YouTube or by creating his own recordings. To get the recordings to the students he used TubeChop for YouTube and Audioboom for his own recordings, then a link shortener (my preferred one is bit.ly). Recognising that these took longer to prepare than coursebook audio, Clive deliberately selected easy-to-prepare tasks, for example two-column notetaking.

The biggest difference in the classroom was the seating plan:

Each group had one phone, and the weakest student was normally in control of it. Clive found out that students became more aware of listening strategies they employed when using smartphones. Students were more able to use context/syntax to decode problem areas as they could play it again as many times as they wanted to. Students were also encouraged to make their own decisions about when and how to review extract.

I’ve always played with seating arrangements, but it had never occurred to me to do it with listening extracts before. This seems like a great way of helping mixed-ability groups in particular, and also helps students to get used to background noise when listening, something we don’t do enough of.

Tweets from other sessions

Here’s Pete Clements’ summary of the above session.

One day I’d like to actually see Mark Hancock present! This year it was about accents:

Laura Patsko’s session on how to give feedback on learners’ pronunciation was one I was sad to miss, but luckily Cambridge recorded it, so I’ll be able to catch up. Here are some tweets to give you a flavour of it:

IATEFL Glasgow 2017: Materials writing

As a member of the Materials Writing Special Interest Group, my IATEFL conference now normally begins with their Pre-Conference Event, the theme of which this year was ‘Nuts and Bolts: Practical Considerations for the ELT materials professional’. It was a particularly good start this year because it was also my birthday 🙂 This Storify draws together all of the tweets from the PCE.

MaWSIG logo

There are also a selection of tweets at the end of the post from throughout the conference, all connected in some way or another to materials writing.

The benefits of coaching (Daniel Barber)

Daniel recommended getting a coach to help you think through areas you want to change in your life. He set seven goals for areas that he wanted to change, then worked with his coach to help him make sure that he was committed to making these changes. One such change was to reduce the amount of procrastination he did and to help him avoid distraction when he was supposed to be focussed on his writing work. His coach makes him feel more accountable, promotes curiosity and pushes him to think more, particularly through the question ‘What else?’ She’s never satisfied with the first answer he gives, and this question pushes him to be more creative in his thinking. Daniel also used a coaching journal to reflect on what worked and what didn’t when trying to achieve his seven goals. One of the main things he learnt was that in order to achieve what you want to, your main block is normally inside your own head, reflecting Timothy Gallwey’s Inner Game Theory:

The inner game takes place within the mind of the player and is played against such obstacles as fear, self-doubt, lapses in focus, and limiting concepts or assumptions.

The opponent within one’s head is more formidable than the one over the net.

As well as pushing him, Daniel’s coach also provides balance, reminding him not to put so much pressure on himself, and helping him to celebrate his success. As I often say, we’re all human, and we should remember that!

In response, Jill Hadfield had some other good ideas to help you stay focussed when working, taken from some training she had participated in:

  • Find out about your ‘barrier self’. This includes analysing which distractions you use just to avoid work, and which you actually enjoy. You can then work for 45 minutes, then reward yourself by doing something you enjoy. (This is a variation on the Pomidoro technique which Daniel mentioned in his talk)
  • Work on the next thing: Rather than writing a long and potentially overwhelming list, just write down the next thing you need to achieve. Once you finish that, write the next thing again, etc.
  • ‘Park your car facing downhill’: if you stop  working, leave yourself clear instructions for what to do next, so that it’s not as hard to start working again.
  • ‘Bring in the nearest jumbo first’: finish the thing with the closest deadline before you work on anything else. This will reduce the stress you put yourself under.

Daniel wrote up his talk for the MaWSIG blog.

Optimizing the author-editor relationship (Penny Hands)

Penny has worked as both an author and an editor. She was prompted to find out more about how to improve the relationship between the two by an author who told her that the first time they’d received feedback, they cried. I know that I’ve sometimes found it difficult to respond to feedback without either crying or raging first, especially when I’ve put a lot of work into something which turns out to not be ‘right’ in some way. As Penny said, crying may sometimes be an inevitable part of the feedback process when you care so much about something. According to a survey she did, positive words related to working with an editor included helpful, supportive, communication and collaboration, and negative ones were things like frustrating, struggle and even nightmare!

