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A positive learning environment: establishing expectations (Part 3)

Eager children in classThis is the third of a four-part series of articles from Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, about establishing a positive learning environment in the classroom. Here he shares some exercises to help establish expectations of general behaviour from students. 

We have shown our students what kind of behaviour we expect from them as they enter the classroom. Now, let’s discuss what kind of behaviour we expect from them in general.

When I first walked into a class of 36 10-year-olds armed with my knowledge of EFL and many good intentions, I was not aware how completely unprepared I was for the experience. Looking back, I am happy to say, “I survived.” I can also say that I learned a lot. I went into that classroom as their English teacher, when I should have gone in as their teacher. I thought behaviour was someone else’s responsibility. It wasn’t. So, I needed to establish what I expected from my students in our classroom. So, how do you want your students to behave in your class? What do you expect them to do? How will you let them know of your expectations?

Talk to them about it.

Having shown them what I expected in the first 10 minutes, it was time to talk to them about it. Keep the conversation positive. Avoid the words “rules” and “don’t”. Tell them that you consider them responsible people, that they are part of a group, and that every group needs to know what is expected of them in order to work better. With some laughter and wicked smiles, they all agreed.

When students understand why they are doing something, they can do it better. So, talk to them about that routine in the first 10 minutes of class.

- Exercise on the board

By having the exercise on the board, they have something to do when they come in. Tell them that you’ve been a student too and you know that the more time they take to start, the less work they will have. Wasting time means less work. You want to take away that waste of time.

- Warm up to the language

By working individually on a simple exercise they start thinking in English and stop thinking in their own language. It is like warming up slowly before playing a sport or a musical instrument. Remind them that the exercise is easy, based on language they have done and seen before.

- Revision of language learned

As the exercise and the language are both familiar, it is good revision of the language before starting on new material. Tell your students that it is normal to forget. Everyone forgets. But, everyone forgets different things. As a group they know the material, so as a group, they can help each other remember.

- Working as a group

As everyone is working on the exercise, students who know the answer say it to the rest of the class. If they don’t know an answer, or they are not sure, all they have to do is listen. Together, everyone will have the right answers at the end of the activity.

- Opportunity to practice speaking

Tell them you understand that speaking in English is not always easy for everyone. By beginning the class with a simple exercise in which everyone has the answers, they have an opportunity to speak using simple language. This will give them confidence for more complex speaking activities later on in the lesson. It is like training during the week before a big football game on Sunday, or practicing a musical instrument before playing at a concert.

- Everyone can do it

Remind them that the activity at the beginning of the class is based on effort, not on knowledge. Everyone can do it. What they don’t know, they will get by listening to others in the class. They can improve their pronunciation in the same way – listening to others who give the answers. Reinforce the idea that, if they want to, everyone can do this.

 “I am a responsible person.”

When you have finished the discussion, take out a piece of blank , white paper and write in large letters, “I am a responsible person” in the centre of the page. For older students, at a higher level of English, I would write, “I am a responsible person and deserve to be treated as one.” Ask them to sign it, if they agree with the sentence. Some students may not sign just to see if you will notice, some to see what you will do, and others, (especially teenagers), because they enjoy having a “rebellious” nature. At this point, simply collect the paper and put it up in the classroom.

By discussing what you do in class and why, you are already treating your students as responsible people. You are showing them that what you do is to help them, because you believe they can do it. You are establishing a positive learning environment because you believe all of them can and will learn.

Next week I will be covering establishing expectations for the lessons in general.


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A positive learning environment: the first 10 minutes (Part 2)

Eager children in classThis is the second of a four-part series of articles from Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, about establishing a positive learning environment in the classroom. Here he shares some exercises to engage students before the lesson begins. 

Following on from last week’s post, we have our students working on a simple exercise, in this case, simply writing words from the board whose letters have been scrambled. We have set the pace of their work and eventually, you can get them to do such a simple exercise within about 5 minutes. Once students have completed the exercise, you can use it to start working on their speaking skills at a very basic level.

Let’s use this exercise as an example. Students have a list of words that they have written correctly.  Usually I aim for a list of between 8 and 10 words to make it challenging.

  1. retrohb – brother
  2. tanu – aunt
  3. nusico – cousin
  4. rsites – sister
  5. ehrtom – mother
  6. aefhtr – father
  7. celnu – uncle
  8. eehnpw – nephew
  9. ceein – niece
  10. adeguhtr – daughter

1.

Confirm that everyone in class has the right answer. Ask a volunteer for number 1, another volunteer for number 2, and so on. At the end, there is no excuse for anyone in the class not to have the answer. You can go around the class until everyone has heard the words twice.

2.

