October 19

Fortnightly Focus #4 – Dealing with energy levels in YLs

To be honest, this is still very much an ongoing focus, as I try to deal with a tricky group of six-year-olds.  But I’ll share some thoughts now and no doubt come back to it again at another point.

Steps I’m taking to resolve some of the issues within the classroom:

  • I had a points system in place, but it was very limited (maximum of three smiley faces).  A colleague suggested flooding the class with points as this would give more space to take away points when needed.  This is having more of an effect, as I can often move closer to the points charts when I can see some learners becoming a little antsy and, in fact, it’s had quite a positive effect on one of the learners who’s very responsive to the new system
  • Spending more time around the table seems to make the lesson start in a better way.  I think previously, when they were in the smaller space at the front of the class, they became a little touchy-feely towards each other, whereas now they have more personal space
  • Turning off the air conditioning unit which unfortunately makes the classroom hotter, which probably in some ways makes the learners more antsy, but it means that I’m not constantly asking them to move away from it – to be honest, I was genuinely concerned that they would get ill sitting directly in front of it, I’m sure a blast of cold air right across your head/neck can’t be healthy.  However, temperatures are dropping slowly here in the south of Spain, though I can see my classroom being one of the warmest year-round
  • Working on making my routines more varied and dynamic – I’m trying to introduce a new song each week so that we have plenty to sing about as songs and chants can be great moments to refocus them.  Also, I know there are certain activities which they do enjoy so I’m trying to include them without relying too much on them (partly because they need more varied input and also they might then get bored of their favourites!)

Tough as the class is, I’m glad that it’s the first lesson of the afternoon as I do have the feeling of “getting it out the way first” and while it is draining to be faced with a difficult group, I’m trying to stay positive about it – there’s nothing worse than having the sinking feeling in October that you’ll be working with a group for the next nine months and it feels like it’s reached the point of no-return already.  So I’ll keep trying new things and getting advice from colleagues on what’s worked for them in the past :)

My focus for the next two weeks will be working on listening skills in the classroom as I’m giving a talk on the topic at ACEIA next month and want to try out some of my ideas before the session.

October 10

Don Quijote – a short play

One of the new challenges I have this year is teaching 4th Primary Social and Natural Science as part of the school’s bilingual programme.  I see four groups once a week – which is fantastic in terms of planning as I can pretty much repeat the same lesson four times (tweaking it as I go and reflecting on what worked well from the first lesson of the week!).

A couple of weeks ago, the whole year group was involved in a project about Don Quijote – all their lessons in different subjects were themed around the story and so I also offered to prepare on the topic for my class.  Having never read the book, I wasn’t really sure which direction to take, so I read up about it (and watched some children’s cartoon versions of the story) to get some ideas.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to cram the whole story into an hour-long class, so picked out one of the more famous scenes of Don Quijote attacking a windmill, which he believes to be a giant.

Lesson Stages:

  1. Elicit from learners what they know about Don Quijote – where does he live? what does he do? what’s his friend’s name? does he have any animals?  During this stage, it’s helpful to elicit some of the lexis which learners might be unfamiliar with from the story (e.g. helmet, fight, windmill, etc).
  2. Divide the class into small teams (in our classes, they are grouped around tables of four or five).  Hand out the prepared story, cut up into sections.  I had eight envelopes, each with six pieces of paper in.  Tell the group to order the sentence.
    1. My name is Don Quijote and I’m a very brave
    knight. This is my faithful servant, Sancho Panza.

    Couple of quick hints:
    Think beforehand about where you separate the sentences as we don’t want learners to get bogged down with unknown lexis at this point.  For example, the sentences above can be ordered without needing to know the word faithful.  Secondly, try to prepare enough envelopes so that there are a couple more than the number of groups in the class.  That way, when a group finishes ordering the sentence and you check it, you can give them another envelope without needing to wait for another group to finish.  Also, you can write on the table with chalk so you remember which sentences the group have completed.

