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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Fun at the Fair!

Living in AndalucĂ­a, one of the most important weeks of the year (after Holy Week) is approaching: the feria, or fair. In Jerez, where I live, the fair is considered to be far better than the more famous Feria de Abril in Seville and the local ladies spend hundreds on their new frilly flamenco dresses and impossibly high heels, enormous earrings and the like, and the kids are all completely over-excited because they get to go on rollercoasters and dodgems and the ferris wheel.

So the days during the run up to the fair it is impossible to get any work out of the younger students and your typical course book lesson goes out the window. Here are a few activities I do with my youngest learners, to take advantage of their excitement and enthusiasm.

First, I ask them to supply words about the fair. This is usually in L1 since they don't have the vocabulary to do so in English. I write up their suggestions on the board. I then show them some pictures of different fairground attractions (big wheel, carousel, dodgems, roller coaster, ghost train, haunted house) as well as candy floss, horses (in Jerez it is The Horse Fair), girls dressed up in flamenco dresses dancing "sevillanas". I then drill the vocabulary with them, doing different picture activities such as: point and say, what's the missing picture?, run and touch, the "corner" game.

We then walk in a line around the classroom chanting  or singing this little song I made up (to the tune of The Farmer's in the Den):

We're going to the fair
We're going to the fair
 We're going to have lots of fun
 We're going to the fair

I then ask the children what they are going to go on?  "I'm going to go on the big wheel", "I'm going to dance sevillanas" etc.
We then go on to mime the different activities, which they love. We all go on the ghost train together, me at the front and the children all hanging on behind, me going "woooo woooo"; we drive round in dodgems, all bumping into each other; we go on the big wheel, crouching down and standing up tall and looking at all the imaginary tiny people down below; we go into the haunted house, all in darkness, and get frightened by the monsters (me - roaring); we dance sevillanas; we ride horses; and best of all, we go on the rollercoaster, slowly creeping up to the top only to rush down the other side screaming!

After all this excitement, comes a calm down period, where we sit and discuss our favourite parts of the fair. I sometimes get them to draw pictures and label the rides, or tell me the names, if they can not yet read.

With children that have started reading in English, you can make a wordsearch or crossword with some of the vocabulary.

Monday, April 26, 2010


I recently watched an interview with the wonderful Carol Read on the subject of praise. Carol is in my opinion THE authority on young (primary age) learners and so when I saw her name on the interviewees list, I clicked straight on the video link (

Carol focuses on the use of praise with young learners, explaining about how to use praise in order to give encouragement and to build up children's self esteem as well as to help with classroom management and deal with behavioural problems, without going overboard and using too much praise, making it empty and meaningless. I don't want to go into too much detail, as you can see the video for yourselves.

However, this interview got me thinking about the use of praise with teenagers and adults. When we think about praise, we automatically think of children, since they seem to need a certain amount of praise and they are constantly demanding it, by asking the teacher if their work is OK, if they can have a tick and so on. But what about older students? You will rarely find a sixteen-year-old directly asking for praise, but there may be indirect signs which we as teachers must learn to interpret. For example, a teenager who answers questions when no-one else does may secretly be hoping for a "good" from the teacher. I find my FCE students looking for a "well done" when I give them back their writing tasks, and see their disappointment when they see a "good effort" which they interpret to be a mediocre result.  Most teenagers have many insecurities and lack self-esteem and confidence in  their abilities and therefore maybe need some sort of praise more than any other age group. Nevertheless, we must be very careful not to make the praise too obvious or selective since this can have the opposite effect. Peer pressure may make it uncool to be a model student, so I think private praise could be the solution. On written work, think carefully about the comments you write as using the right words can be an excellent method of encouragment. However, as Carol mentions in her interview, it can be much more effective to praise the different elements of a piece of work such as the planning and ideas, as well as the linguistic aspects. Give praise for good paragraphing, or the use of different vocabulary and structures. Notice the work that has gone into the piece; with practise you will be able to quickly tell when an essay has been rushed and when some thought has gone into it at the planning stage. As for other types of work, if you do not want to openly praise your students, write them little notes at the end of the lesson mentioning anything they did especially well. They will probably want to compare them with their classmates but if everyone gets one, there should be no problem with this.

