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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.


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Motivational Teaching in the English language classroom Q&A

teenage_students_smiling_studyingNick Thorner, author of the professional development title ‘Motivational Teaching‘ in the Into The Classroom series, reviews some of the concerns raised by teachers in his recent webinar on the subject of student motivation and offers some practical advice on how to overcome them.

I really enjoyed our Motivational Teaching webinars on 26th May. They provoked quite a few questions, which I’ve enjoyed reflecting on.

Many concerns that participants had were about the language that was being used in the webinar, and in particular the use of the concept of reward. I thought this was a really challenging response from one participant:

Maybe it’s against what we’ve been learning about motivation so far but when I learnt English myself I didn’t need any motivation at all… I just did it out of pure love for the language itself. So ‘motivation’ to me is not about rewarding… 

I really know what he means. Surely, it’s that intrinsic love of learning that we need to aim for; not a compromise solution where we are coaxing students along with promises of rewards.

But I would say that the pleasure we get from language learning is itself a reward and it’s useful to see it that way because it reflects the way our brains work. Whether we are aware of it or not, the motivation to do anything at all depends on the anticipation of some gain or fulfilment, or the avoidance of some loss. If we can understand what it is about learning that makes our brains anticipate fulfilment, we can focus our students’ minds on those aspects of learning.

For example, let’s say an aspect of enjoyment comes from the moments when we successfully apply meaning where there was once incomprehension. By exposing students to unknown words well before we reveal the meaning, we will help students anticipate that moment of pleasure.

This participant wasn’t the only one that didn’t feel comfortable with the use of the word reward, as these questions demonstrate.

Does the fact of rewarding your students all time make them dependent and lazy?

Sometimes, giving students rewards might result into them becoming competitive. Will it be detrimental for their learning?

Here again, we see how ‘reward’ is often associated with extrinsic motivators, like stickers or a promise of a break. Indeed, this is its meaning when used as a countable noun. I agree extrinsic rewards shouldn’t be over-used, for the reasons given here. But we should be aware of other forms of ‘reward’ that are not given to students. For instance, collaborative learning can be socially rewarding, a sense of progress can be psychologically rewarding, and so on. To avoid the confusion, we could simply reject the term reward and use ‘motivator’ but I think our minds find a lot of things to be rewarding that aren’t often considered motivators. These include indulging the senses, showing off skills, watching things move, etc. I thought the concept of ‘reward’ captured the idea of these smaller pleasures more effectively.

But what if the student doesn’t visualise the reward?

As this question shows us, another concept which has created discussion is the idea of visualisation. What I meant by this term was not really ‘seeing rewards’ but ‘becoming aware that an experience may be rewarding’. That said, as we generally think in images, I think the idea of ‘visualising’ a rewarding experience is very useful. Jill Hadfield, for example, proposes visualisation techniques in the book Motivating Learning. It is not enough to be told something will be fun; we have to picture a rewarding experience before we will strive for it. This is the main point of the future diary activity I proposed, which (incidentally) I didn’t explain very well…

I didn’t quite get the idea of the diary – do students just describe their future??

The idea is that by really imagining a day in their future in detail, they will become aware of a range of rewarding experiences that will follow on from their current studies. To set up the task, we should get students to think of the benefits they will derive from being language users and then to imagine themselves enjoying those benefits through the Future Diary activity. The procedures are outlined in more detail in Motivational Teaching. Drawing a picture of their future selves also helps them create a positive and goal-orientated self-image, in contrast to the relatively powerless present identity that a lot of young people experience.

Many of the other questions I got from the talk focused on specific instances of motivation, in line with the point we noted at the start of the webinar: motivation problems often manifest themselves in very challenging, specific cases. Here are a selection.

It’s quite difficult to motivate students with behaviour problems. They are not really interested in language learning, they can’t stay focused and it’s quite difficult for me, though I usually prepare different enjoyable tasks. Any ideas?

I totally agree with this. In fact, I would say behaviour is essentially a motivation issue. If we don’t wish to be in a place or to do a certain activity, then poor behaviour is a logical way of dealing with it. First, it signals our displeasure, without making us lose face or appear weak (as crying might); it makes it clear that we aren’t putting in effort so that eventual failure cannot be put down to inability; and it increases the chances that the bad experience might be avoided or delayed since it will disrupt the class. I would say what they have is a motivation problem. If we can find a way of making the classroom environment rewarding for these students, I’m sure behaviour would improve. That said, we mustn’t reward bad behaviour or suggest it’s acceptable or it will spread. But once it’s subsided then engaging with the student and building their esteem is essential.

How can we help every student as they are so different?

To respond to this question, I’d like to refer to the first point below. I personally would use the word flexibility instead of eclecticism but both work.

Eclecticism is the key word – take a little bit of what works for you and your students, try not to embarrass them, praise but just for real achievement.

(Can I have) ideas to motivate students to learn / read literature classics in English?

