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Bubbling under – Helping ideas surface in speaking classes

students talking speaking smiling in classroomEdmund Dudley is a teacher trainer, materials writer and teacher of English with more than 20 years of classroom experience. In this article he looks at ways to create the right environment for effective speaking classes and offers some practical advice to manage them, ahead of his webinar on the subject on 12th and 13th July.

When they go well, speaking activities can bring life, laughter and energy to the language classroom, providing a real sense that the language is being put to use in an enjoyable and authentic way. When they go badly, however, speaking activities can be immensely frustrating – and not only for the students. Have you ever set up a speaking task with confidence, only to find it fizzle out before it even begins? Are you familiar with the experience of scanning the faces of your silent students, trying to read the thoughts they are struggling to put into words? Have you ever wished you could find a way to help them express all the thoughts and ideas that are clearly bubbling under the surface?

Helping students find the confidence

With teenage students, the first thing to be aware of is that difficulties with speaking are very often exacerbated by inhibitions that they have about themselves as learners – and as members of the group. Speaking is an inherently ‘social’ skill: everything that is said is heard – and judged – by the teacher and the rest of the class, making already self-conscious teens reluctant to put themselves in a position where they can lose face in front of their peers. Putting students at ease and providing a supportive atmosphere in the classroom is essential if speaking activities are going to work.

Responding to seemingly simple prompts often requires a lot of confidence on the part of the student. Think about questions such as “What’s your favourite pop group?” or “What did you get for your birthday?” Giving an answer requires not only marshalling language but also sharing private information which might cause others in the class to sneer or laugh. It’s hardly surprising that these kinds of questions often produce only mumbled, one-word answers. In order to avoid such situations, we need to think hard about the kinds of questions we ask and be sensitive to the potential difficulty of certain topic areas. A simple tweak to the question is often enough. The same teenagers who hate talking about things they like often love talking about things they hate. Try asking “What’s the worst song on YouTube?” instead of “What’s your favourite pop group?” and watch the hands go up.

Creating space and time for language and ideas to emerge

The feeling that they are being ‘put on the spot’ is another factor that can make speaking activities challenging for students. Unless they are given adequate time to think and prepare, it’s unreasonable to expect a typical student to be able to give a spontaneous, extended answer to a spoken question. For short answers, one simple idea is to give students the chance to ‘speak, pass, or nominate.’  Those who do not wish to speak can instead choose to ‘pass’ – in which case we move on to someone else, or ‘nominate’ – in which case they can bring a classmate with a good idea into the discussion.

How can students best make use of the time they are given to prepare a spoken answer? Well, it depends on whether they are stuck for language or ideas. If it’s language they need, having access to appropriate reference materials and task models can make a big difference. They might just be stuck for ideas, though.  ­­At intermediate level and above, it is surprising how often students say “I wouldn’t know what to say about this in my mother language, let alone English.” That’s when collaborative, pre-speaking planning and brainstorming activities can help.

Managing speaking activities

Once they have the confidence, the language and the ideas, it should be much easier for students to tackle speaking tasks effectively. There’s still a lot that can go wrong at the production stage, though. From a classroom management point of view, it’s important to remember that good speaking requires good listening. Unless there is an attentive and sympathetic audience for a speaker, s/he will see no reason to take the task seriously. That’s why we need to set up speaking tasks in such a way that they include a focused listening element. One simple way to provide this focus for listening is to give students the option of not telling the truth in speaking tasks: it then becomes the job of their partner to listen and decide whether they were lying or not. When our students speak in class, we should also strive to pay attention ourselves, to really listen. Too often I catch myself ‘waiting’ rather than listening.

If you are interested in this topic and would like to join in the discussion and learn some practical ideas for the classroom, join me for the webinar.


The essentials of lesson planning

female teacher lesson planningPhilip Haines is the Senior Consultant for Oxford University Press, Mexico. As well as being a teacher and teacher trainer, he is also the co-author of several series, many of which are published by OUP.  In this post he introduces his upcoming webinar on 20th and 21st June entitled “The essentials of lesson planning”.

If you type ‘lesson plan’ into your favorite search engine, you will find literally hundreds of different lesson plan formats. Such a wide range of formats illustrates that there is no fixed or perfect way to plan a lesson.

In our day-to-day teaching, most of us will not produce an extensive and detailed lesson plan. We know that by writing out a full plan we can address problems and inconsistencies that we would not otherwise see. However, in most cases this simply is not practical. Having said this, the lack of a physical plan does not mean that we avoid the process of lesson planning.

Considering the importance of lesson planning and the frequent time constraints which compromise the process, the question is, how can we create effective lessons under these conditions?

Generic lesson templates

When I am under pressure to produce a lesson I have a number of generic lesson templates which enable me to create a functioning lesson very quickly. An example of a reading comprehension lesson template is:

  • pre-teach vocabulary
  • predicting answers to comprehension questions
  • read aloud in groups
  • students discuss and check answers – then as whole class
  • students write comprehension questions for others to answer
  • activity on grammar/lexis in text

Such a lesson might not be very original, but from this I can start to adapt and improve.

