How-to presentations for EFL classes. A lesson plan (part 3).

This is part 3 of 3 on How-to presentations, an activity cycle that runs for 2½ homework-classwork sessions:

  1. Homework: listening activity with model text
  2. Class: model text plus presentation scaffolding
  3. Homework: write and practice presentation
  4. Class: deliver presentation
  5. Homework: reflection on presentation

In part 1 I described step 1 above, in part 2 I detailed steps 3 & 4 (in other words, everything leading up to the presentation day itself). Now I’ll describe parts 4 & 5 of the activity cycle.

 

4. Class: deliver presentation

It’s the big day. The students are nervous. Depending on the time available, I try to give students the first 15 minutes to warm up. 5 minutes to mumble-read their presentations individually, then 10 minutes to practice with a partner.

Even though the presentations are short and the topics varied, the key to keeping a classroom of people really engaged and focused for two hours is to give them tasks before, during and after each presentation.

I use a presentation cycle of:

  1. Presenter question to the audience/pair discussion
  2. Presentation (self-recorded)
  3. Evaluations
  4. Pair reflection/discussion

Ask each presenter to think of a question to ask the audience, to get them thinking and talking (in pairs) about the topic. With how-to presentations, it’s usually just a brief variation on the presentation topic, e.g. How do you give a good presentation in English? or How would you give a presentation? or What makes a good presentation? Let students discuss in pairs for a couple of minutes.

The presenter gives their talk, recording it on the smartphone voice recorder (if they don’t have one, I offer mine).

While listening to the presentations I always ask students to evaluate each other’s performance, which they mark on little slips of paper. Judged on a scale of 1-4 (1 = weak, 4 = great) the three (non-technical) criteria are:

  1. Fluency (little stammering, hesitation or pausing)
  2. Clarity (is the how-to procedure clear and easy to understand)
  3. Presence (stance, posture, eye contact, body language, facial expressions)

Students should hang on to their evaluations until the end.

I evaluate each presentation as well, and add lots of comments. Correction is usually limited to pronunciation issues that I couldn’t have caught from the written text. I focus my praise on performance issues (fluency and presence) and particular instances where they’ve succeeded in improving on the written draft (by incorporating my suggestions or improving it in other ways).

Give students 10 seconds to complete their marks, and then give the student pairs a couple of minutes to discuss what they learned and whether it matched their expectations. I also encourage the presenter to walk around and listen to what the class is saying ― and offer clarification or answer questions.

When all the students have presented, students should go around and distribute their evaluations to the presenters.

Then there are a couple of options to wrap up the day:

  1. Take a (secret) vote for the best presentation (or two or three) and award a prize. Discuss reasons for their choices.
  2. Put students into groups and have them write quiz questions for another group to see what was remembered.

 

5. Homework: reflection on presentation

As homework I send students an email asking them to reflect on their presentation (see below for the full email). In summary, they should:

  • Look at the evaluations ― do they think they’re fair
  • Listen to their recording again ― listen for my pronunciation notes, and check the pronunciation of words in question
  • Decide what they liked, and what they need to improve

All good things are worth repeating. And the next time you do a presentation activity, ask students to pull out the email they send you to give them a goal for what to work on.

Conclusion

As I mentioned way back at the beginning of part 1, nobody likes having to do a presenation, but everybody loves having done one. And EFL students are certainly no exception: in mid-term and end-of-class surveys, students routinely tell me that presentations are one of the most challenging, rewarding and enjoyable things they do in class.

And you don’t have to stop with one. Giving students the opportunity to do 2 or 3 throughout the course will mean you can really work to improve different performance aspects as well, like stage presence or intonation.

By providing students with good models, scaffolding and an encouraging (and safe) environment, you’ll find students are willing and eager to share their passions, with the best English eloquence they can muster, on the classroom stage.

 

Student post-presentation self-reflection letter

Hi!

Good work today! You successfully got through your first English presentation (for this class)!

I know you may not like the sound of your voice (most people don’t), but recording yourself is one of the best ways to begin to work on improving your speaking. You can actually hear the things you need to improve! This homework will give you a chance to reflect on what you did well and what you can improve.

Look at your classmates’ evaluations of your presentations, as well as my own, and then listen to your presentation. A number of my comments had to do with pronunciation—sometimes I put (p) for pronunciation. If you want to hear the word said with US or UK pronunciation, look up the word in e.g. the Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary.

Next, I’d like you to write me an email. In the email, I’d like you to tell me 2-3 things you liked/were happy with about your presentation (even if you’re naturally a pessimist, you must find something positive to say about yourself! For example, you could say “I remembered what I wanted to say” or “It was easier than I’d feared” or “I managed to say some difficult words like X, Y and Z, which I’d looked up in a dictionary”. Also, tell me 3 things you need to work on to improve your English for presentations. Please be specific: DON’T say “I need to do better presentations” (too general), but DO say, “I need to memorize my transitions” (more specific).

