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Twist on a classic: Discussion questions

A classic

Course books and published materials are full of discussion questions. They’re a chance for learners to react to a listening/reading task, practise new vocabulary or practise speaking fluently. Here’s a typical example from TeachingEnglish (scroll to ‘Discussion’, page 3).

I’ve known teachers to adapt these in all sorts of ways:

  • Learner training. Give the learners discussion phrases and get them used to the routine of using these in group discussions.
  • Playing hard to get. Scramble the words in each question and ask the learners to reorder them before they answer. The scramblinator is a good tool for this job. Very TEFL-y.
  • Random questions. Use some way of randomising the questions to add an element of suspense. Dice corresponding to numbered questions, drawing question cards from a pile, wheeldecide.com etc.

My twist on this classic activity isn’t exactly ground-breaking, but it’s probably one of my most-used free speaking activities.  Read More

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Traffic lights for tailored teaching

I’m a big fan of any sort of graphic organiser (as you’ll see here). So when I hit upon a new way to use traffic lights in class last week, I thought: ‘I know, I’ll write a blog post about it!’ Here it is, along with two other ways to use traffic lights in the classroom.

1. Traffic lights answers

I was teaching a new pre-intermediate IELTS class of fairly mixed ability. We did IELTS reading and listening tasks for the first time. When I went to elicit answers, I stopped for a moment and realised: I don’t really know how they feel about the difficulty of the task.

I could elicit answers and go into why it’s the right answer, referring back to the text or listening… but if they found it quite easy, I’d just be patronising them, right? And do they all feel the same about it? Read More

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Twist on a classic: Ranking

Not quite as ubiquitous as the past two classic activities (brainstorming and warmer questions), rank-ordering is nonetheless a TESOL mainstay. Here’s a nifty adaptation…

A classic

Rank-ordering activities generate lots of discussion. Presented on the board, on paper, as little cards, or even on screen, we often get learners to rank things from 1 to 10 in order of preference or importance, like:

  • Holiday destinations
  • Restaurants in the local area
  • Personal qualities in a best friend
  • Ingredients for success (see example here)
  • Goals for a language course (see First lessons with adults or teens)

Ranking is often chosen as a way to engage learners in a topic or personalise a lexical set. But beyond that, it’s a great for critical thinking.

The twist

A ‘priorities diamond’ is a simple graphic organiser that takes ranking to the next level. I’ve used it several times, even in training sessions with teachers, and it’s worked a treat every time. Here’s how it works: Read More

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Why I gave up on ‘fast finisher activities’

So I was delivering a short training session for teachers about lesson planning a few of weeks ago. One of the things that came up was ‘fast finisher activities’. We didn’t have time to go into it in the session, but I think it’s possibly one of the most misleading terms in TESOL.

The idea – as far as I can tell – is that you have an extra piece of material for any bright sparks who finish their classwork before others. I assume it’s a concept that has come from mainstream education (primary in particular). It’s often cited as a way to reduce ‘off-task behaviour’ and further challenge stronger learners in mixed-ability classes. Pinterest is full of colourful, fun-looking ‘fast finisher activities’, like these ones I collected:

So what have I got against them? Well… Read More

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Twist on a classic: Warmer questions

This week’s twist on a classic is all about reversing the roles of teacher and learner…

A classic

Warmer questions are surely the most common warmer/lead-in to any lesson (along with brainstorming from last week). You just write some questions on the board and learners answer them in pairs. Why’s it so good?

  • No materials required.
  • Hardly any preparation required.
  • Doesn’t eat up too much lesson time.
  • Learners speak in English from the get-go.
  • Sets context and activates schemata.
  • Acts as a diagnostic, especially in form-focused lessons (eg. vocab, phonology, grammar, etc.).

They do get a bit repetitive if you’re doing them most lessons, though. There’s all sorts of ways you can jazz them up, but for me, the beauty of warmer questions is their simplicity!

The twist

So here is a twist on warmer questions that preserves their simplicity: Read More

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Remixing a grammatical syllabus

In my previous blogpost for LearningEnglish (Breaking up big grammar), I explained how I deal with big grammar points like ‘Past habits’ or ‘Present Perfect’ that appear in coursebooks with a grammatical syllabus. I was thinking, as teachers often do, about adapting content to learners as part of our lesson planning. But what about the bigger picture? How can we move away from a coursebook’s grammatical syllabus in our course planning?

The problem

The first thing to say is that a grammatical syllabus isn’t necessarily the evil it’s often made out to be (whatever I might say below)! It’s likely to go down well with analytical learners that see the patterns in language, and learners coming from an educational background that places a lot of importance on grammar. When I worked in Italy, for example, many learners felt at home with a grammatical syllabus, as they had grown up studying languages that way.

But… That doesn’t necessarily mean it was the best thing for them in terms of learning to speak English. It’s the old dichotomy of ‘knowing how the language works in theory’ (linguistic competence) vs ‘being able to use the language in practice’ (communicative competence). I’m not debating the importance of grammar itself in learning a foreign language, just whether we should prioritise it as the building blocks of a course.

Anyway, I now teach in Thailand, where most of my adult and teenage learners find the alternative – focusing primarily on meaning and communication, with focus on form where necessary – more motivating. So here are my top 3 ways of remixing the syllabus to move away from a grammatical syllabus…

Read the rest of my blog post on British Council’s TeachingEnglish website.

Featured image adapted from:  Image from page 437 of “Textile raw materials and their conversion into yarns… For more information on images on TESOLtoolbox, see Imagery.

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Twist on a classic: Brainstorming

This is one of the most versatile activities I’ve ever found…

A classic

Brainstorming hardly needs any introduction. In class, we brainstorm vocabulary as a lead-in to a new topic. We brainstorm ideas before setting writing tasks. And we brainstorm language to ‘activate schemata’ and assess learners’ prior knowledge.

By the teacher on the board, by learners on the board or on by learners at their desks, brainstorming is THE most obvious way to generate ideas.

The twist

For a punchier start to the lesson, try competitive brainstorming: Read More