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Thursday, December 16, 2010

From Summerhill to ELT: Promoting Democracy in the Classroom


Autonomy, democracy, happy children and play are some of the themes of an article I wrote last year, now published in the latest version of HLT Magazine.

The article is titled From Summerhill to ELT: Promoting Democracy in the Classroom and can be found in the Short Articles section.  It outlines some of the principles of "free" schools such as Summerhill and how we can implement them into our language classrooms.

If you are interested, take a look and comment here on my blog if you have anything to say.

Thanks :)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Open Book Tests Part 2 - How it went

Before you start to read I have to warn you that I don't yet have the results of the tests and therefore I don't know how the students have done or what problems they may have had. I left the tests at work yesterday and will be marking them this evening.

What I can say is that the students all appeared to be thinking hard whilst doing the test - I was actually writing some report cards but I had one eye on them all the time (I don't know where I've managed to learn the ability to write without looking at the paper properly!) and they were all concentrated on their work, sometimes looking up to think about something.

Funnily enough, a couple of the students didn't seem to open their books at all. I don't think this is because the test was easy for them but because it was actually harder and would take longer to find the appropriate section in the book than to think it through themselves. This was really one of my objectives for doing the test this way - they would have to think about the answers, using the material available to help them. In a state of such high concentration (as opposed to the usual fun and chatty atmosphere of the class), they would perhaps be more likely to take in and internalise the information and language they were reading about in the book and using in the test exercises.

Most of the learners used their books at some stage, but it seemed to be after thinking about a question that they opened their books, to check the answer they had already formed in their heads. In any case, as I had warned them before we started, they would not have time to look up everything.

One of the problems I had foreseen would be whether or not the tests would actually do their purpose and show me what the students know and what they don't. However, I think that if somebody really didn't know, for example, when to use "will" and "going to", that this will still be apparent in their answers. If they have been looking up individual examples in their book, there are likely to be mistakes in their test. In any case, the point is that even if they weren't sure about something before doing the test, it is quite possible that now, after looking in their books and doing the test, that they understand it.

I will be looking carefully at the test papers this evening. Rather than the number of correct answers, I will be focussing on the areas where the students generally did well, and those that seem to need more work. I will check for consistency within the same grammar point or lexical area for each student.

I think that even if the circumstances of the test turn out to not be ideal, something postive will have been taken from it. The learners felt that there were being some concessions made to them and they felt more confident having their book in front of them, like a kind of security blanket. The latter I believe to be important because it means the affective filter was higher than in a traditional test situation and hopefully this will have provided better working conditions for the students.

I will be asking them next lesson if they thought doing the exam in this way was a good idea, if there could be any improvements, how they felt during the test, if they used their books much etc.

I will report back on their opinions and my conclusions after marking the tests.

Thanks for reading :)


After marking the tests I can say that being able to use their books has not actually helped the students do the test - to be honest, they haven't done as well as I had expected - it is possible that looking in their books may have confused them on some points, but the general impression I have is that they haven't taken advantage of the situation. They don't seem to have looked up the rules for the grammar that was being tested but have relied on their own knowledge, and they ecrtainly haven't used to their books to find examples of collocations that appeared in the test since the questions they got right are of examples they have come across many times.

As I mentioned in the original post, I think I will have to show them how to use their books to find relevant information. Just as they would need training in making notes, they need training in using reference materials.

This has been an experiment, and I am not going to take their test results into account for their end of term reports, because I don't think they are accurate enough. What is clear though, is that if I want to give a test in similar conditions in the future, I am going to have to show the students how to look for information. We will need to do some practice on looking for specific information (scanning) and transferring rules and examples into different types of exercise.

I do think that having their books available for consultation was comforting for the students, but it is clear from the results that they found the test difficult. This obviously isn't very motivating - doing badly in a test is one of the worst things that can happen to a language learner - but I think it will show the learners a need for a change in attitude (they can be particularly lazy). The test was difficult and I will make sure this is clear to the learners, and I plan on going over the exercises and asking the students to find the appropriate pages in the book, encouraging them to find similar examples and rules that they needed to do the exercise well.

The most important thing I need to do today though, is reassure the students that they are making progress, they are improving their English and that their test result isn't so important. What is really important is the work they do every day in class and this is what will be reflected in their reports.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Open Book Tests

By ccarlstead on Flickr with Creative Commons licence

In October I wrote a post about allowing students to take in notes to exams. The idea was students would hopefully spend some time before the test preparing their set of notes, at the same time revising the content without even realising it. I was planning on using this method with a group of thirteen year olds, who are at an age where they need to understand the importance of doing a test properly because for the next five years at secondary school they will be having tests more often than they actually have a proper lesson, such is the educational system in Spain! However, these kids are actually this - kids. They may be taller than me but inside they are just beginning to step away from childhood. For this reason, I don't think allowing them to prepare notes would be of any help. They know what grammatical structures will be in the test, but do they know how to make notes? Has anybody shown them how to make a good set of revision notes? No. At school nobody teaches them study techniques. They mostly just have to memorise facts and even large chunks of information word for word. Unless I show them myself how to create a set of notes and how to focus on the most important parts, they will have difficulty in doing so successfully.

So, I am going one step further. We are having an open-book test.

The test they have is fairly long and is based on the grammar and vocabulary we have been learning this term, with a writing stage for early finishers. As I said in the other post, I'm not a big fan of tests, but this class is quite lazy (I know, it's their age) and I'm hoping that having a test will help them focus more. They are so used to testing that if we don't have one they seem to think that the class is just to doss around in (for those of you who didn't live in the UK in the nineties, "to doss around" means "to spend time doing very little or being unproductive").

Anyway, they will be able to use their books to help them do the test. However, they won't have time to look up everything in their books. In any case, the test questions are not reproductions of tasks in the book, so they will have to find the approriate section. If they have to choose between the Present Continuous and Will to talk about the future, they can read the grammar section (in English) on that to remind them of their uses before doing that particular exercise. If they can't remember the spelling of a vocabulary item, they can find it in their book to double check.

One of the other reasons why I'm doing this is to reduce stress. I didn't want the learners to be worrying about the test, or hurriedly studying five minutes before the class and getting all nervous. Allowing them to use their books means that everyone is relaxed about doing the test and sould hopefully be more successful - essential with this age group.

I do plan to allow notes as mentioned above in the future, but with older students and when we have some time to discuss how to create these notes.

I shall report back tomorrow on how today went!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Festive Fun!

The festive season is now upon us and only two more weeks of the term to go. This year's holidays begin quite late compared with previous years - I won't be truly on holiday until 10pm on the 23rd December. All the students will have two classes in that final week before Christmas, and I'm trying to decide what festive things we can do.

In previous years on the last day, there has always been some Christmas craft type activity with the young learners, games or parties with the teens and a drink in the bar with the adults! However, I'm changing things round a bit this year. I haven't yet decided what to do with the little ones but it won't be a craft as we are doing one in our Winter topic the lesson before. Maybe a Christmas song? A nativity play? That would take up too much preparation time, we just don't have the time for a proper play but we could do a bit of acting out - they always love that! We could write a letter to Santa. Maybe we will watch a bit of Dora the Explorer Christmas Special and maybe we will have a party. In any case, with the youngest ones you can make fun out of anything. The main thing is that they go home for the holidays happy, feeling successful and looking forward to coming back in the new year.