To repeat:

For homework, listen to your presentation and read my comments. Then write me an email. Say:

  •  2-3 things you liked about your presentation
  • 3 things you need to work on to improve

I look forward to hearing your self-assessment! Thanks!

How-to presentations for EFL classes. A lesson plan (part 2)

How-to presentations is an activity cycle that runs for 2½ homework-classwork sessions:

  1. Homework: listening activity with model text
  2. Class: model text plus presentation scaffolding
  3. Homework: write and practice presentation
  4. Class: deliver presentation
  5. Homework: reflection on presentation

In part 1 of this article I described the first homework assignment (1), which gets students thinking about presentations.

In part 2, I’m going to describe how I model a presentation and then help students begin to put together theirs (steps 2-3).

 

2. Class: model text plus presentation scaffolding

You can spend the beginning of the next class discussing the listening text ― as should be obvious, it’s a fairly fertile topic for discussion.

Then you drop the bomb: you expect the students to give their own presentations, next class. But to be fair, you’re not going to ask them to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself. You’re going to give your own How-to presentation.

Here’s the plan:

  1. First, ask them what they remember from the listening about the elements of a good presentation. Then, have them pull out the activity and check.
  2. Give the presentation (see below for the text). While listening, students tick off the “best practices” you use.
  3. Give students a gapfill activity with the “transcript” of the talk and check (see below).

 

Explanation:

The presentation  will model what you expect them to do in the talks, including getting the audience thinking about the topic (or activating schemata, if you will) before the presentation (see part 3 of this series).

I record myself with the built-in voice recorder app on my phone. I strongly encourage you to record yourself giving the presentation, because:

  1. Many students are terrified of speaking in public, but many students are equally (if not more) put off by the idea of recording and then listening to their own voice. I insist my students record themselves; it’s only fair I do as well.
  2. It allows them to see (when comparing it with the pre-typed presentation text) that what you produce in a live presentation often goes off-script. In other words, what matters is the presentation you deliver, not whether you say it word-for-word as written.

At the end of your presentation, ask students to write down what they remember, then check in pairs. Then give them the presentation text gapfill and skim it to check. Finally, ask students to do the gapfill.

Finally, check ― by playing back the recording of your presentation (I use either a mini bluetooth speaker or a USB cable to plug into the TV speakers, but your smartphone might have speakers good enough to project, depending on the size of the classroom).

How smoothly the checking process goes depends on how well you’ve memorized the text. Sometimes I written the key gap-fill vocabulary on a piece of paper as cues. But even if you forgot to say some of the keywords in the presentation you’ve delivered, you can still check together.

Just remember to highlight the difference mentioned above between what you intend to say and what you actually say. As long as you deliver the presentation well, it’s usually only the speaker who knows whether or not the text was delivered faithfully.

Students build their presentations:

With two models provided (especially your second meta-presentation on the thing itself), students should have ample information for how to construct a how-to presentation. I usually ask them to come up with a topic and 5-paragraph plan, if not the full text, in class. In addition to organization issues, my interventions are often to help them construct an introduction – painting the picture.

 

3. Homework: write and practice presentation

The homework consists in writing up the presentation and emailing it to me for comments and correction. Make sure to give them a tight deadline ― they’ve got to have time between when you email them the corrections/feedback and the next class in order to practice and memorize the presentation.

 

In the third and final part of this article, I’ll describe steps 4 & 5, or what to do on the day of the presention – self-recording, self-assessment and post-presentation reflection.

 

Presentation Model:

How to give a good presentation in English

This is the written text of my presentation. Complete the gaps with the words from below. The first one has been done for you.

eyes          delivery                    engaging                   attention             guarantee             repeating             connect              understand          sequencing              improve                  memorable

Today I’m going to talk about how to give a good presentation in English. First, in my talk, I’m going to give you three tips about how you can 1) improve your presentations to make sure you give a presentation that’s interesting, 2)____________ and memorable. So here are my three tips.

The first is that organization is very important. In English we like to have very clear organization to presentations. In the introduction we talk about what we’re going to talk about, and then in the body we talk about the topic itself, and in the conclusion we summarize what we talked about. So it’s a way of both 3)___________ the information and making it clear and easy to understand.

The second tip is to use what’s called “signposting language”. Signposting language is language that helps the audience 4)___________ what’s going to come next, when to pay attention, and to help understand things that they’ve already heard. Some examples of signposting language are introducing something by saying, “Ok, now I’m going to talk about (this).” Other signposting language examples are 5)“_____________ language” to say “First I’m gonna do (this), then I’m gonna do (this), lastly I’m going to do (this)”. Or say, “Now I’ll talk about (this)”. It’s language that’s used to help focus the audience’s 6)___________ on different things.