Here are some of the tips which Penny and audience members shared:

  • Mutual respect is important. You’re working together for a reason, because the project managers believe you’re the best people to do the job.
  • The most positive relationships with editors were when it felt developmental: the editor teaches the author how to improve.
  • A Skype call between an author and editor at the start of a project can really help the relationship, as it helps you to realise that you’re both working together.
  • Feedback should be friendly and personal, but not involve over-sharing. Sometimes Skype can help here too. One member of the audience mentioned an editor who questioned their teaching experience, and another talked about inappropriate comments about the writer’s age and interests – these are definitely not the way to go!
  • Authors don’t want editors who are tentative, and they’re also frustrated by those who correct work which is already correct.
  • Good editors provide constructive feedback, rein in the author’s flights of fancy, offer positive comments and suggestions, and even a little praise now and again. Don’t just focus on the holes in the project. Examples of positive comments include: I can imagine this working with…,  I’ll try this with my kids, or a general comment about the manuscript as a whole. Authors should also remember that if there’s no comment on something, that means it should be fine! As an editor in the audience mentioned, sometimes they don’t put positive comments/praise as it’s more to read, and there might not be a specific area to comment on.
  • There’s a lot less mentoring in the publishing industry than there used to be, so the Society for Editors and Proofreaders can be a really useful organisation to join. They provide courses, mentoring and support.
  • Audience members described positive experiences where the editor and author had in jokes, sent each other pictures, and gave each other presents 🙂
  • It’s worth giving editors feedback on their feedback: otherwise it can be hard for them to improve it.
  • Advice from authors to editors: be prompt, clear, think of it as cooperative, constructive. respect, listen and be willing to discuss feedback.
  • To deal with negative feedback, wait 24 hours to respond. Get somebody else to read the comments before you respond to them (like a friend or family member) as they have more distance.
  • Julie Moore suggested setting out (maybe in an imaginary email) what you consider to be fair, a matter of opinion (perhaps because you interpreted the brief differently), and totally unjustified.
  • If you are having a problem with editors, publishers would like you to raise issues as soon as possible, preferably directly with the editor rather than going above their head. (For me, this is true of all problems – the sooner you start to deal with, the sooner they’ll go away!)

One of the best things I’ve got out of being a member of MaWSIG is meeting editors, and hearing about the experiences of authors and editors. It’s made me realise that editors are people too (!) and that we should all be pulling in the same direction. It also helped me to get in touch with the editor for my own ebook, Richer Speaking.

To find out more about what it’s really like being an editor, you can take a look at the Catch the Sun blog. I’d also add the LibroEditing one. You can read Penny’s write-up of her talk on the MaWSIG blog.

In conclusion:

What makes the relationship successful is both sides being comfortable to challenge each other, while both are ultimately prepared to give way.

I think that’s probably a lesson for life too, not just author-editor relationships!

A short introduction to negotiating contracts (Chris Lonsdale)

These are very general tips which I found useful, sometimes from Chris and sometimes from the audience.

  • Negotiation isn’t an ‘extra’ – it’s key to running a business in an industry where costs need to be minimised. Sometimes companies will offer you less than the maximum they’re willing to pay because you might just accept it (I don’t know why this had never occurred to me before!)
  • Remember that you’re always negotiating, not just when you’re in the middle of a negotiation. It’s all about building a relationship with the person you’re negotiating with.
  • As freelance writers, we have every right to negotiate: we’re businesspeople. Sometimes this is difficult for those who were originally teachers to remember.
  • Negotiation doesn’t just have to be about money. It can also be about clauses in a contract, deadlines etc.
  • Don’t feel pressured. Ask for time to consider your response.
  • A lot of audience members recommended joining the Society of Authors. They have really helped a number of people with negotiations.

