Dealing with difficult classes

Most of us have had a difficult class at some point in our careers.  And by class, I really do mean class, rather than a tough learner within a class.  I’ve had a couple of difficult classes over the past few years, most of which were comprised of wonderful individuals who just didn’t work well when in the room together at the same time.

Last year, I took on a group which had been difficult the previous year and had actually reduced one of their teachers to tears.  This year, they’re with a teacher who is new to our academy and it made me think about how we decide who teaches those difficult groups.

At the same time, I’ve recently discovered a new brainstorming site, which allows you to collaborate in an online brainstorm.  So, feel free to add your ideas below…

Character Builds #3

In a previous post, I talked about how to set up a character build in the class and how they can be used to practise specific grammar points.  With my KET group, we recently looked at the present perfect with for, since, just, already, etc.

We did a character build in class and then the learners completed the following worksheet:

Character Build

It appealed to the more creative learners, both artistically and linguistically  and I allowed the learners freedom to answer the questions how they saw fit.  Our character, a lovely Swedish lady who lived in Madrid, had just stolen something from IKEA according to one learner!

Harry Potter bombs in B1 class

Image from pinterest

I had a less than stimulating start to the week!  On a Monday morning I have a B1.1 group at 10.30 and there are a wonderful group and generally quite enthusiastic and talkative.  I like to put some discussion questions on the board before they arrive for three reasons:

  • It’s good to start the lesson with something communicative
  • They don’t all arrive on time so this gives those who arrive on time something useful to do and is something latecomers can easily become involved in with little guidance from me
  • It’s based around the theme for the lesson (activating schemata and all that metalanguage jazz!)

This week there were some questions on the board with the title Harry Potter as we would later be doing a reading about JK Rowling.  The learners’ response to the initial questions was far less positive than usual as there were no Harry Potter fans in the class and in fact most said they thought the saga was unrealistic and silly (allowed a great teachable moment of some negative adjectives!).

I feel as though this initial stage then set up the atmosphere for the rest of the lesson.  In later discussions, the learners seemed less animated than usual which made me wonder whether they had been negatively affected by an initial phase which was so uninteresting for them.

Flashcard Games

I was feeling a bit uninspired the other day before my S2 and S3 classes (6 and 7 year olds)…I could feel that the learners, especially in the S2 class, were getting a little tired of the same old revision activities with flashcards.  So I went through to Chris‘ class and started thinking about games I’d done in the past to review lexis and then asked him for some more ideas.  This is the list we came up with in a couple of minutes…

Secret Code: put three flashcards on the board facedown and tell the class which lexical set each one comes from.  Learners then guess the code.  With VYLs, I do it like this; with YLs you can give them ticks when they guess one or two correctly…but not say which word was correct.  A disadvantage to this game is that it doesn’t encourage or really allow space for BIG language, just single lexical items.

Board Slap: I still haven’t invested in fly swatters, although I see a number of my colleagues have.  There are a number of varieties for Vocabulary Slaps - again though I feel it doesn’t provide learners with the opportunity for BIG language.

SharkShark: This is actually a favourite in most of my classes…with each incorrect guess the man drops down a step.  Will the class guess the word and save him?  (Although there are groups who actually lose on purpose so the poor chap gets eaten! )

Teacher, stop!: In this activity the teacher shuffles through the flashcards facedown until one learner says, “Teacher, stop!” and then asks, “Have you got…?”  This activity could easily be adapted to allow for a greater range of language.  For example, when working with animals learners could ask a question about the animal such as “Has it got four legs?” or “Does it live in the jungle?”

On your head: VYLs especially like this activity because it shows that they know the vocabulary better than the teacher!  Shuffle through the cards then hold one up (above your head) and make a sentence about it…at the most basic lvel this would be, “It’s a pencil.” The learners then respond either with “Yes, it is” or “Yes, you’re right” or, as is more commonly the case, “No, it isn’t” with varying amounts of laughter followed by a correct sentence about the flashcard.

Describing: Another activity which works better with some lexical sets than others – choose one flashcard and describe it; learners guess what it is from the description.

Circle Drill: Although we often associate drills with phonology, they can be useful with flashcards to help learners remember less frequent or more complex lexis.  Choose the flashcards which learners are having most difficulty remembering and then pass them round in a circle, ensuring the learner says the word as they have the card.  To add a bit of mayhem, have a number of cards going in opposite directions.

Pasapalabra: An activity adapted from a Spanish TV show, both classes really enjoyed playing this on Thursday.  Choose 8-10 flashcards from different lexical sets and then put them in a pile facedown.  This is an individual activity, but it’s important for the others in the group to be attentive as it’s being played.  Choose which learner is going first and hold up the first flashcard; if they say the correct word, move on to the next and so on.  If they say the wrong word, play passes to the next learner and you start from the beginning.  Again, this is good for discrete items.

With all the activities above, after modelling how it is played, a learner can become “Question Master” with guidance from the teacher.

Target: Stick four flashcards to the board, one in each corner.  The first learner makes a sentence about one of the flashcards and if their sentence is correct, they try to hit the flashcard with a ball.  If they hit it, they win the card and play passes to the next learner.  This activity encourages learners to move beyond single words and becomes even more demanding if learners aren’t allowed to repeat the same sentence throughout the game.

This last activity can be adapted to play with higher levels and is especially useful for learners preparing for Cambridge PET in which they have to describe a photo.  For each flashcard, learner must introduce their sentence describing the location of the flashcard on the board.  For example, “In the bottom left there’s a camel.”

PET Writing Part 3 – A Story

I recently attended a talk on writing, given by Chris Johnson who’s currently based at St. James in Sevilla. He gave some excellent tips on better preparing learners for writing and I decided to use some ideas from his talk in my B1 lesson today.  Here’s the plan:

As most learners are familiar with Little Red Riding Hood, I used that story as a starting point, as Chris did in his talk, and asked the group to work in pairs and tell each other what they could remember from the story. We then briefly analysed the story using Hoey’s SPRE formula:
Situation – the where and when, setting the scene and introducing the main character
Ending (originally this is Evaluation, but I felt for the purpose of this activity it would be better to use Ending)

We discussed how this formula can be useful when writing texts and compared other stories in which it has been used.

Learners then looked at two sample answers from the PET handbook in which the candidates had written stories with the title A Lucky Escape and linked each SPRE stage to the text.    We discussed how the SPRE formula is a good basis for writing a plan before producing a text and talked about what notes the candidates could have made against each stage to help them construct their texts.

The production stage has been set for homework and learners took away some linking devices to further help them organise their texts.