The last thing that’s important when you’re giving a presentation is the actual physical, 7) ____________ of the presentation. And there’s two things to that. I’d say the first is about speaking. Do you speak in a way that’s clear, slow, easy to understand? And the second is about your body language. Do you look people in the 8)____________? Do you have an open body posture or are you scared and hiding? These things will help your audience—help you 9)__________ with your audience and to make your message clearer.

So, those are my three tips. Remember, organization is important. Use signposting language. And finally, make sure you can deliver your presentation in a way that’s engaging and interesting. If you follow these tips, I 10)___________ that you’ll give better, clearer, more 11)____________ presentations.

How-to presentations for EFL classes. A lesson plan (part 1)

If there’s one thing that can be said about presentations it’s that few people like doing one, but everybody loves having done one. In the EFL classrrom they’re highly motivating moments for students to work on organizing their discourse, polish their language, face their fears and, with the help of self-recording, listen to and reflect on their own performance and opportunities for improvement.

All reasons why I regularly ask my students to do presentations in my class. While there are many kinds, How-to presentations are among the most structured and straightforward to plan and perform. In this post I’ll describe how to set up how-to presentations in your class.

This activity cycle runs for 2½ homework-classwork sessions:

  1. Homework: listening activity with model text
  2. Class: model text plus presentation scaffolding
  3. Homework: write and practice presentation
  4. Class: deliver presentation
  5. Homework: reflection on presentation

1. Homework: listening activity with model text (pre-task)

Before I even announce that we’re going to do presentations, I usually get students primed with an at-home listening activity based on a YouTube video called ― wait for it ― How to get a beautiful girl to approach you, from the Tripp Advice channel (and, in case it needs to be said, linking does not equal endorsement).

I first stumbled across the video when it came up in a YouTube search for How-to videos. I’ve used it (and continue to do so) because the presenter has made it:

  • Short
  • Clearly delivered ― intermediate students should have little problem with it
  • Perfectly structured
  • Freely available

It additionally generates classroom discussion on gender roles, stereotypes, societal rules/expectations, modern love, and whether women do really notice a guy’s shoes. Frankly, it ain’t the sort of thing you’ll get in your average coursebook. In short, it’s a model text.

Below is a shortened version of the activity ― the full activity (which I share with my students via Google Docs) includes some pre-teaching of key vocabulary and some work on verb patterns with get (this authentic text uses get a full 10 times in 3:38 seconds ― the kind of repetition course book writers labor to stuff into theirs. But I digress.) What follows, however, are the parts particularly relevant to presentations.

In part 2 of this article, I’ll talk about how I model a How-to presentation and help students construct theirs.

How to get a beautiful girl to approach you

Guys, why do all the hard work? With this video you can learn how to get girls to approach you. Girls, what do you think? Is this advice brilliant or total bull?

Before listening: How would you approach a person you find attractive? How could you make them approach you instead?

1. Listen once and take notes:

  • Tip 1:
  • Tip 2:
  • Tip 3:
  • What else he’s offering

2. Listen again for more details. Do you agree with his advice?

3. Do the language focus exercises

Language Focus:

Giving a presentation/sales pitch

Whatever you think of Mr. Tripp and his advice, it is a well-constructed presentation (and a sales pitch ― he wants you to check out his other products). Look at the excerpts from the presentations below and connect them with the function of each. The first has been done for you. (Answers are below)

  1. Wouldn’t it be great to have a girl finally approach you for once instead of doing all the work and having to muster up the courage to go over and talk to her?
  2. Well, today I’m going show you three steps to get a girl to come over and approach you whether you’re at a bar or out during the day.
  3. And wait for step number 3, where I’ll tell you the most effective way to get her to come over to you.
  4. Let me tell you a quick story
  5. Step number 1: Dress up sexy
  6. The more open that you look, the more open that she’ll feel to start a conversation with you.
  7. So remember: put on some stylish clothing, start with your shoes. Open up your body language and force eye contact with the girl. Then wave her over and give her your killer smile.
  8. So go ahead, click the link, get that series, get it immediately.
  9. Thank you so much for watching and I’ll see you on the next video.
  • A. tell a story to connect with audience and create interest 4
  • B. give a call to action (in other words, tell the audience what to do next)
  • C. ask a rhetorical question to get audience thinking
  • D. give a brief summary before going into detail so you know what to expect
  • E. use sequencing language (first, second, etc.) to give a clear structure to the talk
  • F. emphasize positive the results of following his advice
  • G. provide a “hook” to keep audience listening until the end
  • H. thank the audience
  • I. summarize the info that’s just been presented

Answers: 1C, 2D, 3G, 4A, 5E, 6F, 7I, 8B, 9H

EFL Listening lesson: what one class learned (and taught me) about learner autonomy

This is a story about listening. About about how, in an effort to encourage learner autonomy, I helped some students start to overcome their fears of tackling authentic listening texts. But it’s also about what I discovered from listening to my own students about the strategies they used for tackling authentic texts. And finally, it’s about listening to feedback ― the best kind of feedback a teacher can get.