Creativity, collaboration and coursebooks (Julie Norton and Heather Buchanan)

Julie and Heather did research with publishers, asking how authors fit the bigger picture in publishing, what makes a good editor, and what publishers are looking for from authors, prompted by a quote from Santos (2013:93) “Publishers’ views are rare in the literature”. Everyone involved in the process needs to be more aware of what’s going on. They also quoted Barfield: “Collaboration creates something more than you can achieve alone.” But managing collaboration on a project can be extremely complex, and the editor is a lynchpin. One project they heard about in their research involved over 450 individuals! Interpersonal skills are a key part of collaboration: communicating, negotiating, trust, and thanking. Authors (each person?) can collaborate on many different aspects of a publishing project, for example, but not only:

  • Concept of product
  • Visiting markets/teachers
  • Selection of artwork
  • Choosing the title/cover
  • Involvement in the piloting process
  • Audio recordings
  • Proofing stages
  • Marketing and promotion

I had no idea that authors could be involved in so many different areas – it might be something to consider when negotiating contracts in the future.

What does creativity need? For Maley and Bolitho it’s time, unpunished risk-taking and more. For Wallas (1926) the four stages of creativity are preparation, incubation, illumination and verification. Jill Hadfield (2013) says there are two kinds of thinking: chaotic and ordered, and they interact in the ‘chaosmos’ (a great word!) Some of the problems with being truly creative in materials though are the fact that you have to meet the brief and the issue of market expectations. In their research, Julie and Heather discovered that more experienced writers are more ready to abandon an idea and start from scratch if it looks like it won’t work, whereas less experienced writers will try for much longer to get something to work before they choose to abandon it. Editors want authors to have ‘spark’, but this can be difficult to pin down, and hard to show if you are writing to a tight brief.

Creativity can also be about ways of working, for example in the creative ways that experts can make ideas simple and accessible. One of Jill Hadfield’s ideas for this is 5-3-1: force yourself to come up with five possible ways to do something/five possible ideas, choose three to develop further, then choose the one you’ll use – this gets your creative juices flowing more than just going with the first idea. Another creativity framework from Jill is to write two lists of ideas, e.g. topics and activity types, then choose two that aren’t normally connected. This is based on Kerslake’s idea that creativity comes from the collision of two usually unrelated frames of reference. That’s how the fairytale dominoes activity in Intermediate Communication Games [affiliate link] was born – one of my favourite activities! Dorothy Zemach talked about a fiction writers’ facebook group where everybody writes as much as they can in a given period of time (‘sprints’), for example an hour, then reports back on it. Because you’re working at the same time as the rest of the group, there’s some accountability, but it also forces you to be creative because you don’t want to be the one person who hasn’t written anything! Phil Bird said that he finds it easier to be creative when bouncing ideas off another person in the same room than via Skype or email. All of these ideas came up during the discussion that formed the last part of the presentation – I often think this is the best part of any presentation, and know that I should factor in more time for this in my own sessions!

Tweets from other sessions

An alternative definition of PARSNIPs (normally the areas which rarely appear in coursebooks, i.e. politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, -isms, pork) and one I prefer:

On principles for materials writing:

Tips for new authors:

The next few tweets are from Dorothy Zemach‘s session on self-publishing ELT materials:

(The ELTFreelancers website)

On accessibility, and gaps in the market:

(and this is one of the reasons I wrote my Rethinking the Visual series – making it up as I went along!)

Special guest host Scott Thornbury talks to Angelos Bollas about representation of LGBT people in teaching materials, and the impact that can have on LGBT learners.

(for more information about Field’s views on listening materials, take a look at my listening and pronunciation post from this year’s IATEFL)

Three things I’ve done in class this week

As a Director of Studies, I no longer get much time in the classroom or much time to plan for my lessons (!), but when I do, I like to try and experiment a bit. Here are three things I’ve tried this week:

Translation mingle

After introducing a new set of vocab or bit of grammar:
  • Get students to write 2-3 personalised examples of the language, which you check as they write.
  • They choose one sentence to translate into L1, in this case Polish.
  • Students mingle, saying their Polish sentence. Their partner has to translate it back into English.
  • The L1 speaker tells them “Yes, that’s perfect.” or “No, try again.” Once they’ve tried it a few times, the L1 speaker gives them the correct version if they’re struggling.

This worked particularly well with gerunds and infinitives, where patterns differ from Polish. You don’t need to know the L1 to do this activity, as students will correct each other. It’s probably the second or third time I’ve done it, and it definitely won’t be the last.

