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:


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.


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.


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:


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.


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?



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

Long Live Exam Prep! Part minus 2 B: The Carousel Quiz


In Part Minus 2 A (this is getting silly-I’m so sorry!), I explained the first half of a first lesson to use with exam prep classes (or indeed any class over B1). Now comes the nitty gritty focus-on-the-exam bit. To do this I use a multi-skill activity that I call a carousel quiz. You do need some materials for this, but fortunately they are freely available. Here’s the link to the Cambridge English : First Handbook for teachers, which is all you’ll need for this FCE activity. We had a set of them at our school. Cambridge used to send free copies out, but I’m not sure if they do that anymore. You could have the students download it or view it on their mobile phones. Alternatively you could print it out before the lesson.

(There are similar resources for IELTS, PET, CAE and CPE)

The steps:

  1. Ask the students to brainstorm what they know about the exam. Generally this is very little. Accept everything they say and get it up on the board. Guide them with some questions like: How long is it? How many papers are there? How many pieces of writing do you need to produce? What do you do in the speaking test?
  2. Refer them to page 2 of the handbook: ‘Content and Overview’. Give them 5 minutes to scan for the correct information. Elicit what they got right and what they got wrong.
  3. Now tell them to concentrate on one part of the exam per group. So ideally you’ll have 4 groups and they take one paper each (splitting up Reading and Use of English). Tell them to refer to the relevant part of the handbook to read about their section of the exam in more detail.
  4. Explain that they’re going to make a quiz about their section for the other students. You can give them some question stems to guide them like: ‘What do you have to do in….’, or ‘What are they testing in…….’, or ‘How long is……’. Give them a fixed number of questions depending on how much time you’ve got. Monitor and help as needed.
  5. When they have their questions and are ready to go, ask one or two of the students to stand up in each group. Tell them to move clockwise around the room, taking their copy of the questions about their section, and sit at the next table. You should have two students from group A with group B, two students of group B with group C and so on. They ask each other their questions, awarding points for right answers and deducting them for wrong answers. They’re allowed to refer to the handbook. Then the same students stand up and move around again. This is repeated until they’ve spoken to everybody and they wind up back at their own table.


  • It’s student centred! Why spend the evening before making a quiz yourself when you’re the one who’s proficient in English? Let them work on the language.
  • They get a clear idea of what’s expected of them in the exam. Often this doesn’t happen until the exam date is looming, by which time it’s too late. Giving them this information in the first lesson allows then to prioritise and organise their study.

But it’s not perfect….

  • It can get a bit long, and the pace can drop as a result, so have something a bit lively up your sleeve for the last 15 minutes.
  • I’m not sure whether all the vocabulary is actually that useful. There’s a lot of teaching jargon that can be confusing.

Give it a spin and tell me what you think!

Promoting learner autonomy from day one: individual selection of reading texts in the ELT classroom (Part 1)

I believe that promoting learner autonomy is essential for both success and enjoyment in classroom language learning.

What is learner autonomy in the EFL classroom? In terms of the classes I teach I broadly define it as learners making decisions about what we do during the course.

This simple definition includes the idea that they are part of a class (“we”) gathered for a specific duration, and that decisions can be made both individually and collectively, in relation to classroom activity and out-of-class homework.

One of most straightforward ways to encourage this is giving students choice over the texts and topics we study in class and for homework.

Here is one activity for promoting autonomous choice of texts and topics that I’ve used with upper-intermediate and advanced EFL classes, adults and high school kids (but could conceivably be used in many other contexts).

Autonomy in text choice: day 1 reading homework

The first day of a new course is not only for introductions and getting to know each other, but also for establishing expectations about the rest of the term. If you plan to promote learner autonomy, there’s no better time to start.

At the end of day one of the course, I give the following homework assignment:

For homework, find something interesting to read on the internet. Print it out, read it and bring it. Be prepared to talk about it with your classmates.

That means everybody will come to class with a different reading text. Sounds like a recipe for classroom chaos, right? What do you do with all those texts?