What about the older children? Well they all enjoy singing, so I'm sure we will be performing a Christmas song. But which one? Not wanting to do the dreadful "Jingle Bells" yet again, maybe we will go for something a bit more comic such as When Santa Got Stuck Up The Chimney. One class will be having parties that they themselves have organised. Maybe we could try a traditional Christmas Parlour game like Charades. There are lots of good ideas on the BC Teaching English website.

Now, the tweens are a bit harder to engage, especially at this time of year when they have finished their school work. It can be hard to find materials suitable for their age that actually interest them - they don't want to watch a cartoon as it is too babyish, but adult films and shows are not suitable. I have a copy of the Mr Bean Christmas Special, but it seems so dated now! I think the best think to do is to ask them to suggest several ideas of things to do, put them in a hat, and luck will decide! Either that or have a democratic vote. Maybe it won't be so Christmassy, but they could bring in things they'd like to share such as songs or videos. One idea I have is to do a kind of Christmas Top Ten. I would play ten songs (they could be past UK Chart Number Ones or current songs) and get the students to choose the number one.

That leaves the older teens and adults. My group of adults have suggested having a Christmas party on the last day, with typical local festive treats and English songs and carols. I was thinking of doing something with the Mr Bean episode in the previous lesson - having them write down what Mr Bean would say if he spoke properly, making a note of all the typical British customs the can see in the video.
The teen groups are very small and a party would not work - unless we joined up with another class. Any ideas for a really fun last lesson with the 16 plus?

Sometimes I have just completely ignored Christmas with the adults. They sometimes actually prefer to have a normal lesson. This year they have suggested having a party themselves and they seem quite into the spirit of things, and I'm going to take advantage of this and have a bit of festive fun myself!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Barça - Madrid

Barça vs Real Madrid. 
That's what threatens to mess up next Monday evening's lesson. A class full of "madridistas" means that from 9pm there will be little, if any, concentration in our classroom. One or two have decided not to come to class, others have suggested a kind of Christmas radio party where we listen to the match in the background whilst singing Christmas carols (yes, that was really a suggestion made by one of the students!). If we could get the match in English I wouldn't mind, but I don't think that's going to be possible. Anyway, as we were originally going to be looking at verbs followed by the gerund or the infinitive, I decided to make up a dialogue about football in which lots of these forms were used. You will find the end result below. I tried to make it sound natural whilst including an inappropriate number of gerunds and infinitives! After getting the students to concentrate for ten minutes (before the match starts) and look for the verbs, we will practise the dialogues in pairs. I am hoping that this will be fun...
Watching the match

John:    Alright mate! How’s it going?

Tom:    Not bad, John. I think we’ll win this game.

John:    Yeah, I hope so. Do you want a drink?

Tom:    Just a coke, please. I don’t feel like drinking tonight. Anyway, I’ve got to finish studying for
            Wednesday’s exam later.

John:    Oh right. I love having a beer watching the footy. Don’t you
            miss drinking when everyone else is having one?

Tom:    Sometimes, yeah. Oy! Penalty!........
            Nice one! We’ll score from this.

John:    Yeah, Ronaldo’s been practising taking penalties all week.

Both:    Goooooooooaaaaaaaaallllllllll!

Tom:    Anyway, fancy coming to the match on Saturday? I’m taking
            the kids.

John:    No, I’d like to but I can’t afford to go. My brother suggested
            going and he offered to get the tickets but I refused to accept
            them. He’s not working at the moment.

Tom:    Well, if you change your mind, I don’t mind giving you a lift.

John:    Cheers. Hey! That’s not a red card! He was diving! He can’t deny cheating there!

Tom:     Oh I know. They just can’t help cheating, can they?

John:     Well, I still don’t think they’ll avoid being relegated at the end of the season.

Tom:     No, they certainly deserve it.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Five little ducks.. erm pigs...erm... whatever!

As I was getting ready for work yesterday, I made up a little song. You may be thinking that I get inspired whilst doing some rather mundane activities like doing the shopping or getting ready for work, but to be honest, since these activities are not mentally taxing, I can allow my mind to wander and this is how I come up with ideas. (I suppose I'm not a very methodical kind of person).

My six-year-olds and I are looking at the story of The Three Little Pigs and I thought singing a song about them might reinforce some of the language we have seen. Now, finding it difficult to remember and sing a song in class with an original tune, most of the ditties I make up are sung to the tune of another, more traditional, song. In this case, the "little pigs" fit in very well with the "little ducks" in the song Five Little Ducks Went Swimming One Day (over the hills and far away...). Everyone know that one? Here are the lyric to my piggy version:

Three little pigs left home one day
Said "Bye Bye" to mummy and went away
Pig number one built his house of straw
Wolf blew it down and it was no more.

Two little pigs left home one day
Said "Bye Bye" to mummy and went away
Pig number two built his house of sticks
Wolf blew it down and it fell to bits.

One little pig left home one day
Said "Bye Bye" to mummy and went away
Pig three built his house from bricks of clay
and the three little pigs could play all day!

What do you think? I haven't tried it on the children yet but I think they'll like it. I doubt I'd make a career out of songwriting but it suits my purpose alright!  Feel free to use it if you are doing something similar.

And if you've been singing along while reading this post, I bet you won't be able to get the tune out of your head all day!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Party Time!

We have just finished a unit on birthdays in our course book, where party food had been the main lexical input and I wanted to do something a bit more creative that would relate to the topic. This particular class sometimes have some problems getting on with each other and there are often silly little arguments and tale telling, so I thought it may be useful to do some group work, in the hope that they would bond more if they had to work together to complete a task.

The idea I came up with was to organise a class party. Now, there are twelve students in the class - too many to work in a group, so I decided to make it more competitive (they just love competition) and to divide the class into two. Since there are six boys and six girls, this seemed the most practical way to split them up. I don't normally allow them to work in single sex groups, unless they are groups of three, as I prefer them to change partners every so often. However in this case, I thought there would be fewer differences of opinion and therefore quarrels if they were allowed to work with their friends. It was very likely that the girls would prepare a completely different kind of party to the boys.

Each group had a supervisor who I appointed. The supervisor's job was to make sure everybody in the group knew what they had to do and to make sure they were doing it. The others would each be responsible for a task, being able to help the others if necessary. These are the tasks that they had to complete:

  • Make a guestlist
  • Make invitations
  • Make a list of food and drinks
  • Make a list of games to play
  • Decide what decorations you will need
There will be two different parties that we will hold in December, when we finish our current course book. The children really got into organising their parties and making beautiful invitations. We will be finishing things off this afternoon, and deciding who will bring what, as each child will bring one item of food to the party.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Precious Moments

It may not look much, but with a lot of dedication and care it will become something wonderful.

On a day when some classes seem like an uphill struggle, when it appears that some students are just trying to make life more difficult for you, when you find it impossible to get the to children stop shouting and sit down, and all because it is raining outside; there sometimes comes a glimpse of light in that dark, heavy ambience; a ray of sunlight or a rainbow to brighten up your day.

This happened to me yesterday. Not that my previous class had gone badly, but the bad weather along with the ever-present challenge of trying to help some students to learn had started to get me down slightly. It is November, one month til the Christmas holidays and just over two months since the new term began, when things have settled down enough for people to start complaining and demanding things from you. Demotivation starts to creep in to the souls of learners and colleagues. There is a reason why in the UK they have a half-term break!

Then, a six-year-old changed everything.