Now, what about adults? I feel that we neglect adults because we think that they don't need praise, but surely this isn't true. I am convinced, when I think about it, that adults need just as much praise as younger learners, they just don't show it. Think of an elementary group of adults. These learners don't have enough English to express themselves well; they get stuck, they get frustrated when they can't understand or make themselves understood, and all we do is tell them not to worry, we try to encourage and motivate them to keep trying and we may even put words in their mouths for them, but how often do we say "excellent" or "you are doing really well!"? And as we go up through the levels, we give less and less praise. With an advanced class, we already have high expectations (maybe too high) and assume that these learners know how well they are doing and don't need to be told so.

Adults are actually the biggest drop outs of evening classes. We must understand that they have many other commitments like work and families and they could be making sacrifices to come to their English lessons. When these people feel that they are not progressing enough, or that they are simply not good language learners, they drop out. It is then, more important than ever to show learners how they are doing and give them support and praise when necessary.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Topic of the month: Natural Disasters

Most course books at Intermediate or FCE level have a chapter or unit devoted to the topic of natural diasters or extreme weather, and I think it can be much more sensible to study these topics when an event of this kind has recently occurred. Most adults watch the news or read a newspaper, and even many children also see images of what is happening in the world, and to me it seems far more  natural to discuss these things as they take place, rather than when you get to that chapter in the book, as it makes the topic much more interesting and personal. After the recent eruption in Iceland, (and of course Haiti) most learners (of any age) will have seen some images on TV and will want to discuss them. It is far better to look at a topic about which everyone has something to contribute, than the one that appears in your couse book on the next page just because you are following the book from front to back cover.

So this week (in Europe, at least) could be a good time to talk about volcanoes, possibly leading on to other natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis.This kind of topic is interesting for all age groups from small children to the elderly, and there are plenty of resources on the internet that you can use. Here are some I have found:

Great for CLIL but suitable for any class are these presentations on how volcanoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and tsunamis are caused.

Lots of links here for Primary learners:

Some wonderful ideas on the British Council site:

Nice listening activities by Adrian Tennant on Onestopenglish:

If you have access to the internet in your school (for students) you could create a webquest where learners have to find out the answers to a set of questions. If, like for me, such resources are unavailable, you could print out texts about different disasters which you could then hide around the school or classroom making a kind of treasure hunt out of the activity. Each pair or group should get only one question at a time (it is best to stagger the groups by giving them a different question each) to which they have to find the answer, like a reading race. You could even bring in audio so that it is not just practising reading, having some of the answers in a recorded text. You could use the one provided by Adrian Tennant, or download a podcast from a new website. In fact, you could also include puzzles like anagrams of vocabulary or crosswords that they have to complete as part of the quest. All this may take quite a bit of planning, but it should certainly make for a fun and productive lesson.

The topic can be a good one for practising modal verbs with elementary students, having them design posters or leaflets giving advice and recommendations for what to do in an emergency situation like an earthquake or severe flooding.

Please feel free to send in any good ideas that have worked well with your students on this topic, especially with YLs.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Psychiatrists: a good game for practising questions

This is a well known game in Spain, but I had never thought of using it in class until my teenage students asked if they could play it. It is a typical group guessing game where some of the players know the rules but others are unaware and have to guess what is going on.

You will need to have the class sitting in a circle (or semi circle if you lack space). Some of the students must go out of the room while you explain how to play the game. These students are the "psychiatrists". These students must never have played the game before (it is better if they are stronger students). The others are patients. Tell the patients that they have an illness. This is usually that they think they are the person sitting to their right (but if you want to play the game on other occasions, change this every time e.g, the person sitting opposite, to the left, two to the right etc).

Then, invite the psychiatrists back into the room and tell them that they must diagnose their patients by asking questions. The patients must answer as if they were the person to their right, e.g to the question: Are you wearing jeans? If the person to your right is wearing jeans, say yes. Students must be careful not to look at this person as this will give the game away. If the patient does not know the answer to a question, they must shout "psychiatrist!" and everbody changes places. If a question is too revealing, any player can shout "psychiatrist" at which point everbody, again, changes seats.