Mystery words

I learnt this activity years ago, but have never had a chance to try it. Having worked with some easily confused words (e.g. remind/remember, avoid/prevent) in the previous class, it seemed like a good opportunity to try it this week. We revised the words at the beginning of the class. I then gave each student a piece of scrap paper with one pair of words on it. They remembered them, wrote their name on it, and gave it back to me. Throughout the rest of the lesson, they had to use the words as much as possible and notice what words other people used. At the end of the lesson, they said what pair of words they thought other students had.

Unfortunately it didn’t work particularly well, as although I tried to change pairs a couple of times, students didn’t really have the chance to use their words with a lot of others in the class, so they could only guess about two or three pairs. Some of the cunning ones used a whole range of words to confuse the rest of the class, which was a good idea. I asked the group if they liked it, but they weren’t that enthralled, so it’ll be a while before I use it again.

Listening training

Listening attentively

Regular readers will know that I’m quite interested in trying to work out how to train students to become better listeners. A 5-minute audio in our coursebook this week prompted me to find a different way to approach it, as the two tasks in the book seemed like an invitation for boredom (listen once, tick the things the speaker mentions; listen again, make additional notes). Instead, students had to listen and clap when they heard one of the things the speaker mentioned, at which point I paused the audio. They then had to tell their partner/group what they’d heard, and write on a mini whiteboard what they thought would come next. For instance, this could be ‘an example of X’, or some specific phrases they expected to hear. We then listened to check if they were correct. The idea here is to tap into the natural prediction that we do all the time when listening/reading, and show students that they were able to do it in English. We used about half of the audio in this way, then did the original tasks for the second half. It seemed to go down well, and I think the group were generally quite surprised at how well they could do it. I was also very pleased that one of the weaker students in the group was the only person to clap the first time round, as the others were listening for exact words instead of the general message – hopefully this served as a confidence boost.

What did you try in your classroom this week?

IH Bydgoszcz and IH Toruń Cambridge Day 2017

Each year IH Bydgoszcz holds a Cambridge Day to give ideas to teachers in the local area to help them teach Main Suite exams. Recently, our sister school, IH Toruń, has become an exam centre too, so to celebrate, we held events in both cities this year. My session was designed to share some (perhaps) less well-known online resources which can be used by teachers who are preparing students for both exams. These are the sites which I shared:

Cambridge Phrasal Verbs apps

Amusing cartoons and a matching game designed to help students remember 100 phrasal verbs. As far as I know they’re a different hundred in each!

The Phrasal Verbs Machine (cartoons in a historic style)

Phrasalstein (cartoons with a comedy horror inflection)

Alex Case

A one-man activity-writing/worksheet-producing machine, and everything I’ve tried so far has been good quality!

Key word sentence transformations advice and activities (including TEFL Reversi, which you can try by printing this Quizlet set: click ‘more’>’print’>’small’ and ‘double-sided printing’ and you’ll get cards you just need to cut up

All of Alex’s FCE worksheets

My blog

A collection of FCE resources for students and teachers which I recommend, including among other things a link to FCE: The Musical!, a 60-minute webinar by Andy Scott with lots more ideas of ways to make exam preparation interesting.

Various FCE activities I’ve shared on my blog, many of which could be adapted to other exams.

Richer Speaking cover

Richer Speaking is my ebook, which includes a section with activities for extending speaking, aimed at encouraging students to produce longer stretches of language. This is especially useful for the picture tasks in Cambridge exams.

A Hive of Activities

Emma Gore-Lloyd has a range of Cambridge exam activities on her blog.  One of my favourites uses pictures as a prompt to remember pairs of sentence transformations.

Quizlet

One of my all-time favourite resources, which is great for vocabulary learning in general, and which can be exploited for Use of English practice too.

How to use Quizlet, including links to classes/groups organised by CEFR level.

FCE/Upper Intermediate sets

CAE/Advanced sets

A good set to play Quizlet Live with is ‘Making your writing more interesting

Simplified articles chart

Once upon a time, I created many different versions of charts to help students work out whether they needed articles or not. Some of them were very complicated because I tried to include way too much information in them. Then I went to the other extreme. Now I think I’ve found a happy medium:

Articles chart

Here’s the Powerpoint version for you to download.

The 90% figure in the box is obviously a complete guess. I’ve found that most article choices can be covered by the chart, though occasionally you have to be a bit creative about it! The box gives students a set of fixed phrases which they can learn to start them off with the exceptions that aren’t covered.