Regular beats

I have so often seen lesson from in-service teacher training course where there is a good rhythm at the beginning but the rest of the lesson becomes a long string of activities with nothing to hold the students’ attention. The trick is to make sure there are ‘beats’ spaced evenly throughout the lesson every 10 minutes or so where students have to change the mode of working. This could be through moving in some way, interacting differently or a friendly challenge.

Plan from the middle or the end

A common approach that teachers take is to plan the lesson in a linear manner starting at the beginning. A more effective way is to start maybe with a text or a speaking activity that might come in the middle or end of the lesson and then build backwards from that. This tends to create a more coherent lesson.

Build in flexibility at the end of the lesson

This is something I had to learn the hard way. The fear of running out of activities at the end of class meant that I would spend longer on the earlier activities and then rush through the later ones. One solution to this is to design the last two activities in such a way that they can be expanded out to 20 minutes or squashed down to three or four minutes without any sense of compromise. This means that you can spend the necessary time on the earlier activities without that nagging fear of being left with dead time at the end.

These are just some of the tips and strategies we will be exploring in this webinar. We’ll also be looking at anticipating problems, getting your procedures and instructions right, dealing with fast finishers, among other things.


Making the flip – jumping headfirst into Flipped Classroom teaching

Kate Adams teaches ESL to university students at the Illinois Institute of Technology and works with immigrants through the Chinese Mutual Aid Society in Chicago, Illinois. She is the co-author of Trio Reading and Inside Writing. In this article she describes the process of transitioning to a Flipped Learning classroom and how it has benefited her lessons and her students.

Flipped learning

When the university where I teach recently switched to a flipped learning model, I was nervous. I’d had confidence in my lessons which revolved around the narrative of my presentation interspersed with activities to practice skills, but now I would have to adapt them to an entirely new approach. How would flipped teaching and learning affect my classes? I’d like to share some of the insights and tips I gained from making the switch.

What is flipped learning?

Our program’s new approach to flipped learning most closely matched that described by Cynthia Brame (2013) of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University:

In essence, “flipping the classroom” means that students gain first exposure to new material outside of class, usually via reading or lecture videos, and then use class time to do the harder work of assimilating that knowledge, perhaps through problem-solving, discussion, or debates.

This doesn’t contradict the popular perception that the Flipped Classroom is one in which you are assigning videos to students to watch outside of class. Nor does it dictate that this is necessarily what you have to do. The fundamental idea is that students process new information at home on their own so that they can read, watch or listen at their own pace and repeat as needed. Then in class the focus won’t be on you, the teacher, explaining a new concept for the first time, but on working with students to deepen their understanding, correct misunderstandings, practice, and produce.

According to Brame, when we apply this model to Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy we can see that a flipped learning approach has students working on the lower levels of knowledge acquisition at home through autonomous understanding and retention of new material. This foundation prepares students to engage with new language and “do the harder work of assimilating that knowledge” at the higher levels with the teacher during class. In this way flipped learning enables teachers to focus on the areas where their guidance is most beneficial to students’ language acquisition.

Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy


What does flipped learning look like?

Different schools and different teachers will have their own unique approach to flipping the classroom. There is not one “right” way to go about it because learning outcomes and learners’ needs vary. The following is what my listening class looks like in our English Language Program since we have adopted a flipped learning approach:

  • All materials are posted before each class. In addition to the learning materials, when I do have presentation slides, I post them for students to look through before class so that they’ve seen my questions and had time to contemplate the answers before the lesson. I also post all audio for students to listen to and take notes on at home.
  • Understanding is checked at the beginning. Class begins with a “bell ringer”—sometimes a quiz completed individually, sometimes a task with a partner, but always an activity based on the work done before class to check comprehension.
  • The whole class uses a shared document. In my class we now use a shared Google Doc which acts as a constantly evolving focal point and allows instant production and collaboration from students and ongoing feedback from me. For example, in class on the Google doc I’ll have students list tips for listening to a lecture, complete a KWL chart on a lecture topic, talk with a partner and then summarize thoughts on the document, etc.
  • Work is “product” oriented. Students are engaged in activities, but they are now producing something too. I’ll have students create a graphic organizer to match notes they took, use a rubric to assess another student’s notes, etc. As they work, I am able to quickly evaluate learning/understanding. Products hold students accountable.

Why flip the classroom?

Transitioning to a flipped learning approach has changed my classes for the better in many observable and measurable ways. A few of the most significant are:

  • Students talk more and present more. A lot more! I still present, but it’s now always targeted and based on students’ work.
  • I see more student work and give more feedback. Because we use a shared Google Doc, I now have more written examples of students’ language use. I can give instant feedback and I gain more insight into students’ thought processes and progress.
  • Students demonstrate more understanding. I see this in the quality of what they produce during class and in their increased output.
  • Students do the work. In fact, I find that my students participate even more now. Quizzes, group work and partner activities in class motivate them to do the pre-work before class.