The story starts in 2015, when I taught four different groups, back to back, at a single company. The first group, Level B2 on the register, made it clear to me from the outset that the one thing they didn’t want was to suffer through another year with a coursebook (business or otherwise) that missed the mark. So we plunged in without one.

Lessons were a combination of articles they found, topics that came up in class, grammar that reflected challenges I picked up on in conversation and writing. Not having a coursebook also freed up time for developing, practicing and doing presentations, which they loved.

Sounds like trouble

The thing that absolutely terrified them, however, was listening. Even with graded listening activities for homework from BBC Learning English, they’d come back agonizing over the accents and lamenting how much they’d missed. We duly worked on individual sounds and connected speech, did targeted dictations and more in-class listening exercises. And I also encouraged them to do individual homework tasks listening to things that interested them.

They soldiered on, but when I asked them to watch some PechaKucha presentations online to get a feel for the format (before doing it ourselves), this group practically went into crisis. It was two American college girls talking about a canoe trip that apparently pushed them over the edge. The students swore they didn’t understand anything. I flipped on the meeting room computer and tried vainly to firefight by revisiting the presentation. Between accent, lexis, speed and sound quality issues, it was a difficult presentation. But at that point it was foolish to even try. Panic had set in. In Krashen’s terms, their affective filters were solidly up.

After the next week’s class, the company’s training manager asked to meet with me so I could justify my methods. She was very polite and understanding while I explained my case, but I was still a bit taken aback by the fact that she’d been called on to intervene at all. It seemed that word was spreading around the company that I was torturing the groups with authentic ― and for that read: impossibly difficult ― sources.

Listening for signs of hope

I had given the same assignment to all four groups, from Pre-Int to Advanced, and I was happy to report to the training manager that not everyone had given in to despair. While there was some of the expected grumbling about not understanding everything from the lower levels, there were two particular students in the B1 group whose reactions interested me. Both had done the homework. But both had taken difficult speakers in stride. Because both had applied different strategies for choosing which presentation to listen to.

The first said she loved bees, and so she listened to a presentation on beekeeping something like 10 times to understand as much as possible. In other words, the topic had intrinsic interest. It was motivating.

The second said he tried one presentation and found it too difficult. He found another too difficult, and another, and kept trying until he found one he could understand. He listened to it a few times ― not as many as the woman ― but enough so that he could complete the task. In other words, he self-selected for difficulty, and found a presentation that was a right fit for his competence.

Both did something I as a teacher would have struggled to do with them individually ― in the first case, find a task that pinpointed a highly motivating interest I hadn’t known existed, and in the second, find a sort of Goldilocks just-right gradation of listening text. Both did something it would have been impossible to accomplish had I imposed a single listening text on them as a class.

Making strategies explicit

I took these revelations home with me and typed up a sort of guide with some tips for grappling with authentic listening texts. The next meeting with the first group was full crisis-management mode, and I shared the tips and we talked calmly through what makes authentic texts hard, but what can make them easier.

The biggest revelation for them, I think, was that they had the power to choose. Rather than torturing themselves with the first listening text they found, they could self-select. Select for interest or select for difficulty. But it was up to them.

After that, we tried a number of the usual authentic sources, including one of my favorites, The Week’s This Week I Learned podcast by Lauren Hansen. It’s 12 minutes or so of summaries of the sort of random, interesting things you expect to find around the internet on any given week. I like it because each piece averages about 3 minutes, the production quality is very good, it’s downloadable and there’s something for everybody. (To be fair, it serves up exactly the sort of the pub quiz trivia that gets shoehorned into the already overcrowded columns on your average coursebook layout, but the advantage of sending students individually to the podcast is that they can choose what actually interests them.)

Building confidence

I told them to each listen to what they wanted and then come back and share what they’d learned. When they wanted more community support, they agreed between them to all choose and listen to the same text each week ― a sort of listening club. To keep it fresher, however, I encouraged them to form two teams, write up some questions, and quiz each other. The game-aspect seemed to motivate them even more to understand and stump the opposing group with their questions. Autonomy doesn’t necessarily mean go it alone.

At the end of the course they not only delivered great final-day presentations, but gave me a wonderful and generous send-off, with a pizza party and a Christmas basket to boot. And then the classes stopped.