  3. When groups have completed a number of sentences, do whole group feedback by asking groups to read out the sentences in order.  If you have a projector, it also helps to project the story and (another quick tip) if you prepare the text as a Word document, you can make the text white, then highlight and change the colour when they read out the sentence – this allows you to effectively have the whole text on the board, but means learners can only see the sections you want them to.
  4. As you reveal each sentence, drill it and check lexis and pronunciation.
  5. Divide the class into groups of three – Don Quijote, Sancho Panza and the narrator.  You might like to do some further drilling of the story once everyone has their roles assigned.  Give them a few minutes to practise the story in their groups, then invite them to the front to act it out.  If there are any pronunciation problems during a group’s performance, do a quick review of it before the next group performs.

Things I enjoyed about this activity:

The sentence ordering activity was quite kineasthetic which I think is important for primary-aged learners.

Drilling the sentences as a group meant that we could work a little on rhythm and intonation, as well as the pronunciation of tricky vocabulary.  Also, because of the content, you could get quite theatrical with the drilling.

In all the classes, learners were keen to act out their story.  I found this quite motivating as I know within the group there are varying levels of confidence with English and so the fact that they all wanted to participate was great.

Some disadvantages:

You do a fair amount of running between tables during the sentence ordering activity.

Also, it’s sometimes hard to ensure that everyone is equally involved in the ordering task.  Perhaps a way to overcome this would be to nominate a learner from each group to be in charge of a sentence – so the others can help, but only that individual can touch the cards and must also read out the sentence to you when it’s complete.

With a group of 25, learners can get a little restless watching other groups perform – in the past I’ve given teams points for their pronunciation and theatrical performance and also for listening to others.

If you fancy trying the lesson yourself, here are the story cards and the boardwork.

October 7

Managing expectations

This post contains some ideas and feedback from a PD session I recently gave at Active Language, including links to some articles which I read in preparation for the session.  Many thanks to all my colleagues for their input during the session – what a wonderful group of people to spend a Wednesday morning with!

To begin with, my colleagues worked together to discuss three of the activities from Scrivener’s article on Demand High Teaching.  Here are what they considered to be some of the advantages and disadvantages of each:


+ you can revisit tasks and look at the language in a different way, e.g collocations

+ the task could be revisited in a disappearing sentence activity

+ it was suggested that changing partner as well as focus would make the activity more engaging

– it can be a struggle to motivate learners to do a task once, let alone two or three times!

– there is a coursebook culture here in Spain of “Ya lo hemos hecho” (We’ve already done it)

Upgrading feedback

+ perseverance leads to longer chunks and better retention of language

+ perhaps focus on rhythm and intonation more than just speed

– does it confuse the learner? (this is where your intonation plays an important role)

– do we want to / need to be constantly pushing the goalposts?

Who confirms corrections?

+ can work well to develop group rapport, but (-) needs to be done carefully

– importance of nominating learners, so it doesn’t always become one dominant learner shouting out corrections

– work on changing your own gestures (avoid using a squiffy face when learners get something wrong, or always challenge them with “Are you sure?” even for simple questions as this creates a funny, positive learning environment)

It also felt that a lot of people do these things, or similar things, anyway and one of the reactions against Demand High has been that it perhaps assumes that what we’re doing in the classroom isn’t enough or is wrong, which should never be the way to approach teacher development.  There are some interesting responses to “What is Demand High?” from an #AusELT chat a couple of years ago and another reaction to Demand High (with useful links to others!) from Steve Brown.

After a brief chat about the “input factor” (I recommend watching this video – Teacher Expectations) and how our expectations about our learners, both linguistically and behaviourally, affect the way we treat them, I asked them to discuss the following:

task completion = learning

There were a number of interesting points raised.  For example, one of my colleagues, Jill, pointed out that for our younger Spanish learners, it is all about task completion, and that they are often given the  task of completing anything which wasn’t done during class time for homework.  She suggested that we be more transparent with our learners and explain the rationale behind the task so that they become more conscious of the thought processes going into completing it.  The idea of “mindless” activities was raised by other colleagues, who pointed out that in some cases, such as gapfills, you can often complete the task effectively with very little challenge.  Another colleague, Andy, mentioned flashcards and questioned whether his group of VYLs are actually aware of what they’re saying or have simply been conditioned to say a certain word when they see a certain image!

