Cut to the chase!

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I don’t know about you, but I’ve always preferred it when teachers I’ve had have been direct and get to the point instead of going around the houses before making a point. To me, constantly trying to get students to guess a word, meaning or form of a grammar point can be tiring – both for them and for you!

We all know that eliciting from students is good practice, but also that we should try to reduce Teacher Talk Time (TTT) and maximise Student Talk Time (STT). Eliciting can sometimes increase TTT by adding in extra layers of questions, rephrasing and exemplifying which could be eliminated if we were just more direct sometimes. Take, for example, something like the word “hackneyed” which I was teaching to a C2 class the other day. Can you imagine the amount of TTT needed to finally elicit from students what that actually means? Instead, I included the word in a list of others of varying difficulty from the textbook we are using (Proficiency Masterclass) and added definitions for learners to match up in pairs. Much more efficient in terms of TT, plus it also enabled learners to practise problem solving skills and get used to working with words of unknown meaning.

However, this doesn’t just apply to vocabulary. Grammar points are often subject to endless discovery learning-style tasks which, by the time the learners have got any idea, have taken up a huge chunk of class time. Furthermore, I find I need to clear up misunderstandings and reinforce the correct rules anyway. I’ve now taken to doing one quick reading or listening which includes the target grammar point and then simply putting an example from said text on the board and going over meaning/form/structure, before then letting learners get on with speaking tasks to manipulate the new language. Or, as in a previous post, I start with a set of speaking questions including the new structure and see what learners can do already with them before going over the grammar and switching partners to repeat the first task.

What do you think? Should I be cast out of the teaching world for questioning the idea of constant eliciting? Any other ideas welcome!

Backwards lessons?

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Have you ever felt like you’re cramming the “meatiest” part of your lesson into the final part of the class? Do you want students to have more time to practise the structures/vocab/etc that you have been teaching them during the class? Well, why not do the lesson backwards? What does this mean? Let’s have a look.

Imagine you’re teaching some of the various “wish” structures such as I wish/If only for present regrets. Normally, you’d probably do a lead-in to the topic, work on some reading or listening which has the structure embedded in it, analyse the structures then get Ss to use them. And at this point you’re probably over halfway through the class with less time than you’d like for Ss to produce the language.

An alternative approach could be:

  1. Ask Ss some questions like “What do you wish were different about your life?” or “Is there anything that you ever think ‘if only my boss/parents/friends/etc didn’t do that then things would be better’?” Get them speaking immediately in pairs.
  2. Monitor and then elicit lots of ideas to put on the board. Correct mistakes and highlight the 2 target structures of “I wish” and “If only”. Elicit the form and meaning and leave visible on the board.
  3. Now have Ss repeat the task in new pairs having been made aware of the correct structures.
  4. Ss can report back to the class about the wishes/regrets of their new partners. Where mistakes occur in the form of the target language, elicit corrections as Ss have already seen the right version already on the board previously.
  5. Do whatever reading/listening tasks you want to develop understanding and awareness of the structures.
  6. Finish with a group activity such as this one – Get Ss to write 3 wishes on a piece of paper. Collect them all in, mix them up and get everyone to take a piece of paper. Make sure nobody has their own wishes. Each S reads out the wishes on the paper and everyone has to guess who they belong to. Once they’ve guessed correctly, the person who wrote them has to explain their wishes in more detail. Repeat with the other slips of paper.

By making this little tweak to your classes, you can easily make more time for Ss to be using the structures rather than just reading or listening to them. Homework can be the typical consolidation tasks which you can then check next lesson.

I know this isn’t a groundbreaking revelation, but hopefully you’ll find this idea useful for future classes. Let me know what you think in the comments below!

Intensive courses – tips for students and teachers alike

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After having (almost!) finished the intensive courses I teach over the summer, I thought I’d make a quick post offering a bit of advice for both students and teachers as to how to make the most of the limited time available.

Students

  1. Attend class! – This may sound obvious, but actually making the effort to attend all your classes on an intensive course is vital. The ones I deliver consist of 16 2-hour sessions, or 20 3-hour sessions. Take out a class for the end of course exam and you’re down to 30 hours or 57 hours. Every lesson absolutely counts on such courses and you’ll be missing vital content by skipping even one day.
  2. Do the homework – Actually, this is related to point 1. I always set homework that consolidates what we’ve just learnt in class the same day. The pace of intensive courses means we do move quickly through everything so you need to keep up. Homework is for you, not for us as teachers!
  3. Ask questions – Please ask your teacher questions about misunderstandings and other issues. As I’ve said before, the pace is very quick on an intensive course and, while we obviously do revision and recall, if you don’t get something make sure you tell us.