The company didn’t start lessons again. Had I done the right thing or scared them off English? I wondered. Until about a year later.

The sound of learner autonomy

While browsing through the toasters in a big electronics megastore one Sunday morning I bumped into one of the women from that B2 course. We chatted about our holidays. And when I asked if she saw the others much her response made me grin from ear to ear.

Every week, she reported. They contacted each other to pick a listening activity from This Week I Learned, listen together, and discuss. What I’d dubbed their listening club was continuing as before, alone, without the aid of a teacher.

It’s the best feedback a teacher, or rather an educator, can get: the knowledge that their time with you actually made a difference in their educational development. Not in the sense of she can use the present perfect a little better, but as in she’s left the class better equipped to pursue her own education and development in English.

Because that, I thought, the grin still plastered to my face, sounds like learner autonomy.

The moral of the story

The moral, I think, is that if we want to encourage learner autonomy we have to

  • get our students to practice it by giving them space on the calendar/syllabus and opportunity through individual or group choice of texts, topics, etc.
  • find out what strategies they’re using and help those not using good strategies to do so (my “listening plan”, mentioned above, is one such attempt). If this information and encouragement comes from your students and not you, even better.

 

How do you encourage students to deal with authentic listening texts outside – or inside – class?

How to use the internet to improve your listening skills

Are your students struggling with authentic listening activities?

Below is a brief guide I wrote to help my EFL students overcome both confidence issues and poor strategic choices when doing independent listening at home (the full story of which can be found here).

In addition to coaching them on how to choose what to listen to, the point was to make the structure of standard-issue listening activities visible to them so that they could make it part of a self-guided listening routine.

For the record, this is not a replacement for doing regular listening work in the classroom, whether it’s activities you’ve created, canned coursebook texts or ad-hoc micro-dictations. But this guide gives students one more tool for developing independence and autonomy in their learning.

Since I first created it, I’ve used it with a number of groups from lower intermediate to advanced level. Sometimes I’ve read through it in class, point by point. Other times I’ve just handed it out and had the students read through it (and apply it) at home. But in any case I regularly have students bring in the results of their independent listening to share and guide discussion in class.

Feel free to use it or adapt it as you like for your classrooms!

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

How to use the internet to improve your listening skills

Do you get nervous at the thought of listening online? You shouldn’t! When you listen to anything online, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Be selective

First, be selective about what you listen to. You’re going to spend 10-20 minutes on this, so don’t just force yourself to listen to the first thing you find. Being selective means you should prioritize:

  • Brevity ― a 2-3 minute selection will probably be more doable than a 10 minute selection because you’ll be able to go back and re-listen to it.
  • Difficulty ― choose something that’s a good challenge, but not impossible.
  • Interest ― a topic you’re really interested in will usually motivate you to try to understand more. (Also, you might already know something about the topic, which will help.)

Don’t stress about catching every word

Next, don’t stress about not understanding every word. Remember, in real life, when you listen to the radio in the car or at home, you probably don’t pay attention to or hear every word. You hear some important points and then later reconstruct a memory of what you heard. Also, remember that a lot of things like pop music and talk radio can be difficult for even native speakers to understand, because it’s fast, the sound quality may not be good, people don’t always speak/sing clearly or the speaker’s accent might be unfamiliar.

Have a plan

Finally, have a plan for when you listen. It’s important to listen more than once and think about different things each time. My listening plan would look something like this:

 

Listening Plan

  1. Before you listen, look at the title and (possible) summary. Think about the following questions:
    • What do you know about the topic?
    • Have you heard anything about it in the news?
    • What do you think they’re going to talk about?
  1. Listen once:
    • Who? What? How? Where? When? Why?
    • Briefly summarize (out loud or in writing) what you heard/understood. Realizing what you understood/didn’t understand should help you focus on what to listen for next.
  1. Listen twice for more detail about the previous questions.
  2. Listen three times:

Write down some key vocabulary. I’d try to put key vocabulary in 2 categories:

  • Key topic-related vocabulary (if the topic is “Scientists discover water on Mars”, topic-related vocabulary like: spaceship, astronaut, space probe, atmosphere, etc.)
  • Other interesting/important/unknown words you hear. It can be words you know, or words you don’t know.

 

Mars/space vocabulary Other
spaceship

astronaut

space probe

atmosphere

find out

seek out

investigate

 

(If there’s a script, listen a fourth time with the script. Check your vocabulary list against the text and add to it.)

  1. After listening:

Say or write a brief summary of what you heard, using the key vocabulary you wrote down. Look up any unfamiliar words. Then, go and listen to something else on the same topic ― you might find a lot of similar vocabulary, and maybe even find you understand more!

