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A positive learning environment: establishing expectations (Part 4)

Eager children in classThis is the last 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 practical ways to minimise disruptions during classes. 

What do you expect from your students? Sit down for a few moments and think about your classes. Think about where you are as the class begins. What are you doing? Where are the students? What are they doing? As you think about the class, note down anything you would like to improve. Don’t worry if it’s easy or difficult. Just note it down. Then, look back at your notes and decide on 3 to 5 points you want to work on immediately.

After reflecting on my classes of about 25 teenagers, these were the four aims I came up with:

– The classroom is in order.

– Students are ready for class.

– Classes begin more efficiently.

– Students participate actively during the lesson.

Remember, these are aims. I took them to my classes and wrote them on the board. I told my students this is what I expected from them. I got a lot of blank looks. They had heard this before. There was nothing they could really disagree with. But what do they mean? What does “the classroom is in order” mean? Can you picture it?

It is important to be able to visualise the difference between how things are now and how you expect them to be. Why is the classroom not in order? Define each aim so that students can see when it is not being met. For my classes, “the classroom is in order” meant that:

– The chairs are in their places.

– The desks are clean and in their place.

– The board is clean.

Anyone looking at the classroom can see if these 3 aims are being met.

Having the classroom in order based on these 3 aims may seem very simple and obvious. Let me explain why it was important. My students came into my class with the results of the previous class still evident. Having left in a hurry, there were fallen chairs, desks at different angles, books and other materials from previous lessons on their desks, notes still written on the board. This was affecting the beginning of my lessons, so it became important to begin the class with the classroom in order.

With the idea of making each aim visually clear, discuss each one with your students. These are the results of the discussion with my students:

Students are ready for class  

– There are no materials on the desk, except those needed for the English lesson.

– The student has his class book, workbook, and notebook.

– The student has pen, pencil, and rubber.

The reason for these aims was the number of disruptions in class based on not having the materials they needed. Equally important, materials from other lessons meant that many students’ desks were disorganised. This was affecting their focus on the material in my lessons. My students already had a problem focussing on the lesson with these distractions.

Classes begin more efficiently

– The student is on time.

– The student enters in an orderly way.

– The student leaves in an orderly way.

What does “on time” mean? This greatly depends on the situation in your school. Some schools use a two-bell system and, in this case, being on time is being in class before the second bell rings. Many schools use the bell to call students (and the teacher) into class. Some schools do not use a bell system, at all. What is important is that you and your students agree and that it is obvious to all when a student is late. Based on the one bell system, my students arrived in the classroom at about the same time I did, walked in as I did, and went to their desks, as I did.

What does “in an orderly way” mean? Again, discuss this with your students. It could mean no running. It could mean going straight to their desks. It could even mean, not using their own language when they enter the English classroom.

Students participate actively during the lesson

– The student listens actively.

– The student works when necessary.

Initially, listening “actively” was difficult for my students to visualise. “How do you know we are listening actively?” they asked me. But based on the routine I wrote about here in a previous blog post, “A positive learning environment: the first 10 minutes (part 2)”, they quickly understood that they would need to listen to each other in order to participate in the class.

“when necessary” also became a point of discussion. Originally the aim was for students to be engaged in the lesson. This proved very difficult for larger classes with a greater degree of mixed abilities and learning preferences. My students felt they should not be punished if they had finished an exercise and were waiting for others. I accepted this, and so I took on the responsibility of keeping them all engaged. It was a challenge.

Responsibility Skills

Rather than calling them classroom rules, I labelled them “responsibility skills”. I made a poster with the aims and put it up in my classrooms. By having the poster with the aims in the classroom, I did not need to repeat or remind. I could simply look at the poster, and then look at the student. They understood what was wrong, because they could see it as easily as I could.

Then, it was a matter of being patient as students adjusted to the new expectations. Over time, about 3 months for me, these became part of the class routine, for which I congratulated them.


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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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#qskills – How can I help my students understand words in a reading passage?

Today’s question for the Q: Skills for Success authors: How can I help my students understand words in a reading passage?

Scott Roy Douglas responds.

We are no longer taking questions. Thank you to everyone who contacted us!

Look out for more responses by the Q authors in the coming weeks, or check out the answers that we’ve posted already in our Questions for Q authors playlist.


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#qskills – How can we help students to use words from the Academic Word List?

Today’s question for the Q: Skills for Success authors: How can we help students remember and be able to use words from the Academic Word List?

Cheryl Zimmerman responds.

We are no longer taking questions. Thank you to everyone who contacted us!

Look out for more responses by the Q authors in the coming weeks, or check out the answers that we’ve posted already in our Questions for Q authors playlist.


6 Comments

#qskills – How do I manage disruptive behaviour in class?

Today’s question for the Q: Skills for Success authors: How do I manage disruptive behaviour in class?

Charl Norloff responds.

We are no longer taking questions. Thank you to everyone who contacted us!

Look out for more responses by the Q authors in the coming weeks, or check out the answers that we’ve posted already in our Questions for Q authors playlist.