With this particular class I decided to take a kind of CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) approach. I spent the summer designing a course for them, and I am working on the finer details as we go along. Really, what we are doing is learning about and doing lots of different things, of the domains of various school subjects. We learn about living creatures, do projects, make things, do experiments, listen to stories and so on. Yesterday, we were discussing the story of The Three Little Pigs. I hadn't yet read them the story, but as it is a well-known tale in Spain too, we were discussing what the children knew about it. Of course this was being done in Spanish - the children have very little productive English at this stage- and I was providing them with some vocabulary trying to encourage them to use it. This meant that their Spanish sentences explaining the story went something like: "Pig construyó una casa de paja". I could see Lucía was thinking about something, and when she put up her hand she said that she had something to say in English.

Slowly, but confidently, she exclaimed: 

"The wolf up the house!" 

Well, this was something new! A six-year-old trying to make a full sentence in English. On her own. With no encouragement or elicitation. I was taken aback. Of course the sentence needed a verb for it to make real sense, but her sentence had meaning and could be easily understood. Lucía was communicating in English!
And she knew exactly what she was saying because she made a gesture for "up" so that we would know what she meant. For me, this is a really important step for Lucía. I have been exposing the children to more English than they are used to, in the hope that they will eventually understand me and pick up some of it themselves. I focus on important vocabulary and repeat it a lot while we are doing things, and then wait for them to use it without being prompted. It takes such a long time for this to happen usually, and so I was shocked to hear something that included new vocabulary along with vocabulary we learnt in October, and in a coherent sentence.

My reaction may seem over the top, but I almost had tears in my eyes when this little girl said what she did. I felt so proud! I praised her effusively for her efforts. It gave me the feeling that maybe what I am doing is working, maybe this way of learning is effective.

Thank you, Lucía. You really made my week!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Don't Shoot the Bear!

Don't Shoot the Bear is an interactive commercial for the brand of error correction products Tipp-Ex. Watch it:

I have used it today with a group of ten year olds and a group of thirteen year olds, and I am now going to use it with my Advanced class.

With the younger ones, I got them to write a list of action verbs on a piece of paper. I had not told them anything about the video. I then wrote on the board "A hunter shoots a bear", and elicited its meaning. I went on to rub out "shoots" and asked them if any of the verbs in their lists could go in its place. I told them that if necessary, they could add "with" so that the sentence would make sense, for example: A hunter plays with a bear. They then had to tick the verbs on their list that would be suitable in the sentence in question.

I then played the video and asked them for verbs with which to complete the sentence. It's really good fun and it gets them practising 3rd person singular "s" (although the sentence does not need to be grammatically correct for the videos to work). It also activates vocabulary as they try to think of as many different actions as possible to try out.

With the advanced students, I'm hopefully going to get something a bit more complex out of them. I will only accept grammatically correct sentences, and demand synonyms of really basic words. Maybe we could hypothesise about what will happen. We can discuss why the same video comes up when different verbs have been entered. We can look up different and alternative meanings in the dictionary. I haven't really decided exactly what we are going to do, I thought I would see what they came up with first.

I do think that this video has endless classroom possibilities though. It could be used as a stimulus for speaking or writing, the students could create a collaborative story about the hunter and the bear. Surely there must be plenty more ways in which we could use this video, so please add your ideas to the comments section to share with us all.

And whatever you do, DON'T SHOOT THE BEAR!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Autumn Days

Those of you who were at primary school in the eighties will probably remember the following assembly song, especially if you were in the recorder group like I was:

Autumn days when the grass is jewelled
And the silk inside a chestnut shell
Jet planes meeting in the air to be re-fuelled
All the things I love so well
So I mustn't forget
No I mustn't forget
To say a great big thank you
I mustn't forget.

Along with harvest festival celebrations where everyone took in a tin of Spam (when it was something to eat, rather than junkmail) and sang songs about crops and giving and thanking the Lord, autumn was a time for putting on your wellies and jumping in piles of leaves and puddles, smelling bonfires and playing conkers and doing leaf rubbings with wax crayons.

I wanted to allow my class of six-year-olds to feel the magic of those days, and relate to it. I wanted them to imagine they were in a park covered in fallen leaves, to run around and jump and play. To smell roast chestnuts, to feel the chilly autumn wind on their faces. To collect leaves and touch them, feel them, smell them. I wanted them to have a multisensory experience with sights, sound, smells and sensations. And all this in the classroom!

This is all part of the CLILing up of my youngest students. This summer I started working on a project to bring Content and Language Integrated Learning into my classroom. After trying out different course books for this age group and trying a materials free approach, I have come to the conclusion that neither is ideal. So why not do things that the children are really interested in? Topics that will motivate and engage. Tasks that are challenging not just because of the language involved but also for their content. This is what I am trying with one class of six-year-olds and at the moment it seems to be working.

Autumn is a mini.project that we have been doing over three lessons. The final lesson was dedicated to creating a display for our classroom. We had already done the leaf rubbings in the previous lesson and we spent yesterday deciding where to stick each leaf and recognising the written forms of the words we have learnt. Here are a couple of pictures of the display:

Creating a display can take some time and effort on the part of the teacher, but it gives the children a real sense of achievement when they see that their work is the backbone of a beautiful wall display. You can involve the children at all stages, in the planning of what to include and where, in the sticking, in handing out pins and adhesives and so on. The display is ours, we have created it as a class and it shows what we have been doing and what the children have been learning. It shows our progress and it is fun.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Teaching grammar to young learners is no easy task. Is there even any need for it? I'm not going to discuss the whys and wherefores right now, but if you want to read more about whether teaching grammar is necessary for young learners, read this post by Dave Dodgson on his blog Reflections of a Teacher and Learner.

In my school we use course books with young learners and in this case I am using Kids Box 2 by CUP, which is actually quite a nice course, with some fantastic songs, although it does present some vocabulary that may seem out of context (who eats water melon at a birthday party?). This is because the course is tailor-made to suit the Cambridge Young Learners' Exams (see this post of mine.) Yesterday's lesson was supposed to present learners with object pronouns - something that they don't even understand in Spanish. Of course, they use the object pronoun "me" without realising it, but I feared, actually explicitly explaining how to use these pronouns was not going to get us very far. The exercise in the book was a very flimsy affair which would be done wrong by all my students if I hadn't shown them the "grammar" beforehand. So how could I get the students using object pronouns correctly without writing lots of boring example sentences on the board and having them write their own?

This is what I did:

After showing them the forms of the object pronouns on a lovely colourful poster with children pointing to each other and speech bubbles saying things like "Give him the ball" I got out a bag of peanuts. Unsurprisingly, everyone started asking me for peanuts in Spanish, to which I replied that they would have to ask me in English if they wanted something. "Can I have a ......, please?" is the phrase they know for asking for things, but that wasn't going to help us with object pronouns, so I provided them with the not-so-polite "Give me a peanut, please!"

They all began shouting for peanuts using "Give me..." and I gave one to each child that asked for one.

I then wrote ME, YOU, HIM, HER, US, THEM on Post-It notes and stuck them along the edge of my desk, where they could be seen by everyone. I then placed several peanuts by each Post-It. I told them that if they wanted more peanuts they would have to come to the desk and ask for one, but they could only take one if they used the word on the note and used the peanut accordingly. For example, if they took a peanut from the HER pile, they would have to say "I give the peanut to her" and proceed by giving the peanut to a female friend. If they chose US, they would take two peanuts and keep one for themself and give one to a friend. And so on.

They loved the game and wanted to carry on playing when we had run out of peanuts! And they were all using object pronouns correctly! When we came to the exercise in their activity book, they had no problems.