The game continues until the psychiatrists correctly diagnose the illness.

This game can be played at any level; at higher levels make sure the students ask more complex questions using different tenses, the passive etc.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Play it again, Teacher!

After so many years in Spain, I may have forgotten what it is like to be in the presence of a group of people and not understand a single word of what they are saying. Having my mum over for a few days, I have realised how unpleasant it can be for someone to be in the company of people who speak a different language. That feeling of overwhelming frustration and annoyance and even paranoia you get when everyone seems to be laughing and you have no idea of what's going on. Trying to put myself in my mum's shoes, I got a faint recollection of how I used to feel for the first few months I spent here, with a group of Spanish friends. Despite actually speaking the language quite well even in those days, whenever I found myself sitting at a table with more than two or three other people I suddenly became unable to understand what anyone was talking about. On a one to one basis I was fine, but put me in a group and they could have been speaking Mongolian for all I knew. All this got me thinking about some of my students and their inability to understand listening extracts or videos, even those that are below their productive level.

As teachers, we have usually forgotten about our own experiences of language learning, and blocked out those unpleasant memories of being in a classroom with another 30 students all trying to make out what is being said on a tiny taperecorder placed unstrategically on the teacher's desk at the front of the classroom. Maybe you were lucky and had a language laboratory with individual headphones, but it was rare to do any listening comprehension at all, at least in my French class, and when we did it was a recording of Mrs Rowlands speaking in her lovely Potteries accent.

Teaching methodologies have changed a lot over the past couple of decades and we now force plenty of natural sounding English conversations and interviews down the ears of our students, whether it is still on a cassette player, a CD or if you are "modern" like me (that's what my students say when I get the equipment out) an MP3 player with portable speakers. But however good the equipment and acoustics of the room, unless our students are well prepared for what they are going to listen to, the exercise will be useless. Put yourself in the situation my mum was in last week, sitting on a bar terrace having a drink with me and seven Spaniards, not knowing the language. Even if she did speak Spanish, what would the chances be of her understanding what we were all talking about? She doesn't know any of the people or places mentioned, and has little knowledge of what we do every weekend or what kinds of things we discuss. Now put yourself in the place of your students. They know they are going to listen to a recording, but unless they are given some clues as to what it is going to be about, they are unlikely to understand a thing and the whole activity will be pointless.

So, what can we do to make listening comprehension tasks more productive? Firstly, it is vital to provide some information about the context. How many people will speak? Who are they and what relationship do they have with each other? Where are they? What are they going to talk about? You can do this by explaining the situation, you can provide a photo of the interlocutors (which often appears in the coursebook) or you could get your students to ask you questions which they think will help them with the listening task. Secondly, make sure it is clear what students have to do. What information do they have to listen for? Are there any questions they have to answer? Where are the questions? Which exercise do they have to complete? This may all seem far too obvious, but I can guarantee that all of you have had at some point at least one student trying to complete exercise three (fill in the gaps) when they are supposed to be doing exercise two (comprehension check). They should be allowed plenty of time to read the questions before they listen so that they don't get lost because there is a word they don't understand in the questions. Take the time to explain any confusing words or questions, and if you feel it is necessary, preteach some of the vocabulary that occurs in the recording. All of this preparation should at least make your learners feel more relaxed when they listen.

One of the most important qualities a teacher needs and especially with listening exercises is patience. Listening may be something which comes naturally in your own language, but in a second language a great deal of concentration is required. Don't try to make a challenge out of listening and don't allow your learners to feel that they have failed if they have not been able to understand. You may find that certain learners or even whole classes have a listening ability below their general English level. If this is the case, you will need to adapt the materials (it is easier to adapt the questions rather than the recording) and make sure your students get plenty of practice. Build up the level little by little, start with easy tasks and gradually make them more difficult or complex. Be sympathetic and understanding, and if the pressure is off, your learners will become better listeners.
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