Actually, this is part of a multi-step procedure which I’m going to explain in-depth below (steps 1 and 2) and in the next post (steps 3 and 4).

  • Independent text selection/reading
  • Student interaction/peer sharing
  • Teacher-led discussion and task-analysis
  • Whole class single-text intensive reading (optional)

Just to be clear up-front, this isn’t a warmer, or something you squeeze in between other activities. The in-class portions (Part 2 & 3) could easily run 1½ ― 2 hours. In other words, this is your class.

As you’ll see, this process gives students autonomous choice within the group (perhaps their first in a language class), offers maximum speaking practice (while putting new lexis into use), addresses problems of and offers support for developing learner autonomy and opens new doors to future lessons and the course as a whole.

1. Independent text selection/reading

As stated above, the task asks students to find a text for reading and study, and be prepared to share it with their classmates.

When I assign the homework I emphasize that they’ve got total control over topic, source and text genre (it could be an article, a blog post, a letter to the editor, an advertisement, anything as long as it’s written).

I don’t usually front-load this first homework assignment with extra tasks, but depending on your teaching style or context, you could add the following tweaks to the assignment:

  • Write a 100-word summary
  • Write down, define and write an example sentence for 10 keywords/phrases essential for understanding the text

2. Student interaction/peer sharing (day 2, part 1)

In the next lesson, students share what they’ve read. You could put students in pairs, but the best thing about this situation is that everybody’s got something interesting and different, and I don’t like to limit them to a 1-1 exchange.

It’s also good to remember that at this point you’ve got no idea what they’ve actually brought in. There is no central text, but many different texts, and you’ll want to see and hear about as many as possible.

So instead of pairwork what I like to do instead is have students do a carousel, an activity that I picked up long ago from Scott Thornbury’s invaluable How to Teach Speaking (called “The Poster Carousel” there, on p. 87). Here’s my applied (and modified) version:

The carousel

Have everybody tape their texts to the wall. Half the class stands by their articles, the other half circulates. Students can stop and ask about any articles that look interesting (based on the headlines). They can stay and chat or move on. Then the groups switch. This allows everyone to get to hear from multiple people about different topics, while also giving “presenters” repetition practice as they explain their article to different audiences. Encourage students to ask questions ― it’s a discussion, not a real presentation.

Tweaks and interventions

  • Rehearsal: Before taping up their articles, have everybody take a few minutes to review their text again. If you haven’t asked them to do it as part of the homework, ask them to now write down 10 key words/phrases from the text which will help them explain it from memory. This gives them essential rehearsal time so they don’t simply read from their text on the wall.
  • Constraints: To manage circulation, give students limits, e.g. 15 minutes to hear from 3 presenters (but it doesn’t have to be 5 minutes at each ― encourage them to invest time relative to their interest level).
  • Lexis collection: Students have to collect a set number of key phrases from each presenter.
  • Monitor for language related to explaining, summarizing, asking and answering questions, etc. You can intervene to help students individually, or stop the group mid-task and model/board essential language.

One of the best things about the carrousel activity is that rather than obtrusively looming over (or crouching next to) students as they discuss their texts, you can mingle with them, monitor and note-take much less obtrusively, and have a peek at their articles. And as with any student good activity, your lack of information about article content actually gives you a genuine need to listen and find out more.

But if you’re not used to not having control over the text, don’t panic. Step 4 will give you the opportunity to (optionally) have a more traditional single-text whole-class focus (and give you time to prepare for it).


When both groups have finished, get into small groups to share which article they found most interesting, and why. Groups can then share their favorites with the class. You can also ask for (and board) 10 useful words or expressions they learned. You (or a delegated secretary) should take note of which topics seemed the most popular, key vocabulary, etc. for future reference.

That’s the end of the activity (but not the end of the class, or the process). In the next post, I’ll describe steps 3 and 4, and how you can use individual text selection and the carousel activity as a springboard to helping students better equip themselves for practicing learner autonomy in the EFL/ESL classroom.