Then, pick up the pace a little. Go around the class again asking for the answers, but this time a little faster. Start with volunteers, but then start choosing the students to answer. Again go through the list about 2 times, or even only once, if it becomes very easy for them.

At this point you are telling your students 2 things: One, that they should know the answers. Two, by choosing some of the students to answer, you can choose any that are distracted or talking to someone else. They will soon understand that they can easily be a target. If a student does not answer, do not wait for them too long. You want to keep the pace of the exercise challenging.

3.

For large classes there may be some students who have not yet said a word. Start again with number 1, choosing a student to say it. Point to a student and say number 2. Then, point to a student and simply say “next”. Then, point to another student and again say “next”. By simply saying “next” all students in class will need to listen in order to know which word to say. Keep a challenging pace, so they don’t get distracted.

At this point you can divide your class into 2 – 4 groups. Say “next” to a student in each group. If the student cannot say the word, they must sit down. Go through the list twice. The group with the most students standing, wins. As it is a game, don’t wait too long for them to say the word.

4.

Finally, have the students “build” a memory chain with the words.

- Ask a student to say any word they want from the list.

   Student1: “mother”

- Ask the student sitting next to them to repeat the word and add another.

   Student 2: “mother, uncle”

- Ask the student sitting next to them to repeat the first words and add another.

   Student 3: “mother, uncle, niece”

- Continue until the chain is broken, or students have completed a chain of six words.

A chain of six words can be challenging for younger teens. You can challenge older students by asking them to complete a chain of 8 words. If a student cannot continue the chain, then it begins again from the next student.

Each step in the activity has challenged students a little more than the previous, even though the language itself remained the same. Weaker students listen in order to have the answer. By simply saying “next” students have to listen to each other in order to know what word to say. Doing the activity in groups and the memory chain adds memory to further challenge the students, as well as continuing to encourage them to listen to each other. While stronger students may find the language easy, remembering the order of the words keeps them interested in the activity. More importantly, for any student or group to be successful, they depend on others to be able to say their word and continue the chain. When a student is not listening and so cannot continue, the whole group loses. In this way, students who are distracted in class are encouraged to listen not only by the teacher, but by their classmates too, in order for all of them to complete the chain.

In this simple way, all students have had an opportunity to speak in class, albeit only one word. But this is important, because through these simple activities, you are telling your students that:

  • you will help them get the right answer,
  • you will confirm the right answer for everyone,
  • you will give them an opportunity to practice the language,
  • you will make it challenging and, hopefully, fun.

Everyone can participate.

My aim is to be able to do this in the first 10 minutes of class. Then, I am ready to begin my lesson.


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A positive learning environment: the first 10 minutes (Part 1)

Eager children in classVerissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, looks at some different ways to establish a positive learning environment in the classroom.

Behind every activity in the classroom is the question of behaviour. If you’re lucky, you don’t have to think about it, as your students are motivated to learn and behave accordingly. However, as the teaching of English as a foreign language moves beyond the smaller classes of private language schools into the larger classes of mainstream education, teachers know that student behaviour becomes a key aspect of every lesson and every activity. Mixed abilities, different learning preferences, intrinsic motivation, and varying attitudes towards learning become more important considerations for the teacher, and activities that would work in smaller classes don’t in larger ones.

In this series of blog posts, I will focus on establishing a positive learning environment, taking into consideration the nature of larger classes in a mainstream environment, where English may be seen as another subject like Maths or Science. In these circumstances, many students see success as a good grade on a test rather than the ability to communicate that is implicit in communicative language teaching (CLT).

I have always found that the best way to communicate with my students is to show them what I want rather than to tell them. So, in my larger classes, where motivation to communicate was low and the difference in competencies was very high, I focussed on the first ten minutes of class.

1.

As students entered the classroom, I wrote on the board what I expected them to do. It was a simple exercise, maybe words we had learned the previous lesson with the letters scrambled. I might simply write the page number and exercise from their workbook.

My aim was for them to have something to do when they walked into the classroom. No more aimless talking until I told them to sit down and take out their books. No initial explanations that led to using L1 to get them seated and quiet. More importantly, students who were ready to work would have something to do and could simply get on with it. They didn’t need to wait for everyone else.

I didn’t need to repeat instructions. To those who had not yet started working, I simply looked at them and then looked at the board. The message was clear. Of course, some protested that I had not told them we had already started. I patiently ignored them, not falling into the trap of explaining what we already knew.

2.

About a minute into the exercise, when I knew some students had the first answers, I would simply say, “Number 1. Does anyone have number 1?” Before any student said the answer there would be protests from some students who had not yet started, that I was rushing them, that this was not fair. I smiled and said, “Relax, I’m only asking for number 1.” A student would say the answer to number 1 and I would wait for them to continue the exercise.