‘Normal noun’ is something like ‘republic’ or ‘kingdom’. This covers the use of phrases like ‘the Czech Republic’, ‘the United Kingdom’, and also ‘the University of Durham’, but not ‘Durham University’. By the way, does anyone know why the latter two uses operate differently when it comes to articles?

Countable > plural > specific covers ‘plural’ countries like ‘the United States’, but also groups of islands like ‘the Maldives’ or ‘the Canary Islands’.

Uncountable > specific covers deserts like ‘the Sahara’ and bodies of water which aren’t lakes, like ‘the Atlantic’, ‘the Sargasso Sea’. Lakes are an exception as they don’t normally take an article: ‘Lake Tahoe’, ‘Windermere’.

Hopefully this will be my final version of this, although I know I’ve definitely said that before…

Categorising writing mistakes

I’ve just got access to a short video made for the Teaching English British Council facebook page at IATEFL Manchester 2015 which I’d completely forgotten about! In it, I describe a method you can use to encourage students to notice mistakes they make in writing and try to reduce them. Unfortunately I can’t embed the video here, but I can give you the link to watch it. I’m not sure if you need to be logged in to facebook to see it, and I don’t know how to get around it if you don’t have a facebook account – sorry!

You can see examples of how I used this kind of error categorisation in my own Russian learning in the ‘Writing’ section of the post How I’m learning Russian (part 2).

Russian journal

Russian journal

Have you tried anything similar?

Two teaching hacks to save you time preparing your materials

Yep, clickbait title I know. Sorry. But it’s true…these two little tips have probably saved me countless seconds since I discovered them…

Making sets of cards

Before you cut up a set of cards, mark them quickly with different coloured pens. You can do it on coloured paper too if you like, but that’s more expensive and a lot more faff!

Mark paper on the back to put it into coloured sets

Once you’ve cut them up, you can then divide them quickly into separate piles. If they get mixed up, or one falls out of a set, it’s easy to see where it belongs.

IMG_5659

Folding piles of worksheets

Once you’ve printed them all, fold the whole pile in one go.

Folding piles of worksheets 1

Separate them out into a messy pile.

Folding piles of worksheets 2

Sharpen the fold, a few at a time if necessary.

Folding piles of worksheets 3

Folding piles of worksheets 4

Repeat until you’re happy with the result 🙂

Folding piles of worksheets 5

What silly little things do you do to save yourself a few seconds of precious time?

Writing ELT materials for primary (guest post)

At this year’s IATEFL Materials Writing SIG pre-conference event, Katherine Bilsborough offered us tips on writing materials for primary-age young learners. These were really useful, so I asked her to put together a blog post summarising them for you.

Writing ELT materials for primary can be great fun but don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s somehow easier than writing materials for an older age group. It isn’t. It has just as many challenges but some might be less obvious at first. Following on from the talk I did at this year’s MaWSIG pre-conference event at IATEFL, here are five things to take into consideration for anyone thinking of writing for primary.

1 What does primary actually mean?

The term primary usually covers six years – a long period in the life of a child. Materials that are suitable for a year 1 or 2 pupil aren’t suitable for a year 5 or 6 pupil – for a number of reasons. It’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the age group for which you are writing. The best way, of course, is to teach this age group yourself, but this isn’t always possible. The next best thing would be to observe some classes being taught – but fortunately there are a few easier things you can do too.

When you know the age group for which you are writing, check out the kind of things they are doing at school by using the UK’s Key Stage classification. Once you know the key stage, you can go to sites such as BBC Bitesizeand look at what children are doing in terms of subject matter and activity types. Remember this is a site for British school children whose first language is usually English so the language used might be more complex that the language you need to use in an ELT context. A good place to go to get an idea of the kind of vocabulary and grammar your target users need for their age group is the Cambridge English Exams website**. The word lists are very similar to word lists in the syllabus of most course books, especially since more and more course books now include exam preparation materials.