It may have taken much longer than a simple explanation, but all the children were involved and engaged, and I think that they will remember what they learnt. I may even have created a cognitive cue with the peanuts - every time they see a monkey nut, will they be reminded of object pronouns?

You could do this with other personal pronouns, possessive adjectives and pronouns, or to practise teh possessive "s". You could use sweets or stickers or anything else instead of peanuts. One hint - if you do use peanuts, make sure nobody has an allergy to them first!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Young Learners Video Challenge!

As everyone seems to be busy completing various challenges (see Jason's Wandrous Whiteboard  and Karenne's Dogme Challenges ) I thought I would come up with my own!

One of my classes is a group of ten year olds who have been in our school for approximately two years.
Over the past couple of lessons we have been looking at different sports and their characteristics as well as how to express likes and dislikes. They wrote about their favourite sports, but I wanted them to practise speaking too, so I asked them if they would like to appear in a video that other children in different countries could see. This particular group are quite outgoing and very enthusiastic, and they love doing drama activities and projects to supplement the course book.

I wrote some prompts on the board to help them remember what kind of things they could say, such as:
I like... I don't like ... Most popular sport etc. They practised their speeches without the camera first, and most of them needed a couple of tries with the webcam recording as they got nervous and started laughing.

Here is the merged video:

They really enjoyed seeing themselves speak in English and I have suggested they try it at home too, so they can listen to their pronunciation.

What I would like to suggest is for those of you who teach young learners to do something similar. All you need is a computer or laptop with a webcam. I used the basic software that came with the webcam and then merged the videos online with a free application which does not allow editing or downloading but offers the HTML code for you to embed the video into your blog, and a link you can email to students, as well as being able to upload to youtube if you wish.

My students would love to see other children talking about their favourite sports. If you do decide to record your students, send me a link to the video and I will show it to my class. This could be a great collaborative project!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Call for Advice

This is a cry for help to my PLN.

                                          Photo by Simon Howden

It is not a nice feeling, after so many years of teaching, the one you get when you have no idea of how to help a student advance. It is a feeling of complete and utter exasperation. A feeling of uselessness and hopelessness. Thoughts of incompetence run through my mind. Why don't I know what to do? Why have I run out of ideas? It is so hard not to lose patience and blame the student as well as myself for not knowing how to overcome the problem. This is why I am asking you, my network of knowledgeable friends, for help.

The Student: a one-to one student in his early forties working for a company recently taken over by a British firm. Started in February as a False Beginner, had three months off over the summer and has started lessons again in October. Two hours per week.

The Course: using an elementary level course book as a source of general vocabulary and grammar as well as skills practice.

The Problem: The student has an elementary level of vocabulary and grammar structures and can understand written texts on a wide range of topics, however his listening skills are at beginner level. He can only comprehend spoken English at sentence level (on a good day) and freezes whenever a recording is played.

The Situation: The student has face to face contact several times a year with British visitors to the factory with whom he is expected to communicate. He needs to be able to understand and respond to native speakers socially whilst showing them around the factory.

How can we improve his listening skills in a short period of time? What kind of tasks can I give the student? One of the main problems is nerves. However much I try to get him to relax and just listen, this seems impossible. We have been working on pronunciation issues such as elision and sentence stress in order to make listening easier but at the end of the day, when another teacher comes into the classroom and asks him a basic question he just freezes.

So, please if you have or know of any ideas, tasks, links, websites or even books that may help, please let me know. How can I rid my student of the sensation of being thrown into a black hole whenever he hears English?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Halloween Spell Hunt

The Halloween Spell Hunt is an activity for children of elementary level upwards and requires relatively little preparation. Similar to a treasure hunt, the children must solve clues in order find each ingredient of a spell. I actually got the idea from the British Council's LearnEnglish Kids website  where you will find a game in which the children have to find each ingredient in a haunted house. Having no internet connection in the classroom, I wondered how I could adapt the game for my class of nine and ten year olds.

What you need to do before the lesson is prepare a set of clues. Choose five spell ingredients such as a lizard's tongue or a frog's eye and write descriptions of these creatures such as:

I am a reptile. I have got four legs and a long tongue. I live in hot places. What am I?

You also need to write a list of hiding places around the classroom or school, e.g. You can find me under the table. All the clues and hiding places should be photocopied and cut up into slips of paper (one for each team).

Divide the class into pairs or threes and give each team the first clue. When they have decided on the answer, they should come and tell you, and you give them the hiding place. For example, the answer to the clue above is LIZARD. When a team comes to you and says "lizard", give them the clue for where to find it. In this case, there should be a picture of a lizard or a lizard's tongue under the table. Make sure there are enough pictures as teams.

They then come to you for the following clue. The first team to find all the parts of the spell will then perform the spell for the rest of the class, choosing victims on whom to cast the spell from their classmates.

As well as being fun, the learners are also practising reading skills and language points such as prepositions of place and verbs in the present simple.

You can follow or preced this activity with spells from Boggles World's Spellbook or Potion Book

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Unplugged Moments #2

Having asked my FCE class what skill they wanted to practise in the following lesson, we were going to do some reading yesterday. However, I had had a very busy morning and didn't have a whole lot of time to find a suitable text and create a task for them to do. I then remembered that somewhere, hidden among all the folders, papers, toys and props that fill my classroom shelves, I had a bag full of sets of leaflets acquired from my local library/tourist information centre in Newcastle-under-Lyme several years ago! Great! I would just have to root them out and then try to think of a suitable task for FCE level - What? Think up a challenging task or set of questions for Upper-Int students on the spot? Hmm, not as easy as you may think, however many years experience of teaching FCE you may have.

The solution? Have the students help create the task themselves! What could be more unplugged that using student-created content? Of course the texts themselves were not created by the students, but they were real, authentic texts that are ideal to practise micro-skills such as skimming for gist and scanning for specific information.

I placed sets of leaflets, which all advertised tourist attractions, on tables around the classroom. I then wrote on the board "A day out" and asked the students to write on the board (a kind of wandrous whiteboard but on a specific topic). We then discussed what they had written and what kind of days out they preferred and why. Thanks to Cecilia Coelho for the idea of staying at the board for the discussion.

I then asked them to think of groups of people who may go together on an excursion. I started them off with the first two and they came up with the rest:

  1. A family of four with two children aged between 5 and 10
  2. A playschool trip of children aged 2 to 5
  3. A group of foreign tourists, adults and children
  4. A group of senior citizens
  5. A group of teenage friends
  6. A group of patients with psychological and emotional problems (!)
  7. Schoolchildren on a trip, aged 12 to 14
  8. A group of physically disabled children
They the had to look at all the different leaflets and decide which day out would be the best for each group of people. They would later have to explain their reasons.

The lessons was very successful, and much more interesting than a typical FCE reading task. It got the students skimming and scanning, reading lots of short texts (probably in total longer than an individual exam text) and they had to explain their reasons orally. We almost ran out of time, but I would have encouraged them to persuade each other to change their mind, had we had more time.

Call My Bluff

A fun way of revising vocabulary that gets students thinking about the meaning of the words AND using lots of English is the game Call My Bluff, which comes from a British TV show from the 80s where teams of celebrity contestants had to provide definitions of an obscure word and guess which was the correct definition.

This game must surely appear in some teacher's resource books, and many of you will have played it at some point. I think it is a good idea, however, to recap on some of the games and activities we have used in the past, as they may be new to some teachers, and often we try out so many new activities that we forget some of the older ones.

