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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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#EFLproblems – Motivating Intermediate Students

College student smiling holding booksWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week, Verissimo Toste responds to Ageliki Asteri’s Facebook comment about motivating Intermediate students.

Ageliki wrote:

How can I motivate a teen advanced level student to do better as this level is demanding to achieve a certificate and the students is ok with his intermediate plateau?”

This is probably a situation familiar to many teachers and my first consideration is to question why the student is satisfied with their intermediate level. If a student is in a class at upper-intermediate to advanced level, it is because that student has goals he or she wants to achieve. Tapping into these goals, and into that motivation, will enable teachers to help these students.

Set goals

I would suggest that first we need to make such students aware of what they still need to achieve. This could be in the form of informal quizzes or simple self-awareness. From this awareness, students should be encouraged to set goals for both language and skills development. Depending on the age of the students, I would make the goals short term so that students can feel they are progressing. This should give them confidence to set new goals and work to achieve them.

Focus on using the language

Students may feel they know the language, even about the language, but can they use it to communicate real information about themselves and their world? While expanding their knowledge of language, including revision of what they have already learned, encourage them to use it. It is one thing to be able to understand the present perfect, even to manipulate the different forms, but it is quite another to be able to use it to talk about life experiences and achievements.

Whenever I ask my students to talk about what they feel they have achieved in their lives, even those who are able to communicate this, do so without using the present perfect tense. They are usually surprised when I tell them and make an added effort to use it next time. Writing tasks in which they share their work, or freer speaking activities – like discussions, simulations, or debates – challenge students to use the language they have learned. Encourage students to be both more fluent and more accurate when using the language.

Challenge them to be better

I set up a class library in a class of about 25 Intermediate students with the aim of providing them with more contact with English through extensive reading. I did not test their reading, but often discussed how they were enjoying their books. They seemed very satisfied. I could have left it at that but I knew the readers series I was using was accompanied by a series of quizzes to test reading level. I told my students about this and asked if they wanted to take the quiz to see what their reading level was. They all agreed. I gave them the quiz, but before returning their scores, I asked each to write in their notebooks what mark they would be satisfied with as a percentage.

19 students out of the 25 received marks below what they expected. They were all high marks and, in general, they were very good readers. However, the quizzes showed them they were not really understanding (and enjoying) as much as they could. Equally important, they were not taking advantage of their reading to learn more.

This simple activity was enough for those students to come out of their intermediate complacency and work to improve.

Encourage independent learning

Many times students simply rely on the opinion of the teacher for how well they are doing. Too many times this attitude also includes passing the responsibility to the teacher for the whole class. However, it is important to encourage students to become independent learners.

Develop in your students the capacity to monitor their own language. Did they say what they wanted to say? Or did they avoid certain topics because they didn’t have the language? Encourage them to notice the kinds of mistakes they may be making. Are they mistakes they could correct themselves, but have left it for the teacher to do so?

As I have mentioned before, challenge them to be accurate, as well as fluent. Help them notice the difference between the English they use and the English of more advanced learners. At times, give them work that is well above their level. If students are studying for an exam, give them a mock exam at the beginning of the year. Let them see what they will be working towards in their English classes.

Invitation to share your ideas

Do you have anything to add on the subject of motivating Intermediate students? We’d love to hear from you! You can respond directly to this blog by leaving a comment below.

Please keep your challenges coming. The best way to let us know is by leaving a comment below or on the EFLproblems blog post. We will respond to your challenges in a blog every two weeks.

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