Conclusion

At first, it may seem like a lot of steps, but the better and better you get, the fewer steps you’ll actually have to do. The goal in the end is to automatize the whole process so you listen consciously and effectively but without the stress. Follow these tips and you’ll be healthier, happier, more confident and have stronger listening skills.

The Flipped Language Classroom: a case study

I’ve been pretty busy with my MA over the last few months, but have taken a sneaky couple of hours off essay writing to share this. 

In the not-so-distant past I was DoS in a private language school. I was asked to write a new set of syllabi, and the management team decided that these should follow the principles of the flipped classroom.

The students and the course package

Our students were mainly adult working people who were attending lessons in the evening. Courses were comprised of three elements: a group lesson for two hours once a week (60 hours an academic year); unlimited access to free group conversation with a fluent English speaker; and an online platform provided with the coursebook used in class.

Why change your syllabus?

These were our reasons, some of them will sound familiar:

  1. Our students expected to complete a whole CEFR level during in the short academic year which ran from October to May, while only coming to class once a week.
  2. EAQUALS accreditation requires that syllabi are mapped to the CEFR, our old syllabus was not.
  3. We had no scheme of work. If students missed lessons, it was difficult for the admin team to tell them what they needed to catch up on, ditto for late starters.
  4. Our old syllabi were heavily grammar or function focused. Skills were largely absent.
  5. End of module tests often assessed students on discrete language points that hadn’t been taught (because there was no scheme of work).
  6. Often the teachers didn’t have time to get to the practice part of the (usually PPP) lesson in the course book, or to use the teacher’s book activities. Being (in my opinion) the most useful and fun part of the lesson, and the only part that the students couldn’t do on their own, it was a mistake for them to be neglected.
  7. Students had commented that the group conversation element was not relevant to what they studied in class.

 

How we did it: getting rid of the grammar

As we were already offering a blended course, we decided to ‘flip’ the online platform content i.e. learners would use this to study and practise grammar points before coming to class.

I designed a scheme of work detailing the content of each lesson for each level. Explicit grammar presentation was removed completely. We instructed the teachers to refer students to the grammar reference part of their books and study it at home.

The productive practice (speaking) exercises for language systems in the course book became the main focus of each lesson, thus our syllabus became predominantly skills based. Teachers were encouraged to have students repeat tasks, and were given training on how to personalise and extend activities in different ways.

Although a scheme of work may sound prescriptive, we allowed for some flexibility to avoid the dreaded ‘teaching from the book’ syndrome and adapt lessons to students’ interests. In each module there was a Dogme-style lesson, when learners brought in their own texts. Another was simply ‘a YouTube video’. Teachers were given freedom in terms of content, but support with lesson planning and staging.

The group conversation element of their package was integrated with the syllabus, and used as practice for specific skills or language points, using the teacher’s book materials. Extensive reading was also encouraged by asking learners to borrow graded readers and discussing their reactions to the text.

 

Resistance- Teachers’ comments:

“It’s a lot. I think they’ll feel overwhelmed. I don’t think all of them will do their homework.”

 

“It’s very different from the education system they’re used to.”

 

“They might get used to it by module.”

 

“It’ll be a bumpy beginning.”

 

We had a pretty good idea that the teachers wouldn’t be happy about the changes. The biggest adjustment for them would be giving up their trusty PPP framework.  The students, too, would no doubt feel that a complete absence of grammar from the programme was too radical and destabilising. To counter this, the scheme of work included a ‘Grammar SOS’ session every 5 weeks. This was a 20 minute slot of lesson time dedicated to extra practice or clarification of grammar points. Students were asked to prepare questions for the teacher in advance of the lesson.

Flipping the grammar input also meant that things got tricky for the teachers if the students hadn’t studied at home. We encouraged them to soldier on with their lesson in this case, thus forcing the students (we hoped) to become more independent learners.

Assessment

The fact that the syllabus was (in part) a-posteriori, and not structural, meant that we could assess our students purely through skills. Unfortunately, this made marking (of the productive skills) more time consuming, and also more subjective. We had to produce our own set of assessment criteria and carry out standardisation, since the teachers would eventually be marking their students’ work.  

Outcomes

Implementing a flipped syllabus meant that there was much more onus on the learners to study independently. Some protested about this of course, but as we explained to them, this was the only way they would get the results they wanted in the time they had available (i.e by attending school only once a week).

After the predicted bumpy beginning, when we asked for student feedback it was 90% positive. Most students said that they didn’t mind studying the grammar at home, and that they understood and appreciated the methodology we were trying to deliver.

What do you think?

How would your students react if they had a flipped syllabus thrust upon them like this?

How would you react if you were told not to teach grammar?