I decided to play this game with my elementary/Pre-Int adult class last night. I gave them all a copy of the unit one wordlist which appears in the teacher's book. In pairs, the students had to choose three words and write three definitions for each one, including the real definition. The wordlist includes definitions for each item of vocabulary, but I asked the students to use their own words so as not to give the game away. (The definitions were not of the language production level of the students). They could use dictionaries to check meanings and to look up words they would need for their definitions.

We then played the game. One student from each pair read out their word and the three definitions. Each pair chose A, B or C and was the given the correct answer. You can build up the atmosphere here if you wish by slapping the desk to create a drumroll.

I think the activity was very useful for this level, since they were using structures such as "This is used to ..." without being overtly presented with it. I was pleasantly surprised that some of the students tried to trick their classmates by providing a definition to a similar sounding word. One group defined the word "guess" as "a person who is invited", trying to confuse the class with the word "guest"! Another said that "contain" was "to say 1, 2, 3..." because it sounds similar to "counting". Clever students!

In all, the game gets students thinking about the meaning of words they have come across, in a fun way. It is also suitable for any level, except perhaps beginners.

Unplugged Moments #1

After all the recent discussions about Dogme in ELT, but not being brave enough to be an outright dogmeist, I have however become more relaxed over what goes on in my lessons and therefore have had a few "dogme moments" recently. My reasons for not being overly supportive of the whole unplugged approach (if that is the same as dogme, something I'm not entirely sure about), are many and I'm not going to go into those reasons here, at least not for the time being. Nonetheless, I would like to outline a some of these moments which have, in my opinion, made the lessons in question "better", or at least more student-centred.

The first of these moments is a case of emergent language. Not exactly language emerging from the students themselves but from the situation. I walked into the classroom last night after my coffee break, and noticed that one of the students had had a haircut. So after the usual "How are you today? Fine/Very well, thanks" (I must get round to providing them with some alternatives to this exchange!), I asked Rafa if he had had his hair cut, miming the action of hair cutting. As I had already imagined, the phrase was a new one for everybody, and I wrote "I have my hair cut" on the board, along with the words hairdresser and barber. I also wrote it in the past simple, with the sentence "Rafa had his hair cut at the weekend". One of the students asked what the difference was between "have my hair cut" and "cut my hair", to whom I gave a pair of scissors and said "Cut your hair!". Luckily he didn't actually do as I said, but explained that he used clippers to cut his own hair. We compared the different meanings of the two sentences before going on to think of some more examples where we would use the structure HAVE SOMETHING DONE such as "have your car repaired" or "have your house painted".

So we ended up looking at a grammatical structure that I hadn't planned on teaching. It just kind of emerged from the conversation. I pointed out to the students that this wasn't part of the lesson I had planned, but that it can be very useful to look at parts of language as they come up. I think that explaining this helps them accept a more relaxed approach, since many students in my teaching context are generally quite inflexible, and expect everything to be a certain way. Hopefully, they will be open to lots more dogme moments, as I believe that presenting students with new language that they actually need to talk about something at that moment, for a genuine reason, is more likely to be remembered and then used than language that appears in an artificial situation in a course book.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Babbling Blackboard

This post is in response to Jason Renshaw's Wandrous Whiteboard Challenge where the students create the content for part or all of the lesson. This is a great idea if you prefer a more unplugged approach, but also works well as a stimulus for discussion if you want your students to practise their speaking skills, or for encouraging students to look for and correct their own mistakes or to use peer correction.

I am not using an unplugged approach with any of the three classes with whom I tried out the wandrous whiteboard activity. In fact, all three are "exam classes" and are or will be either using a course book or a folder full of photocopied materials. The reason for using the activity was not the same with all three groups.

The first group of students I tried it out with are a teenage CAE class. There were only three students that day, and our course book has not yet arrived. I wanted to try something that would get them speaking, since they are not exactly the most talkative bunch of students I have ever met. They usually only give fairly short answers to questions, despite having the ability to express themselves perfectly in English. They are teenagers though, and are still shy or embarrassed to spend large amounts of time airing their opinions.  So I gave each student a piece of chalk at the beginning of the lesson, told them to write anything they wanted on the board, and left the room for five minutes.

This is what they came up with:

Advanced teenagers' babbling blackboard
We went on to discuss what they had written. José told us what he had learnt about the Illuminati and how he was going to buy a strategic board game of the same name, where the players have to try to control the world (scary!), and made a great effort to explain the technical drawing problem that he had drawn in order to help revise for an exam the following day (of which I understood very little, not due to a lack of communication skills on his part, but on a lack of knowledge of maths on mine!). We discussed the subject of technical drawing and a project-based subject they have at school, and later on we talked about drug use. We ended up having a 45 minute conversation in which all three students and myself contributed interesting points. It was a nice way to have everyone talk in a relaxed situation, with nobody feeling put on the spot.

(By the way, the sentence about moles digging holes was written by a colleague of mine! It did spark off some discussion as to what he had meant though, and one of the students ended up going to ask him what it was about.)

I wanted to use the activity in a similar way with my FCE teens towards the end of the lesson, but we didn't really have enough time to talk about many of the things they had written. In any case, the activity turned out to be more of a vocabulary recycling exercise, as the girls wrote down all the new words they had come across in that lesson, and previous classes. Here is a diagram of their babbling blackboard:

The last class of the evening is a new adult group who want to prepare for the PET exam. However, their level is generally a high elementary, with a couple of exceptions. Many of them haven't studied English since they finished school, and find it difficult to express themselves. We are currently looking at lots of vocabulary, in the hope that this will reach those areas of the brain in which they stored the language from their schooldays! In any case, right at the start of last night's lesson I gave each student a piece of chalk and asked them to write anything they wanted on the board. This is what they wrote:

Plenty of error correction to work on there! I read out each sentence and asked the class if they thought it was grammatically correct. If not, what should we change? They recognised all the errors apart from one, and were able to correct them. I then started asking questions about each sentence to generate a bit of a class discussion, although they are very shy still and it ended up being a question and answer session! The only grammar point they did not know was the use of the present continuous for future plans. Without wanting to explain too much, I went on to ask questions about what the students were doing later that night, at the weekend and so on, encouraging the use of "I'm".

In each case then, and depending on the level, the babbling blackboard was used in a different way. For higher levels as a base for conversation, but with lower levels to focus on grammar or vocabulary.

How would you use this activity?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Trapped Underground! - a creative writing task

I have a small group of teenage FCE students who like to do a piece of writing for homework once a week. I usually set them an exam type task since they need practice in writing reports, articles, essays and formal letters. However, sometimes I set them something freer - there is nothing that dampens the imagination more than a FCE task to write yet another story that must begin or end the story with the sentence "it was the worst day of my life".

So after reading some fantastic stories they had written with the only instructions "write a story about whatever you want with no maximum word limit", I decided to give them another creative piece to do.

The piece they are going to write this weekend is this:

Imagine you are one of the Chilean miners trapped underground. Write a diary entry explaining your feelings, hopes and fears.

First we discussed the situation - what the students knew (very little since they don't seem to read newspapers or watch the news very often) and I explained basically what had happened and what was ocurring at the moment (the rescue operation). We then brainstormed vocabulary that we might need to talk about the topic. This involved words to talk about mining, escape and rescue, and started a discussion on how one might feel when trapped 700m below the surface.

I hinted that the students might like to look on the internet to find out what the freed miners have said about their experince to help them.

I am really looking forward to reading their accounts of being in the mine. I will post the best pieces here next week.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Queuing in the Supermarket!

