Things I’ve tried in online lessons recently

It’s a little while since I wrote anything about teaching online, mostly because I haven’t been doing much of it! Having said that, I’ve still been able to experiment with a few tools and techniques which I’d like to share with you.

Renaming participants for grouping

I found this to be a useful technique when trying to organise breakout rooms, especially for big groups. When I wanted to differentiate a CELTA input session, renaming allowed participants to select which activity they preferred. It was also helpful when I’d decided on the groups before the sessions – I read out the list of who was in which group, with instructions for how they should rename themselves. In both cases, I told participants to add the extra information before their name, which meant my participants list was organised accordingly, making it much faster to set up manual breakout rooms.

White text for answers

This works especially well with shared documents. When setting up a document, you can add an extra column to a table, or an extra page at the end of the document, where you put all of the answers. Change the font to white. In the session, either change the text to black so everybody can see the answers at once, or tell participants to highlight the text without changing the font colour to be able to see the answers themselves without revealing them to anybody else.

Mentimeter for surveys and sharing slides

Mentimeter is a presentation tool which allows you to include interactive content. In the free version you can share two interactive slides within a longer presentation. Examples might include scales, word clouds, ranking, multiple choice, or open ended questions. Results are then displayed on the screen immediately. Here’s an example from a CELTA session on CPD, with participants grading each area out of 5. Mentimeter then displayed the average:

To participate, people go to http://www.menti.com and enter the code which appears at the top of the slide (not shown here).

Apart from the interactive tools, you can include (very cleanly presented) content slides. Anybody looking at http://www.menti.com on their own devices will see the next slide automatically as you move through your presentation. This could be an efficient way of sharing resources without people having to take screenshots all the time. It does mean they’re locked into only moving to the next slide when you move on, and they can’t interact with the content slides, only the interactives, but it could still be useful in some situations.

ActivInspire as an online whiteboard

A huge thank you to my most recent bunch of CELTA trainees for introducing me to this, and showing me a whole range of ways to use it in my TP. ActivInspire was originally designed as software for interactive whiteboards, but it is freely downloadable for anybody to use, even without the IWB hardware. All you have to do is tick ‘personal’ at the relevant point in the download process.

You need to do a little playing around with it to find where everything is, and you can’t use the in-built poll feature as this requires the hardware, but generally it’s a very flexible tool as an online whiteboard. The main things I saw the trainees do effectively was having information prepared at the side of the ‘slide’ and gradually adding it to the board as they elicited it from students. They were also quickly able to flick to a pen, drawing or highlighting tool to draw attention to important features – much faster than you can in PowerPoint for example, and it’s got much more functionality than the Zoom whiteboard had last time I looked.

There are templates already available with the software, and there are many tutorials out there. Here’s are 20 steps to using ActivInspire and here are a set of video tutorials.

A new name!

Thanks to Katie Lindley for finally giving me a name for a technique I’ve used from the start in online lessons: waterfall chat. This is where all participants write their answers in chat, but they don’t press enter until you give the signal. When you say ‘go’, all of the answers appear at once in a kind of upside-down waterfall. This stops them from being able to copy each other’s answers. It works especially well for short answers, maybe multiple choice, true/false, or one- or two-word answers.

A bonus idea…

This is one I haven’t tried out, but came up with when chatting to a friend about possible warmers to get sleepy teens moving in online lessons. Each student suggests one thing to find in the chat, based on e.g. collocations, or with a relative clause (or whatever other grammar point they need to revise), then they have 3 mins to find as many as they can. Student-generated, revision, and movement all rolled into one – what more could you want?!

How about you? What have you been playing with in online lessons recently?

The last lesson with beginners: a super simple speaking activity

Here’s an activity I did in the final lesson with my beginner 10-12 year olds today.

First, we each drew 2 animals, 2 people and a room:

Then I put some possible questions and answers into the chat:

Then I put the students into breakout rooms for 10 minutes with a partner to ask and answer questions. They enjoyed it so much, they repeated it with another partner.

Super simple, super effective, and practices those tricky question structures. And it shows them just how long they can speak in English for after only 9 months!

Picture prepositions

I created this diagram today when helping a teacher work out how to clarify prepositions connected to describing pictures in English File Intermediate Plus, and thought it was worth sharing.

Can you match them?

  1. in the top left-hand corner
  2. on the right
  3. on top
  4. in the background / in the distance (happy to accept suggestions to differentiate these more clearly!)
  5. in the bottom left-hand corner
  6. at the bottom
  7. in the bottom right-hand corner
  8. in the centre / in the middle
  9. in the foreground
  10. at the top
  11. in the top right-hand corner
  12. on the left

Hope you find it useful!

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

Picture Boards

This post is partly in response to English Raven’s “May I call a meeting of the board(s)?” and particularly this paragraph:

“Hence, I feel this urge to encourage more ELTers around the world to show us their boards. It doesn’t need to be in response to a specific methodology/activity/technique challenge. I don’t particularly care what you are teaching or how, I just reckon I and a lot of other teachers could learn a lot just by getting a quick look at your board!”

It’s also a chance for me to share one of my favourite vocabulary revision games, especially popular with my YLs, although I use it for adults too.

The photos I’ve chosen to share are actually a year old, but I think they’re a good example of the boardwork I regularly did with a very small YL class I taught last (academic) year. Both of the SS loved writing and drawing on the board, so I made it a point to include this in every lesson I had with them. I tried hard to vary what we did, but this was one activity they loved so much we did it over and over again!

In our last lesson before Christmas I had taught them a set of 10 Christmas words. After the holiday, I wanted to revise them quickly, so I said the word and they had to draw pictures on the board. It was their own idea to create a single picture incorporating all of the words.

When they finished they then switched sides. This time I showed them the word card and they had to circle the correct picture on the board. Much hilarity ensued as they tried to work out what the other student had drawn!

One variant is to borrow a board rubber from another classroom. Instead of circling the correct drawing, they rub out the picture that you ask them about.

It worked really well with such a small class. You could probably do it as a team game in larger classes, or use mini-boards or (laminated) pieces of A4 paper and work in small groups.

Enjoy!