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‘Simple ideas aren’t always easy to come by’ a.k.a ‘Repeating a lesson isn’t cheating’

08 Jun

I will be honest and say that Tuesday probably isn’t my favourite day of the week.  I go from 3pm until 9:30pm seeing 4 different classes with only a 15-minute break in the whole thing.  It can be brutal and when I get home I usually don’t have much energy to do anything except eat and then sleep.  This Tuesday was different though and I’ll explain why.

So what did I want from the class?

I have an FCE exam class (more than one actually) and I haven’t really seen much of their writing – I share the class with another teacher who works more on their compositions.  However, I felt it was about time I get a better look at this very important aspect of their English.  I have already been doing some free-writing exercises with them, inspired by Claire Schadle’s article ‘I Don’t Know Why I’m Doing What I’m Doing…But I Like It’ (scroll down to page 27), but I wanted to make this writing more structured with more direction.

I’ve also been thinking recently about explicit grammar and the use of meta-language with learners (I’m not a fan) so I decided I wanted to test a theory I had about that as well.

So what did I do?

I did this with 3 of my 4 classes of the day (my first class missed out on this – sorry); two FCE classes and one PET class.  I wrote down these two sentences at the top of the board.

“Words that describe a thing / Words that describe an action”

I asked for examples. (1, see below)

I then put some letters up on the board: b, c, d, g, j, p, t, v and w.  I chose these ones because we have already been working on the pronunciation of these consonants at the start of words.

Then a simple task – please give an adjective and an adverb for each selected letter. (2)  Once this was done we reviewed the various answers.  The adverbs were definitely more difficult for the learners and there were a lot of wild guesses that, when challenged with “Can you give that to me in a sentence?”, were quickly withdrawn.

Once we had our words I asked them to choose 3 words from both columns (6 in total).  The criterion was simple – choose the words that you are most comfortable using in your writing and speaking.  Then they had the task: use these words in the following writing task.  I wrote this on the board.

Describe your favourite time of the day.

At this point a moment of inspiration struck which I hadn’t planned!  “Stop.  Before you start, what is the goal of your writing and speaking in the FC exam?”

The answer I wanted and eventually got out of them was that writing and speaking are their opportunity to show off their English and show the examiners just how much they know and can use.  I often say “The examiners can’t mark your head.  If you don’t speak it or write it, they can’t reward you for it.”  I’m sure a lot of us say the same. (3)

I suggested three grammatical structures that I knew the students were, supposedly, familiar with: relative pronouns, passives and conditionals.  We then spent a good 15-20 minutes reviewing the structure and, more importantly, the use of these different grammar points.

This was probably my favourite part of the lesson and showed again (see note 1 below) that while the students often recognize the labels of ‘relative pronouns’ or ‘passive voice’, they sometimes don’t have much of an idea about how or why they are used.  I don’t blame any previous teachers here; I think that if you are going to follow a coursebook (almost essential for an exam preparation class) you are really kind of stuck with how this grammar is presented in the book. (4)

The rest of the class went smoothly as the students completed the writing in about 10 minutes and then peer-checked each other’s texts after having gone through an example I wrote while they were writing theirs. (5)

So what did I get from the class?

I was once again saved by some quick thinking and yet more proof that less is more.  This simple idea, which I’d planned to only last about 20-30 minutes, filled the entire 90-minute lesson and the reason it did this is that I’m still bad at foreseeing how much time will be needed by my students to complete exercises, or how much scaffolding needs to be provided to get the learners ready for an activity.

I know that I’ll certainly use these activities again, probably several times but with a condensed vocabulary component at the beginning, at least for students who are already familiar with the process.

So where did it go wrong?

Well for my final class of the day, the PET preparation class, I tried to pad out the activity by giving them all the letters of the alphabet to deal with.  In hindsight this was stupid (and if you are thinking “What an idiot!” right now, I don’t blame you) but this brings me to my final point and the ‘a.k.a.’ of the title.  After having taught the same lesson twice in the same night, I felt I was just cheating if I repeated it a third time.  I tried to improvise, be creative and change a formula that was working.  D’oh!

While such a simple idea for an unplugged lesson would seem to be just that, simple or easy, I would warn you that such ideas are not always winners.  I’d like to give a word to the wise and say that when you find a lesson structure and a natural progression of activities that work, don’t be so eager to improvise around it and see what happens.  It might be a bit boring for you, but for each new class it’s fresh and that’s all that really matters.

Notes/Further Observations

1

Thankfully none of the classes had problems with my definition of adjectives but the second category title, the adverbs, was another story.  Many of the students were a little lost at what I was asking for and I got a few adjectives suggested.  Now, I know I’ve used the term adverb with these students before, especially when looking at Cambridge Use of English practice, but I still can’t say I’m very surprised either – they know the words, the meta-language, but they aren’t so hot when it comes to knowing what an adverb actually is and what is does.  Giving a definition of an adverb without calling it ‘an adverb’ really stumped them.

Does this suggest that we should be trying to reduce meta-language more in the lessons?  I personally think so, but that isn’t the main point of this blog post.

2

I have a question for you?  How often do you actually try to do some of the tasks you set your students while in class?  This activity took me a little longer than I expected.  I hadn’t prepared anything beforehand so I was working alongside my students.  Under pressure to finish first and be ready for them, I did have a couple of moments where my mind went blank.  I see this not as an indication that I should have prepared more before class, but as a reminder that students sometimes need more time than we think they do.

In general, I try to do a few activities ‘with’ the class each lesson.  I think they appreciate seeing me work through what they are working through.  A teacher standing and watching isn’t inspiring and a teacher walking around and observing can be distracting.

3.

However, I am still dealing with some students’ attitude of “I know this and I’ll just do it on the day, don’t worry.”  I’ll let you know when (if) I find a fool-proof (or should I say teenager-proof) retort to that one.

4.

I think the problem is more that coursebooks are notoriously bad at using an abundance of meta-language to label the various sections and exercises.

5.

Again, when I can, I like to go through the process with the students.  This is what I wrote down in about 4 minutes – it was noticed that I actually only used two adverbs, not the three I’d asked for… no one is perfect. 🙂

My Favourite Time of the Day by Gordon

When I have had a terrible day, and my classes have gone dreadfully (we often joke about how much stress the students put me under) I like to go home, dream of being wealthy and not teaching.  This is my favourite time of the day.

If I were rich, I wouldn’t be greedy.  No, I’d be generous.  I would make sure that my money, which would be more than I need, is given carefully to good charities.

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