Which queue do you choose when you only have a few items in your basket? The "Ten items or fewer" or the standard checkout? In the former there are at least eight people each with their basket of nine or ten items, each of whom has to put all their shopping onto the conveyor belt, pay (probably by card) and put it all away. In the latter there are three customers with their trolleys brimming with goods. Which queue is the quickest? What a dilemma!

This is a blog about teaching and it may be useful to explain that yesterday, whilst deciding which queue to join, I realised that I could make an analogy between this situation and a learning situation. You are probably wondering what on earth I am going on about and I may seem a bit mad (especially since I was thinking about ELT in the supermarket!). Well, here goes:

The two queues in question represent two different types of language course. The "ten items or fewer" is the typical intensive course where learners spend time every day in the classroom. The "normal" queue is the traditional 3 hour per week course imparted in most private language institutions in Europe.

The former means that learners have more exposure to the language in a shorter amount of time. They are focused, motivated and can easily see their progression. The latter does not have the advantages of the short intensive course, but it has something else that I think is important: time to reflect and internalise the language.
As I often tell my teenage students, last minute studying is not the best way to go about your exams. Information studied over a short period of time is quickly forgotten. Could the same be true of intensive learning? Will a student who has spent two months having English lessons for fifteen hours a week have learnt more than one who has had three hours a week for nine months? Or will this student have forgotten what they have learnt within a few months? I have not read any research on this (of which I am sure there is plenty) but it is something that I would like to hear your views on.

So which queue would you choose?

Monday, October 4, 2010

To cheat or not to cheat?

Photo borrowed from

Last week my tween students were asking me if they would have to do exams. Now our school does not enforce any kind of formal assessment. The students (under 18) get a report card every term with a mark for each area of learning and behaviour. For this reason, with some classes teachers may set a progress test once per term, which helps with grading, especially with grammar.I am not a great fan of testing, personally, and if I do set a test I take the marks into account when writing reports, but don't use them if they are very different from how the student performs in class.

Anyway, when they asked me about exams, I decided to say yes, we would have tests from time to time, to see how everyone was improving their English. I then heard some of the kids talking about cheating, sneaking in notes (which in Spanish are called chuletas - yes, chops as in pork chops!), to which I responded loudly that in these tests they would be able to bring in 'chuletas'. There was a lot of mumbled discussion then of whether I was telling the truth or not, so I explained that in their tests they would be able to take in notes, however the test would be slightly more difficult than usual and they would not be allowed to speak. I read this somewhere in the blogosphere recently, sorry can't remember where and I can't find it now!

Anyway, to whoever it was who came up with the idea of allowing students to look at their notes in exams, thank you!

The reason for allowing students to "cheat" is that if they are allowed to take in notes, but not their books, they will need to prepare these notes beforehand. This means that they will be revising for the test without even realising it. They will be revisiting new vocabulary and structures that they have come across earlier in the term, without having the feeling that they are studying for a test. They will also be more relaxed before and during the test, hopefully with better results!

What do you think of this idea?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Pimp My Ride: an activity to practise comparatives and superlatives

I actually got the original Pimp My Ride lesson idea from a colleague named Will Hebbron during summer school many moons ago. In this lesson the students were given a basic black and white picture of a car which they then had to "pimp" or "tunear" as it is known in Spain. They had to change the entire look of the car by adding spoilers, wings, tinting windows, adding a cool design to the paintwork and so on. They also had to list the characteristics of their car including any special features it may have had. This was done as a project type lesson, the main aim being communication in L1 and collaboration in groups.

This afternoon my class of thirteen-year-olds are going to be revising comparative and superlative adjective forms. After the usual course book exercises, I wanted to do something a bit more fun with them. What could we do to practise comparatives and superlatives in a way that they would enjoy? Well after actually seeing an episode of the real "Pimp My Ride" tv show on MTV last night, I remembered the activity in question. However, we don't have time to waste colouring in large pictures of cars, so I decided to slightly alter the activity and have them design their own car, in pairs. In each pair, one will be responsible for the design of the car and the other will work on the characteristics. Here are screenshots of the worksheets I have just created:

Fairly self explanatory I think. They have a sample advert to look at first, and I will make sure they understand horse power and engine size (not that I really understand it myself!).

When everyone has finished, which may have to be in the following lesson, we will stick all the worksheets on the wall around the classroom. The students will look at all the pictures and information and decide:
Which car is the fastest?
Which car is the most expensive?
Which car is the biggest?
Which car is the most beautiful?
Which car is the most fashionable?
Which car is ther most sporty?
and so on.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Killing Two Birds with One Stone

I just had a brainwave as I was getting ready for work! I was wondering how I was going to get my group of young teenagers to sit with people other than their friends. Although the boys are starting to have an interest in girls, they still aren't very happy about sitting next to and working with them, but if I want them to work well and not waste time I am going to have to mix them up. I don't want to create a formal seating plan, and in any case, I would rather they changed places every lesson and had the chance to work with everybody.

The idea I have just come up with probably isn't a new one, in fact I've tried similar things with children in the past, but it combines moving students around and vocabulary revision (i.e. killing two birds with one stone!).
This is how it works:

Before the lesson, choose a topic that the students have been studying recently and make a list of words from that lexical set, making sure there is one for each student in the class. You will need two copies of each word. Then, assign each word to a chair. You could write or print out the word in large letters and stick it onto the back of the chair, or you could find a picture illustrating the word and stick that on or above the chair. Then, fold up the second set of words (these should be on small pieces of paper) and put them in a hat or box.
As each student comes into the classroom, they must take a piece of paper from the hat and find their chair. This will be their place for the whole lesson. If they are to work in pairs or groups, they will be with the person or people next to them.

You can do this every day. It will help the learners get used to changing place and working with different people and it is useful revision of vocabulary. If you don't want to revise that many words every lesson, why not use pictures of famous people like Myley Cyrus (Hannah Montana) or Cristiano Ronaldo?

Try it!

Teaching T(w)eens Part 3 - Social Networking

In the first part of this mini series of posts I explained an idea I had for the first lesson of a group of thirteen year old students: Part 1

This involved asking the learners to think about their interests and likes, what type of activities they would like to do in class and what they need to work on. They came up with lots of typical ideas such as listening to songs, watching videos, sports and so on, but I was surprised to see that a few of them were interested in history and one even mentioned politics! Not that I plan on discuccing politics with a group of 13 year olds - I would have no idea on how to go about that! However, their thoughts have given me something to consider while planning their lessons. We are using a course book, but I would like to supplement that with tasks and activities that really interest the learners. Something else I am going to try with them is peer teaching (see this post on the topic). This afternoon we will be looking at the overview to the next module of study, which lists all the activities they will do for the four main skills. I am going to ask them to tick the ones they like and to choose their favourite. Then I will form small groups of students with the same answer and tell them that they are going to be the teachers for that particular lesson, giving them time in future lessons to prepare adequately.

But this post isn't about learner participation or autonomy, it is about social networking. Now, I have had a Facebook account for around five years, which I use personally rather than professionally. I use Twitter to keep up with ELT news. However, I have never used either of these with my students (yet). To be honest, I would not share my personal Facebook with my students as it would be sharing too much of my personal and past life, although I may consider opening a new account for this purpose in the future. Anyway, the majority of my students don't actually use Facebook, but a Spanish social networking site calle Tuenti.