First lesson routines: get beyond getting to know you and start building class culture

What is your first class or first lesson for? Getting to know you? Or just getting through the first page of the coursebook? In Planning Lessons and Courses, Tessa Woodward says that first lessons are an opportunity for:

  • Name learning
  • Building a sense of community
  • Understanding student expectations
  • Assessing level

While I agree, I would add three things:

    1. Materials distribution: Decidedly unsexy, but if you’ve got admin duties like passing out coursebooks you’ve got to schedule time for it.
    2. Grammatical or lexical improvement: it might sound obvious, but I have previously been guilty of forgetting that students should both learn and practice new language on Day 1, of forgetting that when students think “What did I learn today?” they’ll be thinking in terms of discrete grammar items (and not in terms of community-building).
    3. Establishing class culture

Number 3, I think, might need some explaining. What is class culture? To paraphrase a great definition from a different context (by Jason Fried, founder of program management app Basecamp), [class] culture is the by-product of consistent behavior. In other words, from how you teach, to what you teach, to how you interact with students and expect them to interact with each other, your class culture will be the result of what you do everyday. Whether your classes are conversation-driven or lockstep by-the-(course)book, whether you’re up scribbling at the whiteboard or hovering over their busily working pairs, whether you’re assigning day one homework or giving them the night off, your first lesson routine should exemplify the principles you teach by. Day one is never a one-off.

And in order to be true to the kind of culture I want to help foster in the classroom, some years ago I decided the best way to start any class is engage with my students, with nothing more than a pen and paper.

My first day routine goes something like this:

PART 1

Take the focus off you with a mingle activity

I really don’t like the me-centric, time-killing forced conversations you go through when waiting for the class to arrive and settle in. So once the proverbial bell rings (or the real one, if you’ve got one), I switch the dynamic, no matter how many students are still missing.

Get up and find three things in common with each of the other people in the class. The following things do not count:

  • anything with the words Italy/Italian
  • evident physical similarities
  • where you live or went to school

Why? I teach mostly monolingual Italians, mostly who come from the provincial city in which I work (which means they mostly go to the same schools). And evident physical similarities ― we both wear glasses, we’re both wearing jeans ― are just too obvious. I want them to dig a little deeper.

“Find X things in common” is great because it forces them to ask questions, and lots of them. And any mingle activity is great because it gives you lots of opportunity to hear them talk, and note down good/improvable language. And as the late arrivals filter in, you can shove them into the mix.

Stop the activity at an appropriate time. While they’re still on their feet, tell them they’re going to have to tell the class what they have in common with other people. And they’re going to have to name names. So give them one last chance to double check names with the people they talked to. Have them sit down. You might want to give them some whole-class feedback about positive/problematic structure, lexis, etc., particularly if you think it will be important in sharing what they have in common. Or you might want to put it on the back burner until later.

Ask everyone to share what they have in common with one other person, introducing that person by name. And tell them to pay attention, because there’ll be a quiz. As the chain of contributions advances, you should repeat the names as much as possible, both for yourself and for the sake of the students.

Finally, quiz them: Who studies Engineering? Who also speaks German? Who went to France for holiday? etc.

PART 2

All about me: getting to know the teacher

Now I give them the chance to do what they’ve been dying to, which is find out something about me, the foreigner.

Now, it’s your turn. You can ask me anything you want. Personal, professional, whatever.

There’s usually a moment of silence as everyone (or at least the most courageous) starts mentally scrambling for what to ask. Then I add:

Ok, I’ll give you some help. You’ll have some time to think of the questions you want to ask, and write down the questions. And you can do it in groups.

Put the students into small groups. You’ll want to have at least two.

Write 5 (or 7, or 10 ― in inverse proportion to the number of groups) questions you want to ask me. But your group is your team. The goal is to ask me the original questions. You get a point for each original question you ask. If they other team thinks of the same question, you don’t get a point.

Why? Because, just like my list of too-obvious similarities, this point-per-original-question system eliminates the usual small-talk list of questions. It will give them some often juicier things to remember about you. And it may reveal a lot about their personalities and preoccupations (I’ve had students ask me things like “How many girlfriends have you had?”)

I will, however, give them another chance at the end to ask me anything that we didn’t talk about during the game (where I’m from, etc.).

When they’ve got their list of questions, I say:

You’re going to ask me your questions. But I’ll only answer “grammatically correct” questions (more on this admittedly problematic term in a future post). Double-check to make sure your questions are grammatically correct.

Give them a few minutes to check their questions again (without asking you for help). As they finish checking, ask each group for a team name. I usually suggest silly American-pro-sports-type names like the Jaguars or the Tigers, but they can choose whatever they want.

Let the teams take turns to ask questions, and after you answer them, award one point per original question. Tell groups to shout out if a group reads a question that they’ve also written (in which case no point is awarded).