Teachers

  1. Plan ahead – Time is limited so have a good look through all the content you’re meant to deliver and at least have a general overview of how much you need to do each day.
  2. Strip it back – Intensive courses mean you don’t have hours to do all the extra stuff you’d like to. Look through the material and make sure you cover the essentials and do that well. I’ve made the mistake before of trying to do too much and then having to rush through some bits towards the end of the course. Now, I stick to what’s absolutely necessary.
  3. Check your Ss are keeping up – Obviously you have a syllabus to get through and objectives for the course, but don’t plough through it at the expense of student understanding. This may sound a bit contrary to what I said previously, but you need to ensure the learners are getting something out of the course rather than feeling that they’re being dragged at the speed of light through content. If you need to chop things out to make room for revision and recall then do it.

I hope these little tips are useful – I know I had to rethink some of my teaching methods after the first round of intensives that I ever did. Intensives are great if done well, and students can get a lot out of them with the right attitude, so spending a bit of time thinking ahead can pay off in making them a success for everyone involved.

To grammar or not to grammar?

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Yes, I know the title isn’t an accurate question – please don’t hate on me in the comments! What I want to ask is, how much emphasis should we put on explicit grammar instruction? Is discovery learning the best way to get students to notice patterns or do we need to, as the “experts” in the room, explain more so that our learners can get on with the business of using the grammar point?

Personally, I’m a bit torn on this issue. For some areas of English grammar, I’d say that we have to go through things to some degree with students, whereas other structures lend themselves better to a “Test-teach-test” approach. Take, for example, inversion (or negative introductory expressions – whichever is fine). My standard approach is to give students a few normal sentences along with the new structure I want them to re-phrase the originals with and see what they can do. This then allows me to see if anyone can work out how to use the structure before I step in with some direct instruction. On the other hand, for something like the Present Perfect I’d probably use a range of listening and reading activities to expose learners to the structure before giving them some speaking questions to practise and then elicit the structure and meaning after that.

At the end of the day it all boils down to the students in front of you. Some need to be led more carefully through the steps needed to be able to use a new grammar point, whereas others are quite happy to do more for themselves without getting flustered and frustrated. There’s also the question of differentiation within the same class, but that’s a point for a different post.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below!

Reported Speech Speaking Game

Here is an activity I use to practise Reporting Verbs. It’s nothing fancy, but it gets the job done.

Put the class in pairs and give one person the Student A sheet and the other the Students B one. Students read the sentences they don’t have a reported version of and think of an appropriate way to report the phrase using a Reporting Verb (e.g. offer, deny, suggest, etc.) from the options at the top of the worksheet.

I have used this with B2 and C1 classes as either controlled practice for the former or a revision of the grammar point for the latter.

I hope you find it useful!

 

Teaching by example

Should you give rules when teaching grammar or should the students figure them out? Should you show them examples of new grammar before teaching or see what they already know? Should you elicit using specific terminology or “real” language? These are some of the questions I ask myself when going over grammar with my classes. I’ve found with my Cambridge Advanced groups that the old chestnut of “test, teach, test” is much more effective at building their confidence with using new structures. Take, for example, Inversion or Negative Introductory Expressions (whichever you prefer). The thought of going over all the rules in the coursebook we use gave me the shivers, so I simply put up the following slide:

Inversion EXAMPLE PIC

Having put this on the board, I then give students some time to do the task and therefore I can tell immediately who has an idea of the concept and who has not seen it before. We then go through the answers, I elicit the changes needed to write the new versions and then we can get on with using the grammar more actively.

All in all, this process takes about 15-20 minutes of a lesson. I feel that this method allows students to explore the grammar, apply exisiting knowledge and gain confidence in their own English skills. The rest of such a class would be taken up with activities to use the grammar point, along with other skills-based tasks.

Is this similar to how you would introduce this area of grammar? How would you do it differently? I always love hearing new ideas!

 

 

Welcome!

Hello world! Or rather hello to the few people who will probably read this blog. I thought I’d just briefly introduce myself to those of you who don’t know me already. My name’s Craig and I’ve been teaching English in Madrid to all ages and levels for the past four years. I’ve also written a complete online course at levels C1-C2 of the CEFR framework as part of a larger project, and I’m really interested in getting more involved with materials writing. Before all this I was Head of Languages and Business at a UK secondary school where I taught for just over five years. The time before that was filled with university, random jobs and lots of travelling!

I’m still not too sure what direction (if any) this blog will take. However, I am certain that it’ll be about all things ESL/EAL/EFL/[Insert random teaching acronym here]. Hopefully I’ll build up some sort of following and maybe make my (tiny) mark on the blogging world.

Stay tuned for updates – I hope to be writing regularly but, as you all know, life often gets in the way!