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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 35ยบ 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!
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