It is important for teachers to set the pace of an exercise in their classrooms. Students quickly learn that the longer they take to do something the less material they will have to do in class; in essence, taking longer means less work. By asking for the answer to number 1, I am simply setting the pace of the activity for them. I am telling them they should have started the exercise, that they should already have the answer to number 1. If they don’t someone has just given it to them. All they have to do is to listen. I wait another few seconds and ask if anyone has the answer to number 2. Again, there will be protests, but fewer this time.

Beginning my classes in this way I have communicated some very important points to my students.

First, they all have something to do when they walk into the classroom. There is no need to wait for the teacher to repeatedly tell them to sit down, take out their books, and turn to a certain page to do a certain exercise.

Second, I can focus on the students who are working and not on those who are not. By asking for the answer, I allow students who have worked to participate more in class.

Equally important, I have taken away any reason for weaker students to hold up the class with excuses and poor working habits. The exercise is simple and clear. I usually begin with scrambled words on the board based on vocabulary we have been learning. I even write the page number on the board. In this way, they can use their books to find the words in order to write them correctly. In essence, the activity is based on effort, not on knowledge. Anyone who wants to do it can, no excuses.

Also important for today’s students whose attention span is getting shorter is that I have not had to explain the exercise. It is obvious what they are expected to do. If I need to, I can even ask a student who knows the answer to come up to the board and write the word, thus demonstrating to everyone what is expected. There is no need for lengthy explanations.

Finally, I have provided students a transition from using their first language when they came into the classroom to focussing on English. The exercise acts as revision of a previous lesson, helping theme to focus on the upcoming lesson.

My initial aim is for students to finish the exercise in 5 to 10 minutes. Eventually, I will want them to finish the exercise in less than 5 minutes so that I can go on to use the language of the exercise in order to work on their speaking skills. That will be the subject of my next post. Then, we will move on to the lesson itself.

As you try this in your classes, remember to make the exercise simple, clear, quick to complete, and quick to correct. Your aim is not only the language. Your aim, at this point, is also to have the class work better so that everyone can learn better.


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Using a social media project as a tool for motivating young adults learning English

Close up of smartphone with social media icons

Image courtesy of pixabay.

Stacey Hughes, former EFL teacher, is a teacher trainer in our Professional Development team. Here she uses course material from Network to explore how social media can be used in the classroom to motivate young adults learning English.

Want to get young adult learners really motivated? Then make the language they are learning meaningful by linking it to authentic English practice opportunities. One way to do this is to set up a social networking project in which students can apply the vocabulary, grammar and communication skills they have built up in class. In this blog I will first list some of the pedagogical benefits of using a social media project. I’ll then suggest a few ideas for projects before outlining how a social media project can be set up in class.

Why use a social media project?

A social media project provides English practice opportunities in an environment that is familiar. Many of our students frequently use social media already when they tweet, post questions or comments online, blog, share videos or links, and chat online. By linking this social media use to English learning, students feel that what they are learning is meaningful for authentic communication and they can personalise learning as they build a network of classmates and peers to communicate with. Social media also provides plenty of models for how language is actually used and endless opportunities to use critical thinking skills to evaluate sources of information. Finally, social media projects can show young adults how to apply social media skills to further their professional growth.

Examples of social media projects

Social media projects aim to get students to use social networks to perform authentic tasks or solve authentic problems. Smaller projects include creating a profile or uploading and sharing a photo with a comment. An example of a larger project might be researching to find a place to live or places to stay on holiday. The projects can be chosen to suit the language level of the student.

Below is a list of social media projects you can do with your students.

  1. Build a personal or professional profile
    Students decide how much information to share and the best image of themselves to project, where to post the profile and how to share it so others can see it.
  2. Post a blog or comment
    Students respond to another blog or set up their own personal or professional blog. They comment on and rate an article, product or event.
  3. Connect online
    Students find an old school friend or a new friend in another country, join a group online that shares their interests, or collaborate on a project.
  4. Investigate something local
    Students learn about a local problem, find out about local events, or contact an organisation in their community.
  5. Find out
    Students find places to stay when travelling, find a job or a place to live, find a suitable restaurant – the possibilities are endless.
  6. Evaluate a website
    Students decide whether the information on a website is credible or not, or if a site or posting adheres to accepted ‘netiquette’.
  7. Game
    This may seem an odd choice, but there is a lot of language involved in learning the rules of the game and playing it well. Many games also have online forums and opportunities to link up online with other gamers.

Lesson plan for setting up a social media project

The following example of a social media project could be done over several weeks.

Use social networking to find a job

Level: Elementary and above

Aim: Students will research job finding resources and present their findings to the rest of the class.

