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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

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t/d/ɪd and s/z/ɪz: from past to present

Pete at ELT Planning recently wrote a very honest and reflective blogpost about Correcting pronunciation errors from Thai speakers of English. Generally, I think pronunciation is one of the areas of teaching which suffers the most from a disconnect between theory and practice. So this sort of reflection is really refreshing. In the spirit of reflective practice, I would like to share my thoughts on t/d/ɪd and s/z/ɪz, and chart how my approach to this one phonology point has changed over the years and with different learners.

The first time I t/d/ɪd-ed

I distinctly remember the first time I taught this pronunciation point. I was doing after-school tutoring with a teenager in Sicily before I had my CertTESOL. We categorised the words in a table headed t/d/ɪd, said them a few times and went on to do some conversation. Not bad for a first attempt, and both I and the learner enjoyed it.

Building on the basics

I got my CertTESOL and taught t/d/ɪd countless times again in London, Cagliari, Melilla and Bournemouth. I gradually built up a bank of fun activities for my predominantly teenage learners at that time. I still use many of those activities now, like pronunciation maze, odd one out and tic-tac-toe.


Literally reflecting on t/d/id here. Thank you super-shiny whiteboard.

At first, I’d squeeze t/d/ɪd into a short slot in a lesson where I’d ambitiously attempt to review the past simple all in one go as I’d been taught on the CertTESOL: engage, study and activate, including meaning, form, pronunciation. Later on, Read More

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Twist on a classic: Jigsaw reading

If you’re looking for something novel to catch learners’ attention at the start of a reading lesson, this is it…

A classic

Jigsaw reading is truly deserving of its place as a classic TESOL activity. It’s an uber-communicative activity, involving reading, speaking and listening with a collaborative goal. Let’s look at the usual procedure to make sure we’re all on the same page…

Preparation. Teacher (or a nominated learner) finds a relevant text, makes one copy per group of learners and cuts it up so that each learner has one section of the text. Ideal texts for this are ones which are organised by subheadings.

Procedure. Each learner reads their piece of the ‘jigsaw’ and remembers what it says. They then place it face down and take turns to summarise their piece of the jigsaw to their group. Collectively, the group achieves some shared outcome with the information, such as answering questions, discussing the information, completing a table, ranking or ordering the information, etc.

(Alternatively, you could give each learner different texts, as opposed to sections of the same text, eg. each learner reads a holiday advert, describes it to the group and finally  make a group decision about which holiday to go on.)


The twist

Last year I experimented with some slightly different ways to break up the text into pieces of the puzzle. ‘Sabotaging’ the text was one of my favourites… Read More

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Are you making your life harder for yourself?

I started teaching primary students around 4 – 5 years ago when I came to Thailand. I would often find myself exhausted after teaching 4 hours of primary classes. I soon realised that I was making my life harder than it needed to be. Co-teaching, reflecting on my own teaching, taking the (now defunct) CeltYL course and observing other teachers helped me see this more clearly.

So here is a short questionnaire to get you thinking about your classroom routines. The solutions to some of these situations may sound obvious, even patronising, so please take them with a pinch of salt. The point is that half the time we don’t even realise we’re doing something the hard way in the YL classroom, because it becomes a routine or habit.

Of course, it’s possible to go too far the other way and not put enough energy into lessons. But the courses of action suggested below aren’t just being lazy, they’re things that conscientious teachers can do to both relieve stress AND do what’s best for their learners 🙂

Click on the answers to see if you guessed right and see an explanation. There may be more than one correct answer. 

Beginning activities

1. You are giving instructions to the class but several students are still talking among themselves. Do you…
…continue giving instructions as you were?
It’s unlikely that everyone will hear and concentrate on the instructions like that.
…raise your voice so that everyone can still hear your instructions?
You’re going to have a sore throat by the end of the day!
…stop giving instructions and wait for those students to finish talking.
That will work and saves your voice, too, but be careful not to waste too much time like that! Alternatively, you could walk over to them silently with your hand in a stop gesture or dock a point from their team if your a points person.

Read More