Dealing with grammatical incorrectness

The best way to deal with a grammatically incorrect questions is simply don’t hear it: play deaf. What? Sorry? What? Students quickly realize they’ve got to reformulate. Give them a number of chances, then help nudge them in the right direction. Then, after you finally “hear” the question and answer it, ask them to repeat the original (as-written) question again and explain the problem.

Getting beyond accuracy

Some other things I “correct” for are appropriacy, register, intonation and idiomaticity. For example, I make it clear that questions like With whom did you go on holiday? are accurate, but sound strangely formal in spoken English. I also make a point about the inappropriacy of the age question (they always ask). Admittedly, if I’m encouraging students to ask me about my past girlfriends on a first meeting, they might as well as me how old I am, too. But does any adult, in any culture, really ask “How old are you?” ― or volunteer that information ― the first time they meet someone?

You can board the problems in shorthand (pres. perf vs. past simple, preposition position in questions, final -s, etc.). When someone makes a similar mistake, help nudge them toward a better question by referring back to the original group who made and explained the mistake ― and let them re-explain it ― or point to the board to show them the problem.

And by boarding such a list, you’re taking the first steps toward creating the kind of grammatical syllabus that addresses their specific needs, not those simply generalized in a course book list.

Follow up

Once you’ve tallied up the points and declared a winner (even though the focus is clearly on the process, and not winning points, it’s still important to keep up the pretense of the game all the way to the end) the first thing I like to do is see what they remember. I say:

Now, with your partners, quickly write down everything you remember about me.

I like including a step like this in any teacher-class or student-class interaction (like presentations) because it allows them to communicatively and communally (re)construct what they’ve learned. And gives those who may not have been paying attention a chance back in.

You can quickly check a few facts, based on their questions (What did I say my most embarrassing moment was?) or let them quiz the other groups.

Turning on each other

Now tell them they’re going to ask each other the questions they’d written for you. Give them a minute to edit their question list ― if any deal with you explicitly as a foreigner, or based on some specific knowledge ― and rewrite those that would inappropriate for their classmates. You can model and then elicit some changed questions.

Monitor and get whole-class feedback, asking each student to share the two or three most interesting things they learned about their partner.

PART 3

Writing: my personal profile

The next step is to get students to write a personal profile. I’ve written my own example as a model. Below is the B2 edition, at Cambridge-First-appropriate 140-190 words. I’ve also got other exam-appropriate editions for other levels. Before giving it to them, I ask:

When would you write a personal profile? (e.g. specific social media contexts)

What info would you include in a personal profile to share with your classmates? (e.g. name, date of birth, reason for taking the class etc.) Board their answers.

Then I hand out my profile:

personal-profile-text-image

I tell students to quickly scan for the information thought they might find. What was included? What wasn’t? Then I ask them to check if I’d answered any of the questions from the getting to know me game.

Writing the student profile

The next step is for students to write their own profiles ― whether in class or at home. To get them prepared for the activity, make sure to highlight:

  • Organization ― paragraphs, headings, title
  • Content ― I want background and course goals, but the specifics are up to them
  • Word count, if relevant

Next steps

What do they do with the profile? I text like this is meant to be read by others, so the worst option for you would be to collect them and comment on them in private. Instead, I’d recommend:

  • Live carrousel: Students tape their completed texts to the wall. The class circulates and reads. I like to have students comment on other texts in some way to generate more discussion. You can have students put their initials next to things they have in common with the writer, or put their initials + a question mark about something they want to ask. When all the texts have been read, the writer takes down his or her profile and then finds the people who’ve written their initials to discuss commonalities or answer questions. As the teacher, you can underline examples of good and problematic language (you didn’t pick up while monitoring the writing phase) to be discussed in group feedback. But don’t forget to put your initials to commonalities first (sometimes it’s easy to forget that the profile was written for a real purpose ― to introduce the writer to you as a reader ― and that you’re more than just a red pen!)
  • Virtual carrousel: Increasingly, I use Google Docs to share class work, and any similar cloud-based document sharing app will do. Essentially, the idea is to have students post their profiles on a shared document, and to leave comments as above. Profile writers can respond in the comments.

Conclusion

As of this writing, that’s my day one routine. Like all great routines, it focuses on the big blocks and leaves lots of room for improvisation where it counts, like getting feedback and working with emergent language (but make sure you plan for the worst, as well). And it, along with my day one reading homework, serves to set expectations for the kind of contributions I expect from the students, and what they can expect from me. And crucially, it’s not a one-off or something to get out of the way, but the foundation for the consistent class culture I hope to establish.

Now, over to you: what’s your day one routine?

 

References:

Woodward, Terssa. Planning Lessons and Courses. Cambridge University Press, 2001.