I have just opened a Tuenti account ofr the purpose of communicating outside the classroom with my students. Last year I tried to set up an Email in English scheme with a teenage FCE class. Most of them opened a Gmail account as specified, in order to be able to use the online chat, however none of them EVER replied to the emails I sent, I only chatted with one student ONCE who is the same student that sent me her homework via email ONCE. The problem? Teenagers don't seem to use email! And why should they? The only people they want to keep in touch with are their friends, all of whom are on Tuenti, which is a much more interesting place than boring email. You can read people's status, see their photos, send them short messages and so on.

So, after giving up last year on the whole email business, I have decided to use Tuenti. If I can manage to get them all to add me as a friend (I wonder if THEIR personal lives aren't too secret to share with their thirty-something English teacher), then hopefully I will be able to engage them in English communication outside of class time. I have set up a Page called Exam English for the FCE and CAE classes where we will all be able to share links to videos, photos, songs and websites. We will be able to write on each other's Wall (or whatever it is called in Tuenti) and basically socialize in English. This is what I'm hoping for anyway!

I am also considering trying this out with my group of tweens. Supposedly, in order to use Tuenti you must be 14 years of age, but I'm sure some of the kids will have got around this minor detail. This afternoon I will bring up the topic and see how many are interested in using social networks. If they do use Tuenti, I will set up another page for them. If not, I wonder if they would be interested in a blog?

Do you have experience using social networks or blogs with young teenagers?

Monday, September 20, 2010

First Lessons: Teaching T(w)eens Part 2 - What they came up with

In my last post I spoke about an activity to use with a new group of young teenagers, where they are given the opportunity to tell me what they are interested in. Here are some of the results, in no particular order:

Likes and Interests

Sports          Computer games          Shopping          Reading          Watching TV          Talking to friends

Drawing        Listening to music         Girls                Chatting on MSN                          Football

Basketball      Justin Bieber               Technology       Art                   History

Preferred Class Activities

Playing Combiletter (a word game)
Listening to songs
Talking to my friends (one can imagine that this would be in Spanish)
Watching a film/video
Talking about interesting things (whatever they are!)
Speaking to girls (Yes, a new obsession has appeared over the summer for one boy!)

Topics to study in class

Famous People
World news



The Doodle Space didn't give too much away, but I did discover that we have a very talented artist in the class! I also got the impression that quite a few of the kids like drawing Manga style characters. Being allowed to draw while they worked seemed to give them the impression that the activity was more fun. I monitored closely to make sure they were all actually working and not just doodling, helping out with ideas where necessary.

Hopefully I will be able to draw on this information to provide more motivating activities to use to supplement our course book.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

First Lessons: Teaching T(w)eens Part One

I only have one new group this year as I really wanted to continue teaching last year's classes. This new group has been learning English at the school for around four years and I'm guessing they are somewhere around the Pre-Intermediate level. They are about thirteen years old, which can be a difficult age group to deal with, especially if the first day doesn't get off to a good start.

I have titled this post First Lessons: Teaching T(w)eens because although these learners are actually teenagers in their own right, many of them still have the maturity of an eleven year old. I don't really know the kids in question, having never taught them previously, but I get the impression that they are more "tween" than "teen". They don't seem to be at all interested in the opposite sex yet, which is probably a good thing, even though this usually makes it difficult to pair up girls and boys.

So after this bit of background about the students (although after today I may have to rewrite this post) I was thinking of what to do in the first lesson.

I thought of doing the typical "rules" lesson, so that everyone is aware of what is expected and permitted of them, but maybe they are a bit old to enjoy thinking up rules, after all, teenagers are there to bend or break them. I don't want to play games with them, except maybe as a bit of vocabulary revision from last year, as I want to start off the term in the way I want to continue - and that will not be playing too many games! I don't want to get right back into where they left off in their course book either - it is the first day (and their first proper day back at school).

So after a bit of umming and ahhing, this is what I've decided to do:

I'm going to give each learner a sheet of paper and a pen and I'm going to tell them to write down anything that they would like to do throughout the course. I will give them the following titles to start them off on the right track:

  • Things I like doing.
  • Activities, people and places I'm interested in.
  • Things I enjoy doing in class.
  • Topics I would like to study in class.
  • Problems I have with English.
  • Doodle space.
The students will divide the piece of paper into six sections, each with one of the titles above. They will then have around ten minutes to write something in each section. After that, they will talk together in groups and share ideas. This will let them write down ideas that they hadn't originally thought of themselves but that they would like to include. I will take in the papers at the end and make a list on the board, giving the class an idea of some of the topics and activities we may be doing alongside the course book.

What about the doodle space? you may ask. Let me ask you a question. How many times have you set a free-ish task such as this one only to see half the class chewing on their pencils with a blank piece of paper on their desks? My point is made! It can be difficult to get started, and the doodle space is there to give the students some thinking time, allowing them to write or draw anything that comes into their head. This may be an idea that they can then put into one of the other sections, or it may just help them to focus on the task.

The doodle space is actually a double-edged sword, since it also has another function - doodles can show what really interests someone. The learners may have likes and interests that they don't want to write down for others to see, or things that they don't even realise they like! Tweens are very conscious of what is accepted by their peers - if they write down "Hannah Montana" and the rest of the class thinks she is too babyish, they will be mortified. However, if in the doodling section they include the lyrics to one of Hannah's songs, no-one will even notice. They may also write "I hate Hannah Montana" in which case I know never to bring up the topic in class! (By the way, I have nothing personal against HM, I even had her calendar up last year in the classroom!). It also gives me the chance to see who the class artists are, and who prefers writing.

The other sections are, I think, quite self-explanatory. Having students think about both what they like and what they like to do in class gives me a wider view of their personalities. Getting them to think about the parts of English they have difficulties with gives me an idea of what they need to work on. Asking them what they would like to do is actually allowing them to negotiate a small part of the syllabus. I will substitute some of the exercises from their course book with the activities they have chosen.

Finally, I will have a piece of writing from them on the first day (even if it is only notes) which can serve as a diagnostic tool, allowing me to see what their writing skills, their vocabulary and possibly grammar are like.

See the results here.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Motivating teenage exam classes: an autonomous approach

A few months ago I wrote an article about learner autonomy, which, for those of you who subscribe to MET magazine, appears in the July issue. One of the practical ideas I spoke about for encouraging learner autonomy is a take on "peer teaching".
Peer teaching means that the students are the teachers for a period of time. This could be ten minutes at the beginning or end of a lesson up to a whole lesson. The idea is that the learners choose the lesson focus, possibly from a list that you give them, and find a way to present and practise this content.

With teens, who may be going through a difficult period of self consciousness, this type of approach has to be considered carefully. It really depends on the learners themselves: How shy or outgoing are they? What kind of relationship do they have with one another? Are there any particularly reserved members of the class?

As the typical answers to these questions would generally make it difficult for students to get up in front of the class and present a lesson or activity, the best way of going about peer teaching with this age group is to put students into groups. Ideally the groups should have a healthy mix of different types of learners such as boys and girls, stronger and weaker students, shy and more outgoing people, students with different interests and learning styles. Having variety in a group helps the dynamics and creativity of the results.

I am going to present the following idea to my group of FCE teenagers tomorrow in their first lesson of the new school year.

Each group of students is going to be responsible for one lesson per term.
Each group will choose a different subject as the basis for their lesson. It could be based on a grammar point, a vocabulary topic, or a specific exam skill (e.g. Use of English Part 2).
Each group will spend some time in class to prepare their lesson.
Each member of the group will have a role to fulfil and an area to work on.
Each group will receive a valuation for how they have worked both as a group and individually, as well as a mark from the other learners.