How to make the flip

So are you interested in making the flip? How can you start using flipped learning in your classroom? Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Identify clear focus points for pre-class work. Expose students to the content at home and supply them with a targeted activity to check for understanding, which they then bring to class.
  • Be consistent. Explain the routine to students and stick to it. Always have a pre-class assignment for the new content you’ll be focusing on.
  • Mix it up. Flipped learning isn’t just about videos. Provide students with different ways to engage with new language and concepts before class. For example, if you are working on reading skills, you can have them not only read a passage before class, but also take notes on it, compare it to a related passage, research the topic and fill out a KWL chart, or work with key vocabulary to build background before class.
  • Ensure accountability. Begin each class with an activity based on students’ pre-class work. I suggest grading the pre-class activities, especially in the beginning of the semester to establish the routine. Quizzes based on the pre-class learning are also a good option as research shows that students retain information better when they take frequent quizzes (Carey, 2013). And you don’t have to just make it an individual assignment— for example, I have students complete a quiz and then debate the answers with a partner. Whatever your approach, make sure to stress to students this is for the benefit of both them and you because it makes it possible for you to identify and address any misunderstandings in class.
  • Integrate technology: I use Google docs, Blackboard (a Learning Management System), and Voice Thread in my classes. Blackboard is great for not only hosting learning materials, but also for having students check understanding by taking quizzes and submitting questions before class. Voice Thread allows collaborative voice recording so you can have class discussions outside of class. I’m sure there are many more ways and platforms that can be used to enhance your Flipped Learning classroom so don’t hesitate to explore and experiment to keep your lessons ever-evolving and relevant.

Is making the flip worth it?

I made the flip and I think my teaching is better for it. And my students? I won’t get evaluations until later this summer, but I recently ran into a student who said, “Excellent. Everything excellent.” He told me he’d been studying English for ten years and hadn’t thought he needed the class, but that it had really, really helped him. If his review is anything to go by, flipping my classroom has been worthwhile for my students as well.

Are you interested in trying the Flipped Classroom approach to teach reading skills? Find out more about Trio Reading and get a free sample chapter, overview, and see the complete syllabus.

Interested in hearing more from Kate about Flipped Classrooms? Join her at the International Convention of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages for a talk and discussion on “Strategies, Activities, and Reflections on Flipping a Language Classroom” this November.



Brame, C., (2013). Flipping the classroom. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved April 10, 2017 from http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/flipping-the-classroom/

Carey, B. (2013, November 30). Frequent tests can enhance college learning, study finds. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com


Teaching resources for English Language Day

shutterstock_574059034Martyn Clarke has worked in ELT classrooms as a teacher and trainer for over twenty years and in more than fifteen countries. He has taught English at all levels and in many contexts from one-to-one in financial institutions to rural schools with classes of eighty students.

April 23rd is an important day in the UK. First, it is St George’s Day. St George is the Patron Saint of England, most famous in this country for killing a dragon to protect a princess. Second, it is William Shakespeare’s birthday. He was too busy writing plays and poetry to bother with dragons.
Finally, it is also English Language Day when we celebrate this global language.

So here is a downloadable quiz you can use with your students to mark the day. It looks at a variety of different aspects of the language – favourite bits of English, hated bits of English, metaphors for English grammar, facts, tongue twisters, strange features of pronunciation, etc. It’s a cornucopia (one of our favourite words!) of fun… a smorgasbord (another favourite) of delight!

Many of the questions have no right or wrong answers, but rather they encourage the students to give their opinions, or use their imaginations. For this reason, it’s probably best to use this quiz as a group work activity, to allow students to discuss their ideas and share their opinions. You could also ask students to do it as homework, and then to discuss their answers when they return to class.

Some of the questions ask the students to give their opinions on the English language. This can give you very interesting information on what motivates your students, but it’s true that not all teachers – or indeed all students – will feel comfortable with these being shared in the classroom. So decide if you feel they are relevant first. It’s in word format so you can alter it so suit your class. You’ll also find a suggested answer sheet too.

Have fun, and Happy English Language Day!

English Language Day Quiz & Answer sheet


Easter resources for your EFL classroom

shutterstock_377717329Spring has arrived here in Oxford, and Easter is on the horizon – it’s a perfect time of year to bring some seasonal activities and worksheets into your language learning classroom. Our former contributors Vanessa Esteves, Julietta Schoenmann, and Christopher Graham have come up with a range of Easter-themed lessons for young learners and secondary level learners through to adult learners that we hope you’ll enjoy.

Young Learner Resources:

Lesson plan

Easter Card Template

Secondary Resources:

Lesson plan


Adult Resources:

Lesson plan