I’m afraid I have little experience in teaching literature but I imagine one of the issues is that students see classics as dated and less relevant to their lives. There is also a sense that classic literature is ‘chosen’ by social elites or by previous generations and so by engaging with the canon of classic literature they are upholding values that they would prefer to be rebelling against! The only solution I think is to help students see the relevance of themes and characters in the classics to their lives. For example, presenting quotes and characters in the book without explaining they are from a ‘classic’, or comparing the ideas to a contemporary performance poet or similar, may help break down resistance.

How can we motivate students to be punctual?

This is a great question. I heard a radio programme just last week about how to get meetings started on time. They recommended that meetings always start at an odd time such as 11.47 rather than on the hour and that late attenders should be made to sing a song!! I’m not sure those recommendations would work for you, but I think the fundamental thing is not to allow lateness to affect your relationship with students. In other words, we shouldn’t confront the student in the instant they walk in late. But neither should we ignore it. If we have a clear set of rules, we can take the student aside after the class and explain that we are forced to take action.

To conclude, here is a good suggestion for us and another participant takes me to task on falling into the classic teacher trainer’s trap: creating ideas that are unrealistic once we’re at the chalk face!

Do you think that writing a diary daily blog in English would be a good idea for students to practise English and find it rewarding at the same time?

Yes, I do. Writing about ourselves provides a narrator’s perspective from which to examine our fears and motivations and confront them if necessary. I think committing fears and worries to paper is especially useful as it can help us work through them sequentially (writing is an act of ordering) and prevent swirls of irrational thought from hijacking our emotions.

Nick (some of your ideas) require a lot of preparation on part of the teacher, which is sci-fi in state schools

This point (brilliantly put) draws attention to the issue of time. Does motivation always require an investment of time? To some extent the answer is yes. Students will appreciate investments that teachers make as it shows we care about them. That said, we have to be realistic and some of the resources I showed were designed to showcase general principles rather than be examples of what we should produce. My hope would be that aspects of them could be borrowed and adapted with little effort. For example, a lesson map (to increase students’ control) or Sinek’s Golden Circle (to arouse a sense of purpose) could be sketched on the board rather than prepared on paper or added to homework sheets, and streaks can be recorded the register.


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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.


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Motivational Teaching in the English language classroom

Nick Thorner, author of the professional development title ‘Motivational Teaching‘ in the Into The Classroom series, explores some of the issues that cause low motivation among students and methods to overcome them. 

Few issues in education are as troubling as low student motivation. It leaves countless individuals unable to achieve their potential, and many teachers feeling demoralised. But perhaps more serious than low motivation is the lack of understanding we have of its causes, which can be complex and deep-seated. If we can’t understand our students’ lack of commitment, it’s difficult to identify strategies to deal with it and easy to blame individuals. And if students themselves feel puzzled by their apathy, they can become very frustrated. The effect can be a classroom atmosphere of resentment and mistrust.

That’s why I believe we cannot deal with the issue of low learner motivation unless we explore its causes. So we’ll begin our discussion by looking into some of the latest research on the psychology of motivation, and understand how our brains respond to the prospects of rewards, sanctions, and perceived threats. This will then lead us towards three clear approaches for raising motivation.

  1. Increasing task commitment

How often have you set students’ homework in the dying moments of lessons as they pack away their things? All too often, time pressure leaves us setting learning tasks quickly, without much thought to learner motivation. Yet there is so much we can do to help students increase their  commitment to tasks, for example:

  • Explain the reasons for the task to help students value it more.
  • Discuss stages of the task in the lesson so learners can visualise doing it.
  • Get students to decide when they’ll do the task to make procrastination less likely.

The image below shows what a task designed with motivation in mind might look like on paper. We’ll be explaining some of the other features shown below in the webinar. Presenting tasks in this way may seem a lot of work, but getting learners to engage fully with one task can help improve their self-image as learners more generally and build motivation.

  1. Breaking down barriers

No matter how attractive we try to make learning experiences, there is often deep resistance to learning on the part of our students. It’s important that we understand the psychological barriers that can stand in the way of engagement with learning behaviour. These can include:

  • low expectations of learning outcomes
  • negative associations connected with study
  • images of themselves that don’t sit comfortably with study

These psychological barriers are often firmly entrenched, but we can slowly wear them down in the way we speak with students and through exercises that help students connect learning with their own personal values and ambitions. An example might be producing a real vlog that they can post online, or doing visualisation exercises to help them imagine the life they might enjoy as proficient users of English.

  1. Creating reward-rich experiences

Finally, we all know that if we make lessons fun and interesting we can help motivate our learners. This is because memories of enjoyable learning experiences help students to predict rewarding outcomes. But labels like fun and interesting are a little too vague to be useful: in fact, there are lots of specific ways to make learning seem rewarding. So, we’ll finish our discussion by considering how we can fill learning experiences with psychological rewards, from novelty and sensory stimulation to play and revelation, and see why techniques like back-chaining can transform classroom experiences.

I hope, like me, you believe that motivational teaching is not about following general principles, but about practical day-to-day steps we can take as teachers. And by increasing our understanding of the factors that lie behind motivation, we can start discussing it honestly with students and create trusting classroom relationships.

For more information, read the Q&As from the webinar


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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