  1. Lead-in: use an image or anecdote to begin a discussion about finding a job. Ask students if they have experience looking for a job and what resources they used to find one. Find out if they use any social networks (friends, family connections or social networks online) to look for jobs. This discussion could bring up some interesting cultural differences.
  2. Put students into pairs or small groups to brainstorm resources they could use to find a job. They should list a variety of resources, not just online ones. Ask each group to share their list with the class. Example resources include a career centre at school, newspapers, websites, professional networks, company web pages, jobs fairs, and personal networks (friends and families).
  3. Write the following questions on the board:
    1. Where is it?
    2. Who can use it? How?
    3. What kind of information is available?
    4. Do you get personal attention?
    5. Can you set up interviews?
    6. What employers use this resource?
  4. Ask each group to research the job-finding resources they have brainstormed and answer the questions. You may ask each member of the group to research a different type of resource, or each student could research them all. The research can be assigned for homework.
  5. If you are doing the project over the course of several weeks, ask students to bring in examples of new vocabulary they have found. Use these new terms to create vocabulary walls or a class wiki.
  6. Bring the groups back together to share the information they found. Ask them to create a group presentation. The presentation could be on a poster or could use presentation software such as PowerPoint or Prezi. Encourage them to use tables, charts or bullet-points for a good visual effect.
  7. Each group can practice their presentation in front of another group. Ask the groups to give each other feedback by posing questions: Was there anything you didn’t understand? Do you have any questions about the information that the group didn’t answer?
  8. Ask each group to give their presentation. Encourage groups to listen to each other, take notes and ask questions.
  9. As a follow-up, ask the class to write a short blog listing ways to use social networking to find a job. Ask each group to list 1-2 ideas, then collate these into one document. Share the document online and invite other classes in the school to read it.

(This project plan was adapted from Network 1 Teacher’s book, page vii)

In conclusion

The plan above demonstrates how a social media project can bring the real world into the classroom and make language learning meaningful for authentic tasks. It brings in a range of related vocabulary and grammar, and practices all four skills, but keeps the focus on the task. This focus is motivating and completing the task can give students a sense of achievement, especially if they then have a live audience to share with.


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#IATEFL – Adult Learners: helping them clear the next hurdle

Businessman jumping over hurdlesRachel Appleby, co-author of two levels of the new International Express (published in January 2014), looks at how to help adult learners to maintain momentum when learning a language. Rachel will be presenting on this topic at IATEFL 2014 on Wednesday 2nd April.

Over the years, I’ve made significant efforts to learn Hungarian, and have done reasonably well; however, I can now “do” what I need to do with the language, and I’m very aware that I’m forgetting it, even though I still live in Budapest. I also go through phases of learning Spanish, and try to do a little everyday, such as reading an article I’ve come across that interests me, or putting Spanish radio on while I’m cooking. OK, so I might be keeping the little Spanish I have alive, but I’d be kidding myself if I thought that I was making any real progress in doing these things.

Many students I’ve come across tell me similar stories, but they also have other difficulties: time is always the number one hurdle; in addition, some think learning a language is all about doing grammar exercises, which of course they find boring; many claim to be able to learn long lists of words, but then resent their efforts when they find they can’t really use them in conversation.

Adults learning a language today characteristically stop and then re-start learning, each time with renewed enthusiasm, yet we all have busy lives! Does this sound like you too? Somehow we expect to make progress, often with minimal effort. Some people claim they are able to keep a language going by reading, or watching films, – perhaps even by having the occasional conversation with a native speaker in that language. But, in fact, all too often we’ve reached a plateau, or perhaps our language use is even getting worse.

So what can we do to help our students? I do actually realise that I need to engage my brain and be very focused on what I want to learn if I’m going to make any progress at all, so extensive listening while chopping onions isn’t really going to do the job! But how can we translate this into the classroom? How can we really get students involved, and ensure they make progress?

Well, I think we need to be very aware of the difficulties our students are facing, as well as what they’re aiming for; in fact the more we know about them, the better we’ll be at helping them. Adult learners bring a wealth of experiences to class, and in most cases are eager to share those, and have a chance to express their opinions. But they need to be motivated and engaged. So we need to ensure that we give them the scope and range of topics to be fully involved. But we also need to focus on language, and create opportunities to help them understand and relate to new language, and make sure that they practise the language in a meaningful way.

In my session at IATEFL Harrogate we’re going find out what it is that makes learning difficult and perhaps prevents learners from getting over the next hurdle. We’ll then be looking at topics and task-types from the new edition of International Express that will engage the learners, provide them with relevant language, and ultimately enable them to communicate effectively and make progress in areas that matter to them.

As a start, why not jot down in the comments box below what it is that makes it difficult for YOU, or YOUR learners, to get over the next language hurdle. I’d be really interested to find out, and – you never know – we just might have a solution for you! Let me know!

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