2 Primary appropriateness

The most important starting point for anybody writing materials for primary children is appropriateness. There are lots of ways to interpret this but we all know what it means. Primary materials have all the usual no-no’s and then a few more. Publishers usually provide a list of things they wish to avoid. Many of them are common sense but others might surprise you. It’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with all of the potential restrictions to your creativity. It’s frustrating having to completely rewrite a story, for example, because you’ve included something that needs to be cut … and the story won’t work without it. This is why it’s also a good idea to run your ideas past your editor before embarking on a writing marathon. I haven’t given any specific examples here … that’s a whole blog post in itself!

3 Illustration

Illustration is important in primary materials and once again the importance of age appropriateness needs to be considered. Look at some storybooks for five-year-olds and then at some others for nine-year-olds. You’ll notice all kinds of differences. Not only obvious things like word count or language used but also themes, genres and art styles. I have heard that more and more photos of real-life people and objects are appearing in materials for ever-younger learners. This might reflect changes in their real worlds where they are watching an increasing number of youtube videos and have much more access to photos.

It’s worth investing in a scanner if you start writing primary materials. Editors, designers and illustrators appreciate getting a scanned sketch of your perception of a page. They also like to see more detailed drawings of story frames or pages where the illustration is key to the understanding of the text. It’s worth pointing out that one of the best things about seeing the final product is seeing the brilliant work of the artists in transforming your roughly sketched ideas into work of true beauty.

4 Instructions/rubrics

When it comes to writing materials for primary I think a good rule of thumb for an instruction is ‘the simpler, the better’. That’s probably the case for all kinds of materials, for all ages and levels, but with primary it’s especially important because in the case of the youngest learners, some might not be able to read yet. Have a look at the instructions in materials for this age group. Note how they change according to the age and how simple icons are used for year 1 pupils to support the learning.

5 Useful websites for a primary materials writer

All professionals have their favourite websites and primary materials writers are no different. Here are 6 of mine. If you have any others, let us know. It’s always great to discover a new one.

http://vocabkitchen.com
Paste a text and get an instant colour-coded version, showing at a glance where each word lies within the CEFR guidelines or the AWL (academic word list) guidelines. Perfect for adapting the level of reading and audio texts.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/education
*BBC Bitesize archives for different UK curriculum key stages.

www.vocaroo.com
Easy-to-use, quick and simple recording site. Useful for sending your editor an audio of how you imagine a chant, song etc. sounding.

http://www.timeforkids.com
Age appropriate news stories from around the world (older primary).

http://www.puzzle-maker.com
Free online puzzle maker where you can create crossword grids and word searches quickly and easily. Other online puzzle makers make anagrams, jumble sentences and create other kinds of puzzles.

http://www.cambridgeenglish.org/exams/young-learners-english/
** Downloadable pdf wordlists for each level (Starters, Movers, Flyers, KET and PET).

 

Whether you are writing primary materials for your own classes or to share with others, for a blog, a website or a publisher, don’t forget the most important thing – have fun!

About Katherine

Katherine has worked in ELT since 1986 as a teacher, teacher trainer and author. She has published coursebooks and materials for all ages and contexts. Her primary materials include Dream Box, Ace! Oxford Rooftops, a new course book for OUP and a new online course for BBC English. She develops print and digital materials for the British Council and the BBC and regularly contributes to the LearnEnglish and TeachingEnglish websites. When she isn’t writing, she is gardening. Not having a blog of her own, Katherine enjoys gatecrashing other people’s blogs and was recently named ‘the interloping blogger’ – a title she approves of.

Katherine Bilsborough

If you want to find out more about materials writing, why not get a copy of Katherine’s new e-book How to write primary materials, written for the ELT Teacher2Writer site. (If you decide to buy it through Smashwords with this link, I’ll get a few pennies!)

Images in the classroom (Torun Teacher Training Day 2016)

ELTpics session IH Torun TTD Sandy Millin 23rd April 2016 title slide

This was a slightly shorter version of an online workshop which I ran in January 2015 for International House called Picture This. You can find all of the links to the posts and online tools I mentioned, plus a recording of the one hour webinar, on the Picture This page.

You might also be interested in my recent review of the book Working with Images [affiliate link] by Ben Goldstein.

The talk was part of the Torun Teacher Training Day, which also featured talks by Marjorie Rosenberg, Hugh Dellar, Glenn Standish, and various local teachers from Torun and Bydgoszcz, including some from IH Bydgoszcz.

Tag Cloud