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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.

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Twist on a classic: Backs to the board

This is the first of what I hope will be a lighthearted series of variations on classic TESOL activities.

A classic

Backs to the board is without doubt my #1 go-to vocabulary activity as a warmer, filler, or end-of-lesson revision game, and I’m sure it is for many other teachers, too. Here’s a reminder of the classic set-up (if you know it well, just skip to the twist):

Setting up. You’ll need a list of words you’d like learners to revise/consolidate. Divide learners into groups of 3 or 4 and sit one learner from each group at the front of the classroom in the ‘hot seat’ facing their group but with their back to the board.

Procedure. Write a word on the board. The team members facing the board explain the word (without saying the word) to their person in the ‘hot seat’, who tries to guess what word it is. If they guess correctly, they win a point for their team, and the team with most points wins. After each word, a new team member comes to sit in the ‘hot seat’.

Here it is in action:

The twist

Setting up. Write up a slightly different list of words for each group of learners. Make sure the lists are roughly equal in terms of how difficult they are to describe. Eg. endangered animals:

Team A Team B
rhino orang utan
whale shark gorilla
elephant snow leopard
panda polar bear
blue whale tiger

At the start of the game, cover up all the words. On an IWB you can draw a rectangle over each team’s words to do this. On a wipeboard, you can just stick a large piece of paper over the words to hide them. One learner from each team sits in a ‘hot seat’ with their back to the board.

Procedure. Reveal the first word in each group’s list of words. Learners in the ‘hot seat’ must guess what their team’s first word is with their team’s help (as in regular backs to the board). Once someone’s guessed their word, that team swaps person in the ‘hot seat’. You will reveal the next word on that team’s list without stopping the game. Continue like this until one team has guessed all of their words.

What’s great about this variation is:

  • You don’t need to keep stopping the game to write up words one at a time, recording the score and switching the person in the hot-seat.
  • Learners cannot eavesdrop on other teams to get the answer as they often do in the classic set-up
  • It is even more competitive and lively, as learners can clearly see which team is in the lead.

Have fun!

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First lessons with adults or teens

I started this blogging thing a couple of months ago. I’m still not sure what to write about, so I cast my mind back to some of the most useful blog posts I have read over my teaching career. First lessons with a new bunch of learners sprang to mind immediately. And as luck would have it, it’s the start of a new academic year for many teachers 🙂 So here’s my comprehensive take on first lessons.

It’s often difficult to know what to do in a first lesson. Maybe it’s your first lesson in a new school. Maybe the learners all know each other already, but not you. Maybe you feel like you need to get started on the course book immediately, or maybe your course books aren’t arriving for another month! Whatever the case, I think it’s always worth ringfencing the first lesson to do some (not necessarily all) of the things in this post…

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Breaking up Big Grammar

Unit 1: Present simple, present continuous and present habits; present perfect simple and present perfect continuous. Unit 2: Past simple and past continuous; Past perfect simple and past perfect continuous…

That’s the coursebook that I’m currently using with my teenage General English class. Needless to say, it follows a very structural syllabus. It has other bits – the four skills, vocabulary and some pretty good life skills bits, but on the whole, it all seems like a pretext for those Big Grammar points.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against grammar, but I do agree with Lightbown and Spada’s ‘Get it right in the end‘ position on language acquisition – primary focus on meaning with focus on form in meaningful contexts. To cut a long story short, let’s just say the treatment of grammar in this coursebook…

  • …isn’t very relevant to my learners’ motivations, needs or level
  • …won’t necessarily make learners more communicatively competent
  • …is given too much emphasis in the syllabus

When I first started teaching, I wouldn’t have known what to do with it. I DIDN’T! I still remember my first week of summer school, struggling through a unit on the Present Perfect… those poor students!

So what do I do now?

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

Featured image adapted from: Compressor and jackhammer for drilling rock preparatory to shooting explosives, Lassen National Forest, California and hood_19948r . For more information on images on TESOLtoolbox, see Imagery.

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Teaching functional language: Exposure

This is part of a series of posts on teaching functional language. I’ll be referring to and expanding on my post Teaching functional language: Staging, so you might like to have a look there before reading!

So we’re looking at Exposure in functional speaking lessons. Actually, lot’s of what I’ll say here is just as applicable to a vocabulary or grammar lesson, too.

To start off, let’s break down what we’re talking about here. Learners are going to listen to a short stretch of English and… Read More

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Varying interaction patterns

Varying interaction patterns is an essential skill for teachers. Done well, it really brings a lesson to life. Done badly (or not at all), it’s a sure way to spoil an otherwise great lesson.

If you’ve ever been in a classroom situation yourself, you’ll know how crucial it is. For instance, one day, my Kung Fu teacher forgot to get us to switch partners as he usually does… my wife was stuck with someone half her size who didn’t really get it. Compare that to another lesson, when we rotated between partners, a one-on-one with teacher and finished with group practice. It made a world of difference.

So anyway, getting back to ELT, I recently made a training session on varying interaction patterns for colleagues at work. See what you think… Read More

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How to improve your lesson timing

I am mentoring a teacher who is preparing for DipTESOL at the moment. Her main concern about the observed teaching practice is timing, so this post is for her and anyone else who has identified timing something to work on in their teaching.

Actually, I think all teachers have had issues with timing at some point or another (observations in particular). People often offer suggestions like:

  • Set realistic timings in your lesson plan
  • Make sure you can see a clock or wear a watch
  • Use a timer on the IWB or your mobile phone

Don’t get me wrong, these are all useful suggestions. The problem is, they’re all pretty obvious and don’t actually get to the root cause of timing problems. So here are my top 5 tried-and-tested timing tips… Read More