Finally, we considered the expectations we face as teachers: this question of whether our learners are actually learning as we face the pressure of working to a pacing schedule, with coursebooks which are more often than not full of linguistic islands.  We work with different sets of books – some of which are very complete in terms of materials (Footprints or Complete First) and others which are a little more sparse (Gold Experience) – and, in groups, we looked at a single grammatical point from a number of books to evaluate how much page space is devoted to it and consider how we could review it in later lessons.  Some ideas were:

  • pre-empt and pre-teach tricky lexis or structures by using them in routines from the start of the year.  This way, when learners are faced with ‘learning’ that particular language, they will have already been using it and will be more familiar with it
  • revisit previous grammatical points when working with texts in later units
  • extend tasks to personalise them, e.g. for a sentence completion task, ask learners to change the sentence so it’s true for them, or use it in a roleplay
  • Find someone who… is always a popular mingle activity which works well with many grammatical points or lexical sets
  • make learners in exam classes more aware of how that language is relevant to the exam.  E.g. reported speech at B1 level might be seen in Writing Part 1, or using a second conditional sentence in a B1 writing can get them a higher mark
  • make use of transcripts from listenng activities to work with the laguage more (3XP!)
  • grammar or vocab boxes to be used at the start/end of the lesson or for fast finishers were also suggested
  • verb cards can be used over and over again to practise different tenses
  • with the more complete books, identify the core material you want to use with learners – you can always go back to do other items if there is time
  • think about when you do review pages and tests (immediately at the end of the unit? at the end of the following unit? once a term?)

Once again, thanks to all the Active gang for the session :)

October 5

Fortnightly Focus #3 – Routines for older learners and higher levels

Before I get into the previous fortnight’s focus, here’s my focus for the next two weeks.  I’m struggling a little with a loud group of six-year-olds so I’m going to look into ways that I can control their energy levels a little better without simply resorting to more heads-down activities.

So, routines for higher levels and older learners.  Well, to be honest, I haven’t had many classes with my adult learners as yet as with one group we did start-of-the-year evaluations (this blogpost is partly a moment of procrastination as I don’t want to get back to marking their written tasks yet!) and another group only started on Tuesday so we’ve only had a couple of lessons.  However, I have put some routines in place with my PET group which I’ll adapt for the older learners too.

Weekly video – this is an activity which I successfuly used last year with my B2 adults and it’s working well so far with my B1 teens this year.  Each Thursday, one of the learners brings a YouTube video for the class to watch and prepares three comprehension questions about it.  The thing I like about this activity is that it allows the learners to share videos which interest them and can spark a lot of conversation as well

Quizlet – my colleague, Amy, introduced me to Quizlet last year and so this year I’ve started using it with the teens group.  I like the Scatter game, in which two teams compete to see who can match the vocab to the definitions more quickly

New vocab wall – I only introduced this to the B1 group yesterday, but with the promise of chocolate for participating, they seemed quite keen!  I stuck up a big piece of card to the board and made it look like a brickwall.  Learners can add new words or phrases to the wall (kind of graffiti-ing it)

Also, as I have two Cambridge preparation groups (B1 and B2), I want to work on the speaking exam more frequently, particularly the picture description and interactive tasks as I feel these are the two tasks which candidates struggle most with, but which they can easily do well in with a little training

And, speaking of exam preparation, I also have an ISE II group and with them I’d like to focus on using the different grammatical structures confidently when asking and answering questions, as one of the key points which has been raised in previous exam feedback is that candidates were often more than capable of showing understanding of different structures, but struggled more to produce them (either through a lack of accuracy or through offering more natural responses to the examiner’s questions)