The idea is that including the students in the design process of their course will highly motivate them. They will feel great when there classmates have understood something they didn't before thanks to their presentation or explanation. They will become more involved in decision making and take responsibility for their own and their classmates' learning. They will also improve cognitive skills such as evaluating, decision making, explaining, planning and summarizing.

Would anybody like to try this out as a parallel experience with me and discuss how they get on?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Back to School: 5 things to do before the first day

It's that time of year again - the start of a new school year. You're feeling refreshed after the summer break and are raring to go, brimming with enthusiasm and you just can't wait to get back into the classroom. Well, maybe I am exaggerating slightly, but most teachers who enjoy their jobs are looking forward to starting a new year. However, this enthusiasm can wane over the first few weeks, especially if your new timetable isn't what you had hoped or if that class that last year's teacher raved on about doesn't live up to your expectations.

There are, nontheless, some things you can do to get off to a good start, to try to get the most out of your students so that both you and the class enjoy their lessons and which will help keep everyone motivated and keen.

1) Prepare the classroom.
Spending an hour or two getting the classroom looking decent before the first day is more important than it may seem. For new students, one of the first thing they will notice is the classroom. Make sure that it at least looks clean and tidy, even if the cleaner hasn't been in yet. Set out the tables and chairs in a way that looks inviting and relaxed. Make sure the windows are open and are letting in enough natural light (for daytime lessons). Hide any paintwork defects or stains on the walls with posters or students' work from the previous year. Decorate the walls in whatever way you prefer - with motivational posters, grammar posters, paintings, student displays. I find student displays to be a real motivator with new students as they often admire the work and show willingness to do something similar.

2) Have all books, CDs and materials ready.
This may sound like an obvious one but very often on the first day you forget something and have to go out  to get it, often meaning that the lesson will start slightly late. Not a good first impression! And if you work with young learners it is all the more important - you need to be there, setting an example of punctuality and organisation. If you are using photocopies, make sure you have extra copies. It is very common in private language schools to have students enrolling 5 minutes before the first lesson. Rather than saying that you have to pop out to get a copy because you weren't expecting two extra students, just make two or three extra copies beforehand- don't worry about wasting paper because you can always reuse them as scrap paper!

3) Get the temperature right.
Maybe something for the maintenance man, but making sure the classroom is at a suitable temperature before the students arrive is essential. If you live in a country where the temperature is still 35º C in September, putting the air-conditioning on ten minutes before the lesson is due to start is a good idea. The same goes for heating in colder climates. A suitable room temperature is absolutely essential for high concentration. Students should not feel hot nor cold, as any feeling of discomfort will distract them.

4) Have water available.
This may seem like a luxury, but in a hot country it is important to drink plenty of fluids. If there is no drinks machine in your school, ask your boss if the budget could stretch to a couple of bottles of water per day. If not, bring in water and plastic cups yourself, or ask parents to send their children with individual bottles. Dehydration can drastically lower concentration and sense of well-being. Imagine being really thirsty. Now imagine you are in a classroom. Would you really be able to concentrate on a presentation of the present perfect? Or would you be thinking "I'm really thirsty and if I don't have a drink in one minute I'm going to die!" Point taken?

5) Have everything planned.
Ok, so this is no surprise either. However, many of us don't actually plan much for the first day because we haven't met the students. Of course it is important to adapt a course to the needs of the students, but you should have an idea of what you are going to teach them throughout the year. And even if you haven't yet chosen a course book, have the first lesson properly planned. Explain to the students that you are going to
choose a book specifically for their needs. Don't let them go through the lesson thinking that they haven't got a book, they don't know what the course objectives are and that the teacher doesn't know what he or she is doing. They won't turn up for the second lesson. Even if you prefer the dogme approach, at least explain this to your students. In my experience with Spanish learners at least, students like to have some kind of structure and want to know what they will be doing. They also like to look over things again at home, so if you can give them an outline of the course objectives as early as possible, they will be happy. Like I mentioned before, the first impression counts, and a teacher turning up with no materials on the first day asking the students a few questions and setting up a load of "get to know you" activities does not cause a brilliant one.

I hope these points are useful - I'm actually really just giving myself a reminder of what to do next week but I thought I would share them. If you have any other ideas on what to do before the first day, don't hesitate to post them in the comments section.

Have a great start to the new school year, fellow teachers!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Your Virtual English Friend

Having just watched a short video of the Microsoft's presentation of their "virtual human", I started thinking how this technology could change language learning.

Milo is a virtual boy. You see him on your TV screen. He will do as you command, but he's not just a character in a computer game. Milo actually responds to your oral commands, answers your questions and interacts with objects that you give him. In the video the girl passes Milo a drawing she has just done on a piece of paper and he take sthe paper from her and responds. Now, doesn't that seem incredible? We can't pass objects through the TV screen! Of course, the paper itself doesn't leave the girl's hand, but an exact replica of the piece of paper is scanned and it's data sent to Milo. The player and Milo interact and this interaction is so much more realistic than in previous video games because facial expressions and body langauge are so successfully portrayed. When the girl asks Milo about his homework, he acquires a sheepish expression. I have no idea how this technology works, and I'm sure that when it is released as a game it will not be anywhere near as effective or realistic as in this demonstration (just like most video game adverts and demos) but even if it does half of what we expect, it can be exploited in many different areas, not just entertainment.

Imagine you have your own English friend with whom you can converse, play games and explore. For a learner of English this is a brilliant opportunity to practise the language. Learners who live in a country where English is not spoken by most people can have great difficulties in practising the language outside of class. With somebody like Milo in their XBox, they can have a fairly realistic experience of interacting with a real English boy. This will surely interest children and teenagers, but I think a similar product could be developed for adults too. Imagine a "game" where you have to negotiate with a board of businessmen who react and respond to everything you say. To be honest, the possiblities are endless.

Let's just hope that one day soon this technology is released into the market, and at a reasonable price. Then we will all be able to have our own mini English friend!

The article from BBC News here 

Wiki Wiki (not Waka Waka)

I have just created my very first class wiki! The wiki is one of the free educational wikis wikispaces are giving away at the moment.

I am currently designing a programme for one of my young learners' groups for next year, for which I have decided against having a course book. The programme is based tasks and activities related to different areas of the primary curriculum. Since the children will have no book to take home and show their parents, I decided to create a wiki which the parents will be able to access and see some of the work their children are doing in class, as well as helping them practise what they have learnt at home. The idea of involving parents in learning is not new one, however it is one that can be difficult to implement, especially when you only teach the children for two hours a week. Parents show much more interest in mainstream education and often they treat their after school English lessons as a bit of a hobby or babysitting service. For this reason I will send out a letter to all parents, explaining what a wiki is and how it will be used, and asking them to participate. Hopefully, in this way we will see a bit more interest in what the children are doing, on the part of their parents.

The wiki in question will have a page per topic; meaning that approximately every month a new page will be set up. On that page I plan to upload some of the children's work including drawings, photos and videos for all the parents to see. The wiki will be private and only those with a password will be able to access it. Parents with passwords will be able to log on and help their child answer questions and complete tasks that I leave on the page. Parents will also be able to comment on what we have been doing.

I really hope that this way parents will be encouraged to participate actively in their child's learning, whether it is just showing an interest, or actually doing extra practice with their child.

Has anybody else set up a wiki for young children? I would love to hear about how it went and any suggestions you may have.
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